The Gospel According to Film

Has any story been adapted to film more than the tale of Christ?

This past weekend (among countless others), I took a journey through faith depicted on film. Some regular entries could be The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur, two Charleton Heston epics that always air on TV this time of year, but I chose landed on three others: The Last Temptation of Christ (for its annual Good Friday viewing in my living room), The Gospel According to St. Matthew (which I had never seen but long wanted to), and Jesus Christ Superstar (a musical I’d seen a couple times, but was very familiar with the music).

Perhaps it was watching three tellings of the same story within a 36-hour time span, or a deep-rooted familiarity with the Passion from my Catholic upbringing, but seeing these very different takes on the life of Christ within a short period became a richer experience than the sum of its parts. Watching any of the films in isolation would have been viewing it on its own merits (and there’s nothing wrong with that), but assessing them more as complements to one another made each movie all the more unique, defined, and artistic.

The Last Temptation of Christ, as explicitly stated in its introduction, is a “fictional” exploration of Christ’s battle between “the spirit and the flesh.” The conflict within Jesus as both man and god is, frankly, the point of the film, and this thesis drives the depiction of Christ even as a character. He goes on an emotional arc throughout the entire film: first in torment, troubled by his internal pain; determination to understand His purpose; a loving, enlightened figure inspiring and healing those around Him; then a defeated, dejected shell; and finally, the courageous, benevolent Son of God who sacrifices Himself for the world. Christ is a fully realized, human character, and His emotional journey and experience as a man makes His ultimate sacrifice all the more heartbreaking and powerful.

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The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

The depiction of Christ in The Gospel According to St. Matthew, however, embarks on less of a journey; in Pasolini’s film, Christ is confident, eloquent, though arguably cold, direct, and lacks the loving warmth we often see in Renaissance-era artwork or other film adaptations. The viewer’s relationship to Him is almost impersonal, with milestone moments such as Christ’s arrest and trial shot from a distance, from the perspective of a member of the crowd witnessing. This sense of detachment is washed away by the movie’s conclusion however, through the powerful depiction of the Resurrection. The cold tone permeating most of the film is foiled by a glorious chorus of song, believers rejoicing to spread the word of God, as Christ is heard in voice-over dialogue: “Behold, I am with you always, unto the end of the world.” Whether the voice is for His followers or to us directly, the disconnect is breached as He makes a promise to always be there.

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The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964)

The sense of glory from Christ does not quite shine through in Jesus Christ Superstar, the grooviest tale of the Passion ever committed to film. This depiction of Jesus is sad, frustrated, and troubled throughout, and no moments of miracles or God-given glory ever transpire. The life and spirit of the film come from, well, everywhere else: the excellent portrayal of Judas by Carl Anderson, going jumpsuit to jumpsuit as he fears for Christ, betrays Him, and even chastises Him. While Jesus is, of course, the center of the action, most of the songs and story are seen from the perspective of those around Him. Mary Magdalene is also portrayed terrifically, by Yvonne Elliman, effortlessly gliding between sensuality and an almost-motherly love toward Him. Jesus does not go on the emotional arc or display the vitality that the other characters do, and this may well be the point of the piece: the tale of Christ, told by the perspectives of those around Him.

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Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)

These films are absolutely not to be taken as Gospel and are not documentaries (though how cool would it be if Jesus Christ Superstar were!), but experiencing three very different interpretations of this globally-known tale was a fascinating, enlightening journey through all the perspectives and artistic decisions that shape and contribute to our modern understanding of Christ.

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Looking Back at 2015 in Music

  • Favorite 2015 albums (in no order):

    • Ryan Adams – 1989. I’m not a Taylor Swift fan, at all, but this alternative country cover album of her entire 1989 smash hit record is a double-edged triumph: (1) showcasing the strength and versatility of Miss Swift’s songwriting, and (2) the musical finesse of Ryan Adams for adapting electronic pop music into thoughtful, heartfelt alternative rock. Highlights: “Welcome to New York,” “Style,” “Out of the Woods,” “All You Had to Do was Stay,” & “This Love.”
    • Miley Cyrus – Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz. Genuinely artistic experimental psychedelic album by pop’s most button & boundary-pushing young startlet. It also features some of her best and most mature music. Highlights: “The Floyd Song (Sunrise),” “Space Boots,” “BB Talk,” “I Get So Scared,” “Lighter,” & “The Twinkle Song.”
    • Delta Rae – After It All. This genre-bending swirl of country, Americana, and stadium anthems by a North Carolina sextet is an exhilarating work rich with complex instrumentation and soul-piercing melodies. Highlights: “Anthem,” “Outlaws,” “You’re the One For Me,” & “After It All.”
    • Michael Giacchino – Inside Out (Original Soundtrack). It’s almost laughable to think how this score took a couple listens to grow on me. This sweeping, ethereal soundtrack is what gives this tremendous movie its soul. Certainly one of the best wholly instrumental musical scores in recent years (and endlessly listenable), the highlight tracks “Bundle of Joy,” “Nomanisone Island / National Movers,” & “Tears of Joy” will reignite all the feels you probably had watching the film.
    • Madonna – Rebel Heart. The Queen of Pop’s longest album to date, and her most personal work in years. Highlights: “Unapologetic Bitch,” “Joan of Arc,” “Wash All Over Me,” “Rebel Heart,” & “Graffiti Heart.”
    • The Tallest Man on Earth – Dark Bird is Home. Very fortunate to have stumbled upon this one. Early this year, I was way into iTunes’s featured free songs, and one week “Timothy” from this album was featured. I had never heard of the artist The Tallest Man on Earth, but the song struck a cord and I couldn’t stop listening. Once Apple Music became a Thing, I started exploring more into the albums featuring individual songs I loved, and was stoked to find an entire album of rich, folky goodness. Highlights: “Darkness of the Dream,” “Sagres,” “Timothy,” & “Dark Bird is Home.”
  • Noteworthy albums new to me in 2015 (but not from this year – in no order):

    • Erasure – The Innocents  (1988). Erasure wasn’t even on my radar pre-Looking (which featured the excellent “A Little Respect” in an early episode), and thanks to Apple Music I finally dove deeper into this album to find a treasure trove of 80s pop glory. Pulsating keyboards and stellar, emotional chord progressions make this the kind of record you’ll revisit again… and again… and again. Highlights: “A Little Respect,” “Phantom Bride,” “Yahoo!,” “Imagination,” “Weight of the World,” & “When I Needed You Most (Melancholic Mix).”
    • Girls – Album (2009).  Another Looking influence (remember the Girls songs in Season 2?), Girls’s Album is the ultimate California indie rock piece – muffled production, catchy tunes, and unique instrumentation all contribute to a consistently entertaining, San Francisco surf-ready musical experience. Highlights: “Lust for Life,” “Hellhole Ratrace,” “Summertime,” & “Curls.”
    • Amy Grant – Heart in Motion (1991). This is the stuff that synthpop dreams are made of. Solid songwriting and terrific production leave little question why this Christian/pop crossover exploded onto the scene back in 1991.  Highlights: “Baby Baby,” “Every Heartbeat,” “Ask Me,” “Galileo,” & “I Will Remember You.”