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The Conversations: The Last Temptation of Christ and The Passion of the Christ

This is a pair of films that are remarkably and unmistakably different despite the numerous things they have in common, the most obvious of which is their general subject matter.

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The Conversations: The Last Temptation of Christ and The Passion of the Christ

Jason Bellamy: I never followed the amateur filmmaking documentary series Project Greenlight, which was perhaps best known for having celebrity producers (Matt Damon and Ben Affleck) and for failing to discover any major breakthrough talents, but I’ll never forget one of the episodes I happened to see. It was early in its third and final season, by which point Project Greenlight had expanded its diamond-in-the-rough search to be a contest not just for amateur screenwriters, but also amateur directors. In the episode in question I took delight in the method chosen to evaluate their pool of director nominees: All contestants were given identical screenplays offering nothing more than dialogue. No descriptions of settings. No descriptions of characters. No descriptions of action. Just words to be spoken. From that skeleton it was on the directors to dream up the rest, fill in the blanks and shoot a film. All these years later, I can’t remember anything about the dialogue, but I do remember that the interpretations were wildly diverse—one had a mob theme while another was set in a dentist’s office, as I recall. Same source material. Same words. Different films.

That brings us to this month’s edition of The Conversations, in which we will discuss Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, a pair of films that are remarkably and unmistakably different despite the numerous things they have in common, the most obvious of which is their general subject matter. Unlike the amateur directors vying to be on Project Greenlight, Scorsese and Gibson didn’t work from identical screenplays, and in a sense their screenplays aren’t even based on the same source material. Scorsese’s film begins with a disclaimer making it clear that The Last Temptation of Christ doesn’t follow the Scriptures, even though for the most part it does, but is instead based on the 1951 book of the same name by Nikos Kazantzakis. And yet when one watches these films, or anything in which Jesus Christ is the central figure, there’s an almost unavoidable tendency to track its faithfulness to the Bible. Anything added to or removed from the narrative, anything noticeably altered from what can be found in the New Testament, seems on screen to be bolded and italicized—maybe because it should be, or maybe because cinematic representations of the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and/or John underline just how unspecific the Bible tends to be. When it comes to the life of Jesus, so much of the Bible is like those Project Greenlight scripts: dialogue on a page. No descriptions of settings. No descriptions of characters. No descriptions of action. Just words to be spoken.

Due to this lack of specificity, one might assume that cinematic interpretations of the Bible would, almost as a rule, be as diverse as the short films of those Project Greenlight finalists. Instead, the opposite tends to be true. Christian iconography is so deeply ingrained in this country that it’s difficult to break free of the flock, and it doesn’t help that movie audiences and critics tend to become shepherds, spotting strays and urging them back into the fold. Thus, as we discuss these films, some analysis of their theology, which involves some attention to the Bible itself, is of course appropriate and necessary. But I hope we can also look past all of that to see the films themselves. In a 2008 reevaluation of Last Temptation by Roger Ebert for his Great Movies series, he wrote, “It must have driven Martin Scorsese crazy to read reviews of The Last Temptation of Christ in which critics appointed themselves arbiters of the manhood or godliness of Jesus Christ, and scarcely mentioned the directing, the writing, the acting, the images or Peter Gabriel’s harsh, mournful music.” I think he has a point. But I’d like to start off this conversation with this question: Ed, for all practical purposes, is it possible to watch a film about Jesus Christ and not see it first and foremost as a religious statement?

Ed Howard: It’s maybe stating the obvious, but when you place Jesus at the center of a film, or any work of art, you’re making a religious statement of some kind, whether you mean to or not—and of course, it’s hard to imagine a filmmaker making a film about Jesus without intending some form of religious statement. Naturally, it’s equally hard for viewers to approach a film about Jesus without bringing their own perspective on Christianity to the table. And maybe they shouldn’t. After all, these films place Jesus at their respective centers for a reason; he’s not just another character, he’s the basis for an entire worldwide system of religious denominations. Any film about him has to deal with that on some level.

So while I agree with Ebert that to focus solely on Scorsese’s treatment of Jesus is to risk undervaluing the film’s cinematic virtues, by the same token to ignore what that film has to say about religion and spirituality would be to miss the point. It’s not a matter of looking past theology to see the film itself. The theology in Last Temptation is the essence of what is, after all, a film continually engaged with matters of spirituality, with the contrast between corporeality and the spiritual plane, with the ways in which spiritual messages are twisted and misunderstood by those who hear them. Scorsese’s Last Temptation is a sustained examination of the meaning of Jesus’ life and death, and of his messages. It’s a meditation on what it means to do God’s will. It deals with the thin line between religious conviction and what we’d ordinarily think of as insanity. I think it’s clear that, whatever else it is, Last Temptation is, “first and foremost… a religious statement.”

I’d say that the same thing applies to Gibson’s film, but then I’m convinced that only one of the films we’re talking about here actually has anything of substance on its mind about spirituality or religion.

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JB: It’s interesting that you say that. Watching Last Temptation and The Passion on successive nights recently, I identified perplexing and praiseworthy elements in each film (which isn’t to imply they are distributed evenly), but I came away feeling that Scorsese’s picture is by far the more challenging and complex. It’s a film that’s not just about “the meaning of Jesus’ life and death, and of his messages,” but about what it means to wrestle with that man, with God and with those man/God messages. It’s a film about religion that’s deeply human and very personal. Ebert puts it quite well in that Great Movies piece when he says that “what makes The Last Temptation of Christ one of [Scorsese’s] great films is not that it is true about Jesus but that it is true about Scorsese.” I couldn’t agree more. One can really feel Scorsese grappling with the subject matter, putting equal thought and enthusiasm into each moment, no matter how contradictory it might feel compared to the one before it, in the hopes that when it’s all up on screen that some kind of deeper truth or understanding will result. It’s only fitting that a devout worshiper of cinema such as Scorsese would use film not just as a way to reveal his own feelings about Christianity but as a way to explore them. And, as such, Last Temptation feels like two quests—that of Jesus Christ and that of Martin Scorsese.

And yet the more I continue along these lines of thinking, the less dismissive I become about the substantiality of The Passion. Is the film as complex? No. Is it as provocative? No. Is it as conflicted? Heavens, no. But is it personal? Well, I think so, yes. And is it “engaged with matters of spirituality?” Why, certainly. The key difference is this: Where the dominant emotion of Scorsese’s film is doubt, the dominant theme of Gibson’s film is certainty. As someone who was raised going to Mass every Sunday, who was baptized and even confirmed, who attended a private Catholic high school and who, despite all of that, doesn’t believe in God and is skeptical of organized religion, I of course personally identify with Last Temptation’s themes of conflict and uncertainty. And yet I also see in The Passion an unblinking devotion that I think is all too easily dismissed as being unengaged. So, to loop back to my previous question, I agree with you that any film about Jesus Christ unavoidably makes a religious statement (which doesn’t mean we can’t sometimes successfully look beyond that). That said, Scorsese’s film is dominated with questions whereas Gibson’s film attempts to provide answers.

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EH: The Passion is, no doubt about it, a very personal film. Like Scorsese’s film, The Passion is as much about its maker as it is about Jesus (who’s played by Jim Caviezel in Gibson’s version). And like Scorsese’s film, it’s infused at every moment with the personality and concerns of its director, who, needless to say, has some strong feelings about this subject. But while I’d agree with you that Scorsese is asking questions, I’m not sure that Gibson is providing answers—or even trying to. In a way, I feel like Gibson’s own passion, his unshakable certainty about these issues, actually prevents him from communicating anything of substance about religion or Jesus. So maybe I misspoke by saying that the film doesn’t have anything on its mind. It’s more that Gibson takes too much for granted. Everything he believes, everything he wants to say, is assumed to be a given rather than really being conveyed in the text of the film.

Like you, I was raised Catholic. I went to Mass every Sunday until I was around 18 or so, and for a while there I even tutored religious education classes. I’ve read much of the Bible, both through my early religious background and my continuing, secular interest. So I’ve been steeped in this material, even if, like you, I’ve drifted further and further away from believing in any of it. But imagine, for a moment, watching this film as someone who doesn’t have that background, who doesn’t know very much, if anything, about the story of Jesus or the theology of Christianity. What answers could The Passion provide to this hypothetical viewer who doesn’t have a strong religious background? What would the film have to say to someone who doesn’t already know the substance of this story? Moreover, what does the film have to say to a non-believer? Very little, I’d argue. This isn’t so much a film that provides answers as a film that confirms what people already believe and know; it’s a film made only for the devout.

It’s a film, also, that relies heavily on the devout to fill in the blanks, because Gibson leaves a lot of blanks. For a film about Jesus, it strangely contains very little of his words or messages, only a few fragments in flashbacks. It provides very little context about the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection. It purposefully limits its chronology to Jesus’ punishment leading up to his crucifixion; Gibson is concerned with the physical torment of Jesus’ body but has very little to say about the spiritual content of this sacrifice. This is why I say that the film isn’t really engaged with spirituality or religion in any significant way. The film has nothing to say in and of itself. It is instead an opportunity for some devout Christians to savor the suffering of their savior, while the rest of us are left scratching our heads, wondering why Gibson chose to focus so exclusively on blood and gore rather than actually dealing with why Jesus inspired so many people to begin with.

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JB: I think that’s a fair and substantiated analysis, but I don’t agree with it entirely. For one, Gibson’s film is accurately named. The Passion is about the end of Jesus’ human life and not his birth or his religious campaign. With that understood, I don’t see that Gibson is leaving blanks so much as he is focusing narrowly, which is a fair choice. In that light, the flashbacks to the stoning of the adulteress (here, as in Scorsese’s film, depicted to be Mary Magdalene) or to the Last Supper, provide more emotional depth than Gibson’s narrow focus actually requires. Of course, it’s here that your argument comes in that this is “a film made only for the devout,” as those flashbacks and indeed the main thrust of the narrative are most powerful if the audience is knowledgeable enough to put them into context. That’s a fair point. But it goes a bit too far. I understand that not everyone in this country (the target audience for The Passion) was raised Catholic as we were, but how many narratives are better known than that of Jesus Christ, at least broadly speaking? So, sure, when we watch Jesus carve the line in the sand in The Passion, we never hear him delivering the words that he who is without sin should cast the first stone, but do we need that? This is a pretty straightforward allusion, and even those who would miss the specific meaning would understand the most important point: Jesus stepped in to stop a woman from being stoned. Make no mistake, that’s not the deepest meaning available to that “scene” as it plays out in The Passion or especially in the Bible, but it’s as deep as Gibson’s film needs it to be.

Also, while Last Temptation details more of Jesus’ life and influence, I’m not sure it’s accurate to say that it does a better job of showing “why Jesus inspired so many people to begin with.” Scorsese’s film excels at showing Jesus’ struggle with his identity, message and mission, but Last Temptation requires some suspension of disbelief, or just blind faith, when it comes to Jesus’ development as a spiritual leader. In Scorsese’s picture, when Jesus makes his first attempt at preaching to the people by delivering the Parable of the Sower, his delivery is hardly inspirational and the reaction of those kneeling on the hill around him is tepid to say the least. It’s a scene that makes one yearn for a Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment, so that during one of the crowd shots someone with a thick New York construction worker’s accent could say, “Who is this jaggoff?!” Instead, Jesus convinces a few with the parable, and then Scorsese inserts a montage in which we see Jesus walking through the desert as his disciples increase in number around him. Mostly, we don’t see Jesus winning the masses; we see only the final score.

My point is that both pictures would likely leave the hypothetical non-believer or the religiously clueless wondering what all the fuss is about, and so in that sense both films are for the devout or the religiously aware. Furthermore, both films are largely concerned with Jesus’ suffering. But while Last Temptation suggests Jesus primarily suffered emotionally, The Passion suggests that Jesus primarily suffered physically. These are two wildly different interpretations. Personally I find the first one far more compelling, but I’m not sure the second reading is any less valid.

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EH: I grant that Gibson has intentionally narrowed the scope of his story, drawing on the lineage of the Passion play to focus solely on the time leading up to Jesus’ death. This is certainly an idea with precedents in Christian theology: not only in the re-enactments of the Passion plays, but in the Stations of the Cross spread out around the interior of many churches. Even so, I struggle to understand the point of the film, beyond a celebration of how much physical pain Jesus experienced. Maybe that’s enough for some people, just as the single-minded torture spectacles of the Saw films satisfy some audiences. Scorsese’s film, on the other hand, has its own gaps and oddities, but at least it has real ideas at its core. If Last Temptation is concerned with, among other things, how difficult it is to do God’s will when God seems to want something really terrifying and challenging from us, then what is The Passion actually about? Scorsese’s film demands engagement with its ideas and images; Gibson’s film simply pummels us with two solid hours of torture. I’d suggest that the non-religious, watching Last Temptation, may very well be lost with regard to some of its references and scenarios, but that Scorsese’s themes—doubt, faith, goodness and the hypocrisies of organized religions in contrast to genuine spirituality—will resonate nonetheless. I don’t think that’s the case with The Passion. I’m not sure what message it’s even sending, or what themes are at its core.

The hints of Gibson’s concerns that occasionally burble up through the unrelenting blood and beatings are troubling, too. Perhaps the most interesting example is the story of the two criminals crucified at the same time as Jesus. In the Gospel of Luke, one of these men is described as insulting Jesus, mocking him, while the other defends him and chastises the other criminal for failing to recognize Jesus’ holy aura. Jesus tells the latter criminal that, because of this redemption, he will ascend to Heaven upon his death. This is, from a Christian perspective, a very important story, a powerful demonstration of the concept of forgiveness, the idea that even a lifetime of crime and sin can be redeemed by a moment of decency and faith. Gibson includes this scene, as does Scorsese, but Gibson puts his own twist on it by following it up with a shot where a crow lands atop the cross of the “bad” criminal and pecks at his eyes and face. It’s a very harrowing image that, as far as I know, doesn’t come from any scriptural source. In fact, it seems to be the dark flipside of the story’s message of forgiveness, suggesting that what Gibson takes away from this episode is not a positive “do good and you’ll be rewarded with eternity,” but a negative “don’t do good and you’ll be tormented.” Moreover, Gibson seemingly couldn’t resist inflicting his own cinematic punishment on the criminal who failed to repent; the insert with the crow has a tone of vengeful bloodlust that runs absolutely counter to the themes of forgiveness and redemption that are so central to the New Testament. It’s suggestive of Gibson’s very cynical perspective on this material, an exclusionist approach to religion that’s most reminiscent of those vile Jack Chick comic pamphlets where non-believers are subjected to eternal punishment for failing to make the “right” choices about religion.

That, to me, says it all about the difference between these two films. While Scorsese is inviting everyone in, suggesting that everyone, Jesus included, wrestles with (or perhaps should wrestle with) questions about spirituality and faith, Gibson is positing a Jesus who’s less about “love thy neighbor” than “you’re with me or you’re against me.” Scorsese’s film adds to the discussion, suggests ideas to consider. The Passion, in contrast, if anything tries to shut down such conversation, to replace it with unquestioning acceptance and a crow ready to pluck out the eyes of those who dissent.

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JB: I don’t disagree at all with the last part, and yet I doubt that you’d disagree with me that the dangerousness of dissent is preached—overtly or implicitly—by numerous Christian sects, not just fundamentalist or fringe ones. I’m grateful to say that my religious upbringing was free from fear-mongering by those at the pulpit, and yet even the most positive-minded Christian sects, churches or preachers are being disingenuous if they suggest that the promise of eternity means anything without the threat of some kind of doom. That is, the carrot isn’t a motivator without the stick, or at least without the threat of starvation. Under those terms, I’d argue that the crow scene in The Passion is, while not factual to the Bible, entirely faithful to its underlying themes. Because if the message is that one criminal can atone with a moment of decency toward Jesus, isn’t it insincere to ignore that the lesson the other criminal learns is “Donít fuck with Jesus?” True, in the Bible, the unrepentant criminal’s moment of reckoning is merely implied. Gibson’s film confronts his fate, portrays it, calls a spade a spade. (Last Temptation does this, too, in other ways we’ll get to later.) Granted, I think the crow scene also reveals Gibson’s immature streak and his bloodlust. He doesn’t handle it in the most artful of ways. But to dismiss it as counter to the themes of the New Testament is, I think, to ignore that if the meek shall inherit the earth, some others won’t.

So when you say that Last Temptation is about “how difficult it is to do God’s will when God seems to want something really terrifying and challenging from us,” I say that The Passion is about exactly the same thing. In that regard, the only differences between the two interpretations are their elements of terror and challenge. In Scorsese’s film the challenges for Jesus are to accept who he is, to forgo a “normal” life, to forgo “normal” human relationships (including but not limited to sex) and to, at the end of all that, accept that he must sacrifice himself and endure physical suffering on the way to that sacrifice. Gibson’s film, on the other hand, limits the challenge only to the final physical act. That doesn’t necessarily mean that those other challenges don’t exist for Jesus, but Gibson certainly doesn’t explore them. As I said earlier, I find Scorsese’s version much more challenging and complex. Gibson essentially reduces Jesus to an action hero. His triumph is less spiritual than physical. Still, it isn’t void of spiritualism. Gibson’s film suggests that the physical suffering of Jesus is an intrinsic part of his sacrifice, apparently the most significant part. The implication is that the incredible physical punishment Jesus endures is symbolic of the sins of mankind that he absorbs. In my mind, this is a reductive view of Jesus. Perhaps Gibson felt that by abusing his character like no character had been abused before that he would best evoke the magnitude of Jesus’ sacrifice. But Scorsese’s film suggests that having nails driven through his hands and feet was the least of the trauma Jesus endured. I admire that about Scorsese’s film, and I identify with that reading. And yet I don’t think Gibson’s film lacks “real ideas.” It just that his interpretation of the Bible is different than ours, which shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.

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EH: I see your points, and I don’t want to dismiss Gibson’s film merely because I disagree with his interpretations and perspectives on these things. But I think it’s telling that you describe Gibson’s Jesus as an “action hero” and call the director’s understanding of Jesus’ sacrifice “reductive.” That rings true to me, especially when Gibson depicts Jesus’ resurrection as if he’s setting up an action-packed sequel. This is what I’m getting at, really. Sure, Gibson’s “fear-mongering” approach to biblical interpretation just rubs me the wrong way, and would even if the film was more satisfying on other levels, but more than that I object to the film’s essential emptiness, to its aesthetic vacancy, and to its streak of nastiness and grotesquerie. I think you make a good point about the criminal episode, in that Gibson’s addition of the crow does get at something that’s already implicit in the original biblical text. It’s the way he does it that’s the problem. I mean, if Gibson’s “immature streak and…bloodlust” aren’t “counter to the themes of the New Testament,” then what is? It’s not that Gibson is making a totally out-there point, in religious terms—he’s saying that if you do bad, you’ll be punished—but he’s doing it with such obvious glee, taking such clear pleasure in the criminal’s pain and punishment that it contradicts the spirit of the Scriptures if not the text.

There’s another thing about this film: at times Gibson’s treatment of this material is downright bizarre. Just look at the way he occasionally has a bald-headed, Nosferatu-like Satan strolling casually through the scene, holding a creepy little demonic baby at one point, or melodramatically screaming “noooooo” when he realizes that Jesus has completed his sacrifice at the end of the film. It’s silly and inconsequential, the work of a director who doesn’t have the artistic instincts to convey anything of substance about his chosen subject, even if it’s a subject that’s obviously very dear to him. There are flashes of compelling visuals—the snake sidewinding towards a prone Jesus at the beginning of the film—but even these are often betrayed by Gibson’s goofy sense of melodrama. I’m thinking especially of that striking overhead shot of the crucifixion site at the moment of Jesus’ death—a shot that’s then nearly ruined by a single CGI raindrop falling from the sky. I bring these things up to reinforce that my distaste for The Passion is not predicated solely on my distaste for Gibson’s religious ideas: I’m equally dismayed by his aesthetics.

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JB: I understand that. But, at the risk of being too repetitive, some of those aesthetic decisions are perfectly in line with Gibson’s religious mindset. As you said earlier, Gibson is certainly cynical about the material, and thus the recurring presence of Satan drives home the point that evil, sin and corruption are everywhere. When Satan watches Jesus during the scourging scene, it suggests that the easiest thing for Jesus to do would be to become hateful of his torturers. Satan strolls through the scene tempting Jesus without a word, as if to say, “I’m here when you need me, when you’re ready to join the Dark Side.” Again, my own religious upbringing was more positive. It was about trying to live up to the model of Jesus rather than trying to avoid the clutches of Satan. Truth is, I can’t remember the Devil ever being brought up at great length in any sermon or class lecture. And yet, again, there are the Pat Robertsons of the world (extreme example, I know) who try to use fear to keep people in line. Clearly, Gibson is a fearful Christian, and so perhaps it makes perfect sense that the guy who starred in Lethal Weapon and Braveheart would imagine Jesus as the ultimate “I can take everything you dish out” badass.

To some degree, then, it could be argued that what you see as exaggerated, someone with a more doomsday view of Christianity might see as merely faithful. And yet I think it’s also true that Gibson’s aesthetics can be less evocative of Christianity than of cinema, and not in a good Quentin Tarantino kind of way. As you said, Satan is reminiscent of Nosferatu; Jesus seems like an action hero; the demonic cherub-like creatures seem like something out of a B-movie horror flick; the flaming King Herod seems modeled after Josh Mostel’s performance in Norman Jewison’s Jesus Christ Superstar; and, as I implied above, sometimes the battle between good and evil seems less Jesus-Satan than Skywalker-Vader. But as soon as I find myself ready to dismiss The Passion as goofy, I think, well, maybe it’s genius. Though Gibson’s picture has obvious appeal to the devout, perhaps it’s also clever propaganda for the uninitiated. What better way to make this ancient character seem relevant than to portray him as a cinematic action hero? In that way The Passion reminds me of those National Guard commercials that appear at many multiplexes. Cut to seem like trailers for the next Jerry Bruckheimer picture, their implicit message is that by joining the National Guard one can become an action hero, a movie star. Likewise, The Passion suggests something along the lines of: If you thought Rambo was tough, you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet.

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EH: Excellent—although maybe the more salient Sly Stallone comparison is Rocky, able to take the punches and keep on staggering along, covered in blood. In comparison, Scorsese’s Jesus, as played by Willem Dafoe, is more like a Woody Allen character: neurotic, plagued by doubt, obsessed with sex even though he knows he can’t, or shouldn’t, get any. We both seem to agree that The Last Temptation of Christ is the more substantial and complex of these films. The funny thing is that, in its own way, Scorsese’s film is as “goofy,” as bizarre and stylized, as The Passion. Last Temptation has Jesus tempted by a serpent with a sultry female voice; it has some of Scorsese’s regular New Yawk actors appearing in period costume, but with thick tough-guy accents intact, like Harvey Keitel’s whiny, over-the-top performance as Judas; it has several lurid moments with a sexed-up Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey). And all that before we get to its climax, a nearly half-hour reverie in which Jesus, nailed to the cross, is tempted to forsake this sacrifice for a natural life, and death, as a normal man. We’ve criticized Gibson’s film for being an action movie incarnation of Jesus, but it’s not like Scorsese delivered a staid, craftsman-like biblical epic. Quite to the contrary, Last Temptation is messy and wild, prone to drastic shifts in tone from scene to scene or moment to moment.

It’s also a willfully ahistorical film. Not only are the accents hilariously out of place, but there are all sorts of oddball moments that ensure that the film can never be taken as anything other than a very idiosyncratic, stylized response to Christian lore. For instance, John the Baptist’s (André Gregory) riverside rituals mingle orgiastic excesses with incantations that remind equally of Native American chants, the spirituals of the American South, and various other ethnic musics. The film is like a collage in that respect, throwing all these disparate elements against each other, creating this wonderful friction in the images, the soundtrack (which ranges from the clamor of the crowd scenes to the sublimely ‘80s-ish Peter Gabriel score), and the religious elements.

In spite of all this stylistic diversity, Scorsese’s film has a genuine grandeur that Gibson can only aspire to—even if Scorsese’s vision of Christian grandeur isn’t quite what one would expect based on the history of biblical epics in the cinema. One of my favorite shots in the film follows Jesus’ frustrated exclamation that God “wants to push me over the edge.” As he says this, he’s sitting on the edge of a cliff, and the camera follows his hand as he waves towards the abyss below, the camera swaying in a dizzy curve over the cliff, conveying the impression of faltering on the edge, gazing nervously into the depths. The film is packed with little surprises like this, moments when Scorsese visualizes his protagonistís spiritual struggles with dazzling, frenetic bursts of invention. Gibson’s film might try to energize audiences with its vision of Jesus as a “badass,” but for me Scorsese’s film has far more pop, more vigor, than Gibson’s lugubrious cliches.

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JB: In the least, Last Temptation has more visual, thematic and narrative diversity. The Passion, on the other hand, is so single-minded that it makes 2009’s Precious (I refuse to call it by its full title) seem nuanced by comparison. You’ve highlighted the most significant ways that Scorsese contributes to the film’s heterogeneousness with his cinematic acumen, but the epicenter of the film’s complexity is its main character. Your comparison of Dafoe’s Jesus to a Woody Allen character might be tongue-in-cheek, but it’s also extremely accurate. And yet another way to describe him would be mercurial. He’s temperamental, wishy-washy, indecisive and almost bipolar. One of my favorite moments is the scene in which Jesus tells Judas that he’s seen the prophecy and knows he must die. Judas is understandably, well, peeved. “Every day you have a different plan,” Judas says, sounding less like a brother to Jesus than like an exasperated parent wondering when his son is going to get a job and move out of the house. “First itís love. Then it’s the axe. And now you have to die. What good could that do?” The humanness and commonness of that scene makes it seem a little silly, a little snicker-worthy, but at the same time it exemplifies the film’s tremendous accessibility. The avoidance of subtitles or even non-American accents wraps into this, too. Without modernizing the story, as, say, Baz Luhrmanís Romeo + Juliet did with Shakespeare, Scorsese keeps his film from feeling like a museum relic under glass. It reminds that when these events played out, no one—not even Jesus—knew how it would end. At least, not exactly.

Doubt, it seems to me, should be the key ingredient of any Jesus story. Without doubt, faith cannot exist. Without doubt, Jesus’ heroism, if you will, is undermined. Scorsese’s picture is full of doubt, right up until the end. And it’s not just Jesus who doubts. It’s his disciples, too. On that note, I love the film’s nontraditional interpretation of Judas, in which his betrayal of Jesus isn’t a betrayal at all but is instead an act of extreme faith. When Jesus finishes telling Judas about his plans to die willingly on the cross, he says that afterward he will come back to judge the living and the dead. “I donít believe you,” Judas replies, but this time he’s not angry. This time he’s not looking at his friend like he’s crazy. This time Judas is bumping up against the borders of his faith. He wants to believe. Desperately. You can feel it. (In my opinion, this is one of the best performances of Keitel’s career—as emotionally naked as we’ve ever seen him.) But Judas still has doubt. It’s his doubt, it’s Scorseseís doubt and it’s the doubt that, somehow or another, most Christians battle most of their lives. Belief is hard. That’s what Last Temptation teaches us.

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EH: Scorsese’s film is anything but a “museum relic under glass.” In fact, as you note, it’s occasionally so raw, so unrestrained, that it risks eliciting laughs of derision. Admittedly, the performances take a little getting used to: the New York accents and unfettered emotions that go down so easy in Mean Streets and Goodfellas produce some real cognitive dissonance in this context. When we come to a biblical epic, we expect certain things. We expect, perhaps, a somber, respectful air, a certain amount of faithfulness to the Scriptures, even maybe a lack of humor. We don’t expect Jesus to seem so human, to waver in his mission, to be funny and inconsistent and prone to emotional outbursts. What this film demonstrates, more than any other I’ve seen, is just how deeply strange extreme religious devotion can be. Christianity is now so ingrained in our culture, such an accepted fact of life in Western society, that people don’t actually think about these stories as stories, or the people in them as people. The fact is, if you accept that the Bible has at least some relationship to historical reality, then the people in these stories really existed, had complex lives, had emotions and thoughts that go beyond the Bible’s simple “this happened, then this happened” narrative. Last Temptation attempts to dig into some of these complexities, to probe what it might’ve meant to live in this era and to be confronted with a man presenting himself as the Messiah, the son of God.

Not to put too fine a point on it: Last Temptation suggests that there’s a very thin line between religious and crazy. (To be snarky for a moment, The Passion kind of suggests the same thing, just in a very different way.) To say that one is the son of God, sent to save humanity by allowing oneself to be crucified, to run through the Jews’ holiest temple overturning tables and shouting at everyone: it’s no wonder that people thought he was a lunatic, possibly dangerous. Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem is not presented the way it usually is, as this spiritual moment that Christians celebrate on Palm Sunday, with everyone joyfully greeting Jesus as a prophet. Instead, he enters Jerusalem like a rebel warrior, his disciples chanting and working the crowd into a frenzy; there’s an atmosphere of genuine danger in this scene, as though everything is on the verge of falling apart merely because of Jesus’ presence. It’s a vision of Jesus as a revolutionary, as someone who could stir things up and disrupt the status quo, change the world forever—as he did, of course. It’s so far from the conventional “peace and love” cuddly popular version of Jesus—not to mention the evangelicals’ fire and brimstone punisher, or Mel Gibson’s stoic masochist—as to be nearly unrecognizable.

There’s something startling about this Jesus, even to someone like me who doesn’t perceive the very notion of toying with Jesus’ image as blasphemous. It’s his humanity, his fallibility and imperfection—mirrored in the imperfections of Scorsese’s film—that makes him such a compelling figure, and such a challenge to conventional religious representations. The same goes for the film’s Judas, who in terms of the theology surrounding him seems to be derived from certain Gnostic traditions like the Cainites, a sect that believed Judas’ betrayal of Jesus was a deeply spiritual act in fulfillment of God’s plan. That’s one of the film’s core themes, this gap between appearances and reality, between Judas’ seeming betrayal and his actual importance as an instrument of God’s will, without whom Jesus’ sacrifice could not take place. It’s a very humanistic interpretation of the Scriptures, then, especially in comparison to Gibson’s version, where Judas gets hounded to a macabre death by demonic sprites as punishment for his betrayal. Scorsese’s film, following its source novel, redeems Judas and suggests that God would not design a plan that requires a man, one of his son’s followers, to lose his soul in the process.

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JB: I would agree with all of that. To expand on it a bit further, what’s interesting about Last Temptation’s atypical portrayals of Jesus and Judas isn’t just that they reveal how ingrained Christianity is in our culture, but also that they reveal how culture has helped to define Christianity. What I mean is this: A fundamentalist Christian might object to Last Temptation’s interpretation of Judas because there’s little to no direct evidence in the Bible that would support it. Fair point. Then again, the Bible has conflicting accounts of how Judas died (the Gospel of Matthew says he hanged himself, while the Acts of the Apostles says he died of a fall), while only Matthew explicitly details the bounty of 30 pieces of silver (although at least Matthew is believed to a be a direct witness to Jesus’ life, which is more than Mark and Luke can say), and only Mark and Luke explicitly suggest that Judas was consumed by Satan when he betrayed Jesus (talk about dramatic license; these guys weren’t even there and now they’re reading Judas’ mind!). The more one looks to the Bible for answers, the more elusive the answers seem to be. So it’s worth asking: Why has Judas and his little bag of blood money become such an indelible image of Christian iconography? Is it because Matthew writes a damn good Gospel? Or is it because he had help, from—among others—Leonardo da Vinci and The Last Supper?

For the moment, at least, this takes us back to The Passion, which portrays the Stations of the Cross, even though some of the vignettes have no biblical support. As you said earlier, the Stations are depicted on the walls of many (mostly Catholic) churches, but they are essentially more a part of religious culture than they are a part of the religion itself, if you take my meaning. Likewise, the almost universally recognizable image of Jesus—bearded, white-skinned and sinewy—isn’t a product of the Bible but of art. We could go down this road forever, but you get the idea. My point here isn’t to undermine Christianity or insult believers. My point is that when we encounter an atypical presentation of Jesus’ life, the complaint that’s often raised is, “That’s not what happened,” when really the objection should be, “That’s not the way we’ve chosen to remember it.” Again, let’s be clear: Last Temptation’s depiction of Judas directly and blatantly defies some descriptions from the Bible. But the film’s Jesus, on the other hand, frequently behaves in seemingly unusual ways that, as it turns out, the Bible in no way contradicts. The Bible, you see, is quite vague. Last Temptation uses that vagueness to very logical ends that make its Jesus as convincingly human as I’ve ever seen. The Passion capitalizes on that vagueness, too, albeit to some more troubling ends.

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EH: Your points about biblical vagueness bring to mind the cartoonist Chester Brown, who at one point was working his way through interpretations of the Gospels in comics form. These adaptations were, in terms of text and sequence of events, relatively faithful to the letter of the scripture—and yet in being so scrupulously faithful, without the ornamentation or filling-in-the-blanks that often goes on in Christian mythologizing, these comics present a strange vision of a cold, hard, angry Jesus that seems very unfamiliar. Not to mention, by adapting each Gospel in turn (a project he’s unfortunately abandoned, it seems), Brown was pointing out the surprising number of inconsistencies and differences in these four takes on the same basic story, including the shifts in Jesus’ personality from one tale to the next. Last Temptation is similarly aware of the perils of biblical interpretation, even if Scorsese and Kazantzakis take the opposite approach, abandoning scrupulous faithfulness to allow for imaginative diversions. They’re highlighting just how much of what we understand about these ancient, religiously significant events is filtered and shaped by history and culture. At one point in the film, Saul/Paul (Harry Dean Stanton) tells Jesus that even if he didn’t go through with his sacrifice, Paul would continue to preach as though he did. In its subtle way, this is perhaps the most blasphemous suggestion in the film, the idea that the hope and comfort provided by religious conviction is perhaps more important than the literal truth.

Also implicit in the film is the selectiveness of most biblical readings, which shape narratives around certain details and omit others; any understanding of Jesus’ life, certainly, has to be formed out of a composite picture from the four Gospels, which can’t be easily reconciled with one another. The film’s Gnostic conception of Judas is similarly a reminder of the Bible’s formation from a loose collection of texts into a definitive canon. People forget, or never knew in the first place, that the Bible is not a singular entity but was formed, basically, by various religious figures voting texts in or out of the book at various times—those voted out are deemed “heretical” today, like the recently discovered Gospel of Judas that more or less conforms to the Scorsese/Kazantzakis Judas.

With all that in mind, I think it’s absolutely hilarious that The Passion, in contrast, presents itself like a definitive Bible interpretation, not entirely faithful—there are several points at which Gibson adds his own diversions from biblical texts—but with an aura of serious scholarship that Scorsese carefully avoids. Gibson made his film in Aramaic and Latin, and initially wanted to release it without even English subtitles, which would have been the ultimate act of ascetic faithfulness. Gibson takes every one-line allusion from the Bible—like the Gospels’ extremely cursory account of Jesus’ whipping—and expands it, visualizes it, lingers on what he imagines the gory details would have been. Whether Gibson intended this or not, the film assumes a pose of authority and, as you intimated earlier, certainty: the concrete “this is what happened” of history. I’m reminded of the possibly apocryphal remark that the Pope may or may not have ascribed to this film: “It is as it was.”

That’s nonsense, of course. What I like so much about Scorsese’s film is how completely it recognizes the impossibility of presenting an unfiltered, accurate portrait of Jesus—so instead Last Temptation digs into the emotions and themes surrounding the idea of Jesus. Gibson doesn’t have that perspective or that depth. His film’s aims are much baser: to incite the fear of Hell, to wallow in blood and guts in service to a supposed spirituality that never really appears in the film itself, to strip the humanity and relatability from Jesus, replacing these qualities with an abstracted void. The film indulges in vile caricatures—including the big-nosed, snaggle-toothed Jewish Sanhedrin that so enraged many of the filmís detractors—and assaults its audience with its garish violence. It is a thoroughly unpleasant experience with no real heft behind its grotesqueries. Is that what you mean by its “troubling ends?”

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JB: Yep. That’s pretty much it. I mean, you’ve listed as “aims” a few things that in actuality are probably unintended consequences (I doubt Gibson means for Jesus to be “an abstracted void,” for example), but the rest of it is right. The extremeness of the violence is particularly troubling. Is it mentioned in the Bible? Yes. To a point. It says Jesus was “scourged.” And from that one word, we get one of the film’s longest set pieces, one in which Jesus is first caned and then scourged, with the metal teeth of the whip gripping into flesh thanks to CGI. First we see Jesus’ back ripped to shreds. Then he is flipped over so that his chest can be equally ravaged—most likely because once Jesus gets up on the cross we won’t get to ogle his back wounds. Over and over again, Gibson colors the space between the black and white of the Bible’s words with blood. Blood on Jesus’ back, chest, arms, legs and feet. Blood that stains the stones on the ground. Blood that runs down the cross. Blood that spurts from the wound in Jesus’ side and sprays over a soldier in a misty rain.

Make no mistake, this is done in an attempt to fulfill the film’s mission statement. Just as Last Temptation begins with a quote, so does The Passion: “He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our inequities; by His wounds we are healed.” As I suggested earlier, according to this design, every crack of the whip, every punch, every nail, every thorn is a record of humankind’s sins. I’ve also argued that I think The Passion takes a reductive view of Jesus that shows him to be more of a physical warrior than a spiritual one. (No wonder Cassidy recommends the movie to Randy “The Ram” in The Wrestler.) Beyond all of that, though, I think the violence eventually reaches a level where even Gibson’s aim is lost. The violence is so grotesque and stylized that, as you said, The Passion feels akin to a Saw film, at least for a while. Before Jesus can reach Golgotha, however, The Passion’s violence trends toward Looney Toons. It’s relentless and, while certainly not meant to make us laugh, it’s empty—so much so that by the time Jesus makes it onto the crucifix, the barrage of physical abuse makes it difficult to remember why he was carrying the cross on his shoulders in the first place. In these moments, The Passion is less like a tribute to Jesus than a condemnation of mankind.

Maybe it’s that way by design. The Passion is frequently eager to place blame, which is part of the reason that so many people come away from it feeling that it possesses an anti-Semitic streak; Gibson uses The Passion as a magnifying glass to reveal a multitude of Jewish fingerprints covering the handle of the proverbial smoking gun that killed Jesus. Such vilification of the Jews is considered unfashionable and beside the point by many Christians today, and yet it would be dishonest to imply that The Passion’s depictions aren’t, for the most part, backed up by some comparatively detailed passages of the New Testament. Then again, examination of The Passion’s treatment of the Jews shouldn’t be limited to its narrative details—paying Judas, bringing Jesus to Pontius Pilate, inciting the mob, etc. One should also consider the film’s cinematic compositions, in which the Jewish high priests are frequently bathed in shadow, or shown hunched over on their staffs in vulture-like poses while wearing sinister expressions reminiscent of Snideley Whiplash. The Jewish architects of Jesus’ torture and execution are unequivocally evil in this film, even if you don’t read the subtitles, and their villainy is reinforced by the unusually flattering portrayal of Pontius Pilate, who here seems to be a swell working man just trying to do his job (one of a few Romans in this film who match that description, actually). As usual, the hype and backlash surrounding the film’s release probably overstated the degree to which Gibson himself is responsible for these interpretations. Nevertheless, when the Jewish high priests are the only ones who come and go from Golgotha on undignified braying donkeys, the filmmaker seems to be making some less than flattering notes in the margin.

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EH: Yes, and they ride up expressly in order to leer at Jesus’ suffering, bouncing away on their donkeys only when they’re satisfied that he’s going to die. That said, it’d be easy to let Gibson off the hook for this stuff. The film’s narrative does follow the New Testament pretty closely, and even the exculpation of Pontius Pilate has its origins in a Bible verse, from the Gospel of John, that Gibson quotes in the film: “You could have no power at all against me, except it were given you from above: therefore he that delivered me to you has the greater sin.” That line is one source of the anti-Semitic tone of many Passion plays, because it suggests that while Pilate is more or less a lackey with little free will of his own, the Jewish leaders are the real bad guys of the story. To be fair, Gibson’s defenders have never failed to point out that he does include sympathetic Jews as well: Simon, who carries the cross for Jesus; the woman who wipes Jesus’ face after he falls; the few dissenting voices among the Sanhedrin who protest the show trial.

But this defense seems kind of hollow to me; it’s a “some of my best friends are Jews” defense. The film’s positive depictions of some Jews are ultimately more than overwhelmed by the “vulture-like” Jews who preside over Jesus’arrest and trial, who pretty much force Pilate, against his wishes, to sentence Jesus to death. It’s hard to know how much of this subtext Gibson intended, and how much he simply inherited, without critical thought, from the legacy of the Passion play, which has historically been a tool of virulent anti-Semitic propaganda for exactly the reasons we’re citing here. I doubt that Gibson was unaware of this history, and even if he didn’t intend for his villainous Sanhedrin to incite feelings of anti-Semitism, he was at the very least irresponsible in exploiting these ideas and caricatures in such a straight-faced way.

At the same time, it’s possible that the film isn’t even so much anti-Semitic as it is anti-humanist. I think you may be onto something when you describe the film’s effect as “a condemnation of mankind.” The Passion is a never-ending cavalcade of violence, but in many ways it is also a parade of despicable humans. There’s the foppish King Herod (Luca de Dominicis), an obvious gay caricature, accompanied by his court of debauchers. There are crowds of people, presumably mostly Jews roused by the Sanhedrin, shouting for Jesus’ death, even after Pilate hauls out a staggering, bloodied Jesus in an attempt to get the mob to say enough is enough. Gibson even occasionally highlights a member of the mob, and it’s invariably some grinning old lunatic with pointed, gap-filled teeth and a wild look in his eyes. Then there are the Roman soldiers, who whip Jesus with such delight as Jesus just gets bloodier and bloodier, and the blood spreads out in Pollockian smears beneath him. One walks away from this film thinking that everyone must be a sadist at heart.

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JB: He does seem to be making that suggestion, and the question is, “Why?” I see several possibilities: (1) Given that Jesus is an acted-upon figure within the film’s narrow scope, Gibson figures the best way to illustrate Jesus’ grace is to contrast his inert bloody pulp with the viciousness of those around him; (2) Gibson, ever mindful that he’s making a movie, shaves away any complexity in order to deliver a marketable “good guy vs. bad guys” product; (3) Gibson really does believe that, at least comparatively speaking, we’re all despicable and cruel. On that last point: Gibson’s one appearance in the film is as an anonymous Roman soldier who nails Jesus’ hands to the cross—a cameo that Tarantino might have done to be darkly cute, but that I suspect Gibson does as some kind of penance. Who knows?

As easy as I find it to dismiss so much of The Passion’s overblown grotesqueries (the blood) and brutalities (the punching, kicking, spitting and even yelling), I can’t deny that the torrent of cringe-inducing images has at least one positive effect: they instill the flashbacks to Jesus’ earlier life with a tranquil, magnanimous elegance. That’s significant because, as we noted, those flashbacks are just thumbnail sketches that cue one’s previous understanding of these events rather than fully developing them. Some of the flashbacks are unnecessary (Mary remembering when Jesus was being picked on as a child and she rushed to protect him) and others are downright curious (Jesus invented the modern table? Really?), but the intervention with the adulteress and the Last Supper are quite poignant despite being delivered to us without any kind of narrative buildup or warning. The work of cinematographer Caleb Deschanel on this picture doesn’t rival his efforts in The Black Stallion or The Natural, but his compositions are often striking. To go from the cold, bloody images of Jesus on the cross to the warm, glowing images of Jesus at the Last Supper is indeed to feel we are being wrapped in a heavenly blanket of light and love. It’s a familiar tableau— aesthetically and emotionally—but it does seem, yeah, holy. That’s a feeling that Scorsese’s picture never quite attains in full.

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EH: First off, I agree that the cinematography in The Passion is often striking. All that blood and gore gets numbing pretty quickly, but that doesn’t mean that certain images—like that overhead shot of the scene of the whipping, after Jesus has been dragged away and the ground is stained with splotchy red streaks like an abstract painting—aren’t compelling, even beautiful in a certain awful way. Gibson never maintains this aesthetic potency for very long, and the film has little else to offer, but I’ll take what I can get if I’m going to suffer through this monstrosity. That said, I don’t feel the holiness or warmth that you apparently do in those flashback scenes. To me, they seem like perfunctory references, and no matter how competently shot they are, there’s nothing there that suggests anything more than a nice shot.

I’d also disagree that Last Temptation never attains the holy aura that you apparently detect in Gibson’s flashbacks. Sure, Last Temptation doesn’t have the deadly serious, utterly respectful tone of The Passion, but in its own way, by mingling the sacred and the profane, it often attains edgy, unsettling heights of religious hysteria that Gibson’s film, for all its physical violence and suffering, is too staid, too conservative, to reach. Real religious devotion is not controlled, it’s John the Baptist’s followers screaming and dancing by the riverside, or Jesus being confronted with visions of Satan as a pair of talking snakes or a pillar of fire, or Jesus actually reaching into his chest and holding his heart out to his followers. Now that is real holy beauty, a haunting image that’s impossible to shake: Jesus fumbling around in his own chest, then slowly holding out his still beating, bloody heart as a sign of his impending sacrifice, his face lit up by this unearthly glow, as a harrowing expression plays across his features, as though he was looking at something beyond human perception. Gibson’s film occasionally achieves the feel of a stained glass window or an ancient religious painting, presenting this predigested idea of what it means to be “holy.” Scorsese’s film, in contrast, is all about holiness and spirituality as dangerous, vital concepts, a spirituality that genuinely transcends physicality.

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JB: I wouldn’t argue with any of that. By pointing out the “holy” aura of The Passion’s Last Supper flashback in particular, I was simply articulating the different emotions of the films. I wasn’t trying to judge them. Now, you felt no genuine emotional response, so I won’t try to talk you into it, but even though I agree that The Passion presents a “predigested idea of what it means to be holy,” there’s no doubt that some people—even nonbelievers like me—will recognize that aura and respond to it. In that way, The Passion is no different than a horror film preying on predigested fears of things that go bump in the night. I’ll leave it up to you as to whether that’s a compliment or an insult or neither. In contrast to The Passion, what I admire about Last Temptation is the way it explores the humanness of Jesus, but as a consequence of that approach his godliness is almost unconvincing, even when he does converse with a snake or a lion, even when he does pull his heart from his chest. This isn’t to imply that The Passion does a spectacular job of creating Jesus’ holiness from scratch, because it doesn’t. But does it need to? We all expect Jesus to have a certain holiness, just as we expect a snake or a chainsaw-wielding dude in a hockey mask to be dangerous.

On that note, part of what makes Last Temptation compelling is that it defies our expectations. In the film, Jesus’ most spectacular act—beyond taking his heart out of his body, which is an undeniably nifty party trick—is the raising of Lazarus from death after rotting in a tomb for four days. More than any other scene, this one shows a Jesus who seems equal parts man and miracle-worker. Dafoe acts out the scene with an awesome combination of assured determination and “This had better work” doubt. It’s Last Temptation’s version of the ubiquitous moment in every superhero movie when the once seemingly ordinary man, having seen flashes of his power, now fully commits to testing them—jumping off a building or some such thing. It’s a powerful scene, and that 50 percent of doubt in Dafoe’s portrayal is 50 percent more than we find in most dramatizations of Jesus, in which the character uses his powers precisely because he knows he’s wrapped in a holy aura. Interestingly, perhaps the only scene in Last Temptation in which Jesus appears to have complete confidence in his own Midas touch, when he performs the miracle of turning water into wine, is a scene in which Dafoe plays Jesus as if he’s somewhat crazed. In Scorsese’s film, this miracle has no grand act, no performance, no ritual; Jesus just insists that there is wine in jugs thought to contain water, and he’s proven right. Scorsese leaves open the possibility that this wasn’t a true miracle, but was pure coincidence—one guy making a mistake and Jesus fooling himself into thinking he’s more powerful than he really is.

My point is that in too many Jesus yarns the only thing human about Jesus is his body and his (kinda-sorta) human death. Scorsese’s film doesn’t settle for this. His film operates with the idea that if Jesus was really entirely man and entirely God at the same time, Jesus must be allowed to be fully human. Last Temptation succeeds in this respect, but I think at the expense of conveying that Jesus is fully holy. This isn’t a putdown of the film by any stretch. It’s just an observation. And maybe it simply underlines how difficult (impossible?) it is to make Jesus fully human without making him feel less-than-divine at the same time.

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EH: What you’re getting at is a paradox akin to the one-God-in-three-persons paradox, the kind of thing that tends to tie those who don’t believe—and even many of those who do—into inescapably complex knots. I’d even venture a somewhat tongue-in-cheek guess that such thorny problems are the whole reason we have organized religions in the first place: if everyone could understand this stuff themselves, what would the priests do? So of course Jesus is both fully human and fully divine, and of course the three beings of the Holy Trinity are actually all the same, singular entity; what would religion be without its irresolvable paradoxes? The idea that Jesus is simultaneously the son of God, and God himself, and also a human, is one that’s hard enough to wrap one’s head around in the abstract, let alone trying to convey the idea through a film. So it’s perhaps understandable that The Passion leans towards Jesus as holy (albeit while also, ironically, emphasizing his physical torment) and Last Temptation leans towards Jesus as human, even fallible and uncertain.

In fact, nowhere does Jesus seem more human, less divine, than in the film’s lengthy climactic diversion into an alternate reality, or vision, in which Jesus, tempted by the Devil posing as a young angel (Juliette Caton), gives up his place on the cross in order to have a natural, human life. This is, understandably, the film’s most controversial segment, the part of the film that possibly elicited even more protest from Christians than the nudity or the smaller irreverent touches. It’s not hard to see why, either, even if many of the film’s most virulent opponents hadn’t even seen it before protesting: the whole idea of Jesus not only being tempted not to die on the cross but actually giving in to this temptation right up until the very last second, is obviously a shock to the system for devout Christians.

In this sequence, Jesus marries Mary Magdalene, and then, when she dies, at the urging of his little guardian angel he moves on to another woman, Lazarus’ sister, and marries her as well. He has a family, and begins to grow old, raising his children and enjoying a quiet, simple life. It is only on his deathbed, when he is confronted by his also-aged apostles, including an angry, bitter Judas, that Jesus finally realizes how important his sacrifice is, and he gives up this other life to return to the cross. It’s no surprise that this was controversial, but from a certain perspective it actually makes Jesus’ sacrifice even more potent, even more poignant and special, than Gibson’s far bloodier vision of the crucifixion. In Last Temptation, Jesus gives up the life that his human side wants so badly—the earthly love, the family, the natural death of an old man surrounded by his loved ones—and ultimately embraces the fate that God has in store for him instead. It is such a powerful depiction of doing God’s will precisely because Jesus has such a strong desire for another fate, another life: his sacrifice is more meaningful because he’s giving up something he wants so intensely that he very nearly makes the wrong choice.

When he does return to the cross at the finale, he has really earned the beatific, enraptured smile on his face as he triumphantly exclaims, “It is accomplished!” Gibson has stated that he wanted The Passion to remind people of how great Jesus’ sacrifice was, but it’s the final moments of Last Temptation that make me feel that most powerfully. All Gibson can offer as evidence of Jesus’ sacrifice is the physical torment he endured; Scorsese and Kazantzakis make Jesus’ sacrifice far more profound than mere corporeal suffering. They also make it more joyful, which is appropriate. If Jesus died to save the world, to cleanse the sins of humans, then why is Gibson’s film so dour, so completely lacking in the holy joy that washes across Dafoe’s face when he finally accepts his fate?

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JB: I have no satisfying answer for your last question, but I’m glad you brought up the “alternate reality” sequence at the end of Last Temptation. Much earlier in this conversation we were talking about the scene in which the crow pecks out the eye of one of the criminals on the cross next to Jesus and I said that Gibson was simply illustrating the damnation that the Bible implies. I said Gibson was “calling a spade a spade” and that Scorsese does the same. Well, this is the sequence I was referring to with that statement. What’s so compelling about that almost Lynchian closing portion of Last Temptation isn’t just how close Jesus is to giving up on his mission but what he’s considering giving up his mission for: mostly the chance to be intimate with women. To be perfectly clear here, I really mean “intimate.“Jesus wants sex, yes, but more than just that; he wants companionship, too. And he wants this intimacy even if it means ignoring the limitations of monogamy.

Now, if you look at the world around us and think of the daily temptations most of us face, this seems absolutely normal. Who among us can’t identify with those urges? But on screen it’s absolutely shocking. There’s something taboo about associating Jesus with any kind of sexuality, and so it’s easy to understand why believers would feel offended at this playboy version. At worst, the portrayal in Last Temptation seems like intentional blasphemy. In the least it seems like uncouthness, akin to swearing around grandma. Once one gets over the shock and sees how the narrative is resolved, however, it becomes clear (at least to me) that this alternate reality sequence doesn’t insult or cheapen Jesus in the slightest. In fact, it exalts him.

Because, truly, what is his sacrifice worth if he is without earthly desires? The more Jesus wants something that he could only have as man (and rarely does one hear about spirits knocking boots in the afterlife), the more honorable his sacrifice becomes. The traditional way to dramatize Jesus’ temptation is to suggest that he’s turning down material wealth and/or some kind of leadership role in Satan’s army. But is that really more attractive than ascending to Heaven to judge the living and the dead while seated at the right hand of the Father? Kind of a lateral move, if you ask me. Scorsese’s film ignores temptations of power and tries to consider what human life could offer that heavenly life couldn’t. Sexual and romantic intimacy—those very human and sometimes sinful urges—would seem to be high up on that list, would they not? So, yes, what Jesus accomplishes in Gibson’s film is little more than the Timex test: he takes a licking and keeps on ticking. In Scorsese’s film, however, when Jesus says “It is accomplished,” he has really considered his options, allowed himself to contemplate the life he could have had. Thus, he’s really been tempted. His sacrifice is of more than just his body.

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EH: That’s exactly what I was getting at. What I really appreciate about Scorsese’s film is the seriousness with which it approaches theological issues. It’s not merely a visualization of Jesus’ life and death, it’s an exploration of the roots of spirituality, the meaning of religious ideas, and the disagreements and differing interpretations that create schisms between religions. One subtext in the film is the idea that religious messages are almost always misunderstood, twisted for other purposes by people who either genuinely miss the real meaning or who see spiritual matters as a means to worldly advancement. Right from the start, from the very first time he speaks, Jesus’ messages provoke reactions that run directly counter to his intentions. After delivering a sermon about love and humility, Jesus is dismayed that people are running off angrily, vowing to kill the rich and start riots; “not death… I said love!” Jesus shouts after them, but it’s no use. People will hear what they want to hear, and will take any given message, any text, as a confirmation of whatever it is they already believe. How else can those who claim to love the Bible and its message conclude that Jesus—who spends much of the New Testament preaching against presumptuous human judgment and advocating forgiveness and love—“hates fags?” Last Temptation shows a Jesus who’s very much fed up with his followers’ selective hearing, with their willingness to pick and choose the bits of his teaching that will enforce their own agendas, ignoring those ideas that might be harder to embrace.

Even Judas is guilty of this, though Scorsese portrays him as the one character in the film who’s at least trying to understand what Jesus is saying. Indeed, the spiritual debate between Judas and Jesus is central to the film, and revolves around one of the basic precepts of theology: whether the world is rooted in the spirit or the flesh. Jesus, of course, insists that “the foundation is the soul” while Judas counters that “the foundation is the body.” Judas’ argument centers on politics and worldly concerns; he insists that people cannot properly attend to spiritual matters if their bodies are being oppressed, if they are subjected to unfair conditions in the world. Jesus presents the other side of the coin, the idea that the spirit is what really matters. The film comes down on Jesus’ side—how could it not?—but what I think is interesting is that it brings up the debate in the first place. It’s so refreshing to watch a film that treats religion so seriously, not just taking its basic assumptions as given but really questioning and engaging with everything from the ground up. It doesn’t get any more basic, in terms of religion, than the body/spirit divide, so it’s telling that Scorsese assigns the two halves of that dichotomy to the film’s two central characters.

Christ

JB: That’s quite right. Last Temptation doesn’t assume anything. In fact, it suggests that true belief and devotion come only through painful soul-searching—from having doubt and exploring that doubt. Earlier you mentioned the great scene at the cliff in which Jesus says he feels like God wants to push him over the edge, and my favorite scene in Last Temptation has a similar theme. It’s the one in which Scorsese captures Jesus from above as a he carves a circle around himself to wait for God’s word. The perfection of that big circle suggests godliness, but Jesus’ words defy that. “I’m not going to leave here until you speak to me,” he says. “No signs. No pain. Just speak to me in human words.” Even Jesus struggles with his faith, and in that scene he’s desperate for clarity—not because he wants righteousness or to avoid Hell but because he genuinely wants to do God’s will and he’s keenly aware of how easy it would be to do wrong in God’s name.

Just before this scene, John the Baptist sends Jesus into the desert with these words: “Be careful. God isn’t the only one out there.” The message seems to be that in order to find God, one must open up their heart and mind for doubt, must consider the alternatives. Blind faith, at least by one interpretation of the phrase, isn’t faith at all. On that note, when Jesus yells, “It is accomplished!” at the end of The Passion, it’s a triumph for God. In Last Temptation, however, the words are personal. Dafoe’s Jesus has had his faith tested repeatedly and only through that process has found complete belief. After a lifetime of longing for inner peace, he has finally arrived. I make this observation without judgment, fully aware that some believers must be particularly moved by the celebration of God’s triumph; and The Passion accomplishes that. But the more I think about these films, the more it seems to me that the key difference between them is this: To watch The Passion is to see Jesus. To watch Last Temptation is to know Jesus—within the film, that is.

Christ

EH: Your last lines remind me of the story of Thomas the apostle who, when Jesus returned from the dead, famously doubted the reality of what he was seeing, who needed to actually put his hands inside Jesus’ wounds before he believed the truth of the resurrection. The Passion seems to have been made for just such believers. It seems to have been made for the doubting Thomases who feel that to see is to believe, and that the physical reality of Jesus’ death and resurrection is what truly matters about this story. Last Temptation, of course, similarly makes Jesus tangible—that’s the nature of a movie, or any other visual representation—but the essence of the film is internal, introspective, rather than exterior and physical. That’s why Last Temptation seems so much more in touch with the depths of spirituality and belief—it’s not afraid to ask questions, to diverge from commonly accepted precepts, to engage with what it actually means to have faith. If The Passion limits itself to what can be seen and felt, to the worldly suffering of Jesus, Last Temptation digs down to a much deeper level, reaching towards the very roots of religious feeling.

Jason Bellamy ruminates on cinema at The Cooler. Follow his updates on Twitter.

Ed Howard chronicles his film viewing at Only the Cinema.

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Jeonju IFF 2019: Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, L. Cohen, & Introduzione all’oscuro

These are three enigmatic, challenging, and weird works of art by filmmakers pushing at the boundaries of the cinematic form.

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Coincoin and the Extra-Humans

Shortly after arriving in Jeonju, the mid-sized Korean city about 200 kilometers south of Seoul that serves as the site of the Jeonju International Film Festival, I pulled my bedraggled, jet-lagged body over to the guest center to pick up my press credentials. As I made my way through the carnivalesque open-air city block known as Jeonju Cinema Town, I found myself, to my surprise, in the midst of a rather peculiar, almost surreal scenario as a bunch of white- and black-suited stormtroopers marched in lockstep toward me, weapons at the ready, flanking none other than the Grand Imperial Poobah himself, Darth Vader.

The group maneuvered around me without incident, eager to pose for selfies with the crowd of locals assembled in the area, but after over 20 hours of travel, the encounter took on a vaguely sinister air, as if the forces of Hollywood monoculture had been dispatched to this relatively remote cinephile retreat to ensure that no one here got the wrong idea: Have fun with your cute little art films, but remember who really wields the power in the world of cinema.

I suppose these are the sorts of strange inclinations that strike you when your body’s circadian rhythms have been shaken up like a snow globe, but, despite the presence of the Walt Disney Company as one of the festival’s premier sponsors, the films I saw—personal, challenging, at times exhilarating work from all across the world—couldn’t have seemed further away from the market-tested franchises that clog American cineplexes. Having said that, it’s with some irony that one of the first films I took in at Jeonju IFF was in fact a sequel—albeit one whose eccentric sense of humor and repetitive, unresolved narrative mean it’s never going to be mistaken for the latest from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The sequel in question is Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, Bruno Dumont’s follow-up to Li’l Quinquin. One of the great left turns in the history of auteurism, Dumont’s 2014 miniseries signaled his transition from austere Bressonian miserablism to a singular brand of deadpan grotesquerie that gleefully explodes the thin line between the clever and the stupid. Dumont doesn’t vary his style too much for the sequel, as it’s another bizarre sunlit mystery set in the windswept countryside of Dumont’s native Nord-Pas-de-Calais. And Dumont has reassembled the same cast of non-professional local oddballs led by Bernard Pruvost as Commandant Van der Weyden, a twitchy, hapless police detective investigating matters way beyond his depths.

Dumont, though, still finds ways to mess with his audience’s expectations, starting with the baffling and completely inexplicable change of the title character’s name. If the earlier film felt like Dumont’s riff on popular international crime dramas like Broadchurch and The Killing, Coincoin turns out to be his spin on The X-Files, a sci-fi pod-people procedural featuring a mysterious black goo from outer space that inhabits its victims and forces them to give birth to their own uncanny clones. Like many stories about body-snatching, the series is a satire—here on provincial racism, the poor treatment of African migrants, and the rise of the French far right—but Dumont isn’t simply interested in topical point-scoring against Marine Le Pen, the anti-immigrant politician who represents Nord-Pas-de-Calais.

Rather, with its ambling, directionless narrative and lackadaisical long shots that perversely undercut the screenplay’s gags, Coincoin evokes a deep-rooted spirit of reactionary malaise, of people whose lives are hopelessly circumscribed by their own fears and prejudices. Dumont rigorously resists developing his plot or deepening his characters: They’re all trapped in an absurd loop, doomed to endlessly say the same things and reenact the same jokes.

Van der Weyden sums up that mentality in a single line: “Progress isn’t inevitable.” There’s a group of black men who periodically appear throughout the film only to be consistently and summarily dismissed in a fit of racist panic. Each time, we expect the film to create some meaningful interaction between the white townsfolk and these migrants, and each time we’re rebuffed—that is, until a final musical explosion of kumbaya-like camaraderie that’s somehow goofy, moving, tedious, and invigorating all at the same time.

Dumont is one of the few artists in cinema willing to risk exhausting his audience to induce a particular effect, but he’s not the only one, as demonstrated by James Benning’s L. Cohen, a 45-minute static shot of a seemingly unremarkable field with a mountain visible in the distance. It’s an elegantly composed frame, reminiscent of an American Regionalist painting and whose centrally located peak perhaps coyly refers to the Paramount logo.

After 20 minutes, even the most hardened cinephiles are bound to be squirming in their seat, at which point Benning reveals his remarkable trump card: As the sky quickly darkens and blackness falls over the Earth, we realize that we’ve been watching the leadup to a total solar eclipse. It’s a moment of quiet astonishment and confusion for anyone who doesn’t know it’s coming, bringing us close to the feeling a caveman might’ve had when the same event occurred. With typical mathematical precision, Benning has placed the eclipse at the exact center of the film, allowing us to explore the subtle shadows that precede and follow it.

The film, however, isn’t just some academic structuralist exercise, as it’s also a meditation on death, a fact highlighted by the next startling moment: the inclusion of Leonard Cohen’s “Love Itself” on the soundtrack, a stark divergence from the ominous drone (identified by Benning during his festival Q&A as the hum of airplanes flying overhead) that fills the rest of the film. This song and the dedication of the film to the recently deceased Cohen add a deeper layer of meaning to Benning’s precisely calibrated study of light and time.

L. Cohen is in essence a meditation on temporality. All things are fleeting, even grand interplanetary ballets. Considering the brief alignment of these celestial bodies puts one in a cosmic mood and calls to mind a cryptic, haunting line from a different Cohen song, “Stories of the Street”: “We are so small between the stars, so large against the sky.”

One could also find the specter of death looming over Introduzione all’oscuro, an expressionistic tribute to director Gastón Solnicki’s good friend, Hans Hurch, the recently departed director of the Viennale, the Vienna International Film Festival. Described by the director not as a film about Hurch, but a film for him, Introduzione all’oscuro dispenses with biography entirely, instead evoking its subject’s buoyant, ragtag spirit in an almost subliminal fashion: through music, film, and the city of Vienna. Hurch “appears” in the film primarily through his letters and through his voice, recorded by Solnicki when he provided notes on one of the director’s previous films. Solnicki does appear on screen: a comically lonely figure visiting some of Hurch’s favorite Viennese haunts—such as the Café Engländer, from which he would periodically steal cups—on a journey that drolly recalls Holly Martins’s investigation into the apparent death of his pal Harry Lime in The Third Man.

Like Solnicki’s Kékszakállú before it, Introduzione all’oscuro is what might be called “slideshow cinema”—a procession of taut, piquant compositions whose relationship to one another isn’t precisely clear but which, when taken together, create an indelible impression of a highly specific milieu. Structured more like a piece of avant-garde music than a narrative work or traditional documentary, the film has a hypnotic yet often dissonant allure. It pulls us into a strange liminal zone where Hurch seems to be simultaneously present and absent, haunting the film like a benevolent spirit. Solnicki simply has one of the best eyes in cinema today, and it’s the pungency of his images which makes the film such an endlessly compelling experience, even when the reasons behind Solnicki’s individual choices remain obscure.

Abstruseness, though, is no crime. In fact, the greatest pleasures of Jeonju IFF were to be found in grappling with “difficult” films such as Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, L. Cohen, and Introduzione all’oscuro: enigmatic, challenging, and even downright weird works of art made by filmmakers pushing at the boundaries of the cinematic form.

The Jeonju International Film Festival ran from May 2—11.

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Review: As Teen Comedy, Booksmart Is Sweet and Nasty in Fine Balance

It’s an R-rated teen comedy that proves that you can center girls’ experiences without sacrificing grossness.

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Booksmart
Photo: Annapurna Pictures

An uncharitable way of describing Olivia Wilde’s feature directorial debut, Booksmart, is as a gender-flipped version of Superbad. Like Greg Mottola’s 2007 film, it concerns a pair of best friends who’ve spent their high school years as outsiders but, at the end of their senior year, decide to attend the biggest, coolest graduation party imaginable. As in Superbad, getting to the party devolves into an almost picaresque gauntlet through suburban nightlife, consisting of comical encounters with outlandish characters (both films even feature a “creepy car guy”). Booksmart and Superbad also share a ribald, R-rated sense of humor and a sex scene interrupted by vomit—even the same casting director (the venerable Allison Jones).

For all that, Wilde’s film is less a derivative of Mottola’s teen comedy than a corrective to it. Its exaggerated universe is less mean-spirited than the one depicted in Superbad, where so much of the humor depended on Jonah Hill loudly proclaiming his character’s misogyny. Booksmart isn’t above getting laughs from sex jokes that land somewhere between honest and outrageous—there’s a recurring bit about Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) masturbating with her stuffed panda doll—but it does show that teenage conversations about sex can be funny without being demeaning. And its belief in its main characters as more than just stand-ins for the most distorted beliefs that virginal high schoolers have about sex gives the film a fuller, more satisfying arc.

Amy and her best friend, Molly (Beanie Feldstein), are their elite Valley High School’s A-type-personality do-gooders, well-meaning in their ambition and their wokeness, but with streaks of haughtiness and self-righteousness. Beanie is class president, the kind of kid who pushes the school principal (Jason Sudeikis) to arrange a budget meeting with the juniors on the last day of class. In contrast to the brashly assertive Molly, Amy is meek, barely able to eke out syllables when talking to her crush, Ryan (Victoria Ruesga), but she’s also intensely woke, adorning her denim jacket with feminist-slogan patches and her car with “Elizabeth Warren 2020” bumper stickers. The pair are so close that they’re often mistaken for being a couple (Amy has been out since the 10th grade), and they definitely don’t party.

As school is letting out, Molly discovers that her and Amy’s monk-like approach to high school life has been for naught. Although the two pride themselves on respectively getting into Yale and Columbia, it seems that virtually all of their classmates have a similarly propitious future lined up. Even the horny goofball Theo (Eduardo Franco), who repeated seventh grade three times, was recruited for a six-figure job with Google. Molly adopts partying as her new project, dragging the reluctant Amy, all the more anxious because Ryan will be at the party, along with her. The problem is that, not being a part of their school’s social scene, they have no idea where the party actually is, and limited means of figuring it out.

The obliviously indefatigable Molly is a star-making role for Feldstein, who keeps let her highly dynamic character—Molly can be both very rigid and very foolhardy—from feeling inconsistent, or leading to broad caricature. As the quieter Amy, Devers’s role is mostly reactive, but, in the tumultuous climax, she supplies the film’s most poignant and relatable moments. As the omnipresent Gigi, a troubled party girl who inexplicably appears at each of the girls’ wayward stops on their journey to the party, Billie Lourd channels a chaotic energy, becoming the film’s strung-out jester. Lourd is just part of an altogether impressive ensemble that also includes Jessica Williams as the teacher who loves Amy and Molly perhaps a bit too much, and Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow as Amy’s super-Christian, super-supportive parents.

For the most part sharply written, and tighter and more consistently funny than the fragmented improv-style Superbad, Booksmart nevertheless has a couple of stretches that don’t quite land. There’s a claymated ayahuasca-tripping sequence that neither suits the rest of the film nor is followed up on in any way by the narrative. And the film’s conclusion is more than a little formally messy, with Wilde relying on a too-rapid succession of non-diegetic pop songs as emotional accents and to fast-forward the plot—at one crucial moment even drowning out the dialogue. But despite these small missteps, Booksmart feels like an innovation, an R-rated teen comedy that proves that you can center girls’ experiences without sacrificing grossness, and that you can be gross without being too mean.

Cast: Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, Jessica Williams, Jason Sudeikis, Billie Lourd, Diana Silvers, Mason Gooding, Skyler Gisondo, Noah Galvin, Eduardo Franco, Lisa Kudrow, Will Forte, Mike O’Brien Director: Olivia Wilde Screenwriter: Olivia Wilde Katie Silberman, Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins Distributor: Annapurna Pictures Running Time: 102 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Terminator: Dark Fate Official Trailer: Going Back to the Well with Sarah Connor

Linda Hamilton at least makes a killer impression as Sarah visits fiery justice upon Gabriel Luna’s terminator.

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Terminator: Dark Fate
Photo: Paramount Pictures

Today, Paramount dropped the trailer for the sixth entry in the Terminator series, Terminator: Dark Fate, which promises to deliver…more of the same? With this film, Deadpool director Tim Miller aims to give the series a reboot: by pretending that none of the films that came after Terminator 2: Judgement Day ever existed (sorry, Rise of the Machines fans), maybe even Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. “Welcome to the day after judgment day,” reads the poster, promising the badass return of Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor. And on that front, the film looks to deliver, as Hamilton certainly makes a killer impression as Sarah visits fiery justice upon Gabriel Luna’s terminator.

But based on everything else that’s on display throughout the trailer, we’re worried that there’s not anything new that a film in this series stands to bring to the table besides running and gunning, with the occasional wink thrown in for good measure. Cast in point: Mackenzie Davis stars as Grace, an “enhanced human” who looks to fill the hanger-on role to Connor that Edward Furlong’s John Connor did to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800, now apparently living in woodsy retirement, and at the ready to give sage advice. In short, we’re not impressed, and that also holds true of that cover of Björk’s “Hunter” by some zombie man singer.

Watch the official trailer below:

Paramount Pictures will release Terminator Dark Fate on November 1.

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Review: Woodstock Offers a New Look at the Three Days that Defined a Generation

Throughout, the era-defining yet problem-plagued music festival astounds in large part for all the disasters that didn’t occur.

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Woodstock: Three Days that Defined a Generation
Photo: PBS Distribution

According to Woodstock: Three Days that Defined a Generation, the 1969 Woodstock festival seemed fated to fail. But a rare convergence of good luck, good intentions, and good vibes somehow snapped into place and crystallized over a few days in August the aspirations of a counterculture about to hit its peak. The festival’s planners, mostly promoters and music-industry pros, talk off-camera throughout this gloriously gleeful documentary about their somewhat spur-of-the-moment concept in a purposefully overlapping mosaic that makes it difficult to determine who’s saying what. Their original idea was simply a big concert that would celebrate the opening of a recording studio in the bucolic artist community of Woodstock, NY and take advantage of the musicians living nearby.

That conceit ballooned into a sprawling three-day cultural amoeba of feel-good psychedelia billed as “An Aquarian Exposition” to be held in a bucolic setting. It would ideally seem, according to one organizer, “like visiting another world.” Creating that gateway to paradise, however, hit one snag after another. Conservative fears about an invasion of hippies led to much anger among locals and triggered permitting issues. Original desired stars like Bob Dylan, the Doors, and the Rolling Stones all passed on the vent. Months’ worth of construction at the original site in Wallkill, NY had to be scrapped at the last minute.

But Woodstock shows also how both lucky circumstances and in-depth planning saved the day. The lineup swelled with a killer roster of acts whom David Crosby defines simply as “everybody we thought was cool”: Jimi Hendrix, the Who, Sly and the Family Stone, Santana, Creedence Clearwater, Janis Joplin, and so on. According to writer Bob Spitz, interest grew as the organizers put the word out through the underground press, and though their top estimates of attendance topped out at 150,000, the eventual total was closer to a potentially unmanageable 400,000. Seemingly foolhardy ideas like hiring Wavy Gravy’s Hog Farm commune to handle what they termed “security” and what Wavy defined as trying to “spread grooviness,” helped the increasingly massive enterprise maintain an appealingly mellow tone. Then, a Republican dairy farmer named Max Yasgur, who just happened to have a visually gorgeous sweep of land shaped like a natural amphitheater, agreed to host the festival.

Just about everyone interviewed in Barak Goodman and Jamilia Ephron’s documentary still marvels a half-century on at the scope and tranquility of what happened, though the potential for disaster provides some dramatic grit to the narrative. Much of the festival’s harmoniousnes was a result of on-the-spot empathetic resourcefulness, from Hog Farm’s thrown-together Sunday-morning “breakfast in bed” and “freak-out” tents for people on bad acid trips to the previously resentful locals who spontaneously emptied their pantries to feed the long-haired kids who had been tromping through their front yards. The crowds were soothed by the reassuring voice of the festival announcer, whose “we”-focused addresses over the PA system strengthened the communal spirit, which is then echoed in the film’s starry-eyed reminiscences of interviewees who all sound as though they wish they could go back.

Woodstock cannot hope to supplant Michael Wadleigh’s more symphonic and experiential 1970 documentary. But conversely, its tighter, narrower focus on narrative and context ultimately tells a bigger story at roughly half the length. Co-director Goodman has shown in some of his darker work for PBS’s American Experience, like his episode about the Oklahoma City bombing, a knack for building suspense. He deploys that skill here marvelously when showing the sea of humanity converging on Yasgur’s farm, balancing a fear of impending disaster (short supplies, last-minute glitches, a crowd many times larger than the highest estimates) with the dawning realization that things might just work out.

That tightrope-walking drama is maintained through the actual concert portion of the movie. The musical highs, Hendrix’s squalling “Star-Spangled Banner” and Richie Haven’s raucous two-hour jam (filling the gap while helicopters ferried musicians in over the blocked roads), play out while the vast crowd contends with food shortages and an unexpected rainstorm. But even though the attendees rushed past the mostly unbuilt fencing and by default created what organizer John Roberts here terms “the world’s greatest three-day freebie,” he and his partners appear now happier about the instant community that metamorphosed in the mud than the fact that as a business venture the concert was “in deep shit.”

Woodstock hits many of the expected notes about the concert’s place in the nation’s cultural history. But it’s refreshingly less self-satisfied than awestruck at the simple beauty of what happened at the Woodstock festival and the utopian example it provided to the world. Though unmentioned here, the disastrous music festival that occurred four months later at Altamont Speedway, in the hills of Northern California’s East Bay, where the organizers’ callous indifference to advance planning led to chaos and multiple deaths, shows just how rare the event that occurred in Bethel across three days back in August ‘69 remains to this day.

Director: Barak Goodman, Jamila Ephron Distributor: PBS Distribution Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir Is a Knotty Trip Down Memory Lane

Its stylistic fluctuations are a sign of a filmmaker really wrestling with how she became the woman and artist she is today.

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The Souvenir
Photo: A24

True to the mission of its protagonist, a well-meaning student filmmaker working on a thesis feature about a community foreign to her, writer-director Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir is engaged in a running dialogue with itself around the notion of how—and how not—to make a personal narrative. Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) is a London-based, upper-middle-class young woman coming of age in Margaret Thatcher’s England who feels a moral imperative to transpose her own experiences onto a fictional story set in working-class Sunderland, and she’s given ongoing opportunities in her film workshops to try to articulate why that is. Hogg, who based the character on her own early experiences as an artist, views Julie’s trajectory tenderly but through the lens of a greater maturity, dotting the young woman’s path with interlocutors who challenge and redirect her inclinations. Gradually, Julie’s certitude seems to fall out from under her, transforming Hogg’s film in the process.

Pivotal among these forces is Anthony (Tom Burke), a spectacularly smug older man with ambiguous professional and personal affiliations who becomes inexorably drawn to Julie, and she to him. When he first appears on screen across a table from Julie at a café, Hogg frames the scene in the kind of spacious, sophisticated master shot that defined her 2013 film Exhibition, snapping The Souvenir out of the close-up-heavy, fly-on-the-wall aesthetic with which it opens. The shift in style registers the exhilarating impact Anthony has on Julie, who is up to that point seen as a wallflower at college parties, taking photos and rolling a Bolex in the corner while bouncing in and out of conversations. Sizing up Julie’s film project with suave dismissiveness, Anthony suggests that she might heed the influence of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who were able to express personal emotions free of the constraints of realism, and later proposes that “it’s not enough to be sincere or authentic.”

Julie takes such counseling in stride even when it comes from her casually condescending professors (also men), giving her a headstrong resilience that Swinton-Byrne beautifully underplays. But Julie’s toughness doesn’t equate to stubborn pride, and soon The Souvenir turns away from its portrait of early filmmaking ambition and toward the knotty dynamics of Anthony and Julie’s strengthening relationship—itself modeled off a fling in Hogg’s past. The director orchestrates this formal shapeshift with sly subtlety, first introducing the couple’s scenes together as elliptical diversions from the central storyline, then gradually lengthening them until the sequences set in and around Julie’s film school take a backseat entirely. Now sharing an apartment, Anthony and Julie go through the growing pains of coexistence—the former posits a “Wall of Jericho” made of pillows in a reference to It Happened One Night to solve his discomfort in bed—but nonetheless find a strange harmony in their dissonant personalities, with his brutal honesty charming her and her placidity disarming him.

In Anthony’s case, however, this apparent personality yardstick proves misleading, as it turns out that he’s frank about everything but his own life. Talk of a vague government job creates an impression of a posh background belied by Anthony and Julie’s trip to visit his parents, and later, an offhand remark made by one of Anthony’s friends when he’s in the bathroom yields the startling revelation—cued by spatially disorienting mirror shots and the gentle use of Dutch angles—that Julie’s boyfriend is a heroin addict. Hogg omits the scene where Julie confronts Anthony about this revelation, but the mark it leaves on their relationship is implicitly, delicately apparent in every part of The Souvenir moving forward. The neatly organized, white-walled apartment where much of the action takes place becomes charged with tension, not only from the threat of dissident bombing that percolates outside its windows (a reality contemporaneous to the film’s early-‘80s setting), but also from Anthony’s frequent, unexplained comings and goings, which starkly contrast Julie’s more fixed physicality as she spends her time hunched over a typewriter.

The Souvenir flirts with a few conventional movie premises—the doomed romance, the spiral into the hell of drug addiction, the pursuit of self-actualization—without ever fully engaging one, which doesn’t indicate an uncertainty on Hogg’s part so much as a supreme confidence in the intricacies of her own material. Likely to some viewers’ dismay, Julie’s story isn’t one that ever comes to hinge on an a-ha moment, a sudden realization that she’s strayed from her artistic passion in her entanglement with a toxic partner. Rather, Hogg evokes both the seductive appeal of an irrational romance and the less sexy but nonetheless potent comfort of falling into the role of nurturer, a discipline shown in a few touching scenes to be inherited by Julie from her mother (Tilda Swinton). What’s more, it can’t be said that Anthony’s influence is purely deleterious, as his bouts of real vulnerability, carried off with a persuasive display of wounded pride by Burke, repeatedly push Julie toward greater sensitivity and awareness.

Perhaps ambivalent herself to Anthony’s recommendation that Julie seek inspiration from Powell and Pressburger’s work, Hogg shoots in a grainy, underlit 16mm palette that has less to do with period fetishism than with draining the sparkle from Julie’s privileged upbringing. The Souvenir is shot from a measured distance, often with the camera in rooms adjacent to the actors so that walls and other objects populate the foreground, and the resulting sense is of being simultaneously immersed in the spaces of Hogg’s early adulthood and at an intellectual remove from them, a fusion seemingly reflective of the director’s own mixed emotions in revisiting this story. In this case, however, that quality of fluctuation isn’t a deficiency but a virtue, a sign of a filmmaker really wrestling with how she became the woman and artist she is today, and the mark of a film that’s beholden to no recipe but its own.

Cast: Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton, Jack McMullen, Frankie Wilson, Richard Ayoade, Jaygann Ayeh Director: Joanna Hogg Screenwriter: Joanna Hogg Distributor: A24 Running Time: 119 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Aladdin Is a Magic Corporate Ride to Nowhere Special

Guy Ritchie’s live-action remake is content to trace the original’s narrative beats with perfunctory indifference.

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Aladdin
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Compared to a few other recent live-action remakes of Disney’s animated films, which at least attempted to bring striking story wrinkles or an auteurist perspective to bear on their interpretations, Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin is a remake in the most literal sense. Much of the film’s first act traces the narrative beats of the 1992 animated feature, and in shot-for-shot fashion: Thieving street rat Aladdin (Mena Massoud) meets and charms the princess of his native Agrabah, Jasmine (Naomi Scott), and ultimately runs afoul of scheming grand vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), before obtaining a magic lamp containing a genie (Will Smith) who has the power to transform the young pauper into a prince worthy of Jasmine’s station.

The steadfastness with which every aspect of the original is replicated by this new Aladdin makes Ritchie’s film a grueling example of the streaming-era notion of art as content. Because there’s no chemistry between Massoud and Scott, the legitimacy of Aladdin and Jasmine’s flirtations is largely sold on the basis of the viewer’s preexisting knowledge that these two will become a couple. Elsewhere, the relationship between Jafar and the Sultan (Navid Negahban) is an even paler imitation. In the original, Jafar’s viciousness was at least partially driven by his hatred of the Sultan, who issued inane commands to his grand vizier in all sorts of parodically infantile and buffoonish of ways. Here, though, the Sultan is a negligible figure, neither callous nor especially influential, thus robbing his subordinate of a compelling motive. The Jafar of this film is evil simply because he’s been designated as the story’s big bad.

If the dogged faithfulness of Ritchie’s film to the original proves consistently stultifying, it’s the most noticeable deviations that ultimately damn the remake. In an attempt to give Jasmine something to do other than be the object of men’s affections, Ritchie and co-writer John August blend the character’s traditional frustrations at being trapped behind palace walls with a newfound resentment over how her capacity to rule as sultan is thwarted by traditional gender roles. Nonetheless, her desires to lead are bluntly articulated and reflective of a broader tendency among the film’s characters to express their awareness of their own repression by tilting their heads back and staring off into the distance as they speak extemporaneously about their dreams. Poor Scott is also burdened with the film’s big new song, “Speechless,” an instantly dated empowerment anthem that suggests the sonic equivalent of that old woman’s botched restoration of the Ecce Homo fresco in Borja, Spain.

The film does come somewhat to life during its musical numbers. Though these sequences are marked by simplistic and unengaging choreography, they don’t quell the verve of Howard Ashman and Tim Rice’s original songs. Less successful is Smith, who, unable to match the intensity of Robin Williams’s performance as the Genie in the original film, leans into his signature drawling sarcasm to bring his spin on the character to life, effectively draining the Genie of everything that made him so memorably larger than life in the first place. Even when portraying some of the Genie’s more antic behavior, Smith mostly takes the path of least resistance, injecting just enough energy into his performance to hint at Williams’s memorable take on the character but without seeming as if he’s actually working up a sweat.

Elsewhere, Massoud mostly goes through the motions in establishing Aladdin as a rakish pauper, but the actor comes alive in a comic scene that sees his street urchin, newly styled as a prince by the Genie, presenting himself to the Sultan’s court. Having never been trained on any points of social graces, Aladdin can only stammer out pleasantries, using strange honorifics to refer to the Sultan as he curtsies instead of bows. Later, the Genie helps Aladdin perform an elaborate dance by controlling the young man’s body in order to wow the Sultan’s court. Impressively, Massoud manages to perform complicated steps while looking as if every movement is done against his will, giving Aladdin’s flailing motions a slapstick quality.

Such flashes of personality, though, are few and far between in this remake. Certainly there was a lot of room to bring a contemporary perspective to this material—to counter the original’s problematic representation of its Middle-Eastern milieu and deepen its characters. Instead, the film settles for telling you a joke you’ve already heard and botching the delivery.

Cast: Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Will Smith, Marwan Kenzari, Navid Negahban, Nasim Pedrad, Alan Tudyk, Frank Welker, Billy Magnussen Director: Guy Ritchie Screenwriter: John August, Guy Ritchie Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 128 min Rating: PG Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack

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Film

Review: Brightburn Is a Soulless Mishmash of Disparate Genre Elements

The way the film shuttles through its 90 minutes, it’s as if it’s been stripped of its most crucial narrative parts.

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Brightburn
Photo: Screen Gems

Like a lot of kids squirming through puberty, Brandon Breyer (Jackson A. Dunn) is an asshole. Unlike most, however, he’s from outer space and possessed of formidable superpowers. Soon after learning of his abilities, he stalks a classmate, Caitlyn (Emmie Hunter), who consoled him in class after he was teased for his incredible smarts. Brandon makes a show of controlling Caitlyn’s laptop before appearing outside her bedroom window, eerily floating in the air. By this point in director David Yarovesky’s Brightburn, one is still optimistic that Brandon’s creeper tendencies will be the most insidious of his problems. But when Caitlyn calls him a pervert, after letting him fall to the ground during a “trust fall” exercise in gym class, Brandon crushes the bones in her hand after she’s forced to help him up. By the end of the film, Caitlyn will prove to be one of the lucky ones.

That Yarovesky and screenwriters Brian and Mark Gunn don’t exactly push the link between Brandon’s pubescence and his growing self-awareness isn’t the first sign that something is amiss here. Right out of the gate, Brightburn reveals itself unwilling to animate its characters’ emotional dramas, using visual shorthand to simply hint at them. In the opening scene, set more than 10 years in the past, the camera pans across a bookshelf full of fertility books, informing the audience that Brandon’s parents, Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle (David Denman), really want to have a baby. Later, while helping his dad with chores, Brandon accidentally throws a lawnmower halfway across the family farm. This is when he recognizes that he has superpowers, but rather than prolong the kid’s doubt across more than one scene, the film zips straight to the moment where he’s about to shove his hand into the lawn mower’s spinning blades to confirm his suspicions that he’s nothing short of invincible.

More genre films—more films, period—could stand to have a lot less fat on their bones, but the way Brightburn shuttles through its 90 minutes, it’s as if it’s been stripped even of its most crucial narrative parts. Outside of one pulpy hallucination sequence, the film stubbornly refuses to give a concrete sense of the desperation that drove Tori and Kyle to adopt Brandon, just as it can’t be bothered to give shape to the mythology of his creation—or rather, his arrival. For a spell, though, this suggests a purposeful show of evasion. Much is made of the red light that peeks out from the floorboards in the family barn and to which Brandon is drawn throughout the film. If you’re a fan of Larry Cohen’s canon, you may wonder if the kid will be revealed as a kindred spirit of the ever-glowing human-alien antagonist from God Told Me To, here to make sport of our biological urge to procreate in our increasingly decaying world.

No such luck, as Brightburn is a meaningless mishmash of disparate genre elements. The truth of what lurks beneath the floorboards turns out to be of no particular consequence—not exactly a red herring, just a bit of hogwash that confirms Brandon to be a gene splice of Damien and Superman. Maybe a sense of majesty, of mythic grandeur, might have made him feel as if he was less arbitrarily willed into being, though Yarovesky certainly conveys the weight of the kid’s killing spree. Not its existential weight, only its repugnant force. At one point, one of his victims struggles to hold up the lower part of his grotesquely shattered jaw, as Brandon pulls off the mask that he wears because, presumably, he understands that that’s what someone with superhuman powers should do. Brightburn never shows us how Brandon came to such a realization, but it does let us glimpse the stone-cold delight he takes in erasing human life—a spectacle of violence that exists for its own soulless sake.

Cast: Elizabeth Banks, David Denman, Jackson A. Dunn, Jennifer Holland, Matt Jones, Meredith Hagner, Becky Wahlstrom, Gregory Alan Williams, Steve Agee, Emmie Hunter Director: David Yarovesky Screenwriter: Brian Gunn, Mark Gunn Distributor: Screen Gems Running Time: 90 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Film

The Nightingale Trailer: Aisling Franciosi and Sam Claflin Star in Jennifer Kent’s Follow-Up to The Babadook

Today, IFC has released the first trailer for the film, which is set during the colonization of Australia in 1825.

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The Nightingale
Photo: Matt Nettheim

Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale, the Aussie filmmaker’s much-anticipated follow-up to The Babadook, premiered way back in September at the Venice Film Festival, and to mostly positive notices. Today, ahead of its U.S. theatrical release in August, IFC has released the first trailer for the film, which is set during the colonization of Australia in 1825 and follows a young Irish convict settler, Clare (played by Aisling Franciosi), who, after finishing her seven-year sentence, struggles to be free of her abusive master, Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin). According to the studio’s official description of the film:

Clare’s husband Aidan (Michael Sheasby) retaliates and she becomes the victim of a harrowing crime at the hands of the lieutenant and his cronies. When British authorities fail to deliver justice, Clare decides to pursue Hawkins, who leaves his post suddenly to secure a captaincy up north. Unable to find compatriots for her journey, she is forced to enlist the help of a young Aboriginal tracker Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) who grudgingly takes her through the rugged wilderness to track down Hawkins. The terrain and the prevailing hostilities are frightening, as fighting between the original inhabitants of the land and its colonizers plays out in what is now known as “The Black War.” Clare and Billy are hostile towards each other from the outset, both suffering their own traumas and mutual distrust, but as their journey leads them deeper into the wilderness, they must learn to find empathy for one another, while weighing the true cost of revenge.

Watch the official trailer below:

IFC Films will release The Nightingale in NY and LA on August 2.

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Film

Cannes Review: The Lighthouse Is a Hilarious and Grotesque Genre Pastiche

Robert Eggers loosens the noose of veracity just enough to allow for so much absurdism to peek through.

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The Lighthouse
Photo: A24

Willem Dafoe farts and Robert Pattinson masturbates vigorously in Robert Eggers’s creepy and unexpectedly, if grotesquely, hilarious follow-up to The Witch. Set in 1890s New England, The Lighthouse finds Eggers again mining the past for an air of mythic portent but loosening the noose of veracity that choked his meticulously researched yet painfully self-serious debut just enough to allow for so much absurdism to peek through.

From the moment that lighthouse keepers Thomas Wake (Dafoe), an experienced old “wickie” with a shuffling gait and a hair-trigger temper, and Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson), his handlebar mustache-sporting assistant, set foot on the tiny island where they’re to spend the next four weeks, they start to get on each other’s nerves. Wake is a slave driver who’s said to have made his last assistant go crazy, and who ignores any and all regulations, while Winslow, who’s on his first assignment as a lighthouse keeper, refuses to drink and be merry with Wake, which causes its own problems. Before long, the two men kick into motion a game of one-upmanship, a raising of the stakes to see who will be the first to drive the other to madness—with flatulence and horniness among the many, many factors fueling that pursuit.

Eggers’s willingness to get goofy, and to not worry about humor defusing his narrative’s macabre horror—as in, say, the cartoonish pummeling that a devious seagull receives—makes The Lighthouse something of a breakthrough for the filmmaker. Diverging from the formula of coiled tension followed by sudden and jolting release that’s favored by so many contemporary arthouse horror films, Eggers parcels out the action in the film, steadily and methodically building toward the psychological breaking point of his characters.

Dafoe and Pattinson are crucial to selling that trajectory, ensuring that every moment here bristles with performative bluster. Dafoe’s surly former sea captain is a blowhard who’s given to sentimental reverie whenever he gets hammered, while his foil is played by Pattinson with slyly vacillating docile subservience and scheming spitefulness. The veteran character actor and dressed-down movie star play off each other exceptionally well, especially when, as is often the case in a two-hander, they have to pull-off a tricky role reversal.

Taking advantage of a bigger budget than The Witch, Eggers shot The Lighthouse on 35mm film. He’s also utilized the 1.19:1 Movietone aspect ratio, which was briefly standardized in the 1920s and is tighter than the already boxy 1.37:1 academy ratio, as a means of emphasizing his vertical compositions and the at times literally stratified relationship between his main characters. At one point, Dafoe’s old codger refuses to share lantern duty, while Winslow toils down below, swabbing decks and maintaining the dilapidated station.

Eggers successfully approximates F.W. Murnau’s stark and dynamic use of light and shadow in images that ensconce his characters in darkness and place them in geometrically unbalanced positions within the frame. But the quirkiest influence on this film is Night Tide, Curtis Harrington’s 1961 supernatural farce of a noir, which Eggers cribs from blatantly in a surreal sequence where Pattinson’s character has an erotic fantasy about a mermaid, and in a delirious body-horror montage—realized through largely practical effects—that co-opts Harrington’s hybridization of Roger Corman and Kenneth Ager’s stylings.

And like Night Tide, a send-up of beach-party movies and cheap ‘50s sci-fi, The Lighthouse aims for self-aware pastiche and pulls it off without smugness. Unlike Harrington’s film, though, it doesn’t register much affection for the forms it’s working with, and can come off like a calculated exercise. Still, Eggers’s ability to take the piss out of his inflated genre movie pastiche, without lapsing into parody, is an impressive and an entertaining feat.

Cast: Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe, Valeriia Karaman Director: Robert Eggers Screenwriter: Robert Eggers, Max Eggers Distributor: A24 Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Features

Maryland Film Festival 2019: The Hottest August, Donbass, & American Factory

This year’s selections exhibit a scope and ambition that should continue to draw adventurous filmgoers for years to come.

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The Hottest August
Photo: Maryland Film Festival

Judging from the enthusiasm of the surprisingly high number of New York filmmakers and critics this writer met in Baltimore this past weekend, the Maryland Film Festival isn’t seen as a pale shadow of Big Apple filmgoing. Rather, it’s a vital supplement to it—a program that compresses many of the festival season’s essential offerings into a manageable four-day run in an easily walkable city with comparatively chill crowds.

Those who made the commute to Baltimore for the festival this year had the chance to encounter one of the more trenchant New York-set films of recent memory in Brett Story’s The Hottest August, an essayistic documentary made in the intellectually vagrant spirit of Chris Marker. Shot in August of 2017 around a principle of “organized spontaneity,” per producer Danielle Varga, the film spans New York City’s five boroughs while adhering to a nebulous, difficult-to-define but nonetheless valuable objective: to take the temperature of the times we live in and tease out the collective mood of the country’s most densely populated area.

Willfully biting off more than it can chew, The Hottest August features rich people, poor people, scientists, skateboarders, entrepreneurs, intellectuals, barflies, artists, and more waxing extemporaneous on topics including climate change, economic inequality, automation, racism, and the future. The mood is off the cuff, conversational. A pair of women in lawn chairs joke about how their street’s rat population has swelled as a result of gentrifying construction in adjacent neighborhoods. Two former cops reframe the term “racism” as “resentment” in a sports bar just moments after demanding that no politics enter the hallowed space of the drinking hole. A loft-dwelling futurist pontificates on what the tax system might look like if the country embraced robotics instead of fearing it as a job killer. Occasionally we hear the filmmaker off screen, tersely prompting her subjects with open-ended questions, but mostly this is an ensemble of eager talkers, their openness running contrary to the old chestnut about closed-off New Yorkers.

Finding form in this seemingly disconnected mass is editor Nels Bangerter, who managed a similar feat with Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson. The film drifts subtly from subject to subject, pointedly using B roll not just to evocatively provide a sense of place, but to extend someone’s thought or offer counterpoint. Three streams of information exist at once: whatever opinion is being put forth by the person on screen; whatever in-the-moment perspective Story takes on her subject’s response through the questions she asks or the camera angles she chooses; and the question of how that segment ultimately interacts with the film in its final form, where images have been invested with meaning through context.

The Hottest August is a film that’s constantly “thinking,” and that thought isn’t fixed or authoritative, but rather in flux and negotiable. Story isn’t setting out to answer any pressing political issues so much as capture the tactile sense of how those issues permeate everyday settings. Hers is a form of ambient reportage that feels very welcome in our contemporary moment, when the daily barrage of information can sometimes make it difficult to recall how one felt about something two days earlier, let alone in that turbulent August of 2017.

Similarly macro in its approach is Sergei Loznitsa’s Donbass, which adopts a sprawling, vignette-driven structure as it catalogues the miseries and grotesqueries of the eponymous eastern Ukrainian territory. A region occupied by pro-Russian paramilitary forces (specifically the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics) ever since the Ukrainian Revolution in 2014, present-day Donbass is a morass of conflicting sympathies and ideologies that Loznitsa doesn’t so much seek to clarify with this film as reflect in all its muddy complexity.

In fact, Loznitsa goes so far as to call into question the very possibility of the truth of this situation he captures on camera. Whenever reporters appear on screen, they’re portrayed as ineffectual stooges waiting to be chewed out as propaganda peddlers by their political opponents, and the film’s bookending sequences, set at the trailer park of a movie set, build toward a thesis statement on the dubiousness of contemporary reporting with its tendency to stage and reframe reality according to the mandates of whatever affiliation is being placated.

Cameras, we’re repeatedly reminded by the mise-en-scène, are violators, as they merely augment the dangerous power of the person wielding them. Donbass’s most harrowing elucidation of this theme comes in a scene on a public street, where a Ukrainian loyalist, tied to a telephone pole by a pair of armed separatists, endures a humiliating beating at the hands of a growing mob of passersby, one of whom decides to record the grisly spectacle with his smartphone. As Loznitsa’s camera circles the action, the heckler’s phone presses right up into the face of the prisoner, relishing in the man’s suffering, and we get the sense that the escalation of violence may have never come to pass in quite this way were it not for the spontaneous idea to turn it into a video meme. Later, the recording gets shown to a hooting crowd of Novorossiya sympathizers at an absurdly overemphatic wedding celebration, assimilating smoothly into the atmosphere of nationalist fervor.

Donbass is fueled by such collisions between the grave and the comic, a tonal oscillation mastered by Loznitsa in his documentaries and carried over here to support a vision of a society cracking under the weight of its own inconsistencies, corruption and mob mentalities. Less tightly structured than Loznitsa’s preceding fiction work, the film adopts the immersive observation of films like Maidan and Victory Day with a more active, roving camera but a similar degree of durational endurance. In one scene, Loznitsa even seamlessly integrates an extended use of documentary language into a longer fictional setup when his camera descends into a cramped and overcrowded bomb shelter, where a local host, lit by a camera-mounted source, walks us through the destitution of those living inside. As with the later street scene, the dreariness is eventually spiked by a dash of absurdism, but the counterpunch isn’t intended to lighten the mood so much as further disorient, ultimately giving Donbass an unnerving precarity that must come somewhat near the feeling on the ground.

If these two films, content as they are to revel in ambivalence, seek to grasp the experience of the now in all its bewilderment, Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar’s American Factory takes a more committed stance on an issue that’s equally topical. Fuyao Glass America, an outgrowth of a global glass manufacturer owned by a Chinese billionaire, opened in Moraine, Ohio in the shell of a shuddered General Motors plant toward the beginning of the decade, persisted financially for years while pursuing its awkward goal of unifying Chinese and American work cultures, and then inevitably ran up against controversy in 2017 when safety concerns and low wages encouraged the local employees to vote to unionize.

American Factory charts this entire compelling history with surprising comprehensiveness: When a late scene plays out as an illicit audio recording from an employee over a black screen, it stands out for being one of the only instances when the filmmakers don’t appear to have unencumbered access. But this sprawl has its downsides. Though briskly edited and tonally varied, Reichert and Bognar’s documentary skims over the surface of some of its most fascinating threads while in pursuit of a rousing decade-long tale.

The American workers depicted in the film, disgruntled by their diminished earnings and recalling a recent past with less bureaucratic oversight, too often blend into one undistinguished mass of Midwestern homeliness, and the few individuals who do get singled out for attention—a woman living in her relative’s basement and a rancher who befriends one particular Chinese co-worker—often get neglected for long stretches of time. The Chinese are perhaps even less differentiated, their insistence on dogged work ethic and company allegiance repeatedly emphasized almost to the point of xenophobia. That Fuyao chairman Cao Dewang, who weaves through the film as an amusingly oblivious villain for its majority, eventually gets a moment to fondly reminisce on China’s pre-industrial past and contemplate his own complicity in the country’s shift to globalized capitalism comes across as penance for the film’s occasional treatment of foreigners as misguided corporate drones.

What American Factory ultimately amounts to, however, isn’t an exploration of culture clash or a penetrating depiction of rust belt dejection, but rather a rallying cry for worker solidarity (in America, if not across the globe), a message it pulls off resoundingly in the final hour. Reichert and Bognar smartly detail all the insidious ways in which corporate messengers mischaracterize unionizing as a threat to individual liberty, and the populist filmmaking vernacular they employ as the union vote nears—fluid crosscutting between different intersecting narratives, plenty of emotional close-ups, a score of almost Spielbergian grandiosity—gives the documentary a genuine shot at trafficking radical politics to a relatively wide audience. If it’s any indication of future success, American Factory was one of the most well-attended screenings I went to during my time in Baltimore, but it’s a testament to the Maryland Film Festival’s outreach that healthy crowds congregated throughout the weekend. Though modest and inviting, this year’s selections exhibit a scope and ambition that should continue to draw adventurous filmgoers for years to come.

The Maryland Film Festival ran from May 8—12.

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