A Pocket Full of Clemsonite

March 20, 2009

Denys Arcand’s “Jesus of Montreal” clues us into what a contemporary Savior would look like


So far, cinema has acquired quite a few films treating the subject of Jesus Christ in a rich, creative manner. Let me put it straight, I am not referring to faithful (pun not intended) adaptations of the Gospels, but rather author films, or at least have a coherent source of inspiration other than the Gospels themselves. Also, I am ruling out films referring only in passing to miracles or other aspects which are present in the life of Jesus Christ as presented in the New Testament. As a consequence, I won’t talk about Tarkovski’s “Sacrifice” or Carl Th. Dreyer’s films. Finally, when the Biblical reference is just brief, even if it’s a masterful depiction of the Last Supper (as in Bunuel’s Viridiana or in Robert Altman’s M.A.S.H. – the original film, not the TV show), I will skip these as well.

We are left, more or less, with the following list:


– Pierpaolo Pasolini’s “The Gospel According to St. Matthew”, which is apparently breaking the first rule, being a good adaptation of St. Matthew’s Gospel. Except that, when you take a closer look, this black-and-white film is more than that (if you watched a color version, it was an abridged version which was colored manually, so there’s nothing in it bearing some of the author’s intent). It could be a story of our time (or that time, early 60s) in Italy, or it could be a story of any time. You could actually watch those simple people and see nothing is idealized; they are under the material and social constraints of their time as much as we are under ours. This approach is unusual for a film depicting the life of Christ. Just because of this, it can be considered an oddity among others, although, as we will see, every film on this list has its share of very individual characteristics.

– Norman Jewison’s “Jesus Christ Superstar” is a film based on an opera rock. As such, it has some good music on it. Well, even Ian Gillan is there. This film approaches the last weeks in Jesus’ life from Judas’ standpoint, which seems actually intelligible, but of course so wrong (from the eternity point of view, as opposed to the perspective of his times). I have to admit that not everything is golden here, in this film. Aside from music, I especially noticed Jesus’ reaction when, on Palm Sunday, people switched from singing “J.C., J.C., would you pray for me?” to “J.C., J.C., would you die for me?”, and the appearance of modern paraphernalia in the life two thousand times before us, e.g. the machine guns in the temple.

– Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” is perhaps the most faithful to the spirit of the Bible, although from an Eastern Orthodox stand. This film is based on a novel written by the Greek novelist Nikos Kazantzakis, also known for his book “Alexis Zorbas” which became “Zorba the Greek”, a famous film with Anthony Quinn and Alan Bates. Throughout the film we are exploring the human nature of Jesus, who is facing the temptations in the desert and he is resisting them, but is still weak, and resists a final temptation, while on the cross. Namely, he decides he cannot go on anymore and God allegedly sends an angel to free him from the cross and take him somewhere safe. He then marries Mary Magdalene (and YES, he makes love to her, this is maybe why the fundamentalist Christians fought against them being presented at movie theaters in many places in the US) and has children. Only later, something doesn’t seem right, and realizes that the angel is not really an angel, but its opposite. He then is old, but sees his mistake and repents. The final scene is back on the cross, as if all this was a temporal parenthesis which has just been closed and Christ dies, murmuring the redeeming words “It has been accomplished!” As a side note, the acting is uneven, Willem Dafoe is not so great as Jesus Christ; instead, David Bowie is marvelous as Pontius Pilate.

– Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” is a trademark Monty Python production, meaning it’s filled with this acting group’s jokes, centering a fictitious Brian, who happened to have been born in the same night and a few houses away from the place where Jesus Christ was born. This life in the shadow of the chosen one will mark Brian’s life, until a few random events make the Jews believe that he is the One and follow him in his absurd quest to free Judea from the Romans. The story focuses on the last part of this inadvertent “Messiah” and despite having lots of casual jokes; it has a few good, thought-provoking points. Again, this is not a film that is recommended for people who are rigid in their Christian faith, but rather for those able to think by themselves and discern what’s perennial from what’s only incidental in the Great Story.

But my main goal tonight is to discuss “Jesus of Montreal”, the film I have recently watched, the one showing up in the title. Right now I believe it is better than “Last Temptation”, it is deeper and is better placed to our time than other such productions. It is both a discussion about the essence of faith in God as God (and not as a mere convention) and about the art as Art, and not cheap commercialism, in this case movies a la Hollywood or TV ads.

The story begins with Daniel, a former valedictorian in his Dramatic Arts School, who preferred to travel around the world and appear in random underground theater plays. He is asked to resuscitate a Passion Play script about Jesus Christ, which is to be enacted around Easter in a Catholic church in Montreal. Well, those in the know about what Montreal can do to religiousness can already guess that this will be a highly unconventional performance. It is, mainly because the script was based on the latest updates on the archeological discoveries in the Middle East. But not only that: Daniel sets off his troupe by looking for good actors who happen to do other things in other to make ends meet. One is a porn movie audio dubber; another actress is making TV commercials relying on her physical beauty, although she wants to really act. This is obviously a parallel to the gathering of the Apostles, but also to the theme of Mary Magdalene the prostitute. After all, they are all (except Daniel) prostitutes by not being faithful to their profession, but instead making such compromises.

The most haunting series of scenes is with Daniel taking the Christ-of Theater role while attending a TV ad casting where his Magdalene has to undress in order to get the OK for having the right physical assets to show up in the ad (an awful Grease-like dancing number). He destroys everything in there, as Jesus caused some mess in the temple for the money changers. Later, he is summoned to trial, he pleads guilty and refuses to be represented by a lawyer. The judge sees here a reason for him to be examined by a forensic psychologist. What ensues from this Pontius Pilate-like encounter? A statement according to which he is better anchored in reality than most judges.

The play is successful. The public likes it (although some of them cling on “Jesus” as if he were the real Jesus; it’s fun to see a mix of actor, audience and police guards there), but obviously the priest and his higher-ups has a big problem with it. Actually, he doesn’t have a problem with his own life, in which he has a relationship with a woman, he even doesn’t have a problem with the plastic saint figurines he sells to people who can’t afford, as he puts it, psychotherapy, and goes to hear the priest absolving him/her of their sins for much cheaper. He might have a problem with quitting the religious order for living with the woman, because this would leave him completely broke. Actually, the funniest scene occurs when the priest tells the actors that they should change the way they are interpreting the play, and they mock him by giving him a sample of the “repertoires” they could use in acting. Affected style, NY-style, slang-style (with flamboyant Canadian cusswords), kabuki-style. Awesome.

Long story short, a final show is put on “stage” by the actors. The police arrives before the end and tries to stop the play, but some people from the audience are intervening and a fight ensues. During the scuffle, Daniel, who is on the cross playing the crucifixion scene, suffers a head concussion and is taken to ER. He recovers for a while, his female colleagues take him to the subway station where he plays his last act, and falls unconscious.
The irony continues, he is now taken to a Jewish hospital, where he actually dies. But Jesus continues his miracles, he gives life to a practically dead man via a heart transplant and eyesight to a woman via a eye transplant.

Still, the temptations are not over, after his death a consultant is advising the rest of the actors to found a theater company bearing Daniel’s name, and its goal would be to stay away from commercialism and stick with real theater play. We can only guess the actual confrontations with the reality, knowing that they have made compromises before. Will this proto-Christian model live on in the world of theater?

We don’t know, obviously, the answer to this last question. We still know that a man died for his ideals, and that his friends value his sacrifice and want to keep his effort’s memory alive in their lives. This is basically at the root of any imaginable Christian movement, and shows that the engine that gave the humanity Jesus Christ almost 2000 years ago is not necessarily dead.

And, most importantly, this film gives us an image of the scenario of “What if God was one of us”, as Joan Osborne is saying here, lyrics here. It’s no little thing.

Thank you, Denys Arcand, the God-fearing cinephiles salute you!

March 1, 2009

Marco Ferreri’s “La grande bouffe”, not for the faint of heart, or *art


Imagine a certain group of influential people who have reached their expiration date on this earth. A good example that can be
found today is the investment bankers’. Except that they’re not the first, and certainly not the last. A somewhat practical question is: how to describe their disappearance? Since we are not talking about, say, dinosaurs, lost hundreds of millions of
years ago, but about humans, it has to be done by resorting to human traits. And since for the human watcher, the following
assertion applies: “I am human, therefore nothing human is foreign to me”, as Terence once said, it must have a special effect
to stick to certain traits that are human, but exacerbated. Abominable, disgusting traits or drives will work, too.

Nowadays, people have a high disrespect of the financial establishment, whose greed is already proverbial, and this world is
crumbling under its effect of its own greed. So it would make sense that, if one wants to make a film about such guys, describing them die while incessantly eating would not be too far off.

There is a problem, though, with this approach. It’s not that it’s not realistic, in the artistic sense. It’s that the idea was
used decades ago, for the purpose of describing the end of bourgeoisie, as we know it. (La grande bouffe) is maybe the pinnacle of this approach. Let’s review: four successful people (all males), for reasons that are not fully explained (but we are allowed glimpses into it), decide to retreat in one week-end to a manor and, taking advantage of the great chef skills of one of them, to eat first class food until they literally die. We get to see awesome gourmet dishes going down their throats. Whose theirs? Well, the characters have the actors’ last names: Ugo (Tognazzi) the chef, Michel (Piccoli) the entertainment business tycoon, Marcello (Mastroianni) the airline pilot who can’t spend any single night without getting laid, and Philippe (Noiret), the sexually-repressed judge. As we can see, opposites come together here as parts of the same socio-economic niche.

We are introduced into their preparations for the final rides of the four protagonists (or knights of Apocalypse?) and arrival
to the manor, where we witness an unforgettable adaptation of Othello’s monologue “To be or not to be, that is the question”,
in the manor’s yard, with a cow’s head in the hand. One has to suspect that Jeunet’s (mostly known for “Amelie”) “Delicatessen” take on post-apocalyptic gourmet food, is in fact a pastiche (a pretty good one, I must say) of Marco Ferreri’s film.

The first night of feast passes as planned, with only pictures of naked women on the screen. But the next morning Marcello
threatens to leave unless he can get his hands on some girls. So he snags a few “lost souls”, but there’s also a “real woman”,
a grade school teacher, attracted by the men’s clout and the good food, who will come to spend the night with them. This woman is actually a character which can also be found in “end of times” films like Jiri Menzel’s “The End of the old Times”
(http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0097681/) or Eldar Ryazanov’s Cruel Romance / The Girl Without Dowry (see a lyrical excerpt here ), a woman-accessory, without actually being considered fully as an equal. Although the scenes in which she is involved are extremely funny. First, she wants to tie the missing buttons of Philippe’s pants, and then she moves on to… you know what. Philippe’s reaction is maybe the most hilarious scene in the entire film: he asks her to marry him. He even sticks to his decision even after she gives herself (not because she is being “frivolous”, but out of the *goodness of her heart*) to the other suffering guys there.

We get to witness several side effects of over-eating, effects which should be reviewed by some corporate decision-makers in
financial institutions thriving on pushing credit. First, it’s the “*art” from this review’s title, which is actually a sign of relief from the stomach pain. Also, Marcello gets to know another painful effect on what he hurts most: severe difficulty in
maintaining erection and reaching orgasm. This, more so than overeating, is pushing him to death. Last, but not least, is the
logical problem of residue: if you’re eating too much, there’s the obvious problem of feces, which nastily overflow and give
everything a brownish flavor. Over-producing consumer crap issue, anyone?

Words to the wise: I consider this as mature artistic vision, and the author is not to blame for the vision his artistic eyes
are set on more than Zapruder getting on celluloid the murder of a president. And, if we do not reduce Marco Ferreri’s film to
a Nostradamus-like prediction of the end of the financial burgeoisie, we can appreciate it for what it is, in its wider scope.
It is, to a certain extent, parallel to another masterpiece of the cinema which can sometimes be perceived as abominable, just
because it speaks clearly about some human traits that are less praiseworthy, and some viewers lack the inner hinges to fully
grasp it. I am talking about Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “Salo”, in which Italian fascists do unspeakable things to a group of
youths, in a visionary warning about a consumerist society which has no saints, no morals, and will likely end up by reducing
itself to nought. Unfortunately, in this case of Salo, the director fell first prey to his vision. He was assassinated close to
the beach where Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 was shot, and later his film was banned for so many years.

Coming back to “La grande bouffe”, everything goes as planned. The whores, not getting the point, leave after overeating a few times (they also exhibit a few side effects of eating too much), and the teacher assists them while they make steps toward their passing, A specific scene, when she gives pleasure to a dying Ugo who doesn’t stop eating, is reminiscent of a scene in Roman Polanski’s “What?“.

But it is the magnificent ending which is leading us back to the philosophical question “To Be or Not To Be”. Since the dead bodies have taken the place of the meat in the fridge, the next batch of fresh meat which is delivered cannot fit in, hence it is left in the yard, next to the dogs and other animals. A carcass is even put on a smaller tree. Leaving us to wonder which is the next carnivorous species who will replace this breed that has just disappeared. Like the sheep in Luis Bunuel’s “The Exterminating Angel” ( recently released in the US in the Criterion Edition) replacing humans in another bourgeoisie-bashing film made by a director happy to hit on bourgeois morals.

Needless to say that this is not a film to recommend watching with minors or people with rigid morals around. Judging by my
experience, I would not even recommend a masterpiece like Tarkovsky’s “Andrei Rublev” to be watched in such conservative environments. But the deep meaning of the film is, ironically, very understandable even by the adopters of “doom and gloom” attitude. So, it’s more about being flexible enough to discuss it, even view it as a scenario coming time and again in the cyclical historical time, make steps to come to terms with it, and move on.

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