Christ on a Merry-Go-Round
Lisa: “The mound builders worshipped turtles as well as badgers, snakes, and other animals.”
Bart: “Thank God we’ve come to our senses and worship a carpenter who lived 2,000 years ago.”
That bit of snarkiness, courtesy of the always profane The Simpsons, highlights why we cannot talk about Mel Gibson’s piece of cinematic insanity as “just a movie.” We have not, as a culture, come to our senses. There is nothing “just a movie” about this self-
This isn’t a movie: it’s a theme-
But Gibson knows that this is his audience, and his only audience — he can dispense with everything but the highlights. So Jesus doesn’t have to be a character, and though Jim Caviezel (High Crimes, The Count of Monte Cristo) does what he can with what little he has to work with, Jesus is a cipher — the audience already knows what they need to know about him, brought it into the theater with them, thank you very much, and Gibson (who cowrote, with Benedict Fitzgerald, as well as directed with such fanatical glee) isn’t aiming to change anyone’s mind about the man. He’s just taking the faithful on a tour, with all the points of interest underlined with slo-
(On second thought, there are a few things I don’t recall from my Bible stories, like how Jesus invented the tall dining table, and how Judas was taunted to suicide by the maggot-
Is the film anti-
But I don’t get the anti-
And that’s the worst thing about the circus surrounding this film, and the real reason why it cannot be seen as “just a movie.” The people who in all seriousness buy into this stuff have an influence way out of proportion with the sense they make, which is little, and get a free pass on their fairy stories — I’ve seen not one suggestion anywhere, in all the media’s fawning delirium over this film, that perhaps Jesus never existed or, if he did, was nothing but a crazy guy who roamed the desert, got his brain a little too sunbaked, and merely thought he was God. And there’s been not one scrap of discussion about whether his legacy has been something we could have done without.
When Gibson fades to black after Jesus finally expires on the cross, I so wanted to see the bitter, cynical “2,000 Years Later” epilogue. But no: we get the “Three Days Later” epilogue instead. And with all the cash Gibson is raking in on Jesus’ back — part of that bitter, cynical legacy — I’ve no doubt that coming for summer of 2006 will be Passion 2: The Revenge of Zombie Jesus.
Christ on a metaphor
Now, The Last Temptation of Christ is a Jesus flick I can get behind, even as an atheist. Jesus is still a crazy desert roamer here, but he’s a far more compelling one than Gibson’s: He’s an actual character, flawed and intriguing and contradictory and angry and real. Christian audiences were so terrified, back in 1988, at the suggestion that Jesus might have been a human being who had the same needs and desires as the rest of us that they boycotted the movie sight unseen, and that’s another thing I don’t get about these people: If you don’t want to believe that Jesus was human, then doesn’t that lessen the sacrifice you believe he made? What is he sacrificing if he’s not human?
Temptation is based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, and director Martin Scorsese (Gangs of New York, Bringing Out the Dead) knew what he would be in for: He opens with the declaration that “This film is not based upon the Gospels but upon [a] fictional exploration of the eternal spiritual conflict.” There’s a story here, not just a roller coaster to Calvary, and relationships and irony and confusion and resolution — it’s, you know, Just A Movie. Jesus (Willem Dafoe: Spider-Man, American Psycho, in maybe his best performance ever, so far) is your basic personal mess, in all aspects of his life:
Romance: His old pal Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey: The Portrait of a Lady), the busiest hooker in Nazareth, really want to be more than just his pal, but he’s guarding his virginity jealously.
Hobbies: He talks to lions in the desert and raises guys from the dead; he removes his heart from his chest and turns water into wine. But he thinks it’s Satan telling him he’s the son of God.
Sure, it’s fantasy, but it’s a pretty impressive one. And if you prefer not to think of it as fantasy, then surely it will at least challenge you to examine your own beliefs, just a little — how dangerous could it be, honestly, to consider that Jesus may have been tempted by the idea of a normal life of a man at the time, with a wife and children and a little mud hut of his own?
It’s only a dream sequence within the fantasy, anyway: While Jesus is hanging on the cross, suffering horrendously, an angel, kinda like the Ghost of Christ’s Life Yet to Be, comes and shows him how things would be if he climbed down off the cross and gave up this burden-
Then again, in the dream bit, Paul’s (Harry Dean Stanton: The Big Bounce, Alien: The Director’s Cut) got a whole speech about how the power of the Jesus story is more important than the reality of it. Maybe that’s what scares some folks: that it’s possible for the Jesus story to exist without Jesus himself ever having walked the earth at all.
Christ on a skewer
Still, the best antidote of all for The Passion of the Christ is the wonderfully profane Month Python’s Life of Brian, which isn’t merely blasphemous itself — if you’re a Jesus nut, that is — it sends up the entire concept of blasphemy as nothing but an idea’s method of self-
Sectarianism, fanaticism, sanctioned blood lust, groupthink, tribalism: these are the things that define life in Nazareth, a city downright lousy with insane prophets and streetcorner preachers. Brian Cohen (Graham Chapman), a nice Jewish boy with a secret heritage, gets caught up in a rebellion by the Judean People’s Front — or is it the People’s Front of Judea? — against the Romans, who’ve done such awful things as bring sanitation, clean water, and public order to Judea. The Pythons — Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin, all in multiple roles, as usual — go to town with Brian when he’s mistaken for a prophet in the course of his terroristic activities — oh, the overtones that has for today. There’s nothing on film quite like the scene in which Brian, who doesn’t want to be a prophet, is chased by frenzied horde who will not be dissuaded from their error and will not heed even direct contradictions to their beliefs. The shoe, the shoe… it’s how religions get started: a clueless anti-
The Last Temptation of Christ
viewed at home on a small screen
Monty Python’s Life of Brian
viewed at home on a small screen