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Director/Screenwriter: John Michael McDonagh
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers.
John Michael McDonagh debuted as a feature film director with 2011’s wry comedy-thriller The Guard, which became the most successful independent film ever made in Ireland and clearly established McDonagh as a major new talent in the national cinema. Like many of the new wave of Irish filmmakers, including his brother Martin McDonagh and Conor McPherson, both of whom came from playwriting, and their forebear, novelist and poet Neil Jordan, John Michael’s talent has a highly literate, theatrical inflection that stands at odds with the mantras fed to modern film students. Calvary, his follow-up to The Guard, plainly declares itself to be no run-of-the-mill social-issues movie, even as it tackles some of the most pervasive and passion-stirring issues relevant to modern societies. Whilst the conventionally pretty cinematography drinks in the grandeur of Ireland’s rugged west coast, the drama is compact, even claustrophobic, befitting the film’s revision of an old and hoary theatrical event, one that used to tie together and define communities in festivals of religious fervour: the passion play. Brendan Gleeson, Irish film’s stocky Atlas since John Boorman made him a movie star in The General (1997), counters his lead role as the Falstaffian antihero of The Guard with a role here as Father James Lavelle, the priest of a small Catholic church in a coastal town. A cold opening sees Lavelle enter the confession box on Sunday as per his roster of duties. The man on the other side of the screen is silent for a moment, to the point where Lavelle is confused, but then the man says, “I first tasted semen when I was seven years old.”
Lavelle, startled, nonetheless utters the first in the film’s manifold self-referential quips: “Certainly a startling opening line.” The man querulously asks Lavelle what he means, and then informs him of his design. In revenge for the abuse he suffered as a child at the hands of priests, he intends to gain attention and make a statement by killing a cleric. Not a bad priest, mind, but a good one—Lavelle himself, whom he predicts will die by his hand on the beach in precisely one week’s time. Lavelle emerges from the confessional quietly shaken, but continues his holy duties without demur, alongside Father Leary (David Wilmot), a dim, rubbery poltroon of the faith. Lavelle reports the incident in abstract to his bishop, Garett Montgomery (David McSavage), and confirms he knows who the man is. The bishop tells Lavelle he’s free to go to the police because the man showed no sign of penitence and received no absolution, but Lavelle makes no move to do so. Instead, he picks up his daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly) from the train station. Sporting a bandaged cut on her wrist from a recent suicide attempt, Fiona has retreated from her London life to recover from the bleak depression that followed a break-up. Fiona has been in pain, however, since the death of her mother, the event that drove Lavelle into the priesthood, a move which Fiona felt was akin to being abandoned by him.
The week before the next, fateful Sunday thus sees Lavelle engaging not only with his wounded daughter, but also the denizens of the town, still hewing to an old-fashioned sense of the job as one demanding an active interest in their lives. Lavelle is not an old-fashioned priest, however. Thoroughly worldly and experienced in personal folly (he’s a recovering alcoholic), he’s up-to-date on all the modern perversities he and Leary hear about in the confessional (“Do you know what felching is?” “I do know what felching is, yeah.” “I had to look it up.”). This fillip of modern lifestyle was mentioned by one of their female congregants, Veronica Brennan (Orla O’Rourke), who’s recently left her husband, the town butcher Jack (Chris O’Dowd), in favour of pursuing erotic dalliances around town, particularly with Senegalese immigrant Simon (Isaach De Bankolé), a car mechanic. Because Veronica sported a black eye in church on Sunday, Lavelle sets out to find out who gave it to her. Jack blames it on Simon, and Simon takes umbrage to the point of flicking a cigar against Lavelle’s chest and threatening to beat him up for his unwelcome prying. Veronica herself tells him more politely to mind his own business.
Other people around town whom Lavelle ministers to, interacts with, or merely swaps jests and insults with, include Frank Harte (Aidan Gillen), a black-humoured, professionally cynical doctor who works in the local hospital emergency room, Mícheál (Mícheál Óg Lane), an altar boy who swipes communion wine and paints the coastline, and retired stock trader Michael Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran), who’s bought a nearby mansion with an ill-gotten fortune and now is stewing in a solitary, alcoholic haze of bile and self-regard. Lavelle also ferries supplies to an elderly American writer (M. Emmett Walsh) who lives alone on a small island off the coast. The writer is aging and asks for Lavelle to find him a gun so he can end his days when the time comes. Lavelle does obtain a gun, from Police Inspector Stanton (Gary Lydon), who entertains a wise-cracking rent boy, Leo (Owen Sharpe). Does Lavelle intend the gun for the writer’s peace or for self-defence?
Ireland is a country wrapped up in a specific mythology that long since went international in fame and allure, one that’s both a blessing and burden for contemporary artists to work with. The last 20 years has seen both the boom of the “Celtic Tiger” and then the bust, and the ongoing exposure of the septic underbelly of the Catholic Church’s dominance of a society that might well be said to have swapped imperialism for theocracy in the 1920s, shaking up some of the most fetishized aspects of the Irish myth: poverty, religion, and detachment from modernity. Calvary’s essential conceit, mapped out by McDonagh in interviews, is the potent irony provided by setting up a good priest as the martyr for the bad ones in the context of an age when cumulative disgust can cause divorcement of the public at large from a once omnipresent institution. Calvary starts as a kind of deadpan situation comedy where the oddball assortment of characters and their helpful priest interact with barbed geniality. But as the film continues and deepens, jokey conversations quickly show real teeth, and Lavelle is quickly exposed to the level of real anger, contempt, and fear in the community, as cheeky humour gives way to purposeful mockeries and acts of licenced cruelty. Calvary’s title gives an immediate hint as to the oncoming stations-of-the-cross epic Lavelle is facing, his faith not so much tested as his commitment to his role in an age that doesn’t seem to care much for what he offers, even when he sees many proofs that his function is still needed, and especially when confronted by a seemingly imminent date with fate that demands affirmation of just how dedicated he is.
McDonagh bites off as much as any artist, literary or cinematic, could chew here. Indeed, the scope of his ambition almost feels anachronistic in an age of oblique independent films and buffed-down mainstream pseudo-dramas. McDonagh’s writing pitches itself on the outer verges of archness, as his carefully studied characters exchange knowing witticisms whilst not budging from their sharply drawn, almost caricatured postures—indeed, a couple of them, like Sharpe’s Leo and Milo (Killian Scott) never quite escape the realm of improv-theatre exercise. Milo is a young, bespectacled, bow-tie-sporting gent who’s considering joining the army to release sadistic fantasies provoked by his inability to get laid in his small and claustrophobic town. Lavelle derides his plan and suggests moving to a bigger city where “young women with loose morals” are in greater supply. The village is a stage that only offers a small roster of major players, each one charged with a certain relevance to Lavelle’s predicament. Those characters seem to be aware of the roles they are playing, inhabiting types they know are types. Harte, tiring of baiting Lavelle for a moment, mutters that “the atheistic doctor, it’s a clichéd part to play – there aren’t that many good lines.” “You really should talk you know,” Lavelle tells Fiona, “Let it all out.” To which she replies, “Like one of those shit plays at the Abbey?” McDonagh’s highlights his work’s postmodern, smart-ass tilt with a purpose that finally reveals itself by the climax, as the film reproduces with slippery awareness that way the characters hold life at arm’s length with humour and wryly stoic pith that the unknown nihilist seeks to violate with intimate anger.
Lavelle’s controlling viewpoint is a vital, subtle aspect of the film, as the increasing tension and darkness of his situation begins to colour every exchange, and every piss-take joke at his expense and provocation becomes more loaded. Historical abuses of the church, including Simon’s cool statement that “we’re not in the missions now,” are fired at him by several characters. Harte approaches him at the wrong moment with a bleak and horrifying anecdote about his early days doctoring in Dublin when he saw a kid left completely paralysed, blind, deaf, and dumb by an anaesthetist’s failure. The doctor suddenly plays the part of serpent in the garden, a satanic taunter armed with life’s dumb cruelty to goad Lavelle. The priest’s nerves have already been rubbed raw by a series of events, from finding his beloved pet dog with its throat cut to his and Leary’s church burning down. Whether these crimes were committed by his would-be murderer or others remains unclear, but it certainly seems that Lavelle recognises a common disdain for him. That disdain finds apogee when he encounters a small girl walking a laneway and chats amiably with her, only to have her father roar up in a car and furiously threaten him after bundling her away. Lavelle is confronted by the severed cords of trust and amity to which he’s supposed to be tied to his community, the assumption that he’s the force for good suddenly stricken and actively derided by Simon and publican Brendan Lynch (Pat Shortt). Lavelle responds by breaking his drinking ban, whereupon he gets pie-eyed and unleashes his own wrath on the publican by firing his gun off, shattering bottles. When he’s out of bullets, however, Lynch pulls out his own weapon, a baseball bat, and when next we see Lavelle, he’s washing a broken nose.
Calvary’s seriousness of intent reveals itself steadily, a palpable anger and mournfulness about the State of Things, but this is also a vitally funny film, with verbal comedy lethally sharp throughout. Lavelle’s conversations with his melancholic daughter are laced with a spiky, rhythmic style of humour that suggests their deep accord whilst also defining the toey, touchy space each maintains in their mutually therapeutic exchanges. The film’s comic highpoint comes when Lavelle goes to visit Fitzgerald at his house to discuss Fitzgerald’s proposed, large cash donation to the church for the hell of it: “That interests you doesn’t it? he asks, “It’s goin’ to be a black day altogether when the Catholic Church is no longer interested in money, huh?” Lavelle finds Fitzgerald, completely tanked, seemingly determined to make some sort of point to the priest as he waves airily at artworks that have cost him fortunes whilst decrying his wife, children, and servants, all of whom have quit him, and mentions his quasi-illegal financial dealings, which might be investigated but certainly won’t ever see him imprisoned. Finally, for a last piece of anarchic one-upmanship, Fitzgerald shows off his copy of Hans Holbein’s “The Ambassadors.” “I don’t know what it means, but I own it,” he notes, not recognising the weird smudge in the foreground of the frame is actually a carefully distorted skull that can only be seen through a special lens, a memento mori inserted into the original painting’s apparent celebration of lucid, scientific achievement. Lavelle finally loses patience with Fitzgerald and turns to go after berating him for inviting him over merely to tease him. Fitzgerald stalls his departure by saying he can piss on the masterwork he owns, and takes down the painting for that purpose. Lavelle retorts, “Why not? People like you have already pissed on everything else,” and departs as a stream of yellow fluid begins raining upon the masterpiece.
Whilst it could be said McDonagh’s epochal anger (albeit of a type many feel) is a bit obvious here, he’s made it, firstly, very funny and caustic, but also has contoured it into a drama that takes on a legitimate, even fundamental question facing most modern societies: as old faiths wane, what takes their place? In effect, who cares? What constructs tether a society together, beyond a mutually negative reaction? At its best, as McDonagh intends Lavelle to exemplify, the priest fulfils a holistic role that conjoins therapist, carer, interlocutor, concerned friend, public philosopher, and social worker, a contradiction to the modern world’s presumptions of specialisation that result in compartmentalisation. Harte can repair bodies, but has no feel for humanity; Fitzgerald is a member of a ruling class that no longer rules, but simply hoards and decays. Lavelle’s own outlook holds that his job is to provide “solace,” and later, at a crucial juncture, tells Fiona he thinks there’s far too much obsession with sin these days, and that forgiveness is underrated. This line isn’t given much weight but is very much the key to the film, and particularly the very final scene which portrays a stirring act of forgiveness and outreach that represents the triumph of Lavelle’s spirit. Lavelle reaches out to the cocky, provocative Leo, who cracks wise about his own sexual abuse by priests, having dealt with it in the utter reverse manner to the secret would-be murderer, by turning himself into an extroverted male prostitute.
Calvary has spiritual similarities with many studies of faith and commitment, particularly Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951), an evident influence on this film in the segmented vignettes of the torments and quandaries besetting both priest and flock. The film’s kin are also found in other studies in the martyr complex where the heroes find themselves faced with a choice between physical survival and moral success, from A Man for All Seasons (1966) to The Crucible (1996) and Hunger (2009). The latter film’s epic ethical argument between prisoner and priest in brusque, tart, Irish accents feels like close kin to McDonagh’s work, and though he lacks Steve McQueen’s gifts for alchemising his concerns into the raw expression of cinema yet, McDonagh remains clearer-headed about his hero’s confrontation with mortality. A sneaky piece of prefiguring sees Lavelle note two sketchy figures in Mícheál’s beach painting: Mícheál is bemused as to where they came from, suggesting they’re some kind of echo, but actually, of course, it’s presentiment. Otherwise, however, McDonagh steers far away from wrestling with the specifics of the material’s possible transcendental side. His concerns are worldly.
Calvary also resembles a thematic follow-up to Antonia Bird’s once-controversial Priest (1994), with its script by Liverpool Catholic writer Jimmy McGovern, which similarly set up a pair of committed, faithful, but unusual priests, one gay, the other a pulpit radical, to face the modern Pharisees. Calvary’s new prognostication of the ills the older films identified looks squarely at a time when doubt is a way of life, and presents the unusual notion of its protagonist as scapegoat and outcast in a society where he would once have been automatically venerated, or at least tolerated. McDonagh’s smart enough to understand why, too, whilst empathising squarely with his hero’s battered sense of commitment and humane interest.
McDonagh provides two deeply serious sequences that serve as pivotal moments, as Lavelle goes about the most important tasks before him as a priest and anchor the film and catalyse the darkening tone. The first comes with a very Dostoyevskian scene in which Lavelle goes to a prison to visit a former student of his, Freddie Joyce (Gleeson’s son Domhnall), who’s been imprisoned for life as a serial sex murderer. Joyce pathetically reports his desire to be hung in spite of the absence of a death penalty in Ireland, and speaks of fantasies about the afterlife when he’ll be reunited with his victims, purged of all his malicious urges, and begs of Lavelle an answer to the question of why, if God made him the way he is, he would not understand him. Lavelle answers with utmost consideration, “If God can’t understand you, no one can.” Later, he’s called to the hospital where Harte has lost his fight to save the life of a French tourist who was in a car crash. Lavelle sits with the tourist’s wife Teresa (Marie-Josée Croze) in a chapel, coaxing her through grief and doing his job’s ultimate function, acting as the midwife between states of existence, with unerring sensitivity. Lavelle encounters Teresa again at the point where his wavering resolve threatens to drive him from his town, and her deep gratitude and admiration arms him with new strength to return and face whatever fate has been allotted to him—to save a soul or give his life.
The way McDonagh’s distancing ironies and those of the characters’ are entangled might, with a less talented filmmaker, have caused too much friction against the material’s deadly earnest elements and considerations, but for the most part they work well in tandem, and with gathering power. McDonagh sharpens this to a beautifully nasty point when a man is shot after preaching detachment from the film’s vital central problem, followed by the shooter’s angry declaration, “Detach yourself from that!” The finale of Calvary is enormously powerful for precisely its invocation of this shedding of posture and confrontation with immediate reality, in terms of cause and consequence. More than that, it’s an unsparing climax that surprisingly validates not just the potential martyr’s feelings, but also those of the wrathful agent, who screams with a fury as natural and potent as the rolling storm swell crashing on the coast, “I was one of the lucky ones! There’s bodies buried back there!” McDonagh manages to complicate rather than polarise the morality inherent in the final confrontation, as the fury and pain of the would-be killer is depicted with such stirring force that it presents to the audience the possibility that not only Lavelle, but the audience itself is not so innocent, complicit if only by detachment from the evils that beset the world and dog others like demons. By meeting the challenges he sets himself with unremitting focus at last, McDonagh redeems his flaws and arrives at a genuinely compelling and relevant piece of cinema.
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Director: Cecil B. DeMille
By Roderick Heath
Legend has it that young film director Cecil B. DeMille arrived by train at a Midwestern location to shoot his debut project, The Squaw Man (1914), only to find a rainstorm was drenching the locale. DeMille decided to head on to the end of the line and film in the outskirts of Los Angeles, where some film production was already taking place and the climate was almost always favourable. The result of this miniature, comically fateful Exodus was the founding of another promised land, Hollywood, as America’s film capital. DeMille’s subsequent career all but defined the public’s idea of Tinseltown’s evolution from dusty backdrop to powerhouse industry, whilst his name became synonymous with what was, until the rise of special-effects-driven blockbusters, the biggest of cinematic genres: the costume epic. But DeMille, consummate showman, was always ready to change genres and modes when he sensed audiences were tiring of certain material. His original forte was sexy melodramas about temptation and punishment, like The Cheat (1915); later, he transferred the impulses he explored and exploited onto ostensibly more elevated material in religious dramas, like his first tilt at The Ten Commandments (1923) and The King of Kings (1927). DeMille was cunning, ardent, and hypocritical all at once: his parties had been the wildest in Hollywood in the ’20s, and he nailed down his audience appeal by flooding the eyes with sensual gratification whilst preaching in the ear.
DeMille’s best work usually made such clashes his subject, like the Christian martyr tale in The Sign of the Cross (1932), that gets the audience off on seeing faith tested with pleasures and terrors of the flesh that correlates this voyeurism with the sexual and sadistic impulses of Nero’s Rome. With films like Madam Satan (1930) and Four Frightened People (1934), DeMille tried to examine his audience’s fantasies in a more upfront fashion, with heroines desiring to transform themselves in liberating situations, but both flopped. So it was back to such self-consciously legendary historical films like Cleopatra (1934) and The Crusades (1935), and then, as he sensed post-Depression audiences were getting more parochial, equally mythical studies of U.S. history like The Plainsman (1936), Union Pacific (1939), and Reap the Wild Wind (1942). After WWII, DeMille, who retained such status he was Hitchcock’s only rival for audience recognition amongst directors, revived the religious epic with Samson and Delilah (1949), proving that on the cusp of the 1950s, the audience again wanted lush escapism mixed with a fine patina of supercilious morality. DeMille’s instincts proved prescient again as the historical melodrama, usually with heavy religious themes, found natural symbiosis with the new widescreen and Technicolor-blazoned super-cinema that Hollywood was using to retaliate against TV’s growing threat. Coming off one of his flattest films, The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) (of course, the one that gained him his lone Oscar), and 40 years after The Squaw Man, DeMille tackled, in his mid-70s, the largest and most ambitious of his epics, a redo of The Ten Commandments. At a budget of more than $13 million, it was the most expensive movie of its time and one of the biggest money-makers of any time.
The Ten Commandments is the sort of film that now tends to be appreciated with a smirk. With its blazing colour, stylised acting, florid dialogue, and commitment to telling its story in the most magnified and unequivocal of fashions, DeMille made a film that’s proved gold for satirists and camp enthusiasts ever since, and defined one ideal of old Hollywood cinema so thoroughly that everything that followed seemed like reaction. Wood for the trees, however; DeMille wasn’t trying to make On the Waterfront (1954), but its absolute opposite in stylistic terms, and it’s a version of cinema that demands much more respect than it usually receives. It approaches a defiant extreme in manipulation and sublimation of technique and human elements to the iconographic tale DeMille was telling, and yet, of course, DeMille’s take on Old Testament material is a version of a moral melodrama that reaches across the breadth of ’50s American cinema, including On the Waterfront, as a character hears the irrepressible call of his conscience that will lead him into a terrible power struggle.
DeMille’s achievement is close to what another silent cinema hero, Sergei Eisenstein, had managed with his Ivan the Terrible diptych (1946, 1959), tossing out the rules for realistic drama they had only half-heartedly played by since the coming of sound. Both men were surely remembering the likes of Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924) in turning past mythology into totalised conceptualism. DeMille’s reputation as a maker of big movies went further than his penchant for huge sets and large casts: every aesthetic element in them was rendered in an outsized manner. DeMille’s visual style was replete with a grand salon artist’s framings and arrangements of elements, as well as deep-focus shots emphasising space and physicality. His cultural armoury referenced Victorian genre painting, Wagnerian operatic staging, primitive and early civilisation art forms, cubism and art deco decorative and dance styles.
DeMille’s approach was perfect for portraying Old Testament myth for the benefit of mid-century audiences: the very anti-realism of it painted a palpable dream past where all-powerful deities casually part seas and god-kings battle with shamanic heroes for overlordship of humanity. The opening lays out DeMille’s iconographic talent in all its loud glory, his own inimitably stentorian voice reciting “Let there be light!” over shots of crepuscular-rifted clouds and perverse snapshots of massed slaves hauling monumental statues. Egyptian royalty and guards are arrayed like the friezes on tomb walls, as Ramses I (DeMille regular Ian Keith), scared by omens that proclaim the birth of the prophesised deliverer of his Hebrew slaves, is talked into massacring all their newborn. This slaughter is communicated with perfect economy in a dissolve to a dead-eyed mother sitting next to a cradle with a soldier, sword covered in blood, retreating from his murderous work. Yochabel (Martha Scott) saves her lad by setting him adrift on the Nile, and has her daughter follow his reed basket to make sure he finds a safe landing point. He certainly finds that, as he is rescued by Bithiah (Nina Foch), the Pharaoh’s daughter and a recent widow, and claimed as her gift of consolation from the gods. Exodus’ famously sketchy narrative until Moses, as Bithiah dubs him, leaves his gilded royal life to stick up for his people, is here fleshed out as a tale of adoptive familial strife. As a grown man, Moses (Charlton Heston) competes with Ramses (Yul Brynner), son of Bithiah’s brother Seti (Cedric Hardwicke), the next Pharaoh, for Seti’s favour.
Moses returns from war both as venerated patriotic hero and wise leader, having brought back the King of Ethiopia (Woody Strode) and his sister as allies. With Ramses having fallen behind schedule in building Seti’s “treasure city,” Seti gives the job to Moses whilst ordering Ramses to discover if the Hebrew messiah is alive, as the slaves hope. Ramses would almost be reduced to the Jan Brady of religious epics in contending with his cousin’s constantly recapitulated excellence, except that he’s so swaggeringly arrogant he scarcely doubts for a second that, sooner or later, his birth-imbued status will win out. Between them as a love interest is Nefertiri (Anne Baxter), dissemblingly referred to as the “throne princess” to disguise the prickly detail that she is Ramses’ sister and, as per ancient Egyptian custom, expected to marry her brother. Nefertiri’s preference for Moses is understandably unabashed. Moses’ innate decency almost gets him into trouble, however, as he’s appalled by the Hebrew slaves’ treatment. This comes to a head when Yochabel, employed as a grease layer to smooth the movement of enormous blocks of stone, is almost crushed; stone artisan Joshua (John Derek) saves her life by assaulting a foreman, and Joshua’s girlfriend, waterbearer Lilia (Debra Paget), calls Moses to intervene. Realising that the slaves are too malnourished and exhausted to work effectively, he has grain seized from priestly granaries to feed the slaves and gives them a day off each week. This allows Ramses to impugn his loyalty, but Seti is so impressed by the progress Moses makes that he declares him his heir.
Say what you will about DeMille’s boldface dramatic style, far from getting lost in pageantry and swagger or in religious and cultural vagaries, The Ten Commandments puts sketchy holy writ and gargantuan cinematic trappings at the mercy of immediate human drama. Sexual desire, jealousy, righteous anger, the nature of political might and worthiness of it, genetic versus emotional loyalty, family love, family hate—all are mixed together in a brash and muscular manner in the film’s first hour. Howard Hawks and William Faulkner blanched at the problem of what a Pharaoh sounded like, but DeMille and his battery of screenwriters charge right in with fake poeticisms and would-be arcane turns of phrase mixed with colloquialisms: one of my favourite moments tweaks the disparity, as Seti, listening to a litany of glorifying titles recited by a high priest, mutters to Nefertiri, “The old windbag!” In a manner so different to many modern spectacle films, the humans are never lost amidst the epic—quite the opposite in fact, as Seti’s city reshapes the world to reflect an individual’s ego back at him, something Seti himself is above but which Ramses is all too willing to accept as natural law. The dialectic continues through the film as Moses comes into contact with a greater power and uses it to pound that grand world back into clay. DeMille partly achieves this because his actors, particularly the titanic bodies of Heston and Brynner, are treated like landscapes in themselves. The two actors understand this well, playing with intense gestural and postural acuity that rapidly steps between the friezelike and the dancelike.
Moses’ journey from the very edge of his society to the centre and back again culminates in two murders, each an act of faith and love, but for sharply divergent ends. Nefertiri kills Memnet (Judith Anderson), Moses’ and Ramses’ former nurse, when she threatens to reveal Moses’ true identity to Seti, whilst Moses, when he discovers that identity, makes his first act of liberation the killing of Baka (Vincent Price), the self-indulgent governor of the slave town of Goshen, when he attempts to whip Joshua to death. Nefertiri kills nominally for love, but really to sate her own ego, whilst Moses does so not just to save a man, but also as a kind of declaration of war and identity. Nefetiri, initially merely a spoilt brat with a likeable streak of bravado, not so slowly disintegrates into an unstable egotist. Whilst beefcake masculinity covets the screen, Baxter’s gloriously arch turn as Nefertiri (all together now: “Oh, Moses, Moses! You stubborn, splendid, adorable fool!”) fits neatly into DeMille’s penchant for featuring wilful, transgressive women. She is indeed more complex than her predecessors and resolves in an image of tortured union as its own perdition. DeMille inverts the gender format of The Sign of the Cross as pagan tart tries to seduce adamantine man of faith even as Moses transforms into a prematurely wizened patriarch and enemy of the state. Whereas Samson and Delilah only works in fits and starts, as Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr failed to build the necessary over-the-top lust, Baxter keeps The Ten Commandments percolating on a level of erotic excess. She also gives the film jolts of impudent malice throughout, particularly in the second half, as Ramses’ confident alpha masculinity, expressed through his repeatedly stated intent to possess both Nefertiri and the crown, crumbles in the face of both Moses’ miracles and, worse, Nefertiri’s contemptuous jibes that fulfil the task of hardening Pharaoh’s heart via a process of relentless emasculation.
Downfall for Moses waits just around the corner, as Nefertiri hurls Memnet to her death from her balcony, and then meets Moses still gripped by a skittish mania that gives her deed and the reason behind it away. Moses heads to Yochabel’s home, where he learns the truth of his origins. DeMille milks Yochabel’s and Bithia’s converging, but polarised maternal grieving, but strikes an ingenious and graceful note as Moses contends with the radical shift in awareness, but ponders just how much he hasn’t changed. His subsequent self-immersion in the mean life of the Hebrew slaves brings him into contact with brutality and perversion as an old man who protests his humanity to a guard is casually murdered, and Lilia is lecherously picked out by Baka for forced prostitution. Such corny, but memorable vignettes give the film a moral context that resists reduction to mere theatre, in part because DeMille stages them vividly—the grimy mud clinging to Moses and the old man and the smear of red blood the guard wipes off the straw-chopper he used as a weapon, the maelstrom of intently oblivious activity around them—and because, like so many creative people who had lived through humanity’s worst epoch, DeMille seems to have had recent likenesses in mind.
Moses’ early triumphs culminate when he shows Seti his grandiose new city, complete with colossi and obelisks, impressing his surrogate father with gratification of the ego on a cosmic scale. Moses’ and DeMille’s showmanship conflate here as curtains are brushed back to reveal scales of achievement hitherto unimaginable, doubling as DeMille’s first real acknowledgment of the new vista and reach of the widescreen format. DeMille emphasises Moses as exemplar of all worldly virtues—great warrior, super-stud, loyal scion—before he’s transformed by sacred calling, DeMille’s way of assuring his audience that religion’s not for sissies or those merely fond of contentiousness. Whereas Quo Vadis? (1951) and The Robe (1953), immediate predecessors in the religious epic stakes, look today fascinatingly like metaphorical soul-searching for a United States talking through its split personality of conscientious citadel and newborn empire, DeMille disposes of the disparity by portraying the religious leader as titanic conqueror, terrifying his enemies with displays of force. But DeMille also keep in focus a notion fundamental to much religious mythology, that of the son of wealth and fame who abandons all for a higher calling: once he hears the call of suffering and oppression, Moses cannot ignore it or his own nature, whilst his intelligence and propriety prove as valuable, if not moreso, when he finds new roles to play. His status as accidental race traitor is counterpointed with Baka’s Hebrew underling Dathan (Edward G. Robinson), who volunteers himself to Ramses as the man to turn up the messiah. Dathan does just this, albeit through a stroke of luck at seeing Moses kill Baka, and he reaps the rewards of collaboration, down to taking possession of Lilia, who gives in to sexual blackmail to prevent Joshua from being killed.
Amidst this vast tapestry, DeMille’s attention zeroes in on the minute as well as the enormous aspects of mythic texture, like the scrap of Levite cloth that had been his blanket in the escape raft: Memnet uses it as proof of her story, and Moses finds the larger cloth it came from draped over his birth mother. Later, it’s given to him as an ironic cloak of princedom over the desert, along with the staff that was part of his manacling, from Ramses. This is, of course, the equivalent of a superhero’s costume finally coming together, as he’ll come back in his tribal livery with the staff transformed into a magic weapon. I also enjoy some of the physical business employed, like Seti and Nefertiri playing a board game called “Jackals and Lions” in a mood for gamesmanship, with Seti irritably snapping off the head of a Jackal; the trinket slides across the floor to be imperiously snapped up by an entering Ramses, setting the scene for his scooping up the spoils of his birthright. Or, Ramses, prodding Moses over his acts of supposed betrayal, counting them off as he adds weights to a scale, to which Moses retorts by placing a brick on the other tray to emphasize that dead slaves make no bricks. Baka and Dathan both make a point of picking out a flower for Lilia to wear when she’s first presented in chattel finery to them: Baka chooses a warm-hued bloom in sensual anticipation, whilst Dathan appends a white flower, depicting his delight in inevitably soiling her innocence. Moses is ritually cleansed by ordeal in the desert after losing everything, after DeMille offers one of his most concertedly iconic shots of Moses marching slowly into the desert away from a marker stone, facing the external and internal wilderness.
DeMille’s voiceover gets particularly flowery in describing Moses’ torments as he crosses the desert, but lo, masculine fantasy awaits, as he makes it to the well of Sheikh Jethro of Midian (Eduard Franz), whose soccer team of daughters tend to sheep nearby. Moses proves he hasn’t lost his touch as he beats up a bunch of bullying goatherds (damn dirty Amalekites!) who try muscling in on the well, earning him a place under Jethro’s tent. Love blooms between Moses and the odd one out amongst Jethro’s deliriously horny brood, the sober Sephorah (Yvonne De Carlo), in purple but uniquely lush dialogue aiming for Song of Solomon-esque rhapsody. After Moses has married her and they’ve had a son grow halfway to manhood, Joshua, having escaped captivity, turns up dangling rags and chains, forcing Moses to remember the continued state of his fellows. This stirs Moses to at last take the challenge that’s been before him for years, to climb Mt. Horeb and find if his God really lives there. The genuinely weird encounter with the Burning Bush, which causes even Moses to crumple like a fig in awe, segues into Moses returning to Sephorah and Joshua looking like history’s first stoner guru high on his particular, fiery weed. Whilst the parochial school teachers were all nodding in approval, what secret seeds did this film place in the psyches of a generation of psychedelic artists and dropouts, as well as quiet fortitude in the minds of civil rights campaigners?
For all his delight in the profane, DeMille’s Episcopalian faith was strong, and shared that dual instinct in common with much of his audience. He had a troubled relationship with his own half-Jewish identity, but the fervency of feeling that troubling status stoked in him contradicted his stance as Hollywood’s conservative stalwart, as his films indulge many racial caricatures (as they strike us now) but also often have a broad, apolitical, humanist punch. He had no trouble shooting parts of the film in Egypt in a time of vocal Arab nationalism because the local authorities remembered The Crusades with appreciation. As DeMille himself puts it in his personal appearance as emcee at the opening, his version of The Ten Commandments is unexpectedly political, positing the question of whether individuals are “free souls under God” or the property of the state and dictators like Ramses. The Book of Exodus is often troublingly chauvinist, with the slaughter of the inhabitants of Jordan is par for the course in claiming the Promised Land. DeMille and his battery of screenwriters, including the son of DeMille’s former production partner, Jesse L. Lasky, Jr., and Æneas MacKenzie, the Damon Lindelof of ’50s epics, tweak and twist Torah lore and blend it with details from the Koran and some pure pizzazz from popular novels. DeMille’s Passover is inclusive, as Bithia and her Nubian servants join Moses and his family to avoid the final plague whilst Moses’ siblings Aaron and Miriam become, respectively, easily led and xenophobic. If modern takes on figures of Judaic and Christian tradition like The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Noah (2014) look precisely at the fault lines between faith and practice by studying the doubt of the individual hero in the face of eternal forces, DeMille takes the more old-fashioned tack: Moses never doubts himself, his God, or his purpose once he finds it, though he is wrenched by the awesome forces he is given to direct others, and appalled by the imminent, brutally ironic curse he knows Ramses’ arrogance has brought upon his people.
The long set-up of Moses’ exile and return, and the portrait of a world of such outsized power and ignominious humanity is, of course, a long set-up for the biggest takedown conceivable, and DeMille goes to town portraying the various calamities the new-minted, vastly changed prophet wields. DeMille downplays the shock of Moses’ return to Ramses and Nefertiri, though, in a scene that mirrors Nefertiri’s earlier, easy seduction of Moses back to the courtly life, she now fails as the purposeful man declares her “the lovely dust through which God will work his purpose.” Now that’s a chat-up line. But Nefertiri’s new-stoked ardour turns to vindictiveness when Moses not only rejects her, but humiliates her husband and finally, if incidentally, causes her son’s death along with that of all the other Egyptian first-born in a bleak mirroring of the opening slaughter. This act finally breaks Ramses’ will, and he releases the Hebrews. The sequence of Exodus’ commencement lets DeMille do what he did best, stage a vast number of extras heading out into Sinai, stretching the screen’s capacity to hold detail to the limit, a flood of humanity following a suitably spectacular and momentously archaic opening as men blow into horns to announce freedom and great events, framed against colossal walls and vast horizons. Stanley Kubrick, with Spartacus (1960), and David Lean, in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965), notably tackled similar scenes with an almost competitive gall and still came off a close second, whilst George Lucas and Richard Marquand had the sequence quoted for the kick-off of the Ewok battle in Return of the Jedi (1983).
DeMille is rarely noted as a visual stylist, and yet a pictorial genius is in constant evidence throughout the nearly 4-hour film, essayed via Loyal Griggs’ cinematography. No shot is dead or merely functional. DeMille had experimented with fusing dance, theatre, art, and a blankly rectilinear cinema in Madam Satan, with its Zeppelin musical sequences that create moving canvases of cubist action, and similar flourishes are scattered throughout his career. But in The Ten Commandments, he makes these elements the keynote of his visual style, emphasising ritualistic and self-consciously antique qualities in the drama, most notable such in moments as when Ramses declares war on the fleeing Hebrews: the supporting cast swoop in, arrange themselves in rough geometry mimicking tomb wall paintings, and Ramses in centre frame stands in a X pose as his armour is placed upon him. DeMille reserves these formalised images, however, always for the Egyptians, or Moses’ power contests, whereas the Hebrews move in brawling, organic masses or arrange into vignettes from Renaissance art, as when Moses at the table during Pesach references Da Vinci’s “Last Supper” and awed Hebrew women watch the Red Sea part in studied triptychs. Vying with the more spectacular images in the film as the most memorable is the eerie prelude to the nightmarish Pesach, as the “angel of death” appears as a ghoulish green mist that spreads across the sky like a great gnarled hand, watched in silent wonder by Joshua, who endeavours to save Lilia by painting ram’s blood on the door of Dathan’s villa. Joshua then makes his way through the night to Moses’ house, and pauses at the threshold so they can listen to the moans of the dying and bereaved. The rest of the Pesach scene passes with a use of sound that’s as great as the visuals.
The Ten Commandments has its DNA scattered right through modern spectacle cinema, particularly in its influence on Steven Spielberg, who acknowledged the debt outright in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) with a clip, George Lucas, who recast DeMille’s titanic sensibility for the Star Wars series, Richard Donner, Peter Jackson, James Cameron, Roland Emmerich, and Ridley Scott, all of whom have subscribed to DeMille’s desire to stretch cinema to breaking in portraying the fantastical. One of DeMille’s distinguishing gifts, which not all of his followers possess, however, was a sense of how to employ structure and metaphoric emblems, knowing that effect was not special without the velocity of narrative necessity behind it. The Ten Commandments uses its special effects, provided by John P. Fulton, a veteran of fantastic cinema who had worked on the Universal horror films, with a sense of mounting awe and verve. At first they’re used to portray massive, but very human-driven works, in the making of the treasure city, but they are employed to signal a divine presence as Moses stares up Mt. Horeb with its crown laced in an infernal glow.
Finally, as Moses brings down plagues on Egypt, the effects get a little creakier as they strain to portray checklist miracles, like the Nile turning to blood and fiery hail falling on Ramses’ rooftop patio. Then, of course, is the scene we’ve all been waiting for, as Ramses, worked to frenzy by grief and Nefertiri’s goads, rides out with his charioteers to exterminate the Hebrews caught on the edge of the Red Sea. Moses and God, of course, have it covered, as a giant pillar of fire holds back the charioteers whilst the ocean splits and parts to let the Hebrews flee. The power of this sequence doesn’t just lie in the ostentation of Fulton’s effects, but in the intricate staging that transforms it into cinematic demagoguery. Elmer Bernstein’s scoring is particularly important, propelling the images of Ramses preparing for and launching into battle, and careening toward the Hebrew camp. Images and words crash in upon Moses from every angle—from Ramses and from Dathan, who, forced to leave with his nominal fellows, wants to lead the slaves back to Ramses for a great reward. Clouds blacken and boil, winds rise, and the sea peels back upon itself in one of the great goose-flesh moments of cinema.
The second climax of the film sees Moses watch the eponymous commandments being carved in rock by Yahweh manifesting as a whirlpool of fire, whilst the Hebrews are whipped up by Dathan into a splendiferous orgy. This sequence could have been a comparative throwaway or diminuendo after the Red Sea, but is rather the cherry on the top of the great teetering cake. The onscreen depravity is quite nakedly pitched as everyone’s idea of a good time in the last and most enjoyable example of DeMille’s two-facedness, offering a sprawl of collegiate naughtiness whilst chiding it in a voiceover that almost begs satiric delight from the audience. But DeMille keeps other, purposeful notions in focus for all the pleasant carnage. He depicts the inevitable, explosive self-indulgence of a recently freed and exultant populace threatening to devolve into not just idolatry but human sacrifice, a surrender to a past Moses is supposed to be leading them away from. He comprehends the significance of the tablets’ carving as a creation of a new level of civilisation, a time of written law that cements mutuality as the key to future society and promises the wrath of God to keep it in place. DeMille crosscuts between carnal frenzy and transcendent rite, Moses cowering against a rock as stunning power quite literally carves the word of God in stone, perfectly visualising that basic, primordial image of communion between human and deity against a stark landscape, whilst the whirling fire matches the spiralling dance of the rioting Hebrews depicts another extreme.
DeMille gains the desired tone of something having run badly out of control, of sublimely self-destructive surrender to chaos not through the actual depiction of depravity, but rather from a mounting sense of madness derived by the maelstrom of actors churning before his camera, swallowing the individuals in the crowd. One of my favourite throwaway moments of the dizzying collage of images here is Carradine’s hangdog Aaron bleating, “Dathan and the others made me do it!” when another Hebrew accuses him of ruining them all by helping Dathan make the idol. Another is when Robinson’s performance hits lunatic grandeur as he happily avenges himself on Lilia by nominating her as sacrifice to the golden calf, and then sings and chants like a pimped-out druid in rapturous delight at his gift as the anti-Moses, the wizard of sin, as Lilia screams, “Are you insane?” from her prostrate perch above her absurdly fickle fellows intending her death. Moses struts in, and, seeing his profound mission already despoiled, has the mother of all hissy fits, hurling the commandments to explode in fire and brimstone on the golden calf and open a chasm that swallows Dathan and his ilk. The coda offers another splendiferous set of images as Moses, called to meet his maker, bids farewell to family and successor Joshua, and climbs back up the mountain to be illuminated in a shaft of light. Like so much of the film, this moment is utter cornball on one level, and yet perfect in another, an authentic vision of heroic stature that transcends dull reality and transfigures human nature.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Darren Aronofsky
By Roderick Heath
The myth of the Great Flood is one of the most famed and ingrained in the modern world’s cultural inheritance. The tale was probably sourced in the ancient Mesopotamian tale of Gilgamesh, and spread along with cultural traffic to plant narrative seeds in Indian, Judaic, Arabic, Greek, and Christian traditions. But it also has doppelgangers in folk traditions the world over. The flood-prone nature of the Tigris-Euphrates region is often thought to have inspired the legend, but in contemplating just how widespread the story is, some have speculated whether the story doesn’t recall an oral tradition to the end of the last ice age. In the Western world, the version found in the Book of Genesis with its hero named Noah is, of course, the best known. The story contains within its brief narrative walls—about 2,700 words of Genesis—the demarcations of a profound cultural underpinning, the story of a simple, goodly patriarch who, blessed with divine mission, saves the natural world whilst the sinful are washed away in primeval retribution. What father has not seen himself at some point as steering family and charges through times of calamity, and what child doesn’t delight in the idea of the world’s creatures as private barnyard parade? It certainly stands with the most powerful tales in the Old Testament, including Moses as heroic liberator, David the giant-slayer, and Samson the sex-addled freedom fighter, all of whom take up Noah’s mantle to a degree as shepherd of the populace with differing degrees of success.
How one will respond to Darren Aronofsky’s retelling of this elemental tale will inevitably be coloured by personal scruple: many religious and irreligious folk alike will judge it both by its seriousness of intent and concordance with tradition, whilst others will look to it for much the opposite, insights that ransack that tradition and ask it to speak to different worldly concerns. Since he debuted with Pi (1997), Aronofsky has been one of the most visually and formally experimental of modern American directors, but also a violently awkward artist, one with little capacity to sort his best ideas from his worst ones. This has tended to make works like Requiem for a Dream (2000), The Fountain (2006), and Black Swan (2010) at once stirring and excessive, visionary and ungainly. Noah fits into this strand well in some respects: it’s an outsized work of great ambition, driving along in adherence only to its creator’s singular ideas no matter how batty they seem. Aronofsky’s chutzpah aims at zones not penetrated in the genre since Martin Scorsese studied The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). Mythologies associated with living faiths are much more problematic to adapt than those springing from dead ones: no one minds Norse and Greek myths being remixed for big and noisy special-effects movies, as per recent Lord of the Rings and Clash of the Titans films, but Noah was the subject of studio angst as to how it would play to religious stalwarts and the crowd who lapped up The Passion of the Christ (2004), with its brutal and hypocritical take on Gospel.
In reaction to Mel Gibson’s paean to righteous suffering, Aronofsky offers parable laced with concepts imported broadly from extra-canonical Judaic lore, New Age spirituality and symbolism, deeply rigorous cultural enquiry, and CGI blockbuster cinema. His contemporary urges are pretty plain-spoken, making the flood an overt metaphor for climate change. Noah and his kin, descendants of Adam’s third son Seth, are all vegetarians eking out an existence in a world blasted by the rapaciousness of the descendants of Cain, who eat meat and have mastered technological arts. Such greenie fable-telling could have been a drag, but Aronofsky is at least restrained enough to let these elements speak for themselves. His real aim, it soon proves, is a rather more intimate contemplation of the impact of humanity’s capacity for both ferocity and creation. Noah (Dakota Goto) sees his father Lamech (Marton Csokas) murdered by Tubal-cain (Finn Wittrock), leaving Noah as the last Sethite. He grows to manhood in the shape of Russell Crowe, whose new-found capacity for biblical gravitas was well exploited in last year’s Man of Steel; here, he gets to do the real thing. He’s also reunited with his A Beautiful Mind (2001) co-star Jennifer Connolly, who plays Naameh, Noah’s wife. Noah, Naameh and their sons Shem (Gavin Casalegno) and Ham (Nolan Gross) maintain their foraging ways when Noah sees a flower bloom in an instant. An intimation of cosmic intent, this proves prelude to Noah’s dream of a world flooded over.
Sensing this is a prophecy sent by “the Creator” but unsure what it means, Noah sets out with his family across a cursed patch of land to reach the mountain where his grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins) lives. The family, pursued by Cainites, save a young girl, Ila (Skylar Burke), the lone survivor of a massacred tribe. They also encounter the strange inhabitants of this corner of Creation, the “Watchers” or Nephilim, angels who tried to aid Adam and Eve but were cursed by the Creator for their intransigence; their naturally radiant forms are now encased in hulking stone sporting pathetic, vestigial wings and glowing eyes. The Watchers detest humankind, whom they tried to help but who hunted and killed many of them, and propose abandoning Noah and his family to die in the wilderness. One of the Nephilim, Magog (Mark Margolis), decides to help them however, and when Noah reaches Methuselah, the ancient shaman gives him an incantatory brew so that he can see his dream completely. This helps Noah grasp that his mission is to build a craft that will weather the flood and contain animal life. Methuselah gives him the last seed saved from Eden, and, when planted, this seed causes water to spring from the earth and colossal forests to grow in minutes to provide a source of wood for the ark. Building the vessel takes years, long enough for Shem, Ham, and Ila to grow to adulthood (Douglas Booth, Logan Lerman, and Emma Watson), and for Noah and Naameh to have a third son, Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll).
Aronofsky’s script, written with Ari Handel, is fascinating and original in its willingness to encompass such figures as the Nephilim, described vaguely as “giants” in the Torah but in Apocrypha like the Book of Enoch (where they are called the Watchers) as the sons of human women and angels, and envisioning Methuselah as a massively powerful prophet-sorcerer who is the last keeper of Edenic lore. He is seen in flashback wielding a flaming sword, perhaps inspired by Genesis 3:24’s mention of this totem as God’s barrier to Eden, to defend the Nephilim against the Cainites, striking the ground and releasing concussive shockwaves of magic that drive the wicked men back. His gifts also provoke one of the narrative’s major crises as he works magic that promulgates fertility in true shamanic fashion. One reason texts featuring the Nephilim and other figures of the Apocrypha lore are excised from the Torah and Bible does seem to be because they represent a more superstitious, fantastical edge to the old faith, as well as a possible rival moral schema, a notion Aronofsky exploits to a certain degree. The Watchers, distorted and aggrieved, stand between Creator and Creation, resenting both but finally looking for redemption, and finding it in fighting for the ark. There’s richness and brilliance in incorporating them into this tale. This, however, makes how they’re animated and portrayed the most awkward aspect of Noah: they look and sound like lumpen monstrosities from dozens of other CGI fantasy fests, dragging the film perilously close to such territory.
Similarly intrepid, but logical, too, is how Aronofsky and Handel recast Tubal-cain as antagonist to Noah, leader of the rival tribe with arts of metal-working (biblically accurate) and concoctions close to gunpowder (not so much). Tubal-cain, played in hirsute and haggard middle-age by Ray Winstone, turns up with his followers as the ark nears completion, with an eye to getting aboard if the spreading rumour of impending apocalypse proves true. Noah has already been seen in combat, kicking ass for the Lord in righteous style but never taking a life, a stance that seems about to become impossible, especially as Noah sees his divinely inspired job as ensuring that none of the sinful survive. As the tale unfolds, indeed, Noah eventually admits to Naameh that as far as he can tell, the human race is meant to die out, with his children all dying in their allotted time and leaving the Earth cleansed. Noah’s certainty that the Creator is speaking to him is counterbalanced by the Watchers and Tubal-cain’s shared frustration at the lack of response: Tubal-cain prepares for war whilst quietly, but with the faintest tone of confused angst of an uncomprehending, rejected son, asking for such a sign as he bashes metal into shape. This, however, proves a double-edged sword, as Noah’s comprehension of his task transforms him from the most righteous man to an increasingly committed, fanatical, dark-eyed tool.
This touch is the most substantial amplification of the bare-bones tale: Noah, whose name means ease or comfort, is traditionally seen as the most beneficent of the Old Testament patriarchs. He’s not a character at all, really, not in the same way King David or Samson manage to be in their violently contradictory natures, but rather an emblem of a figure of grandfatherly shelter. Crowe’s more virile father is crossbred here with a later biblical figure, Abraham, as Aronofsky strikes deep at the heart of the patriarchal faith. Other films have depicted the Noah tale: Michael Curtiz’s 1929 version turned it into a parable for the Wall Street crash, whilst a more recent, godawful TV version featured Jon Voight speaking to a Jehovah who sounded like a TV sitcom dad. The best, and the one with which Aronofsky’s take feels in a dialectic, was John Huston’s The Bible…In the Beginning (1966). Huston, a rigorously nonreligious artist who emphasised the starkly symbolic and arcane virtues of Genesis, painted his Noah as a gently comedic figure and his story as colourful juvenilia before letting Lot and Abraham do the moral heavy lifting. Huston had his own parable for contemporary apocalyptic urges in mind: his Sodom was wiped out by a mushroom cloud and the intended sacrifice of Isaac takes place near the Hiroshima-like ruins of the city. Huston spread this notion out across most of the Genesis narrative, whereas Aronofsky packs it all into Noah’s, as his hero accepts his task and tries to carry it out, a burden Naameh tries mitigate, recognising the scale of guilt it imposes on her husband. However, even she threatens to abandon and curse him when he makes clear that he will follow through on his mission no matter how unpleasant it becomes.
Noah, then, is not just Aronofsky’s recapitulation of Old Testament wrath but an account of his active struggle with its meaning and intimations for a modern man, beggared by the scale of both offence given and taken apparent in the cause for the deluge. The wisdom of the patriarchs likewise is given a beady eye, as Noah’s cause sparks generational mistrust and war in his own family, a family he feels required to cheat of all future even as he saves them. Ila had been left barren by a wound as a girl, and as she grows and falls in love with Shem, she tearfully tells her adopted father that she doesn’t want to burden Shem with childlessness. But Naameh decides to help Ila by appealing to Methuselah in contravention of her husband’s word, and the old man agrees: he touches Ila’s belly, making her fertile again, and quickly she falls pregnant. Noah, outraged once he learns of this, howls that he’s now bound to kill her child if it proves to be a girl. Meanwhile Ham is pained by the sight of Shem and Ila’s physical intimacy, and sets out to try to extract a potential mate from the Cainite camp, which is in constant tumult from debauchery and violence. He tumbles into a pit and encounters a grotty, terrified girl, Na’el (Madison Davenport), and offers her a chance to flee with him to the ark. As they do so, however, the rains begin, and the Cainite horde makes for the ark. Noah ventures out to bring back Ham, but doesn’t try to help Na’el, who falls over and is crushed under the feet of the horde.
The first half of Noah is uneven and feels incomplete in that it could have yielded far more facets to its interesting elaborations and more insight into the tribal struggle. For instance, Aronofsky’s telling avoidance of the detail that in the Bible, Naameh was Tubal-cain’s sister and the sorts of loyalty conflict that might have stemmed from this, dismisses a potential source of strong drama. The flourishes of fantastic imagery, too, even if they disturb the faithful, beg for enlargement. Aronofsky is one of the few contemporary, mainstream directors with roots in experimental-edged filmmaking, and some of his most memorable and specific directorial flourishes here retain that edge, particularly in the stroboscopic edits of still pictures into a time-lapse effect depicting passing years via the flow of water out of Noah’s little Eden: here is a poetic charge of visual beauty and strangeness. Equally striking in execution is a similar sequence in which Noah recounts the history of the world to his children to illustrate the necessity of the Creator’s exterminating judgement. Aronofsky offers in super-speed the epochs of universal birth and expansion and earthly evolution equated with the six days of Creation, a state of balanced perfection despoiled by humankind’s peculiar gift for slaughter and calamity, with Aronofsky intercutting a silhouetted portrayal of Cain’s first murder with endless repetitions through the ages.
Aronofsky’s awesome craft in such moments is, however, contrasted with bluntness, like the witless, horror-movie flourishes in Black Swan. Biblical filmmaking works best when it’s allowed to boil down to powerful visual metaphors, such as DeMille’s collapsing temple in Samson and Delilah (1949) and parting Red Sea in The Ten Commandments (1956), or when it can possess a touch of the alien, such as Scorsese managed in The Last Temptation of Christ’s abstracted miracles and atavistic visions. Aronofsky’s conceptual imagination still seems limited in some regards: his canvases are huge and ripe, and yet his idea of spiritual imagery is, as in The Fountain, corny floods of CGI sunshine and rock-album-cover notions of fantastic landscapes. Occasionally, he still yields to plasticity, like in the instagrow Eden and firefly angels. The hordes of animals sweeping through the forest to take refuge in the ark are impressive but regulation special effects. Still, making a film as expensive as Noah demands concessions, and it seems Aronofsky was willing to make a trade-off to give his film appeal to a broad audience steeped in a more literal visual language of the fantastic.
Moreover, Aronofsky offers up many more powerful visualisations, like in a sequence that calls back to the orgy scene of Requiem for a Dream in which Noah visits the Cainite camp and perceives a morass of human depravity, filled with assault and rape, squirming acres of desperate flesh in the muck giving him a vision of degenerate humankind that bolsters his misanthropic interpretation of his mission. The igneous nature of the drama here suits Aronofsky’s sometimes reductive gift for portraying squalor on both physical and metaphysical levels. Aspects of Aronofsky’s stylisation blur the difference between distant past and distant future, with a hint of a science fiction to the alien-like Nephilim and Ouroboros-like rebooting of time represented by the Flood. Particularly in the bold and startling moment of Na’el’s death, the film clicks into a mode of sustained ferocity and genuinely powerful spectacle, kicking off a climactic sequence as the Watchers fight off the Cainites whilst Noah tries to seal the ark, the deluge starting as rain but soon giving way to colossal geysers. The Watchers, upon being felled by the humans, including Tubal-cain’s prototypical cannon, revert to angelic form and shoot back into the heavens. The brilliance of transcendence is painted in fiery colours and surges of mystical force amidst a struggle that remains one enacted in elements: flesh, blood, fire, water, and earth. There’s visual similarity here, indeed, to the similarly beautiful battle at the climax of Chris Weitz’s underrated The Golden Compass (2007). The actual flood is predictably colossal stuff.
Noah gains its greatest power as it sets up and marches towards a second, more intimate, but no less fractious climax, a difficult feat considering the seemingly inevitable and well-known resolution to the legend. The seeds of danger are sewn as Noah announces his intention to kill Ila’s daughters when she gives birth to twins, and sabotages her and Shem’s attempts to abandon the ark. Meanwhile Ham has smuggled the injured Tubal-cain aboard. The two older men begin to look increasingly similar, as the formerly warm and protective Noah becomes a hollow-eyed engine of merciless prosecution of his divinely appointed job, Naameh cracks and refuses to play along anymore, and Ham helps Tubal-cain recover and conspires to kill Noah, the young man receptive to Tubal-cain’s insinuating words in his fury at his father’s actions and intentions. Aronofsky is surely commenting on the ease with which zeal turns into fanaticism as he deconstructs the flat biblical hero and evokes real disquiet at the aspect rarely explored in versions of the arcane tales, the virulence in their images of sin and wrath, the pain facing individual men and women asked to accept or mete out cosmic force. This Noah is slowly destroyed by his task, as any decent man would be.
Aronofsky is deeply attentive, too, to the essential symbolism that drives the original tale, with its direct and unalloyed teaching tool portraying essential natural systems and physical and conceptual binaries sharing an enclosed space, the literal world in miniature, with male and female as breeding pairs as the essential truth, equated with human and animal, sin and redemption, disgrace and cleansing. Each binary is maintained and enlarged upon as Noah’s gift for interpreting prophecy is revealed to have failed in the clear presentation of twin daughters from Ila, giving each brother in the family a potential mate. There’s some humour in here, too, as Winstone, who’s been the go-to actor for plebeian bastardry since Nil By Mouth (1997), plays Tubal-cain as an earthy embodiment of humanity’s greed. When Ham catches him eating one of the ark’s animals, he protests, “There was only two of those!” to which Tubal-cain retorts calmly, “Yes but there’s only one of me.” The approaching climax threatens the collision of two programmes threatening intrafamilial homicide. Indeed, Aronofsky’s vision of the family is as a set of united, but finally individual viewpoints.
Aronofsky’s take on biblical drama is often infused with a rival, equally consuming mythos, that of classic American cinema: the inevitable three-way tussle of a son and two father figures recalls in a good way the similarly mythic climax of Return of the Jedi (1983), whilst the ultimate confrontation of Noah and Ila on the cusp of new worlds evokes John Ford’s The Searchers (1956). One knows the white dove with the sprig in its beak will turn up at a fortuitous moment, but just when Aronofsky has it fly in has its own subtle and telling resonances, arriving less as deus ex machine than confirmation of mercy’s necessity. Is Noah a work that our multitudinous contemporary cults, religious and otherwise, with their various viewpoints can sit down around and get something from? Probably not, but that’s a huge ask. This Noah is, finally, a strong, intelligently wrought and probing reaction to the present through the lens of the distant past/future, and an extremely impressive film with some significant flaws. It represents new ground for Aronofsky and the first work of his I’ve actually liked on a dramatic level as well as appreciated on formal grounds. He wrings great performances out of his cast in a genre not usually known for good acting: Crowe is excellent, and so is Connolly, whilst Watson follows up last year’s The Bling Ring in delivering a revelatory performance that finally ties all to the anguish of the individual young mother.
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Directors: Paul Humfress and Derek Jarman
By Roderick Heath
Before his sad death at age 52 from AIDS in the early ’90s Derek Jarman, had established himself as one of British cinema’s true enfants terrible. He helped define gay cinema, maintained an aesthetic guerrilla war against the Thatcher government of the ’80s, and claimed a corner of demanding, semi-abstract narrative filmmaking that took up challenges laid down by the likes of Ken Russell, Nicholas Roeg, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Pier Paolo Pasolini, but dragged them off in his own direction. Sebastiane, his first film, codirected with Paul Humfress, ventured into new realms of lucid, unveiled, homoerotic image-making, conflated with an effervescent intellectual blend of classicist humour and spiritual seriousness.
Unlike the odious Peter Greenaway, with whom Jarman shared dominance of the British arthouse scene in the ’80s, Jarman’s cinema was urgent and personal in its provocations and learned references, angrily ransacking the massed detritus of the European cultural tradition for forms and voices through with to articulate his peculiar aesthetic: following Sebastiane, his subjects included Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Marlowe’s Edward II, Caravaggio, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Based around the life and martyrdom of St. Sebastian, Humfress’ and Jarman’s film aggressively appropriates the barely veiled rendering of the saint as a sadomasochistic erotic object in Renaissance painting for their own ends, reconstructing him as a gay icon. Sebastiane has a claim to a certain distinction for being the first film made entirely in Latin, even going so far as to have a translator render patches of the dialogue in the vulgar form for deeper authenticity. As such, it stands as an influence—or at least prefiguration—of a film like Mel Gibson’s similarly antiquarian, S&M-hued religious work The Passion of the Christ (2003), a film motivated by polar opposite moral and philosophical urges.
Sebastiane actually follows a very familiar narrative line for religious epics, depicting the attempt of a pagan Roman to browbeat his rapturous Christian love object into surrendering his or her body and thus, implicitly, his or her ideals; in the likes of The Sign of the Cross (1932) and Quo Vadis? (1951), the love object was female. Here the love object is Sebastian (Leonardo Treviglio), and the film is closer to the eroticised beefcake-suffering of Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur (1959). In spite of the feeling of authenticity in the photography and the use of Latin dialogue, strict realism is a long way from Jarman’s mind, and this is soon apparent in the anachronistic touches that dot the film.
Sebastian is a favourite of Emperor Diocletian (Robert Medley) and captain of his personal guard. The opening sequence depicts Diocletian’s court celebrating the birth of the sun in the time of his jubilee in a scene of Felliniesque excess. Male dancers sporting huge fake genitals tied to their groins dance around a man painted as a caricature of femininity, who is spread-eagle on the floor and mock group-raped, fake jism squirting on him, in a droll parody of Roman phallocratic sexuality and politics. It’s a stylised representation of what follows. Roman high society sprawls in decadence, suggested through a punkish mix of historically accurate tropes and glam rock pizzazz that includes the reigning whore supreme Mammea Morgana (played by punk emblem Jordan). Diocletian loses his temper with one of his toy-boys who is weeping for a man sentenced to death for one of the conflagrations started by Christian insurgents in Rome: the Emperor has the boy strangled. When Sebastian tries to intercede, Diocletian strips him of his rank and exiles him. The rest of the film takes place in Sardinian locations, standing in for the unnamed desert outpost to which Sebastian is exiled. Maximus (Neil Kennedy), also present in at the festivities, is posted to the same locale, and reports this directly to the audience.
In that hot, dry, unpopulated part of the Empire, Sebastian makes it clear that he’s become a Christian, and won’t train for fighting anymore with the other men. The commandant Severus (Barney James) abuses and humiliates him, a regimen that worsens when Sebastian won’t let Severus screw him, to demonstrate his contempt for browbeating power. The introductory scene has already made clear that this refusal to submit, to allow access to the body and, more importantly, to the private conscience, infuriates the representative of the dying regime. This theme, of the powerful figure that forces obedience and conformity, runs side by side with the religious and sexual themes; those three basic concepts—sex, power, spirit—constantly shade into each other but occasionally are shocked into polarisation.
Amidst the small band of soldiers, the leading personality is Maximus, a dirty-minded git with a false nose strapped to his face and a false penis sometimes strapped to his groin. He has a relentless hunger for amusement and dirty by-play, whilst the other bored, horny soldiers turn to each other for gratification after looking at dirty pictures. One of the soldiers, Justin (Richard Warwick), empathises with Sebastian’s plight and tries to understand his strange idealism, which, as Sebastian meditates on his own, seems partly composed of narcissism—making his prayers whilst gazing at himself in the water—and lust, as he wishes to be embraced by Jesus. Sebastian communes with his rugged landscape and prays, conflating the sun god Phoebus Apollo, whom Sebastian used to worship, with his version of Jesus. So the searing touch of the sun, of which Sebastian gets plenty when Severus has him staked to the ground as a punishment, is only more ecstatic bliss for him.
Like many beginner filmmakers with artistic ambition as well as an urgent intellectual position to articulate, Jarman—and it’s hard to doubt Jarman was the driving cinematic force here—gives into the tendency to indulge longeurs and pound select ideas into the ground. Early in the film, Jarman presents a beauteous sequence in which Sebastian awakens early in the morning and washes himself down in the morning sun, enjoying and idolising the physical sensations which are part and parcel with his spiritual understanding. Severus watches him with a predatory intent and fascination with a species of man beyond his experience. Jarman shoots the male body like he’s the first person to discover it, and in a manner of speaking, he is: he doesn’t just eroticise it, but also renders it as a universe unto itself.
But on occasion, Sebastiane starts to resemble a motion picture edition of a Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, except with sporty young guys frolicking and wrestling in the water rather than girls, lounging about in the sand, and cleaning their sweaty bodies in a Roman bath. The actors are barely clothed through much of the film, as Jarman said they didn’t have enough money for costumes. A lengthy sequence with two of the soldiers in an initially romantic clinch that gives way to them wrestling in the water, goes on forever, and though it clearly had political heft in 1976—Sebastiane pissed off people exactly as it was supposed to, though there are no literal sex acts in the film—it seems like soft-core self-indulgence now. And yet the evident erotic enjoyment is imbued with a hint of the alien, anticipating Claire Denis and David Cronenberg, as Jarman communicates a sense of the body as a thing of mystery and beauty in his languorous, slow-motion scenes of muscles flowing under skin with ineluctable beauty.
The body is a war zone throughout the film, strong and lustrous, yet also disturbingly vulnerable, easily damaged, abused, and controlled; the only riposte is the untouchable and inviolable soul, which is why Sebastian crushingly rejects Severus late in the film when he tells him he can have his body but never have his true, inner self. The scene in Diocletian’s court establishes the atmosphere of physical ferocity, where murder is casual and the entertainment a plain parable for rape and exploitation. Jarman jams his camera in the gruesomely made-up face of the “female” dancer writhing under faux-ejaculate, and the bloodied mouths of slaves as one strangles the other in a dizzying image of animalistic humanity. The Emperor’s exile of Sebastian is the necessary gambit to his assassination, and yet the remote location and the vagueness of their mission causes the men to feel the weight of whatever angst they suffer, from Maximus’s basic desire to get back to Rome and hole up with a prostitute, through to Severus’ inability to obtain his obsession, whilst Sebastian finds the path to his destiny through unimaginable cruelty. Jarman sets up dichotomies—abusive strength, religious fervour, Roman decadence—but doesn’t easily separate them. The basic joke is easy enough to grasp: the Christian in this context is the outcast, aberrant, abused figure, mocked for effeminacy and arrogance, not the homosexual. Jarman seems to be trying to depict a moment in time in which humanity evolved from a purely physical creature into something deeper and better, but also less coherent and natural.
Jarman doesn’t make the assailed Christian emblematic of a desexualised, denaturalised ideal about to supplant the free and easy paganism, however. Sebastian’s idealisation shares a certain homoerotic tone with John Donne’s Fourteenth Holy Sonnet (“Except you enthrall me, never shall be free/Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.”), envisioning God as an invasive, beauteous, erotic force. Brian Eno’s eerie, electronic score pulsates throughout with spacey beauty, underscoring scenes alternately banal, bizarre, and violent, constantly suggesting weird, transformative potential. The images seem engaged in a perpetual search for signs of transcendence only to be found in a surrender to the utterly physical, a loss of distinction between world and self. Throughout the film flows a brand of humour blending poles of donnish esoterica and Carry On-style scatology, particularly when the soldiers stage death battles between beetles they name Messalina, Boadacea, Sappho, and Dido, imagining them in a mass lesbian rape, and those passages of vulgar Latin proliferate in the soldiers’ excited sexual language. At one point Sebastian demonstrates for Justin a dance he used to do for the sun god in Rome, which Maximus sees and satirised feverishly before the other soldiers as he pretends to make love to a pig. Kennedy’s earthy performance dominates the film, playing Maximus as a human being with no high ideals, violently contrasting Sebastian’s elevated aspirations, and appointing himself the chief persecutor of the Christian until Severus orders him to stop.
As its story unfolds, Sebastiane displays surprising similarities to the likes of Platoon (1986): amongst its many aspects, one that emerges strongly is its portraiture of the volatility of soldiers, beset with rampant sensual hunger while trapped in an existentially ambiguous exile in distant territory. Perhaps the likeness isn’t coincidental, as Jarman surely had the Vietnam War and the soldiers who fought it on his mind, as well as any regimen of forced social normalisation. As the film entwines sexual, political, and spiritual anxiety, cranking up on virtually subliminal levels, the casual sex that some of the soldiers indulge contrasts Severus’ building hysteria in his need to dominate Sebastian and force his surrender. He has Maximus and the others snatch and beat Justin to a pulp, and Sebastian dragged to Severus’s cell where he plans to rape him; instead, he only reaps his own humiliation, and so, as in many a horror movie, erotic unease is deflected into physical destruction, as this finally makes Severus decide to have Sebastian killed. In the glare of day on a rocky plain, Sebastian is tied to a pole, where the soldiers, several stark naked, riddle him with arrows. Even the bloodied and barely conscious Justin is manipulated into firing a bolt. Sebastian’s martyrdom sees the ironic fulfilment of his desire to physical communion with his god and of Severus’ desire to penetrate him in a welter of blood. In a point-of-view shot from Sebastian on his pole, the world is suddenly rendered in the distortions of a fish-eye lens, inverting space and changing the devastated plain and his torturers into a permeably false reality. It’s one of the most grotesquely beautiful scenes ever shot, and galvanises Sebastiane’s final haunting effect.
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Director: Storme Wood
The Talking Pictures Festival, April 14-17, 2011
By Marilyn Ferdinand
It isn’t easy in some circles—particularly the often intellectual circles of the diehard cinephile—to discuss fundamentalist Christianity with a straight face. The clichés that attend the subject are just too potent and subject to ridicule: the strange dogma, the humorless advocates breathing hell fire and damnation, the seemingly mindless and constant focus on God during nearly every minute of every day that drowns out the rest of life like a bug being flushed down a toilet. It’s hard for someone not in the life to understand the logic, which looks like illogic, or the compulsion many people feel toward religion, particularly a form of religion that is so severe in its rules and judgments.
However, I have seen firsthand a very nice person drawn deeper and deeper into fundamentalism. An ordinary woman in many ways, my next-door neighbor had a lot of children of her own, but also adopted several more. Her husband collected junk off the street, filling their home with at least a dozen broken water heaters, countless rusted bicycles, and every other sort of cast-off one can imagine to the point that the only passage in many of their rooms was a narrow aisle. He planted their front yard in such a haphazard way that their home seemed to be swallowed by an abandoned field of weeds. Their backyard was, like their home, filled to the brim with junk. The woman even built a fence around it specifically for my neat-freak mother so she wouldn’t have to see the junkyard as she attended to our tidy lawn and garden. Eventually, the woman was Born Again, and who could blame her? Wouldn’t you want to start over in a state of grace if your life had been made a living hell by your husband’s mental illness?
Esther (Heather del Rio), the central character in Paradise Recovered, is a young woman who escapes from a broken home and an alcoholic mother by becoming an adherent of televangelist Rev. Warren F. Vanderbilt (Richard Dillard). She lives with her pastor, David Sawyer (Andrew Sensenig), and his wife (Wendy Zavaleta), taking care of their young daughter (Anna Valerie Becker), doing housework, and tacking up posters and handing out fliers to residents of their Indiana town to come to the VFW hall on Sunday morning to watch Vanderbilt on television with them and pray. Pastor Sawyer is monomaniacal in his devotion to God, preferring to converse mainly in bible quotes and forbidding sins that the Pilgrims would have recognized: no movies, no dancing, no music, floor-length skirts for women, and certainly no fornicating. He seems to make an exception for alcohol because his wife certainly likes her wine.
Esther takes to heart Vanderbilt’s message to contribute money to the cause. Since she is an unpaid nanny and maid, she decides to ask Sawyer if she can get a job at a health food store that has a help-wanted sign in its window. He considers the story of The Virtuous Woman, and though Esther is not married, he finds reason in it to encourage her industry. Gabriel (Dana Seth Hurlburt), the store manager, hires her, and on her first day of work, Esther and the Sawyer family gather in front of the store to pray as though they were putting a protection hex on the place. Things are going to get interesting.
Gabriel is a philosophy student in college and a religious skeptic who has a strained relationship with his minister father. He is, in fact, very interested in religious faith, and engages Esther in a number of discussions about her beliefs and her church, the latter of which he finds abusive. He becomes especially concerned when Esther becomes engaged to Sawyer’s son Philip (Austin Chittim) after three days’ acquaintance. When Philip’s father throws Esther out when he finds Philip trying to bed Esther, Gabriel and his roommate Mark (Oliver Luke) take her in and begin her worldly education.
Appropriate for a movie about one of the oldest human constructs there is, Paradise Recovered has a very tried-and-true story structure: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. It’s not hard to see that Gabriel will fall for Esther. Despite their seemingly unbreachable differences regarding God, Gabriel’s childhood was steeped in religion. When he falls out with Esther, he turns to his father (Jim Aabear) for guidance, knowing that he needs to regain some perspective on religious belief if he is to understand her. Esther wants to be good more than anything in the world, but she does not take personal responsibility for developing an internal moral compass; it’s much easier for her to follow rules than to try to understand the reasons behind them.
Unfortunately, the script, like Gabriel, is pretty judgmental. Esther considers herself stupid, and wishes she could go to college; alas, she was home schooled, and the script seems to agree with her that she’s ignorant because of it. The script punts to a predictable scandal that shows her spiritual leaders to be charlatans or filled with disgust for humanity, especially women. And Esther’s plunge into “decadence” seems a little too easy for her, though one funny scene where she refuses to eat a slice of bacon (an “unclean” food) shows her pushing back. I got the impression that Esther had basically fled her home life, but later she says she was brought up in this church. The back stories are sketchy and a bit confusing, and the unknown actors who seem pretty green don’t have the chops yet to suggest a psychological history for their characters.
Yet, I found myself quite engrossed in this film. Heather del Rio isn’t what I’d call a beautiful woman, but she has an extraordinary magnetism and sensuality about her that made me believe that three young men could be fighting over her. She was just as attractive in her granny dresses as in blue jeans and camisole tops. Hurlburt is a handsome young man who was able to develop Gabriel’s growing affection for Esther in a very believable and affecting way. And Oliver Luke is the surprise of this movie. Think Nick Frost in Shaun of the Dead, but with more verve and personality, and you’ve got some idea of his skill. When Mark finds out he was able to score a date with Esther before Gabriel, his glee at beating out his more attractive roommate to a first date is wonderful, real, and quite funny; at the same time, when he deduces that Gabriel is in love with Esther, he becomes a caring friend who tries to help Gabriel win her.
This is Storme Wood’s first feature film, and his handheld camera work is effective and mainly unobtrusive. He knows how to shoot and time his actors’ lines for good comic effect, and he manages to work with some of his nonprofessional actors to bring out their sincerity, particularly Aabear, whom I can believe is a real preacher. He couldn’t do much with the caricature scripting, but he tries to help everyone maintain a level of humanity that more cynical films about religion ignore. On the whole, Paradise Recovered is an interesting, enjoyable film fit for the whole family.
Paradise Recovered screens Satuday, April 16, 5 p.m., at the Annie May Swift Hall, Northwestern University’s Department of Radio, Television + Film, 1920 Campus Drive, Evanston.
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Director: William Wyler
By Roderick Heath
Ben-Hur is still amongst the most dramatically nuanced, intricately constructed, and sheerly entertaining of the old-school blockbuster epics. The film’s reputation for at-all-costs size and bludgeoning bluster has always somewhat obscured what a damn well-put-together piece of moviemaking it is. It was a career highlight for William Wyler, who, after decades of refining his cinematic technique, applied his integrity and care in drawing out realism in his acting and approach to mise-en-scène to the most unlikely genre and came up trumps. The pressure was on Wyler, as MGM spared no expense on the risky production to save itself from bankruptcy; he likened the experience to working as one of the film’s galley slaves. Nonetheless, with its great cost and even greater profit, Ben-Hur represented the high-water mark of Hollywood’s efforts to combat the encroachment of television, both in terms of popular appeal, production craft, and confidence in the act of total cinematic creation. Within a decade, filmmaking looked and sounded completely different.
Ben-Hur was chosen as a project by MGM executives and brought to fruition by producer Sam Zimbalist, who died during filming, because of the great success they’d had more than 30 years before with Fred Niblo’s entertaining, if comparatively cartoonish silent version, a production that had been hellishly protracted and fatal for several crew members. Wyler’s film is often considered together with Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956) for obvious reasons: both are religious-themed sagas, both star Charlton Heston, and both feature Martha Scott as his on-screen mother. Actually, the films are quite different. DeMille’s film is spectacle in the purest sense, achieved in his cheerfully two-dimensional, almost ritualised style; Ben-Hur attempts to be intimate and artful in balancing out the grander elements, and employs naïf touches more carefully throughout. DeMille based his visual style on academic historical painters like Lawrence Alma-Tadema, whilst Ben-Hur’s production designers and cinematographer Robert L. Surtees obviously went to school on Renaissance Italian painters like Caravaggio and Michelangelo, whose Sistine Chapel panel “The Creation of Adam” provides the iconic backdrop for the credits.
Ben-Hur was, of course, based on the novel by Lew Wallace, subtitled A Tale of the Christ, and the narrative sustains a counterpoint of the life of Jesus and its hero, a fictional Jewish prince, Judah Ben-Hur (Heston), commencing and finishing explicitly with Gospel scenes. But at the heart of Ben-Hur is a Dumas-esque tale of betrayal and revenge. The pretitle sequence, a visually striking Nativity scene, hits exactly the right momentous note, with the standard picture-book images of the Magi gathering along with sundry locals to look upon the holy family. A shepherd blows his horn to announce something incredulously wonderful in the most nondescript of forms, ringing out with curious eeriness as the Star of Bethlehem fades, leaving us momentarily with the remote, rugged landscape of ancient Judea before Miklos Rosza’s grandiose horns blare out a thrilling fanfare. And yet a stand-out quality of the film is that the first hour is chiefly a series of carefully wrought, complex, interpersonal scenes that build the drama in a mosaic of phrases and gestures.
Messala (Boyd), appointed as military governor of Judea where his father had once served, returns to the land where he grew up, full of swaggering pride in gaining his appointment and overjoyed to see his youthful chum Judah again. “Close in every way!” Judah states happily when the two men bond over a little javelin target practice. But the differences enforced by time, nationality, and personal philosophy keep revealing themselves, in their first meeting and again when Messala visits Judah’s home, greeted like family by Judah’s mother Miriam (Scott) and especially his besotted sister Tirzah (Cathy O’Donnell, Wyler’s sister-in-law), becoming evident in such throwaway yet charged moments as when Messala realises he’s committed a faux pas in recounting tales of glorious Roman slaughters to Judah’s family—citizens of a conquered nation.
But the break doesn’t fully manifest until Messala presses Judah to give him the names of Judean patriots who dislike Roman hegemony; their rift suddenly defines itself in religious, personal, cultural, and political terms. When Tirzah accidentally knocks a tile from the roof of their house, causing the new governor to be injured, Messala grasps the opportunity to further his career and punish his former friend by having Judah, Miriam, Tirzah, and Judah’s slave accountant Simonides (Sam Jaffe) imprisoned. Judah spends the next four years chained to the oar of a Roman war galley.
One of the assistant directors on this film was 30-year-old Sergio Leone. I’ve always suspected the influence of Wyler’s technique on his—that way both men had of constructing quiet, rhythmic, slow-burn sequences full of small but eventually revelatory details. It’s particularly evident in a scene like the one on which the ship Judah is serving is taken over by the new admiral, Quintus Arias (Jack Hawkins), who, fascinated by Judah’s still-fiery hate and determination, tests him and all the other slaves by making them row at increasingly high speeds, trying to shake the impenetrably hard stare Judah keeps fixed on him. It’s a galvanising scene that possesses undercurrents of emotional, physical, and sexual power. Judah is subsequently herded up to Arias’ cabin and offered a chance to become a gladiator, his near-nakedness and the disparity of power between the two men full of potent homoerotic overtone. Although rebuffed, Arias is still intrigued enough to make sure Judah is left unchained during the subsequent, thunderous battle with Macedonian pirates.
Another strong aspect of Ben-Hur is the level of physical grit and gore it allows to seep into the usually cardboard epic genre, and the sea battle offers great examples—a man so desperate to get a chain off his ankle he rubs the flesh off his leg, another man with a severed arm sporting a stump of bone, and half-a-dozen rowers crushed by the great ram of an enemy ship puncturing the hull. Whilst the model work of the ships shows its age, the editing and staging of the whole sequence is impeccable cinema.
Judah, having saved Quintus from the ship and stopped him from committing suicide when he thinks the battle lost, gains his freedom thanks to the amusingly dotty-seeming Tiberias (George Relph), and becomes Arias’ adopted son and a champion chariot driver. He finally returns to Judea to meet in swift succession one of the Magi, Balthazar (old Scots stalwart and compulsory epic star Finlay Currie), who’s searching for the holy child he saw born, and his host, Sheikh Ilderim (Hugh Griffith). Before you can say “dramatic device,” the Sheikh offers Judah the chance to race his four white Arabian steeds against Messala’s champion blacks at the great circus in Jerusalem, an offer Judah initially turns down. When he finally gets home, he finds his house being cared for by Simonides’ daughter Esther (Haya Harareet), who was supposed to have been married, but instead has settled for caring for her father, who emerged crippled from the prison where Miriam and Tirzah remain. Judah confronts Messala and demands he get them out, but when they are extracted from the black hole they’ve been kept in for five years, they’re found to have contracted leprosy. Returning to the house of Hur at night, they beg Esther to keep their illness secret, so she tells Judah they died in jail, prompting him to finally seek out revenge on Messala on the circus track.
Ben-Hur is melodrama, no question, but the film aims unabashedly to transcend into myth, a form always distinguished by a simultaneous cosmic and microcosmic sweep. Wyler pays close attention to totems and symbols with important emblems recurring throughout. Horses, from the pale horse Judah offers Messala at the start to the Manichaeistic duel of their white and black steeds in the chariot race, are emblems of good and evil. Water—the water that Jesus gives to Judah at the moment of crisis, and that Judah tries to give back at the end, the cleansing rain that falls at the end—is the sustenance of faith. Rings—the ring of slavery Judah removes from Esther at the outset to keep as an emblem of chastity, and the ring of Arias—are the bonds of family and loyalty. The crossbeams at which Judah and Messala aim their javelins clearly anticipate the crucifix, and the spear they both throw in friendship Judah soon enough takes up and aims at his betraying friend. The structure of the drama sustains the weight of the metaphysical mythology, particularly in building first to the good-versus-evil climax of the chariot race and then the more subtle miracle that erases suffering.
A majority of the screenplay was famously rewritten by Gore Vidal, but credited only to initial author Karl Tunberg, and Vidal’s contributions are usually only mentioned in terms of his playful gay subtext. But Vidal’s fingerprints are all over other aspects of the script, particularly in the portrayal of militaristic imperialism, which reflects a lot of Vidal’s meditations on the patrician America with which he was familiar, and the pointed portrayal of Judah’s refusal to name names to Messala: Judah is destroyed by blacklisting. “Patriots?” Messala repeatedly sneers when refusing to countenance the idea Judah offers that men who dislike the system aren’t necessarily dangerous or wrong. It’s also hard to miss the political wish-fulfillment of Jewish Judah and Arab Ilderim joining forces to combat a common enemy. Ilderim even pins a Star of David to Judah’s cloak to “shine out for your people and mine” before the race, and the conclusion is altered from the book (where Judah became a Roman aiding the Christians in getting a foothold there) for a true homecoming. Whilst the story is officially New Testament, the plot is closer to Job, and the characterisations of Judah and Messala stand in effectively for a battle of creeds as well as more personal motives; Judah eventually channels his hate for Messala into a general disdain for Rome, which he feels twisted his friend up with evil values.
Wyler’s deep-focus, widescreen compositions, always a hallmark of his style, are used throughout for grand dramatic purposes, as when Judah hides behind a stone whilst Esther gives food to Miriam and Tirzah—the landscape and composition of the shot communicating the jagged pain he’s in. The moment when Judah and his family retreat under a hail of stones by people hysterical at the proximity of lepers, whilst the blind man to whom they just gave a coin sadly drops that sullied money onto the ground, offers wild disparities of provoked emotion encompassed within the same shot. I love the gothic vibe that infuses the film at several junctures, particularly the creepy scene when Miriam and Tirzah encounter Esther in the courtyard of the house of Hur, swathed in concealing robes like living ghosts with Hammer horror leaves swirling desolately in the winds; Judah later describes their state as like “living in a grave!” The conclusion is similarly lushly stylised, as Wyler cleverly has the miracle of their healing revealed in strobing flashes of lightning, the Hurs contorting in pain and the world consumed by momentary furious darkness, as a flailing storm plunges and washes Jesus’ spilt blood down to mingle with the earth. This works better than the Sunday school visions of Jesus giving the Sermon on the Mount and the passion play affectations of his end, but the overt contrast between the patient, tactile realism of the rest of the film and the mystic visions of Jesus does place the juxtaposition of the sacred, profane, and merely earthly with fervent effect.
Of course, the chariot race is the film’s great set piece, and that sequence, directed from start to finish by Andrew Marton and realised thanks to the skills of Yakima Canutt and his team of stunt artists, is still an effortless contender for the greatest action sequence in cinema history. That’s largely because it’s a carefully composed movie in and of itself, with fluent logic of detail, from the wicked spikes that jut from Messala’s chariot and Judah removing his helmet to make sure his enemy can see his face, to the climax of the race when Messala gives into his most debased impulses and makes the mistake of trying to beat Judah—he starts whipping him—rather than his chariot. The widescreen compositions are particularly great in absorbing the landscape of wildly working horses and wheels, the hysterical tumble of events as chariots crash, men are killed, and Judah himself is nearly vaulted head over heels when his vehicle has to jump a crashed opponent’s. The decision to leave music out of the scene is particularly admirable, opting for the urgent thrum of hooves and the roars of the crowd, building to the inevitable comeuppance of Messala, stamped into a bloody mess and lolling broken in the sand, sudden shame and regret stamped on Judah’s face.
The old line “should’ve ended at the chariot race” has never really rung true for me, though, because Ben-Hur still manages to go to an interesting place after this; the simple effect of the race’s concussive, satisfying violence gives way to a portrayal of the inability of such vengeance to heal hurt. Messala’s so desperate to keep hurting Judah even after death that he delivers an evil piece of news rather than let surgeons try to save his life, and his malignancy, as Esther somewhat too pointedly states, seems to take Judah over. Judah rejects Pontius Pilate’s (Frank Thring Jr.) offer of protection as a gnawing, increasingly inhuman passion for violent cleansing consumes him. As the religious vignettes move in, meaningful lines like “In his pain, this look of peace!” get a bit much, but it’s still notable to me how carefully Wyler builds the rhythm of the film toward the final miracle. He also manages, unlike so many screen depictions of the Crucifixion, to communicate a proper metaphoric sense of what the event signifies by concentrating not merely on horror, but also on consequence; the healing of Miriam and Tirzah is in itself symbolic of moral and emotional renewal. Wyler, who was Jewish, wanted to make a film that appealed to all faiths in portraying faith itself as an ennobling ideal rather than a mere sectarian triumph. Even a godless heathen like me likes the point.
Ben-Hur cleaned up at the 1959 Oscars, taking home 11 statuettes, including one for Heston. It’s not Heston’s best performance—he’s demonstrably better, for instance, in El Cid—as he tends to hit some of his dramatic moments too hard, too early, but it’s still admirable how he prevents the mass of the production from crushing him. He acts like a man with a weight on his shoulders, his great bearish frame buckling under the impact of suffering, constantly wishing to bring his innate physical and psychological strength to bear, but hampered by his own better sense and will. Boyd, on the other hand, is beautifully, perversely malicious as Messala: I especially love the mordant precision with which he pronounces the lone word “Return?” in mocking Judah’s promise of revenge. Neither man was a subtle actor, but the job of keeping their bristling bombast in balanced counterpoint is nicely fulfilled by Harareet, the only actual Palestinian in the film. The more I watch the film, the more I admire her performance in a problematic role. Griffith, as Ilderim, gives the kind of hammy, scene-stealing performance that’s easy to love, and Hawkins is as fine as he ever was. No, Ben-Hur’s not perfect—I’d really like to know who does Jesus’ hair—and yet it still stands effortlessly tall. l
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Director: Bruno Dumont
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Love has subjugated me:
To me this is no surprise,
For she is strong and I am weak.
She makes me
Unfree of myself,
Continually against my will.
She does with me what she wishes;
Nothing of myself remains to me;
Formerly I was rich,
Now I am poor: everything is lost in love.
The above poem, “Love has subjugated me,” was written in the 13th century by Hadewijch of Antwerp (or Brabant), who was associated with a movement called Minnemystiek (“love mysticism”). Hadewijch carried on in the tradition of the romantic troubadours and formed a potent influence on Dutch literature. She was almost certainly a beguine—a devout lay woman of noble birth who lived in poverty and ministered to the physical and spiritual needs of the community. There is evidence in her writings that she was somehow separated from her beguine companions, though the circumstances of her “exile” are unclear.
Bruno Dumont, who was born and raised in Bailleul, France, seems to have absorbed deep influences from the country just across the border from his home town—Belgium. Not only has he used Belgian Hadewijch’s name for his film and either his main character or the convent in which she is a novitiate (this is a little confused in the film), but he has also crafted a sly comedy that echoes what modern Belgian troubadour Jacques Brel incredulously thought when some said his song “Ne me quitte pas [Don’t Leave Me],” was the greatest love song of the 20th century—that it’s a song about a man who humiliates himself, not a love song at all!
Céline/Hadewijch (nonprofessional actress Julie Sokolowski), a painfully devout teenager, is in trouble with the sisters of her convent for disobeying the rules against self-injury by fasting and scourging herself. “There can be no question of you taking final vows now,” the Mother Superior (Brigitte Mayeux-Clerget) says as she sends Céline back into the world to find out who she really is. Céline walks through a wood outside the convent crying in agony and stops at a ratty-looking cage with pieces of cloth tied to the bars: a statue of a dead Jesus is reclining in the makeshift cave, peeling paint and bird shit marring his visage.
She returns to Paris and moves back into the ornate period mansion of her wealthy parents—her father (Luc-François Bouyssonie) is a minister of France. One morning, when her mother (Marie Castelain) asks her what she is going to do that day, Céline, in a laugh-inducing moment, answers, “Pray”—and then does, in all earnestness. Afterward, she goes to a café, and three Arab boys invite her over to their table. One of them, Yassine (Yassine Salime), invites her to listen to a concert on the banks of the Seine that evening, and she agrees. All the boys comment on how agreeable she is even though she doesn’t know any of them, an uncommon characteristic for a Parisian, they say. Yassine gets the idea that she’s “easy,” which we see at the completely laughable concert—the band’s frontman rocks out on an accordian (how French!)—when he tries to kiss and put his arm around Céline. She fends him off and later tells him she’s a virgin and will to stay that way the rest of her life because she is hopelessly in love with Jesus Christ.
It would be easy to get very serious about this movie because of how the plot draws Céline into the terrorist plans of Yassine’s brother Nassir (Karl Sarafidis) and seems to be making a parallel between the two varieties of religious fanaticism. Nassir’s is borne of hate at what the French have done to Algeria, but when he flies Céline to a bombed-out part of his country to meet his co-conspirators, she shrinks in horror.
Céline is, in fact, a very normal teenage girl whose raging hormones are doing to her what they do to all girls her age—turned her into an erotic creature who is barely awake to her own appetites or those she stirs in others, and lost in a mist of romanticism. Just take a look at a post-pubescent fan of Twilight, and you’ll get a pretty accurate picture of the girl Sokolowski is playing. All of Dumont’s close-ups of her, reminiscent of the penetrating gaze Dreyer turned on Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc, reveal ardency. But in service of what? In a cryptic conversation Céline has with Nassir after she has run tearfully out of a lesson he is giving on the meaning of the invisible in Islamic teachings, she stops short of saying that what she really wants is for Christ to become corporeal so she can fuck him. Instead, she hugs Nassir close, an action she will repeat with Yassine, and eventually with an ex-con named David (David Dewaele) who works at the convent. It is in this final hug, which occurs after David has saved her from drowning herself, that we see that she is pretending she is dead and hugging Christ as one would a lover.
I know that Céline would like me to call what she is suffering from true religious love of one’s fellow man, but I am forced to conclude that the old nuns who threw her out of the convent were right. She has fixated on Christ in a way that preadolescents try on sexuality by becoming attracted to animated characters. Although on the surface she would seem to have much in common with Hadewijch of Antwerp, her love is of a much more earthly variety.
Luis Buñuel said that romantic obsession, though painful for the obsessed one, always looks foolish from the outside. His films deftly mix the agonies and horrors of such obsessions with dark-hued comedy to create a sublime catalog of sex farces. Indeed, Dumont seems to share something in common with the perverted old master. Like Sylvia Pinal’s character in Viridiana, Céline seeks a pious life divorced from men, but when pushed by her own good intentions into an encounter with violence, she awakens from her haze.
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Director/Screenwriter: Jessica Hausner
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Welcome back to Theology 101. In our last class, we talked about The Rapture and the possibility that God is a narcissistic turd. Today, we will discuss miracles and the possibility that the Virgin Mary hasn’t got any more influence over her narcissistic, turdy lord and master than any other woman who has subordinated herself to an overbearing man.
Not a very dignified way to begin a review of a thoughtful film, I know, but in a way, it captures the very real life that Austrian director and screenwriter Jessica Hausner portrays in her examination of pilgrims in search of a cure for life’s afflictions. Unlike the real heavenly rewards offered to all in Michael Tolkin’s The Rapture, the hope for a cure is like a nagging, not altogether welcome itch for the multitudes who come to the spot in southwestern France where asthmatic Bernadette Soubirous saw the Immaculate Conception and scratched at the ground in a natural grotto to bring forth water that is said to heal the sick and injured.
Lourdes has become a massive monument not only to a strong faith passed from generation to generation but also to impressive human industry in service of the divine. To the magnificent edifices and well-ordered worship routines targeted at currying favor with the Virgin Mary comes the group of pilgrims on which Hausner trains her penetrating gaze. The group tour to Lourdes has been arranged by men and women of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, a service organization that resembles the Salvation Army in its use of military uniforms and sister nurse garb. The opening shot of a dining room that volunteers in the Order, able-bodied “civilians,” and disabled individuals in wheelchairs slowly fill is taken from a high point of view, as though a divine presence were appraising this latest group of petitioners.
Cécile (Elina Löwensohn), a severe-looking nurse, is in charge. Like any other tour group leader, she outlines the activities for each day, gathers her flock for outings by holding up an umbrella, and sees to the care of the invalids who are being tended by young, inexperienced volunteers who come and go each tour. Our attentions as an audience are drawn to one young woman, Christine (Sylvie Testud), who has lost the use of her arms and legs. Her volunteer caregiver, a pretty redhead named Maria (Léa Seydoux), is more interested in the male “soldiers” than in seeing to Christine’s needs. She abandons Christine in her chair at one point and tells Christine that she usually goes skiing during her vacations but decided to volunteer because she needs a purpose in life—this after Christine has revealed in a prayer circle that she feels useless. Still, Christine is unfailingly polite and pleasant to everyone, rewarding callousness with a rueful smile that has become part of the armor she must wear when facing a world in which she is relatively helpless, quite dependent, and almost completely invisible.
Christine reports having dreams that the Virgin Mary has spoken to her and cured her. She attracts the hopeful attention of Frau Hartl (Gilette Barbier), a very devout, able-bodied helper who rooms with her to tend to any of her nighttime needs. Frau Hartl pushes Christine to the front of a gigantic chapel where a mass in English is being held; Cécile scolds them for leaving the group, saying that being in front doesn’t give anyone an advantage with God. Frau Hartl also takes Christine, somewhat against her will, to an evening mass outside the grotto; they pass by the group’s priest and two Order members as one of them is telling a sacrilegious joke that suggests the Virgin Mary has never been to Lourdes. Aside from these deviations from the group agenda, Christine follows the regular rounds: going to the baths where the infirm have Lourdes water poured over their heads and hands, seeing a film of pilgrims who claim to have been cured, and moving in the snaking line to the grotto, where worshippers through the decades have rubbed the talismanic rock walls smooth with their hands and their kisses.
Christine has been on other pilgrimages, mainly because it’s the only way someone in a wheelchair can take a vacation without much trouble. She met Kuno (Bruno Todeschini), a handsome and courteous soldier in the Order, on a previous tour in Rome and nurses a crush on him. Christine notices a sly flirtation between Kuno and Maria, and we can see her competitive spirit leap inside her. She sees a young woman, obviously brain damaged, suddenly awaken in recognition of her mother; the two wheelchair-bound women regard each other and smile. And then as Christine is being wheeled through the grotto, she lifts her hand to touch the rock wall; that evening, she rises from bed, goes into the bathroom, and combs her hair.
Is it a miracle? Does she deserve to have a miracle visited upon her? The second half of the film shows how Christine becomes a minor celebrity applauded wherever she goes, acts on her feelings for Kuno, and suffers the envy of her fellow pilgrims who were not granted their miracle. Christine had confessed her anger over her illness: “Why me?” was her lament. Soon, that lament becomes “Why her and not me?” with the tour priest saying that miraculous cures occur all the time at Lourdes, only they are interior, a healing of the spirit. There is a lot to be said for finding spiritual peace, but the very real limitations of life as a quadriplegic are not glossed over in this film. The image of the pilgrims holding candles in paper cones as they listen to evening prayers is as beautiful and moving as the crippled and infirm among Lourdes’ thousands of pilgrims are sad and sobering. It’s clear what sort of a healing the invalids want at Lourdes.
It also becomes pretty clear that Christine did not get her miracle. We learn far into the film that her infirmity is the result of multiple sclerosis. Anyone with any familiarity with the disorder knows that MS sufferers have good periods and bad periods on their way to total disability. Christine’s case is fairly advanced, but given the power of her own mind and motivation to be seen so she can compete for Kuno’s affection, it seems fairly clear that she effected her own temporary cure. A line said to new believer Sharon in The Rapture seems appropriate here: “You hate your job; you hate your life; but you want to feel special. Instead of letting me do that, you’re rushing off to something that’s not even there.” Christine wins a statue of the Virgin Mary as best pilgrim of the trip—for being cured, of course—and then is just left standing on the stage after a short speech, her moment in the sun over for her resentful and indifferent companions and further humiliation waiting in the wings.
Hausner seems to have a jaundiced view of God, shown by emphasizing how puny Christine—indeed any pilgrim—is. One shot that I particularly like is when Christine is shown sitting in the chapel. We can hear the service, but we can only see Christine in a sliver, almost crowded out of the scene by enormous stone pillars on either side of her. It actually looks as though God could just as easily crush her as save her.
I must admit that as a fan of The Song of Bernadette, I was quite shocked to see the tacky statuary that adorns the grotto, from a large-than-life golden diorama of Jesus being entombed after his death to a Virgin Mary perched in the nook where Bernadette first saw her. But it was also incredible to see what really goes on at Lourdes and to gaze on the breathtaking scenery in this mountainous region. As with The Rapture, I find both the characters in the film, well realized by all the actors, and the real-life pilgrims—their devotion, faith, doubts, pettiness, and utter humanness—extremely touching and well worth loving. They each deserve a miracle. I hope they get one.
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Director/Screenwriter: Michael Tolkin
By Marilyn Ferdinand
The 1980s and 90s were an interesting time, a time when the pendulum swung away from the rebellion and hedonism of the 1960s and 70s. In many countries, and especially in an already religiously oriented United States, God and traditional religion made a big comeback in the larger culture. On television, religiously oriented shows, previously confined to Sunday-morning children’s programming and preachy talking-heads discussions like “30 Good Minutes,” were developed for prime time. Dramas like “Highway to Heaven,” “Touched by an Angel,” and “Seventh Heaven” became big and enduring hits. Yet, while these shows were unabashed in their faith in God and angels, they followed the television formula of wrapping conflict up in a tidy bow by the end of the hour, leaving a warm afterglow of harmony and goodness without really engaging religious dogma and belief.
The big screen was slower to get on the religious bandwagon, and when it did, the films that resulted (for example, Dogma and Michael) engaged in feeble mocking of sanitized religion without really challenging it, or exploited scripture for titillation, as with Mel Gibson’s graphic The Passion of the Christ. Eventually, a subgenre of religious films that follow the television formula was established, with The Blind Side reaching the pinnacle of recognition for these efforts.
To my mind, the only film to come out of this period that truly, literally wrestles with scripture itself—not morality, not social problems, not biblical stories—is Michael Tolkin’s dramatic and thought-provoking The Rapture. Combining the apocalyptic predictions from The Revelation of John with a brand of evangelical Christianity, Tolkin explores the journey of a woman who literally fills her emptiness with belief in and love of God and Jesus Christ in the final few years before the end of the world.
Sharon (Mimi Rogers) is a directory-assistance operator who lives in Los Angeles and works in a windowless room of cubicles fielding hundreds of calls for phone numbers with a rote rapidity that make us feel as numb as Sharon looks. Sharon spices up her life after hours cruising with her male friend Vic (Patrick Bauchau) for couples to have sex with. They end up in a downscale bar, where they pick up Randy (David Duchovny) and Paula (Terri Hanauer). Tolkin lets us in on the preliminaries to sex, as Paula dances topless, and Randy, Paula, and Sharon eventually tumble into bed as Vic watches.
At work, Sharon becomes curious when she hears three coworkers talking about “the boy” in the lunchroom. One night, she and Vic meet a pair of married swingers. When the woman unzips her dress, she reveals an elaborate tattoo crowned with a pearl that fascinates Sharon so much that she ignores the husband grinding away at her and asks the woman, Angie (Carole Davis), about it. Angie says, “Don’t you know?” and then says the pearl is a sign that the Rapture is coming, and Christians everywhere are dreaming about it.
Sharon has started to see Randy regularly, though she’s dissatisfied with mere sex and wants to discuss her deeper problems of pain and emptiness. One night, she dreams of the pearl and overnight realizes a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. In her uplifted zeal, she tries to convert the people who call her for phone numbers at work. When she starts proselytizing to Randy he retorts angily, “You hate your job; you hate your life; but you want to feel special. Instead of letting me do that, you’re rushing off to something that’s not even there.” Yet, Sharon meets people who believe in the coming apocalypse, including her boss (Dick Anthony Williams), who takes her to meet the boy (DeVaughn Nixon), a prophet who interprets God’s signs.
Six years pass. Randy and Sharon have married, have had a daughter they named Mary (Kimberly Cullum), and have devoted themselves to God. The boy is a teen now (Christian Benavis) and says the Rapture will be upon them within the year. Randy fires an incompetent employee who later comes back and shoots him and several other employees dead. Sharon hardly seems to grieve, believing that Randy is with God and that she and Mary will see him again very soon when the apocalypse comes. Yet, she sees photos of Randy beckoning her to come meet him in the desert. Certain that she and Mary have been called early, she drives them out to Vasquez Rocks County Park where they pray daily to ascend.
Only they aren’t taken. After more than two weeks, they run out of food. Mary asks Sharon why they can’t just take matters into their own hands and die. Mary, pleading how much she wants to see her daddy, how much she loves God, and how she doesn’t want to wait, eventually persuades Sharon to shoot her. Sharon, crying, fires the fatal shot, but hesitates to kill herself because suicides don’t get into Heaven. She is arrested for murder by the cop (Will Patton) who has been keeping an eye on her and Mary in the park and thrown in a holding cell. Then the first sounding of Gabriel’s horn rings out, announcing Judgment Day, the day Sharon has been waiting and praying for. And despite this, despite the evidence of her own eyes that God and Heaven exist, Sharon chooses to deny God and remain in the darkness. Forever.
The Rapture is a remarkable film that avoids the mundane, the extraneous. It’s not important how Randy and Sharon decide to keep seeing each other after their initial hook-up. Randy’s conversion isn’t important either. This isn’t a story about a couple or even a corrupt world. It is a story about faith—why people seek it, how they find it, and how they lose it.
Sharon’s desperately empty life is communicated economically. Her office environment is characterless and grey, her home spare and provisional, and her relationship with Vic, about whom we neither know nor need to know much, loose and convenient. The stepping stones to her conversion are in plain view, but she can’t pretend she has seen the light until she actually has. Mimi Rogers’ entire demeanor changes the morning after she dreams of the pearl, moving from an affectless shadow to a woman glowing with happiness and self-possession. Her conversation with Vic about falling in love with Jesus is coy, in the language the pair understood before Sharon’s conversion. It’s a clever scene played with conviction that sets up Sharon’s future actions.
Rogers’ sincere central performance makes the questions Sharon asks worth considering, even for an atheist like me, because they are asked without irony from a place of deep yearning. Why do we have to suffer the pain of the world? Why does salvation have to come through Jesus Christ and not any of the other world religions? Why does God demand that we love Him? Tolkin doesn’t answer the questions he poses with reason, but rather by showing that the prophesies of John were true. The apocalypse does come as it was foretold, therefore Christianity is the only true religion. Tolkin’s depiction of the darkness enveloping the world is eerie. Close-up shots of hooves and their hollow clopping stir a real terror before we share with Sharon the dread sight of Death perched upon its white horse, its scythe at the ready. When Sharon makes her fateful decision to refuse God, then, we really feel the gravity of that decision whether or not we are Christian believers. Tolkin’s Rapture is a persuasive cinematic tour de force.
But what of Sharon’s decision? All she has to say is that she loves God and she will never be parted from her beloved daughter and husband again. Is God’s decision to let her kill her daughter really so grievous considering that He overrules His own law against murder to give her a chance to enter Heaven? Was it even God who put her in the desert in the first place? The boy prophet said that Sharon’s visions of her husband in the desert might have been the work of the Devil. Who was Sharon to decide that it wasn’t?
The Rapture dignifies free will even as it ruefully illustrates the disasters of pride. Killing Mary ruptures something in Sharon that had gotten shaky as she waited in vain for God to call them to Him. Is faith that fragile, or is it asking too much for a mother to abandon concern for her child? Humans live in the world, not in eternity, and a loving mother does not want to see her child go hungry, does not want to see her child die before her, and certainly does not want to be the instrument of that death. When faced with what seems like the petulance and immaturity of a god who demands to be loved, Sharon can only protest His cruelty and His pride through refusal.
Although John is a New Testament book, the God of the Revelation is the God of the Torah, who shares a good deal in common with the Greek and Roman gods. That is, the God of Israel is vain, demanding, cruel, capricious, and not as loving of His creations as they are of Him. It has been said that a person who marries for money pays for it every day of married life. Had Sharon accepted the riches of God without feeling love, she would have paid for all eternity. Her choice, to accept the happiness she had before the desert as enough, was, in fact, the right one.
Of God and Sharon, Sharon is by far the better parent. And if our goodness is known by how we treat the least among us, Sharon is the one who belongs in Heaven, not God.
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Director: Douglas Sirk
By Marilyn Ferdinand
This evening, I exchanged opinions about the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man with Kevin Olson, of the estimable Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies. He had joined the chorus of praise for this film, while I sat shaking my head in near incomprehension. Yes, when the Coens first came on the scene, I was captivated by their droll, sideways vision of the American Dream. As the years have gone by, I have found less and less to entertain and challenge me in their works, and with A Serious Man, I found myself confronted with what seemed like one, long “up yours” at Judaism. The protagonist they created as the screenwriters for the film is a stereotype of the passive, sexually uptight, intellectual Jewish man. And the Coens seem to take such delight in treating him as their personal Job and, in the process, making a mockery of the personal relationship Jews have with their object of worship that allows them to question religious teachings in each successive generation. If I believed in a divine power and felt comfortable with the position of women in the Jewish faith, I certainly would find this centuries-long dialog an attractive and salutary feature of the religion.
It is with this online conversation with Kevin fresh in my mind that I approach a film I saw last night that treats Roman Catholicism with a seriousness of purpose that does not shy away from the religion’s faults, but, unlike the Coens’ film, offers genuine thanks for the miracle of life and our ability to appreciate it through religion or other means. One of the low-budget, independent films Douglas Sirk produced and directed himself, The First Legion deals with his familiar theme of the sometimes stultifying constraints of belonging to a social group; instead of suburbia, we find ourselves in a Jesuit seminary. But the importance of being honest and true to oneself, which Sirk surveys in such great 50s melodramas as Imitation of Life and All that Heaven Allows, remains the dominant theme of The First Legion.
St. Gregory’s Novitiate, in a small community near San Diego, is troubled. The head of the seminary, Father Rector (Leo G. Carroll), is concerned about Father Fulton (Wesley Addy), who is late to teach a class for a third time because he has attended a classical concert in town and missed his train. This preoccupation with music, which Fulton studied seriously before he entered the priesthood, indicates to Father Rector that the priest might be thinking about leaving the order. He orders a reluctant Father Arnoux (Charles Boyer), a friend of Fulton’s, to speak with him. Obeying, Arnoux learns that Fulton and another priest, Father Rawleigh (John McGuire), have indeed decided to resign; Fulton intends to leave that very night. In the midst of this problem, however, the priests are welcoming a special guest, Father Quarterman (Walter Hampden), who is passing through after completing a mission in India and who has brought a film of his work to show them. The problem of the disaffected priests will have to wait.
Walking down a corridor, Arnoux is greeted by a young doctor, Peter Morrell (Lyle Bettger), who had been Arnoux’s student at Fordham University. Morrell has been in to treat Father Sierra (H. B. Warner), an elderly priest who has been unable to walk for three years and who may be developing pneumonia as a result. Morrell, a religious skeptic, wishes Sierra would believe more in his legs than in Blessed Joseph Martin, the founder of St. Gregory’s, whose name Sierra invokes repeatedly; it is Morrell’s belief that Sierra suffers from hysterical paralysis.
Father Fulton, having written his letter of resignation, looks in on Father Sierra before his departure. He goes into a common room where several priests have gathered to watch Father Quarterman’s film. The room goes dark as the projector throws images of India onto a screen. In the shadowy staircase behind the screen, a dark figure moves. It is Father Sierra, walking at last. He says he that when Fulton came to him, he realized the younger priest was troubled. He prayed to Blessed Joseph to help Fulton, and Blessed Joseph appeared to him and spoke. Father Sierra declares that at that moment his legs came back to life, a miracle. Father Rector, who has long campaigned to have Blessed Joseph declared a saint, asks Morrell for an explanation of Father Sierra’s cure. Morrell merely answers that he has no explanation. Fulton, St. Gregory’s, the town, and Catholics across the country are energized by the apparent miracle, and in short order, pilgrims start beating at the seminary gates. Only Father Arnoux, a lawyer before he became a priest, has doubts, and he probes to either prove or disprove the miracle.
Emmet Lavery, a playwright who tackled religious subjects frequently for the stage and later for the movies, wrote the screenplay for this film from his own 1934 play. His apparent familiarity with religious life works to the film’s advantage and plays to Sirk’s strength; the personal trials and clashing personalities of the men of the order are brought vividly to life and illuminate the details of a largely sequestered world that spells meaning to some and entrapment for others. Father Fulton’s frustration at being part of a teaching order in which he can have no direct influence on the lives of the laity contrasts with that of the Monsignor (William Demarest), a frequent visitor to St. Gregory’s from the world of the parish priest.
A script that treats entrances and exits randomly and theatrically rather than purposefully and cinematically, and a jaggedly edited film pull the viewer off the track of the serious questions Lavery and Sirk are trying to address. Bettger is barely serviceable, and Demarest’s Irish accent floats in and out like the tide, though he creates a likable character out of a cliché. Some good-natured sparring between the Monsignor and the Jesuits—and frequent gags involving the Monsignor’s dog—distract as often as they amuse.
It is Charles Boyer who brings this film into strong focus. He brings a sharp intelligence to the meaty role of Father Arnoux, his dedication to truth preventing him from seizing on this singular event to save St. Gregory’s, or indeed religious faith itself. Boyer speaks with conviction of the miracle of each day, of every flower or ray of sunshine, and how prayer and obedience have allowed him to find meaning in his life through these unappreciated miracles. The plight of the blindly faithful, clearly seen by Father Arnoux, plays out through one of Morrell’s patients, Terry Gilmartin (Barbara Rush), a young woman whose spine was severed in a riding accident. She has tried to accept the loss of her legs, but her buried anger and hope resurface on news of the miracle. Morrell, who confesses that he pretended to be Blessed Joseph in a successful experiment to free Father Sierra of his hysterical paralysis, now must contend with the desperation of the desperately ill pilgrims and the deadly serious Terry, who will either walk or end her life. Arnoux pushes Morrell to confess the joke he was playing on the faithful and confronts Father Rector to push his ambitions for Blessed Joseph’s sainthood aside in favor of the truth; Arnoux is prepared to resign rather than blaspheme if the petition moves forward based on this baseless miracle.
The cinematic aspects of the film are serviceable, though Sirk uses shadow to great effect, particularly in the image of an upright Father Sierra moving from darkness into light. It is Sirk’s close-ups, particularly of Father Rector and Terry during their moments of truth, that are beatific themselves. The sincere emotion they were able to access and Sirk’s dead-on choices for capturing them are extremely moving. Just as Father Sierra’s prayer for Father Fulton freed him of his self-inflicted paralysis, each finds his and her own miracle in letting go of vanity and thinking of others. A genuine miracle puts a cap on Sirk’s offer of this answer to the pain of the world.
I was very lucky to see The First Legion at a revival house. The print, which had more than a few splices and which broke at one point, came from a local collector. This film, which can only be seen as I did or by spending way too much for an old VHS copy recorded off TV, is badly in need of restoration and reissue. Returning this interesting entry in the Douglas Sirk catalog to its original glory and making it available to film fans again should be a priority.
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Director: Fred Zinnemann
Screenwriter: Robert Anderson
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Robert Anderson, the man who wrote the screen adaptation of Kathryn Hulme’s fictionalized account of her lover Mary Louise Habets’ experiences as a nun, died on Tuesday at the age of 91. Anderson, who always considered himself a playwright (movies were what he did for money), produced serious-minded works that respected the intelligence and maturity of audiences to deal with such hot-button topics as homosexuality, aging, and the loss of faith. Called “a gentleman in an age of assassins,” Anderson produced such sensitive and powerful works as Tea and Sympathy and I Never Sang for My Father. The Nun’s Story is a rich and rewarding look at religious life that eschews pious platitudes to explore both its mysteries and its cold, hard facts.
Gabrielle van der Mal (Audrey Hepburn), the eldest daughter of a renowned Belgian surgeon (Dean Jagger), is about to embark on a long journey that she hopes will take her into a close relationship with God and enable her to do His work as a nurse in the Congo. The film opens as she fingers her engagement ring, then resolutely removes it and places it on the desk in her bedroom along with some other items atop a note that says, “Return to Jean.” She hears her father plinking out some Mozart on the piano in the drawing room. She quietly descends the stairs, comes up behind him, and joins him at the keyboard. When he turns to face her, he says “Your hat is on crooked.” “I’ve been trying to practice putting things on without…” The words “a mirror” are left unsaid. The pair goes into town and views the convent across the square. “I can see you poor. I can see you chaste. But I can’t see you obeying their Rule,” Dr. van der Mal says. “You don’t have to go through with it if you don’t want to.” Gabrielle merely looks down, deflecting his implied question with a demure but determined gesture. They walk to the door and enter a room filled with parents and daughters. After some tearful farewells, the would-be nuns pass behind the door of the inner sanctum and into a world where they will be taught to create internal silence to better devote themselves to prayer and learn obedience to the Holy Rule.
The film takes us on the journey from Gabrielle to Sister Luke at a deliberate pace, missing few fascinating details that form the strict lives of discipline and striving for perfection that make a girl into a nun and a nun into a representative of Christ on Earth. At first, the postulants learn mere behaviors, such as hiding their hands when they are not being used for prayer or work, standing near the walls as they move through the halls as an act of humility, writing their transgressions in a small notebook, publicly accusing themselves of everything from being late to prayer, to feeling proud about doing a task properly and talking during the Grand Silence. Observing how they live, for example, sleeping in a common room with each bed surrounded by curtains, and their behavior, from using the sign language that allows them to communicate, to bowing and kneeling before higher-ranking nuns, to donning their habit for the first time in a rote and ritualized way, compares favorably with the experience I had viewing the lives of real Carthusian monks in Into Great Silence.
In short order, Simone (Patricia Bosworth), Gabrielle’s closest companion in the convent, gives up her vocation, while assuring Gabrielle that she is strong enough to complete the journey. “I’m the weakest of us all!” Gabrielle protests, saying she is constantly in error. Nonetheless, Simone’s prediction comes true as we watch the truly beautiful and awe-inspiring investiture of Sister Luke and her fellow novices as brides of Christ, again, with the close, unhurried observation of a way of life that has been centuries in the making.
Sister Luke is sent for training to an institute for tropical medicine to prepare her for working in the Congo. She’s an outstanding student, but put upon by Sister Pauline (Margaret Phillips), a veteran of the Congo and an average student who fears Sister Luke will take her place. Sister Luke takes her problem to Mother Marcella (Ruth White), who tells Sister Luke she has been given a golden opportunity to prove her humility; Mother Marcella then asks her to fail her final exam. The scene in front of her examiners is one of high drama, as Hepburn so evokes Sister Luke’s inner struggle that she actually breaks a sweat. That the charge from Mother Marcella was a particularly cruel Gordian Knot makes no difference; for passing her exam (in fact, placing fourth in a class of 80), Sister Luke is denied a posting to the Congo and is sent instead to work in a sanatorium for the mentally ill. The waste of her talent seems stupid, considering the great need of the Congolese and their overworked medical staff.
After a somewhat harrowing stint at the sanatorium, including being attacked by a dangerous patient called the Archangel (Colleen Dewhurst) for disobediently tending to her without help, Sister Luke finally gets posted to the Congo. Her happiness while moving among the natives in the black hospital and holding the babies of Congolese mothers breaks her nun’s proper reserve. Yet still she is to be tested. When she learns she is to work at the white hospital under Dr. Fortunati (Peter Finch), she is devastated. The scenes in the Congo are a bit too picture-perfect, but this idealization is tempered by filming real lepers in a downriver leper colony Sister Luke visits.
Sister Luke buries her disappointment in work to such an extent that she weakens her entire system and develops early-stage tuberculosis. Hepburn’s darkly circled eyes, drawn face, taut and nervous frame, and constant edge of fatigue work brutally to reflect Sister Luke’s worry that should her disease be uncovered, she will be sent back to Belgium for good. Fortunati, initially jaundiced about working with yet another nun, then surprised at her competence and increasingly reliant on her great skill, manages to keep her in country and cure her TB. Unfortunately, when an important benefactor who has fallen ill must be sent back to Belgium, Sister Luke is the only logical choice to accompany him. With World War II brewing, she fears she will never be able to return to the Congo. And indeed, Rev. Mother Emmanuel (Dame Edith Evans), the highest-ranking nun in the order, refuses to send her back. Her struggles in Belgium, her painful war losses, and her acknowledgment that she has never found the internal silence to become a great nun finally force her, with all the determination she had when entering the convent, to give up her vocation and return to the world.
This 2.5 hour film has the time and the ambition to take us all the way into Sister Luke’s world and experience with her the joys, disappointments, and, most of all, the pain of trying to bend her will to that of God and the sisters. Dr. Fortunati tells her that he’s worked with nuns as long as he can remember and found there are two kinds: the obedient ones without a stitch of imagination and the worldly ones. Sister Luke, he says, is the latter and not cut out to be a nun. When Rev. Mother Emmanuel refuses to allow Sister Luke to work at the local hospital when she returns from the Congo, her reason is that Sister Luke must attend to her vocation—she joined the order to become a nun, not a nurse, and her spiritual life must always come first.
Herein lies the conflict Anderson and Zinnemann have highlighted in obvious and subtle ways—Gabrielle wanted to become a nun, but she wanted to practice medicine in the Congo even more. In the strict and arbitrary world of the convent, God is the only master. Like army training, all convent exercises, teachings, and assignments are designed to root out individuality and create vessels to carry out God’s wishes. There was nothing half-hearted about Gabrielle’s attempts to become Sister Luke—all or nothing, she says, was her Rule before she entered the convent—and we can see through Audrey Hepburn’s remarkable performance the deep sincerity in Sister Luke’s dedication to being a nun, the automatic behaviors she has adopted over the two decades of her vocation and her anguish at all her faults.
The supporting performances are wonderful, particularly all of the ranking sisters whose guidance rules the lives of Sister Luke and her fellow sisters. Mildred Dunnock is here a placid and patient mistress of the postulants. Dame Peggy Ashcroft is a compassionate, but obedient head of the mission in Aftica. And Dame Edith Evans is old-school Catholicism at its best, firmly guiding her nuns in a clear-eyed manner than can look, but is not meant to be, cruel.
Peter Finch is young and dashing—a prototype of the rude doctors we see on TV all the time. Other viewers of this film detect some sexual tension between Hepburn and Finch’s Dr. Fortunati, but I didn’t see it. Hepburn’s Sister Luke truly seems modest, even asexual, to me. When a native man asks her why a young woman like her doesn’t have a husband, rather than try to explain the difficult concepts of Catholicism, she says quite believably, “I do have a husband. But, He’s in heaven.”
Zinnemann’s direction is very full-bodied, more so than many of his films. There’s hardly a stock type in the film, and he strives to bring as much realism as Hollywood would allow to his African scenes. I was incredibly impressed with the cinematography of Franz Planer, who is a master of shadow and color, creating beauty in every scene while still somehow making everything look real. There’s very little of the crescendo-music-soaring-looks-heavenward that many religious films are made of. His work with Hepburn’s radiant face brings out so many looks that have nothing to do with glamor and everything to do with the truth of her character.
Finally, of course, is The Word. Read this remarkable exchange between Sister Luke and Rev. Mother Emmanuel:
Rev. Mother Emmanuel: Have you struggled long enough to say surely that you’ve come to the end?
Sister Luke: I think I’ve been struggling all these years, Reverend Mother. In the beginning each struggle seemed different from the one before it. But then they began to repeat, and I saw they all had the same core: obedience. Without question, without inner murmuring. Perfect obedience as Christ practiced it. As I no longer can.
Rev. Mother Emmanuel: Yes?
Sister Luke: There are times when my conscience asks which has priority. It or the Holy Rule? When the bell calls me to chapel, I often have to sacrifice what might be the decisive moment in a spiritual talk with a patient. I’m late every day for chapel or refectory or both. When I have night duty I break the Grand Silence because I can no longer cut short a talk with a patient who seems to need me. Mother, why must God’s helpers be struck dumb by five bells in the very hours when men in trouble want to talk about their souls?
Anderson truly made this film more than the sum of its many magnificent parts.
The Nun’s Story was nominated for eight Oscars the same year that the moribund Ben-Hur cleaned up. It won not a one—yet more evidence that even back in 1959, the Oscars were a joke. On Oscar night this year, skip the broadcast and watch this movie; it’s long, but not as long as the Oscars, and infinitely more deserving of your attention and admiration.
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Director/Screenwriter: David Volach
By Marilyn Ferdinand
“You know what you know about life from your encounter with it, but you react to life while building it.” (David Volach)
David Volach’s much-honored debut film helps us encounter a world that is a self-protected mystery to many of us—that of the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews. As one of 19 children raised in a Haredi family in Jerusalem, Volach understand this world well. My Father, My Lord tells of one week in the lives of one such family—the elderly Rabbi Abraham Eidelmann (Assi Dayan), his much-younger wife Esther (Sharon Hacohen), and their 7-year-old son Menahen (Ilan Griff). In a well-honed Jewish method of teaching, Volach constructs his tale as a parable—actually, a sort of counter-parable to the biblical tale of the binding of Isaac.
In this tale, Rabbi Eidelmann is very much like his biblical namesake, Abraham. He is the extremely devout spiritual leader of a Haredi congregation in Jerusalem. We first meet the so-far nameless rabbi doing what rabbis usually do—studying scripture closely at a desk and making notes. We view him at lower than eye level through a space between the stacks of books piled around him. He is shaky, having trouble keeping to his task. Eventually, he stops, throws his head back, and starts to weep. We then see him going through the doors of his synagogue. The men of the congregation, engaged in animated conversations, pause and move to let him pass. The rabbi climbs the few stairs to the altar and leans wearily at the podium. He looks over at an empty seat with a brass nameplate. The subtitle translates it as “Menahen Eidelmann.” We assume he is weeping for this missing congregant, who must have died. A birds-eye shot passes over the congregation, with its table set with food for after the service.
In the next scene we meet Esther and young Menahen (could this be the missing congregant?) in a scene of domestic bliss. We hear Esther call to her son as the boy sits on the edge of a full bathtub, twirling with his finger some wet hair that must be his father’s floating on top. Menahen is a curious, observant boy, filled with wonder about everything, particularly things of nature. He has some breakfast and then goes with his father down the street to school. On the way, the rabbi quizzes him about the purposes of the prayer boxes called tefillin Haredi wear on their forehead and arm. To get high-quality tefillin, the rabbi tells his son, they will have to order them four or five years before Menahen’s bar mitzvah.
In class, the instructor is teaching them songs of praise to G_d; the song they are learning today is the story of the binding of Isaac. Menahen is distracted by a mother dove that has built her nest on his classroom’s window sill and is caring for two chicks. On the playground, he shows a classmate an educational card from a National Geographic set that shows a tribal African in exotic make-up beating on a drum.
At home, he shows the card to his mother and asks, “Is this idolatry?” Esther calls Abraham in to look at the card, and he confirms that it is idolatry. He orders Menahem repeatedly and harshly to tear up the card. When their son starts to cry, Esther suggests that he can have another card. The rabbi, angry, asks, “Next, are you going to reward him for observing the Sabbath?” Finally, Menahem holds the card in front of him and tears it in two.
Menahem is very excited that they are to spend time at the Dead Sea and goes through the bag of things his mother has purchased for the trip—plastic sandals, a new bathing suit. He asks her where the water wings are. She says they are in the bag. Then he says, “you don’t need water wings there. You just lay back and float,” a comment on the high salt content of the Dead Sea. On the day they are to leave in a private transport—a treat to Menahem from the rabbi—the teacher at Menahen’s school rushes out to the car to fetch the rabbi. He is brought to the nest of the dove, where he recites a prayer, and shoos away the mother bird in observance of a Torah commandment. Then he finishes the prayer asking G_d to honor him and his wife with many sons and daughters, which is part of the ritual. When Menahen asks him why he made the chicks motherless, the rabbi replies, “We do everything in the Torah without asking why.” Esther tries to reassure Menahem that the mother bird will come back to the nest. She knows that Menahen has observed the feelings—the souls—animals have, which his father has told him they do not.
Menahen’s love of nature and his father’s love of the Almighty will lead to the tragedy we fear is coming. Indeed, this is a film filled with love. I found myself quite moved by Menahen’s inquisitiveness and the beauty of the shots Volach shares with us—a window onto the soul of earth that even Abraham acknowledges is a wondrous gift from G_d—and fell quite in love with this sweet, little boy. Esther is a gift of a mother, gentle with Menahen and angry on his behalf over the torn card. She writes a note to Abraham when he comes to bed that night (not permitted to speak after she says the cleansing prayer of sleep) to express her anger.
But what of Abraham? He loses his son because he “was wrapped in the arms of the Almighty” at afternoon prayer. Does that mean he loves G_d more than he loves his family? It would be easy to judge Abraham as a kind of careerist too devoted to his work—or as a religious zealot, which a number of reviewers of this film have charged—but this is a complicated issue that doesn’t smack of zealotry to me. Abraham believes that the Lord determines the fate of men, and he must accept that this loss was G_d’s will. He also knows that the biblical Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his miracle son Isaac on an altar to show his love of G_d. He is an old man who has devoted his whole life to Torah; its laws are his life. He never learned how to deal with a little boy. His contrition in the face of Esther’s anger about the torn card shows he would like to learn, but unfortunately, he must learn about the sanctity of life the hardest way of all.
When Menahen and his father are at the seashore, the boy brings over a fish he has caught in a plastic bag from a nearby stream. Abraham says the fish is from the mountain streams that run to the sea. Since it is a freshwater fish, it will die when it enters the salt water. Now that Abraham has come down from the mountaintop and swum in the salt water of sorrow, what will happen to him and his faith? David Volach poses a worthy question in an incredibly moving and lyrical film. l
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Director: Nicholas Ray
By Marilyn Ferdinand
I looked at my desk calendar today and saw a holiday designation I hadn’t noticed before—Easter Monday. Whether this was meant to allow employers to give employees a Monday off per their paid-holiday schedule, a strange expansion of Christian observances, or just me being obtuse, the calendar worked to my advantage. I decided it wasn’t too late to post an Easter review of the Samuel Bronston epic King of Kings.
I have a rather strange relationship with Christianity. I was raised as a Jew in an overwhelmingly Catholic town. Most of my friends were Catholic, and I went to a Catholic university, at which my simple and sincere question (“What is the Holy Trinity?”) in one of my required theology classes received the whip-necked stares of my classmates and the surprised, gentle look of my instructor, an ordained priest, who gave an explanation that I still don’t understand. Whereas I have a pretty broad knowledge of Christianity and its culture—especially Catholicism—very few Christians know much about the religion and culture into which I was born and into which Jesus was born. Perhaps because of my largely secular upbringing and my studies in college, I observe religion today much as a sociologist or anthropologist would. I mean no disrespect to persons of faith in my review of King of Kings, but the story of Jesus Christ is just that to me—a story that informs what I know about Judaism and what it became. I intend to evaluate how well this film tells its story.
King of Kings, a remake of Cecil B. DeMille’s silent epic of the same name, is a life of Jesus of Nazareth. It begins with the Roman conquest and occupation of Judea. The return of Roman subjects to their home towns to be taxed according to the new Roman census gives us our first glimpse of Joseph (Gerard Tichy) and Mary (a radiant Siobhan McKenna), returning from Galilee to Bethlehem. The town is unruly, and an innkeeper tosses some apparently drunk guests into the street. Joseph asks for a room for his pregnant wife. The innkeeper says there is no room, but he could open a stable stall for them. Jesus is born, and Mary cradles him in her arms as three kings alight from their camels, place gifts at her feet, and bow their heads to the ground.
The governor of Judea, Herod (Gregoire Aslan), learns of a prophecy that a powerful prophet has just been born in Bethlehem. He summons the head of the Roman guard Lucius (Ron Randell) and instructs him to kill all the newborn males in Bethleham. Lucius, who from the first strikes one as a decent, intelligent man, says he does not kill children and will not obey. Herod reminds him of his duty to the emperor and, reluctantly, Lucius carries out his orders. Despite the bloodshed, the target of the hunt has been spirited away by his parents to Nazareth. Herod has what seems to be an asthma attack after the murders, and we watch his son Herod Antipas (Frank Thring) allow his father to die as viciously as his father ordered the deaths of babies.
Soon Pontius Pilate (Hurd Hatfield) and his new wife Herodias (Rita Gam) arrive to govern Judea. He’s unhappy with the difficult post, but his wife reminds him that whoever can rule Judea can rule the world. He’s got his hands full. Rebel leader Barabbas (Harry Guardino) is making plans to attack the Romans and free Judea. The region is a powder keg, with all Jews on their guard. It is in this atmosphere that Lucius and other Roman soldiers move through the land to conduct a census. He arrives at Nazareth where he encounters a wary Joseph. “No trouble,” he assures them, “just conducting a census.” Mary and Joseph are accounted for, but their son Jesus is not. Lucius asks him where he was born. Jesus replies, “Bethlehem.” Lucius pauses, regards the lad carefully. Finally, he tells Joseph, “Get him registered as soon as possible.”
I really liked this set-up of the story. It introduced all of the important characters, set them in their time and a realistic landscape (the film was shot in Spain), and presented them largely as ordinary people living real life. I got a sense of the injustices against which the Jews railed—from the breaching of the sacred Temple of Jerusalem to the slaying of its priests in a perfectly choreographed launching of spears (perhaps too perfect) and the heavy taxation under which the poor populace labored. Certainly, if any group of people was ready to accept a savior, these people were, and their religious teachings gave them the hope that one would appear some day. Of course, people like Barabbas were not willing to wait for divine intervention. I was reminded of the two paths to freedom represented by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X as I watched Jesus, the prince of peace, and Barabbas, who embraced violence. I also was reminded by Herod’s actions of the Torah story of the deaths of first-born Jews at the hands of Pharoah’s troops to prevent the arrival of a deliverer—Moses. The current story, of course, will turn out much differently. Instead of the slaying of Egyptian first-born to loosen Pharoah’s hand, the Christian god will sacrifice his own first-born to deliver them, if not physically, then spiritually.
Soon, Jesus (Jeffrey Hunter) is a man who is ready to take up his calling. He goes into the desert to purify himself. The harsh landscape is beautiful and forbidding. We only hear the devil call out to Jesus—there are no visions, only Jesus’ denials of Satan. When he emerges, he recruits his apostles, beginning with Simon Peter, a humble fisherman. The line, “I will make you a fisher of men,” is poetically powerful and sets us up for the many famous lines that Hunter mainly utters with conviction. One crucial exception is the Sermon on the Mount. Hunter’s answers to the many questions he is asked—questioning is a very Jewish practice for their rabbi—are convincing, but the askers are mere reciters. I’m told that many of these people were Spanish and were dubbed in English. It would have been better to bring in some English speakers for Hunter to work off of. The Sermon on the Mount is a dull thud in this film.
Other scenes are vibrant. Brigid Bazlen as Salome is a wicked, wicked girl consumed by her appetites. She finds the captured John the Baptist (Robert Ryan) to be a curious animal. There’s no question that in this interpretation, Salome has encouraged Herod’s lust for her. Her dance, though tamely not the striptease it was meant to be, is still erotic. When she asks for the head of John the Baptist, her offhand remark that she “wants to look at it,” is amoral thought itself. The scene is completely satisfying.
Another beautifully wrought scene is the slaughter of Barabbas’ army, caught between the outer and inner walls of Pilate’s palace by a ready and waiting Roman army. The rebels seem at first to be holding their own as the Romans pull back, the better to draw all the Judeans within the gates. When the Romans unleash their full fire power, they roll over living and dead Judeans alike, forcing their retreat—right into the Roman spears protruding through the slatted gate. Barabbas, atop a wall of the enclosure, looks down at the strewn bodies of his men and screams. He gets an arrow in the leg for his trouble, but his despair is far more painful.
However, the Last Supper, played like a rudimentary Passover ritual that transforms into a communion ceremony, is strangely lifeless. When Jesus tells Judas (Rip Torn) to do what he must quickly, there is no pang of sadness in either man. The superb Hurd Hatfield makes the most of Jesus’ trial for sedition and blasphemy, as does Ron Randell, his appointed defense attorney. There was much more passion between these men than ever passed between Jesus and his apostles. The Passion seemed deliberately bland, causing the last third of the film to lose an enormous amount of steam. The final shot made me laugh at its hokey symbology.
Nicholas Ray should have been able to turn out a work of splendor and intimacy, given his track record. The first half of the film does have those two attributes in spades. I have to wonder if studio interference might have been to blame for the film’s stillborn second half. Orson Welles lends his magnificent voice as the narrator of this well-known story, bringing it alive whenever he speaks. Miklos Rozsa’s score is grand and bombastic, not really my cup of tea but certainly accomplished and epic in nature. The Overture, Intermission, Entr’acte, and End Music reminded me of a time when lengthy films were structured like plays and that I experienced firsthand watching The Sound of Music in a movie theatre. They even sold programs. This structure lends gravity to the film and provides audiences with a thoughtful break; I wish this practice would return.
King of Kings infers how a blend of paganism and Judaism became the new religion. Jews reject the use of human images for worship (hence the film’s depiction of protests against posting plaques of the Roman emperor on the Temple pillars), but Christians embrace such images. The traditional Easter meal of lamb echoes the Jewish sacrifices to their god. The film also hints at the conversion of two Romans, Lucius and Herodias, foreshadowing the eventual conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine and perhaps the introduction of some Roman pagan rituals to this new state religion.
King of Kings may be pleasing to many Christians who find inspiration in the story of Jesus Christ. It certainly is a thrilling and epic tale. Unfortunately, this version starts to breathe life into it, only to fall into the trap of reverence, primarily in the more remote acting style that overtook many of its principals—especially Jeffrey Hunter. By bowing to convention, King of Kings loses connection.
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Director: Raphaël Nadjari
2007 Chicago International Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Israel is a country all too familiar with tragedies that tear families apart. Most of the outside world is familiar with the car bombs, border fighting, and saber rattling of Israel’s international politics. It is rare, however, for the average outsider to get a glimpse of the daily life of this country; we imagine, I suppose, that everyone lives in bunkers and watches for flak over their shoulders every day.
In fact, of course, Israel’s daily life is much like that found in other countries. Lower, middle, and upper classes exist in their day-to-day spheres. Fathers and mothers work, tend to their homes and families, and send their children off to school. Ordinary crimes and celebrations occur. Religious services are held. People come and go.
Eli Frankel (Shmuel Vilojni), his wife Alma (Limor Goldstein), his teenage son Menachem (Michael Moshonov), and younger son David (Yonathan Alster) lead a seemingly typical, middle-class life in Jerusalem. The kids fight, the mother badgers, the father intervenes when conflicts arise, and all do what they are assigned to do—work, homemaking, and school. Eli admonishes Menachem to listen to his mother and not come home at all hours because she worries. Menachem disobeys, of course, when he goes out with his friends and girlfriend Debbie (Reut Lev). David is always late getting ready for school.
One morning, Eli is driving David and Menachem to classes. When he reaches the school, a strange, distracted look comes over his face. He passes by the building, and David asks him why he didn’t stop. The car narrowly avoids hitting oncoming traffic and crashes onto a median. Menachem emerges from the vehicle a bit stunned. Eli tells him to go get help. Menachem weaves his way up the street and out of sight.
When Menachem returns with a pair of heavily armed policemen—perhaps military—they see David lying in the back of the car. Eli is gone. The troopers call for an ambulance to take David and Menachem to the hospital. They take a statement from Menachem about his father. The Jerusalem police take over and plan a search of a 20-kilometer area to see if they can find Eli, who may be hurt and disoriented. Their search turns up nothing.
The Frankels are in shock. They accept the ministrations of Aharon (Yoav Hait), Eli’s brother, and his father (Ilan Dar), which include nightly prayer vigils in Alma’s home and the printing of 200 copies of Tehilim (Psalms) for distribution within their prayer community. Alma also finds that she must find a way to make ends meet—the bank has frozen all the family’s assets until a missing person declaration is granted.
Amid the general tumult, and despite Alma’s attempts to comfort them, Menachem and David are left largely to their own devices. David seeks help from Menachem, who merely wants to be left alone. He stops attending school and pushes Debbie away. The accident car, which has been towed to a parking spot near their home, becomes a haunted place that Menachem visits, but fears touching, and a setting for his dreams.
Alma puts her foot down about the prayer vigils one day, declaring she needs some peace and quiet at home. Eli’s father becomes offended and storms out. Menachem chases after him, and visits him the next day to apologize. “She can’t help it,” says the pious man. “It’s how she was raised.” Menachem drags David to their grandfather’s Saturday morning Torah readings. It was something he used to do with his father.
We watch Menachem slowly implode throughout this understated, internalized film. It doesn’t help that everyone around him emphasizes how important family is at a time like this; perhaps the most important family member to Menachem—his father—has apparently bugged out. He must feel, as children do, that he did something wrong to drive his father away, and what solace can there ever be for him.
The handheld camerawork, meant to give this film an immediacy, is frequently and jarringly out of focus. Watching the daily struggle of a family in crisis is both tedious and extremely unnerving. However, French director Nadjari pulls a stellar performance out of Moshonov that is mesmerizing to watch. The growth of panic and grief is so gradual, but insistent, that we experience the same anticlimax at the end of the film as the Frankels do. We’ve become invested in their plight more than is comfortable.
Tehilim opens on one of the grandfather’s Torah readings. The men are studying a text that asks how a man who does not know toward which direction he is facing turn his prayers toward Jerusalem. The answer is that he must turn his face to God. Menachem and we can only hope that turning his face to God will help him find his way. l
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Martin Scorsese: A Retrospective in Words
By Roderick Heath
Whilst making Boxcar Bertha in 1972, Barbara Hershey gave Martin Scorsese a book, The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis, the Greek author whose novel Alexis Zorba became the famous film with Anthony Quinn. The novel of the Christ led to Kazantzakis’ excommunication, and the work was often banned. Last Temptation remained lodged in Scorsese’s imagination until he began developing the project in the early 1980s. Nervousness pervaded all stages of bringing the film to realization. Paramount, which had agreed to bankroll the film, pulled out before shooting began. The production went ahead in Morocco on a $7 million budget provided by Universal and Cineplex/Odeon. The early hand-wringing proved justified by the film’s reception. Christian organizations lobbied for its banning. Some offered to buy the negative for the production cost and destroy it. Picket lines attended screenings. French zealots threw Molotov cocktails at a Parisian showing. Wildfire controversy accompanied the work wherever it went. If it was a grindhouse film, its video cover might still boast “Banned by Bulgaria and Blockbuster!”
All this from a guy who came close to enrolling in the seminary? You’d think Marty had portrayed Jesus as joining in a cocaine-fuelled threesome with Mary and Judas and voicing support for Michael Dukakis. Rather, The Last Temptation of Christ is merely a vivid, strident, intellectually curious work. It is also possibly Scorsese’s greatest film—not that it’s ever likely to win that consensus from a popular culture that has made a fetish of Taxi Driver or Goodfellas—and one of the most vigorous and original religious films ever made.
Kazantzakis’ written prologue establishes the spiritual territory; the disturbing, incomprehensible struggle of a man who is also divine to reconcile the struggles between the flesh and godliness. The Jesus thus conjured is not a beatifically smiling savior assured of his own rectitude and sublime purpose, but (as embodied by Willem Dafoe, dedicated to the role with hypnotic effort), instead chased by restless dread and unseen torments, filled with self-loathing and hate for the God he knows wants something great and terrible from him. He struggles through deadly stigmatic fits and phases of doubt, fear, anger, despair, and human longing.
Spurning the lamentable history of Jesus flicks, Last Temptation dedicates itself to a portrait of the beginnings of Christianity as it sprang from the brute soil of Roman-occupied Judea—this raw, dirty, poverty-stricken landscape on the edge of both the Empire and the realms of the human psyche; beyond here is only the bone-cracking desert, playground of Yahweh and Satan. Judea’s native culture has been reduced to ineffective theatre. It’s a multicultural crossroads, infused with Bedouins, Arabs, Persians, and Africans, tough and vital. The land has turned its attention to wandering preachers and soothsayers like John the Baptist. Guerrilla resistance simmers; the Zealots, including Saul (Harry Dean Stanton), act as paramilitary enforcers, searching out traitors both religious and secular. Jesus has made himself a pariah by being the only carpenter willing to manufacture crosses for the Romans. He even participates in crucifying a seditious prophet, anticipating his own hideous fate. “God loves me…I want him to stop! … I make crosses so he’ll hate me. I want him to find somebody else!”
Jesus determines to pursue his fate, and leaves his home and mother (Verna Bloom). Walking the shores of Galilee, he senses himself being followed by an invisible thing that strikes him with pain before directing him to the house of Mary Magdalene (Hershey – Scorsese made her audition so she wouldn’t think he was just returning the favor of the loan of the book in casting her). He watches the degrading sensual spectacle of Mary with her clients for the day. At the crucifixion he helped perform, Mary, amongst the jeerers, had spat in his face. Jesus begs her forgiveness; they were childhood sweethearts, but Mary lost Jesus to his crisis, which caused him to reject the possibility of marrying her. Broken-hearted and out of suitors, taking up a whore’s life was her only option, and she taunts him sexually and emotionally with forlorn rage. And yet a powerful friendship still holds them together.
Jesus reaches a remote, rugged, desert monastery. He is greeted by the spirit of the recently deceased Abbot, who states that he knows who Jesus is. Jesus confesses his purposes and weaknesses to young monk Jerobeam (Barry Miller), who tries to advise him on the tasks that confront him. When two black cobras emerge from a hole in his cell and speak with Mary’s voice, Jerobeam recognizes it as a sign Jesus’ impurities have been cast out, and he can return to the world.
The film’s greatest twist on the traditional story is Judas, embodied with great force and emotional complexity by Harvey Keitel. Taking a cue from the Gnostic texts, Judas is Jesus’ angry doppelganger, another childhood friend who has become an agent of the Zealots. Jesus takes Judas’ knock for whatever it is that dogs him, and indeed, he is the incarnation of Jesus’ merciless responsibility. Judas kicks at Jesus’ tools and wood for the cross he’s building, and when Jesus plaintively explains, “I’m struggling,” Judas ripostes, “I struggle. You collaborate!” When Jesus returns from the desert, Judas holds a knife to his throat—the Zealots have ordered his assassination. Jesus accepts the knife if it’s what God wants for him, but, stirred by Judas’ hesitance, suggests, “Perhaps He didn’t send you here to kill me. Maybe He sent you to follow me.”
Judas walks with Jesus back to civilization, stating “If you stray this much from the path, I’ll kill you.” A righteous opportunity quickly presents itself; the pair comes upon Mary being stoned by a mob, scapegoat for festering frustration. Jesus intervenes, facing down the righteous hypocrites, accosting wealthy Zebadee (Irvin Kershner—yes, the one who directed The Empire Strikes Back) with a telling count of his sins: “He’s seen you cheat your workers! And what about that widow you visit, what’s her name?” Jesus leads them instead to deliver the Sermon on the Mount, except that both the crowd and the impact of his words aren’t what they’re cracked up to be. Jesus is too crippled by the conflict of his ideas and impulses to trust himself as a preacher: “God is so many miracles. What if I say the wrong thing? What if I say right thing?”
Jesus gives a parable of a farmer sewing wheat, some of which withers, some of which finds no soil, and some of which grows and feeds a nation, and then explains, when he’s met with stony looks, he’s the farmer. His parable proves immediately true; some declare him an idiot, some take him for a provocateur and bay for blood, and some, the most intellectually and spiritually curious, are intrigued. Jesus’ band of adherents swells. Taking a leaf from Roberto Rossellini’s The Flowers of St Francis, Scorsese uses the Apostles for gently, highly human, comic relief as they fight for sleeping space by the fire. Judas finds them silly and useless, whilst Jesus ponders the purpose-sapping contradictions of his efforts. His return to Nazareth is met by mockery and stones.
Judas suggests they go to see John the Baptist (Andre Gregory), who condenses the spirit of the Old Testament in his scrawny, wild-haired body. He rants prophesies of judgment, brimstone, godly wrath. “Now he sounds like the Messiah!” Judas croaks. They have come upon The Baptist at a ceremony, surrounding by religious ecstatics; women dance naked, drums bang, chants sound. As Jesus comes toward John from behind, John turns abruptly, just as Jesus had with his own unseen pursuer, and demands, “Who are you?” The noise of the ceremony dies, leaving only the sound of rippling river water, and does not return until John anoints Jesus’ head.
This is a scene that captures Scorsese’s jarring approach at its finest. Scorsese achieves a vivid sense of the past by spurning pure historical detail; he emphasizes the raw remoteness of time and place by mixing Judaic scenery with multicultural tropes. Roman soldiers are dressed in stylized garb that might have come from a punk staging of Jesus Christ Superstar. Isaiah visits Jesus in a bleached Darth Vader costume. With dashes of ’80s New Wave and punk aesthetic, right down to Peter Gabriel’s gorgeously weird score and casting alterna-music figures like David Bowie and John Lurie, Scorsese reinvents history with a melding of modernist dance, art, and film styles. Partly enforced by the low budget, there is a complete rejection of epic plush; this is a desert world.
“The God of Israel is a God of the desert,” John the Baptist tells Jesus, and that is where he must now go for his first confrontation with Satan, a pillar of flame with an elegantly mocking English accent (voiced by Leo Marks, writer of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom). The miracles, visions, and apparitions are starkly simple, in contrast with Mel Gibson’s setting in the The Passion of the Christ, where the only angels one could sense Gibson’s God trying to hold back were ten-thousand CGI artists (one could write another essay comparing these two films).
Facing down Satan’s taunts finally gives Jesus the warlike purpose he lacked; he returns with an axe he finds in the sand, ready for revolution, and pulls his heart from his body to display his newly granted capacity for miracles and to awe his followers. He passes through the landscape determined to heal and cast out demons; madmen and cripples slither out of crevices like he’s dragging the disease out of the flesh of the earth. Lobbied to raise Lazarus (Tomas Arana), brother of Mary (Randy Danson) and Martha (Peggy Gormley), who sheltered Jesus when he returned from fasting, Jesus bids the stone on his tomb rolled away, at which point everyone covers their face from the stench. Yet Lazarus still claws his way out of his tomb, numbed and covered in green rot.
Jesus enters Jerusalem and throws out the moneylenders from the Temple in fiery indignation in a scene met with the shock and anger of a rabbi (veteran character actor Nehemiah Persoff), who perceives himself as stalwart defender of Judaic tradition in a time of assault by foreign mores and Gods. Saul and the Zealots, seeing Jesus’ influence and that Judas has joined him, visit Lazarus and murder him, eliminating the proof of Jesus’ greatest miracle. When Jesus leads a mob to assault the Temple again, he is stricken by stigmata; God telling him he will not die a quick, heroic death, but with the ignominious cruelty of crucifixion, and there’s no way out of it. Jesus collapses and is helped away by Judas as Roman soldiers slaughter the mob.
Jesus already expects his end, told to him by a visitation of Isaiah. He tells a grief-stricken, conflicted Judas that he needs him to give him up. When Judas asks if he could give up a man he loves to such an end, Jesus replies, “No. That’s why God gave me the easier job.” In short time, Jesus writhes in doubt at Gethsemane before being dragged off to see Pontius Pilate (David Bowie), a calmly intellectual appraiser (“You’re just another Jewish politician.”) who swiftly diagnoses Jesus as being more dangerous to the Zealots. “It’s one thing to change the way people live, but you want to change the way they think, the way they feel,” Pilate explicates, as embodiment of Pax Romana logic. “It simply doesn’t matter how you want to change things. We don’t want them changed.” Jesus is beaten, crowned with thorns, and led to his bloody consummation on Golgotha. Jesus screams forlornly as a grimly apocalyptic dust-wind rises.
As it had with The Baptist, the clamor of the scene dies, and a golden-haired girl (Juliet Caton) approaches through the crowd. Tugging the nails from his feet and hands, she tells Jesus she is his Guardian Angel, and that God has granted a reprieve—he’s not the Messiah, and he can lead the rest of his life in simple ease. Led into a newly verdant Israel, Jesus is married to Mary and living in sublime peace with her before God appears to her and kills her. Jesus is enraged, but the Angel assures him, with her honey-toned, oddly psychopathic rhetoric, it was simply her time, that all women are the same. She encourages him to take a new wife, Lazarus’ sister Mary, and eventually also to bed her sister Martha. He fathers children and lives to a ripe old age, where he’s ashamed to think of his self-abnegating, egotistical, religious mission. He encounters Saul, now calling himself Paul, preaching in a public forum, of his conversion to Christ’s teachings and of the legend of his sacrifice. Jesus angrily declaims his death and mocks his own legend. Paul ripostes, “I’m glad I met you…my Jesus is far more powerful.” Paul is popularizing Jesus’ legend, arguing that humanity needs Jesus’ message of universal love and redemption.
Jesus is dying as Jerusalem is laid waste in the wake of rebellion, and his Apostles emerge from hiding to gather at his side. “Be careful, he’s still angry!” they warn of Judas, who enters, blood staining his hands from fighting the Romans. Judas erupts, accusing Jesus for not following his path, then lifting the veil on the Angel as Satan; this has been his most powerful, bewitching assault on God’s plan. Jesus, horrified and appropriately penitent, crawls out into the fire-stained, scream-riddled night and cries to return to the cross, which he promptly is, muttering “It is accomplished!” before dying. The movie literally dissolves, sprocket holes, scratches, and strips of film showing like the reel has broken.
The Last Temptation of Christ affirms Christ’s sacrifice; although Jesus wants earthly fulfillments—and those earthly fulfillments are twisted as Satan slyly draws away from the singular purity of his ardor for Mary Magdalene into a more ego-fulfilling threesome—he recognizes its insignificance before his great task, which is to reinvent the religion of his forefathers and humankind along with it. The film, scripted by Paul Schrader with contributions from Jay Cocks, is built around symbols, with sensitivity—as perhaps only a filmmaker can be sensitive to them—to the meaning that can charge images.
The film charts one of the Jesus myth’s strongest contributions to modern religious thought—the substitution of the physical for the symbolic. In the Last Supper sequence, Scorsese cuts betweens the rivers of blood spilt in Temple sacrifices—wasteful and grotesque in a starving country—and Jesus reinventing the idea in drinking “his blood.” “God is not an Israelite!” Jesus shouts on the Temple steps to an outraged crowd, losing their sympathy. His specific condemnation of nationalist self-love continues the film’s study of Jesus recreating the hard concepts of old Judaism into the symbolist thrust of Christianity—from real blood to transubstantiation, from Promised Land as a physical state to Promised Land as a spiritual promise. Stanton embodies Paul, the greatest convert to Jesus’ worldview, with whacko, shifty fervor; the symbolism is crucial. He doesn’t care whether Jesus really died on the cross or not for he recognizes the force of the idea and its appeal. The symbol is more powerful than the deed.
This leads to one of the film’s most forceful subtexts: the strong suggestion, dimly perceived by, and thus perhaps explaining, the rage of the film’s attackers, of a pointed rejection of the ’80s ethos of monumental greed (Scorsese stages the ejection of the moneylenders forcibly and repeatedly, making the film seem like an historical prequel to Wall Street) and the fatuous posturing of Moral Majority-era figures like Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggart, and Ronald Reagan. “God is not an American!” Jesus might as well be shouting. Simultaneously, by portraying the Zealots as religious terrorists as theoretically rebellious, but really tools for power, the film engages with the troubles that engulf present-day Israel and drive many of the contradictions of current terrorist movements. The film’s Jesus, pained, morally questioning, tempted, and dedicated to multitudinous truth, stands at a vast distance from absolutist hypocrites of all stripes. Scorsese and Schrader, essentially unbelieving men but obsessed with the religious grounding of their perspectives, attempt with the film to recreate Jesus for themselves.
Scorsese’s most stylistically rigorous film, Last Temptation evokes the spiritual terrors that chase Jesus with a hungrily mobile camera (Michael Ballhaus behind it again). Having a blonde little girl as the harbinger of Satan was a touch directly inspired by Mario Bava’s Operazione Paura, and cunningly, during the alternate reality of the last temptation, it’s the only time Scorsese recreates the sun-kissed, twee atmosphere of standard Jesus portrayals. Finally, Scorsese had confronted the root source of many of his fixations head-on. For his next feature, Scorsese headed home again. l
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Director: Jean-Pierre Melville
By Marilyn Ferdinand
In the pantheon of female erotic fantasies, seducing a priest sits near the top. The female adventurer requires a challenge, and bedding a celibate who probably is a virgin is one of the biggest challenges of all. Stealing him from no less a rival than God bestows on the victorious woman a thrilling sense of power as well. Léon Morin, Priest is based on an autobiographical book by a woman that might not have been the bodice ripper this film seems to be. Nonetheless, Jean-Pierre Melville’s screen adaptation manages to generate an erotic charge that perhaps the author would have approved of.
The film is set in a small town in occupied France. Our narrator, Barny (Emmanuelle Riva, a sensation after her appearance in Hiroshima, Mon Amour), introduces us to her world—a town filled with Italian soldiers in bright uniforms with feathered caps and an office filled with women. Barny’s husband was killed in fighting, and a lonely and sexually frustrated Barny has formed a crush on Sabine Levy (Nicole Mirel), an elegant, androgynous woman who is assistant to the company’s director.
Barny is a communist and atheist who decides to have some fun one day at the expense of the Catholic Church. She chooses St. Bernard’s as her crime scene and selects the priest taking confession who has the most proletarian name—Léon Morin (Jean-Paul Belmondo, fresh from his star turn in Breathless). Once inside the confessional, she carries on a challenging, irreverent conversation about her atheist, beginning with the classic Marxist line, “Religion is the opiate of the masses.” Despite her scorn for his beliefs, the priest assigns her a penitent’s task—to kneel and pray for forgiveness. “On the soft cushions at the pews?” she asks sarcastically. “No, on the flagstones,” Morin instructs. He invites her to come to his chambers for further discussion. As Barny exits the confessional, she looks back toward where the priest sits hidden from her, walks toward the exit, and kneels very briefly on the stone floor.
On her first visit to Morin’s chambers, Barny confesses that she has done very little reading about Christianity. She explains her atheism by her need to see with her own eyes that God exists. The priest counters that with proof, the world loses faith, which he seems to think it needs. After a bit more verbal sparring, he sends her home with a thick book, and asks her to return three days later. Although Barny says she’ll never finish reading the book by then, she spends every spare minute with her nose buried between its covers. She can’t wait to return. Of course she can’t. She’s meeting Jean-Paul Belmondo!
It’s pretty funny watching Barny pursue God, eventually becoming a believer like a flash of lightning while cleaning out her attic, without realizing—at least not all at once—that God isn’t what she’s after at all. She interprets Morin’s questions and actions as sexual provocation. For example, when he asks in confession if her hand is clean, she unashamedly admits to masturbating. He tells her she has been without a man for too long; she says she uses a stick. He’s not put off by this boldness, but rather only asks her if it hurts. When he seems to make a point of coming behind her in church and brushing her sleeve, she’s sure that her feelings are returned. Naturally, when she asks him if he’d marry her if he were a Protestant minister, he jokingly answers, “Of course.” When she shows she is serious, he takes the axe he has been using to cut some wood for her stove—taking over this job she had been doing quite capably herself—and angrily embeds it into the chopping block.
Aspects of the war intrude on this hothouse, such as obtaining baptism certificates for a number of the half-Jewish children, including Barny’s young daughter, hiding these children from the Germans who supplant the Italians in the village, and watching Sabine age rapidly and lose her appeal when her brother is arrested by the Gestapo. Fortunately for Barny, her regard has turned elsewhere.
Does Morin know what he is doing? It’s hard to believe that someone so acutely aware of human foibles could be completely unaware of his seductiveness. Perhaps he thinks brusqueness and philosophizing will be his shield, but this brusqueness and intelligence are fatal charms for Barny. They both enjoy the intellectual stimulation of their conversations. He seems to feel comfortable manhandling and bossing Barny throughout this film, pushing her out of the way when he has an elderly parishioner approach him with a question and patronizingly choosing books for her to read until he decides to let her choose for herself. In fact, many of the women in this film approach the young priest for advice, with one mankiller giving her seduction her all, only to have Morin pull her tight skirt over her exposed knees. His youth, good looks, manly command, and unattainability make him irresistible. It’s clear that Belmondo is having a blast playing the forbidden fruit, both complicit and clinically outside the game. This type of character not only is a favorite for Belmondo, but also for his director, Jean-Pierre Melville.
For her part, Riva builds her obsession patiently. She’s an intelligent and subtle actress who helps us sympathize with her character even as we see how foolish and blind she is allowing herself to be. We’re used to seeing people react to the tension of Nazi occupation in the movies, but this type of reaction is something quite different. Wartime is supposed to make individuals throw caution to the wind, and Barny certainly does, from giving up her communist/atheist beliefs to declaring her feelings for Morin and praying to God that He will, just once, grant her desire to have sex with the priest. Morin, however, throws the cliché of surrender out the window.
The war finally ends, and Barny, separated from Morin since he stormed out on her, finally goes to visit him. Her employer is returning to Paris, and Morin is off to become a country priest. She surveys the room in which her lust grew, seeing outlines of the furniture on the bare walls and those precious books sitting in crates. Morin appears, and they say their good-byes. The wartime madness recedes, and life goes on.
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Director: Philip Gröning
2007 European Union Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
In the mountainous region near Grenoble, France, sits the Grande Chartreuse, the centuries-old home monastery of the reclusive Carthusian Order of the Roman Catholic Church. The monks, whose lives of contemplation, prayer, and isolation are considered the most strict and severe of all monastic orders, are extremely sheltered from secular eyes. This sheltering is not in opposition to the outside world, but rather to prevent distraction from their constant prayer.
Therefore, when director Philip Gröning first approached them about documenting their lives, they did not say “no,” only that they were not yet ready. When they were ready, 16 years later, he was invited in. The result is the rare and singular experience that is Into Great Silence.
The first image is a grainy, almost pixellated close-up of a man’s profile. He appears to be laying on his side with his fist close to his mouth, as though he were sucking his thumb while in the fetal position. This still, ineffable image perfectly captures the mystery of the Carthusians, as well as their state of emergent grace that will be realized at death. Indeed, Gröning, with this grainy shooting technique, seems to suggest the eye of God, the unseen character who propels every action in the film, from the trimming of celery for dinner to the often-repeated ringing of the church bell for morning devotion.
Gröning takes a calendar approach to the monks’ lives. A harsh, mountain winter gives way to a shy, then gloriously verdant spring. Eventually, we find ourselves buried in snow again, emphasizing a very simple life governed primarily by nature’s rhythms. Primarily, but not exclusively. The monastery has its accountant, who uses a laptop to keep track of the bills and correspondence. One monk prepares for a plane trip to Seoul. Electricity, not candles, lights each monk’s cell. Obviously store-bought fruit sits in an artistic still life Gröning composes for our contemplative use.
Nonetheless, the bulk of this movie is given over to observing the devotions of the Carthusians. We witness the initiation of two novices to the order, and Gröning follows one of them, a black African, during his first year in the monastery. We watch him get his head shaved at the monthly trimming. We watch him in prayer in his cell, kneeling at an altar for one, and returning to a seated position in quiet prayer, his cowl pulled over his head. We see him sit at a window counter to eat his dinner, passed to him through a normally locked service window in the hall by a monk pushing the dinner trolley.
The only meals the Carthusians share are Sunday dinner and special feast days. During one Sunday meal, a monk reading from the rule of the Carthusian Order, emphasizes that this communal dining is to give the monks the pleasure of family life. The monks also take a weekly walk for exercise and to receive the refreshment of nature. In the warmer months, we see the monks walk and talk, finally gathering in a circle. Here they discuss the necessity of washing before dinner; one order has already eliminated the practice. One monk chimes in, “They were Trappists.” That got a chuckle from the audience. A more serious discussion about symbols follows. One monk offers the opinion that there is nothing wrong with symbols such as handwashing; if doubts arise about them, the problem is with the monks themselves, not the symbols, and must be meditated upon.
There are moments of transcendence in this film. A dark chapel in which all the monks lie prostrate on the floor, with only a candle burning in a red glass visible. The haunting chants of the monks in prayer. Gigantic snowflakes falling on the pitched, tiled roof of the monastery. Wildflowers and trees waving in the mountain air.
Intemittently, Gröning puts up a title card (in French, with German subtitles for the film’s original German audience, and a further layer of subtitles in English for us). Only a few phrases are included on these title cards, and these are repeated throughout the film. One is “Lord, you have seduced me, and I was seduced.” Looking at the miraculous beauty surrounding the Grande Chartreuse, it’s easy for an audience to be enticed by its majesty. However, another admonishment—that only those who give up everything they have can become Christ’s disciples—meets resistance.
The Carthusian way of life cannot be understood at our emotional core, and the modern world, so out of touch, craves emotional revelation like a drug. Without it, this nearly 3-hour-long film can be a slow and tedious slog. Gröning provides full-face close-ups of the monks, three at a time like an altar triptych, as a means to uncover the source of their devotion. The eyes may be called the windows to the soul, but it is not possible to feel their faith in this way. One elderly monk who has gone blind says he thanks God every day for blinding him. He sincerely believes that God does everything for our benefit and that God thought blindness was necessary for the monk’s soul. Even this welcome interview in the mainly silent film does not really clear the confusion.
Into Great Silence is a documentary whose point of view is subtle, undocumentary-like. Unlike this year’s Oscar winner, An Inconvenient Truth, the meaning of this film is neither propagandistic, educational (except as a document of a mainly hidden way of life), nor necessarily feel-good or feel-outraged. The monks experience joy (reference the scene where they slide down a snowy hill on their bottoms or their ski-less feet), but most of it we cannot experience with them. Nonetheless, outer progress is not the only form of real life, and inner progress may not be truly achievable through once-a-week devotion or 15 minutes of meditation. This film is seductive, and some viewers will be seduced. l
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Director: Henry King
By Marilyn Ferdinand
A few days ago, one of the last surviving members of Hollywood’s pantheon of classic stars, Jennifer Jones, turned 87. Miss Jones—and I couldn’t dream of calling this angelic-looking actress anything else—has always held a special place in my heart because she was the star of The Song of Bernadette. Every year, I’d go to the home of my Orthodox Jewish aunt for Passover and watch this life of a Catholic saint on TV—programming for the Easter crowd. I’m a little surprised that my traditional aunt would allow this film to play in her house, but at 153 minutes (it never seemed that long), it did keep me quiet and out of the way. If she had known it also inspired me to walk around with a towel on my head, practicing to be a nun, she might have rethought her decision.
This film, the first in which Phyllis Isley was billed as Jennifer Jones and one of the first she ever made, tells the life of Bernadette Soubirous, an asthmatic teenager living in Lourdes, France, who saw the Virgin Mary standing in a grotto in the city dump and brought forth a spring whose waters are said to perform miraculous cures. It would have been easy to create a sentimental view of this girl and her surroundings, but the film takes the story seriously and chooses to keep its editorializing to a minimum. In so doing, it becomes one of the best biopics ever made.
Director Henry King begins his tale surveying the hovel in which reside the impoverished Soubirous family. He fixes on the worried face of François Soubirous (Roman Bohnen), then shifts to his equally worried wife Louise (Anne Revere). Pere Soubirous must make the rounds of town to see if he can pick up some day work. The year is 1858, and times are hard. The only work he can find is carting medical waste from the hospital to the dump in Massabielle.
Switch to the convent school that Bernadette and her sisters attend. Several girls, including Bernadette, are being quizzed in front of the class on their catechism by the severe Sister Marie Therese (Gladys Cooper). Bernadette does not know what the Holy Trinity is. When asked by the nun if she is pert or merely stupid, Bernadette admits that she is stupid, though she was, in fact, sick the day the class learned this lesson. Father Peyramale (Charles Bickford) visits the class and hands out holy cards to the girls the sister has been quizzing. Bernadette gets a brief glimpse of the manger scene on her card before Sister Marie Therese confiscates it, saying she did not earn it because she did not know her catechism. Father Peyramale good-heartedly tells Bernadette that the possibility of getting a holy card can be more incentive to her to learn her catechism.
In these two scenes, important characters and themes are laid out indelibly for us. We grasp the situation the Soubirous family is in and get our first glimpse of the filthy location where the miracle takes place. We understand Bernadette to be a sickly, simple girl who isn’t given to making excuses for herself. We see Sister Marie Therese as a hard and bitter woman predisposed to disbelieve her. And Father Peyramale shows Bernadette the image that will dominate her life.
The film is in no hurry to wow us with the miracle. King recreates the events of the day just as they are in the actual church records, right down to Bernadette removing her shoes and socks to wade across a stream to join her sister and friend in gathering firewood. When Bernadette actually sees “the lady,” a glow of light becomes rapture on the expressive face of Jennifer Jones. She got the part, it is said, because she saw when the other hopefuls only looked.
The furor over the sighting sets both local government and church officials against “little Soubirous.” The mayor of Lourdes (Aubrey Mather) and the high prosecutor (Vincent Price, in his best role) look for any means they can to put a stop to the growing horde of believers who follow Bernadette to the ghotto each day to see the lady. The railroad has been planning to construct a depot in Lourdes, and neither the mayor nor the prosecutor want the town to be known as a gathering place for religious fanatics. Father Peyramale holds to the official church line to ignore the supposed visions. It seems that the Enlightenment has turned even religious leaders into skeptics. Of course, when Bernadette brings forth the miraculous spring, in a scene of moving intensity, by scratching in the dirt and eating weeds, there’s no way for anyone to suppress Our Lady of Lourdes anymore. Bernadette’s future moves swiftly toward the nunnery and immortality.
Several scenes stand out for me. The confrontation in the convent between Bernadette, who is now Sister Marie Bernard, and Sister Marie Therese about the older nun’s disbelief in the miracle because Bernadette has never suffered as she has. When confronted with the fact that Bernadette has been suffering silently with a horrible leg tumor and tuberculosis of the bone, Sister Marie Therese runs to the chapel and begs forgiveness for her envy. “I know now we cannot storm the gates of heaven. We must be chosen.” While this scene seems to reinforce the need for worldly suffering to reach the kingdom of heaven, in fact, it does just the opposite. Rather it reinforces the church’s dogma that Jesus Christ and his saints are the ones who suffer for humanity’s sins, and that the suffering Sister Marie Therese put herself through to be worthy of divine grace is neither desired nor required.
Another scene I like, which was meant to startle skeptics in 1943 but which has much truth and relevance today, is when Vincent Price’s character warns of the danger of religious fanaticism to a properly governed world. It takes only a look at the holy wars occurring around the world and on American soil today to see that he was right to be worried. I can only applaud the authorities depicted in this movie for demanding confirmation of the miracle to the fullest extent possible to discourage the kind of fanaticism that quickly hardens into prejudice.
I am always moved by Bernadette’s deathbed vision of the lady. Throughout the film, Miss Jones gives indications why this girl was chosen as a divine emissary. Her truthfulness, simplicity, and untarnished heart glow through in every scene. She has common sense and normal instincts, such as wanting to be romanced by a boy she likes and running away from a policeman who is harassing her. She’s not one of the monumental, larger-than-life figures we’ve seen in other religious films. She is a figure in whom belief is irresistible and unshakable. “I did see her. I did!” she repeats over and over.
For this amazing performance, Miss Jones received the Best Actress Oscar. St. Bernadette was well served by Miss Jones and the entire cast and crew of The Song of Bernadette. This is a great and timeless film.
Here’s a good one for trivia buffs: The Virgin Mary was played by future “bad girl” Linda Darnell!