Once upon a time in American cinema, God was totally absent. From the 1960s to the 1980s, no self-respecting director would stoop to exhibit religious faith. There were moral movies, to be sure. But in the '70s, the Almighty had decidedly left Hollywood's heroes--morally challenged sheriffs administering "Western justice," divorced women building new lives--to figure things out for themselves. By the time God returned to the silver screen in the 1990s, in movies like "Ghost" and "What Dreams May Come," He reemerged as a soft, gauzy deity gussied up in the non-threatening garb of spirituality.

Spirituality is only a distant cousin of actual faith--religion with thrice the vanity and none of the rigor. Its byproducts are usually profoundly lacking in any real intelligence about how we interact with the divine. Which is why it is worth renting Paul Thomas Anderson's "Magnolia," out this week on DVD. The most deeply religious movie in recent memory, Anderson not only puts God at the center of "Magnolia," he also takes a firm theological point of view--that of Old Testament Judaism.

From a strictly technical standpoint, it is an astonishing piece of moviemaking, the type of sinuous, energetic storytelling and stylishness that recalls the young Francis Coppola or Marty Scorsese. Tracing one day in the intertwined lives of 10 people in the San Fernando Valley, "Magnolia" at times looks like a more polished version of Robert Altman's "Short Cuts." Anderson, however, is dealing with grander stuff than Altman's trademark cynicism could ever conjure.

Early on, game-show host Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall) mutters, "And the book says: 'We may be through with the past, but the past ain't through with us.'" That phrase--the first borrowing from Exodus--is echoed three times, and is the driving force behind "Magnolia." We see four families, all broken by a father's wrong doings: Jimmy Gator's molestation of his daughter, Claudia (Melora Walters), now a promiscuous, fraying drug addict; Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), who abandoned his terminally ill wife and their child, Frank (Tom Cruise); Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), who won $100,000 on the game show "What Do Kids Know?" as a boy and watched as his father stole every last dime; and Rick Spector (Michael Bowen) uses his little boy, Stanley (Jeremy Blackman), to get rich on the same program.

As Anderson brings up the curtain, all this is past, and we're plunked down on the day of reckoning, just as cosmic justice is kicking in. Jimmy Gator and Earl Partridge are dying. Donnie Smith is teetering on the brink of self-destruction. Little Stanley's abusive father is pushing him past the breaking point.

Into this tempest come God's foot soldiers. Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly), a cop and a divorced Catholic, tries to save Claudia from herself and ends up falling for her; Phil Parma, a nurse, tries to help the dying Earl Partridge reconcile with his son. God also employs the help of an angel, who has taken the form of a 10-year-old black boy. And ultimately, the Big He steps up to the plate Himself by sending a signature rain of frogs to save the meek and smite the wicked.

"Magnolia" is a many-splendored thing, full of little meditations on morality and faith. Most astoundingly, when Anderson's characters are confronted with a literal deus ex machina, none of them blink. As the frogs begin to fall from the sky, Stanley looks to the heavens and whispers, "This happens...this is something that happens." These characters live in a world where they accept Old Testament judgments.

Of course, in the Old Testament world those things did happen: prophets and angels, plagues and parting seas. But even a casual reading of the Bible shows that God's most powerful tools are not miracles, but people. This principle is on prominent display in "Magnolia," which only deviates from its Old Testament world at the very end to ask a very New Testament question about forgiveness. In the last moments of the movie, officer Jim Kurring has a monologue worth quoting at length:

"A lot of people think this is just a job that you go to. Take a lunch hour, the job's over, something like that. But it's a 24-hour deal, no two ways about it...and what most people don't see: just how hard it is to do the right thing. People think if I make a judgment call, that it's a judgment on them...but that's not what I do and that's not what should be done. I have to take everything, and play it as it lays. Sometimes people need a little help. Sometimes people need to be forgiven, and sometimes they need to go to jail. And that's a very tricky thing on my part...making that call. The law is the law and heck if I'm gonna break it. But if you can forgive someone? Well, that's the tough part. What do we forgive? Tough part of the job...tough part of walking down the street."

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