"'Christian Money Makes Jewish Film,' that's the headline I'd like to see above your article," Matthew Crouch, producer of "One Night With the King," suggested in an interview.
The film, based on the biblical Book of Esther, "brims with adventure, intrigue, romance and wonder ... it's vision is to inspire a generation to embrace the destiny God has for them," according to Crouch, the son of megatelevangelists Paul and Jan Crouch.
"A pumped-up Purim story," observed a rather less enthusiastic Rabbi Richard Levy, Los Angeles director of the School of Rabbinic Studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR).
"One Night With the King," which, despite its somewhat titillating title, contains nary a hint of sexual abandon or even suggestive cleavage, opens Oct. 13 at close to 1,000 theaters across the United States.
As a warmup to the premiere, Crouch and his co-producer/wife, Laurie Crouch, barnstormed 21 cities in 16 days, pitching the film and its message to clergy of all faiths.
The movie has aroused considerable advance interest in Hollywood and elsewhere, particularly as a major entry in the burgeoning genre of Christian-produced films aimed at "faith families," in particular some 75 million Christian evangelicals in the United States.
Crouch himself is one of the pioneers in the field, who mortgaged his house to make the 1999 "Omega Code." Launched without the usual mass-marketing campaign, the film found an astonishingly large audience among churchgoers.
But what really rang Hollywood's bell was the phenomenal box office success of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ."
"It took Hollywood a few years to catch up," said Kris Fuhr, vice president of Provident Films, but "Passion's" $612 million worldwide gross did wonders to speed up the process.
Fuhr's own company has just released "Facing the Giants," billed as an inspirational film about a small town high school football team, whose six-year losing streak is reversed through faith in God.
"Giants" was made for $100,000 by an all-amateur company of writers, cast and crew from a Baptist church in Georgia, but expects to find its audience by mobilizing a national network of pastors.
The first major studio to finally get the message is Twentieth Century Fox, which has created FoxFaith, a new division that plans to produce around a dozen Christian-themed movies this year.
Significantly, major studios and distributors are joining up with the independent producers of faith movies, with Samuel Goldwyn Films partnering with "Giants" and Rupert Murdoch's Fox studio handling the DVD sales for "One Night." Up to now, Jewish organizations have not weighed in on the rapid growth of the Christian films phenomenon, either because it's not yet on their radar screens or because of the fervent support of Israel by the evangelical community.
An exception is Rabbi Haim Dov Beliakof the Los Angeles-based www.JewsonFirst.com, who sees in the faith films a further encroachment by the Christian right on every aspect of American life, especially schools and popular culture.
On the other hand, Rabbi Daniel Lapin, president of Toward Tradition, sees a "positive impact" by "One Night" and urges potential Jewish critics to "stop being so prickly."
Lapin, a Seattle-based ally of Christian conservatives, said he was consulted by the filmmakers on whether certain depictions in "One Night" might upset Jewish sensitivities.
Among other rabbis and Jewish spokesmen who had seen previews of all or part of the movie, opinions varied on the film's artistic merit. But the general consensus had it that while the storyline departs in some details from the biblical original, the film provided a positive portrayal of Jews.
Most enthusiastic was Rabbi Harvey Fields, a veteran leader in Los Angeles interfaith relations, who praised the movie as "beautifully done and artistically and emotionally very satisfying."
He lauded the filmmakers for omitting the final portions of Megillat Esther, in which the newly empowered Jews take bloody revenge on their enemies.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said he liked the film and "felt comfortable with it."
Foxman, who had been one of the sharpest critics of "The Passion of the Christ," said that "One Night" "is not the gospel and it's not a documentary, but I found nothing offensive or troubling."
Michael Berenbaum, professor of theology at the University of Judaism, gave the film a mixed review.
On the plus side, he liked the "compelling and wholesome beauty" of Esther, portrayed by newcomer Tiffany Dupont, and the movie's emphasis that Jew-hatred is often motivated by a demagogue's financial and political interests.
But Berenbaum, a scholar and author on the Holocaust, questioned whether "we need a movie on an incomplete genocide at this time," or a film which "transformed a biblical story into a not terribly exalted love story."
Most critical was Rabbi Levy of HUC-JIR, who described "One Night" as "a dull movie that has little to do with the Book of Esther."
He strongly objected to a promotional flier attached to the preview DVDs, which described Esther as "an orphan minority," but never mentioned her Jewishness.
"I find that offensive," Levy said.
The American Bible Society, a Christian group that encourages biblical literacy and which rarely endorses a movie, has put its weight behind "One Night."
"The film is consistent with the Bible and an inspirational story with a relevant message that will appeal to Christian and Jewish viewers alike," said Robert Hodgson, dean of American Bible Society's Nida Institute for Biblical Studies. "Films like this, with meaningful biblical messages, will soon become more mainstream as Hollywood recognizes their values."
The 44-year old Crouch, who founded Gener8Xion Entertainment company in 1993, promotes his picture and message with biblical fervor, but is not without a sense of humor.
At one point in a lengthy interview, he pithily summarized his movie as "Cinderella Meets the Lord of the Rings." Later on, he told of his futile attempts to persuade Hollywood moguls to make more pictures reflecting "family values."
"I stood before them like Moses before Pharaoh and said, 'Let my people go to the movies,'" he quipped.
He denied that the film might be a subtle means to proselytize Jews. "The Esther story predates Christ by 500 years, so there is no connection," he said. "This is a life-affirming movie with a message of dignity and love.
"I coined the expression 'faith family,' but that doesn't mean I make movies to bring people to the Christian faith. It means that I make movies that do not violate anyone's faith."
"One Night" was shot on location at an old majestic palace in Rajasthan, India, and made on a $20 million budget. That's not a great deal by Hollywood blockbuster standards, but is the most expensive of Crouch's productions, with an added $6 million for the marketing and advertising.
The promotional campaign is not entirely above board. For instance, the movie's publicity makes much of "stars" Peter O'Toole and Omar Sharif, who get their names above the title, with delicious hints of reprising their masterful collaboration in the epic "Lawrence of Arabia."
While Sharif has a substantial, though not leading, role as adviser to the king, O'Toole gets only about 15 seconds of exposure in a time-wrenching prologue as the prophet Samuel.
Others in the cast are Luke Goss as Persian King Xerxes (better known as Ahasuerus in the Book of Esther) and John Rhys-Davies as Mordechai. Jewish actor James Callis makes a satisfyingly evil Haman; Tommy Lister is a notable royal eunuch, and Israeli actor Jonah Lotan portrays Jesse, a childhood friend of Hadassah, before she became Esther.
Based on a book by Tommy Tenney, the screenplay is by Stephan Blinn. In writing the script, Blinn said, "I wanted to entertain as many people as possible, but I also felt a huge responsibility toward people of the Jewish faith."
'One Night' trailer. Click big arrow to play.
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