19 May, 2006

Lives of Jesus: films

Pier Paolo Pasolini, dir. The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964)
George Stevens, dir. The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)
Franco Zefirelli, dir. Jesus of Nazareth (1977)
Martin Scorsese, dir. The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
Mel Gibson, dir. The Passion of the Christ (2004)

Leaving my office this afternoon, in the 100-degree heat, for the last time before we leave for the summer, I heard the campus carillon chime out the tones of Big Ben; soon, dear city, we shall be with you once more. We leave tomorrow, for over two months. Posting will be reduced, but still existent. In fact, I will take the opportunity to write about some of the obscurer reaches of my London book-collection, so watch this space. For now though, a most unreligious topic, surely: Christ biopics. My previous post here on written biographies of Jesus.

Mrs. Roth and I blandly debated the relative merits of this crop. We both favoured Gibson's vision, but she chose Zefirelli for his star, Robert Powell, whereas I preferred Stevens for his film's classical monumentality. It is a relief to say that all five versions were as different as could be expected, a rich hoard of competing interpretations. The first two remain the polar visions. Pasolini uses the Italian countryside, untrained actors, silence, with dialogue largely of teachings, grainy monochrome, a beaten, rustic quality to his cinematography; Stevens uses the canyons and deserts of Utah and Arizona—and this is quite obvious, an incongruous setting for Galilee—mixed Hollywood talent (including Max von Sydow, Telly "Kojak" Savalas, and a hilarious Charles Heston as John the Baptist cum Samson: "I have orders to take you to God!"), silence, with dialogue largely of American BigScreenisms, glorious technicolor, and a statuesque setting for every scene—I marveled at the perfect figural arrangements, like a Raphael, and the slow, framed solemnity of each shot. Stevens' actors, especially Sydow, speak as if they're on Valium; his Jesus seems impressively uninterested in the evangel, which matters little, as the apostles flock anyway to this least charismatic of Saviours. Mrs. Roth intensely disliked the sluggishness and poor acting of this version, but I was entranced.

Robert Powell is really the only thing to recommend Zefirelli's laboriously overliteral mini-series, which insists on spelling out every last detail of Christ's life. James Mason and Laurence Olivier thesp it up in minor roles—Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, ie. the Good Jews. The rest of the film is also pretty halfhearted and mechanical; but Powell, despite a nebulous start, soon ups the smugness factor and hooks you with those limpid eyes of his. He's sufficiently smug that when he's actually crucified, you can't help but smile.

Willem Dafoe, meanwhile, turns fire and brimstone for Scorsese's ludicrous Last Temptation, which at least makes some effort to get into the thick of Roman Israel. Thus we get a frenzied, ascetic Baptist, with initiates thrashing around ecstatically in the water, quite the opposite of the serene pleasantries of Zefirelli's John, or the Herculean athlete offered by Heston. Harvey Keitel, apparently here only to complete his mission of being in every Scorsese flick, offers a Noo Yawk Judas quite at home in a sea of Noo Yawk Judaeans. Mrs. Roth remarked on Scorcese's handling of Lazarus as a horror-movie, the undead hand lurching into the frame for that added 'boo' factor. The post-cross sequence is risible, frankly, and I don't want to dwell on that here.

So much has been written about The Passion that I won't reiterate all the controversies. We find the anti-Semitic accusations laughable (the New Testament, after all, is anti-Semitic); and we both enjoyed the rich language, of which I understood most of the ecclesiasticized Latin and even a few fragments of the Aramaic. The scourging scene is notoriously graphic—at one point the soldier's flail embeds itself in Christ's back, and a yank sends visible pieces of Jesusflesh flying. The film as a whole is undeniably very lovely to watch.


Each film had something to recommend it; but none was the New Testament. It appears impossible now even to put Christ on film without interpolating the entire history of Christian tradition. As Auerbach made very clear in the first chapter of Mimesis, part of the literary power of the Scriptures (he uses the Old, but for our purposes the New follows a similar path) derives from their taciturnity—and in the unparalleled King James Version, archaic even in 1611, the odd turns of phrase and dislocated expressions give the work a very quiet grandeur, a 'still small voice' (compare the legion earlier and later translations of this phrase, 1 Kings 19:12, to realise the perfect music of this rendition). This is absent from all the films, though least absent from Pasolini's. Gibson's, in particular, is heavy with the carnality and sadistic violence of the Catholic Church—it's a fantastic achievement, the keen articulation of one aesthetic, mais ce n'est pas le guerre. Seeking a faithful interpretation is fruitless with this material; we are content to experience instead the religion of modern man.


Is it only a matter of time before somebody shoots all four gospels, beginning and ending with John, but the bulk in real-time four-way split screen (à la the awful Timecode)? It needs to be done.


Sir G said...

Conrad, my man, install RSS script on your site, will you, so that we can find your posts in our newsreaders without having to slog over here MANUALLY?


Dont care for any of them Jesus movies any more than I do for Jesus. Bernard is my man. :)

Sir G said...

There is also a great book on the translation of the King James version which enlarges on the discussion: it's God's secretaries by Adam Nicolson

Conrad H. Roth said...

LH: I prefer manual myself, I like the way sites look on the proper screen. As for Mimesis, it's a good book, especially the first chapters, but it is a little overrated; not the be-all and end-all of lit crit. It's impressive how much he manages with so few resources (holed up in Istambul with just some classic texts)--and the general approach is illuminating as 'literary philology'.

Gawain: I haven't read it, though I have read other books on the KJV. The best thing on that topic that I've come across is the opening section of Stephen Prickett's "Origin(s?) of Narrative", which shows that the KJV wasn't very successful at first (the Geneva Bible was initially preferred), and that the translators deliberately bent the rules/standards of English to create an idiom which 'stood out'.