Thursday, December 25, 2008

Ah, these Jesus movies!

Okay, I'll say straight up that my favorite Jesus movie is Pier Paolo Pasolini's The Gospel According to St Matthew. This director was an atheist and a Marxist and yet his rendition is the most faithful, the most clean, the most respectful of its source material. His "Jesus" is passionate, angry, pissed off at hypocrisy....utterly prophetic in his holiness and his disdain of human self-deception and worldly hypocrisy.

After that is Jesus, based on The gospel of John. Not a bad flick and it touches me. It has moments of interfering teacherliness but not as much as others. It touches the viewer.

There is Franco Zefferelli's Jesus of Nazareth with the blue-eyed Robert Powell and the ultra blonde Michael York which has a very approachable Jesus. It's not Jesus as everyman, but Jesus is pretty human and yet manages to be holy at the same time. It's about eight hours if I recall. The problem with this one is that in order not to blame either the Jews or the Romans for the death of Jesus Zefferelli invents an evil Jewish bad guy out of whole cloth. Not necessary and it feels very odd.

There is The Passion of The Christ: It's pretty bloody. It didn't touch me because I pretty much knew it was bloody. Also, it is more Roman Catholic than Jewish. I would have much preferred seeing the Last Supper done as a Jewish Passover mean than to see it imitative of a Roman Catholic cleric. The Virgin Mary is also very Roman Catholic, her sexuality influenced more by St Augustine's issues than by Jewish sexual mores. So she is pretty virginal and untainted. And Jesus' brothers and sisters are nowhere in site. Like the rest of the Jesus films I'll describe it adds little bits to try to enlighten us but it's an interpretation that is sometimes iffy and a might sentimental and obvious. I mean: the depiction of Barrabas as a drivelling fool. What's that about? In the Bible Jesus Barabbas is a kind of proto-anti-christ figure: the one chosen because folks want strength, physical and worldly answer to their problems.

Among the worsts are The Greatest Story Ever Told. I totally don't know where to begin to disparage this ponderous boring monstrosity of pseudo-holiness. Okay, I watch it on the holidays. But that's because I like Jesus movies on the whole and in Christmas there is nary a word about Jesus in all these Christmas movies on cable... so better half a loaf than no bread. But the trouble with this is that it not only tries to teach people the meaning of everything Jesus says but that it truly gets some theology wrong. Jesus, for instance, preaches righteousness and is rather judgemental. It belabors certain points and brings in other sections from the Bible to teach flat-out homilies that just don't work. There is a kind of arrogance in the film where it's clear the screenwriter thinks it's best to replace the words of the gospel with his interpretation of the words. This is why I hate paraphrased Bibles: sometimes they totally change the message and the theology by their changing the words. So Jesus ends up saying pious comments that show that the screenplay doesn't understand the gospel of grace, or that he thinks the audience won't understand. And it is so obvious that Max Von Sydow doesn't "get" Jesus as a person but as a kind of walking pious spouter that one cringes. Not to mention the weird sub-plots they have to add. Okay, I won't even talk about the casting -- okay, I will: what's up with that black Simon of Cyrene? If having Sidney Poitier help to carry Jesus' cross is to say that we black folks are bearers of god's truth or some other civil rights aren't-they-a-holy-people-issue, honestly it just makes me cringe.

Okay, to mention weird sub-plots, the worst Jesus move has got to be King of Kings. I'm not saying all these stories don't have a moment where they touch me. But honestly, King of Kings is so utterly "creative" in its sixties adaptation/interpretation of the Bible that well, if it wasn't for Jeffrey Hunter's hotness I'd turn the channel. This is one seriously homoerotic Jesus, too, and it certainly makes a girl wonder what the heck was going on between those disciples. It's kind of like sword and sandal meets religion. Every time I see this one I want to get the DeMille silent version.

There is also the Passover Plot which is based on a book written by a Jewish writer who decided that Jesus planned a passover plot and well, the rest is history based on deception. I won't even go into the mechanics of what being crucified does to the body much less the idea that someone who has suffered blood loss and trauma is going to revive in a cold airless grave guarded by temple guards then have twelve of his disciples (and more if we include all the women) go to death and suffer being burned in oil rather than give away the secret.

Jesus of Montreal is utterly stupid and tries to show that Jesus was really the illegitimate son of Mary and a soldier named Panthera. Okay, it's an old insult against Mary that has been proven false. First: Panthera and Parthenos are words that sound alike. Parthenos means "the virgin" so with bad production or --purposeful snideness-- Jesus the son of the virgin easily becomes Jesus the son of Panthera. Second: We all know that when we want to belittle someone we get nasty. Instead of saying simply that Jesus was the biological son of his mother when she was married to her father, folks go out of their way to belittle his parentage by making his mother a whorish frolicker with a licentious roman soldier. Nasty. And I won't even go into the fact that he's depicted as vaguely mentally-disturbed.

Upshot? If you want to see a Jesus film and if you don't mind subtitles, seek out Pier Paolo Pasolini's The Gospel According to Matthew. It's odd filmmaking and it's made by a Marxist atheist...but it's the purest depiction of Jesus ever made in a film. God's words, and only God's words. No prancing half-naked lusty women in beads for miles around. And yeah, one totally gets the feeling that Jesus rose from the dead. Unlike some of these other films which tend to spiritualize it or psychologize it or simply remove it from the context at all.
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