Judge Clark Douglas still thinks the answer to the final inquiry is "42."
"Go and find out about this Jesus, known to some as 'King of the Jews.'"—Max von Sydow as Emperor Tiberius
In the wake of the massive box office success of The Passion of the Christ, many have attempted to find financial success in the Christian market. Recent explicitly religious films such as Facing the Giants, End of the Spear, One Night with the King, The Ultimate Gift, and the Left Behind series have accomplished this goal to varying degrees, but critics have often condemned these films for their heavy-handed preachiness and poor production values. This latest entry into the Christian film genre would seem at a glance to be one of the most ambitious, a film with a well-known cast, truly international appeal, and broad historical scope. Is The Final Inquiry just another expensive, poorly-staged sermon, or is there finally a reason to start taking Christian cinema seriously from an artistic viewpoint? I had no idea what to expect before popping the DVD into my player.
Facts of the Case
Surprisingly enough, The Final Inquiry is actually a remake of a 1986 film called L'Inchiesta, which starred Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel. I had never heard of L'Inchiesta, and I have no idea whether or not it was any good, but apparently this film follows the same story pretty faithfully. The Final Inquiry takes place three years after the death of Jesus Christ, but the emperor Tiberius (Max von Sydow, The Seventh Seal) is still deeply concerned about the details surrounding that event. Suspicious of the rumors floating around that Christ may have risen from the dead and ascended to heaven, Tiberius sends Roman investigator Titus (Daniele Liotti, Mad Love) to find the corpse of Christ.
Titus embarks upon the journey, and takes a muscular Nordic slave (Dolph Lundgren, Universal Soldier) to provide protection. Titus is going to need that protection too, as there seem to be plots on all sides to try and cover up the truth about what happened to Christ after his crucifixion. As Titus continues on his anti-Da Vinci Code journey, slowly uncovering proof that confirms acceptable doctrinal beliefs, he also falls in love with the beautiful Tabitha (Mónica Cruz, Last Hour). But it's not so easy…in order to have Tabitha, Titus must overcome social taboos and Tabitha's angry father (F. Murray Abraham, Amadeus). Will our Roman hero get the girl? Will he realize that keeping a slave isn't a very nice thing to do? Will he uncover the truth? Will he become compelled to follow the teaching of Christ based on the evidence he uncovers? Find the answers to these questions once Titus makes The Final Inquiry!
As I said at the beginning, I didn't know what to expect when I put this movie into my DVD player. I knew it had Max von Sydow in it, and that was enough for me. Of course, Rush Hour 3 also had a role for Max von Sydow, and look what happened there. Anyway, what I'm getting around to is that I expected The Final Inquiry to be either good, or bad, or boring, or interesting, but I certainly never expected it to be so incredibly funny. What does it say about a biblical epic when the film it reminds you of most is Monty Python's Life of Brian? Oh my, but this is a funny movie. It has more unintentional laughs than any film in recent memory, and I have to confess I was in stitches by the finish. This has very little to do with the religious elements of the film, which are predictably heavy-handed. Rather, the way in which this story is performed and presented transcends being "bad" and moves into that realm of being "so bad that it's wonderful."
The acting is wildly over-the-top. The cast manages to turn the most mundane scenes into moments of emotional frenzy with wild emoting and cornball seriousness. Liotti is grimly serious in every single scene, whether he is supposed to be romantic, playful, or sad. Cruz fares just a little bit better in her part, but she is on the dull side. Von Sydow's small performance is by no means the actor's best hour; he looks like he is having a miserable time. Curiously, the film establishes a connection to The Passion of the Christ by casting the same actor (Hristo Shopov, I Am David) as Pontius Pilate. Shopov isn't very good, but I didn't think he was too good in The Passion of the Christ, either. I was surprised to discover that the worst performance in the film comes from Oscar-winner F. Murray Abraham, who plays the violent father of the love interest. Abraham plays a cartoonish villain, doing some bizarre over-emoting and horrendous line delivery. He has a scene near the end that is nothing short of surreal, when he determines to beat his daughter within an inch of her life. Immediately following this horrific action, Abraham turns into a pious character that the film expects us to view as sympathetic. I could only shake my head.
The most unintentionally funny scenes involve mighty man Dolph Lundgren. Lundgren shows up in an early scene as part of a band of warriors. The warriors are defeated by Titus' army, and Titus wants to know which one is the leader. One of the warriors points at Lundgren and identifies him as the leader. Titus responds by killing the informant, and then declares that he has killed the leader. "But how did you know it was him?" asks an incredulous Roman soldier, doing his best Dr. Watson impression. "Because all these men are loyal to the death…all except the leader," notes a sneering Titus. This scene, quite obviously, is to give Titus a reason to be shocked beyond all belief when discovers that Jesus sacrificed himself rather than trying to have one of his disciples die in his place. Anyway, Titus decides to keep Lundgren as a slave, and Lundgren (for no discernable reason) becomes fiercely loyal to "Master."
Rather than looking for a chance to escape or destroy his captor (as I probably would if I were a slave built like Dolph Lundgren), the slave fights off Titus' enemies on numerous occasions. These are preposterous and extraordinarily amusing fight scenes. At random times, we break from a liturgical biblical drama to cheeseball action film, as Lundgren pulls out a giant axe and starts swinging in at every man who comes toward him. Adding to the amusement is the fact that the axes, swords, knives, and other weapons used in these scenes are quite obviously made of cardboard or plastic. This simple failure in the props department completely ruins an otherwise credible historical atmosphere.
The very bad dialogue is worthy of Ed Wood, and it's made even more ridiculous by the odd line delivery that everyone seems to indulge in. Some of the characters seem to have been dubbed by radio announcers, creating a disorienting effect when some frail old shepherd will cheerfully boom, "Hello, soldiers! He went that way! Get him!" Even those who aren't dubbed have significant problems. Liotti seems to be doing his best William Shatner impression, placing lengthy pauses in his sentences at peculiar times. "Yes, I think that…is a good idea. We should go to…the village."
To put a final touch of bizarre silliness on this bizarre and silly movie, the film ends on a note that is seemingly unrelated to the rest of the movie. An actor named Vincenzo Bocciarelli turns up as Caligula and kills a just-converted Tiberius by smothering him with a pillow. Bocciarelli sweats and shouts and quivers his way through this magnificently awful scene, putting a completely irrelevant cap on The Final Inquiry. Now, before I criticize the filmmakers for being complete morons, let me make a note of something very important.
Originally, this film was produced as a 200-minute television production to be shown in Italy and Spain. When they adapted the film for theatrical release, the running time was cut down by some 90 minutes or so, which is evident as there are some awkward transitions and apparently a good deal of missing material. I can only assume that the original version contained a subplot involving the rise of Caligula, which would climax with the silly scene that ends this version. If anyone has actually seen the original, I'd love to hear some thoughts on it, but the only thing I know is that this version is a real mess.
The picture quality on the DVD is quite solid, and the visuals are particularly striking and vivid during an early sequence. That level is never matched by the rest of the movie, but it all looks good. In terms of background noise and such, the Dolby Digital 5.1 sound is strong, but the dubbing creates some problems. A character will be on the other side of the room, but when he speaks, it sounds like he's standing right next to you. Extras are very thin, with only theatrical trailers for The Final Inquiry and a few other inspirational films such as Amazing Grace and The Ultimate Gift.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The one element that can be genuinely praised for its virtues (as opposed to being praised for being so unwittingly awful) is the score from composer Andrea Morricone. If that name sounds a bit familiar, Andrea is son of composer Ennio Morricone, and he seems to have inherited more than just his father's last name. There are some stirring, memorable melodies and thematic ideas here, particularly an immensely effective theme that plays over the film's finale. Though the silliness of the drama often undercuts Morricone's fine effort, the music itself still holds up as strong stuff. The soundtrack CD is well worth seeking out.
Biblical epics have a very checkered history, and I'm sad to report that The Final Inquiry makes even a giant flop like The Greatest Story Ever Told seem impressive. Considering the cast and the (seemingly) sizable budget, it's quite disappointing to discover that the production values (with the exception of the score) are more or less on the level of a weak church passion play. On the other hand, time could be kind to The Final Inquiry and offer the film a place as a camp classic. If laughably bad films tickle your funny bone, I can recommend it. However, those seeking quality faith-based entertainment or those hoping for a dramatically credible historical epic would be much better off looking elsewhere.
Guilty of making viewers laugh at the wrong moments.
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