Friday, April 10, 2009

Jesus Dying at the Movies

Over at GetReligion Douglas LeBlanc draws favorable attention to an essay by Joshua Land that looks beyond the culture war response to Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ and Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ and appreciates them both for their artistic vision and message, different as they were.

LeBlanc offers up two snippets from the article, the first about Gibson's movie:

With the notable exceptions of Jim Caviezel (The Thin Red Line) as Jesus and Monica Bellucci as Mary Magdalene, the cast is composed mostly of little-known actors, but far more problematic from a commercial standpoint was Gibson’s decision to shoot the film entirely in the languages of the first century — Latin, Hebrew, and Aramaic — only agreeing to English subtitles after some resistance. The overall look and tone of the film, as well as its content, are closer to those of a medieval Passion Play than to anything else in contemporary cinema. The chiaroscuro-heavy visual style is derived from Baroque painting, particularly the work of Caravaggio, whom Gibson and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel have cited as an influence.

… But whatever one thinks of The Passion of the Christ, Gibson deserves more credit than he’s gotten for refusing to compromise his singular vision, to the point of risking some $30 million of his own money. That the film wound up grossing more than 10 times that amount at the domestic box office in no way negates the fact that its maker conceded nothing to commercial considerations. Indeed, it’s safe to say that for many millions of viewers, The Passion of the Christ is the only true art film they’ll ever see.

I am not sure exactly what qualifies as a "true art film." I can appreciate, though, the comparison made between Gibson's movie and the medieval Passion Play, both of which focus heavily on the suffering of Jesus. And I can also appreciate the fact that for many Christians, the suffering and blood and death of Jesus is the whole point, or one half of the whole point along with the resurrection, of their Christian faith. But it is precisely because this is so that I don't think Gibson was risking very much by making this movie. It may very well be where his faith is centered too, and he wanted to give artistic expression to his faith. But I don't think there was ever any doubt that a movie made by Gibson about the suffering of Jesus would wind up grossing more than 10 times what Gibson put up of his own money.

The Last Temptation of Christ was most visibly controversial because of its portrayal of Jesus having impure thoughts about the women in his life. But according to Land that was not the most controversial aspect of the story. LeBlanc gives us this paragraph from Land's essay about this movie:
Far more disturbing to the discerning viewer is the film’s highly unorthodox vision of who Jesus is. Both the Kazantzakis novel and the Schrader screenplay begin by pondering the central mystery of Christianity, the Incarnation — the notion that Jesus was simultaneously fully human and fully divine. The subject has been a matter of intense theological controversy since the early days of Christianity but the Kazantzakis-Schrader version of Jesus is clearly skewed toward the human end of the spectrum. The Jesus of The Last Temptation of Christ is a Nietzschean superman who struggles to overcome fear, doubt, and self-loathing, and only gradually becomes aware of his divine nature and purpose on earth. When we first see him, he is making crosses for the Romans to use for the execution of Jewish prisoners. Prone to sudden seizures, he’s a masochist who wears a belt of nails to punish himself for his sins — much closer in spirit to Scorsese’s Jake La Motta than to anything resembling God in the flesh.
I suppose this is why I like this movie the most of all the Jesus movies I have seen. Because I think that this is the way, the only way, it works. For Jesus and for us. We become divine gradually, if we become divine at all, as we struggle to overcome our fear, doubt, and self-loathing. Jesus didn't become less human in this process, though. He became more human, more deeply human, and hence he also became more divine.

The whole Land essay is interesting and worth a read. I came away from it with a greater appreciation for Mel Gibson's movie especially. But I'll take Kazantzakis' and Scorsese's vision of Jesus over Gibson's any day. I guess that makes me a highly unorthodox Christian.

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