Hard as Nails
by Ed Moore
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Saying unordained Catholic minister Justin Fatica is intense is as obvious as saying the sun rises in the east. His frame is muscular, his voice loud and passionate, his stare penetrating—presumably burning its way straight to your soul.
Director David Holbrooke follows Fatica’s Hard as Nails ministry in this documentary, which, despite its open access to Fatica’s life and family—including his wife, Mary, who’s about to give birth to their first child, and his affluent parents, who seem befuddled at their son’s career choice—provides a balanced portrait of a man totally committed to his profession and his faith, for better or worse.
To be sure, Fatica’s ministry, which focuses on bringing the word of God to troubled teens, goes to extremes to get its message across. Fatica gets in the kids’ faces, screaming like a particularly manic drill sergeant, veins and eyes bulging. He brings boys and girls to the front of the church or hall to tell their stories of abuse and neglect, only to challenge audience members to do something about their pain. He puts hoods on teens and makes them drag life-sized crosses while ministry team members shout at them and simulate the pounding of nails.
Sometimes, Fatica’s methods seem cruel on the surface, such as when he brings an overweight team member before the congregation and yells about how fat she is, and then charges the audience to look past her physical form and embrace her inner beauty. The responses Fatica gets to his methods are equally complex, with some teens breaking down into tears while others accept the positive message beneath the bellowing.
Fatica has his detractors in the Catholic Church, though—at one point, his ministry is banned from preaching in Catholic churches in Vermont because of his extreme approach to preaching the Gospel, and some of the parents of the children he speaks to express concern about the sensitive issues he raises and the way he deals with them. One former employer notes that Fatica often ignored the line between “teaching and preaching.”
Holbrooke’s documentary makes it clear that Fatica isn’t just talking the talk, but walking the walk as well. Fatica is a True Believer who’s able to take it as well as dish it out, like when a man on the street tells him that organized religion is “fucking bullshit” or when some of the kids smirk at the in-your-face approach. Holbrooke also includes passages that humanize Fatica rather than reducing him to an Elmer Gantry wannabe, such as his wife describing how they met and fell in love, the birth of his son and his relationship with his parents, who love their son even if they don’t quite get why he’s doing what he’s doing or how he’s doing it.
Holbrooke doesn’t ignore Fatica’s warts, though. He includes scenes where Fatica straddles the border between faith and fanaticism, like when he advocated working out with weights as a means of curbing masturbation or when he thanks God while taking a leak. There are also unintentional laughs, like when Fatica checks his cell phone in the midst of a prayer before eating, or when a team member practicing for a mock crucifixion asks the man holding the hammer, “You gonna do the feet?”
Fatica also displays remarkable self-awareness, knowing that he may seem insane to people who don’t believe as resolutely as he does or don’t like his evangelical style. “If you don’t like how I’m doin’ it, you do it,” he says—another challenge for his audience (and his critics) to consider before they toss another stone.
Whether you agree with Fatica’s methods or questions his effectiveness or not, you can’t come away from Hard as Nails with any questions about the depth of his faith or his commitment to his work. As intense and extreme as he can be, you don’t get the sense that he’s saying one thing and doing another; he practices what he preaches. Holbrooke does an admirable job of capturing that fervor while still keeping sight of the man behind it.
Ed Moore is a film critic and freelance writer living in Chicago.
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