True Believer

Los Angeles may be the City of Angels, but Sharon (Mimi Rogers) - the protagonist of Michael Tolkin's The Rapture - isn't one of them. At least not for the first movement of this complex, disturbing film, which slips phantasmagorically from religious parable to suburban adventure to supernatural gothic. Thirtyish and pretty, but starting to weather around her eyes, Sharon has been dessicated by her drab, uninspiring life, and more specifically by her drab, uninspiring job. As an underpaid prole for L.A. County directory assistance, she conducts her business from a desolate operator's cubicle in an impossibly gray, poorly lit space.

To stave off her days of boredom, Sharon spends her nights in search of the ultimate sexual thrill. With her boyfriend Vic (Patrick Bachau), a smooth and seedy European type, she cruises for couples, trades partners, allows unfamiliar men to swan-dive into her tender flesh on a regular basis. Throughout the numbing, fluorescent workdays and tumescent, lamplit nights, Sharon is denied natural illumination. And the monotony drags on - days frittered away on the phone, nights squandered in supine oblivion. Even when she enters into a tentative relationship with a sardonic handyman named Randy (David Duchovy), Sharon feels forever cheap and tawdry. She can't get no satisfaction.

Meanwhile, many of Sharon's co-workers at Directory Assistance seem to be reorganizing their lives with some secret spiritual agenda in mind. When the fabric of Sharon's life begins to rip, she begins to listen more closely, and overhears murmurs about "the boy who will be prophet," and "the dream of the pearl." One evening she even admits a pair of evangelists into her apartment. They plead with her to accept Jesus Christ as her personal savior. Sharon, ever the skeptic and hedonist, sees them to the door with a throaty laugh.

But the emptiness within her gnaws more and more fiercely. In work she acts more and more melancholy; in sex she grows more and more remote. When Vic arranges a date with a married couple ("They're from Philly," he gushes. "Actually, he's from Pennsylvania. She's from Florida"), Sharon can't seem to prime herself for the inevitable copulation. Her heart just isn't in it, not even when she's being mounted from behind by the muscular Pennsylvanian. One night soon afterward, she wakes with a sudden repulsion for her own stained soul. "Get out of bed," she tells Randy. "I have to clean the sheets."

"When did you get religion?" he snorts.
"I am trying, Randy," she answers plaintively. "I want my salvation." To prove her point, she runs to the shower for a scalding ablution, and then sits on the bed and madly flosses the last bits of her sin from between her teeth. Over the next few weeks, she throws herself open before the forces of heaven, and begins to receive divine visions. As she surrenders her very being to an unseen presence, Sharon runs the risk of appearing irritatingly ego-deficient, or even laughably dependent. For The Rapture to work at all, her embrace of religion cannot simply be self-satisfied piety, or the self-defense mechanism of a chronic depressive. In modern-day America, where religion, and especially televangelism, has become intertwined with the notion of hypocrisy, everyone has been saturated with images of the faithful as ovine oddities who weep tears of gratitude for deceitful preachers. Thanks to Tolkin's intensely subjective script - in which belief has a ragged, eerily unresolved edge that seems to conceal a menacing lining - and a powerful performance by Rogers (a Coral Gables native), Sharon's absorption into the world of Christ is dignified, believable, and appropriately surreal. When she answers the telephone at work, it's no longer "Operator 134, what city please?" but "Who is this, please, and have you met the Lord?" With this passage into piety, Tolkin's film concludes its first chapter. But there's still much more to investigate before Sharon can truly get religion.

Six years later, Sharon has managed to win Randy back and assist in his rebirth. They've married, and their God-loving union has produced a lovely freckled daughter named Mary (Kimberly Cullum). In keeping with his desire to explore religious conversion on its own terms, Tolkin doesn't ironize Sharon's change of life. Her suburban home is peaceful and prayerful. God is nearby. You can almost hear the cherubs and seraphs whistling as they fly over the neatly manicured lawn. But when a disgruntled employee at Randy's company trades in his mind for a loaded shotgun and opens fire on the office, Sharon's faith is sorely tested. She must confront her piety anew, this time as a widow.

At this point, Tolkin's film becomes something very different indeed - something far more fearsome, challenging, intimidating and flawed than its stately first half suggests. Drawn to the California desert by a vision of her late husband, Sharon endures a series of terrifying Scriptural trials, and unquestioning obedience to a higher power is revealed as more dangerous and sinister than her carnal nights ever were. The vision she has received promises that she and little Mary will be lifted to Heaven, where they will join Randy in eternal peace. But after days and days of waiting without any sign of the ascension, Sharon begins to question the very basis of her faith. Has she been brought to the desert by Satan? Is her entire soul founded on a lie? It only complicates matters that Mary, a girl raised in the strict evangelical tradition, desperately wants to die so that she can join her father in the afterlife. More questions spring up. How much of the desert trial is a product of Sharon's own shaky psychological state? Why is every aspect of absolute faith so menacing? What will happen to devoted (read: doomed) little Mary? The answers are all in Tolkin's film, and they're all quite scary.

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