Well, there are quite a number of Jesus films. The big productions based upon The Gospels are tough for me to sit through, to be honest - I'm not keen on story-line or narrative faithfulness. The spirit, tone or mood of the film; what it evokes in the viewer has always been far more important to me than the details of plot. Also, the film, ideally, should say something about the way we're living our lives today, otherwise, what is the point of Christ's example (if, in fact, his life is presented as such)? I remember attending the premier of Mel Gibson's The Passion of The Christ and being puzzled as to why Gibson thought Christ's lesson of compassion could be communicated by watching a man being pulverized for two hours. And how would a couple of hours - even days - of suffering compensate for the millions of years of brutality and ignorance man has inflicted on himself and the rest of the world? And has the world fundamentally changed since Christ was crucified, despite billions of so-called believers?
If The Jesus film doesn't address these rather fundamental questions is it simply more religious propaganda? Spectacle? Rarely are the Jesus films simply about faith - if they were they'd hardly be called such as faith as so many names. It's this questioning spirit, though, that draws me (repeatedly) to films like Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ and even Carl Dreyer's Ordet. But I'd be interested to see if anyone actually enjoys watching any version of "the greatest story ever told" and why they feel their favorite warrants repeated viewings.
I agree with you about Mel Gibson's film. Indeed, it produces the precise opposite effect of what is intended. Instead of empathizing with Christ's suffering, it becomes so preposterous and unrealistic that it's hard to suppress laughter. By the time Jesus is hauling that telephone pole to Calvary I half-wished Gibson had kept in the passages he originally shot but excised under pressure, where the Jews scoff and mock Him on the Via Dolorosa -- that, at least, has a taste of reality about it. But no-o-o. The one time Gibson keeps his anti-semitism in check is the one time when he should have stood by his principles.
I think anyone with any experience of the real world can imagine what the true story is -- if there's any truth to the story at all. The soldiers charged with trundling Jesus off to his crucifixion most likely had served on such details before. They could readily see that the last way to get the job done quickly and efficiently was to keep hounding the poor sunuvabitch every step of the way. I mean, after the first time he's fallen to the ground, wouldn't there have been somebody there who understood that you're not gonna get a condemned man to his feet by whipping him and spitting on him and laughing at him, when he knows that all that's gonna happen when he gets to where you want him to go is that you're gonna nail his ass to a cross and let him hang in agony until he suffocates?
We'll leave the Gibson film aside. It's pure shit -- well produced, but pure shit -- and not worth talking about at length. I feel much the same way about The Last Temptation of Christ. The Kazantzakis book has some tits, but the movie was made by guys who didn't really believe it in their hearts. So it should likewise be fucked up the ass.
Ordet is not, of course, a Jesus movie. It has that moment -- surely the Goddamnedest religious moment of these three pictures. But Jesus as a personage is something of an ironic -- if beatific -- spiritual conception, and he doesn't show up at all in his earthly, circumcised form.
Oddly, the best Jesus movies are the ones that treat the story with some degree of straightforwardness and reverence. The basic narrative is itself already fraught with ambiguities and questions. Why fuck with the material when the material needs no fucking with to make it interesting?
From my own, admittedly secular, perspective -- a perspective fortified by an upbringing in a house where Christianity was not only condemned but Jesus himself was denied as an historical personage -- I can approach the story with the same impartiality exhibited by Joseph Conrad when he undertook to analyze the English language.
To me, the essential story of the Old Testament is Jacob wrassling the angel (or God, if you will), and being renamed because God/the angel could not overcome him. Or, when I'm in the mood to contemplate the meaning of justice, the essential story is God fucking over the righteous and decent Job -- solely on a bet with the devil. But, then again, the Hebrew God proclaims and exults in his own anger and jealousy. Not a nice guy to share a pint with, not at all. And if you piss him off -- even without knowing what you're doing -- kiss your ass good-bye. You'll get the wholly fuck smited out of you.
On the other hand, the essential story of the New Testament is Peter denying Jesus three times before the cock crows twice. Yet Peter is the rock upon which the church is built ! Human imperfection -- and God's foreknowledge of that imperfection -- is built into the system at the atomic level. If God can charge Peter, who steps on his dick at the Moment Of Truth, with keeping the Keys of the Kingdom, then there truly is a chance for the rest of us. This is "catholicism" in the true meaning of the word. Not the "chosen people" of the Jews, not the "elect" of the Calvinist faiths, but a religion that is, at its roots, grounded on in-clusiveness.
I say this as one who believes no more in the religious divinity of a first-century Galilean Jew than I believe in the sainthood of Mickey Mouse. Figuratively, I'm willing to concede that Jesus, like everyone else, is a child of God -- when, that is, I'm frightened enough to believe that God exists in a personal form.
All this is by way of introduction to two films -- one a theatrical release and the second a TV movie -- about Jesus. Each of them just tells the facts, ma'am, and adheres more than less faithfully to the Gospels.
The first film is Nicholas Ray's The King of Kings. Jeffrey Hunter plays a surprisingly effective Jesus, especially when he runs through the beatitudes. There's the usual Hollywood horseshit, but the usual Hollywood horseshit is never absent in these religious epics.
But Ray's film is a positive field schwarze to Franco Zefferrelli's Jesus of Nazareth -- far and away the best Jesus movie of them all. Not only does it have a cast of giants in support, but it features wonderful performances in the two key roles -- Robert Powell as Jesus and James Farentino as Peter. Since, as I say above, their relationship is the single most "essential" part of the New Testament story, it's dished out here in a way that guarantees the film's success.
The "miracles" are discreet and powerful as well, and this picture has something going for it that none of the others has had the balls to lay out -- Jesus' back-and-forth sass with the Jewish muckety-mucks. Ever wonder why those old studio spectacles depict Jesus as a sweet-tempered guy who preaches peace and love and turn-the-other-cheek yet -- for some inexplicable reason -- irks people enough to get nailed to a cross? Growing up on these things I couldn't figure it out. What the fuck did this guy do to get everybody climbing on his ass?
Of course, the answer to that question -- not what did he do ?, but why am I not being told what he did ? -- is complicated. The film industry didn't earn big box-office in those days by offending people. And if you're a Jewish studio boss, you don't wanna show the angry Jesus, the revolutionary Jesus, the drive-the-moneychangers-from-the-temple Jesus, the suck-my-dick-you-Pharisee-assholes Jesus, to give any more ideas to a world where the best-educated country of western civilization had, only a few years before, devoted its time and energy to turning Jews into soap.
So Zefferelli's picture has this something new about it. Time and again we see various rabbis and Sanhedrin dwellers, pompous Sadducees and Pharisees, all fehrshpritzed in their black-and-white threads, try to get Jesus' goat with some new question, some bit of clever I-know-more-Torah-than-you-do palaver. Yet every time -- and I mean every time -- Jesus has an answer for them. Sometimes he lays out the answer in a gentle, polite and solicitous way. But just as often he leaves his victims with the nasty suspicion that he's shitting on them -- shitting on them in public, shitting on them in a way that is so vicious it cannot be put off merely as some sort of passive-aggressiveness. He makes them look like fools, puffed up bullfrogs who beg to have their egos punctured -- and get them punctured -- with surgical, scalpel-like exactitude.
This is not the same Jesus we've seen before. And, to tell the truth, we haven't seen much of him since. But it makes it easy to understand why Caiaphas would rend his clothes and the Sanhedrin would foam at the mouth in impotent rage. Dis guy hasta die!!
These are the fundamental questions that I look for in "the Jesus film". And until someone figures out how to make a movie from Borges' Three Versions of Judas, I'll look to Zefferelli's picture as the only one that's really worth a shit.
Oddly, the best Jesus movies are the ones that treat the story with some degree of straightforwardness and reverence.
I agree with you about reverence, but straightforwardness (if that's possible in a medium where slight of hand is the rule) ? Why? It's not a question of making an interesting film, but one that, in some fashion, illuminates his message and its relevance today. The particulars of his life always put me to sleep.
During the "controversy" over The Last Temptation of Christ I asked my secretary -- a Catholic and an impassioned church-goer -- whether she believed Jesus ever got laid. No! Whether he ever jacked-off. No!! Ever thought about pussy. No! Ever got a stiff dick. No!
So I asked what the hell he was sacrificing when he gave his life for the rest of us. I tried to explain to her that the Kazantzakis novel was not at all irreverent or irreligious. Unfortunately, my own coarseness and vulgarity prevented the message from getting across.
But when I talked to her at length about the Borges story -- the Three Versions of Judas I refer to above, a story that guts the heart out of Christian mythology -- I found her extremely receptive. She implicitly understood the point of The Greatest Story Ever Told and was readier to accept a complete theological overhaul of her beliefs than she was to accept what she thought of as Scorsese lessening Jesus into something mundane and pedestrian.
Borges did it in about five or six pages, the thrust of which is this: He contrives a fictional biblical scholar, who -- like perhaps you and definitely me -- could never understand why it is that Judas betrays Christ. While the New Testament doesn't treat him as charitably as Christian tradition does, one thing seems to be past arguing: At no time is Judas accused of not believing Jesus to be the Son of God, even when he rats him out. By the time he hangs himself he hasn't even bothered to spend any of the blood money. So it's unsatisfactory to suggest that Judas' act was done for material gain.
What's more, Jesus was rather well known already. He was delivering sermons on the mount, healing blind people and cripples, visiting tax collectors, talking in the street with Roman soldiers -- and virtually anybody who tugged at his robe, and feeding thousands of people. One might even suggest that his face was the most recognizable in Jerusalem.
So why, then, is it even necessary for Judas to point him out?
Borges' fictional exegesist arrives successively at his answers: First, Judas' own "sacrifice" is necessary to trigger and to give balance to the immense theological equation. It's vital that supreme good be matched alongside supreme evil.
But that explanation doesn't satisfy Borges' scholar-hero. He goes further: Second, Judas is the essence of self-denying Christian ascetic. He joyously sends himself to hell to guarantee the meaning of Jesus' life on earth.
But that explanation is no more satisfactory. So the scholar arrives, at last, at the one explanation that left even my secretary nodding her head in silent approval:
Third . . . when you compare the fates of Jesus and Judas, what do you encounter? On the one hand, Jesus spends an admittedly ba-a-ad day, gets scourged and hung up on a cross, where he gets speared in the side and dies following an afternoon of physical distress. Soon after, he rises from the dead, assumes a seat alongside the Godhead, and is worshiped intensely and devotedly throughout history.
But Judas' fate is that of the lowest of sinners. Dante puts him in the center of Hell, where Lucifer gnaws perpetually on his skull. His name is a byword for traitor. He's the worst kind of trash -- the informer -- despised in every culture, among every people, shit on without let-up till the end of time.
Which of the two -- Jesus or Judas -- made the greater sacrifice? Which of them can you say really took the sins of all mankind on his back?
Borges makes it clear:
"God was made totally man, but man to the point of iniquity, man to the point of reprobation and the Abyss. In order to save us, He could have chosen any of the confused lives that weave the confused web of history: He could have been Alexander or Pythagoras or Rurik or Jesus; he chose an abject existence: He was Judas."
The straightforwardness of the original biblical story already yields this much variety -- a variety confirmed by the theological squabbles of the many religious wars and debates initiated by those who claim to be doing no more than telling the story like it is. I'm no textualist. Any intellectual or emotional underpinning that works is sufficient for art to have its way with me.
But it just so happens that on this field of narrative I've been reached most successfully by artists who've done their work with that straightforward approach. Chances for embellishment are already built into the existing structure.
Why are you assuming that I mean embellishment when I suggest an alternative approach to the Jesus story? It's why I pointed out Dreyer's Ordet. And there are certainly other examples - The Passion of Andrei sequence, for example, in Andrei Rublev:
Borges did it (overhaul of belief) in about five or six pages, the thrust of which is this: He contrives a fictional biblical scholar, who -- like perhaps you and definitely me -- could never understand why it is that Judas betrays Christ.
I assume you didn't appreciate Judas/Keitel's "contract" on Jesus' life in the Scorsese film as the rationale for Judas' function and ultimate betrayal: "I'll kill you if you stray one inch from the path!" A cheap ploy, granted, but one that is completely valid. Why couldn't it be that simple?
I'm no textualist.
Nor is any really good filmmaker, in my eyes. I find Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew a fine straightforward (as straight as Pasolini could make it, anyway) version of the Gospel, but it comes from an artist of a distinctly literary background. He was a poet, essentially. I've often wondered why he didn't adapt the John Gospel, which is the most intriguing text. But he did say that his aim was to present the Gospel from the perspective of "a believer", not being one himself (though I think the St. Mark's Gospel is most amenable to film adaptation). But right away, we have a multiplicity of readings inherent in Pasolini's version. Then there's the question of what he chooses to include or leave out. Meanwhile, what is Pasolini's thematic intention, overall? The textual emphasis and/or approach -as people like Tarkovsky and Kurosawa have pointed out - imbues the narrative with a stasis that is deadly. For me, no "straightforward" version of The Gospel has failed to be a soporific.
And for me no version at all, straightforward or otherwise, has failed to be soporific -- excepting only Zefferelli's. And even then in the near two hours before Powell makes his first appearance the film has some deadly longeurs -- like the stiffness of the advice given by the three kings.
Perhaps only Bunuel has brought an interesting "reading" to the subject. But he wasn't telling the story, just dripping acid onto it.
Keitel's "contract" is vaguely related what Borges mentions in his story -- that de Quincey suggests, like a noted German before him, that Judas betrayed Jesus so as "to force him to declare his divinity".
Here. I dare you to fall asleep. Double dare ya!
It has a jackoff or two . . . but yawn . . .
(In any case, this version is a straightforward telling of the story.)
Who's slithering off to the weeds, now? :-)
I don't slither. I glide.