Jesus Christ Movie Star
For those who missed it in the not-com version of TIME — the magazine — here's my review of that brutal and powerful film about Jesus Christ....
Sunday school may have taught them the words of the Gospels, but for millions of children, Hollywood provided the pictures. They were pretty pictures: stained glass in motion, from the First Church of De Mille. Handsome men — their beards neatly curled and trimmed, their robes immaculate — trod on tiptoe through a Judea as verdant and manicured as Forest Lawn. They may have represented Israelites of two millenniums past, but they often looked Nordic; God must have had blue eyes. And they spoke the King's English: King James', with an assist from any screenwriter willing to gussy up his fustian. In these prim tones, the heart's revolution that Jesus preached became an Oxford don's lecture, and his ghastly, redemptive death a tableau painted on velvet.
Mel Gibson's first achievement in "The Passion of the Christ" is to strip the biblical epic of its encrusted sanctimony and show biz. It takes hard men to work this Holy Land, men who labor under the twin burdens of poverty and the oppression of Roman occupation. Their clothes are dirt-dry and sweat-drenched. By jolting the viewer to reconsider Hollywood's calcified stereotypes of the New Testament, Gibson wants to restore the immediacy of that time, the stern wonder of that land, the thrilling threat of meeting the Messiah on the mean streets of Jerusalem.
Any Jesus film with violence is bound to roil some people. But the film's carnage is emetic, not exploitative. The crowning with thorns, the scourging at the pillar, the agonized trudge up Calvary show what Jesus suffered and why; and James Caviezel's spiky, ferocious, nearly heroic performance is a perfect servant to the role. This is not a movie for all believers — or for all moviegoers. But it is, nonetheless, a believer's movie. Gibson believes in the power of Jesus' message. He believes in the power of cinema to rethink traditions, to make Jesus live in a skeptical age. And those willing to accompany Gibson on his dangerous ride through the Gospels may believe he has created his masterpiece.
I didn't write this review last week about "The Passion of the Christ." I wrote it in 1988 about Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ," changing only the names and the movie title. In manner and method, the two films have much in common. In theology and box office, they're worlds apart. "Last Temptation": liberal, condemned by conservative Catholics. "Passion": conservative, condemned by liberals, agnostics and many Jews. "Last Temptation": boycotted by religious groups, defended by the major studio that released it, earned $8 million in its entire run. "Passion": boycotted by major studios (little Newmarket released it), defended by the faithful, earned $23 million on its first day.
Just between the few of us, I'm written out on the Gibson movie. I did a review in the magazine ("The Goriest Story Ever Told"), which was maybe the only mixed review the film got. And I wrote about some of the attacks on Gibson and his "Passion" ("Holy Hypocrisies") on this web site. In the day since that was posted, I've received more than 150 e-mails, the vast majority of them with subject headings like "Thank you," "Well put," "Bravo," Kudos," "Amen, brother," "Loved the article!" and "wow." Most of the notes cheered me for pointing out what reader David Tuggy called "the deep intolerance of the professionally tolerant." And while any old leftie is naturally squeamish about being praised by cultural conservatives for attacking those usually on his own side, I am surprised by and grateful for the e-mail, and take this opportunity (in lieu of individual replies) to thank you who wrote in.
And now, allow me to baffle or anger my new flock by getting to today's subject: a simple, informative survey of a dozen or so film biographies of Jesus, noting particularly how their depiction of the Messiah's conviction and death compared with Mel Gibson's. The alleged Messiah is once again hot (in the more attractive sense of that word), and readers may be helped by these scattershot notes on other examples of the genre. All of the films, including "Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter," are available on video and/or DVD from amazon.com. Let's get to it.
FROM THE MANGER TO THE CROSS , 1912
Here is the first major film on the Jesus story, and probably the earliest feature-length film — 1hr.12min. in its restored version — made in America. Directed by Sidney Olcott (who made 18 other shorter films that year) and written by its Mary Magdalene, Gene Gauntier, the picture was shot in Palestine and Egypt. One charming shot shows Mary and Joseph sitting in front of the Sphinx. Virtually every shot is a static scene, a tableau, illustrating the intertitles.
Like Gibson, but 92 years before him, Olcott uses a blue filter for the Holy Thursday night scenes in Gethsemane. The Passion section, which consumes the last 14 minutes, has no more juice than the rest of the film. Back then, of course, directors didn't have access to the fake-blood squibs and other effects of today's gore artists. (The blood Mel used was fake, wasn't it?) Remember, too, that in 1912 film was in its infancy; that D.W. Griffith and others were still creating the medium's visual vocabulary and sentence structure; and that, for most Christians and lots of non-Christian moviegoers, "From the Manger to the Cross" was not simply a novelty. It was, in cinematic and possible religious terms, a revelation.
THE KING OF KINGS, 1927
Cecil B. De Mille, a preacher's son but with some Jewish ancestry, had scored a titanic hit with "The Ten Commandments" in 1923 — to its time, the top-grossing film after "The Birth of a Nation." Four years later, the extravagant auteur went from Old to New Testament. Another hit, thanks to De Mille's showmanship and expert marketing, and a color sequence for Easter Sunday, with Jesus surrounded by enough doves for a John Woo movie. "The King of Kings" played around the world for decades after it was released, until the proselytizing efforts of the Church of the Nazarene managed to put the 1979 film "Jesus" (with Brian Deacon as the Christ) in towns and villages all over the world. Except for the Bible, it is probably the most visible tool of missionary propaganda.
In the book "Spectacular! The Story of Epic Films," the elegant historian Carlos Clarens (using the pseudonym John Cary) gave a fair evaluation of "King of Kings": "De Mille's version of Christ was a fundamentalist one: H.B. Warner was indeed 'a sweet Jesus, meek and mild,' and this time sheer reverence held De Mille in check. There were a couple of zebras drawing Magdalene's chariot, and the earthquake that follows the crucifixion was as stunning as the Red Sea parting, although virtually thrown away.... De Mille's sincerity was on a par with his stern ruling that, during production, the actors portraying the Christ and the apostles refrain from drinking, gambling, cussing, night-clubbing and even having intercourse with their wives."
In the 1hr.52min. edition distributed by Kino International, 48 mins. are devoted to the Passion and Resurrection. As Clarens notes, the De Mille signatures of gigantic sets (a 30-ft. eagle statue in Pilate's chambers) and special effects (in the earthquake a man grabs at a rock that breaks off and carries him to a crashing death) take a back seat to the hallowed story and processional pace. H.B. Warner's Jesus is in the gaunt El Greco mode; the scenes are essentially brisk illustrations of the Gospels. Nearly all the dialogue and narrative intertitles are from the Gospels. The exceptions: a few that mitigate supposed Jewish guilt for Jesus' death. Magdalene: "The High Priest speaketh not for the people." And a Pharisee, at the end: "Lord God Jehovah, visit not Thy wrath on Thy people Israel — I alone am guilty."
KING OF KINGS, 1961
Samuel Bronston reinvented the epic for the '60s. Actually, he exploited the popularity of other people's late-'50s Biblical spectacles ("The Ten Commandments," "Ben Hur") to acquire financing for grand frescos of national heroes ("El Cid") and collapsing monarchies ("The Fall of the Roman Empire") in smart, stately films from screenwriter Philip Yordan and ace auteurs Nicholas Ray and Anthony Mann. Ray's "King of Kings" has Jeffrey Hunter, who was gorgeous and effusively manly in "The Searchers" a few years before, as a Jesus with star quality to spare — which the original must also have had. In orange hair and what looks like portable Nativity-color underlighting, Hunter is such an erotic slab of beefcake, he turns every Messianic agony into an ecstasy.
The film, though, has a strange, stately calm, an antidramatic tone that the melodramatic music tries to vivify. The Passion scenes (about 40 mins. of the 2hr.40min. film) lack wallop, especially in comparison to the hammer-on-nail-through-flesh-into wood impact of the Gibson film. The raising of Jesus' cross, a big moment in any Gospel film, is shown from above — a God- or pigeon's-eye view of the crucifixion. Count on the pictorials to keep you awake; watching the movie is like having someone thumb, slooooowly, through a book of religious art history. The film's last shot, after Pentecost, shows the fishermen leaving their nets in a string on the beach, and the long thin shadow of Christ bisecting it, to form the final image of the cross that symbolizes Jesus' sacrifice for humanity.
THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ST. MATTHEW, 1964
Gibson has snorted his derision over the two earlier Jesus films that have earned the most sustained critical acclaim. Asked a year ago by TIME correspondent Jeff Israeli for an analysis Pier Paolo Pasolini's "Il Vangelo secundo Matteo," (The Gospel According to St. Matthew) he faked a big yawn. Of Martin's Scorsese's "Last Temptation," he said, "You've got Harvey Keitel as Judas saying" — and here Gibson shifted into a Brooklyn accent — "Hey, you ovah dere." Maybe his was just dissing his strongest competition. He knew that these films were closest to his, in setting, rigor, power and bloodshed.
Seen when it opened, the Pasolini film was a tonic shock: a low-budget black-and-white pastoral Christian film, worlds removed from the elephantine variety of Hollywood's Biblical epics, made by an atheist Marxist homosexual. "The Gospel" seemed stranger in light of Pasolini's later work, which grew more sensational, culminating in the 1977 "Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom," which transposed de Sade to the Nazi era.
Pasolini said he responded to the literary brilliance and narrative propulsion of the Matthew gospel. He made the film, in part, to show that the greatest story ever told was, among other things, a great story. His dark-haired, dark-eyed, unibrowed Jesus (played by Enrique Irazoqui, a Basque Jew who, like the other performers, was not a professional actor) spits out the parables and prophesies with a brisk ferocity, like a union organizer with a spiel to finish before the end of the lunch break. He is testy with his inquisitors and abrupt with his Apostles. He's a man-God in a hurry to fulfill his mission. Sooner dead, sooner resurrected.
Thus, in the 28-minute Passion segment of "Il Vangelo," does Jesus stride to his death, across the same countryside (Matera, in Puglia, near the heel of the Italian boot) where Gibson shot much of his film. And the mob rushes after him. One screams: "His blood be on our children!" This is the phrase, implicitly condemning Jews for the murder of Christ, that Gibson said he removed from his film. (Turned out, he removed only the subtitle for the Aramaic translation of the curse.) We leave for another day the debate over whether a film is anti-Jewish if it repeats a line swathed in 18 to 20 centuries of Gospel tradition. Anyway, in the Pasolini film, with Italians chasing Italians, the curse seems one not of race or religion but of clan. Besides, Pasolini, a poet before he was a filmmaker, would be unlikely to excise a controversial line