Saturday, October 14, 2006

Celluloid Saviours: Five Fave Jesus Films

A "Jesus Films" thread over at the
IMAGE Journal conversation
led to these musings. Never can resist a list…

Hasn't been widely seen yet. Screened at Sundance, where it was very well received, and recently I saw it at the Vancouver International Film Festival, where I saw both showings, I liked it that much. Developed by the South African theatre company that ran "The Mysteries" in London for two years, SON OF MAN sets the story of Jesus in contemporary Africa, which lends it a strongly political tone: I was reminded often of Clarence Jordan's "Cotton Patch Gospels." My theological friend said it was "very sophisticated," theologically, and riffed for a while on Rene Girard and the film's distinctly Johanine theology of the cross. I chimed in that it is very sophisticated aesthetically. There are some more musings, though not yet a full review, here.

Yes, the hype was off-putting. I try to make it a point not to be swayed by the mob, either joining in or reacting against, but it wasn't easy with this one. My stubborn resolve not to read more than a few paragraphs about a film before I see it (or watch anything on tv) probably helps. At any rate, this one really shook me. Aesthetically, I thought there was a bold, gothic artistry to the imagery of the film, real boldness in the use of original languages, a strong commitment to a unique vision. That it neglected the pre-passion life of Christ was no more a complaint for me than it is with Bach's St. Matthew Passion: there's a long tradition, isn't there? And something to be said for dramatic compaction. Personally / spiritually, the film had an immense impact on me: a film after which I really had no desire to talk. I dread seeing it a second time. And can't wait. Some things should be dreadful.

Equally controversial to Mel's messiah movie. I loved the way the film put me on the edge of my theatre seat, trying to discern if this truly was the son of God, if the film was heresy or holy. Loved the moment when I realized how much that stance put me in the role of the lawyers and the Pharisees, looking for something I could hang a charge on. I heard lots of PASSION fans praise that film because it was the first Jesus movie with a convincingly harrowing execution: they could only have said that because they boycotted THE LAST TEMPTATION.

I was underwhelmed when I saw it in theatres – the demythologizing really pushed my buttons, and I found the resurrection metaphor limp. But I rewatched it recently, and saw it for the densely wrought, subtle, endlessly inventive marvel that it is. And, as with SON OF MAN, I revel in its theatrical sensibility.

What a smart, biblically literate, gorgeously crafted screenplay. (From Murray Watts, the long-time Riding Lights playwright – again that connection to live theatre.) And so carefully composed, visually: who would think you could glory in the mise en scene of a play dough Jesus flick! But the meticulous attention inherent in 3D modelled animation means every frame, every sequence, every scene is shaped with incredible thought, and there is a three-dimensionality to the visual space (think of those tracking shots through Capernaum) that creates an extraordinary sense of reality, because of, not in spite of, the film's choice to eschew mere realism. Maybe there's something about the inescapable physicalness (earthiness?) of shaping the son of man out of clay? Or the way this specific medium subliminally causes us to become as little children? that lends it a surprising cumulative emotional power.

I also appreciate Zeffirelli's JESUS OF NAZARETH, Pasolini's THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO MATTHEW, GODSPELL, JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR (though I couldn't get past my preference for the original recording, and the movie it inspired that had already been playing for some years in my imagination by the time Norman Jewison got around to putting his less impressive version on celluloid), and Godard's admittely strange HAIL MARY.

One avid film fan whose movie sensibility has proved uncannily close to my own (smart lad) over the years of our internet friendship is Matt Page, whose particular enthusiasm is for Jesus films. As well as creating a blog featuring tons of really helpful Jesus film resources (including an index of 25 Jesus films referenced to the source passages in the four gospels), Matt recently launched a monthly podcast (subscribable through iTunes) featuring not only erudition and balance, but also a plummy Brit accent! The inaugural October cast focuses on Zeffirelli, with Pasolini promised for November – and, I'm guessing, Castle-Huges in December?

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