You wouldn't expect a soulful reimagining of the New Testament prodigal son parable from a filmmaker whose credits include mostly erotic thrillers. But that's what director Rob Hardy has crafted in his semiautobiographical "The Gospel" (Screen Gems), an elevating, if melodramatic, redemption tale that raises the roof as it lifts your spirit.
Boris Kodjoe stars as David Taylor, an evangelical preacher's son who returns home after 15 years--putting his temptation-filled fame as a successful hip-hop artist on hold--to reconcile with his estranged father (Clifton Powell), whom he learns is terminally ill.
As a young man, David had studied to follow in his father's footsteps, but abandoned the pulpit, along with his faith and home town, when his mother died, angrily blaming his father for being away on church business.
David also tries to mend fences with his childhood friend, Charles (Idris Elba), who has been named his father's successor as pastor. Charles--who, echoing the older brother in the Gospel story, resents the open-arms welcome given David--is an upright man who cares about his congregation, but is blinded by anger, pride and ambition.
David offers to help organize a concert to raise money for a proposed new church. Along with several impassioned Sunday services, the event provides an opportunity for the movie's soaring gospel numbers.
Rounding out the cast are Tamyra Gray as David's love interest, torn between David and the recently returned father of her young daughter; Grammy Award-winning gospel singer Donnie McClurkin as the parish's longtime administrator; Nona Gaye as Charles' supportive but remote wife; and Omar Gooding as David's loyal manager.
Shot in Atlanta, the film succeeds in conveying the vibrancy of African-American worship, which can be admired from across the denominational divide.
From a dramatic standpoint, however, the movie could have used less hand-clapping and more story and character development. Dynamic though they are, the gospel performances begin to feel like padding for an undernourished script.
Better to have explored both legs of David's journey, which would have made his spiritual U-turn more interesting, understandable and emotionally satisfying.
And while restraint in a film is always commendable, aside from a brief scene where he wakes up next to a "fan," we don't get much sense of David's profligate lifestyle.
Despite its shortcomings and cliches, "The Gospel" movingly examines themes of family, faith, forgiveness, and flawed humanity and imparts a positive message of hope that--if we let go and let God--his unconditional love and grace can work miracles.
The film contains an implied sexual encounter, mature themes, brief fisticuffs, a bump-and-grind dance sequence and some mildly crude language, making it better suited for older adolescents. The USCCB [U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops] Office for Film & Broadcasting classification is A-III--adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG -- parental guidance suggested.