Sunday, March 31, 2013

Christ almighty

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 watching 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 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 is best used sparingly, to keep viewers from becoming numb; it has to be integrated with other elements (like a sense of irony, or better yet a coherent story), and sprung on the audience at the moment when they are most off-balanced. Gibson's violence doesn't seem to possess much of a personality--it doesn't have Woo's sense of rhythm, turning violence into a choreographed dance; or Ferrara's eye, which gazes on violence with unnerving serenity; or Scorsese's restless intelligence, which can look upon the violence from any number of unexpected, inquisitive angles. Gibson's Passion, with its endless 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. 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 arrested him for jaywalking). Certainly Christians know, but this picture is more exclusive than inclusive, strictly for the baptized; Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists need not watch.

The lack of context also means Caiaphas is inexplicably motivated--we don't know why he wants Jesus dead, and it's easy to say "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 temple moneylenders, or the entrance into Jerusalem riding an ass in blasphemous fulfillment of the 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 what he did. The question has been long debated: who's responsible for his death--Judas, Caiaphas, Pilate? There's actually a fourth suspect: Jesus himself, not as suicide but as a man on a mission to redeem souls. But you never see that nuance 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 as Jesus does well enough with the physical suffering but essentially has no character to play--his is a passive rather uneloquent lamb led to slaughter. My personal opinion, but a film on Christ needs to engage heart and mind, faith and intelligence; it needs to focus less on the beatings and more on their meaning. Gibson reveals the techniques not of an artist but a pornographer--stretching out the money shots, giving viewers the chance to "get their rocks off;" difference is Gibson peddles violence, not sex (I prefer the latter kind of porn myself).

Another point: Gibson's emphasis on physical pain gives short shrift to inward, psychological pain; 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, worst of all God.

That's another difference between Gibson and Woo, Ferrara, Scorsese--for Gibson the depiction of violence is its own reason for being; for these filmmakers it's a means to a further end. In Woo's The Killer and Hard Boiled, Ferrara's The Bad Lieutenant, Scorsese's Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, the protagonists carry an inner burden that stunts their forward propulsion. Arguably what's most fascinating about Raging Bull's Jake La Motta was the implication that he entered the boxing ring and allowed his face to be beaten to a pulp because it made him feel better, that he was somehow relieving himself of some unnamed unimaginable inner pain. Compared to La Motta, the sufferings of Gibson's Jesus feel strictly skin-deep.

A final thought: Gibson's movie has made hundreds of millions in boxoffice revenues, thanks to a publicity campaign that exploits 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 the grace of God) the Pope withheld endorsement.

No reason to believe Gibson can't repeat his success in Manila, though--the Archbishop has given 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 the level of Griffith's of course, but with time and a little luck, hopefully people will 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 aspect 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 Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons gives an interesting response: "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 one of the biggest and most popular. DeMille gives us his signature mix of hedonism and sanctimoniousness: an extravagant Mary Magdalene (Dorothy Cumming) wraps elaborate capes round her near-naked body while riding a chariot pulled by zebras; a recognizably Caucasian Christ (H.B. Warner) strikes endless poses with a gently concerned expression on his face. Judas (Joseph Schildkraut) is a former lover of Mary and 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 of Jews 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 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 fun despite ponderous, holier-than-thou filmmaking is the hilariously Hollywood cast: Donald Pleasance as Satan, Robert Blake as Simon the Zealot, Telly Savalas as Pontius Pilate (shaved his head for the role and kept it clean ever since), Charlton Heston bellowing about apes--sorry, repentance--as John the Baptist. In the background: the unique stonescapes of Death Valley (in California) and of Utah, and lo and behold you see the Duke himself drawling "Truly this is the Son ah 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 political doppelganger to Christ (it's oft noted they share the same first name), and the two struggle over 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 arcs into the sky (Scorsese borrows the shot for his own film).

Franco Zefferelli's Jesus of Nazareth (1977) proposes 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 burly Michael York as John the Baptist. More interesting than Zefferelli's rather flat direction 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 largely takes his cue from the way Enrique Irazoqui, the Catalan Economics student who plays Christ, walks across the screen: straightforward and direct, no hesitation whatsoever. Easily the most faithful of Christ films--which is ironic, since the director is an outspoken homosexual, atheist, and Communist.

What could I possibly prefer over The Gospel According to Matthew? Roberto Rossellini's The Messiah begins by sketching the forces within Palestine that demanded a king--a military leader with charisma and strength--before introducing the leader that ultimately followed. His Jesus focuses not on details but the big picture and so does his camera, homing in to catch his words then pulling out to observe the impact of those words spreading and working out their meaning in the world. Rossellini's film is remarkably simple, doesn't even presume to use black-and-white but continues to see the world the way we see it, in color. It presents Christ's argument for how to act with the world and with each other in as easily comprehensible a form as possible, yet has a beauty and grace--distilled from years of mastery of the cinema form--that sells its case with understated power. 

The strangest stories ever told

Then there are the stranger versions of Christ's stories:

Norman Jewison's Jesus Christ, Superstar (1973) was controversial when it came out in Broadway-- Christ singing rock? Nowadays you hear "I Don't Know How to Love Him" in many a '70s compilation discs (it used to be sung at masses).

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 driving out all the musty familiarity from your head. 

The picture was also charged with anti-Semitism, and I suppose you can see traces of 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 Life of Brian (1979) is easily the most sensible of Christ films--mainly because it uses humor to put everything in perspective. With all the hoopla about religious faith and the violence such faith inspires, what really matters (the picture seems to say) is have a bit of fun with one's partner, be kind to one another, and whistle when 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--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 (Rossellini's might come in second, Pasolini's third, Monty Python's fourth; some days the order might change or reverse itself). If anything, I love that everyone speaks like they come from Brooklyn and the Bronx; feels like Scorsese's way of personalizing a familiar story and telling it his way-- using his voice and language--and showing us that the whole thing still works, nevertheless.

It does or at least I think it does, thanks to Scorsese's inimitable visual style (which takes its cue from the desert's apparitions and heat mirages, turning Morocco into one of the most beautifully desolate settings ever for the struggle over human spirituality); Willem Dafoe's ferocious Christ (Dafoe rumored to be one of the best-endowed men in Hollywood, I like the idea of a softspoken Christ wielding a very big stick); Paul Schrader's plainspoken screenplay (which pares away much of Kazantzakis' purplish prose); and Peter Gabriel's eclectic rock score (which combines elements from, among others, symphonic, Egyptian and African music).

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 burden of being a messiah--of having been chosen by an inscrutable uncommunicative God.

At 300 million dollars in the 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 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, as if God were an old-school deity ready to demand blood payment. Besides being questionable theology, it's bad art--Gibson dwells so much on physical suffering that the sense of abandonment and despair Christ must have felt is left unexpressed. Narrowminded, simpleminded, bereft of humor or decent Broadway tunes, Gibson's torture porn flick is easily the most disposable Christ movie ever made.

(First published in Menzone Magazine, April, 2004)


Epoy Deyto said...

haha, I Liked the review!

I also love Python's Life of Brian, the best Python film ever. I'm still going to watch Pasolini's though.

Noel Vera said...

Belated reply: thanks.

I liked it a lot. The common consensus, though, is that Holy Grail was the best. I think Grail may have been the funniest. Possibly Brian resonates more with Christians/Catholics like me, perhaps you.

Anonymous said...

Hello. And Bye.

Noel Vera said...

Wait! If you have something nasty to say you're welcome to say it here.

Come back Shane!

Anonymous said...

This is horrible. Your counter arguments for saying this movie doesn't follow the New Testament are not sound just as much as Gibson's might not be.

I'm researching accuracy of details myself and know that you can not stand on your comments.

Author is anti-Gibson as much as the movie is anti-semitic.

I love the movie. Very moving for me and a reminder of all that Christ has done for us, physically, spiritually and mentally.

Noel Vera said...

Physically, oh yes. Throw in some leather and it's a different movie entirely. Actually it IS a different movie; what it lacks is the leather.

If you find anything in your research, you're welcome to post em, or links, or whatever. I like to think I am open to opposing views.

Steve said...

"...what Christ is all about--not that he died and was resurrected but that he endured superhuman torture for his sins"

Not his sins...our sins. The sins of humankind. The point (imo) of all the violence in "Passion" is/was to illustrate just how much God/Jesus was willing to go through on our collective behalf. The violence is there to drive that point home.

My biggest complaint with the film is a scene where the violence does NOT serve that purpose: I'm talking about the part where a crow attacks the thief on the cross next to Jesus during the crucifixion, strongly implying some sort of divine retribution for his smarting off. Completely sabotaged the point of the film.

Noel Vera said...

It's a matter of context. If you don't know the bible--and millions don't--then what was that guy up there onscreen being tortured for? Jaywalking?

Last Temptation, for all its flaws and fantasies, at least gave us the context under which its Christ operated under.

And Scorsese's film is not anti-Semitic.

Anonymous said...

"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)"

An androgynous Satan may imply that evil has no clear identity or manifestation. Evil lurks in all hearts, male and female, of all races. If Satan had been made fully male, couldn't one argue it's 'sexist' against males? If many liberal Christians insist that God is neither male or female, then the same must go for Evil.

As for Herod, he was very much a Romanized Jew--some say he wasn't even Jewish--, and the decadent style was very much an element of the privileged Roman society.

Also, if 'homophobia'--whatever it is as it seems anyone who opposes 'gay marriage' is hounded and reviled as a mentally diseased sufferer of some phobic virus--bothers you that much, shouldn't you point out that no culture was more anti-gay as Judaism? The Torah says anyone caught in the act of sodomy should be immediately stoned to death by the mob.
Jesus didn't reverse the teachings of the Torah but He emphasized forgiveness than punishment.

As for all this stuff about Christian 'antisemitism', so what's the big deal? All religions are intolerant of non-believers or heretics. Islam is anti-infidelite and calls for death to pagan peoples who won't convert to the faith. Judaism believes there's only one true God and all other gods are false idols, thereby goyim are filthy and unworthy to break bread with Jews. So much for tolerance.

Christian intolerance for other creeds is a direct outgrowth of Jewish intolerance. The Torah says that if a Jew worships any other god than the God, he should be stoned to death. So, the great irony is that the religion that grew out of Judaism became intolerant of Jews. Jews hated early Christians as heretics and persecuted/killed many of them. But when Christians became the new dominant force, they went after Jews as heretics. There is a kind of logic to it. It's like Trotsky used communist violence to gain power and kill ideological heretics, but when Stalin gained total power, he went after Trotsky and his followers as the heretics. One intolerance gives birth to another.

But something that most critics of Christianity doesn't mention is that Jews were NOT the main targets of Christian violence. It was the pagans. Pagan temples were destroyed all over Europe, a massive cultural genocide took place, and pagans who refused to convert to the Faith were often tortured and burned as witches. Why were Christians so intolerant? Because their religion grew out of the Jewish religion that said there is only one true God and all other gods are fake and must be held in utter contempt. Judaism was a virulently anti-paganite.

So, if we're gonna blame Christianity for intolerance, we must look to its root source: Judaism with all its anti-gay decrees and anti-pagan virulence.
But for some reason, kneejerk politically correct folks only know how to bitch about 'homophobia' and 'antisemitism'. Such sheep.

Noel Vera said...

Jesus! An apologist for Passion of the Christ? I thought you guys were extinct.

Noel Vera said...

Oh. Read your comment. Yeah, yeah, Judaism does have its barbaric elements. All religions do. I'm Roman Catholic myself, for the record; just don't like Gibson's brand of extremist Catholicism.

And boy, if I sound like sheep now, you should have seen how this was received then. Not my fault the winds of change blew this way.

radiohead said...

I missed the Cinemaone specials during Holy Week. Other stations usually airs "Himala", "Kisapmata", etc. thursdays to saturdays..

Do we have any good Lent-themed local film? Donita Rose playing a nun was all I can think of. Also, Matt Ranillo playing Kristo (and his daughter named K... =)

To anonymous, that's very enlightening. Just because the Jews started it, you're saying it's OK for a movie like The Gore Fest of Christ to be homophobic and anti-Semitic? Man, that's so backwards, where's the love?

Noel Vera said...

Religious themed Filipino films that are actually any good? Not Himala--that's a great film but I don't know if a lot of people actually notice that it's anti-religion.

Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos comes to mind--not directly so, but it does ask about God's intentions. Santa Santita. That's all I can think of, at least that I actually like, even love. Kristo is okay. For a religious country our classic films don't really go into Lenten themes.

To your very valid point (two wrongs don't make a right) I'd add that the Catholic church--at least the more moderate one that Gibson refuses to recognize--actually makes an effort to acknowledge its history of anti-Semitism, to apologize for it, and to issue guidelines on how to avoid this in the future.

No word yet if they'll ever change their policy on homosexuality, which is sadly outdated.