I grew up in the same city as Justin Fatica, a Catholic youth minister who infuses his religious program with a touch of Scared Straight. It's a small city with a predominantly Catholic citizenry. Fatica, a Catholic, attended the region's most notable Catholic high school (one that is still boys only). The HBO documentary Hard as Nails follows Fatica as he builds his controversial Catholic ministry, Hard as Nails.
Fatica's ministry is intense and extreme by any measure, but when he's preaching to Catholic youth who are used to convention and not conviction, the experience is visibly jarring for those being evangelized. Though the ministry builds a team of youth ministers, all of whom share the same clarity of faith, none are nearly as powerful as Fatica, who may even have the audience converted by the end of the film.
He shouts and screams. He talks about loving sex (but not pre-marital sex) and calls one team member fat over and over again in front of an audience of at times hundreds of teens. He then asks why in the hell isn't that audience helping the fat girl or the lonely boy or any others who feel excluded from the mainstream of any given group.
To go with his unconventional preaching style, Fatica has an unconventional look. He carries himself like a mob boss's muscle. In his mind, he probably sees himself as God's muscle. But while creating an almost mythic story about Fatica, the prophet, Hard as Nails doesn't forget to tell at least part of the story of Fatica, the man. He's noticeably uncomfortable around his father. The family house on Lake Erie where his parents live is a massive monument to materialism, something Fatica has more or less rejected. Though Fatica tries to explain his relationship with his father, we still see their mutual lack of understanding about each other's lives.
I would have liked to know more about Fatica's personal side. After all, there was a reason he found his faith. We don't get much more than allusions to his past in the film. While the lack of personal background means Hard as Nails isn't as well-rounded as any great documentary, it's certainly another laudable effort from HBO.
Hard as Nails premieres Monday, Dec. 17 at 8 p.m. on HBO.Powered by Sidelines