The Bible is renowned for its simplicity but it’s more complex than Christopher Hitchens or most people give it credit for. I’ve ruminated about Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings, not to be mistaken with de Mille’s version. And it’s always been my obsession to know the differences between the four Gospels and its relation to the film adaptations.
I watched the movie when I still had TCM and couldn’t distinguish it from the other, overlong epic period movies at the same time. I didn’t give it a chance and I changed the channel, regrettably. Thank serendipity for the second run-in, when I saw Ray, through Orson Welles’ Godlike voice over contextualizing Jesus’ rise with Roman imperialism, infrastructure building and the burden of oncoming tribal hostility between Jews and Arabs.
I will say that the movie’s depiction of the historical figures somehow contradicts Biblical accounts and sometimes, one woman’s spirit is captured more so than the other. Mary (Siobhan McKenna) has a soldier-like loyalty to God, willing to ride an improvised steed to Egypt to run away from a Herodain onslaught, She also returns to Nazareth and showing to a Roman official named Lucius that Her young son is the only one who survives. The book and movie fork into the interpretations of the Virgin, as the Gospel of Luke already shows Her, in pregnancy, as an indoctrinated, militant woman poetically reciting Her knowledge of Her purpose in the Father’s master plan. Although the movie’s portrait of Her is delightful enough, the Mother learning from the Youth and His lessons of peace of love which counters the warlike ideology of the area and period. She shares these lessons with Magdalene, a possessed woman in the Bible but commonly depicted as a prostitute in adaptations.
Salome is also maligned as well as her family. In the movie’s first scenes, Herod Antipas ousts his ailing and genocidal father, the son having respect for his enemies like the unknown Saviour and His cousin who grows up to be John the Baptist (the interestingly cast Robert Ryan). Antipas marries Herodias, bringing her daughter Salome in tow. Salome dances her way into getting John beheaded, the texts portraying her as Herodias’ weapon. Ray’s version subverts these women’s characteristics. Salome becomes a lustful young woman, having her stepfather’s father’s violent streak, ending her dance by sitting on the same thrown that Antipas himself has stolen. It’s easy to joke that her similarities with Herod exposes Antipas’ subliminal lust for his own father. Herodias, on the hand, isn’t as scheming as she’s depicted in the Bible, the film actually placing her as one of the audiences on the Sermon on the Mount with Lucius, both authority figures attracted to the message that tries to destroy the system that makes them benefit.
Lastly, there’s Judas Iscariot, the Bible characterizing him as a thief and traitor. Contemporary interpretations of him have always wondered why Jesus would include Iscariot into His fold, most likely knowing that he needs someone to help Him sacrifice Himself. Norman Jewison has a black actor for Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar and we can add whatever symbolism we can to the colour blind ensemble, keeping in mind the racial tensions in the 70’s. Ray also paints Iscariot as a Zealot but chose a different strategy in his casting. It’s already strange and absolutely typical of Hollywood to hire the all-American Jeffrey Hunter, who does his best as the quote-worthy preacher. For Judas he picks another dirty blonde, Rip Torn, showing these two men as mirror images, Iscariot’s double loyalties haunted by Jesus unwavering sympathy, a part of a complex, political rendition of the Saviour’s life and world.
Despite the title sequence in the beginning of Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped, he limits the scope of his story, about a German-run French prison during WWII, incarcerating thousands, including our protagonist Fontaine (Francois Letterier). I’m not saying it’s a worse movie for that but it’s unconventional, the form loyal to its cagey content. It’s a pathway connecting different eras of European cinema, the bare walls and close-ups evoking Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc while its narration is a precedent for Truffaut’s episodic storytelling. This undecorated approach however doesn’t stop its audience from finding details, helping us scrutinize the world that the movie presents as well as the characters within it. Assuming that the Germans are using French prisons, why aren’t they improving on the infrastructure to keep the inmates in? Does this mean that French prisons are easily breached at the time? This movie also presents questions on what would happen if this kind of subjugation, God forbid, happens again, and whether and how it would help both the guard and the detained.
That doesn’t mean that the weak security is doing most of the work. Much of the film are close-ups of Letterier and his gaunt yet brilliant face. He’s our voyeur, looking at the objects and people around or outside him to decide which ones will help him escape. And as he forges and bends metal with his own hands this movie also turns into a love letter of proletarian ingenuity and he makes it look both effortless and skilled.
With his actions and bragging to the other prisoners come the expectation for his escape, that pressure escalating when, as more French men get captured, the inmates have to bunk up including Fontaine. His roommate (Charles Le Clainche) is an overgrown urchin. The two are symbolic of the dual reactions occurring within a conquered people. Fontaine sticks to his guns as the elder man attached to his nation’s sovereignty while the younger, more malleable man chooses resignation, that this situation can happen, accepting his inevitable death. His character’s introduction also subverts the Darwinist pecking order worldview that most war/apocalyptic movies have. In any other movie this cellmate would die like any character showing weakness. It instead follows the adage that who people know is as important as what they know. Their unlikely friendship actually helps the cellmate’s education, giving him the instinct to fight that he couldn’t have learned otherwise.
The first time I saw the similarities between The Last Temptation of Christ and Black Narcissus when the men drag Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey) down a pathway of a small hill the same way the beggar-maid gets whipped by Angu Ayah. The earlier film tackles female sexuality and its barbaric repression in a non-Christian society. How else, I suppose, can one portray the non-Christian than to depict the pre-Christian. Sister Clogah is enduring a similar uphill climb in showing the non-Christians rationality the same way Jesus (Willem Dafoe) has.
As a Catholic child, I’ve played the game when I wear a blanket and hey, I’m one of the apostles, which is what I assume is the approach of most film renditions of that era. But in this film I didn’t see Palestine, I saw India. This is probably the most exotic depiction of the Biblical era I’ve seen so far without counting the disco ethos of Norman Jewison’s Jesus Christ Superstar. Herod and his harem in The Passion of the Christ is by nature very orgiastic, but I feel like this whole film is bejweled, and not just by looking at Magdalene. There’s the myth that Israel kept insular despite its many conquerors, but it’s as if Scorsese approached that culture with more interaction with the outside world. Just look at the money changers bustling as if Jerusalem was a port city, or the free love Hare Krishna predecessors being baptized by John or the cosmopolitan groups making up Magdalene’s customers or Jesus’ disciples.
The film doesn’t make up any consistent portrayal of Jesus’ state of mind, putting his opinions under a shroud, but instead showed us that He was once a soul within body. His eyes become large as Lazarus attack hugs him. He’s convulsing on the floor as he feels others’ crucifixion or making love to Magdalene. He tries to escape being by sacrificing himself yet thinks about escaping sacrifice to become physical again. I’m still confused, but then I suppose being the Son of God might have led Him to make some leaps of logic. I don’t even remember His crucifixion, despite the violence in showing the nails driving into Jesus’ palms, being portrayed as gruesome as the Mel Gibson propaganda piece. It was as if He was in the transcendental state, able to meet the Last Temptation and see and live an alternate scenario.
Scorsese’s Magdalene turns from being a disgruntled whore to Jesus’ pity girlfriend to dead housewife. It’s nice to pretend that the King of Spain is a direct descendant of the alleged holy couple, but the real Magdalene may not have been a whore at all and preached His word in Ephesus until she died. Of course, the new Testament are written by people from what was then a helplessly patriarchal culture, so we’ll never know if Jesus was John Stuart Mill or Ludwig Wittgenstein. And true, she wouldn’t have had to preach in Ephesus if Jesus himself stopped teaching, and that the Last Temptation turns Jesus into an equally domestic figure as the love of His life.
Why does Scorsese and other ‘revisionist’ biblical storytellers have to give Him ‘dimension’ and nuance through her? In other words why are women merely advice columns, frail consorts or femmes fatale, all passive under male perspectives and labels? The only feminist Scorsese film I remember is The Age of Innocence, although the female characters’ corrective agency can itself be subverted. Durn.