Sunday, 8 April 2012

Easter Special: Visions of Jesus and Theology

Whatever one's religious stance is, there's no denying that Jesus kicks ass. Filmmakers have taken quite a few different approaches to him during the years. While some may want to be iconoclastic, it's strange that so few films want to present him as he truly was; dark-skinned, ethnically middle-Eastern man. Instead, most films draw from the Medieval European representation of the character. Also what varies is what message he's preaching to the crowd and how it is received. We take a look at four different versions, just as there are four gospels. But I do feel that the message could be summarized in two words: Peace out!

The Life of Brian (1979)
Director: Terry Jones

Clearly the most respectful representation of Jesus on film makes him little more than a background character. But he's also clearly a force that's working in the background, coming up in people's conversations and affecting their acts. It's a contemporary film, you know. The Monty Python group famously disagreed among themselves about how blasphemous their biblical comedy should be. But eventually they decided that rather than attacking religious symbols, their film should be about the religious followers and how wrong they get even the simplest of message of loving your neighbor wrong. The film's first sketch after the opening credits features people mishearing Jesus speaking about how the meek are the blessed ones, and take it to mean the cheese makers. The titular Brian (Graham Chapman) does hear the sermon right, but doesn't really take it to heart. When he later tries to save his own skin, he masquerades as a prophet and tries to get the message he's heard across to his pursuers. The listeners start to think of Brian as the one true Messiah even though they don't understand a word he's saying.

Jesus appears only briefly in the film's two first scenes. In the second, he's giving his Sermon of the Mountain.
This is quite a thoughtful message for a film that's designed to be first and foremost roll-on-the-floor funny. The result is one of the best comedy films ever made. But still Malcolm Muggeridge and a bunch of other narrow-minded people of course attacked the film severely blaming it to be blasphemous and confusing the comedy character of Brian with Jesus even though they both appear on the film. One might even think that they might not have seen the film at all. As a result of the controversy, the film was banned altogether in Norway.

But wait? Preaching about the power of love, and the dangers of putting greed and the self-perceived moral superiority before it? Trying to make corrupted religious leaders to see the error of their ways? Having to endure a shit storm because of it as well as a what was meant to be a public humiliation, but turned out to bring out the power of the words tenfold? Monty Python seems to have their equivalent in history after all.

Ex-leper: "Half a dinare for me bloody life story?!"
Brian: "There's no pleasing some people."
Ex-leper: "That's just what Jesus said, sir!"


Godspell (1973)
Director: David Greene

If another portrayal of Jesus should have earned as big a controversy it would have been this musical that attempts to bring the Gospel to these hip young urban people of today (or rather, the early 70's). The attempt is equal parts a musical and a clown act. As a result, Jesus is cast as a skinny hippie with a huge jewfro (Victor Garber). I know he's supposed to be from a class of citizens the most of society looks down on, but this is ridiculous.

Yup. He looks like this for the whole movie.

Running through the streets of New York, Jesus and his apostles play out the various stories he used as parables to his teachings. Too bad the clown group does them the most obnoxious way possible, clowning around with exaggerated faces, gestures and silly voices. The end result resembles one of those well-meaning acts touring around Elementary Schools that attempt to make Public Service Announcements cool, but instead just raise distaste and repulsion. One starts to hope all the hippie apostles could be crucified at the end of the film as well.

But several scenes in the film are so insane as to make the whole thing worth it. In particular the one where Jesus talks to the huge monster representing the Pharisees and Judges is memorable. Also the beginning scene where John the Baptist (or is it Judas) gets the apostles together from their mundane jobs, which ends in them digging up scrap at a junkyard is totally outrageous. During the course of the film, the director forgets whether the players are just playing out the stories of the Gospel straight to the viewers, or attempt to film the life of Jesus. But the songs themselves aren't too bad and the helicopter shots of 70's New York are interesting enough. As a musical, this has rightfully been forgotten under such contemporary pieces as Jesus Christ Superstar and Hair.

Jesus: "Did I ever tell you I used to read feet? Some people read palms or tea leaves. I read feet. Look what it says! Ahh, it says 'Rejoice.'"

★ 1/2

The Milky Way (La voie lactee, 1968)
Director: Luis Buñuel

Luis Buñuel's classic pilgrimage film isn't all about Jesus (altough he does appear here and there, played by Bernand Verley), but it is all about religion. The ambitious film looks at various Catholic dogmas and studies theology in sequences taking place at various points in time and space. Buñuel doesn't attempt to be blasphemous, and declares at the closing credits that the entire film's script being from either the Bible or old theological books. Nevertheless, he can't resist the temptation of allowing his images tell a little of his own thoughts about each subject. The way in which he brings old texts to images is very much his own.

At surface level, the film is about two down-on-their-luck pilgrims, Pierre and Jean (Paul Frankeur and Laurent Terzieff), in the modern day taking a walk to see the relics at Santiago de Compostela. Along the way, either they have supernatural experiences and travel back in time, or their imagination pictures the historical sequences as they happen. All of them seem to deal with some sort of heretics who have abandoned the old dogmas and come up with a reasoning leading to the development of new ones. Fransisco Aranda sums the six catholic dogmas that awaken hereticism as the following:
1) Jesus is both a God and a living human being at the same time.
2) The trinity: God has three different forms at the same time.
3) The wine and bread at the Holy Communion turn into Christ's body and blood.
4) Jesus being born straight from the Holy Spirit without sex being involved.
5) Humans have free will, but God has a preconception of all their deeds.
6) The nature of evil; why God allows evil if He hasn't himself created it.

Jesus can appear at any time level of the film, often talking with his apostles about the dogmas and correcting their errors in his own mystical way. Buñuel's film is of course, groundbreaking. The interest in the piece as a whole depends on how interested one is in these representations, how familiar one is with these leading religious disputes and how willing the viewer is to open up with a film that's more an essay than a coherent story or even a string of episodes. Buñuel's unbelievable courage to do whatever he wants, his sense of humour and his colorful imagery do make the film interesting even if the viewer wouldn't agree to meet all these conditions.

Jesus: "No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon."

★★★ 1/2

Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter (2001)
Director: Lee Demarbre

Lastly, we have an exploitation film that has little to no interest in Christ's teachings and theology. It utilizes Jesus as a character purely because of his recognizability and his reputation as a troublemaker as much as a peacemaker. Abraham Lincoln may have a similar big-budgeted re-imagination lining up this year, but truly outrageous exploitation needs to be done with zero budget and a lot more ideas than they have money for.

After a group of lesbian vampires that can walk in daylight start wrecking havoc, a punk rock priest prays for Jesus to makw the second coming. And Jesus does, but he soon finds out that his old tricks, crosses and holy water can't handle the vampires alone. So he starts to attempt to become modernized, cutting his hair and beard off and changing his style in clothes. He gets help from Mary Magnum (Maria Moulton), and later from the Mexican Saint himself, the wrestler El Santos (sic)! Jesus needs all the help he can get in his attempt to stop the evil Dr. Praetorious (Josh Grace) before he can figure out how to make the vampires even stronger with his genetic manipulation, and allow them to take over the world.

The power of Christ compels you!

So, it's another high concept fan film, where the budget is minimal, the acting atrocious and sets non-existent. But there's still plenty of fun to be had with the total goofiness of the concept and the makers taking the idea and running with it. The different ways with which vampires can be killed for instance get interesting variations. A bathroom scrap which sees the fanged ones get stabbed into heart with a plunger stick and that utilizes one poor soul taking a crap but never missing a beat in vampire-killing is pure silliness gold. It seems the film is mostly a parody of the Blade films that attempted a similar approach at the time. This approach works as it brings out how silly this over-serious, vampire killing kung fu action reaching for coolness on surface level, actually is. Jesus is also treated more or less with respect, with him having a nugget of wisdom or two about the situation at hand. One also has to love a film about Jesus that ends in a Caddyshack -style group party where everyone is promised to get laid!

Jesus (about lesbians): "There's nothing deviant about love."

★ or ★★★★★

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