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The Rapture (1991)

I had no idea what I was letting myself in for when I borrowed the Region 1 DVD of this film. One of the reasons I wanted to see it was it came recommended by someone whose opinion I respect (and who knows a lot more about cinema than me). I was also keen to see David Duchovny playing opposite Mimi Rogers, as I'd noted their chemistry in The X-Files, in a few episodes of which Rogers plays an ambiguous FBI agent. Even better, when the credits rolled I noticed Patrick Bauchau also stars, and he's a very fine actor I knew from the late-lamented series Carnivale.

None of which could prepare me for what writer/director Michael Tolkin had in store. For his first film Tolkin decided to take Christian fundamentalist ideas seriously. The message is hammered home by several characters, and we are meant to take it literally - God is coming back to judge us all, in the grand style of the Revelation of St John the Divine. If you don't believe you will not go to Heaven. If you have faith and love God, you will go up in the Rapture. Spoilers follow - if you haven't read the Bible, that is...

If The Rapture sounds weird and disturbing, it is. Watching it is a bit like being lectured by a fanatic at a bus-stop, but only if the fanatic is beautiful, articulate, and fascinating. Mimi Rogers plays Sharon, a call-centre employee, who at the start of the film lives a life of swinging sexual abandon to compensate for her dull job. The opening sequence is a little gem, showing Sharon as an interchangeable component in one part of corporate America. Sharon is clearly unhappy with her life, even after she and her sophisticated boyfriend (Bauchau) hook up with another couple and Sharon clicks with Randy, played by Duchovny in a classic mullet. This mullet is the only funny thing in the movie, so make the most of it..

Sharon's literal salvation comes via a group of co-workers, a little Christian clique who talk about the End Times during breaks. Sharon overhears something about 'seeing the Pearl', a vision vouchsafed to the chosen. She is shocked to see a Pearl tattoo on a girl's back at yet another meaningless shagfest, and begins to question her disdain for religion. There is a brief spiritual struggle in which the usual questions (what about all the Hindus, Buddhists etc?) are batted aside in the usual fundie way - the unbelievers will not be saved, and that's that. Sharon joins a cult group that believe a young boy is God's messenger and prepare for the big End of Days.

What makes the film unusual is the artistry with which Sharon's story is handled. She converts and marries Randy, they have a daughter they name Mary, Randy is killed in a very typical American-style incident, and Sharon becomes convinced that the Rapture is coming soon. She sees a vision that leads her to take her small daughter into the desert, without adequate food or equipment. Not surprisingly this draws the attention of Foster, an amiable cop, played by Will Patton. All through this Rogers' expression is one of serene, sometimes perky, but always vacuous certitude. She has found Truth, and this - Tolkin seems to assert - subtracts something from normal human character. In a way finding God has killed part of her soul.

Then Sharon shoots her daughter so she will go to straight to Heaven and be re-united with Daddy. It's that brutal. Sharon can't bring herself to commit suicide because it's a mortal sin. She has become a dystheist - one who believes in God but rages against him. After burying Mary she gets pulled over for speeding, confesses, and is incarcerated by Foster. In her cell she's re-united with tattoo girl who's been born again. Sharon has a vision of Mary, flanked by angels, telling her to love God, after which Gabriel sounds the Last Trump. The prison bars fall away, tattoo girl sings 'Hark the Herald Angels Sing' in a tacky Mariah Carey-ish way,, and then Mimi and Foster set off on a motorbike through an Apocalyptic landscape featuring Four Horsemen and a brief glimpse of the Whore of Babylon.

In the finale the two find themselves on the banks of a celestial river as Sharon's daughter urges them to love god and so cross over. Foster, a lifelong atheist, makes the crossing. Sharon can't forgive God for permitting so much suffering and is stuck in purgatory for ever. End credits. And I realise that I've been watching a horror film that puts anything Lovecraft envisioned about a meaningless universe into the shade. Here the universe has meaning, all right, but it's the wrong meaning.

At this point it's worth quoting Roger Ebert, who gave the film 4/4 stars. Sharon 'defies God by asserting something we have all thought from time to time: That he has made us his playthings,that he has asked too much of his creatures. That being free to create any universe, he has made one that stands much in need of improvement.' This echoes the view of Kingsley Amis' protagonist in The Green Man, who actually gets to argue with God on this point.

I have no idea what to make of The Rapture except that it's a supernatural tale, and that God doesn't come out of it well, If Lucifer had appeared (I don't think he does) I might have given a weak cheer. A lot of Christians seem to have disliked it, but it's hardly reassuring for atheists either. Few mainstream movies are so strange, but to take religion seriously is to defy many cinematic conventions - not least the assertion that love conquers all. Tolkin does this with remarkable assurance. This is certainly not one to watch with beer and pizza.