Movie Review: Son of God **

This is part five of my "Films about Jesus" Christmas Review.  Where I try to watch as many movies (theatrical releases only) about Jesus as possible, plus review them, before Christmas hits.

My introduction (along with the list I'm trying to get through) is here.
Part one was Last Days in the Desert
Part two was The Nativity Story
Part three was Jesus Christ Superstar
Part four was The Gospel According to St Matthew

There is nothing worse than going to see a movie which was a theatrical release and realising, very quickly, that the movie falls squarely into the realm of TV movie.  This is the case with Son of God, a revelation which shouldn't be surprising since the original material was in fact first released on television as part of the History Channel's The Bible series.

I only watched one episode of that series coming away with the feeling that they didn't respect the source material.  I would make that accusation about all the movies I've seen about Jesus so far - including this one - except The Gospel According to St. Matthew.  But we'll get back to that presently, first this movie is bad in other ways too.

First - small beans - the editors of Son of God were lazy.  Typically, most movies don't do fade-outs unless it's for thematic reasons, and now I know why, because they look like an ad break is about to come!  And Son of God is FULL of fade outs!  It would have been an easy fix in the editing room, but they were left in and it adds to the made for tv movie feel.

On to larger problems: 

Violence: My biggest problem with the first episode of the tv show was the needless violence. The same appears in this movie.

Continuity.  For example, the movie can easily be divided in two piece: the first 1/3 and the last 2/3. There are a couple characters that disappear and appear and it make no sense as to why (unless they were individual tv episodes before).  So a particularly annoying pharisee seems to be more committed to following Jesus around than the disciples.  Every time Jesus says something controversial he's there to question Jesus or the disciples.  Then *poof* he's gone - never to be seen again.  Then there is John's narration, there for 1/3 of the movie then *poof* gone until the very last scene in the movie.

Just WHY?  Some of the decisions are confounding like - why have flashbacks in a movie to earlier scenes?  And why is there a voiceover of Jesus saying "one of you will betray me" while Judas prepares to hang himself when Jesus said it to him just 15 minutes ago!!  A lot of this might make sense as a multi-episode tv show, but it makes for terrible choices in a movie - (or the editors were too lazy to fix it)

CG of the cities, temple etc.: TV movie CG.  I play video games with in game graphics better than this movie offers.  If the rest of the movie was up to par I wouldn't mind as much.

Disproportionate:  The movie is 2h 18min long.  1/2 of that time is devoted to the last week.  And yet they add numerous needless scenes involving the disciples and completely skip the priests bringing Jesus to Herod.  While in Jesus ministry only one parable is told and a couple mighty deeds done.

Confusing:  Characters are introduced quickly and then dropped for instance, it is mentioned that John the Baptist is dead with a very quick flashback to Jesus being baptised and Jesus saying that John was amazing.  That's it.  It makes no sense in the over all story, it's just there because that's a story in the Bible.

And THAT is the biggest problem, a lot of these stories and sayings are there because they are in the Bible - and that's really the only reason.  For example a number of sayings of Jesus are ripped from their context and randomly inserted while Jesus is walking along.  The weirdest being Jesus crouching down and smiling to a little girl while talking about the temple's complete and utter destruction.  It leaves the viewer in complete disbelief about what's being seen:  First that Jesus would be smiling and talking to a little girl about that. Second, that a little jewish girl would smile back as if Jesus had just told a mildly funny joke.  

This is a constant problem throughout, so much so that it doesn't feel like any gospel, it's a mash up.  We start with John's gospel (because John's narrating) but it quickly skips ahead to no gospel at all, so instead of the themes from just one gospel what is presented in NONE of the themes from ANY of the gospels.  It just doesn't resonate. It's a bastardised gospel.

And some of it doesn't ring true of any of the gospels: for example, the disciples are way too knowledgeable.  In the gospels they're always asking embarrassing questions and saying things that are a bit off.  Jesus rebukes them constantly for this.  But here, they only get the big stuff wrong and they seem more than capable of answering the pharisees - something they run to Jesus about in the Gospels.

Movies like this one are good reminders of why The Diatessaron (an early harmonising of the gospels) was rejected by the early church.  In trying to harmonise the gospels the makers have only corrupted them.  Sure there's no blatant heresy here but the power of the gospels has been stripped because the writers fail to appreciate why we have four gospels instead of one.

Here then, is a tv show made into a theatrically released movie - and it shows - all to a gullible crowd who keep throwing their money at the alter of Hollywood hoping they'll continue making flattened, boring, needless and altogether uninspired versions of Bible(-inspired) stories that we don't really need.



Movie Review: The Gospel According to St. Matthew ****

This is part four of my "Films about Jesus" Christmas Review.  Where I try to watch as many movies (theatrical releases only) about Jesus as possible, plus review them, before Christmas hits.

My introduction (along with the list I'm trying to get through) is here.
Part one was Last Days in the Desert
Part two was The Nativity Story
Part three was Jesus Christ Superstar

The Gospel According to St. Matthew is a 1964 Italian film directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini who was an atheist, a marxist and openly gay. He is also responsible for directing one of the most grotesque and disturbing films ever made, Salo or the 120 Days of Sodom. So it may come as a shock to discover that Pasolini treats the source material for this movie with the utmost respect.

The movie is filmed in black and white in the tradition of Italian neo-realism.  The cast is made up of whoever Paolini could find. None of them were professional actors and it doesn't really matter.  The first scenes convey the uncertainty of Mary's position with Joseph with not a single word much better than the constant dialogue of the Nativity Story. And he uses these moments, often powerfully, to convey how characters felt. He had to since every line of dialogue in the movie can be found in the Gospel of Matthew. While other movies about Jesus try to fill in the narrative in order to explain him or the situation or fill in plot holes with extra scenes or dialogue, Pasolini has added nothing extra.

This doesn't mean that Pasolini has used the entire gospel of Matthew. He has picked and chosen the elements and teachings that suite his Marxist ideology. In my opinion, this has little effect on the integrity of the movie. Other adaptations make far more grievous ideological decisions when deciding how to portray Jesus, which are often immediately noticed. Pasolini's choices are far more subtle and since he adds no dialogue, he's limited to how far he can skew the message.  In fact, it doesn't feel skewed at all, it often feels more like we're watching documentary footage of Jesus himself wandering the countryside.

In one scene, when Jesus is on trial (with Ciaphas I think) the shot of the scene is from a distance amongst onlookers like we're apart of the crowd, trying to peek over shoulders in order to get a glimpse of what is to become of Jesus.

As is probably fairly evident by now, it's the teachings of Jesus that Pasolini is interested in focusing on.  There are only a handful of signs and wonders portrayed (healing of a leper and feeding the 5000 are the only two that come to mind) and the crucifixion itself is toned so far down that it wouldn't be inaccurate to say that the Sermon on the Mount is filmed with more intensity.  These aren't complaints, I think Christianity has for a long time been overly preoccupied with the crucifixion at the expense of understanding what Jesus actually tried to teach.  So many Christians have Keller's view:
While Pasolini takes the opposite approach.  Whichever your inclination on the topic, this is still the most faithful account of any gospel (or Jesus' in general) film that I've ever seen.

4 stars ****

One last thing: The scene where Judas hangs himself in both this movie and Jesus Christ Superstar are so similar that JCSS must lifted it straight from this movie.


Move Review: Jesus Christ Superstar * 1/2

This is part three of my "Films about Jesus" Christmas Review.

My introduction is here.
Part one was Last Days in the Desert
Part two was The Nativity Story

Jesus Christ Superstar (the movie) is unique from the rest of the films I'll see in a number of ways:  First, it's a musical (actually, 'rock opera'), which sets it apart immediately; Second, which I wasn't prepared for, was the occasionally modern props (more on that later); and last, it's told mostly from the perspective of Judas.

JC:SS (the movie) is a film of it's time.  From the first couple minutes it is immediately obvious what decade it was filmed in.  The movie oozes the 70's in every frame from the dancing to the hair, clothes, and hippy Jesus.  It wouldn't be so bad if I wasn't left wondering, after seeing a machine gun, whether I'm watching an ancient Jesus, or a modern hippy Jesus.  Then suddenly the guards are carrying spears.  It's like they couldn't decide so they blended the eras together.  The cast arrives on a bus, plus some tanks and jets make an appearance; while Pilate and the priests are not wearing modern clothes, Herod and Judas are.  It's confusing.  A modern day Jesus story is fine (and it's been done) but the inconsistency is distracting and had no apparent purpose.

The other distraction is the attempt to turn this from a play into a movie.  It seems that the director tried to meet the two mediums half way, with very mixed results (see Doubt on how to do this well).  Every scene is treated like a stage play, with a bridge to get to where the action is going to happen, but other than these little bridges there is very little attempt to adapt the play into a movie.  It gives the movie a disjointed and sometimes awkward feel.

The acting was passable and the singing was at points mediocre, with the exception (on both accounts) of Judas who at times felt like the only human figure on stage.  I didn't enjoy most of the songs, and lyrically they were (unintentionally) funny.  Other things, like Mary's very close relationship to Jesus, didn't really phase me as Jesus is mostly a stoic figure throughout.

The play isn't so much a retelling of the last week of Christ's life or about Jesus teachings (none of Jesus teachings are reflected upon) but agnostic ramblings set to music.  Two things at the end make this clear:  After an hour and a half Jesus never says who he is, and his disciples never say who he is, but Judas is certain he's just a man and so is Pilate.  Then come the questions in the titular song, "Who are you? What have you sacrificed? ... Do you think you are who they say you are?"  But rather than explore the questions through the play we only get the opinions of a sympathetic Judas.

Which leads to the end of the movie.  The actors, out of their costumes, file back onto the bus to leave, some of them glancing away at the empty cross in the distance, some of them ignoring it.  Judas is one of the last ones getting on (the only other character to die in the movie) but Jesus is inexplicably absent.  Now, a resurrection scene isn't necessary (Mark doesn't have one), but JC:SS isn't taking it's omission from Mark, the bus scene - to those who are paying attention, is making a statement about the resurrection, Jesus Christ and how the story should actually be understood.

The death knell for Jesus Christ Superstar comes, not when one realises it has aged badly, or that there were some very odd creative choices, but instead when given the last chance to leave the questions about Jesus Christ open, the movie decides to answer them for the audience in a way that is passive aggressive.

* 1/2


Movie Review: The Nativity Story **

This is part two of my "Films about Jesus" Christmas Review.  Part one was Last Days in the Desert.

For Part Two, I'm reviewing the one movie on my list that only deals with Jesus' birth, The Nativity Story.

The Nativity Story follows a year in the life of Mary and Joseph, Herod and his son, and the wisemen as their destinies intertwine as the birth of Jesus Christ arrives.

The Nativity Story is not interested in staying close to the Biblical account of Mary and Joseph's life leading up to the birth of Jesus but the Christian community didn't throw up it's arms in outrage because The Nativity Story did something that Christians often find even more important it stayed true to the myths, legends and tropes that have filled the Christian imagination for the last 1800 years.  Not only are Christmas hymns incorporated into the soundtrack but every hole (in the Biblical account) has been filled by useless Christian tradition (in the dead sense) that has not only been overdone but is also stale, boring and completely unnecessary.  In the artistic licence department, this movie is the antithesis to Noah (which was a much better movie, by all accounts).  At best the movie is watchable, at worst it exemplifies the type of kitsch that make Christianity look childish and silly.  Such as, the glowing angel in white flowing robes who arrives and leaves as a bird.

One part in particular had my face in my palm praying that it would end quickly (it didn't).  As the (3) wise men watch the stars come into alignment a shaft of light bursts forth and beams straight into the stable where Mary is currently in labour.  My very first thought (I kid you not) was that a divine tractor-beam was going to pull Jesus straight out of Mary's womb!  And the light stayed, providing the perfect light to create a 'nice' (kitsch) nativity scene that is so often displayed on the shelves of people's home every year.

On top of this, modernist presuppositions leak into the story as well.  In usual Hollywood fashion, Mary is unhappy with the reality of having an arranged marriage, and wishes she could have married for love.  Like she was secretly hoping for things to be the way they had never been before.

In playing it overly safe for the Christian market the filmmakers have opted out of making a film with depth, subtlety and character development and have instead settled with a shallow surface level reading of the story that is as kitschy as it is unoriginal.  This all makes the movie a huge disappointment, especially considering that a lot of detail went into sets and costumes.  If you're wanting to see something with a little originality, learn something new, and be entertained, you're better off checking out one of your local churches christmas plays than watching this.

** Two stars

Christmas Movie Reviews: Jesus Edition

I've decided that instead of watching the usual rounds of Christmas movies, this month I'm going to focus my movie watching efforts on movies about Jesus. And the review them. So far I've only watched Last Days in the Desert (imdb) but I've managed to tracked down:

Son of God (imdb)
The Nativity Story (imdb)
The Passion of the Christ (imdb)
The Last Temptation of Christ (imdb)
Jesus Christ Superstar (imdb)
The Greatest Story Ever Told (imdb)
The Gospel According to St. Matthew (imdb)
King of Kings (imdb)

Which seems to cover all the major films about Jesus within the last 100 years except the 1979 Jesus Film (Ben Hur, The Robe, Risen etc aren't included because Jesus is an incidental figure in those movies rather than the focus). If I do watch the Jesus film it will be the very last one.


Edit 29/12/16:  Well.  That's all the movies about Jesus I was able to get through.  I made the mistake of choosing (mostly by chance) the short ones and just didn't have the time to budget in nearly 3 hours a day to see the rest.

I will likely try to watch The Last Temptation of Christ at some point.  Mainly out of curiosity. 


Movie Review: Last Days in the Desert ***

"Where are you Father? ... Speak to me"

Last days in the Desert is less a movie about Jesus' temptation in the wilderness than a movie about Fathers.

The film starts with Jesus (played by the blue eyed Ewan McGregor) wondering the desert: walking, praying, sleeping, and occasionally drinking. When he stumbles upon an old woman it seems the devil has found him. But this isn't a gospel account of Jesus' temptations. The devil (who is played by McGregor as well through most the movie) is more interested in showing God to be a selfish and foolish Father rather than tempt Jesus into some action.

While Jesus makes his slow return to Jerusalem, he comes across a boy and his sick, dying mother. Jesus gets his fill of water only to meet the boys father not far from where he left the boy. The father insists on having the "holy man" stay with them.

And, stay he does. Jesus starts working with the boy and father learning about their relationship, meanwhile, the devil taunts Jesus about his relationship with his Father. And there are noticeable similarities, first and foremost being that both Fathers have problems communicating. God never clearly communicates to Jesus (though Jesus asks) and the father struggles immensely breaking the barrier between him and his son. Another similarity is the feeling of the sons' inadequacy in light of their fathers' expectations. At one point the son runs around yelling "I am a good son", and later the devil will question Jesus' motives for staying with the family as long as he has. Is Jesus up to his Father's task?

Throughout the film Jesus is still uncertain of who he is, he certainly never claims to be anything other than a holy man and the devil holds all the power. Jesus asks him what being in God's presence is like, and about the fate of the father and son (twice). These are things most Christians might have expected Jesus to have known. Jesus is more man than God. He struggles to find meaning, gives bad advice, laughs at farts, and has compassion on a sick and dying woman.

The film is minimalist. There are only about 6 characters in the entire film, the desert setting is sparse (and it's the only setting of the entire movie), and so is the family's tent and partially built home. But this minimalist ascetic is quite beautiful and makes the movie all the more captivating, even if it's flawed.

A few things hold this film back. McGregor particularly shines in his role as the devil but I questioned why the director made the two roles for the same actor. It certainly wasn't required, since he changes his appearance at least twice. At points it seemed like an inner dialogue, at others like he was confiding in a friend, and still others like someone slightly obnoxious had just turned up, I never felt like the devil was actually there.

The other thing holding the film back is a lack of context. We don't know how long Jesus had been in the desert, has he been tempted already? Is this his temptation? How so? (There is only one scene at the end where the devil offers him an out). Wait, he's going to Jerusalem? Why?

So what does one do with a story about Jesus that could have been about anyone? Nothing in the films first hour and 30 minutes demand that Jesus be Jesus of Nazareth! And to add to the issue, the last 10 minutes (that make it clear that this IS Jesus) feel either tacked or give the sense that God is abusing the son and the devil isn't lying about God "true" nature.

3 stars.