Three Great Religious Films Not Involving Mel Gibson and/or Anti-Semitism
Written by Bwog Staff
School’s back in session and the economy’s in the tank. These are two simple truths. Now, plunged back into our workloads and faced with the utter futility of our studies, the lack of a bright tomorrow (though maybe a bright next-decade), it’s easy to despair.
Well, despair not, because this week Bwog presents three films to put some old-fashioned religion into ya. Or at least to keep you anesthetized and away from your word processor for a few hours. Enjoy.
The Last Temptation of Jesus Christ (1988):
Sandwiched between Raging Bull and Goodfellas is one of the oft forgotten gems of director Martin Scorsese. When Scorsese set out to fashion his vision, he pursued a line of thought that was utterly beautiful, vital, and thematically rich, but utterly blasphemous, persecuted, and ultimately rejected en masse. The resultant product was The Last Temptation of Jesus Christ, a stunning realization of Nikos Kazantzakis’ 1951 novel of the same name. The masterful Willem Dafoe portrays Jesus Christ with a human element beyond that which earned Kazantzakis a place on the Vatican’s index of banned books. Alongside him, Scorsese veteran Harvey Keitel plays the re-imagined Judas Iscariot, here the knowing and dedicated counterpart to a torn, but strong Christ. These depictions, in bulk, earned the hatred of the nascent Pat Robinson Christian right.
Temptation is not just a finger thrust high against traditional depictions of Christ and the burgeoning evangelical movement, though. Central to the movie is the duality of Christ as man and divinity and the rift that creates in the world around him. Dafoe (an actor not as blatantly attractive as Johnny Depp, but just as perfect a chameleon) creates a Christ so human, so schizophrenic and at times detached from his miraculous deeds, that the viewer is forced to become as Christ, to realize the fullest implications of a man-god existence. Meanwhile, Jesus struggles between the rage of the zealots and the love in his heart and against the human will to live (exacerbated by the temptations of Satan including visions of Jesus escaping the cross, marrying Mary Magdalene, and living a full and happy life) and the masochistic compulsion to die. Judas and Jesus form a bond so complete and organic, so exclusive, as to make the betrayal of Judas more potent and wrenching than the canonical tradition. The work of Keitel and Dafoe blends myth with form and in form the myth begins to touch us in a most unexpectedly personal way. Not to mention the sheer beauty of the harsh Moroccan backdrop and the chillingly spot-on soundtrack by Peter Gabriel. One of the greatest treatments of the Christ paradox, Temptation is ultimately a religious opus, a work of such weight and introspection that any spiritual seeker must consider it.
The Mission (1986):
In The Mission, director Roland Joffe eschews the delicate embroidery of Temptation and its spiritual introspection, replacing it with sheer, unadorned beauty. The film opens with a dead priest in the jungle being nailed to a cross by natives and then let loose on a river. Crowned with thorns, the Jesuit flows down the river until he reaches a waterfall and plummets over the edge, falling as a twig against the massive and untamed nature around him. This is The Mission, the discussion of the beauty of honest faith and the conflict of confusing faith and the mortal world as conveyed by images alone. Each shot in the film is so breathtaking, so stunningly complex and choreographed into an emotive waltz of religion and state that I cannot believe a person could watch it passively. That being said, I must disclaim that those viewers concerned with plot and continuity will not fall as madly in love with this work as I have. The simple energy of the film and the absolute power of the mural it paints, flowing across reels, makes The Mission what it is: a powerful image of purity and contamination and an image that begs to be viewed, despite slight imperfections.
Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979):
What’s religion without a spot of humor? The Buddha told jokes and even Christ may have been a kidder by some accounts. Granted, Monty Python’s Life of Brian conjures up more humor and social critique than it does religion, but nonetheless, after The Mission and Temptation, I’m sure the Python is a welcome zinger/respite. Oddly enough for its levity, Life of Brian faced a level of criticism similar to Scorsese’s Temptation. Granted, the threats never reached the same level, but the film was likewise panned with protest and snubbed at the box office. Yet similarly, as tempers have cooled, Life of Brian has arisen (as Jesus did, but Brian did not) after three decades (awe shucks, not days?) to a place of stature among comedies and British cinema in general.
The beauty of Life of Brian lies in its characteristic Python humor (being, after all, a product of the writing, acting and directing of the Python team) as well as its plot’s graceful parallels to standard depictions of the life of Christ. Admittedly, Chapman is not my favorite Python boy, nor do I find the bulk of the humor particularly inspired or sophisticated (as was, one might argue, Monty Python and the Holy Grail), but the punch-lines are delivered with impeccable timing and just the right dash of over-accent for a blatant farce. Something as juvenile as the name Biggus Dickus becomes a well-spun running joke and Pontius Pilate’s lisp doesn’t wear out its welcome either. And all the while, the absurdity and farce Brian’s Judea is accented by the two appearances of Christ in the film (in the manger and on the mount)–the ultimate foil of grave and high against bumbling and groveling. But Brian as a character is not really the foil. Brian is compelling and enduring–capable of being Christ, but without the parentage or message to realize his ability. Instead, this absence of divinity in an otherwise reverence-worthy man and the farcical fate it creates, this is the foil element between Jesus and Brian. At times the parallels to the modern conflict in the middle east and the low-blows at religious orthodoxy become trite and overstated, but Python’s Brian is irresistibly watchable, whether he likes it or not.