Once in a while, a piece of art or entertainment comes along that causes us to consider our definitions of religious art. Think of music groups like U2 or Over the Rhine. Think of films like The Lord of the Rings trilogy, with its clear Christian themes, based on the works of a Catholic writer, and made by largely non-Christian filmmakers. What exactly makes a piece of art "Christian"?
The Visitation, based on the novel by Frank Peretti, doesn't give us any room to address these issues. Here's a "Christian movie" that's an embarrassment to a genre that doesn't exactly have a reputation for producing great art. Even if you're not familiar with the works of Peretti—a popular author in evangelical circles, whose books often deal with themes of spiritual warfare—the story itself is a clear product of the CCM/evangelical subculture. In the small town of Antioch (even the name of the setting is Christian!), a series of strange occurrences and miraculous healings lead up to the sudden appearance of a mysterious figure named Brandon (Edward Furlong)—a charismatic speaker who offers people healing and happiness, eventually claiming to be Jesus Christ himself. Most of the townspeople are immediately Brandon believers, with notable exceptions including former minister Travis (Martin Donovan) and new town veterinarian Morgan.
As the film prods us to ask questions about Brandon's true nature—is he really Jesus, or something else entirely?—it becomes clear that spiritual warfare is indeed the film's theme, begging the question: Can this film be called a work of true religious art?
Well, it may be religious, but art it ain't. A more appropriate label might be … well, propaganda. Indeed, for its entire 104-minute running time, there's not a single glimmer of good storytelling—or even okay storytelling—to be found. The entire film reeks of shoddy craftsmanship, one long lead-in to the inevitable altar call at its conclusion.
In other words, this isn't the stuff of great drama. For drama to work, there have to be actual characters—here, people are distinguished not by personality traits but by their physical and spiritual condition. Hey, it's Guy in a Wheelchair! Oh look—there's Pentecostal Woman Who Gets Slain in the Spirit! Say, is that The Former Minister Who Lost His Faith?
Good drama also requires good writing, also sadly absent from The Visitation. Brian Godawa, who did a nice piece of screenwriting with To End All Wars, drops the ball here, converting Peretti's book to a movie script. Every line here is either pure cheese or pure cliché. "Don't you know that you can hurt people with pointy objects?" chides one character when he's attacked by a woman wielding scissors. "The one thing we do know is that Brandon isn't being honest about his identity," says another, keenly grasping the blindingly obvious. "Your scars don't give you the right to kill people!" comes the moral lesson in a climactic scene, teaching us all a valuable lesson about what is and isn't grounds for murder.