The problem with Jesus as subject matter will always be the immediate lack of objectivity as any proposed dialogue takes shape. Those who choose to explore an alternative view of the myth can be as guilty of abiding too much to a concept as those who cling firmly to the established credo that substantiates their […]

The problem with Jesus as subject matter will always be the immediate lack of objectivity as any proposed dialogue takes shape. Those who choose to explore an alternative view of the myth can be as guilty of abiding too much to a concept as those who cling firmly to the established credo that substantiates their lives and keeps everyone under control. Sobriety is, in that sense, what most silver screen interpretations of ‘our Lord’ fail to attain. A good example of this can be found in a film that I confess (here and now and hoping to be forgiven for such sin) to have as a guilty pleasure – Jesus Christ Superstar, Norman Jewison’s 1973 film version of the musical stage play, which is an exercise of pure mass hysteria.

My appreciation of that wild, anachronistic interpretation of the remaining weeks of Jesus’ life on earth is centred on its unhinged, experimental visuals and the fact that I doubt it would get made quite the same way today. The still pervading (yet illogical) presentation of an Anglo-Saxon-looking Jesus would somehow tick the right box, but a big Hollywood studio would probably refrain from casting a black actor as Judas – just to cover their backs.

Convenient adjustments aside, controversy can either be intentionally courted or come as an inevitability. This is the case with Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Il vangelo secondo Matteo (1964) and Martin Scorcese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), which, with different degrees of the aforementioned sobriety, present Jesus as a human being.

In my view, to bring that side to the foreground is to do even more justice to a man who, regardless of your belief system, seems to have definitely walked amongst us with (at the very least) great powers of persuasion. After all, if the ultimate message is to empower us to be better human beings, wouldn’t the best example be set by a human Jesus, with all the doubts, fears, self-interest and temptations that come with it?

Not for those who choose to follow or preach from a church or another form of organised religion, simply because by equating Jesus with every one of us, they would be acknowledging an ambiguity that they’re already denying they possess. It’s easier to keep others under control if you claim to be speaking through the unmistakable words of a divine source.

The effect Jesus has had on the people who surrounded him and those who continue to feed into the myth – in what has to be the longest and strongest marketing campaign ever put together for an individual – can perhaps become the most interesting starting point for a cinematic depiction. Abel Ferrara’s 2005 film Mary is not just a remarkable achievement in that sense, but it also feels achingly personal as a piece. The American director has let his inner struggle with Catholic beliefs inform the majority of his output, which in turn has gravitated towards such a raw authenticity that Hollywood felt obliged to blacklist him and Europe to embrace him. Mary can be seen as a culmination of both of these aspects.

The film stars Juliette Binoche as an actress who, after playing Mary Magdalene in a film-within-the-film, is so profoundly affected by the experience that she commits herself to a self-imposed exile in Jerusalem. This simple premise is dramatically encased by the various means through which the Word of God proliferates in modern society and highlights a revisionist reading of Mary Magdalene as a key disciple of Jesus, closer to the man than any of the Apostles.

By making use of real-life experts on early Christianity, Ferrara brings in the character of Ted Younger, a broadcaster doing a series of talk shows on the social and historical circumstances surrounding Jesus.
As the disarray of Younger’s personal life unfolds towards a potentially tragic outcome, he seeks Binoche’s character as a long-distance spiritual anchor and the most moral aspect of the film is firmly cemented. It’s interesting to see how a lot of this ‘guilt’ has been mirrored in previous films, particularly in Dangerous Game (1993), in which Harvey Keitel’s film director character confesses his multiple infidelities to his wife, played by Ferrara’s actual wife. It also turns Younger into a more definite alter ego of Ferrara than the expected director of the film-within-the-film, played by Matthew Modine.

The latter is evidently paralleling (if not parodying) the posture of Mel Gibson, whose unabashed Catholic faith informed the making of his 2004 film The Passion of the Christ.

I see it as worrying, to say the least, that a film like Gibson’s – the indulgence in detailed violence and agonising suffering of which verges on the pornographic – is hailed and embraced by so many Christian groups, as if such extreme depiction serves to legitimise a faith among those who by will, conviction or spiritual freedom choose to live outside it. It also strikes me as ironic the way such groups regularly employ their influence to curtail the release of any other film that comes remotely close to such levels of violence.

Far from passing judgement on Gibson’s conduct in his personal life, further irony can be found in what can only be described as a pervading hypocrisy on the part of those who impose and wave Jesus as a badge of moral superiority:

I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ – Mahatma Ghandi.

João Paulo Simões is a Portuguese filmmaker living and working independently in Sheffield. His work includes Antlers of Reason and an array of music videos and documentaries.

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João Paulo Simões.