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Christ Films: the Gospel According to Monty, Martin, Denys, Pier Paolo & Mel     Shirley Goldberg

Canadian Humanist - Summer 2004


One of the most memorable sequences in all of cinema occurs early in Ingmar Bergman's haunting quest for God, The Seventh Seal. It takes place in a time of irrational fear, the Middle Ages when the Black Plague was raging across Europe and age-old superstitious practices, like witch-burning, were on the rise. For the moment, a couple of traveling players have lightened the mood of the villagers by setting up a crude stage and offering a Comedia del Arte performance. But suddenly the sky darkens, the cheerful music is drowned out by a doom-invoking Dies Irae, and all the faces turn in horror to watch a procession of black-clad penitents trudge by in a cloud of dust and incense dragging heavy crosses and flagellating themselves.

A similar mood swing has been invoked for many this past Easter season by the arrival of Mel Gibson's appallingly brutal, medieval and sadomasochistic Passion of the Christ. It settles into one's consciousness like a leaden weight. Nevertheless, the film has been a genuine media phenomenon - perfectly timed for the dissemination of Gibson's anachronistic brand of Catholicism, badly timed for the health of the world. Fear and insecurity are on the rise globally. The Bush administration in Washington - with strong support from 'born again' Christians - is forecasting an endless war against terror, and by its disastrous choices is effectively insuring the accuracy of that forecast.

The astounding appeal of this uninspiring, non-redemptive version of the Passion is to those who have already bought into Gibson's worldview to the true believers, the potential true believers and especially those who have been frightened out of their senses by the books and films of the Left Behind series. In the early days of Passions release, television news programs showed tearful crowds stumbling out into the real world so choked with emotion they were unable to speak. Ticket sales topped the box office charts, church attendance soared, the sale of Christian books went up and people bought thousands of crucifixion nails to wear around their necks on leather bands. Meanwhile anecdotal stories circulated about fatal heart attacks in the theatre, conversions and confessions of long forgotten crimes.

In an era like this with a variety of fundamentalisms on the loose, the world certainly does not need to increase the number of people who believe we are living in the 'end time' and consequently need to concentrate on personal salvation rather than work together for social recovery. Nor, at a time when the acceptable level of brutality in warfare and military occupation has risen, does the world need a film that inures people to the infliction of pain and the violation of the human body. Nor at a time when anti-Semitism has been rekindled, does the world need a reading of the crucifixion story that fans the flame.

By fixating only on the last twelve hours of Jesus' life and depicting in vivid detail and slow motion - the most graphic rendition possible of his prolonged torture and death, Gibson has made what Maureen Dowd of the New York Times has rightly called a sacred snuff movie." Obviously there are many ways to spin this myth, and there is no 'right' version. Gibson's Passion has at least had the useful effect of stimulating a re-examination of the narrative itself one of the most powerful in our culture - and the ay in which it has been used and misused in film. 

In the following discussion, I'll be looking at three films dealing with the life of Jesus that are generally acknowledged as the best, giving special attention to their choice of source material, handling of the anti-Semitism issue and to their privileging of the human versus the divine - the moral versus religious teaching. The historical facts of the story are sketchy, and two millennia of history have helped to shape its current construct - in fact, far more than two millennia since the concepts of crucifixion and resurrection reach back through the mists of time to the ancient myth of the scapegoat and to the fertility rituals of death and rebirth, redemption through sacrifice. 

Traditionally, the basic outline of the story has been drawn from the first four books of the New Testament, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, which were written between 70 and 100 CE (40 to 70 years after the death of Jesus). In that interval Rome had crushed the Jews laying waste their temple and much of Jerusalem. Consequently, most historians now believe that the authors of the Gospels were under pressure to put the blame for the crucifixion upon the Jews, rather than upon Rome in the person of Pontius Pilate where it belonged. The teaching of Jesus was a threat to the established order of both occupier and occupied. Although historians of the time speak of Pilate's cruelty and his readiness to put people to death without trial, the Gospels give us a picture of a thoughtful man who engaged in discussions of the nature of truth and who wanted no part of the decision to crucify Jesus. Consequently the guilt has fallen upon the Jews and lies at the root of historical anti-Semitism. In Matthew one of the priests even proclaims that the guilt will follow their children forever.

Speaking of Gibson's Passion, Elaine Pagels, noted scholar of history and religion, has reasoned, "the more benign Pilate appears in the movie, the more malignant the Jews are." Gibson has ratcheted up the extremes, portraying Pilate as a vacillating, conscientious governor who does not want to declare the death sentence, but who nevertheless - for the sake of civil peace - turns Jesus over for judgment to the stereotypically hook-nosed Caiaphas and his repellent band of sadistic fellow-priests, while the androgynous Satan floats freely amidst the vicious crowd which is presumably Jewish.

In Vatican 11, 1965, the Church recognized and took responsibility for this traditional vilification of the Jews and decreed that henceforth the subject of Christ's Passion would be handled with care in order to unteach the lesson that had been taught all too well for the past two millennia. However, the extreme Catholic splinter group to which Gibson belongs rejects the teachings of the Second Vatican Council. Gibson's father, Hutton Gibson, is a well-known Holocaust denier, and Gibson himself- when pressed to comment on his father's position has responded equivocally.

Make no mistake: this is a reactionary, faith-driven, highly personal film. Not content with the limited visceral details in the gospels (with three referring in a single sentence to the scourging of Christ and the fourth not at all), Gibson turned to the gruesomely embellished mystic visions of the German Augustinian nun Anne Catherine Emmerich (17741825). All in all, his claim that he has told the story "as it was" has to be met with skepticism.

Gibson has identified himself with the right wing politically, and most of the films that he has either acted in or directed have contributed to the current culture of violence. His recent starring role in The Patriot rejects the option of pacifism in a democratic society. Braveheart and others, with the recurring theme of the sadomasochistic brutalization of the protagonist, have culminated in The Passion of the Christ.

What does the popularity of this film say about the society that produced it? David Walsh (World Socialist website, 4 March 2004) relates it to the rise of fundamentalism and sees it as revealing the "depth of the crisis of American society... But what does the growth of evangelical Christianity (and its specific Catholic variant) represent, if not primarily a concentrated ideological expression of the increased confusion and disorientation of considerable numbers of people in the US." Significantly he speculates that the film will not have the same effect in Europe. Nor - I would add - in Canada.

Although the individual gospels are slanted differently, most filmmakers have - like Gibson - cherry-picked from all four. An interesting exception is Pier Paolo Pasolini's The Gospel According to Matthew (1964), which with some condensation - draws every line of text page by page directly from that single source. Stuck in a hotel room overnight with nothing to read except the New Testament in his dresser drawer, Pasolini found himself fascinated by the Book of Matthew and decided to push all his other projects aside in order to film it. What makes the story even more interesting is who Pasolini was a poet, filmmaker, atheist, Marxist and homosexual. At first the church was shocked at the idea of such a man telling the story of Jesus, but they needn't have been. Perhaps because he was an outsider, a non-believer, he was able to evaluate and envision his subject more objectively. Many consider The Gospel According to Matthew the most austerely beautiful and faithful version on film.

In spite of his literal approach, Pasolini put his personal mark and the mark of his society upon the work in many ways. He downplayed the theological elements like the miracles and the crucifixion - often by the use of long shots. He rejected the use of Saint in the title (although that has crept back in the English language version). Like Matthew he stressed the human values. Throughout the film, Jesus urges his disciples to go out and disseminate his teachings, but not to refer to him as the "Son of God" always the "Son of Man."

Significantly, he chose the style of Italian Neo-Realism which had flourished from 194552, using black and white film, natural settings, eye level shots, hand-held camera, long takes, little editing, non-professional actors - all designed to give the effect of an unembellished documentary and to conceal the artistry of the filmmaker. His frail but mesmerizing Jesus was a Spanish college student, majoring in economics. His own mother played the role of Mary during the Crucifixion. And the rest of the cast was selected from the peasants and townspeople in an around Matera, a depressed area of southern Italy where he shot the film and where Gibson, forty years later, shot his. Today of course we are struck by the hidden artistry of the film, especially the way the black and white cinematography heightens the visual patterns.

Pasolini's film also has the most inspired soundtrack of all, combining Black American Blues - Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child - with Bach's St Matthew Passion and traditional African tribal music, including the Missa Luba Mass all for the purpose of underscoring the universality of the story.

Politically the neo-realist style was particularly appropriate because the great neo-realist directors (De Sica, Rosselini, Visconti), working in the social and economic chaos after the war, were Marxists, and of all the gospels Matthew is the most concerned with the plight of the poor and the most angry over the materialism of those in power. As a result, Pasolini's Gospel can readily serve as a manual for liberation theology.

Although he does include the infamous line from Matthew: "May His blood be on our children," Pasolini in other ways defuses the racial guilt. His Jewish priests wear tall, weird, bulbous hats more like those of Catholic bishops of a later age. In his handling of the trial, he suggests that the political and religious establishments, almost as an abstract entity, inevitably had to condemn Jesus. Perhaps it is significant that Pasolini, the atheist, dedicated the film to Pope John XXIII who was responsible for the Second Vatican Council with its ameliorating decree. In merciful contrast to Gibson's version, the execution is handled quickly, bloodlessly and mostly in long shot or with the camera turned away. Jesus is unblemished and Simon carries the cross much of the distance. The crowd does not cheer they are mostly Jesus' followers and mostly in mourning.

Martin Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ (1988), based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, was again like Gibson's a highly personal project, one Scorsese had dreamed of making and had sought financing for over a period of fifteen years. Shot in Morocco, it is also a film of beautiful images. Like Gibson and Pasolini Scorsese has made much use of Christian iconography, paying homage especially to Giotto, Mantegna and Bosch. By contrast, Gibson's instruction to his cinematographer was to make all of the Passion look like a painting by Caravaggio which he accomplished to a striking degree in his colour palette and full, flowing, circular lines.

Although Scorsese touches upon the whole story, his focus is the enigma of Jesus as both human and divine. His Jesus (brilliantly portrayed by Willem Dafoe) struggles throughout the film between his human desire to lead a fully realized human existence and his growing awareness of his divinity and tragic destiny. Wracked with doubt and uncertainty about whether to believe his inner voices, he fights to reject the responsibility of being the Messiah and is dismayed by the success of his miracles. When his disciples ask him why he must die on the cross, he answers: "I don't know. My father only tells me a little bit at a time."

Sitting inside a circle he draws in the desert sand, he is tempted first by a talking serpent and then a lion. Even in his last hours, he is tempted by a ringlet-haired Florentine angel to climb down off the cross to return to the world, marry Mary Magdalene, have a family and live to a ripe old age. However, after this highly controversial, twenty minute fantasy, he returns to the cross and accepts his destiny. 

The Last Temptation of Christ takes little interest in the secular aspect of Jesus and his revolutionary teaching. Working out of a religious sensibility, it offers an intense metaphor for the human condition - the struggle between good and evil, as well as the struggle to believe in something transcendent. These are themes that Scorsese and his scriptwriter Paul Schrader have dealt with again and again in their work both separately and together, work that has dealt, like Gibson's, primarily with violent people in a violent world. Although Scorsese's personal obsessions are far easier to relate to than Gibson's, they come out of a similar religious nexus and the same devolving American culture.

It is interesting to note that while Pasolini's Jesus has been taken entirely from the Book of Matthew, which is probably the most humanist of the gospels, Scorsese and Kazantzaki's Jesus seems to have been inspired primarily by the Book of John, which Elaine Pagels describes as the "most spiritual gospel." As the one that was written the longest after the death of Jesus, it is also the one that comes closest to the canonized version of the story, which evolved between the 2nd and 4th century ce. Unlike the other three, it sees Jesus as God in human form. It is the most anti-Semitic and most strident against non-believers. Also, it's the only gospel that includes the miracle of Jesus raising Lazarus - the one miracle that is hardest to reinterpret metaphorically. Whereas the other three gospels position the overturning of the tables of the moneylenders in the temple as Jesus' last act before his arrest and trial, John (as well as Scorsese) makes the Lazarus miracle his final act. In one case, Jesus' revolutionary action against the corrupt civil establishment brings on his fate; in the other his supernatural powers threaten the religious hierarchy.

Pagels has offered the intriguing theory that the more codified religious nature of John may reflect the fact that it was written at about the same time as - and in refutation of- the apocryphal, heretical, humanistic Book of Thomas, which in turn has provided inspiration for my own favourite Jesus film, Jesus of Montreal (1989), directed by Denys Arcand, Canada's premiere filmmaker as well as a radical intellectual working from a moral perspective. This modernized version is a response to the problem of searching for ethical standards to live by in a glitzy, commercial age in which nothing is as it seems. Religion, rendered meaningless by the dogma and hypocrisies of the organized church, needs to be reinvented. Arcand engages the biblical story on two levels. First there is the passion play which had been running as a summer tourist attraction in Montreal for 31 years and which the actor Daniel Coulombe (Lothaire Bluteau) is hired by a Catholic priest, Father Leclerc, to modernize - to freshen up for a contemporary audience. On the second level Daniel - who takes on the characteristics of Jesus - seeks out actors/disciples and forms an intentional community that also becomes another telling of the story.

Father Leclerc gets far more than he bargained for because Daniel bases his reinterpretation on radical new concepts resulting from the extensive research and rethinking that has taken place since 1945 with the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Codices in Egypt. These Coptic translations of 1st and 2nd century ce Gnostic scriptures had been excluded from the official New Testament as heresy, and as one reads the Book of Thomas, it is easy to understand why. It presents a totally non-hieratical model of community with complete equality between people, especially equality of the sexes. And it makes no claim for the special divinity of Jesus. According to Thomas we all carry the divine light within ourselves, and it is strictly up to us to find it - without benefit of rules or rituals. The advice Thomas offers is in cryptic koans far closer to Eastern teaching than canonized Christianity.

The elusive picture of Jesus that emerges from these ancient, suppressed documents is of a young man who lived simply but fully, danced, loved women, treated them as equal, and was familiar with the esoteric traditions of the East - a teacher who had found the divine light within himself and had a gift for inspiring others - a political radical who challenged both the Roman occupying powers and the corrupt, compliant rabbis who helped to maintain the occupation. Drawing upon other aspects of the historical investigation, Arcand pushes the heresy a little farther and has Daniel advance the theory that Jesus was the bastard son of a Roman soldier.

The contemporary metaphors of Jesus of Montreal have a unique wit and relevance. In his search for actors, Daniel finds his Mary serving food in a soup kitchen and Magdalene in flimsy costume modeling for a perfume ad inspired by a Kundera novel. She's accustomed to being treated as a bimbo, but Daniel sees below the surface. One of his male actors is currently employed doing voice-overs for porno films (a hilarious sequence), and the other is recording the narration for an NFB documentary on the Big Bang theory. While stunning images of galaxies waltz across the screen, we listen to our latest Creation Myth, after which the actor explains to Daniel that, of course, this is just the current theory - it could be completely revised next week. These little bits of profound recognition fly by so unselfconsciously in this marvelously rich film that one can only imagine how much better off the world would be if as many people had coughed up their cash for Jesus of Montreal as for Gibson's Passion.

When Daniel's passion play becomes a hit, he is invited to the top floor of a magnificent glass corporate tower where he is tempted by the devil in the guise of a slick lawyer in an Armani suit offering him all the rewards that the entertainment world can give him - including a spot on the Letterman show. His challenge to the power brokers is subsequently represented on two levels. He gets arrested for overturning tables and smashing expensive electronic equipment at a casting session for an exploitive beer ad aimed at young people in which the director is demeaning to the actors - especially to Daniel's Magdalene. Also, despite the immense success of his passion play, the church finds it totally unacceptable. When they send police to shut it down in mid-performance, the crowd gets angry, a riot ensues and the heavy cross falls on Daniel giving him an ultimately fatal concussion.

However, Arcand adds an interesting touch the injury was not necessarily fatal. After the crowded Catholic hospital where he is first taken fails to give him any attention, he is taken to a Jewish hospital where he is rushed immediately into surgery but it is too late. Considering all the research that Arcand has obviously done in writing this script, I can only imagine this small effort to correct the balance must be a sly homage to John XXIII and Vatican II.

After Daniel's death, his transplanted organs become a metaphor for either the miracles or the resurrection. His eyes give sight to a woman who has been blind, and his heart gives life to a man who would have died. Remember too that in Scorsese's film, Jesus took his heart out of his chest and offered it to his followers. Also after his death, Daniel's disciples get involved in a project to found a theatre in his name and dedicate it to the kind of work he believed in. On that small, ironic note, one can envision the beginning of the process of canonization.

The concept for Jesus of Montreal is brilliant - as is the dialogue, the flow of ideas and the multiple possibilities of interpretation. In addition, it is a gorgeous spectacle making full use of church music, art and architecture as well as the vistas of Montreal from all the Stations of the Cross on the mountain. It's one of those rare film experiences that satisfies on all counts intellectual, aesthetic and moral. The euphoria lingers, in contrast to the stark mood of depression brought on by The Passion of the Christ.

What is really needed to combat Gibson's encouragement of medieval fundamentalism is a flat-out purge - like Monty Python's Life of Brian, which is conveniently being reissued. It's a total send-up of the sheep-like need people have to find a leader, the way irrelevant items get converted into sacred relics, and simple speech gets misinterpreted and reinterpreted into nonsensical dogma. And of course, it's specifically a send-up of the Jesus myth, but all in such a flood of comic imagination and sublime silliness, it is hard to imagine how anyone could be offended.


Shirley Goldberg is a free-lance writer, film critic and film programmer. She is retired from teaching English and Film Studies at Malaspina University-College. Shirley is a regular columnist for Humanist in Canada.


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