Sunday, April 24, 2011


Hollywood movies about Jesus Christ are usually epic films which wind up, perhaps because of too much concern for reverence, being rather slow and dull. This early silent telling of the last days of Jesus Christ, directed by Cecil B. DeMille, is reverent but compelling. It begins, oddly, with a royal banquet at which the courtesan Mary Magdalene is irritated because her current favored lover Judas Iscariot is missing--seems he's been swept off his feet by some carpenter from Nazareth. She saddles up her zebras (I kid you not; they’re gifts from some Nubian prince) and heads out to break up the apostles'meeting. When we first see Jesus, he is curing a little blind boy (the future Gospel writer Mark), and we don't see Jesus' face until the boy does, appearing out of a fog as his eyesight returns. Judas is a would-be kingmaker, interested in Jesus as a political figure; he tells Jesus that he should tend to the rich and mighty to curry favor instead of to the powerless poor. When Mary shows up, Jesus exorcises the Seven Deadly Sins right out of her (each sin personified as a ghostly figure). For his part, Judas thinks that any of Jesus’ followers should be able to perform miracles, but when he tries to cure a “lunatic” boy, he has no luck until Jesus takes over the task. The rest of the film pretty much conforms to the familiar Gospel narratives: Peter finds a fish with a gold coin in its mouth which is used for payment of back taxes; Jesus brings Lazarus back from the dead (a scene with a horror-movie feel--pictured below--as a wrapped-up body rises up from a slab and slowly unwraps itself), stops the stoning of Mary Magdalene, and rages against the merchants at the temple; Judas betrays Jesus to the high priests. There is no suspense since we know the rest of the story by heart, and the film builds up to the Crucifixion, with its thunder and lightning and earthquakes, followed by a brief Technicolor sequence of the Resurrection and Jesus' appearance to the apostles.

The movie looks beautiful, in a Sunday-school kind of way, like a bunch of vintage Bible illustrations come to life. There’s a nice scene in which Caiaphas plunks out thirty pieces of silver for Judas, and a beautiful shot after the Last Supper showing a glowing chalice with a soft-focus dove flitting around it. Soft focus is the de facto means for showing Christ’s divinity--he is usually seen with a luminous glow about him. H.B. Warner plays Christ as passive but not a wimp, just someone who is for the most part resigned to his fate. At almost 50, he was too old for the part, especially when we see him with his mother, played by Dorothy Cumming who was not yet 30, but he does look a lot like the Jesus of old Bible cards. Joseph Schildkraut, as Judas (pictured above with Warner), almost steals each scene he's in, a bit like the same character is a scene-stealer in JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR. The Criterion restoration has a lovely newly-written score which is mostly unobtrusive and appropriate. Though I like the modern KING OF KINGS for its epic feel (and the handsome Jeffrey Hunter), this movie is the one to beat for good old fashioned religious moviemaking, with just enough of the secular (the scantily-clad Mary Magdalene) to keep things interesting. [DVD]

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