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.

gal_last_temptation_of_christ
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.

03_top10jesusfilms
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.

jc
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.

Advertisements

Mamma Roma (1962)

Pasolini takes us to the outskirts of life and challenges our assumptions in the moving and intelligent Mamma Roma. Almost a mix of Nights of Cabiria with Mildred Pierce, this thoughtful tale of a woman who will do anything for her son leaves nothing at face value, and pulses with the confusion and pain of everyday life.

Anna Magnani gives a captivating performance as Mamma Roma, a former prostitute who saves up to move with her son Ettore (Ettore Garofolo) to Rome, where she wants to begin a new chapter in life. She renounces her past and takes on operating a vegetable cart in the piazza market, and she encourages Ettore to go to school to mingle with the right sort of neighborhood kids.

mamma-roma-750x400

Ettore’s path takes a different turn, however. He becomes smitten with Bruna (Silvana Corsini), a young woman already with child. His friends tease that she goes out with “everyone,” but Ettore doesn’t mind, and forges a tender connection with her. Mamma Roma doesn’t approve of the match either, and urges him to forget about her and take on a respectable job as a waiter in Trastevere.

Through all its ups and downs, Mamma Roma is consistently engaging for its rich, authentic portrayal of real, complex characters. Mamma Roma herself is a loud, boisterous prostitute one moment, and an affectionate forward-thinking mother the next. The girl Bruna is frequently attacked for her reputation despite her mostly angelic demeanor; then when Ettore is beaten down and his weakness revealed, she laughs in his face and joins the other boys. Characters ebb and flow and take on different roles throughout the story, rejecting stagnant personalities for more genuine, complicated impulses when facing trying circumstances.

Its deep respect for everyday life is heightened through the fluid religious undertones. Mamma Roma is often portrayed as a Mary figure, dedicating her life to her son and suffering the terrible loss that befalls him. Ettore is the Christ, driven by some innate destiny and is even held strung with his arms open in a prison. Bruna could be the Magdalene, to whom Ettore is drawn despite what society may think of her.

Pasolini’s films are anything but ordinary, and the humanism and authenticity flowing through Mamma Roma elevate what could have been some weepy melodrama into intelligent and thought-provoking art.

Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975)

The most disturbing movie I’ve ever seen, both in content and the hard truths it presents.

Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom is a not-too-far-fetched allegory about four  libertines toward the end of Italian fascism. These four powerful men kidnap eighteen young men and women and transport them an isolated house in the countryside. During the titular 120 days they spend there, the men rape, assault, abuse, and dehumanize the youth in increasingly vile and horrifying ways. One of the most memorable scenes is one in which a libertine defecates on the floor, and forces one of the women to eat it. The camera does not look away.

This is one of many squirm-in-your-seat moments that never seem to give up in this movie. When the visuals of the film aren’t stimulating your gag reflex, however, the dialogue and mood of the film are just as troubling. An older woman who helps runs things at the house cheerfully recounts stories of her youth, in which she too was subjected to terrible acts. Now, as an older woman though, she laughs it away and accepts it as perfectly normal.

Such is a recurring theme throughout the film. As the 120 days progress, the victims become less like themselves and more like the captors who subject them to such cruelty. The movie begins with all the youth on equal ground but by the end, they turn against each other, even torturing and raping each other. They fulfill one of the film’s most profound quotes, “Nothing’s more contagious than evil.”

Salo is not an easy film to get through and it’s not one I would necessarily recommend. It is not for everybody and nothing can really prepare you for it. If you do have the stomach for it, however, it is certainly worthwhile and thought-provoking. It is a testament to how powerful, albeit shocking, film can be.