Peter T. Chattaway
Two Tales of the Christ
Ever since The Passion of the Christ came out a dozen years ago, filmmakers have tried to replicate its success, with varying results. In 2014, "the year of the Bible movie," big-name directors put new and unconventional spins on the stories of Noah and Moses, and while both films were moderately successful at the box office—especially overseas—their revisionist takes on the Old Testament and its stories of God's judgment were a turn-off to some viewers. This year, filmmakers working in the genre have reduced their budgets and narrowed their focus to the life of Jesus, but they are still exploring the story from unconventional angles. The Young Messiah takes place when Jesus is only seven years old; Last Days in the Desert imagines an incident that took place near the end of his temptation in the wilderness.
And then there is Risen, which recasts the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus as a sort of police procedural. Like The Robe—the 1953 blockbuster that starred Richard Burton as a Roman officer haunted by his role in the death of Jesus—the film revolves around a military tribune who is involved with the crucifixion and then has bad dreams about it. But this time, the protagonist, named Clavius (Joseph Fiennes), also takes part in the burial of Jesus and is ordered to find the body when it goes missing from its tomb. (Just to make things seem even more urgent, we are told that Pontius Pilate is expecting a visit from the Emperor Tiberius in a few weeks—an improbable plot device that was also featured quite prominently in last year's TV series A.D. The Bible Continues.)
What makes Risen work, for the first hour or so at least, is the way it sticks to Clavius's jaded, skeptical perspective and asks us to imagine how the story of the Resurrection would have sounded to someone who hadn't witnessed it for himself. Clavius digs up one body after another, hoping to find a corpse with wounds that match the Nazerene's, and he interrogates several people who claim to have heard or seen the risen Jesus. (The best of these scenes, by far, features a Roman soldier who was stationed at the tomb and is traumatized by what he experienced there; unable to find a rational explanation for what he saw, he now tries to drown his memories in drink.) The pagan Clavius even prays to the Jewish God, promising to build temples and organize games in his honour in exchange for his help.
But then, about halfway through the film, Clavius barges into a room where the disciples are hiding—and there he sees Jesus (Cliff Curtis), who is very much alive. Soon Jesus vanishes, and the disciples decide to go to Galilee to see him again; Clavius follows them, at first from a distance and then as a member of their party. He even witnesses the Ascension and takes part in the miraculous catch of fish recounted in John 21. And so the film, which did such an admirable job of defamiliarizing the gospels and looking at the story from the outside, turns into the story of a man who witnesses many familiar-to-us events from the inside.
Still, as conventional as the movie gets in its second half, it does do some things remarkably well. More than anything else, the film is haunted by death: a Roman soldier gently urges one of the thieves at Golgotha to give up his last breath; Clavius presides over the cremation of his comrades (Pilate later remarks that he smells of "meat") and, in his search for the body of Jesus, digs up one bloated, rotting, fly-attracting corpse after another—prompting Pilate to remark that one day they'll all be just as dead as the rest. This focus on death serves to underscore the significance of the Resurrection, of course, but it never feels like the set-up for a theological punchline: it has a weight and an integrity all its own.
As in The Robe, our Roman protagonist uses a sword to defend Peter and the others from a former colleague of his—and, as in The Robe, the audience is never asked to compare or contrast this burst of heroic "action" with Peter's own sword-wielding in Gethsemane. In contrast to The Robe, however, the tribune of this film doesn't quite become a Christian in the end. When a stranger asks him what he makes of everything he saw, Clavius replies, "I believe I can never be the same." To viewers hoping for a clear-cut story of conversion, that might seem like a cop-out, but there's something admirable in the fact that Clavius still struggles to accept what he has seen; Matthew 28:17 says that even some of those who saw the risen Jesus "doubted," and Risen comes closer than most other films to dramatizing what that verse might be describing.
If Risen is the earnest 21st-century heir to The Robe, then Hail, Caesar! is its ironic counterpart. Directed by the Coen brothers, the film is a comedy set at a fictitious Hollywood studio in the early 1950s, and it sends up several of that period's most popular genres and tropes, from singing cowboys and tap-dancing sailors to water ballets, high-toned romances and, yes, Bible movies.
The primary movie within the Coen brothers' movie is a mash-up of The Robe and Ben-Hur called Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ, and there is a lot to unpack just within that title. For one thing, the subtitle "A Tale of the Christ" is an obvious nod to Ben-Hur, as is the scene in which a Roman tribune (played by an actor played by George Clooney) drags some thirsty slaves to a well and is stopped dead in his tracks by the sight of Jesus, whose face remains offscreen. For another, the subtitle points to the film's protagonist, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a "fixer" at Capitol Pictures who oversees the studio's productions and does everything he can to keep the actors' and directors' scandalous behavior out of the gossip columns; the character is based on a real-life fixer at MGM, also named Eddie Mannix, who did a lot of shady things, but the movie's Mannix is a conscientious Christ-figure of sorts who takes the sins of his employees upon himself, protecting and forgiving them while feeling a degree of guilt for his complicity in the system that enables them. (As Alex von Tunzelmann puts it, the movie's "total whitewash" of Mannix serves, in effect, as "a sharp meta-satire" of the whitewashing done by the real Mannix.)
But there is a third thing implicit in the Bible epic's title: the juxtaposition—or dialectic, if you will—between Caesar and Christ. Caesar, historically, represented brutal, imperial, political, economic power, while Christ, born to the poorest of poor families in a backwater fringe of the empire and ultimately executed by that empire for spreading a message of love and forgiveness, represented the opposite of all the things that Caesar stood for. And one of the great ironies of the Bible-epic genre, of course—certainly in the studio system's heyday—is that these films were usually produced by very rich and politically connected companies that aimed, on some level, to profit from a story that tells us wealth and power aren't everything. The temptation to turn Christ into a new Caesar, a new means of attaining earthly power, has been with us forever, and there is something of that quest for cultural clout in every movie that aims to turn the story of Jesus into a box-office hit. (How often have famous preachers told their audiences to attend "faith-based" films on opening day to "send Hollywood a message"?)
The gap between what Bible movies say and how they are made is expressed most vividly in Hail, Caesar! when a crew member goes to the Golgotha set and asks the actors on the crosses (whose faces we never see) whether they are "principals" or "extras," because it will affect what kind of breakfast they get. The actor playing Jesus, who sounds very uncomfortable, doesn't know how to respond at first, and finally, hopefully, he says, "Principal?" There's irony in the way the producers behind "a tale of the Christ" would leave the actor who plays Christ hanging like that (literally as well as figuratively!), but there's also irony in the way that the actor—unlike Jesus, who made himself nothing (Philippians 2:7)—seeks to elevate his status.
Risen and Hail, Caesar! came to theaters only two weeks apart, and this led to some interesting juxtapositions; the stars of Risen went on the talk shows and chatted about their movie's "production value" not unlike Eddie Mannix discussing his own films in Hail, Caesar! But where the Coens emphasize the absurdity of Bible-movie production (a gruff voice yelling at actors to "Squint against the grandeur!"), the stars of Risen emphasized how seriously they took their jobs: Cliff Curtis took a vow of silence during production, refusing to say anything but the words that had been written for Jesus, and when the director asked him to engage with his co-stars more, Curtis reportedly washed their feet.
An actor who gets so lost in the part he ends up acting like Jesus even when the cameras aren't rolling? There's a potential comedy in that, too, and yet there is also something awe-inspiring about such stories. Either way, whether the movies are serious or silly, it is still possible to get an audience thinking, and that's what both of these films do. As the Coen brothers' version of Eddie Mannix might say, the pictures have worth.
Peter T. Chattaway is a freelance film critic and blogger at Patheos.com with a special interest in Bible movies. He lives with his family in Surrey, B.C.
2. The way the actors' status is linked to their food brings to mind Pier Paolo Pasolini's short film La Ricotta (1963), in which an extra who plays the "good" thief in a movie about the crucifixion dies from indigestion because of his mistreatment on the set.
Copyright © 2016 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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