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Persecuted Image Courtesy of One Media LLC

Image Courtesy of One Media LLC

David Ives - published on 07/23/14

This is a low budget B-movie through and through.

It takes a special kind of movie to get a 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The site, which aggregates reviews from many of the country’s top publications, can be notoriously hard on films. In the past few weeks alone a number of major releases have been savaged by the collective pens of the nation’s critics. The Melissa McCarthy vehicle Tammy received only a 23% approval rating, Cameron Diaz’s Sex Tape came in at 20%, and the monstrously successful Transformers: Age of Extinction garnered only a meager 17% favorable rating from critics.

But a 0% rating? Those are so rare, you can usually count a year’s worth on your fingers and have a few digits left over when you’re done.

Persecuted, the new faith-based film which hit theaters this past weekend, has now joined the illustrious ranks of those movies deemed awful enough to receive 0% at Rotten Tomatoes. That means every single reviewer on the site has found Persecuted to be as irredeemably rotten as films such as Jaws: The Revenge and Leprechaun 4: In Space. Rare company indeed.

So just what is it about Persecuted that has earned it a place of such dubious distinction? Well, part of it, if we’re to be honest, is the actual quality of the film itself. The movie is written and directed by David Lusko, whose only prior non-documentary feature length credit to date is the 2013 sci-fi disaster flick 500 MPH Storm, a straight-to-video effort released by The Asylum. If you don’t know The Asylum by name, those are the same folks who brought us films like Sharknado and Mega Python vs. Gatoroid, so that should give you an idea of the level of craftsmanship on display in Persecuted. The filmmaking is serviceable, but nothing really above what you could find in a Lifetime or Hallmark Channel production. In short, Persecuted is a low budget B-movie through and through.

Still, that alone doesn’t seem like enough to justify a 0% rating. Maybe it’s the story itself. The plot of the film is a simple one. Sometime in the near future, the United States government intends to pass a law restricting certain forms of religious speech, an act vehemently opposed by a Billy Graham-style televangelist named John Luther. Fearing the bill will not pass without Luther’s support, Senator Donald Harrison arranges for the preacher to be framed for the rape and murder of a young prostitute. The rest of the movie follows Luther as he tries to avoid the authorities until he and his father, a Catholic priest, can somehow locate evidence of his innocence. Basically, it’s The Fugitive with some politics and Christianity thrown into the mix.

Again, honesty demands that we acknowledge some of the obvious problems in the writing. To begin with, there’s the name John Luther. It’s kind of like making a film about a fictional president and naming him Abraham Washington. It just comes off as silly. Then there’s the fact that. Luther is supposedly the subject of a nationwide manhunt, yet he seems able to wander in and out of places with impunity as the story demands. And what about the questionable notion that in this day and age the opinion of a single Protestant minister has the power to make or break a piece of federal legislation? Finally, why does Luther and a couple of Catholic priests appear to be the only people in the country to be upset over a law limiting religious freedom? Where are all the other faithful Christians, Jews, Muslims, you name it?

Perhaps silliest of all, however, is the proposed law itself which drives the events in Persecuted. Entitled "The Faith & Fairness Act," this legislation would essentially require all religious institutions in the country to refrain from criticizing other religions. It would also require all religious institutions to allow representatives from other religions equal time to speak from their pulpits so that congregations would hear all sides of an issue. Somehow, if enforced, this legally enforced religious pluralism would magically end terrorism on the entire planet. Yeah, even with the idiocy sometimes displayed by our elected leaders, it’s pretty hard to imagine a bill like this ever seeing the light of day.

But even the questionable writing and implausible scenario doesn’t seem like enough to merit a 0% approval on Rotten Tomatoes. No, there still must be something else that has sealed the fate of Persecuted in the eyes of the nation’s critics. How do I know this? Well, let’s do a little compare and contrast with another glorified B-movie released this last weekend, The Purge: Anarchy. Set in the same dystopian near-future of 2023 as last year’s surprise hit The Purge, this is a movie which speculates what might happen if the government were to institute a law which would allow for all crime of any kind to be legal for one night a year under the presumption that it would curtail illegal activity for the remaining 364 1/2 days.

It’s an interesting idea. The thing is, once you actually start to think about the premise, you realize how utterly ridiculous it is. How is it remotely possible that in less than a decade the entire country would willingly submit to such a law? Why would The Purge prevent crime from occurring on other days? Is everyone in the country going to wait patiently for "Purge Night" so they can rape, steal, drive drunk, or cheat on their taxes? None of it makes any sense.

And yet, despite the fact that it contains all of the exact same problems as Persecuted, The Purge: Anarchy currently holds a 54% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Part of the reason for that is no doubt that The Purge movies contain more than their fair share of bloody carnage, and a certain percentage of filmgoers (yes, even high falootin critics) are going to respond to that kind of stuff no matter how bad the rest of the movie is. But beyond that, the primary difference between the two films lies in the philosophies behind their central premises.

When you get down to it, the whole point of dystopian stories like The Purge or Persecuted has never really been to accurately predict the future, but to examine the fears and concerns over trends the authors believe are happening in the present day. In the case of The Purge movies, it’s doubtful the filmmakers actually believe a law like The Purge could actually come to pass. Rather, the make-believe story reflects the filmmakers’ perception that today’s rich and powerful are preying on the poor and the government helps them do it. As long as the filmmakers are successful in getting you to take away that political message, then they aren’t all that concerned if the dystopia they are depicting is all that logical.

The same goes for the dystopia presented in Persecuted. It’s highly unlikely the makers of the film believe a piece of legislation exactly like "The Faith & Fairness Act" could ever make it past the locked doors of a congressional committee, but it makes a fine stand-in for disturbing undercurrents they see in today’s real life political arena. In an interview withthe Hollywood Reporter, former U.S. Senator Fred Thompson, who plays the elder priest in the film, notes, “This is not a documentary, but it reminds us that we have to be vigilant and that a strong, centralized government can pose the biggest challenge to people’s constitutional rights.” In short, the central concern being addressed by the picture is the filmmakers’ belief that Christians in the United States are slowly being robbed of their constitutional rights by their own government.

And boy does that idea seem to tick off a lot of movie critics. “Straw-man cinema doesn’t get much more ludicrous than this.” exclaims Justin Chang of Variety. “Persecuted squanders the talents of its impressive cast…with its bizarre premise," says Frank Scheck of the Hollywood Reporter. “The film doesn’t sugarcoat the more hateful aspects of its Christian-fundamentalist worldview,” extolls Tomas Hachard of Slant. “This terrible attempt at a political thriller for the religious right is aimed not at Christians in general but at a certain breed of them, the kind who feel as if the rest of the world were engaged in a giant conspiracy against their interpretation of good and truth.” rants Neil Genzlinger of the New York Times. It goes on and on.

Apparently, you can make a crappy dystopian movie with a ludicrous premise like The Purge: Anarchy, and at least half the nation’s critics will give it a pass because, not only does it have a decent body count, but its Occupy Wall Street philosophy neatly falls in line with their own political leanings. Persecuted, on the other hand, makes the singular mistake of addressing Christian concerns about freedom of speech, and that’s an unpardonable sin in the eyes of a media who so often labels any expression of orthodox belief as religious extremism.

The bad thing is, Persecuted is enough of an artistic failure that it provides cover for the biases of its critics. And that’s a shame because, while things like President Obama’s recent executive order denying federal contracts to any group unwilling to hire openly gay employees or the possibility that the Louisiana Supreme Court may soon try pressure a Catholic priest to break the seal of confession may not be up to the same level of persecution as what is happening to the Christians over in Mosul, they still show that the underlying concerns regarding the erosion of religious freedom in the United States as expressed in Persecuted are all too real.

Now, if only we can get a movie that carries that message and succeeds as a film as well…

David Ives reviews new releases for Aleteia and spends his time exploring the intersection of low-budget/cult cinema and Catholicism at The B-Movie Catechism.

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