Compact, bandy-legged, and muscular, with a lantern jaw and a buzz cut that frames piercing, fervent eyes, the un-ordained Catholic youth minister at the center of the new HBO documentary "Hard as Nails," which makes its premiere tonight, Justin Fatica, initially comes across as the Henry Rollins of preachers. At home, on the road, or working a church basement audience of junior high schoolers, Mr. Fatica is never less than hard-core. Seeking to clarify one young volunteer's responsibility to protect Jesus, Mr. Fatica tells the child, "If you're going to sin, you better have the courage to bash His face in."
Like the pioneers of rock 'n' roll, who juiced up country and western music with a jolt of rhythm and blues, Mr. Fatica and his Hard as Nails ministry engage staid Catholic school and church youth groups with the intensity and immediacy of evangelical Protestant holy rollers. Indeed, Mr. Fatica and his small flock of teenage and 20-something team members confront their audiences with such ferocity that one New England Catholic diocese has banned the group outright. "It wasn't the Romans, it wasn't the Jews," one of Mr. Fatica's young preachers howls while addressing the subject of culpability for the Crucifiction. "It was you!"
In pursuit of saved souls, the Hard as Nails ministry conducts training sessions in which future "fishers of men" are put through the Christian equivalent of Civil War re-enactments. Converts are thrown to the ground, submitted to simulated crucifixions (complete with hammer and nails), and wince as whips crack inches from their blindfolded faces. "How's that feel, Jesus?" a Hard as Nails acolyte screams at a teenage newcomer dragging a heavy wooden cross up a Vermont hillside during a mass mock Calvary. "The world is extreme," offers one of Mr. Fatica's zealots. In order to meet sin head-on, the Hard as Nails troupe is "called to love with an extreme love."
"Hard as Nails" is suffused with enough moments of unashamed, full-contact religious rhetoric to keep even the most jaded secular humanist squirming and giggling indefinitely. Sequences that depict Mr. Fatica submitting to a ritual folding-chair bashing, and his use of an apparently humiliation-proof team member named Vicky as a kind of presentational sacrifice are particularly astonishing. But the film, directed with equal doses of editorial intelligence and compassion by David Holbrook, gracefully walks the line between HBO's tradition of "Real Sex"-style docu-sploitation and the nuanced and affectionate subjectivity of Errol Morris and Werner Herzog's nonfiction works.
"Hard as Nails" takes particular care in depicting the parental shadow from which Mr. Fatica escaped via his immersion in one of the world's most paternalist religions. "I just think that he was embarrassed that he came from an affluent family," offers Mr. Fatica's mother, shown in the palatial lakefront mansion in which she and her apparently quite successful entrepreneur husband raised their son. Though the higher calling that he so energetically labors to heed clearly began as a rebellion against his privileged youth, Mr. Fatica, closing in on 30, married and a new father, is shown cannily working a fundraising dinner and going over the ministry's accounts with a confidence and rough-edged noblesse oblige that demonstrates just how far this particular acorn has fallen from the lush tree that spawned him.
"Justin wants everybody to believe what he believes," Mr. Fatica's mother says with a resigned sigh. Intelligent, garrulous, and energetic nearly to the point of spontaneous combustion, Mr. Fatica is committed, and his passion ultimately proves irresistible, even if his message isn't likely to impel anyone over the age of 17 to their knees. Nevertheless, "Hard as Nails" manages the difficult task of honoring the salesman, if not the sale, and exploring the underlying and genuine love and faith driving one man to dominate an arena that can obscure those worthy and precious tenants even while extolling them.