Sunday, August 28, 2005

Jesus! No, seriously, Jesus...


How precisely did a Mel Gibson Jesus movie suddenly become 'all that is right' on moral terms for American film? Most of the fuss has died down and I'm not going to kick at the flick because its too easy- most of it has been said on political terms, so-called moral terms, and damned if the evangelicals didn't get their teeth into it. And all that said, it will be a staple in Church basements (certain churches) for years, despite the simple's just another Jesus movie.

A bit bloodier, yeah. CGI laiden, uh-huh. And the Aramaeic was a unique touch, its not like a great deal of people are going to storm out of the theatre and claim that the Aramaeic wasn't like they remembered it in the old country (might be wrong there- a film critic friend of mine heard devotees grumbling about the autenticity of Liv Tyler's Elvish accent in one of the Lord of the Rings films). And it's still shot with Italian extras and costumes borrowed from Cinecetta, like most other Jesus films. And if you bring up the Utah Jesus flicks (King of Kings, Greatest Story Ever Told), true, they don't look like Cinecetta. They look like Utah.


There are ways to do the Jesus film in such a way that it doesn't look like a well intended Sunday school production, or like a sermon; Pasolini's "The Gospel According to St. Matthew" (or Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo if you want to be fussy) is beautifully done, the best instincts of a soon-to-be-excommuicated Italian Marxist working with neo-realist traditions. I didn't say it was a light flick, but it is well done and rather haunting, if anachronistic (Bessie Smith coming up on the soundtrack with a chorus of 'Motherless Child' is something else, but works rather nicely). And 'Jesus of Montreal' gets a little self-consciously artsy, but it's about that particular crowd and as such lets you see and feel on their terms. For all its faults (the wailing 80's Quebecois-pop soundtrack being high on the list), the depiction of the resurrection is a work of art.

A nice touch - the film veers towards melodrama from time to time and diffuses it instantly. A priest is caught early on in an obviously carnal relationship with an actress and they shrug it off. She says "This isn't a bedroom farce", and he says "I'm not really a good priest." And the story goes on without the finger-wagging gotcha moment.

You could go deeper than all this if you were bored or ambitious- some critics suggest that The Gospel According to St. Matthew is more about being an Italian Marxist and reading the gospels as a tract to collectivism (hey, I don't write this stuff, I write about it from time to time, ok?), and Jesus of Montreal can be seen more about the Catholic/Sinner battle in and around anyone dealing with the church in Quebec.

So before getting into the anti-semitic controversy around The Passion of The Christ, and the cynical (VERY cynical) marketing, and the blood, the strength of the convervative movement in the US and the impact of the first splatter Jesus film...two credits where credit is due:

1. An early scene with Mary, mopping up Jesus' blood in the background of a scene. It takes a few minutes to figure out what she's doing, you eventually see that she's been listening at the floor, finally freezing over a particular spot. The camera tracks downward through the floor into the holding cell of Christ. Its a gentle moment after a series of brutal ones, nicely observed, almost touching.

2. Gibson made his intentions clear. Gibson took flak for the fact that, rather than deal with the top 10 hits of Jesus' life (sermon on the mount, curing lepers, feeding the hungry, begging for tolerance) that he instead focused on the last 12hrs which were, as the bible suggests, kind of a downer. But at least Gibson didn't promise 'The Greatest Story Ever Told' or 'King of Kings', he starts the film with a quote about Christ suffering for humanity. The movie is about the suffering- Gibson saying 'Wanna see how bad it got? Voila.'

That said, I don’t think Gibson’s film was any more anti-semitic than a raft of other Jesus films. For that matter, I’m not Jewish. I won’t get hit by anti-semitic imagery in the same way. The Pharisees don’t come off particularly well, but they rarely do in such works, the usual dodge being that its not the Pharisees per ce that do Jesus in, but one or two nasty ones skittering around the edges. I don’t think Gibson’s smart enough as a director to be actively or even subliminally anti-Semitic. I don’t think he believes that the Jews in toto are responsible for the death of Christ. I think he believes that the guys with the beards in the tall hats killed Christ, like he remembers from those illustrated bible lessons in Sunday school. If he believes otherwise, it doesn’t come across in the film.

I do have a close friend who is a film critic, and Jewish, and he was more disturbed by the violence in the film rather than any anti-Semitic overtones, particularly the flaying scene, which is pretty explicit. Or…not? I’m not sure what this says about me, but I could deal with the flaying, it just felt like so Kayro syrup-based blood. There are a few horrible shots of the rasp taking skin off Jesus’ back, but most of it seems more geared to response shots- grimaces, Roman soldiers swinging and grinning. Gibson could have made it even more effective (horrible?) with less blood- good filmmakers will let your mind will fill in the blanks.

Note: I don’t own a copy of The Passion of the Christ, I haven’t done a frame-by-frame analysis, so if anyone who wants to send screengrabs and disagree, be my guest. And if you’re the kind to do that, you’re probably paid to do such things, and how do I get YOUR job?


Hitchcock did the old stab-and-switch properly in ‘Pyscho’, where you never see the blade enter Janet Leigh’s skin in the shower. I don’t care what you remember- rent the DVD or find one of the hundreds of published frame-by-frame critiques of the film and you will discover that you never see the blade touch Janet Leigh. And no, it wasn’t re-cut at some time in the 70’s or due to pressure from church groups or whatever conspiracy theory you’ve heard, the blade does not penetrate the skin. The MPAA censors at the time swore that they saw it, and Hitchcock submitted the same unchanged print 3 times, each time claiming he’d trimmed it, until it was approved uncut. I won’t say that Gibson’s quite smart enough as a filmmaker to get away with this subtely – the flay does land a few times – but to be fair, its more horrible by association than portrayal.


Want a legitimately religious film, at least as 'this is how people cope with religion' rather than a sermon? Try ‘Dead Man Walking’, which overplays its hand in one shot that almost ruins the flick (for those who haven’t seen it, I won’t reveal the shot that I dislike; suffice to say that a little Christ imagery goes a long way and it gets laid on thick). But director Tim Robbins is smart enough (or faithful enough to his subject) to end the film on a prayer, literally. It’s the same impulse that Gibson can’t quite manage. Robbins says “We are all subject to God and all prayers are heard. For example…” and leaves us fumbling for grace. Between our dreams and actions lie this world, and all that, echo chambered or not.


STAG said...

THIS coming on the heels of "Shaved Snizz". Cultural shock....

STAG said...

Oh, and very nice essay. makes me wonder what brought it on.

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