“Constantine’s Sword” is a thoughtful, disturbing attempt to trace the history of Christian anti-Semitism back to the last centuries of the Roman Empire, and an in-depth look at one man’s spiritual journey.

By John Hartl

Special to The Seattle Times

Casey Weinstein, a Jewish Air Force cadet, was called a Christ killer (and things less-repeatable in a family newspaper) when he arrived at Colorado Springs for training in 2004.

Forced to share meals over place mats advertising Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” he felt hounded by his evangelical companions to see the movie. To him, it proved just as anti-Semitic as its critics warned. He was deeply offended by Gibson’s version of the Crucifixion.

“I felt terrible,” he says in the thoughtful, disturbing new documentary “Constantine’s Sword,” which traces the history of Christian anti-Semitism back to the last centuries of the Roman Empire. In the process, it demonstrates just how lonely and vulnerable a member of a minority religion can be.

The film’s title reflects the belief of its co-writers, Oren Jacoby and James Carroll, that Christianity was essentially nonviolent until it was adopted as the state religion by the emperor Constantine. Later came the Crusades, Pope-approved Jewish ghettos, the Inquisition, other atrocities and the Vatican’s silence during the Holocaust.

The filmmakers visit Auschwitz, Rome and Jerusalem; talk with death-camp survivors and historians; then leave the arguments for converting to Christianity to evangelical spokesman Ted Haggard, who seems every bit as zealous as he was a couple of years ago in another documentary, “Jesus Camp.” (A postscript notes his subsequent fall from grace with a male prostitute.)

But mostly “Constantine’s Sword” deals with the spiritual journey of Carroll, a former Catholic priest who is now married with children. He turned against the Vietnam War (and his military upbringing) during his years as a priest, 1969-74, and fears that the Iraq war will repeat Vietnam’s mistakes. President Bush’s apparently naive use of the word “crusade” haunts him — and the film.

Jacoby, who was nominated for an Oscar for his similar 2004 documentary short, “Sister Rose’s Passion,” doesn’t always succeed in keeping the narrative focused or balanced. Haggard stands out partly because there are so few echoes of his viewpoint in the interviews.

Still, Jacoby and Carroll make their case skillfully, carefully excerpting key scenes from “Lenny” (with Dustin Hoffman doing a Lenny Bruce monologue on anti-Jewish prejudice) and “The Robe” (a 1950s Biblical blockbuster based on a dubious interpretation of Scripture).

While the subject matter might be better handled in a book (“Constantine’s Sword” is based on Carroll’s 2001 best-seller of the same name), the images, deftly accompanied by celebrity voices (Liev Schreiber is Constantine, Natasha Richardson is Auschwitz martyr Edith Stein), are used to surprisingly strong effect.

John Hartl: johnhartl@yahoo.com