Holy Week again? Along with the same old films about Christ, the same old post about what may be the worst of 'em all:
Questioning The Passion of the Christ
Mel Gibson and his publicists have repeatedly claimed that his The Passion of the Christ is the most historically accurate of all pictures made on Jesus.
Actually--no. Historians have pointed out various inaccuracies--that Jesus would have spoken to Pontius Pilate in Greek (the lingua franca of the time), not Latin, and so would the Roman soldiers (who were conscripts from various nearby regions, not actual Romans); that Jesus would have carried a crossbeam and not the entire cross (which weighed something like 350 pounds); that he would have been nailed through the wrist and not the palms (his weight would have pulled the nails through his palms); that his cross used a projecting seat and not a footrest to support him; that his fellow convicts should have been scourged, as is standard Roman practice, instead of him alone. Gibson in reply has said that he has read many accounts and that as they often conflicted with each other he felt free to choose a "middle way," so to speak. It's significant, though, that Gibson's choices are often consistent with classic depictions of Jesus and his passion, rather than with the latest archeological findings.
Accuracy isn't the only controversy associated with this picture; there is also the charge that Passion is anti-Semitic, that it promotes the old idea that the Jews as a race are responsible for killing Christ. Gibson's publicist Paul Lauer puts an ingenious spin to this accusation, saying that to call the movie anti-Semitic is "to call the New Testament Gospels anti-Semitic," implying along the way that the movie is a faithful adaptation from the New Testaments (the marketing campaign has also trumpeted the picture as being the most biblically accurate yet made).
Is it? I mean--is it historically and biblically accurate, and are the charges of anti-Semitism false? The answer to these questions, interestingly enough, seem interrelated.
Some elements in the picture are definitely not from the Bible--an androgynous Satan (in interviews Gibson refers to him as a "Satanic" figure) tempting Christ in the garden of Gethsemane and walking among the Jews who watch Jesus being whipped; an effeminate Herod, heavily rouged and eyelinered, mocking Jesus as he's brought before him (strange how few critics have noted the picture's homophobia); a Pilate and his wife, wringing their hands over the death of an innocent man.
To be fair, Gibson can't help but rearrange and insert extra scenes: the four Gospels offer varying, sometimes even contradictory, accounts, and their coverage of Jesus' final hours is sketchy when it comes to physical details about crucifixion and scourging. Sometimes when making a picture you have to add or make changes, for dramatic impact and narrative clarity.
But as Catholic teaching--or at least mainstream Catholic teaching--declares: "It is not sufficient for the producers of passion dramatizations to respond to responsible criticism simply by appealing to the notion that 'it's in the Bible.' One must account for one's selections" (National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion, 1988).
Philip Cunningham, Executive Director of the Center for Christian-Jewish Learning at Boston College makes some interesting points in his article The Passion of the Christ: A Challenge to Catholic Teaching. He points out that in the movie's pivotal scene, Gibson selected a passage from the Gospel according to John where Pilate orders Jesus scourged, hoping to appease the crowd demanding his crucifixion. When this tactic fails, Pilate appeals to Jesus for help, to which Jesus replies "He who delivered me to you (Jewish high priest Caiaphas) has the greater sin."
Gibson then tacked on a passage from Matthew where Caiaphas calls out in Aramaic "Let his blood be on us and our children!" (Gibson's claim to have cut this scene is false; he merely removed the subtitles). Pilate then washes his hands (a scene found in Matthew), in effect absolving him of the whole affair, granting the Jewish crowd what they want--Jesus' crucifixion.
The net result of this joining of scenes from John (the scourging, the 'greater sin') and Matthew ('blood be on us and our children,' hand-washing) is to shift blame away from Pilate onto Caiaphas and the Jewish crowd; the net result is a depiction of Pilate as more compassionate and of the Jews as more determinedly bloodthirsty than is actually found in either John's or Matthew's Gospels. The net result is a heightening of Jewish guilt, and a relative exoneration of the Romans (of senior Roman officials, at that).
True, most of the passages cited can be found in the Bible and even taken separately they seem to indicate a common trend. Now is as good a time as any, then, to ask the question implicit in Lauer's earlier assertion: is the New Testament anti-Semitic?
Putting aside the anachronism of the question (the term 'anti-Semitism' was coined in the nineteenth century), it must be noted that the Gospels were originally oral traditions written from fifty to seventy years after Christ had died, and that they reflected the times of the writers as much as of Christ--times when the early Christians were struggling to reply to unbelieving Jews and reach out to the Romans. Bible historians and theologians know this, and what's more the Vatican (whose authority Gibson rejects) admits this as well, saying "The Gospels are the outcome of long and complicated editorial work…Hence it cannot be ruled out that some references hostile to the Jews have their historical context in conflicts between the nascent church and the Jewish community" (Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, Notes on the Correct Way to Present Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Teaching in the Roman Catholic Church, 1985).
Cunningham writes "Honesty demands the recognition that Christians have used (and abused) the New Testament over the centuries to claim that 'the Jews' were cursed for rejecting and crucifying Jesus." He notes that from the late middle ages onwards, passion plays much like the one Gibson has adapted (with additions) to the big screen were performed every Holy Week, and that these plays "regularly inspired violence against Jews." Rabbi David Fox Sandmel, leader of Chicago's KAM-Isaiah Israel Congregation reminds us that Adolf Hitler praised the Passion Play at Oberammergau, declaring it "vital that it be continued…for never has the menace of Jewry been so convincingly portrayed as in this presentation of what happened in the times of the Romans" (the play was revised several years ago, with the help of Jewish advisers).
Catholic teaching warns that "Jews should not be portrayed as avaricious; blood thirsty (e.g., in certain depiction's of Jesus' appearances before the Temple priesthood or before Pilate); or implacable enemies of Christ (e.g., by changing the small "crowd" at the governor's palace into a teeming mob)" (National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion, 1988). It stresses the "overriding preoccupation to bring out explicitly the meaning of the (Gospel) text while taking scriptural studies into account" (Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, Guidelines and Suggestions for Implementing the Conciliar Declaration Nostra Aetate, 1974). To, in other words, consider what today's biblical scholars have to say as well and not read the Bible too literally, as Gibson's movie has done.
How then is one--in this case, Gibson--to "account for one's selections?" Granted Gibson is of a Traditionalist sect that refuses to recognize the authority of the pope in Rome (which makes his trumpeting of said pope's endorsement of his movie--since withdrawn--all the more disingenuous) and the validity of Vatican ll; the idea is still sound, whether you believe in the Vatican's authority or not. One must be responsible for the choices one makes in telling a story, and must be able to give good reasons as to why they were made, especially when said choices can come together to create a false and harmful image.
Actually, Gibson is perfectly capable of accounting for his choices; he just doesn't seem at all eager or even willing to do so. As Cunningham puts it, "Gibson has actually created a cinematic version not so much of the Gospels but of Anne Catherine Emmerich’s purported visions of the death of Jesus."
Anne Catherine Emmerich was a 19th century Augustinian nun known for her visions of the life of Christ. The German Romantic poet, Clemens Brentano, offered to write down her visions and the result was The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ after the Meditations of Anne Catherine Emmerich, published in 1833.
The book was internationally renowned, as much for its violent, rather exaggerated imagery of Christ's suffering as for being full of closely observed details of Palestine that (as some readers who visited the country noted) a simple German nun could not have possibly imagined. The question arose, however, whether the visions are truly Catherine's or embellished by Brentano; when German experts sifted through his papers after his death, their general conclusion was--after finding travel literature and biblical apocrypha amongst his papers--that only a small portion of the text is Emmerich's.
Emmerich's name was submitted for beatification in 1892; the process was halted in 1928 because of the questions on her visions' authenticity. The process was resumed in 1979, but with the explicit provision that her writings be excluded. Father John O'Malley, SJ, in his article A Movie, a Mystic, and a Spiritual Tradition: Anne Catherine Emmerich & the Passion of the Christ tells us: " The official opinion on the writings has thus for a long time been sober and even skeptical." He adds: " I would not recommend it to anybody today. It is anti-Semitic to the degree (sometimes considerable) that virtually all nineteenth-century retellings of the Passion, whether by Catholics or Protestants, were anti-Semitic."
Here's a sample of one of her visions: "The soul of the old Jewess Meyr told me on the way that it was true that in former times the Jews, both in our country and elsewhere, had strangled many Christians, principally children, and used their blood for all sort of superstitious and diabolical practices. She had once believed it lawful; but she now knew that it was abominable murder. They still follow such practices in this country and in others more distant; but very secretly, because they are obliged to have commercial intercourse with Christians" (The Life and Revelations of Anne Catherine Emmerich).
Cunningham asserts in his article that Gibson owes many of his non-biblical images (Jesus thrown off a bridge, Pilate admonishing the Jews on their abuse of Jesus, an effeminate Herod, Pilate's wife giving Jesus' mother cloth to wipe away his blood, Jesus falling seven times, Christ's arm dislocated to fit holes drilled into the cross) and even the ordering and selection of scenes from the Gospels to Emmerich (John joined with Matthew to form Christ and Pilate's meeting). Gibson has reportedly denied using Emmerich as a source and does not consider her anti-Semitic (!); in a February 16 television interview, however, he said Emmerich "supplied me with stuff I never would have thought of," and admitted to carrying what he thinks is a relic of her.
It's possible that Gibson doesn't believe himself anti-Semitic and probable that he didn't intend his picture to be such. For his picture, unfortunately, Gibson has chosen to translate onscreen an old theatrical form known to have inspired hatred for Jews; has chosen scenes from the Gospels in a way that heightens Jewish guilt; has tried to polarize debate so that anyone not for his movie is against Christianity and the Bible.
He may not be consciously anti-Semitic but by pointedly ignoring the principles set by orthodox Catholic teachings on dramatizations of Jesus' passion and by depending instead on the visions of an outspokenly anti-Semitic nun, Gibson has created a movie remarkably open to abuse by anti-Semitics, much as the Gospels themselves have been abused in the past, providing justification for the persecution of Jews.
Putting aside, the question of anti-Semitism, is the movie still to be recommended, theologically? Cunningham says the picture promotes the view that "God had to be satisfied or appeased for the countless sins of humanity by subjecting his son to unspeakable torments," which isn't the case--Christ's crucifixion is meaningless without his resurrection; it's the whole reason for his suffering. Gibson's movie upends this emphasis, focuses on Christ's physical sufferings (including much that was added thanks to Emmerich), and confines the resurrection to a few quick moments onscreen. Fr. O'Malley points out that this emphasis and at times overemphasis of the crucifixion and of Christ's suffering are a trend of recent centuries, and that "The reforms of the Easter triduum that began with Pius XII and were continued with the liturgical changes during and after Vatican II were, among other things, an attempt to redress the balance."
So what can be done about this picture? I don't believe in censorship, or outright banning, and I doubt if the Movie and Television Ratings and Classification Board (MTRCB) will ban it either (I expect glowing praise of the movie on the copy of their decision posted outside theater gates). Rumor has it that they will give the picture a rating of PG 13--which would be awful; bringing anyone younger than sixteen into this movie is, I think, tantamount to cruel child abuse.
Rabbi Sandmel may have the most sensible answer--he proposes converting the movie into a "teachable moment" for Christians and Jews (Catholics here in Manila), to watch the picture, be aware of its errors, understand both the context in which the movie was made, and the proper context in which Jesus' Passion should be seen and understood.
(With thanks to Philip Cunningham, Executive Director of the Center for Christian-Jewish Learning at Boston College for permission to quote extensively from his article The Passion of the Christ: A Challenge to Catholic Teaching;
to Fr. John O'Malley for his article A Movie, a Mystic, and a Spiritual Tradition: Anne Catherine Emmerich & the Passion of the Christ.
To compare Gibson's movie with Emmerich's visions, read The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ)
First published in Businessworld, 3/19/04
The perversion of Christ
In a previous article I wrote about how Gibson's movie The Passion of the Christ was historically and biblically inaccurate, how it may not have been intended to be anti-Semitic but is open to abuse by those who are, and how Gibson's true source for the movie isn't so much the Bible as he claims, but the anti-Semitic writings of Anne Catherine Emmerich, a 19th century nun and "visionary," and German Romantic poet Clemens Brentano, who compiled her "visions" in a series of books (Brentano possibly fabricated the bulk of Emmerich's writings). But how is it as a film? As a work of cinema?
It looks handsome enough; say what you will, Gibson did have one genuine artist in his employ--Caleb Deschanel, the tremendous cinematographer of such beautifully photographed films as The Black Stallion and The Right Stuff. Gibson in interviews mentioned how he wanted to evoke the paintings of Michelangelo Caravaggio, and Deschanel obtains it for him, especially Caravaggio's use of dramatic chiaroscuro--the deep shadows, the bright highlights.
But filmmaking is more than beautiful photography and lighting: it's editing, writing, acting, and, above all, that difficult-to-define skill of storytelling through, as much as possible, the use of moving images, cut in patterned sequences. Gibson's movie is easy to nitpick--his editing stitches together Deschanel's lovely footage with all the skill of a thumbless tailor; he doesn't seem to know the meaning of the word "restraint" when it comes to slow motion (I'm guessing a full ten to twenty minutes could be lopped off if every shot ran at normal speed); his sets and costumes are sumptuous, but sadly remind you of the kind of overproduced extravaganzas Hollywood used to make, like The Greatest Story Ever Told.
Gibson's notions on violence aren't much better. He's clearly working out some personal demons--torture is common to almost all his films, from impromptu electroshock therapy in the first Lethal Weapon movie to evisceration in his self-directed Braveheart. Gibson seems to want to punish himself for private wrongs in as public a manner as possible--he wants us all to suffer for his sins, in effect--and I suppose we can relate to that; there are some guilt-obsessed filmmakers who make a career out of visualizing the blood and violence inherent in the Christian faith: John Woo, Abel Ferrara, Martin Scorsese, to name a few.
Unlike the above filmmakers, however, Gibson doesn't seem to understand that violence should be used sparingly, to keep viewers from becoming numb; it has to be mixed in with other elements (like a sense of irony, or better yet a coherent story), and sprung on the audience at the precise moment when they are off-balance. Worse of all Gibson's violence doesn't seem to possess a distinct identity--it doesn't have Woo's sense of rhythm, which turns violence into a choreographed dance; doesn't have Ferrara's cool eye, which gazes on violence with unsettling serenity; doesn't have Scorsese's restless intelligence, which pares away unnecessary footage like so much fat. Gibson's Passion, with its endless images of scourgings and stumbles (seven of them, mostly shot in excruciatingly slow motion) on the long shuffle to Golgotha is clumsy, self-absorbed, flabby with extraneous detail--not just numbing in its obsession with violence, but boring.
These criticisms, however, are strictly small fry; most of Gibson's storytelling sins can be traced to his decision to focus almost entirely on the last twelve hours of Jesus' life (other sins too--Gibson's movie is essentially an adaptation of the passion play filtered through the sensibilities of Emmerich and Brentano, and passion plays were traditionally used to fan the flames of anti-Semitism). By filming the climax and not the rest of the story, we never learn why Jesus was condemned and crucified (for all you know, they pulled him off the street). Certainly Christians would know, but this makes the picture more exclusive than inclusive, strictly for the baptized only; Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists and the rest need not watch.
The lack of context also means Caiaphas is largely unmotivated--we don't know why he wants Jesus dead, and it's easy to think "maybe because Jews are just evil;" the actor playing Caiaphas, Mattia Sbragia, is reduced to playing a stereotype Evil Jew. We don't learn of Jesus' more provocative acts, like the whipping of the moneylenders in the temple, or the entrance into Jerusalem riding an ass in blasphemous (at least to Jewish authorities) fulfillment of scriptures; we don't have the crucial scene of Jesus revealing himself to his disciples as the Son of God--his primary reason for doing the things he did. The question has been long debated, who's responsible for the death of Jesus--Judas, Caiaphas or Pilate? There's actually a fourth possibility: Jesus himself, not as a suicide but as a man on a mission to redeem souls. But you never see that in this picture.
You never get to see Jesus' other sides either--the intellectual and theologian, the revolutionary leader ("I bring not peace but the sword"). Jim Cavaziel, who plays Jesus, does well enough with the physical suffering but essentially has no character to play--his Jesus is a passive, rather uneloquent lamb led to slaughter. My personal opinion, but a film on Jesus needs to be more, needs to engage mind and heart, intelligence and faith; it needs to focus less on drawing out and magnifying the beatings, to better relish the pain. That's the technique not of an artist, but a pornographer--he stretches out the money shots, gives his viewers the opportunity to "get their rocks off," the only difference being that Gibson peddles violence, not sex (I prefer the latter kind of porn, myself).
Another point: Gibson's emphasis on physical torture gives short shrift to inward, psychological torture; the beatings, the scourging, the pounded nails, they're nothing compared to what Jesus must have felt inside. Gibson's movie gives us little hint of Jesus' humiliation and despair, his sense of being abandoned by friends, disciples and, worst of all, God.
That's another difference between Gibson and Woo, Ferrara, Scorsese--for Gibson the depiction of violence is its own end; for these filmmakers it's a means of suggesting inner torment. Despite all the bloodletting you see in films like Woo's The Killer and Hard Boiled, Ferrara's The Bad Lieutenant, Scorsese's Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, these filmmakers managed to portray protagonists whose interior suffering dwarfed their exterior pain. Arguably the most fascinating aspect to Raging Bull's Jake La Motta was the suggestion that he entered the boxing ring and allowed his face to be beaten to a bloody pulp because it made him feel better, relieved his inner pain--compared to La Motta, the sufferings of Gibson's Jesus are strictly skin-deep.
A final thought: Gibson's movie has made hundreds of millions of dollars in boxoffice revenues, thanks to a publicity campaign that exploited both the fears of the Jewish community and the gullibility of Christian conservatives who thought they were getting a Hollywood superstar's faithful adaptation of the Bible. Gibson wanted to exploit Pope John Paul II as well--the same Pope whose authority his Traditionalist sect doesn't recognize and who he privately (according to his father) calls an "ass"--but thanks to luck (or perhaps the grace of God) the Pope withheld his endorsement.
No reason to believe Gibson can't repeat his success in Manila, though--the Archbishop has given his approval, and already testimonials to the movie's artistry and holiness are popping up in papers all over the city; I assume Academy Awards are only a matter of months away.
We need to remember that in 1915 D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation was also a great boxoffice success, and that President Woodrow Wilson gave it his ringing endorsement--"history writ with lightning," he said; the voices raised in objection to its monstrous depiction of blacks were largely ignored. Years later, admiration for Griffith's filmmaking has not diminished, but recognition of its intense racism and gross historical distortions has grown, accompanying the film like its own dark shadow. Gibson's movie is nowhere near as good as Griffith's of course, but with time and a little luck, hopefully people will begin to recognize The Passion of the Christ for what it is--a crude, anti-Semitic snuff flick, cynically marketed and blindly embraced, all in the name of Jesus Christ.
It's the latter that's so galling. Gibson wraps righteousness round his self like a cloak of invincible holiness, when you just know that the one thing Jesus hated above all else was religious hypocrisy. This movie isn't just bad, it's evil; it's the voice of a false prophet, magnified and sanctified by the sound of cash registers ringing several hundred million dollars' worth of boxoffice gross*. The Hollywood producers who spurned Gibson when he was making his picture must be looking on with envy.
* Matthew 16:26 "For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" To which Robert Bolt's Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons gives an interesting variation: "It profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world…but for Wales!"
First published in Businessworld, 4/2/04
The straightest stories ever told
It's Easter season and just fresh from the controversies of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, so a quick rundown of different Christ pictures through film history might be appropriate, starting with movies that tell the story in a (more or less) straightforward and direct manner.
Cecil B. DeMille's King of Kings (1927) is not perhaps the earliest screen depiction of Jesus, but it's one of the biggest and most popular. DeMille gives us his signature mix of hedonism and sanctimoniousness: an extravagant Mary Magdalene (Dorothy Cumming) wrapping elaborately designed capes round her near-naked body while riding a chariot pulled by zebras; a recognizably Caucasian Christ (H.B. Warner) striking endless poses with a gently concerned expression on his face. Judas (Joseph Schildkraut) is a former lover of Mary and a recognizably upper-class dandy; Caiaphas (Rudolph Schildkraut, Joseph's father) is an old-fashioned silent-screen villain.
Interestingly enough, the portrayal of Caiaphas plus certain scenes (including one where the Jews are paid to yell for Jesus' blood) gave rise to cries of anti-Semitism, which prompted DeMille to insert various titles, the most crucial of which has Caiaphas blaming himself, and not his people, for the death of Christ.
George Steven's The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) is perhaps the representative Christ epic--long, slow, with improbably huge sets and an intelligent if glossy visual style (word has it that David Lean directed a few scenes).
What makes the movie such fun despite the ponderous, holier-than-thou filmmaking is the hilarious Hollywood casting: Donald Pleasance as Satan, Robert Blake as Simon the Zealot, Telly Savalas as Pontius Pilate (shaved his head for the role and kept it shaven ever since), Charlton Heston bellowing about apes--sorry, about repentance--as John the Baptist. In the background are the unique landscapes of Death Valley, California, and Utah, and lo and behold, you spot the Duke himself, drawling "Truly, this is the Son o' Gawd…"
What works, though, is Von Sydow as Christ. He flashes his laser-beam stare and bellows in his stentorian voice, and you can't help but think: "I can follow this guy." He's eerily effective when delivering dark prophecies like "Behold, the days are coming in which they shall say 'Blessed are the barren'…say to the mountains 'fall on us'"--this is, after all, the medieval knight who played chess against Death in Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal.
Nicholas Ray's King of Kings (1961) features a more bloodless Christ in Jeffrey Hunter, whose chest was shaved because preview audiences objected to the body hair. More interesting (thanks to writer Philip Yordan) is a parallel subplot, where Harry Guardino as Jesus Barabbas struggles to free the Jews from Roman tyranny. Barabbas acts as a sort of political doppelganger to Christ (it's noted that they have the same first name), and the two struggle for the soul of an indecisive Judas (Rip Torn!). Ray keeps the drama more human-sized than Stevens, yet manages several striking setpieces: a Sermon on the Mount staged and shot (as filmmaker Martin Scorsese points out) like an impromptu press conference; a camera strapped to the top of the cross looking down, so we can follow it as it ascends to the sky (Scorsese borrows this shot for his own film).
Franco Zefferelli's Jesus of Nazareth (1977) puts in a rather benign Robert Powell as Christ, and follows Steven's style of Hollywood casting: an improbably young Olivia Hussey as the Virgin Mary, a hammy Rod Steiger as Pontius Pilate, an unconvincingly bestial Michael York as John the Baptist. More interesting than Zefferelli's rather flat directing is Anthony Burgess' literate script, which supposes interesting relationships among characters (Pilate talks of mercy to Jesus just to needle the Jewish priests; Judas, as in King of Kings, is a political innocent out to save Jesus from himself) and attempts to show the political and social tensions of the time. Burgess would later use the script as basis for his novel Man of Nazareth which interpolates, among other things, a Jesus who married during his hidden thirty years.
Pier Paolo Pasolini's The Gospel According to Matthew (1964) does the story of Christ, or at least Matthew's account of him, in a way no one seems to have thought of before, or since: as simply as possible.
Oh, Pasolini adds touches--a soundtrack with Mozart, Bach, and blues music--but by and large he took his cue from the way Enrique Irazoqui, the Catalan Economics student who plays Christ, walks across the screen: straightforward, direct, with no hesitation whatsoever. Easily the most beautiful, most cinematic, most faithful and "straight" of Christ movies--which is ironic, since the director is an outspoken homosexual, atheist and Communist.
The strangest stories ever told
There are the straight Christ movies like Jesus of Nazareth or Gospel According to Matthew; then there are the stranger versions of Christ's stories: the New Testament plus a little something else. A sample few:
Norman Jewison's Jesus Christ, Superstar (1973) was pretty controversial when it came out in Broadway--what, Christ singing rock?! Nowadays, though, you hear "I Don't Know How to Love Him" in many a '70s compilation discs (it used to be sung at masses).
It turns out to be a pretty reverential take, with less-than-brilliant lyrics and only hints and rumblings of a modern consciousness in Ted Neely's rock-star Christ (at one point he worries people will forget him ten minutes after he's dead); it's also an extremely dated movie, with the camera constantly zooming in and out, presumably to "open up" the picture. What stays with you is Carl Anderson's passionate Judas, and the rock beat clearing away all the musty familiarity in your head.
The picture was also charged with anti-Semitism, and I suppose you can see traces of a negative Jewish stereotype in the movie's Caiaphas (Bob Bingham). To the picture's credit it depicts some of Christ's more provocative acts against the Jewish orthodoxy, and gives us a sense of what his mission's all about (to die on the cross, be resurrected, redeem our sins), giving Caiaphas' hostility some context.
So sue me, I think Monty Python's The Life of Brian (1979) is easily the most sensible of all Christ films--mainly because it puts everything in perspective. With all the hoopla about religious faith, and the violence and chaos such faith inspires, what really matters (the picture seems to say) is that you have a bit of fun with a good Jewish girl, be kind to one another, and whistle cheerfully when you're hanging on a cross.
For those unfamiliar with the film it's Python's way of sending up--not Christ per se, the Pythoners think he's a decent chap--but the religious fanaticism and hypocrisy surrounding the man and his teachings, something I suspect he would appreciate if he were alive today. Small sidenote: the film was banned in Norway for eight years, after which it was marketed in Sweden as the film "so funny it was banned in Norway."
I cannot tell a lie; despite all the controversy about sex and New York accents, Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, based on the equally controversial book by Nikos Kazantzakis, is my personal favorite of the genre (Pasolini's might come in second, with Monty Python's third). If anything, I love that everyone speaks like they come from Brooklyn and the Bronx; it feels like Scorsese's way of personalizing a familiar story and telling it his way, in his voice and language, and showing us that the whole thing still works, nevertheless.
It does--at least, I think it does, thanks to Scorsese's inimitable visual style (he takes his cue from the desert landscape's apparitions and heat mirages, and turns Morocco into one of the most desolately beautiful settings one can have for a struggle over human spirituality); Willem Dafoe's ferocious Christ (Dafoe is rumored to be one of the best-endowed men in Hollywood, and somehow I like the idea of Christ speaking softly and wielding a very big stick); Paul Schrader's plainspoken screenplay (he pares away much of Kazantzakis' rather purplish prose); and Peter Gabriel's eclectic (he combines elements from, among others, symphonic, Egyptian and African music) rock score.
It's easily the most accurate, with Scorsese drawing details of Jewish life and Roman crucifixion practices from such sources as Michael Grant's The History of Ancient Israel and The Biblical Archaeological Review. It's also the most moving, I think, the one that speculates most thoroughly (and courageously) on the psychological and spiritual aspects of being Christ--on the inner suffering Christ must have undergone.
At 300 million dollars in boxoffice at the time of this writing and counting, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004) is easily the most commercially successful Christ movie ever made. It's also, despite Gibson's claims of biblical fidelity, as much a piece of fantasy as Scorsese's Last Temptation, being closely based on the visions of one Anne Catherine Emmerich, a 19th century Augustinian nun and anti-Semite, and Clemens Brentano, the German Romantic poet who compiled her writings (and, it is suspected, added to them considerably).
Gibson's film is violent, it's true (in a crudely dull and repetitive way), and as such upends what Christ is all about--not that he died and was resurrected but that he endured superhuman torture for his sins (as if God were some kind of old school deity demanding blood payment). Besides being questionable theology, it's bad art--Gibson dwells so much on physical suffering that the sense of abandonment Christ must have felt is left unexpressed. It's also, thanks to Emmerich, virulently anti-Semitic (the Jews are malevolent for no apparent reason).
(First published in Menzone Magazine, April, 2004)