Sunday, March 23, 2008


Easter came bizarrely early this year, only three days after the vernal equinox; with snow flurries still in the forecast and temperatures topping out in the 30s and 40s, it really doesn't feel much like spring, though I will admit the early arrival of Daylight Savings Time has helped. I was planning on doing a whole week's worth of Easterish movies, but I only have three to write up. Yesterday was QUO VAIDS, set a few years after Christ, and tomorrow is a B.C. Old Testament story, so today is the real Easter movie. And I do think that this is probably the best Hollywood version of the life of Christ so far (with Pasolini's THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ST. MATTHEW the best foreign language one). It helps that Jeffery Hunter looks just like the Holy Card pictures of Christ I remember from my youth, with longish hair and a wispy beard and faraway eyes. He's also very handsome and charismatic, often looking a little sly, like he's thinking of a good joke but can't tell it in mixed company. The script doesn't give Hunter a lot to work with as far as characterization--I think Hollywood has always been afraid to give Jesus a personality above and beyond what's found in the Gospels. But he is always pleasing to look at, as are the sets, costumes, and locations (shot mostly in Spain).

The story, narrated by Orson Welles (with narration written by an uncredited Ray Bradbury), touches on all the familiar gospel anecdotes and adds a couple of interesting plot points, most importantly turning the marginal figure of Barabbas the thief into a Judean freedom fighter--yes, I kept thinking of the Judean People's Front from MONTY PYTHON'S LIFE OF BRIAN. In quick succession, we see the Romans invade Jerusalem in 63 B.C, the Nativity, Herod's slaughter of the innocents, and an interesting scene in which Herod Antipas (the son) hastens the death of his sick father. Lucius, a Roman centurion (Ron Randell), sees Jesus as a child during a census survey and realizes by his age that he had somehow escaped the killing of the newborns, but he does nothing with this knowledge. The story then skips some twenty years to John the Baptist (Robert Ryan) proclaiming the arrival of the Messiah as Barabbas (Harry Guardino) and his gang foment revolution. We get John's baptizing of Jesus, John's imprisonment, and Salome's request for his head on a platter (and she does a dance, though there is nary a veil in sight). We see Jesus picking his apostles seemingly at random, the attempted stoning of Mary Magdalene, and the Sermon on the Mount, a well done scene with thousands of extras. Judas (Rip Torn) is a freedom fighter who sincerely hopes to merge the messages of Jesus and Barabbas; his betrayal of Jesus is motivated by his hope that, if the Romans interfere with Jesus, he and his followers will join up with Barabbas. Of course, this doesn't happen. Instead, after the Last Supper and Judas' kiss, Jesus is bounced around between Pontius Pilate (Hurd Hatfield) and Herod Antipas, with Lucius providing Jesus' defense. Perhaps because of the length of the film, the Crucifixion and Resurrection scenes actually feel anti-climatic. Hunter does a nice job making Jesus human, and acting honors also go to Rendell and Hatfield. Torn, young and unrecognizable behind a beard, seem uncomfortable--and I suspect his voice has been dubbed in by a different actor--and Guardino is a zero as Barabbas. Ryan was too old to play John the Baptist, who according to the legends is the same age as Jesus (Hunter was in his mid-30s and Ryan was over 50 and looks even older), and he seems to be sleepwalking through the role. As usual, there is not much for the women here to do; Carmen Sevilla as Magdalene has almost no dialogue, though Siobhan McKenna is fine as the Virgin Mary. As I noted earlier, even when the plot bogs down and the acting disappoints, the film is always gorgeous to look at. [DVD]

No comments: