“Stations of the Cross” and the Cinema of Sacrifice

The First Station: Maria (Lea van Acken) and the priest (Florian Stetter) in “Stations of the Cross.”

 

I think I should have been more ferocious in pursuit of the whale . . .  Ahab focused all his energies on avenging himself against the whale, but he was trying to penetrate the mystery of why we are here at all, why there is anything. I wasn’t mad enough, not crazy enough, not obsessive enough. I should have done more.” He paused, took a long breath, and added: “At the time, I didn’t have more in me.”[1]

–– Gregory Peck, discussing his role in Moby Dick

 

What Gregory Peck said about playing Ahab could be said about playing “fools for Christ.”[2] Are we crazy enough for the role? Do we have what it takes to trade the wisdom of the world for the folly of God? Just how seriously do we take the call to follow Jesus? Will we only try a few baby steps, or are we prepared to go “all the way, till the wheels fall off and burn?”[3]

In an unsettling essay about those who renounce ordinary human experience to explore the frontiers of the divine, Jean-Yves Lacoste stretches St. Paul’s image of the holy fool to the breaking point. Embodying in explicit practice the concept that the here and now of earthly life is not our ultimate destiny, the holy fool demonstrates that “life true to his essence cannot be lived without a literal refusal of all worldly dwelling.” His extreme form of ascetic renunciation manifests the essential homelessness of the human condition:

“The spectacular marginality of the human being who refuses possessions, a place to live, and so on, does no more than express in particularly concrete form the marginality that in any case affects anyone who wishes to subordinate his worldly being to his being-before-God.”

Understood in this way, spirituality is subversive and dangerous, putting not just our habitual complacency, but our fundamental at-homeness, into question. If we are finite beings making pilgrimage toward the Absolute, we are defined by non-possession. We don’t entirely belong to the here and now. To the world––and to many (or most?) believers––this is madness. We prefer a God who makes us as comfortable as possible where we are. But for Lacoste, the destiny of the fool in Christ “becomes intelligible only in the light of another destiny, that of the crucified one in whom and by whom God restores peace between humankind and himself.”[4]

In his 2014 film, Stations of the Cross, German director Dietrich Brüggemann literalizes this premise in the story of a 14-year-old girl, Maria, who comes to understand her own vocation as the sacrifice of her earthly existence for the sake of another. But Brüggemann and his sister Anna, who co-wrote the script, do not make it easy for us to accept or identify with Maria’s story, because on the surface it shows us a naïve adolescent misled by the bad theology of an abusive religion. We recoil at the reactionary teachings of the priest and the cold rigidity of her mother’s piety. We want Maria to make healthier choices.

Many critics have taken the film to be a critique or satire of fundamentalism and dogmatism, perhaps even an attack on belief itself, though many of the same critics also admit to being moved to tears. But the non-judgmental respect of the filmmakers for Maria, and the disarming purity of her passion for God, won’t let us dismiss the film as just a cautionary tale (“Kids, don’t try this at home!”). And, as the Bible’s less attractive stories have shown[5], God is sometimes known through means which transcend and overcome the given conditions of the narrative. As Rilke said, every story has God in it––even a story about religion gone wrong.

The formal structure of the film is part of its strange beauty. In 110 minutes, there are only 14 lengthy shots (no cutaways to different angles), each one corresponding to the devotional sequence of the Stations of the Cross. So Maria’s imitation of Christ’s passion is not simply an existential choice. It is a pattern to which she finds herself conformed by a power beyond her own devising (script, director, God). She does not define herself as a purely autonomous being; she is drawn and driven by an Other. She only exists to play this part, or to consent to let it play her.

The sense of inevitability is reinforced by the fixed position of the camera, which almost never moves (there are only three exceptions to this, each very purposive). The long takes (the first Station exceeds 15 minutes!) and unmoving camera not only induce a contemplative consciousness in the viewer, but make an ontological statement about the boundedness of the human condition: we operate within given limits of space, time and mortality, as well as the confines of our social constructions. Each of the film’s fourteen shots is a self-contained world. There is no cutting away to see something else. This conveys a sense of destiny, of givenness, while at the same time making everything within the fixed frame worthy of our utmost attention. Every word, look, gesture or action matters.

The First Station (Jesus is Condemned to Death) sets the course for the entire film. [Spoiler alert: If you want to view the film with innocent eyes, watch it before reading further. It is currently streaming on Netflix.]. Six young students in a Confirmation class are seated around a table in a tableaux evocative of the Last Supper. The priest stands in the center (Christ’s position in paintings) to deliver a kind of Farewell Discourse, a final pep talk before they go off to be confirmed.

The priest has youthful energy and conviction. He is no bloodless cleric boring a restless room of teens. He has their full attention. But the content of his teaching begins to make the viewer cringe: Vatican II was heresy, the pope has turned his back on the true faith, and most Catholics now live in mortal sin. “The devil has entered the church,” he says, “and strolls around in it whispering his lies.”

Given the sorry state of church and culture, the priest exhorts his charges to renounce Satan and all his works, including popular music with its demonic rhythms, the vanity of caring about your looks, and the trashy seductions of mass media. Be “warriors for Christ,” he tells them. Defend the faith, resist tempation, and save the souls of your schoolmates by word and example.

And the heart of Christian practice, he concludes, is sacrifice. Having asked his class to make a list of things which give them pleasure, he invites them to start letting them go, one by one, in a kind of perpetual Lent. When class is dismissed, Maria lingers to ask a question. “Can I make a sacrifice for someone else? Like, someone who is ill?. . . What if I wanted to sacrifice my whole life, like the saints?” Uh-oh. A good pastor would hear an alarm go off in such a moment, but this priest tries to defuse her question with generalities (“There are  many ways you can give your life to God”). However, the viewer senses that Maria is moving toward the abyss. She has been condemned to die to this world.

So she takes up her cross. On a walk in the country, she tries to sacrifice the beautiful view by closing her eyes. In gym class, she endures the mockery of her peers by refusing to exercise to rock music. She struggles against her feelings for Christian, a sweet Catholic boy who is drawn to her. She endures the cruel hectoring of her fanatically pious mother, renouncing the self-assertion of adolescent rebellion. But her most fatal sacrifice is her own body. She chooses to suffer the chill of winter by not wearing a coat. She descends into anorexia. Her health starts to fail.

The stages of her “passion” are correlated with the traditional Stations in striking ways:

Jesus falls for the first time (3): Maria lets herself become interested in Christian. The scene is innocent and charming, but there will be no room for teen romance as Maria walks her lonesome valley. She clearly is drawn to him, but later she will protest, “You live in a world of TV, Facebook, and people who’ve sold their souls, who are dead in the middle of life. . . . If you really like me, then go away.”

Veronica wipes the face of Jesus (6): After being horribly treated by her mother, Maria is weeping uncontrollably at the dinner table while her family pretends it’s not happening. Bernadette, the warm-hearted family au pair, is the only one who reaches out to Maria. She offers her a tissue, and the weeping subsides.

Jesus falls for the third time (9): Maria, kneeling for confirmation before the bishop, whose ancient face and gold vestments suggest a medieval painting of God the Father, faints. Her body falls out of the film frame into invisiblity.

Jesus is stripped of his garments (10): Maria, her back to us, sits on the examining table of a doctor’s office with her blouse removed. With drooping head, she remains passive as her mother stubbornly resists the doctor’s call for medical intervention. Maria’s frail and vulnerable figure, utterly still amid the battle of wills waging around her, is a heartbreaking image. Then Bernadette enters quietly to put a coat over Maria. She wraps her arms around the suffering girl like the father embracing his Prodigal Son in Rembrandt’s painting. The two girls remain in that pose––an icon of compassion––for the rest of the scene.

Jesus is nailed to the cross (11): Maria lies in a hospital bed, with Bernadette sitting beside her. A nurse brings food, but Maria refuses to eat. When the nurse leaves, Maria tells Bernadette that she has chosen to sacrifice her life so that her 4-year-old brother, Johannes, might get well (he has never spoken, and the doctors suspect autism). Bernadette says she is going to tell the doctors about Maria’s death wish, so that they will intervene. When she exits the room, Maria feels as abandoned as Jesus on the cross. “Don’t leave me!” she cries. There is no answer.

Jesus dies on the cross (12): After receiving communion in the presence of her mother and little Johannes (like the mother of Jesus and the disciple John at the cross), Maria flatlines. The medical team rushes in to attempt resuscitation, pushing priest and family aside. The camera follows the latter in one of its rare moves, so that we no longer see Maria, who dies outside the frame. She leaves the image, where she has been on camera for the length of every scene so far, just as she leaves the world. And the moment she dies, the mute Johannes speaks at last. “Maria! Where is Maria?” Is this the miracle that authenticates Maria’s sacrifice? The film doesn’t decide for us.

The body of Jesus is placed in the lap of his mother (13): In a funeral home display room lined with coffins, Maria’s parents discuss details with the funeral director. The mother begins to idealize her daughter, calling her a saint as if all her abusive scolding of Maria had never happened. And she insists that given the “facts” of Christian dogma, there is no reason to be sad. But suddenly all that certainty crumbles under the weight of grief and guilt. Her sobbing amid those stacked coffins becomes as unbearable as Magdalene’s hysterical weeping at the foot of the cross in Zefferelli’s Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus is laid in the tomb (14): In a cemetery, a man operates an excavator to fill an empty grave. The mourners have departed. The noisy machine is indifferent to any resting in peace. Christian, whom Maria feared was an obstacle between her and God, enters the frame to stand at her grave. Then the camera makes its final and most dramatic move, craning up until it looks down upon Christian, the grave, and the excavator from above. After a minute, the boy tosses a flower into the grave, then walks to the far side of the cemetery to gaze upon a landscape of ploughed fields. The camera pans away from the grave to follow him, and then tilts upward, away from the cemetery, away from the earth itself, to gaze upon the sky. If there is anything up there, we cannot see it. A thick layer of clouds blocks our view.

A film is more than its story or the multitude of audio-visual and dramatic elements comprising its life on the screen. A film is also what happens to us as we watch and later reflect. A story which offers unacceptable models of human behavior may stiil exert a powerful spiritual force. Andrei Tarkovsky, one of the masters of religious cinema, put this as well as any:

“The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to the good.”[6]

In Stations, we see little we want to imitate or recommend. The priest’s teachings, the reactionary insularity and arrogance of his breakaway church, the mother’s abusive and unfeeling pietism, and Maria’s self-destructive behaviors are not things we want for our religion or our loved ones. Only Bernadette and Christian provide exemplary models for Christian living.

And yet, my soul was truly ploughed and harrowed by Maria, played so vulnerably by the gifted Lea van Acken. Maria lacked the language, the maturity, and the communal wisdom to fend off the religious extremism of church and family to find a more balanced expression of her desire for God. But like all saints, she was on to something and wouldn’t let it go.

Raymond Durgnat, writing about Robert Bresson’s Mouchette (1967), another film about an adolescent reaching for transcendence without really knowing how to do it, wrote something that I think illuminates Maria’s situation: “She still hasn’t found what she hardly knows she wants, and she fears she never will, but she still won’t settle for not having it. She rejects a soul-destroying future, so she’s damned; but in another sense, she’s saving her ‘divine discontent.’ So perhaps her rejection of a ‘soul-destroying’ future is the intention of saving her soul as best she knows?”[7]

Maria doesn’t quite know how to give herself to God, so she does it in what we consider a mistaken and tragic way. But there is no mistaking the authenticity of her desire and the purity of her will, which exceed all the distortions and limitations of her factual situation. For all the wrongness of her world and the choices she makes, her excessiveness is the quality which overcomes all the brokenness of her story.

The Fifth Station: Maria in the confessional.

 

In the Fifth Station, Maria is in the confessional. It is the only closeup of her in the entire film, but unlike most closeups, she is in profile, facing the grille between her and the priest, who remains unseen beyond the frame of the image. Maria gives an honest account of what her church considers sinful (“I had unchaste thoughts. I imagined Christian and me going to choir together, and him looking at me secretly and finding me beautiful.”) The priest listens carefully, but his responses are sometimes tarnished by a judgmental theology. However, the defects of the verbal exchange are overshadowed by the beauty of the visual image.

The intimate closeup of Maria gives us privileged access to her profound spirit of surrender. Like her Scriptural namesake at the Annunciation, she faces an invisible voice and responds with her whole heart. Whatever the priest says or thinks doesn’t really matter. He’s only a stand-in. The essential image is of a soul saying yes to the Mystery.

So is it enough to say I am moved by the intensity of Maria’s holy desire to reconsider the depth of my own spiritual life, without resolving the story’s problematic tensions between immanence and transcendence? Didn’t the Creator pronounce the goodness of the world? How much of it are we supposed to give up? How much self-emptying is enough? Something in me is drawn to the ascetic rigor of Lacoste’s fool in Christ, but in fact I live out the more Anglican way of loving this “sweet old world”[8] and not being so anxious to refuse it or leave it.

I have no plans to imitate Maria’s passion––or Christ’s, for that matter. But the questions about sacrifice posed by the Way of the Cross can’t be suppressed without losing something essential, as Nikos Kazantzakis reminds us in his parable about the boyhood of Jesus[9], whose restless and troubled spirit was a great worry for his parents. So they entrusted him to the care of the village sage, who met with him every day for a period of many weeks.

“What is troubling you,” the sage asked Jesus.
“I feel a pain I cannot explain. I roam the streets, wrestling.”
“Wrestling with whom?”
“With God, of course!. Who else?”

The sage gave Jesus medicinal herbs and taught him to calm himself with meditation. Every evening they had long talks about God. The sage assured the boy that God was not a consuming fire or an annihilating otherness, but a tender grandfather, with whom he could find loving support and a companionable peace of mind and spirit. God wanted only happiness for Jesus, not suffering or sacrifice. After a few months, Jesus was completely cured, and he grew up to become the best carpenter in Nazareth.

 

 

Related post: The Ten Best Religious Films

 

[1] 1998 interview, q. in William Grimes obituary for Gregory Peck, New York Times (6/13/03).

[2] I Corinthians 4:10

[3] Bob Dylan and Sam Shepard, “Brownsville Girl”.

[4] Jean-Yves Lacoste, “Liturgy and Kenosis, from Expérience et Absolu, in Graham Ward, ed., The Postmodern God: A Theological Reader (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 1997), 250, 261.

[5] The Binding of Isaac (Gen. 22: 1-18) is the prime example.

[6] Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986, 1987), 43.

[7] Raymond Durgnat, “The Negative Vision of Robert Bresson,” in James Quandt, ed., Robert Bresson: Revised (Toronto: Toronto International Film Festival Cinematheque, 2011), 560. Mouchette is a troubled teen trapped in an oppressive world. In the end she lets her body roll down a hill by a pond, like a game. The third time we see her roll out of the frame and hear a splash. Then we see ripples on the pond, but she is gone. The film was originally banned in France because on a literal level it involved teen suicide. But more astute critics have read the ending as a strangely positive image of transcendence, with the pond as a baptismal gate into a larger reality beyond the world’s horizon. It’s more like an “ascension” than an act of self-destruction.

[8] Lucinda Williams’ song to a friend who committed suicide: “See what you lost when you left this world, this sweet old world. . .”

[9] The parable is in Kazantzakis’ memoir, Report to Greco (1965). I have reconstructed it from memory. I read it 50 years ago and it has stayed inside me.

 

Kieslowski’s Decalogue: A Masterpiece of Religious Cinema

 

Pawel (Wojciech Klata), Decalogue 1

Pawel (Wojciech Klata), Decalogue 1

If I had to formulate the message of my Decalogue, I’d say,
‘Live carefully, with your eyes open, and try not to cause pain.’

– Krzysztof Kieslowski[i]

The late Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Decalogue (1988), one of cinema’s great religious masterpieces, had its origins in the depressing bleakness of Polish life in the mid-1980s. “Chaos and disorder ruled . . . everywhere, everything, practically everybody’s life,” wrote the filmmaker. “Tension, a feeling of hopelessness, and a fear of yet worse to come were obvious. I sensed mutual indifference behind polite smiles and had the overwhelming impression that, more and more frequently, I was watching people who didn’t really know why they were living.”[ii]

Driven to explore the questions of why we suffer and how we live, Kieslowski collaborated with Krzysztof Piesiewicz (not a writer but a great talker) to develop a series of scripts based on the Ten Commandments, which he then directed as ten one-hour episodes for Polish television. Subsequent theatrical screenings of the 584-minute series brought him instant international acclaim. A beautiful new restoration is now available on Blu-ray, but if you ever get a chance to see it on the big screen, don’t miss it. I’ve done the full immersion twice––in the nineties, and two months ago­­––and each time I exited the theater deeply affected, as though emerging from an all-night liturgy.

To call this work “religious” may seem a misnomer to those who think religious art requires explicit messaging, dogmatic certainty or a happy resolution of narratives. Decalogue offers neither clear answers nor divine fixes. Instead, it combs the landscape of doubt and anguish for the elusive traces of a power or presence which we might call grace, or even “God.”

Kieslowski’s given name, Krzysztof, means “Christ,” but he staunchly resisted religious labels and institutions. He was, he said, an “agnostic mystic,” a searcher attuned to something beyond the immanent and empirical. In exploring the idea of the Commandments as transcendent guides for living, he argued that “an absolute point of reference does exist … it’s something which is lasting, absolute, evident and is not relative… especially for people like me, who are weak, who are looking for something, who don’t know.”[iii]

The Commandments are not so much about the dictates and prohibitions in themselves as they are about relationships. In setting limits on human failings––violence, acquisitiveness, exploitation, idolatry, etc.––they create a safe space to flourish in just relation with one another, while at the same time binding human community in a covenantal relationship with a transcendent “point of reference.” As they prod us toward love of God and neighbor, the Commandments foster the deep interconnectedness which theologians call the image and way of divinity.

Decalogue’s characters are no saints. They are as weak, muddled and lost as the rest of us. The ten films don’t show us how to keep the Commandments; they show us what happens when we break them––damage and suffering, yes, but possibilities of grace as well.

All the stories involve the residents of a single apartment building, an oppressive concrete high-rise where joy is a rare commodity. Many of its occupants are lonely, broken or suffering. No one smiles much. Since we see little interaction of its inhabitants with a wider socioeconomic environment, it feels like a closed world, a laboratory for experiments in human nature, with God and the film viewer as the only outside observers. The actors themselves were not always sure which commandment applied to their story, since correlations between story and commandment were not always clear in the scripts. And a single story might actually involve multiple commandments.

But even if what to do or how to live may not seem clear to either the characters or the viewers who watch their stories, Decalogue gives us people for whom choices clearly matter. As Kieslowski put it, they “live carefully.” Even when they make a bad choice, it is the product of thought, not just careless impulse. And they convey the sense that even in seemingly small decisions, souls may be won or lost.

The stories are varied and often unexpected in their narrative twists and turns. Every situation centers on family issues: parenting, childhood, conflict, rivalry, infidelity, reconcilation and loss. I won’t spoil the pleasure of anyone’s first viewing by describing the plots, but subjects range from Christmas, ice skating, and stamp collecting to voyeurism, incest, kidnapping, suicide, murder and the holocaust. The totality is less grim than it sounds­­––humor, kindness and even redemption play a part––although Decalogue 1 will break your heart (even as it reveals divine compassion in an unforgettable image), and the murder in Decalogue 5 is almost unwatchable (as is the capital punishment which mirrors the original crime). Kieslowski sought God even in the abysses of human experience. His films are like the homeless drunk in Decalogue 3, dragging a scrawny tree through the streets on Christmas Eve, caroling in a slurred voice, “God is being born.”

If God is really being born, where is the birthplace? How on earth do we find it? German theologian Eberhard Jüngel says that the primary God question for modernity is not “whether God is” or “what God is,” but “where God is.” Before we argue existence or essence, we need to locate divine presence in the stories and places we ourselves inhabit.

Kieslowski looked for it through cinema. His faithful doubt gives Decalogue an honest authenticity. What he finds is not overdetermined by prior theological conviction. As critic Joseph G. Kickasola writes, “There is no evidence that Kieslowski ever felt that he concretely found that Transcendent hope, but his films stand as a testament to the integrity of his search and his longing.”[iv]

How do you show the Divine on film? God’s immanent manifestations may certainly be glimpsed in moments of human forgiveness, reconciliation, healing and liberation. But how might God’s elusive and ineffable transcendent dimension be represented? One way is through film style, using abstraction, reflections, filters, lighting, color, music, sound, and editing to dislodge the eye from habitual perceptions and suggest the possibility of less empirical realities. Decalogue abounds with such visual epiphanies. It is a world full of signs, once you start looking for them.

Another cinematic means of representing invisible Reality is to show one thing while allowing it simultaneously to mean something else. In Decalogue 9, a man lies in the hospital after a bungled suicide attempt. His wife, reading his suicide note, thinks he is dead. A hospital nurse dials her number, and holds a phone to the immobile husband’s ear. His wife answers. “God, you’re there!” she says. He responds, “I am.” It’s a very human moment of reconciliation, but in the context of the story, one cannot miss the dual meaning of this exchange. The object of deepest longing (“God”), thought to be gone forever, has not only been found (“you’re there”), but it answers the seeker with the divine name (“I am”). Fade to black.

In Decalogue 1, a man who has suffered unspeakable loss enters a candlelit church. Angry at a God whose existence he doubts, he overturns an altar beneath a large icon of the Virgin. A candle on top of the icon tips over, spilling its hot wax, which then drips slowly down the Virgin’s cheek. For this viewer at least, this is not simply a mediating image of divine compassion. It feels like direct experience. I know it’s just wax sliding down a painted surface. I know I am watching a film. But still: I see God weeping for our sorrow.

Another indicator of transcendent reality is the recurring sense of fate or destiny suggested by compelling coincidences, as if some intentional, benevolent design is trying to assert itself amid the happenstance of human affairs. There are many such uncanny connections in Decalogue. But such evidence is inherently ambiguous. As Slavoj Žižek wonders, “Is this the final answer of the Real, the proof that we are not alone, that ‘someone is out there,’ or just another stupid coincidence?”[v]

And then there is the enigmatic stranger who neither speaks nor acts. Appearing in every story but one, he witnesses but never intervenes, though at one point we see him wipe away a tear. Like the three strangers in Abraham’s tent, or the one who wrestled all night with Jacob, he suggests divine presence in anonymous human form.

In Decalogue 1, his first appearance is next to a fire, evoking the burning bush. He always seems to possess a secret knowledge of the heart, indicated by his knowing gaze. He turns up, as if omnipresent, at key moments of decision or crisis. Whether he is a powerless divinity who can sympathize but not save, or a mysterious agency which bends human causality, however subtly, toward positve outcomes, remains indeterminate throughout the Decalogue. But crucial changes or differences sometimes follow in his wake.

The script simply calls him “the young man.” The actor, Artur Barcis, thought of him as the Christ. Kieslowski told the actor to play him “as if you were five centimeters off the ground.” One critic compares him to an icon, “materially bearing [God’s] presence and eternal gaze in the broken, desolate community and reminding us that the commandments have always been perceived (by the faithful) to have a living, transcendental dimension.”[vi]

Each time I watch, I am moved by the stranger, so perfectly expressive of God’s ineffable oscillation of presence and absence: a transcendence which cannot be possessed or summoned, though it will never truly abandon us. But perhaps Decalogue’s supreme revelation––an incarnational, unambiguously human image of the divine––is found in an exchange between Pawel, an eleven-year-old boy, and his aunt Irena. Pawel has a great curiosity about God, which his single-parent father, an unbeliever, cannot satisfy. So Pawel takes his questions to his devout Catholic aunt.

Pawel: Do you believe that God exists?
Irena:  Yes.
Pawel: What is God?

Irena puts her arms around Pawel and pulls him close.

Irena:  What do you feel now?
Pawel: I love you.
Irena:   Exactly. That’s what God is.

 

 

Related post:   The ten best religious films

 

[i] Annette Insdorf, Double Lives, Second Chances: The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieslowski (New York: Hyperion/Miramax Books, 1999), 124

[ii] ibid., 69-70

[iii] Monica Maurer, Krzysztof Kieslowski (North Pomfret, VT: Trafalgar Square Publishing, 2000), 13

[iv] Joseph G. Kickasola, The Films of Krzysztof Kieslowski: The Liminal Image (New York: Continuum, 2004), 89

[v] Slavoj Žižek, The Fright of Real Tears: Kryzysztov Kieslowski Between Theory and Philosophy (London: British Film Institute, 2001), 123

[vi] Kickasola, 165-6

Cinematic Resurrections (Part 2)

image

And is not the language of the cinema of its very nature a way of telling stories that carry a reasoned argument, as it were, reasoning by way of stories? Here one can see how the narrative dimension – constitutive of the cinema – complements the icon’s symbolic dimension: and it is by dint of this bringing together of icon and story that the cinema can be a language uniquely capable of mediating transcendence.[i]

— Bruno Forte

The danger, however, that in our attempt to conceive and understand [the Resurrection] we in fact suppress the very revolution that the story embodies, naturalize the alienness of its ideas, tame the violence it does to our logic, and anesthetize its wounding of our pride.[ii]

— Alan E. Lewis

 

In Part 1 of Cinematic Resurrections, we looked at how Jesus films have represented the event of Jesus’ rising as well as the stories of his empty tomb. But the sensory appearances of the risen Christ present an even greater challenge for the filmmaker, involving a tension between visual plausibility and underlying truth. What really happened in the appearances, and what might that have looked like?

In the gospel texts, these appearances are not presented as private, interior experiences, subjective and dreamlike. They always convey a sense of concreteness and physicality, experienced as something outside the observer. Jesus has a bodily presence which occupies the spaces of encounter.

There is of course an inherent strangeness to meeting someone whose death you just witnessed. And the appearances stories do have a certain inexplicable “now you see me, now you don’t” quality. Jesus comes and goes at will. He is not barred by locked doors, nor does he ever linger for a proper goodbye, since “I am with you always.”

But the strangest aspect of the appearance stories, given their transcendent and astonishing subject, is their plainness. Jesus does not glow with supernal light, as in the mystical Transfiguration story, nor does he radiate the sublime and fearsome grandeur with which he appears in the Book of Revelation. The risen Christ is so down-to-earth that he is mistaken for a gardener. Later we find him barbecuing fish on the beach,

He still has human form, but something about him has changed. Catching sight of him is not enough to make the connection between the crucified teacher and this man from God knows where. Recognition is triggered not by his appearance, but by something he says or does, such as “Peace be with you,” or the breaking of bread at Emmaus (beautifully shown in The Miracle Maker). But even after the disciples discern the Risen One’s identity (“It’s Jesus!”), they still sense that something is different, something which begins to make them fall to their knees.

Both identity and difference are essential components of the Resurrection. The risen Christ is not a different person from the one who was crucified. At the same time, his body has undergone an incomprehensible transformation. As Wolfhart Pannenberg puts it, “Resurrection has to be understood in terms of transformation of the old life into the new one rather than in terms of replacing the perishable body by a new one.”[iii]

It is hard to convey this sense of “same but different” on film when a single actor plays Jesus both before and after the resurrection. In King of Kings (1961), for example, it is still clearly the boyish Jeffrey Hunter, apparently unaffected by the harrowing passage through death into divine futurity, who meets Mary Magdalene outside the tomb. In Jesus (1999), the risen Christ has lost nothing of the California cool which Jeremy Sisto brought to his pre-Easter Jesus. Such scenes are all familiarity without the slightest trace of difference— it’s the same actor, the same affect, the same voice.

Many of the films convey a sense of difference in the way the disciples respond to the appearances. When Jesus comes into their midst, they do not resume their accustomed rapport with their old companion of the road. They don’t rush to embrace him as you would a long-lost friend. They are respectfully hesitant to approach. Is this fear of the uncanny, or is it the beginning of worship? Then they move from astonishment and wonder to a place of prayerful receptivity. They bow their heads or close their eyes as Jesus speaks to them, touches them, or breathes the Holy Spirit upon them (as in The Gospel of John). The risen Christ soothes the anxious heart. Peace be with you.

How far can a film go in representing a resurrection appearance? Whar are the rules of engagement for the visual artist? Son of God (2014) attempts to communicate the strangeness of the Resurrection in two interesting scenes. In the first, we follow Magdalene from the glare of the Middle Eastern sun into the darkness of the tomb. As she puzzles over the grave cloths, the camera shifts to reveal the tomb entrance, and there is Jesus, just outside in the bright light of day.

Since the lens aperture is open wide to compensate for the dimness of the cave, the figure standing in the sunlight is extremely overexposed. The details of his face and body are burned out, erased by intense luminosity. This is not a special effect added to the image in post-production. It is simply how a camera sees under those conditions. With the cinematic eye calibrated to the darkness of death’s realm, we are literally blinded by the light.

So Mary sees, but does not recognize, until Jesus speaks her name. “Teacher?” she answers, hesitant but hopeful. Then her face tells us— she knows him. But the distance between them remains: she in the tomb, Jesus in the light. “Go and tell the others,” he says. “I am here.” Then he turns to walk away, and after a few steps his figure vanishes into the white light.

The encounter feels both plausible and strange at the same time. In this world but not of it. It has the naturalness of story, something which might have happened that way, but also the transcendent otherness of an icon. It’s only a movie— the artifice of representation using actors, camera and music, but it has the capacity to draw the viewer into effective proximity to what is being represented.

Then, the same film gives us an upper room appearance scene unique to the genre— an audacious attempt to bridge the ineffable transition from physical presence to sacramental presence. Once the sensory appearances of Jesus ceased not long after the Resurrection, the eucharist became the tangible and revelatory sign that Christ is now present in all times and places. This scene creatively depicts a single presence behind both experiences.

Peter and John, doubting Magdalene’s news, go back to the tomb with her. Peter enters alone, finds the burial shroud, and takes it outside to John and Mary. “Now do you believe me?” she says. But John shakes his head: “He’s gone.” Suddenly a strong gust of wind whirls a cloud of dust through the frame. It’s like a little Pentecost, the Spirit blowing Peter’s mind with the truth. “Gone?” he says. “No! He’s back.”

They run into town, pick up bread from a street seller and take it to the other disciples, waiting in the upper room. “I need a cup,” Peter cries. “And some wine.” Thomas, bewildered by Peter’s excitement, asks what happened. Peter doesn’t reply. There’s no time to waste.

He joins the others at table, breaking the bread and pouring the wine. “His body … his blood,” he says fervently, as if these things were Jesus himself. Offering the cup to the dubious Thomas, he begins to repeat their teacher’s words: “I am the way, the truth . . . ” but the final line, “and the life,” is spoken by a different voice, off camera. At first we see only a close shot of Thomas, glancing up in surprise. Then we see what he sees: Jesus, coming into focus as he enters the open door. Thomas looks down at the table. “No,” he says. “No, this isn’t real.”

Jesus just smiles, and begins to walk around the table, pausing to lay a hand of blessing on each disciple. In the gospel stories of the upper room, Jesus speaks the words, “Peace be with you,” but here his wordless gesture says it all. When he reaches Thomas, he sits down to face him. Jesus shows him his wounded hand, and then gently caresses the doubter’s cheek with it. Love becomes the evidence Thomas has been longing for.

Like Luke’s Emmaus story, this film scene blends narrative and symbol. Is it describing an original and unique appearance of the risen Christ, or is it representing the common experience of every believer who shares the bread of life and the cup of salvation? I would say both.

What happened then, happens now. What happened there, happens here. And whatever the nature of the first resurrection appearances, those stories are deeply flavored by eucharistic practice. When the lector, deacon or presider says the words, Jesus speaks. When the bread is shared and the wine poured out for many, “he’s back.” And whenever two or three gather in Christ’s name, the peace which passes all understanding is bestowed all over again. As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever.

…. I looked
at him, not with the eye
only, but with the whole
of my being, overflowing with
him as a chalice would
with the sea…[iv]

 

Related Posts

Cinematic Resurrections (Part 1)

Are we too late for the Resurrection?

 

 

[i] Bruno Forte, The Portal of Beauty: Towards a Theology of Aesthetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), 108

[ii] Alan E. Lewis, Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 27

[iii] Wolfhart Pannenberg, “History and the Reality of the Resurrection,” in Resurrection Reconsidered, ed. Gavin D’Costa (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 1996), 70

[iv] R.S. Thomas, “Suddenly”, in Collected Poems: 1945-1990 (London: Phoenix Giant, 1993), 283

Cinematic Resurrections (Part 1)

Rossana Di Rocco as the Angel in "The Gospel According to St. Matthew" (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1964)

Rossana Di Rocco as the Angel in “The Gospel According to St. Matthew” (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1964)

Very little can be verified historically above and beyond the disciples’ faith: something, a mysterious something, happened to them, but further than that we cannot penetrate.[i]

— A. J. M. Wedderburn

The delayed recognition of Jesus has nothing to do with a lesser visibility of his resurrected body due to the lesser reality of the shadowy afterlife to which he would now belong. The opposite is true. This resurrection is too real for a perception dimmed by the false transfigurations of mimetic idolatry.[ii]

— Rene Girard

The revolution will not be televised.

— Gil Scott- Heron

 

As a mortal being, Jesus shared the human condition. He lived and died as one of us. In this way, his story is universal. But it is also unique, for it does not end with his death. In the Gospels, the presence of Jesus persists beyond the cross. The violence of the world is not able to consume him. His story is completed not with death but resurrection. But by definition, resurrection is beyond the range of common experience. It doesn’t take place within ordinary history, where just anyone can see it.

The Resurrection is not the restoration of the past, a returning of Jesus’ old body to this life, but the translation of Jesus into a new reality which cannot be neutrally observed, but is only revealed to the faithful. “Things beyond our seeing, things beyond our hearing, things beyond our imagining”[iii] remain discretely offstage in the gospel narratives. The resurrection will not be televised.

 But some things were seen, as attested to in the gospel texts. There was an empty tomb, one or two mysterious messengers who tell them Jesus is not “here,” and a series of encounters with the risen Christ. The reports are fragmentary, and sometimes contradictory, befitting something so strange experienced by different subjects, each of them groping for language to express the inexpressible.

The cinematic accounts of the Jesus story provide an interesting way to consider what can be shown or seen of the Easter event. There is an inherent literalness to whatever the camera shows us: real objects under the light. Music, editing, and other cinematic devices can add layers of interpretation, but we are still seeing actual material things, visible to anyone in their presence.[iv] How, then, can a film show us something that so radically eludes and exceeds the visible, the resurrection that is, in Rene Girard’s delicious phrase, “too real for a perception dimmed by the false transfigurations of mimetic idolatry”?

In this two-part survey of resurrection stories in Jesus films from 1927 to 2014, we will look at three elements: the Resurrection itself, the empty tomb, and the appearances.

The Resurrection

Of the nearly twenty lives of Jesus produced as commercial features or television miniseries since the early twentieth century, few have attempted to represent the actual moment of resurrection. Cecil B. DeMille, always the showman, couldn’t resist giving us Jesus actually walking out of the tomb in The King of Kings (1927). The stone covering the entrance begins to glow, then falls away, and a Jesus bathed in radiance stands tall before our eyes. He looks a bit lonely, perhaps unsure of what to do next as he takes a few tentative steps back into the world of space and time.

DeMille’s camera remains respectfully outside the tomb. We don’t actually see whatever happened inside. Mel Gibson, in The Passion of the Christ (2004), is bolder, placing the viewer within the sacred epicenter. As the camera pans around the tomb, we see the sunlight penetrate the darkness as the stone is rolled away, and then we see the slab where the Savior was laid. But instead of a body, we see only the shroud collapsing into flatness as the form which gave it shape apparently vanishes. If we are witnessing the moment when a a corpse is translated into something else, the facts of the matter remain discretely veiled from sight.

It is a stunning and poetic moment. Not quite seeing the mystery itself, we glimpse its trace — white fabric, suddenly emptied of its content, falling gently onto a stone slab. We see what can be seen, and no more. And yet so much is implied. However, when the camera pulls back to show the naked Christ, sitting quietly on the edge of the slab as he opens his eyes, the delicate balance of the visible and invisible is broken. The image is too literal, too crudely specific for an event which shatters all language.

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964) presents the Resurrection with the naïve simplicity of a medieval mystery play. Soldiers doze before the sealed tomb. The mother of Jesus arrives with a few disciples, male and female. They kneel, clutching bouquets of wildflowers. Suddenly, an earthquake. The stone door falls. The tomb is empty. The camera zooms in on the abandoned shroud. We hear an exuberant African Gloria. We see a young “angel” in close-up, announcing the resurrection and sending the disciples forth to evangelize the world. Mary smiles and gives a courteous bow to the angel. Cut to the disciples, on fire with the good news, running, running, running, their faces full of joy. With the movements of their bodies compressed and blended tightly by a telephoto lens, the screen explodes with their collective energy, which becomes the perfect icon of the risen life — empowered, unconstrained, joyous and overflowing.

Pasolini doesn’t worry about plausibility. He represents the Resurrection with a kind of magic realism, where the camera, in a matter-of-fact manner, gives equal weight to the natural and the supernatural. This is more like the poetry of an Easter hymn than a documentary. Instead of explanation, here is proclamation.

Son of Man (2006), the South African retelling of the Jesus story in a fictional 21st-century African country, brings Jesus out of the grave twice. Instead of being crucified, Jesus is abducted and “disappeared” — beaten to death and buried in a secret grave the way so many activists were killed in South Africa under apartheid. But Jesus’ mother manages to find the grave, and a few disciples help her dig up the body and display it on a hilltop cross in a gesture of defiance, as if to say, We will not let crimes against the people be hidden. This shockingly literal crucifix inspires the disciples to risk their own lives in protest against the murderous oppressors.

The empowered disciples, singing and dancing in front of armed soldiers at the foot of the cross, made me think of what Oscar Romero said just before his own martyrdom, “If they kill me, I shall arise in the Salvadoran people. Let my blood be a seed of freedom and the sign that hope will soon be reality. A bishop will die, but the Church of God, which is the people, will never die.”[v]

But then the film gives us a second resurrection, proclaiming the Easter faith that the resurrection did not only happen to the community Jesus created. It also happened to Jesus. The time is early morning. The camera puts us a few feet below the rim of the dirt grave where Jesus’ body had lain before the disciples took it away. The sun is behind us. We see the wall of the grave and the blue sky above it. The shadow of a man begins to rise up the wall from below, and a tenor’s voice breaks the silence with a South African song:

The sun in Spring will rise over the mountain.
Today we are united.
We are one people.

The voices of a choir begin to add their soaring harmonies. The man’s tall shadow is joined by shadows of the angels who have watched over Jesus since his birth, played by small boys adorned with ostrich feathers. These elongated sunrise shadows of Jesus and the angels stretch beyond the grave into an open field. It is a haunting image, hovering between the spectral and the substantial.

We cut to close-ups of the boys’ angelic faces, beautiful and smiling as they look into the distance. Then we see what they see: Jesus, dressed in his familiar denim work clothes, ascending a hill. The boys, suddenly a great multitude, follow after him. This powerful final image evokes not only the host of heaven welcoming Jesus home, but also the departed souls he drew into his risen life when he descended to the dead.

The Empty Tomb

In contrast to the affirmative mood of the resurrection scenes, the empty tomb creates uncertainty and bewilderment. What has happened to the body? In The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb at dawn, only to find the stone rolled away from the entrance. A young man is standing just inside the shadowy cave. “He is gone,” he says. “Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is risen.” There is nothing particularly uncanny about the man’s appearance. Played by Pat Boone, he is disappointingly prosaic.

Magdalene departs the tomb just as some male disciples arrive. When the men enter the tomb, the figure in white doesn’t even speak to them. He simply takes a seat at the rear of the cave like a museum guard, thinking his thoughts while the tourists have a look around. It is awkward staging, without the slightest aura of transcendence. Only the soundtrack’s “Hallelujah Chorus” tells you something religious is happening.

In The Gospel of John (2003), Magdalene is so disturbed to find the stone rolled away, she doesn’t linger to look inside. She goes immediately to tell the other disciples. Peter and John come on the run to check it out for themselves. They appear puzzled by the missing body, though John, the narrator tells us, “saw and believed.” But neither of the men actually looks convinced of anything. According to the narrator, “They still did not understand the scripture, which said that he must rise from death.”

The CBS miniseries Jesus (2000) also follows the Johannine account (John 20: 1-10), but when John joins Peter in the tomb, he has no problem grasping the situation. “He is risen!” he declares. This is faithful to the absence of any psychological processing in John 20:8 (“he saw and believed”), but on film such instant belief seems unconvincing. We need to see John thinking, as the truth sinks in. We want to experience the drama of recognition played out over time, reflecting our own wrestling with doubt as the horizon of the possible is radically expanded before us. Peter offers some token resistance (“Risen? No! The body’s stolen.”), but he soon joins John in embracing resurrection faith as though it were something easy.

The problem with such scenes lies in the inherent ambiguity of the empty tomb. It does not prove resurrection. Christian claims about the meaning of the empty tomb were countered very early on by alternative explanations: the body was stolen; Jesus, not really dead, woke up and walked away; the women went to the wrong tomb; or — my personal favorite — the gardener moved the body so that the disciples wouldn’t trample the vegetables while venerating their master’s grave. The most that the empty tomb can do is prompt questions. The Resurrection is about presence, and the tomb is only absence. He is not here. Why seek the living among the dead?

Still, there is something decidedly uncanny about the messenger(s) at the tomb. In Mark’s early account, the “young man in a white robe” was not yet Matthew’s dramatically embellished angel, with a face like lightning and a dazzling snow-white robe. Even so, the women who saw him were “struck with amazement.” Luke’s later text has them bow to the ground, a clear act of worship. There is something here that does not want to be explained away. The strange quality of this encounter preserves an essential trace of the divine at work. Reducing the story to whatever we call plausibility would only evacuate its power to convey a deeper truth.

How, then, can the filmmaker strike us with amazement? Pat Boone won’t suffice, nor could computer wizardry, riffing on Matthew’s special effects, ever be anything more than distracting artifice. But in Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth (1977), there is a compelling balance between cinema’s inherent naturalism and the gospel story’s overflowing transcendence. We see three women walking toward the tomb, escorted by a Roman guard. When the soldiers move on ahead, only the disciples are left within the frame. It is then that they hear a voice meant only for the faithful: “Where are you going? Why seek the living among the dead? Jesus is not there.” The women look up to see two gardeners on the hillside. The eerie electronic notes of a Theremin over a low percussive rumble underscore the sense of the uncanny. The women hurry on to the tomb, only to find it empty. They run back, full of questions, to where they saw the gardeners, but now the hillside is empty. Only a couple of hoes remain as tangible signs that this was more than a vision.

Other than the music, everything in this scene is natural: women walking, a gardener speaking, an empty tomb, two abandoned hoes. No faces like lightning, no dazzling raiment, no echo effects on the vocal. And yet, we feel that the women, and we as well, have been touched by something wondrous, just beyond the grasp of our senses.

 

In Part 2 (coming soon to a computer near you!), we will examine how Jesus movies have handled the most critical element of the resurrection stories: the appearances of the risen Christ to his disciples.

Related Posts

The Ten Best Jesus Movies

My Ten Favorite Jesus Movie Moments

 

 

 

 

 

[i] A. J. M. Wedderburn, Beyond Resurrection (London: SCM Press, 1999), 89

[ii] Rene Girard, A Theater of Envy: William Shakespeare (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 341-2

[iii] I Cor 2:9

[iv] Of course, computer-generated imagery can show us things which do not exist in the empirical universe, but while we may be amused or awed by such effects, we are fully aware of their artificiality. It is quite a different thing to gaze at a real object, or a human face, and wonder whether there might be something there beyond the visible.

[v] Quoted in the Paulist Productions film, Romero (1989) directed by John Duigan

The holy grail of cinema: Jacques Rivette’s “Out 1”

Emilie/Pauline (Bulle Ogier) in Jacques Rivette's Out 1 (1971)

Emilie/Pauline (Bulle Ogier) in Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 (1971)

We are all rehearsing parts of which we are as yet unaware (our roles). We slip into characters which we do not master (our attitudes and postures). We serve a conspiracy of which we are completely oblivious (our masks).

— Gilles Deleuze[i]

 

Last weekend I watched a nearly 13-hour film on the big screen at the Seattle Film Center. Jacques Rivette’s Out 1: Noli me tangere (1971) has been called the “holy grail of cinema” — made infinitely precious by the rarity of its appearance. Only in recent months have art-house screenings and a home video release[ii] made it accessible to wider veneration.

Critic B. Kite has written about this fabled film as an object of longing: “Out 1 grew in darkness, secret and seemingly made of secrets, and due to this unavailability … it joined that pantheon of broken and vanished objects [e.g., von Stroheim’s Greed or Brian Wilson’s Smile] … in which, even against our better judgment, we place some unspecified hope of a definitive experience, maybe a bit too good for the world, as indicated by the fact that they live in a half-light, next door to oblivion.”[iii]

As soon as I heard about the Seattle screening, I bought my ticket. A thirteen-hour movie? Can’t miss that! I have a penchant for immersive experiences, long-form retreats from everyday reality into alternative worlds. Among the most memorable were a 72-hour science-fiction film marathon, an all-night Epiphany liturgy in a circus tent, Peter Brook’s 11-hour staging of the Mahabharata, Masaki Koybayashi’s 10-hour film epic, The Human Condition, the 500-mile Camino de Santiago, and Christian Marclay’s 24-hour video, The Clock.

But unlike any of these, Out 1 is not so clearly shaped by a sense of plot or structure. It does not set out from a premise or question toward a place of arrival or resolution. Instead, it begins and ends in media res, adrift in a sea of occurrences and characters whose connections or meanings remain perpetually elusive.

There was no original script. Rivette, one of the most experimental of the French New Wave filmmakers, sought the same freedom as the Abstract Expressionist painters, whose process was largely free from the constraints of predetermined outcomes. His actors, provided with various situations, simply improvised their lines throughout the six weeks of shooting. Since much of the action takes place in the streets and cafes of Paris, the actors at times enlisted unsuspecting Parisians in their scenes.

The first hours feel like a documentary as two separate experimental theater companies engage in warm-up exercises, acting games and psychodrama designed to break down barriers, loosen inhibitions, and spark creativity. One exercise, bordering on hysteria, is shown in a single 45-minute shot as the hand-held camera moves restlessly among writhing, clamorous bodies. In a 13-hour film, you can do this sort of thing, and still have plenty of time left over to attend to the story.

However, if this film does have a story, it consists only of hints and speculations whose reality is always in doubt. Documentary and fiction, imagination and reality, the written and the improvised, are intertwined, inseparable, often indistinguishable.

Halfway through the film, a troubled loner named Colin, played by New Wave icon Jean-Pierre Leaud, begins to piece together fragments of Balzac and Lewis Carroll as if they are clues to a great conspiracy involving a secret society called The Thirteen, formed to subvert the social order with a radical utopian vision. But it may be that The Thirteen is no more than a long-dormant idea some of the other characters once dreamed but never enacted. When told that the object of his obsessive quest may be a hoax, Colin replies, “But that would mean that the magical, mysterious world I’ve been living in is nothing but illusion. And that,” he insists, “is impossible!”

To live in a world without underlying connections or purposeful ends is a bleak, even terrifying prospect, as Thomas Pynchon notes in Gravity’s Rainbow:

If there is something comforting-religious, if you want — about paranoia, there is still also anti-paranoia, where nothing is connected to anything, a condition not many of us can bear for long.[iv]

Is there a middle way between the fictions of paranoia and the despair of anti-paranoia? Colin’s quest proves a dead end: there is nothing to find. He stops searching for answers and resumes his original persona as a (pretended) deaf-mute passing out envelopes at sidewalk cafes. Inside the envelopes are “messages of destiny” — pages ripped at random from paperback novels.

The two theater groups, meanwhile, are pursuing their own path toward meaning as they each grapple with a tragedy from Aeschylus. One of these, Prometheus Bound, provides a text perfectly descriptive of the obstacles to coherence in our personal and social narratives:

…they had eyes, but sight was meaningless;
Heard sounds but could not listen; all their length of life
They passed like shapes in dreams, confused and purposeless.

 In stealing fire from Zeus, Prometheus became humanity’s great benefactor, the bringer of light, technology and civilization. He would also be credited with securing us meaning, purpose, and future. But he paid the highest price for this gift. Chained to a rock in a ritual of perpetual sacrifice, he would be devoured and regenerated daily. His sacrificial suffering on behalf of humanity has drawn comparisons with Christ. And while Noli me tangere (“Touch me not”), may have been no more than Rivette’s joke about his film being something that few would ever see, its direct quote of the risen Savior (John 20:17) may be an intended link between Prometheus and Christ.

At the end of the film, Thomas (Michael Lonsdale), who assumes the role of Prometheus in his troupe’s improvisations on Aeschylus, lies forsaken on a beach, arms outspread in a crucifixion pose. After a time, he gets up and walks along the shore toward the rising sun. But this seems only a parody of resurrection. We sense no renewal, no passage to a place of transformation and new life. All the heaven-storming, psyche-delving exertions of the Aeschylus project have led precisely nowhere. Thomas has not been transposed into a higher key. He remains as “confused and purposeless” as ever.

But as we take our leave of him, after twelve hours and forty-one minutes, Thomas is still moving, not yet done, like the protagonist in Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable: “You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

As the intrepid audience of eighteen men and four women exited the theater sometime after midnight, we were awarded with a button for our labors. I wore it proudly on the 2 a.m. ferry home.

New Wave button

The film ended as it began: in media res. It had not delivered us to a resting place of resolution or catharsis, but it would continue to haunt me in the days that followed. As the many online essays about the film attest, recovering from the experience may take some time. It’s not just that cinema’s magic carpet whisked me off to the Paris of 1970 for thirteen hours, or that the actors were infinitely watchable, or that Rivette’s audacious play with form was deeply fascinating.

What moved me most about Out 1 was its immense sympathy for the human condition as something more to be lived than solved. Comedy and tragedy, laughter and tears, are equally at home in Rivette’s film, as the actors rehearse “the parts of which we are as yet unaware” and “slip into characters which we do not master.”

 

Related post: Jacques Rivette’s “Around a Small Mountain”

 

 

 

 

[i] Gilles Deleuze, Cahiers du Cinema, no. 416, February 1989. Reprinted in Two Regimes of Madness (MIT Press, 2006): p. 355-8, and available online at http://www.jacques-rivette.com

[ii] Available from Carlotta Films

[iii] B. Kite, “Jacques Rivette and the Other Place,” Cinema Scope, no. 30 (Spring 2007), p. 12. The article, along with many other essays about the film, may be found at http://www.jacques-rivette.com

[iv] Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow, p. 434

Ten questions to ask about your own picture of Jesus

"I was a teenage Jesus" - Jeffrey Hunter as Jesus in Nicholas Ray's King of Kings (1961)

“I was a teenage Jesus” – Jeffrey Hunter as Jesus in Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings (1961)

Are you the Expected One, or should we look for someone else? (Matthew 11:3)

Who do you say that I am? (Mark 8:29)

I’m teaching a course this month on “Jesus and the Movies” at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. We are examining nineteen feature films on Jesus, made between 1912 and 2014, through the lenses of biblical criticism, Christology, film theory, and cultural contexts.

But we are also considering our own personal perspectives on the protagonist of “the greatest story ever told.” What influences have shaped our own image(s) of Jesus? How do we picture Jesus? What do we expect him to do? How do we expect him to be? How is our understanding of Jesus enlarged, challenged, confirmed, contradicted or disappointed by what we see on the screen?

Robert Powell, whose portrayal of Jesus in Franco Zefferelli’s Jesus of Nazareth (1977) was generally well received by the public, said some years later that “No one can play Jesus. Not really.” And many critics have agreed. The casting of boyish teen heartthrob Jeffrey Hunter (who was actually 33 when he played the part) elicited sneers of “I Was a Teenage Jesus.” Max von Sydow, praised by some for restoring virility to the role, was ripped by others for “an aphorism-spouting, Confucius-say edge to his speech, an overtone of pomposity.” Jesus Christ Superstar’s Ted Neely was dismissed as “a droopy little fellow with sad eyes and long hair, followed by nondescript young people without any particular place to go.” And Willem Dafoe’s troubled and uncertain Jesus caused NPR’s Tom Shales to say that “this Jesus wonders, wonders, wonders who — who wrote the book of love?”

My take on the subject is that no actor has to be the Jesus, and that no single film needs to be definitive. They only need to show us the “old, old story” in some fresh way, to reveal some dimension we might otherwise have missed. But any claim to have finally gotten it “right” would be idolatry. As Rowan Williams has noted:

If you think representation is copying or reproducing, quite clearly, there is no way you can do this as a religious believer. Not even if you think you are reproducing what Jesus looked like when he was on earth. If on the other hand you think ‘I need to find some kind of vehicle which will put me in touch with the action that underlies and sustains these events’, then of course you won’t necessarily look for a realistic picture… No, you don’t want to represent just the human facts, nor do you want to take refuge in abstract representations … you are put in touch with something, but you mustn’t think it’s a copy.[i]

So the actors and filmmakers are freed of the burden of factual replication. They merely have to put us in touch with that certain something contained in the Jesus story. And in provoking our own responses, both positive and negative, they make us reexamine the nature and history of our own images and ideas for Jesus.

From the Internet, definitely a "not-Jesus".

From the Internet, definitely a “not-Jesus.”

That being said, here are ten preliminary questions to consider when Jesus asks the big one: “Who do you say that I am?”

  1. Where did your first images of Jesus come from? Have any of those become obsolete?
  2. What later images, experiences, and understandings caused those first images to grow, develop, change?
  3. What are your criteria for authenticity? Scripture, theological presuppositions, historical probability, psychological plausibility, inner experience, worship, moral resonance, etc.?
  4. Then vs. Now: Is Jesus only in the past, or can we encounter him in the present? Can faith communities receive information about Jesus that adds to the picture (as in the Fourth Gospel or the Book of Revelation)? Can individuals, such as Julian of Norwich in her visions of the Passion, be shown “new” things about the Jesus story? Can a painter, or a filmmaker, show us something new about Jesus? How can such new insights. assertions, or revelations be tested?
  5. Is historical investigation enough to reach the “real” Jesus? Is faith enough? Or do they shape and influence each other?
  6. What is the role of art, including film, in showing us Jesus? Can different images/actors/styles add to our understanding and experience of Jesus? What are the criteria that affect our receptivity?
  7. If a particular movie Jesus or scene doesn’t fit our own ideas. images, or understandings, do we reject it entirely, or do we engage with it, let its difference be a way to explore and test our presuppositions? Do we say, “That’s not Jesus,” and move on? Or do we wrestle till dawn with that stranger to see whether it might bless us?
  8. All language is difference: this is not that. Can even the not-Jesuses help define who Jesus is?
  9. Ontological Christology vs. functional Christology (being vs. doing): Do the identity of Jesus, and the authenticity of his representations, lie in who he is: a person in whom both human and divine are perfectly integrated (and then manifested in personality, charisma, appearance, and the way he feels to us)? Or does it lie in what he does, what he says, and how the story goes, regardless of our affective responses to his manner of being?
  10. If a particular representation of Jesus makes you uncomfortable, can that be a good thing?

 

Related Posts

The Ten Best Jesus Movies

My 10 Favorite Jesus Movie Moments

 

 

 

[i] “Faith and Image,” a conversation between Rowan Williams and Neil MacGregor, Art and Christianity 75 (Autumn 2013), 3

The ten best Jesus movies

Enrique Irazoqui and Pier Paolo Pasolini on location for "The Gospel According to St. Matthew"

Enrique Irazoqui and Pier Paolo Pasolini on location for “The Gospel According to St. Matthew”

The Feast of the Epiphany, recalling the journey of the Magi to adore the Christ child, ultimately celebrates the “showing” of Christ to the world. It seems the perfect day to post my list of the “ten best” Jesus movies, a genre which has fascinated me ever since I was a child extra in my father’s production of “Day of Triumph.” Surprisingly, that independent film by an Episcopal priest was the only Jesus film produced in the 1950’s, a decade packed with every other kind of biblical film.

For the last twenty-five years, I have taught “Jesus and the Movies” in seminaries, churches and retreat centers. I use clips from 19 feature films made between 1912 and 2014. The films always provoke rich conversations about biblical studies, Christology, religious art and film studies. Perennial issues of representation and interpretation are both repeated and transformed by the film medium, and the Jesus films, for all their limitations and imperfections, ask each viewer: “Who do you say that I am?” Even you don’t like a particular movie Jesus, you are compelled to think about the Jesus movie in your own head, your own heart. How does it differ from (or resonate with) what is on the screen?

As I noted in a prior post on the ten best religious films, top ten lists are subjective, revisable and always questionable, which is what makes them fun. And the Jesus film genre, burdened by religious expectations, commercial considerations, artistic pretensions and cultural controversies, has not produced any completely great films (each has its flaws, and the gospels themselves resist translation into perfect narratives), but it has given us many great scenes. I’ll list my favorite scenes in another post, but for now, in chronological order, here are my ten recommendations for your Epiphany binge-watching.

King of Kings (1961) Nicholas Ray’s uneven, studio-butchered epic was savaged by reviewers (“Incontestably the corniest, phoniest, ickiest and most monstrously vulgar of all the big Bible stories,” thundered Time Magazine). Blue-eyed fan-mag cover boy Jeffrey Hunter, although 33 years old, was dismissed as the “teenage Jesus,” though other saw echoes of JFK, inspiring and youthful, or “James Dean without the delinquency” (Ray had also made Rebel Without a Cause). And religious critics found too much humanity, not enough divinity. So what’s it doing on my list? Well, Ray was a terrific director, and the film is very watchable. It is also a prime example of cultural context shaping both the making and the reception of a Jesus film. Released at a time when both the biblical epic and the dominant Protestant metanarrative were on the wane in America, it failed for interesting reasons. At the same time, a Jesus constantly preaching “peace and love” reflected the ongoing anxieties of the Cold War era. And where else can you get narration by Orson Welles, a marvelous epic score by Miklos Rozsa (of Ben Hur fame), and the longest traveling shot in film history (160 feet of track on a steep Spanish hillside)?

The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1965) Pasolini’s black & white, hand-held, documentary “you are there” style, the rough-hewn faces of Italian non-actors, and the first dark-eyed Jewish Jesus all created an illusion of realism that instantly overthrew the conventions of biblical cinema. It is the first Jesus movie not to blend all four gospels or invent new dialogue and narration, though it significantly edits Matthew’s text (apocalyptic sayings, the Transfiguration, and some miracles are omitted). The director treats Jesus as a “revolutionary whirlwind” sweeping through Palestine. For some the protagonist is too strident, humorless and emotionally remote, but his relentless otherness nicely resists our domestication.

Jesus Christ Superstar/Godspell (1973) Permit me to link the Jesus musicals together: they came out in the same year, each is dated in its own way (singing and dancing on top of the World Trade Center, for example), and both remain strangely affecting, at least for persons of a certain age. In breaking the conventions of literal treatments, they not only opened new options for the genre, but influenced a rising generation of liturgists who brought street theater, comic play and contemporary music into the churches. Some critics glowered from the other side of a generational divide (“Jesus is just a teeny-bopper stoned on himself”), but there were more substantial controversies as well (in Superstar, a black Judas, an erotic Magdalene, Jewish villains caricatured as vultures, and a doubting Jesus). But each film provides a lively retelling with some very moving scenes.

Jesus of Nazareth (1977) Franco Zefferelli’s beautiful 6-hour miniseries on NBC, while shunning the artificial grandeur of Hollywood sets for a humbler, dustier Palestine, is suffused with its own pictorial conventions: Catholic iconography and Italian painting. Robert Powell’s engaging and self-assured Jesus, whose divine nature is clearly on display in key scenes, gives one of the most popular portrayals, though the film has been criticized for an overly interior spirituality that leaves the sociopolitical world untouched. Rather than trying to make Powell carry the entire burden of his character’s significance, Jesus of Nazareth focuses on the faces, reactions and emotions of his followers. Peter and Mary Magdalene, standing in for all of us who hear and follow, are unforgettable.

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) The most controversial film of the genre prior to Mel Gibson’s Passion, Scorcese’s energetic, visceral take on the Kazanzakis novel is really a mashup of three bible characters: Jonah (the reluctant prophet resisting his inevitable vocation), Jesus of the gospels (creatively retold with a few quirky additions), and the Prodigal Son (who leaves the cross for the “far country” of a long, ordinary life, only to return “home” to Calvary at the end). This flawed but fascinating film has many firsts: the interior thoughts of Jesus, New York accents, sexuality, a restless camera always on the move, Peter Gabriel’s world music soundtrack, women at the Last Supper, and a novelistic source that exacerbates the confusions of fact and fiction.

Jesus of Montreal (1989) Denys Arcand’s postmodern play within a play furthered the transformation of a genre freeing itself from the restrictive conventions of piety and/or box-office caution. A group of contemporary actors, invited to reinvigorate a staid annual Passion Play, do so in wonderfully imaginative ways. At the same time, they find their personal lives starting to embody the characters they play. Earnest, clever and compelling, the film asks us to consider what it might mean to “play” Jesus in our own place and time.

Jesus (1999) This 4-hour television special offers a Jesus who seems quite modern in manner, speech and outlook. Jeremy Sisto is a “California slacker” type whose identity quest seems very American. This is often effective in putting us in the story, as if it’s something that could happen to us. But does it also reflect our own cultural selves so much that we can no longer believe we are seeing anything resembling history? An unprecedented use of special effects for the miraculous and mythic elements of the gospels is visually interesting, but it does create significant questions about what we are being asked to believe, since a special effect is transparently fictional, undermining the real but unseen content of faith.

The Miracle Maker (2000) Fresh, creative and often moving, this film uses claymation figures by Russian orthodox artists. Parables, dreams and inner experience are contrastingly rendered in two-dimensional animation. The engaging script, written by an Anglican, tells the Jesus story through the eyes of a child. The clay Jesus, resembling an eastern Christian icon (but with a ready smile) is more charismatic than many of his live-action brethren. The voice of Ralph Fiennes is part of the reason, but the animation itself engages us directly with the story in a way that real human faces do not. A dramatic film is always both a scripted fiction and also a kind of documentary about what the actors themselves are doing while the camera is rolling. With animation, you see only the story, not the actors, and that works beautifully here.

The Gospel of John (2003) This film gave itself a uniquely challenging task. Most Jesus movies invent dialogue to fill gaps in the narrative or articulate meanings left unsaid in gospel texts, but such a strategy is renounced here. The script uses only the words of the Fourth Gospel (in modern translation), forcing ingenious, if occasionally labored, strategies to keep the story moving and the viewer involved. The long speeches of the “Farewell Discourses” (John 13-17) are the supreme example. Ian Cusick’s Jesus is warm and passionate. You may never again hear “I am the bread of life” without seeing his smile.

Son of Man (2006) Produced in South Africa, it sets the Jesus story within a fictional 21st century African country beset by the horrendous legacy of colonialism, corporate exploitation, and factionalism. The first black movie Jesus is deeply embedded in contemporary times, teaching nonviolence to his disciples while speaking out against corrupt and evil powers. But we never lose sight of the original gospel story. The stunning depictions of Annunciation, Pieta and Resurrection will knock you flat. And the singing! So exhilarating. Here is a film where you really “meet Jesus again for the first time.”