Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Messiah (Roberto Rossellini, 1975)

(Plot discussed in detail--though it's hard to imagine anyone unfamiliar with this story. Film is not available on Netflix or Amazon in DVD form, but is available on youtube (though I don't feel I should include a link))

Promised man

"In the beginning was the Word," so began the Gospel of John, and so begins Rossellini's treatment on Christ, his last narrative feature--only I remember when I first saw the film it began so far back in biblical history I had to check the title again to make sure. 

Rossellini starts a thousand years before, with the Israelites' arrival in Canaan, all sunbleached vistas and dusty tents (the sand-and-rock palette providing a subdued background against which the occasional red cloak or robe pops out of the screen). A child digs a hole in the ground with a stick and pisses in it; a shadow looms over him and he turns; a Philistine soldier whirls his sling, cuts loose--the child cries "No!"--and Rossellini cuts to a shot of the child lying on the ground, the blood on his forehead as startling a scarlet as any we've seen in this desolate landscape. 

Rossellini cuts to a meeting of tribal elders, in front of their tents. He zooms out (to establish location), glides around (as if trying to find the best vantage point), zooms in (to focus on this or that speaker). 

The camera pulls back in a flat arc from an anguished elder declaring: "We want a king, Samuel, as all nations, a king to judge us and lead us!" Continuing its arc the camera catches an old man--Samuel--rising to his feet. "My brothers, there is no king for our king for Israel, because the king of Israel is the Eternal, Who freed us from slavery."

The Israelites insist however, which is how the country got to anoint its first king: Saul, a bellowing tyrant hard on his countrymen and even harder on their cattle, at one point whacking a bull in the head with an oversized mallet (What did Joseph de Maistre once say? "Every nation gets the government it deserves"). Rossellini establishes the style and demeanor of Israeli kings to better contrast with the style and demeanor of the coming king, but establishes at the same time the historical and political context from which the line of rulers arose: the Israelites demanded a king, a military dictator, in effect, because they wanted the safety and relative stability of such a king--which wasn't quite what happened (Samuel: "You shall know what meaneth to be subject to a king's will!"). They may have also prayed centuries for a messiah, but wasn't prepared for when he finally came, or what he had to offer.

It's startling to realize just how much Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ borrowed from Rossellini--the baptism (with its shallow stream surrounded by rocky bluffs) could have been rear projected directly into Scorsese's picture (all that's needed is for Andre Gregory to do a walk-on cameo). A hut of straw and tree branches standing behind Christ (Pier Maria Rossi) as he tells the Parable of the Wheat and Weeds might have been dismantled right after shooting, then reassembled fourteen years later for Willem Dafoe's honeymoon with his not-so-blushing bride. The camera follows closely as a cup is passed from Rossi's Christ to disciple after disciple after disciple, and with a little judicious splicing might pass right back to Dafoe's Christ. 

Scorsese is an admitted admirer of Rossellini, but doesn't overtly adopt (despite all the borrowed images) much of the filmmaker's visual style. You often catch Scorsese indulging in visual flash--gold coins spinning in the sky; a recreation of Hieronymus Bosch's Christ Carrying the Cross; a camera lashed to the top of the cross as it's lifted up into the air (a tribute if you like to a similar shot in Nicholas Ray's King of Kings). 

Rossellini's film might have influenced Scorsese and was probably influenced in turn (to cite yet another brother-in-Christ) by Pier Paolo Pasolini's earlier The Gospel According to Matthew--like Rossellini's film a low-budget feature and an angry rebuke towards Hollywood-style Christ extravaganzas. No name stars, no elaborate sets or costumes, no production values whatsoever--there isn't even any color. Pasolini took a page from neorealism (of which Rossellini was an establishing master), but did it his way: edgy editing, casual handheld shots that on occasion shoved the lens in the actor's face, a high-contrast black-and-white palette. His soundtrack is eclectic--Mozart; Bach; a traditional African-American spiritual. A leper's misshapen nose bulges into the big screen as he whispers "make me clean;" Christ (a no-nonsense Enrique Irazoqui) declares: "you are clean" and Gloria from the Missa Luba blares out from the soundtrack.  

Rossellini doesn't use much music; a kind of suspenseful shiver here, there (the child's murder, Herod's death), developing into a honest-to-goodness if modest melody in the film's final two minutes. His editing is anything but aggressive; instead he pieces together sinuous long takes that come close enough to the characters to register as medium shots (but otherwise keep a discreet distance). Unlike Pasolini he doesn't forsake color; he seems to acknowledge that color is a part of a man's normal view, that black-and-white is (especially nowadays) an extreme form of stylization. Where Pasolini is severe Rossellini is chaste; where the former denies himself the pleasures of period filmmaking the latter shows reluctance, a sense of restraint--the difference, I think, being mainly in attitude and tone.

I've tried describing Rossellini's style before, and was unhappy with the results; possibly it's easier to describe what he's not instead of what he is. He's not into displays of virtuosity like Scorsese, though there are shots that betray the pure craft of a master--a group of children chanting and clapping, for example, the camera climbing up to follow soldiers marching the ramparts of a high wall, then pulling back and arriving at Christ transfixed on his cross (the contrast between the children's singing and Mary Magdalene's soft sobbing being more emotionally devastating than anything in, say, Mel Gibson's laughably overheated Passion of the Christ). His film's austere, but not in the in-your-face manner of Pasolini; he doesn't use Pasolini's alienating manner of having Christ lecture to us, profile head-on and free of frills or music or movement or lighting effect of any kind (save the setting sun, and the occasional lightning flash)--daring us to stay focused on the words' inherent wisdom and the image's flinty beauty (not to mention Irazoqui's piercing eyes), despite our faltering, all-too-human interest. 

Rossellini for his part does something more audience-friendly, yet interesting on its own terms. His Christ is busy repairing one of the apostles' fishing boats--he's about to send them on their own teaching missions. A disciple asks "what should we bring with us?" the camera coming up close as if to better hear his reply (and along the way underline the importance of his reply). Christ answers: not much--just what you have. "Behold the birds of the air," he points out, noting that they do nothing to provide for themselves yet are somehow cared for; at which point the camera pulls out--as if it was us the audience taking this insight and carrying it in our hearts and looking at the world through a new attitude, through differing eyes--the camera frame restlessly framing and re-framing to juxtapose image to questions and questions to answers in a sustained visual conversation.  

And--for me the breathtaking part--Christ runs with the idea, or rather his people do. Rossellini cuts to one disciple, then another repeating Christ's parables (said parables--stories with a philosophical point--being easier to remember and understand for these mostly uneducated men and women). It's not all about him, Rossellini seems to be saying; Christ won't save the world all by himself--he's using them (and by extension us) to put words into others' ears, and into practice in everyday life (in a way Rossellini's suggesting a sequel to his mid-career masterpiece, The Flowers of St. Francis, where at film's end the master orders his disciples to spin around till they stumble, then go in the direction they've fallen to spread the word). He's using communal effort--a key concept of communism if you like (and remember that Rossellini's politics leaned decidedly to the left)--to scatter his ideas abroad

It's not as if the film were totally bereft of humor--there's funny here, if you look carefully. Or perhaps you didn't need care; a quick glance at the Pharisees and you see their ridiculous horns, the bizarre little cube of wood sprouting out of their foreheads. The Pharisees may represent established authority, or entrenched hypocrisy, or the interests of the powers that be (which may include Hollywood and its equivalent in Italian cinema); Rossellini has about as little respect for any of them as Christ does, mercilessly depicting them as helpless in the face of radicalism, till they concoct a cowardly plot to accuse Christ of political conspiracy against the Romans (a massive misunderstanding--he's subversive, but not in that sense). 

It's not as if Rossellini's film is determinedly secular--there are miracles but (unlike in say Pasolini's) they're even further de-emphasized, we don't actually see him performing them (though we do on occasion see the aftereffects, as in the miracle of the loaves of bread). The miracles aren't Christ's strongest selling point, Rossellini seems to suggest, or at least he seems to feel they're mostly gimmicks that distract from Christ's ideas, and can safely be relegated offscreen.

It's not as if Rossellini's film is bereft of lyricism either, or visual poetry: one of the loveliest passages in the film is of Rossellini's camera lingering over this man or that hard at work, then zooming in on Christ hammering on what looks like a partly assembled plow (unlike most other onscreen Christs, Rossellini's seems to be  busy plying his trade). He talks of who will or will not enter the Kingdom of God, asks what is the Kingdom of God--

--whereupon Mary takes over, explaining to a child that the Kingdom is where "milk and honey will flow," stressing that this Kingdom will come about when everyone works for its coming--

--and Rossellini's camera moves away from Mary to wander among people sweeping, cooking, milking, bricklaying, and so forth. Mary might talk of a heaven to come, but Rossellini seems to suggest that heaven might already be here in the form of a worker's paradise, if we so choose to recognize it. 

At one point Christ is asked a blunt question: how to gain eternal life? His reply is equally blunt: love God, and each other--the two sentences clarifying and simplifying and above all distilling thousands of years of Jewish theology (or at least that's how Catholics feel about it). In a way it's what Rossellini seems to be doing--to have done: clarify and simplify and above all distill the Christ of the Gospels (in particular Luke) in a single hundred and forty minute film, as cogent a case of form following content as is humanly possible, from a master of Italian--of human--cinema. 

Easter Sunday, 4.20.14

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