Ticket to heaven

Mel Gibson’s Jesus movie, The Passion of the Christ, is stirring up, ahem, passions all over. But, more than anything, it demonstrates the way communal myths can be reworked again and again. Gibson’s version is just the most single-mindedly gory and reactionary to date.

One of the earliest feature films ever made, DW Griffith’s Intolerance (1918), depicted episodes from the life of Christ, and that great biblical visionary Cecil B de Mille made the first King of Kings in 1927.
The title was re-used in the 1960s, too, in a period that saw several, wildly different depictions of the saviour’s ministry and sacrifice.

Nicholas Ray made the 1961 King of Kings with Jeffrey Hunter, a heart-throb of his day. It came a few years after Ray’s famous Rebel Without a Cause, and Ray’s Jesus is somehow an extension of the establishment-baiting James Dean figure in that movie: the Jesus of King of Kings is a dynamic young motivational speaker who strides among the people, fixing them with his striking blue eyes while telling them neither to sow nor to reap.

It’s hard not to see some social concerns there, and hard not to see that the bisexual Ray had the hots for Hunter’s Jesus, like he had the hots for Dean. But Ray was also a noir director, and he gives King of Kings a thrillerish aspect, what with the Zealot revolutionaries and the Roman oppressors squaring up against each other. He even squeezes in a battle or two.

The contrast with George Stevens’s epic of four years later, The Greatest Story Ever Told, is marked. There, Jesus is sonorously and Teutonically played by Max von Sydow — with his natural blond hair dyed black. He still has piercing blue eyes, though. At least Gibson’s Jesus (played by James Caviezel) looks like the Jew he was.

Stevens’s movie is also of gargan-tuan length, embalmed in pious voice-overs and syrupy music. Like much of the dialogue, the cod-biblical narra-tion is risibly absurd. “In the begin-ning was the Word,” it starts, quoting John’s gospel, but then extends the idea disastrously: “And things were made through Him, and without Him was made nothing that has been made.” Good point, Reverend.

Otherwise it’s many a shot of American desert canyons standing in for the Judaean hills, and various sacerdotal notables with more jewellery than a rap group. If that’s their ordinary day-wear, what on earth do they put on on feast days? And, of course, most famously, there are two brief and identical shots of John Wayne as the centurion (never seen before or again) who looks up the cross and says, “Truly this man was the Sunnagaaad.”

Franco Zeffirelli’s six-hour miniseries Jesus of Nazareth (1977), screened as a feature in much of the world, takes the same grandiose and lengthy approach as Stevens did. Zeffirelli also borrows the idea of a parade of star cameos. Now, instead of Charlton Heston as a John the Baptist who resists arrest, we have Michael York, who doesn’t; rather than a sinister Claude Rains as Herod, we have a blustering Peter Ustinov. For Jesus, there’s Robert Powell, who seems very gaunt and wan, and never blinks his pale blue eyes — it’s as though he’s in a perpetual trance of holiness. Or is it hunger?

Stevens had Telly Savalas as a rather good Pontius Pilate, which makes a stark contrast to Martin Scorsese’s choice in The Last Temptation of Christ — until now the most contentious Jesus movie. Instead of the bluntly militaristic Kojak-Pilate, or the dithering Pilate of Gibson’s gore-fest, Scorsese gives us an urbane David Bowie having a quick philosophical chat with Jesus between sorting out his horses. He may not look like the ruthless oppressor of history, but he can at least ask convincingly, “What is Truth?”

Because it actually gives some thought to the issues raised by the biblical narratives, The Last Temptation is one of the more interesting Jesus movies, though it has not aged well. The fraught debates with Judas (played by a frizzy-haired Harvey Keitel) are tedious, for one thing. At least the crucifixion scenes are historically accurate, which Gibson’s are not. Such is the power of the accumulated centuries of Christian iconography.

But what angered fundamentalist Christians about Scorsese’s film was the depiction of a self-doubting Jesus unsure of his mission, one embodied rather convincingly by a wild-eyed Willem Dafoe. The faithful seem to feel that Jesus must in no way question his divinity, though any thinking person who accepts that Christ was at least as much flesh as divinity is bound to concur with Lou Reed in his song about the movie (and the controversy it caused): “I find it easy to believe he would question his beliefs.” If Jesus never experienced temptation, his purity was not much of an achievement.

For a Christ utterly firm in his beliefs, one would have to go, paradoxically, to a Jesus movie made by an Italian communist (though he was expelled from the party for homosexual activities). That would be Pier Paolo Pasolini, whose Gospel According to St Matthew (1964) is literally that — and the most faithful filmic transcription of any of the original biblical texts. In contrast to Pasolini, Gibson’s Christ story is hyped-up fantasy. But then, let us remind ourselves, there are four different gospels, and they are not consistent with one another. Never mind the suppressed gospels like that of Thomas (just out in a new edition).

Pasolini’s movie was also controversial in its day. It offended both Pasolini’s left-wing allies and Catholic conservatives. It is dedicated to the liberalising Pope John XXIII, whose reformist ideas, encapsulated in the Vatican II conference, are rejected by the traditionalist Catholic sect to which Gibson belongs. In that respect, he’s to the right of even the present hidebound and moribund pontiff.

But perhaps what offended most in Pasolini’s time was that he made his stark, low-budget black-and-white Gospel without pomp or reverence, in the poverty-racked south of Italy, using non-actors. His Jesus, Enrique Irazoqui, was a revolutionary Basque student who happened to turn up on Pasolini’s doorstep to ask him some political questions and got cast, willy-nilly, as Jesus — an intensely earnest Jesus, declaiming his radical doctrine of love and pacifism from beneath a single Hispanic eyebrow.

What doubtless also irked the church eminences about Pasolini’s Gospel was the fact that the priests who scheme to get Jesus sentenced to death are shown wearing peculiar headdresses, some of which look very much like a Catholic bishop’s mitre. Whited sepulchres, indeed.

The same point is made, even more confrontationally, in what is probably the best Jesus movie of them all — Denys Arcand’s Jesus of Montreal (1989). In this riveting (and, in the end, deeply moving) film, a group of Canadian actors update the Jesus story for the 20th century, only to find themselves shut down by the Catholic hierarchy. The scene in which Lothaire Bluteau as the actor playing Jesus is arrested while hanging on the cross is both blackly humorous and very sad — and sums up the movie’s thesis perfectly.

But there’s no rule to say anyone has to play the Jesus story straight. The year 1973, remarkably, saw no less than three musical Jesus movies: Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar and Gospel Road. The first reinvented him as a modern-day clown, ministering in the city streets, and the second updated him for the Jesus-freak generation — probably hippies who did too many drugs in the 1960s. Gospel Road is notable for its string of country-gospel songs, and for the provision of the Voice of God by producer/scriptwriter/singer Johnny Cash. Perfect!

And then, of course, there’s the inspired spoof by the Monty Python comedy troupe, Life of Brian (1979). Originally intended to be the story of the 13th disciple, who somehow got erased from biblical history, it turned into the story of Brian of Nazareth, who gets mistaken for Jesus, up to and including his crucifixion. There are effete Romans talking school-book Latin (did this spark something in Gibson’s mind?); there is the crippled beggar who is healed — only to start complaining bitterly about his loss of livelihood. As John Cleese said, “It’s a very Protestant film.” Never has blasphemy been so amusing.

But the most bizarre Jesus adaptation has to be 2001’s Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter, in which the saviour is resurrected for fans of Buffy, martial arts and punk music. Jesus and his lesbian sidekick, Mary Magnum, go out to fight evil mano a mano.

The literary tradition of retelling the Jesus story, however, is in some ways more radical. Mikhail Bulgakov’s Jesus, in The Master and Margharita (written in 1938) most unbiblically asks Pilate to let him go.

That’s only human, as Anthony Burgess may have noted. Burgess co-wrote the script for Jesus of Nazareth, but had to toe the orthodox line as demanded by the producers. So he turned his original script ideas into a novel, Man of Nazareth (1979), which convincingly humanises Jesus, a powerful prophet who sees God in everything, not just himself. His miracles are given materialist explanations: for instance, his taking up two loaves and five fishes to hand out to a hungry crowd convinces those who have been hiding their provisions to bring them out. Suddenly there’s food for everyone.

Miracles aside, there are many things in Burgess’s conception that simply weren’t going to get into the film. Certainly, humour wasn’t allowed. Zeffirelli would not have even contemplated filming a short conversation between the battered ex-carpenter Jesus and the man who has just finished making his cross. “The mortise and tenon joints are very slapdash,” says Jesus. “There’s not many as notices,” harrumphs his interlocutor. Jesus replies: “God notices.”

In his novel The Gospel According to Jesus Christ (1991), Portuguese Nobel Prize-winner José Saramago is concerned to both humanise Jesus (who is sexually involved with Mary Magdalene, of course) and to ask some pertinent theological questions. This Jesus rages against God the Father, the vengeful Old Testament deity who demands the horrifying blood sacrifice of the crucifixion. Nailed to the cross, and foreseeing the tide of carnage Christianity will eventually loose upon the world, Jesus asks humanity to forgive God — “for He knows not what He has done”.

Perhaps the most outrageous deconstruction of the Jesus story, though, comes from that practised master of offence, Gore Vidal. His satire Live from Golgotha (1992) has a future TV crew time-travelling back to ancient Palestine to film the crucifixion live. To their chagrin, they find an extremely overweight Jesus about to be nailed up, and have to engineer the last-minute substitution of someone much more photogenic — one Marvin Wasserstein.

And then there was the gay Jesus, as presented in Terrence McNally’s 1999 play Corpus Christi, inspired in part by the gay-bashing death of Matthew Shepard, “crucified” on a barbed-wire fence. The play was subjected to much outrage and a Muslim fatwa for saying why John was the “beloved disciple” and why Judas was so pissed off. But maybe we shouldn’t go there. Along with the other protests at Gibson’s Jesus, African-Americans are already complaining about the saviour always being presented as lily-white.

All of which goes to show that the greatest story ever told is also one of the most malleable. After all, Jesus only got a beard in the Byzantine era, some three centuries after he lived. Doctrinaire Christians don’t want to admit it, but Jesus has meant and continues to mean many different things to different people, and the ways in which he has been portrayed are open to multiple visions. Consider the 16th-century paintings of Maerten van Heemskerck, which showed Christ newly arisen from the dead — and with an erection to prove it.

As Pilate put it, “What is Truth?”

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal

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