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.
In between watching movies from the Wright Stuff series and watching Scott Pilgrim, I watched another hipster romance movie – Marie Antoinette. Before I get to the meat of this post, I just wanna say that I have to discuss the traces of what I have read or heard about the woman whose life this movie is depicting, and how true this movie is to the life of said murdered queen – if I used the word executed it means she deserved it, which she partly didn’t. Some people believe that the dead are fair game, but then we’re talking about one of the most slandered women in history, so every time Coppola or the film trips, we deduct a point.
I remember the pre-blogging glory days of trying to defend this movie while calling out the royalists who trolled the Marie Antoinette forum on iMDb. That was where I read someone who compared the movie to a series of paintings. And probably where I read someone mistake Marie Antoinette’s (Kirsten Dunst) alleged Swedish boy toy Count Axel von Fersen (Jamie Dornan) as Napoleon. And/or make a comparison between Madame du Barry (Asia Argento) as a Disney evil queen – she did NOT look like that nor act like she was depicted in the film, by the way. There are other directors who make a collage of pop culture references in their work. Those anonymous readings, however, show that Coppola isn’t able to mold those separate images and/or incorporate them into what should be a believable and seamless biopic. I don’t fully believe that it would have been a better decision to invent her own images of these people instead recycling old/different/inaccurate ones, but I’d imagine there’s some who watched this movie who would choose the former over the latter.The movie has always felt like ‘This is what I imagine her life to be,’ which has driven a lot of history nuts crazy.
Need to remind you guys that Coppola’s direction of the character Marie Antoinette evoked Paris Hilton. And being inundated by that comparison by the media, oh my God. Which leads us to Coppola’s apparent aim of turning Marie Antoinette’s story as a satire of the nepotism – biting the hand – and decadence of the government and celebrity culture of Bush-era US. Which is great, but why can’t Marie Antoinette simply be Marie Antoinette?
What is different between 18th century Versailles and 21st century America is the treatment of children’s sexuality. Adults both blue and red-blooded obsessed over Marie Antoinette as a sexual being. It’s tragic how her mother, Maria Theresa (Marianne Faithful) has fought for and keep the crown of the Holy Roman Empire as a woman and became the most powerful woman in Europe after Catherine the Great, only for her daughter to be trampled so easily. Coppola gets it right in this movie by actually showing the ‘people of France’s’ real problem with Marie Antoinette – that it dragged on before she was able to produce an heir. And how full the operating room was when Marie gave birth to, unfortunately, Therese. Also consider the hypocrisy of spying on adolescents’ bedroom action and the Christian notion of not talking about sex and not teaching the poor couple how to have sex.
Marie eventually becomes corrupted by this oversexualized society, having knowledge of her grandfather-in-law King Louis XIV’s (Rip Torn) affair with Du Barry. Marie then derides this fake aristocrat. In Coppola’s film, she unknowingly she becomes just like Du Barry, carrying out her own affair with the Swede.
Today, a 14 year old’s responsibility is his or her homework and some household chore. Marie, turning 14 when she did, has had a quick transition between childhood and adulthood, just like that insufficient carriage ride to the French border. At least two years into adulthood in that day’s standards, she has a responsibility that reminds her that she is still a second class citizen under Salic law. No wonder, as Coppola shows in the film, Marie regresses.
Flaw – The scene when Marie walks with Austrian Ambassador Mercy (Steve Coogan) and Therese in the gardens. The Princess du Lamballe (Mary Nighy) runs to the three and informs them of the Austrian Empress’s death. How did the Austrian ambassador not know that first?
In Roger Ebert‘s review of this film, his second point called Kirsten Dunst as Marie Antoinette as ‘pitch-perfect casting.’ It’s not Interview with a Vampire, or to compare it to the other performances that year, she’s no Penelope Cruz. It’s wonderful watching Dunst’s face react to her husband King Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman) wolf down his food, or how her face reaches us through that infamous zoom out, saying a lot while standing still. Having to go across the palace to a private room where she could cry or fawn – a measured release of emotion from one place to another. Worn down after the deaths in her family. Her poised diplomatic voice as she talks to her husband’s cabinet and even to her own brother, the Holy Roman Emperor (Danny Huston). As some blog I used to read has said in defense of her performance, Dunst was obedient to Coppola’s vision.