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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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Review: The Two Popes Carefully and Dubiously Toes a Party Line

There isn’t anything in the bleeding-heart positions espoused by Jorge Bergoglio that complicates Pope Francis’s public persona.

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The Two Popes
Photo: Netflix

Fernando Meirelles’s The Two Popes is quick to acknowledge that Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) is a humble man of the people. The film opens with a scene that fades in on Bergoglio, recently anointed Pope Francis, as he attempts to order a plane ticket over the phone. Assuming she’s being pranked when the caller gives his name and address, the Italian operator hangs up on the generously bemused head of the Catholic Church. After centuries of pomp, the scene suggests, the world’s Catholics were unprepared for a genuine article like Francis, a corrective to an episcopal hierarchy that had drifted too far away from the people. So goes the thesis of The Two Popes, reiterated in a number of subsequent scenes: Unlike previous generations of pontiffs, Francis engages with the actual state of the world, watches soccer, listens to pop music, and speaks to economic inequality.

This brief prologue’s slight humor and documentary-style presentation give an accurate idea of where the film is headed, both thematically and formally. Throughout, Meirelles embellishes the screenplay’s often dry conversations with pseudo-improvised camerawork—unsteady framing, sudden tilts, and emphatic snap zooms—familiar from his prior films, most notably City of God and The Constant Gardner. But what seemed, in the early aughts, fresh and well-suited to gangster movies and spy thrillers, feels dated and out of place in a film that amounts to two powerful octogenarians having a series of conversations. By abruptly adjusting the lens’s focal length at almost arbitrary moments, Meirelles transparently attempts to add dynamism to a film in which powerful actors are stuck reciting staid, safe dialogue.

The hagiographic Two Popes shuffles through moments in Bergoglio’s life. Some scenes are set in Argentina in the 1970s, a tumultuous time for the country, but the film mainly focuses on the development of Bergoglio’s relationship with Joseph Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins), Pope Benedict XVI, during the early 21st century. Flashing back to eight years before the prologue, the camera travels through the narrow alleys of Buenos Aires, arriving at an outdoor sermon that Bergoglio is delivering. Unattached to the air of benevolent superiority Catholic priests are expected to exude, Bergoglio tangentially speaks of his support for the San Lorenzo soccer team, at which revelation his congregation feels comfortable booing their diocese’s bishop.

Meanwhile, John Paul II has died, and as a cardinal, Bergoglio must return to Rome to help elect a new pope. There he encounters Ratzinger, at the time a conservative Bavarian cardinal who haughtily insists on speaking to Bergoglio in Latin when they meet in a Vatican bathroom, and who turns up his nose when the Argentinian begins humming ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” to himself while washing his hands. The inclusion of an ABBA song makes for a lighter tone that The Two Popes will unevenly revive at various moments across its running time; the film will transition between scenes using out-of-place lounge jazz and ‘60s pop, then abruptly drop the levity for dialogic lessons on the state of Catholic theology.

The dogmatic Ratzinger’s election as pope later that year would signal an end to years of liberalization within the Catholic Church, a back-to-basics gesture that ultimately failed. His short reign would be dominated by controversy, as members of his inner circle were indicted for financial crimes and a long-brewing scandal over church cover-ups of sexual abuse came to the fore. Meirelles handles this historical context through aural and visual montages of archival news reports, which fill the gap as the story fast-forwards to a moment in 2012 when Pope Benedict calls Bergoglio, his unofficial rival from the church’s liberal wing, back to Rome.

Benedict aims to convince the bishop not to resign, as it would look to the outside world—as Benedict professes it does to him—that the liberal Bergoglio is renouncing his cardinalship in protest. Strolling through the lush gardens of the Vatican, or speaking in low, strained voices in its resplendent halls, the two debate their opposing theological and political philosophies. A mutual respect develops between them, with Benedict gradually opening himself to the outside world from which he has stayed aloof; one scene has Bergoglio teaching him about the Beatles, and in another the Argentine convinces the stiff German to try out the tango.

That’s all very cute, surely, but it’s also evidence that, despite courting a gritty reality effect with its documentary-inspired aesthetic, The Two Popes is carefully toeing a party line rather than exposing any hidden truths. Though it includes (rather hammy) flashbacks to Bergoglio’s morally ambiguous interactions with the Argentinian military dictatorship of the ‘70s, there isn’t anything in the bleeding-heart positions espoused by Bergoglio that complicates Pope Francis’s public persona. For his part, Ratzinger comes off as the best version of the man one could imagine, given the turmoil that marked his tenure: old-fashioned but authentic, perhaps just a bit too aged and attached to the institution to weed out its excesses.

As, in scene after scene, the heads of the world’s most powerful religious institution neatly summarize their philosophies to one another, the viewer may sense a misdirect: What happened to the corruption? Where are the meetings about how to handle the child-abuse scandals? Such issues, which presumably would have been the subject of many a Vatican City discussion, turn out to be little more than background material to the individualized and sentimentalized story of two men with differing views becoming friends. Even when they do come up, our attention is directed elsewhere. The flashbacks to Bergoglio’s spotted past begin soon after the sexual abuse scandals are first mentioned, redirecting our piqued concern with institutional sins toward the drama of an individual man’s fateful misjudgment.

The second time the pair’s conversations drift toward the simmering abuse scandal, Meirelles actually drowns out the dialogue with a high-pitched whine on the soundtrack, and for no discernable story reason. It’s as if Bergoglio’s hearing has been impaired by the explosive truth. The moment feels less like the filmmakers protecting us from a truth too awful to hear, and much more like them shielding us from one too dangerous to be heard.

Cast: Jonathan Pryce, Anthony Hopkins, Juan Minujín, Sidney Cole, Thomas D. Williams, Federico Torre, Pablo Trimarchi Director: Fernando Meirelles Screenwriter: Anthony McCarten Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 125 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: Empty Metal Grapples with the Efficacy of Activist Violence

The film is greater in its confrontational force than the sum of a dozen festival breakthroughs lauded for their fearlessness.

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Empty Metal
Photo: Factory 25

The idea that violence can be an effective or even necessary form of activism is one of the last remaining taboos in a contemporary discourse that holds civil debate up as the highest virtue. Empty Metal, meanwhile, reaffirms independent, artist-made cinema as a natural arena for wading through these kinds of uncomfortable notions. Greater in its confrontational force than the sum of a dozen festival breakthroughs lauded for their fearlessness, and certainly more potent than Todd Phillips’s Joker, it takes on the ambitious and possibly risky task of exploring what activist violence means in the context of a modern world where ambient forms of hostility—militarized police aggression (specifically toward people of color), mass surveillance and ongoing, never-ending wars—subtly dictate our lives.

Collaborating for the first time on what constitutes for both of them a narrative feature debut, Adam Khalil and Bayley Sweitzer have fashioned a topical lightning rod with Empty Metal, though not in a manner that suggests willful provocation. Assembled on a meager budget with friends, family, and members of the filmmakers’ extended artistic circles, the film progresses with an untamed energy and disregard for convention that suggest the manifestation of creative impulses feeding, unchecked, off one another. Juggling multiple intersecting storylines with passages of visual lyricism and diegesis-breaking reminders of contemporary injustices, Empty Metal offers an anarchic collage that careens between narrative storytelling (Sweitzer’s background) and documentary and video-art instincts (Khalil’s backgrounds).

Central to the story of Empty Metal are Rose (indie noise musician Rose Mori, a.k.a. PVSSYHEAVEN), Pam (Sam Richardson), and Devon (Austin Sley Julian), a trio of disaffected electro-punk rockers gigging around Brooklyn under the moniker of Alien. But to call them protagonists undercuts the degree to which Khalil and Sweitzer frame them less as independently motivated agents than as ciphers ushered along a path over which they appear to exert little control. More instrumental to the film’s evolution are the clairvoyant, vaguely ethereal figures—a Rastafarian chef listed in the credits as King Alpha (Oba), an older indigenous woman (Irma LaGuerre), and several of their younger accomplices—who watch over the trio and ultimately size them up as eligible candidates for a criminal plot.

Rose, Pam, and Devon are to assassinate three infamous white cops who’ve gotten away with murder, then go off the grid. Neither the names of the targets nor their specific infractions are clarified, though the connections to real-life analogues are made more or less self-evident in the series of crude 3D renderings of police violence that are periodically inserted into the middle of scenes. On the eve of a domestic Alien tour, Rose is approached at the band van by a member of King Alpha’s clan, who leans into the would-be rebel to impart a telepathic message paraphrased, as with a number of the film’s longer monologues, from William S. Burroughs’s novel The Place of Dead Roads: “I will teach you to dissociate gun, arm, and eye.”

Intuitively reading between the lines, Rose promptly loses interest in the tour and recruits, with little resistance, her bandmates to the cause. This sequence of events, along with anything else having to do with the transition of these hitherto merely frustrated musicians to insurrectionary vigilantes, hardly stands up to dramatic scrutiny, due in equal parts to Mori, Richardson, and Julian’s stilted line deliveries and the insufficient time their characters are afforded in the editing to acquire anything like psychological plausibility.

Nonetheless, there’s something of a poetic logic to the characters’ transformations, an unnerving illustration of the idea that the gap between ambient frustration and radicalism is but a short cognitive leap. There’s also a sense of fatalism that hangs over the proceedings, of an inexorable historical duty that can’t or shouldn’t be resisted. In an ominous sequence of self-actualization, Rose recites the names of historical dissidents from Ulrike Meinhof to Osama bin Laden with a mix of clinical dispassion and reverence as archival footage and animated representations of their violent acts fill the screen.

By contrast, Khalil and Sweitzer stage a lighter scene around the mid-forest meeting of King Alpha, LaGuerre’s character, and a European monk (Pawel Wojtasik) previously seen only in excerpts of a de-contextualized courtroom taping. Here, it’s casually implied that the three characters—who suddenly claim to have last seen each other at either the “L.A. riots” or Wounded Knee—are merely the corporeal containers of activist spirits who weave through the centuries, cyclically reuniting to nudge willing souls toward more proactive forms of rebellion.

Taking its title from a description of drones given by Rose in voiceover, Empty Metal questions if perhaps these transhistorical agitators have met a new and unconquerable challenger in the surveillance state, armed as it is with high-tech weaponry and vast intel on its populace. Certainly, the right-wing militia shown in another chilling subplot offers no compelling resistance to this monolithic force, even as they stash up on firearms and embark on austere training. The figurehead of this self-determined group (Jon Nandor) happens to be the son of Wojtasik’s monk, and it’s a quiet dinner table scene between the two of them that stands out among all the jarring associative edits and flicker-frame embellishments as one of the film’s strongest effects. As the father dismantles his son’s second amendment convictions, he’s left unable to contemplate an adequate alternative, and it’s telling that even a sage, potentially immortal mystic seems perplexed by our current predicament.

Cast: Rose Mori, Austin Sley Julian, Sam Richardson, Oba, Irma LaGuerre, Pawel Wojtasik, Jon Nandor Director: Adam Khalil, Bayley Sweitzer Screenwriter: Adam Khalil, Bayley Sweitzer Distributor: Factory 25 Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Beniamino Barrese’s The Disappearance of My Mother

It’s fascinating to see Benedetta Barzini in academic action, like an ethnographer of the patriarchy herself.

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The Disappearance of My Mother
Photo: Kino Lorber

Domestic ethnography typically sees a filmmaking member of a family turning the camera inward to investigate, or rewrite, a family’s history. This means that the filmmaker in question can occupy the inconvenient position of unearthing the ancient dirt on top of which the family is founded. In The Disappearance of My Mother, director Beniamino Barrese is less interested in wrestling with the maternal function in the drama of a household than in the mother’s status as his muse. The film is a love letter to the filmmaker’s mother, Benedetta Barzini, a 76-year-old former supermodel and the first Italian woman to grace the cover of American Vogue, now a feminist fashion studies lecturer in Milan. The constellation of the family is rendered useless here, as what matters to Barrese is the love affair between mother and son, forever mediated by the camera lens.

The tragedy here isn’t to be found in the regrettable actions of yore or the repressed feelings that both constitute and undermine a home, but in the unfairness of time. The film seems to say that a mother must age, a mother must die, and some of them may even want to. And it seemingly recognizes something tragic in an external world that’s obsessed with all of the things Barzini doesn’t value, despite having been a fashion industry commodity in the 1960s: beauty, youth, luxury, and cleanliness (she hardly ever showers or changes her bedsheets).

Barzini’s feminist stance appears as her most consistent motif in old interviews, in the strangely theatrical way she used to pose with garments in fashion shoots, and in her present-day statements captured in the film, both verbal and sartorial (she shows up to receive an award in her stay-at-home clothes). She is, from the beginning of her career, vocally aware that the femininity she’s paid to display is a playful one, removed from her actual self, which is itself, Barzini argues, unphotographable. She knows the existence, and persistence, of beauty stereotypes caging women to be due to the fact that men invent women through a series of prescriptions. And that they thus invent them as Jessica Rabbits, she argues at one point, wondering out loud whether it may not be best if women’s bodies disappeared altogether.

It’s fascinating to see Barzini in academic action, like an ethnographer of the patriarchy herself, bringing back news from its most glamourous yet rotten core. She lectures young college girls about the symbolic relationship between fashion, youth, and man’s fear of death, holding magazine ads in her hands as irrefutable evidence. She asks them questions like “What does ‘old age’ mean?,” “Why do imperfections bother people?,” and “What is the point of continuing to sell our bodies without any quality or talent?” These moments of pedagogical passion occur when Barzini’s presence is allowed to take over the frame precisely because the filmmaking son fades into the background. And they’re in striking contrast to Barrese’s instances of shoving the camera into his mother’s reluctant face.

That stance, though in line with some sort of undying teenage streak, reveals a misguided desire to force his mother into his cinematic paradigm. Although Barrese purposefully allows for a great degree of transparency, showing us his failed attempts to get his mother to change outfits for continuity’s sake, for instance, these sequences feel contrived when compared to those where the mother is allowed to perform in an uncontrolled fashion. When we hear him ask her, “Is there anything you want me to put in the wash?,” or “Mom, what bothers you so much about images?,” it’s impossible not to see the air of spontaneity as calculated artifice.

Many times, Barrese acts like a vulture taking something from his mother that she doesn’t want to give. Or does she? Barzini calls him a petit bourgeois for appreciating her articulations only inasmuch as they fit his filmic narrative. And she yells, “Put the camera down! Put it down!” He obeys her for a couple seconds but leaves the camera running, then grabs it back to continue interrogating her. And she lets him. Mother and son relations are often like this—full of theatrics, ambiguity, and teeming with seduction. Neither could afford losing the other’s love. And they both know it. Which forces Barrese to keep pushing the limits. He even shoots her when she’s asleep. Or, at least, when he thinks she is. It turns out that following mom is a habit from childhood. And ever since then she’s been protesting his advances. “I want to disappear, not to appear,” she says, because “the lens is the enemy.”

In a beautiful sequence toward the end of the film, after Barzini speaks about dying and the shame of belonging to this world, so sullied by white men, Barrese asks her to spin around in her courtyard, holding her dress. She says she will get dizzy. He finally listens to her and lets her stand still, spinning with his camera around her himself. She smiles, enjoying the moment. She’s happy standing still, courted in the courtyard by her child’s contemplation. Mother eventually asks her son: “Are you done playing?” He’s not, and neither is she.

Director: Beniamino Barrese Screenwriter: Beniamino Barrese Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 94 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Interview: Eddie Redmayne on The Aeronauts and Accessing Physicality

Redmayne discusses everything from calibrating his physicality in rehearsals to cultivating his imagination on a barren set.

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Eddie Redmayne
Photo: Amazon Studios

“I can’t believe you wrote your dissertation on Les Misérables,” Eddie Redmayne says in a complete non sequitur midway through our conversation. I had a feeling it might come up at some point, so I had to lead with telling him that he featured prominently in the video essay portion of my senior thesis on how Tom Hooper’s 2012 film adaptation collapsed boundaries between stage and screen. As legend has it, Redmayne made a suggestion in post-production that led to the film’s close-up-heavy editing, a choice which sparked intense discussion around the aesthetics of the musical genre.

The episode captures something about Redmayne that sets him apart from other actors who operate in a similarly demonstrative, showy register. He’s genuinely thoughtful about the full cycle of how a performance gets created and transmitted to audiences, in everything from the rehearsal process to the editing bay. After winning an Academy Award for 2014’s The Theory of Everything and another nomination for 2015’s The Danish Girl, Redmayne took a turn toward blockbuster fare with two outings playing Newt Scamander in the Fantastic Beasts series. But now he’s back to the period dramas that made his name with The Aeronauts, an old-fashioned movie adventure that reunites him with his The Theory of Everything co-star, Felicity Jones. As scientist James Glaisher and pilot Amelia Wren, Redmayne and Jones, respectively, spends the majority of the film confined to the tight space of a gas balloon’s basket as they rise to 37,000 feet in the air in an attempt to make meteorological breakthroughs in 1860s Britain.

Redmayne’s role is a fitting lens to discuss not only The Aeronauts, but also his recent career. His craft is just as much a science as it is an art. Our conversation got into the weeds of technical details as he discussed everything from calibrating his physicality in rehearsals to cultivating his imagination on a barren set. But, first, we had to discuss Les Misérables, given the pivotal role his behind-the-scenes behavior played in my academic career.

During post-production on Les Misérables, I read that while in the editing room you encouraged Tom Hooper to hold longer on the close-up of Anne Hathaway during “I Dreamed A Dream,” setting into motion the film relying on them so heavily.

Because of the way that Les Mis was shot with live singing, you couldn’t get between different tracks because of the variation. What Tom did was make sure that you could always have the whole scene cut from one setup: a wide, a mid, [and a close-up]. There were three cameras on at the same time. He was editing the film, and the studio had put out a trailer they edited themselves that was more of the close-up. Tom and I had a discussion, and I think I mentioned that it could hold. What I find so interesting is that everyone has a specific opinion on Les Mis, whether it worked—and, of course, the close-ups are something people bring up a lot. But the live singing process dictated the way it was shot. We couldn’t shoot outside a lot because, when you shoot outside, the voice disappears. So, we had to build the barricades in a studio.

What you did with Les Misérables speaks to just how much a performance gets remade in the editing room. Are you still actively involved in that final step of the process?

What’s weird about making films is you create so much of it in a vacuum. It’s not like theater, where actors get together for months and work things out. Often you meet the person playing your mother or father two hours before [shooting]. Often you don’t know the director, meeting them a day before you start working with them. You have an idea of what the character’s arc is, and, of course, part of the joy of making films is giving over that. You put that down and hope the director observes that. But a director can often observe something different that’s more interesting! What I like to do, and I’ve been lucky enough to do, is make work and, if I’m allowed into the editing process, have a dialogue with that director. Provided you know they see what you intended, whether they use that or not is obviously their choice.

I do find that dynamic really interesting, and I’ve been lucky enough with James Marsh on The Theory of Everything, Tom Hooper, and [director] Tom Harper and [screenwriter] Jack Thorne on this. Felicity and I worked together with Jack and Tom for a couple of months beforehand working through the intricacies of the script, and Tom allowed us that bit because it’s so intimate between the two of us, almost like [working on a play] with the writer and director. He allowed us the intimacy in the process the whole way through. The reason I do it is because, as an actor, you’re never happy with what ends up in the finished product. But while you can still shift and change things, I enjoy being a part of that process.

As someone who came up through theater, where you have so much less mediation between your performance and how an audience receives it, have you found comfort in the editing process?

It was a massive adjustment because I got into acting through theater. For many years, I couldn’t get cast in TV or film because I was playing to the back of the stalls in my audition. When I did start working, it’s all been a massive learning curve.

How do you approach acting out of sequence? In both The Aeronauts and The Theory of Everything, you’re tasked with building a full and continuous character arc, but that seems tough you’re stopping and restarting.

Quite often, directors will try and keep as much in chronology as possible. A lot of the stuff we did in the basket in The Aeronauts was shot chronologically. It’s the other bits that aren’t. What you have to do is see how the director is filming it, what their process is and work out what’s best for you. For example, on The Theory of Everything, all the exteriors we were shooting in the first two days in Cambridge when all the students weren’t there. That meant that any time Stephen was outside in the entire film, we were shooting in the first two days. Which meant we had to do all different physicalities at different moments of his life in the first two days. Which meant [I] had to be able to access those different physicalities very quickly, which in itself dictated the process. I wasn’t going to spend hours getting into the zone, I have to slot into these. For me, I said, I need months to rehearse, and I need to rehearse the movement like a dance so that [I] can access it quite quickly. It’s all about the stuff you do beforehand so you’re ready when you’re working the other actor to be completely free.

You shot some of The Aeronauts outdoors in the gas balloon and then some on a soundstage against a blue screen. How did you all work to keep the authenticity consistent in your performances?

We were lucky that the first thing we shot was the real stuff. We went up in the real balloon—we had this accident, it was really terrifying—and the notion of the stakes were weirdly embedded with us from day one. Ultimately, it always feels horrendously fake when you’re in a giant basket surrounded by blue screens, but they did things like [freezing] the studio for our breath. We were shooting in the summer in the U.K., and then you had cast and crew in jackets because we were in a giant refrigerator. They also gave us freezing buckets with ice to plunge our hands into beforehand. The director really gave us everything he could to make it feel [right]. Because they had gone up in helicopters and shot the skyscapes beforehand, they had very clever technology on an iPad that lets you look at the balloon to see where the sun was and what the weather was. They spent a long time working in pre-production about how to not make it look fake, and one of the things was that it could look real, but if your eyes are totally open, the fact that there’s blinding sunlight…of course, you can look at a big, bright light without it being a stretch. It was to learn to squint a bit [to avoid] the giveaway.

Between The Aeronauts and the Fantastic Beasts series, you’ve been doing quite a bit of acting in synthetic spaces.

[laughs]

That’s not a value judgment! How do you go about using your imagination to bring the surroundings to life in your head while maintaining the same specificity as if you were there?

I try and do a load of research, so even if it’s on Fantastic Beasts, it’s talking to the animators, going and looking at drawings and set designs. Trying to do all of that early so it’s not in your imagination. The other process I tried to learn from Dan Fogler, who’s in Fantastic Beasts and very free. He’ll try lots of different things, and I watched him on the first film and thought he was brilliant. It’s a mixture of doing your research, then throwing it away and trying things.

Has it gotten easier over time? Like a muscle that has to be trained and toned?

Yeah, it definitely does. For example, with Pickett [a small plant creature his character keeps as a pet] on Fantastic Beasts, I was so concerned with talking to something that’s not there and make it feel real. I would over[act]. [Reenacts staring intently at the creature on his hand] You never normally look at people when you talk to them. You can have a conversation with Pinkett on your hand and not really look at him.

You’ve mentioned that the basket became like another character in the film because you and Felicity shared such tight quarters with it. How do you make spaces feel natural for your characters to inhabit?

That is rehearsals. That’s why we did them. What I love about this film, hopefully, is that it’s this thrilling adventure on a big scale. At the same time, it’s also an intimate little drama. That space is the size of a sofa. We had weeks working of thinking how to make things visually interesting for an audience. Each time the camera comes back to it, it needs to have transformed or changed. We rehearsed on it so we could find different ways: whether it was sitting on the floor or one of us up in the hoop, different angles, getting rid of carpets or some of the tools. They add character to this battered, bruised vessel that’s been pummeled.

Does that mean you all were really working out specific shots and angles within the rehearsal process?

When we were rehearsing the scenes over and over again, Tom would have suggestions and ideas from watching with the cinematographer. One of the things he found is that, early on, if the camera was ever outside of the balloon—even centimeters out—it doesn’t feel real. Any moments that are caught inside the balloon, apart from a few moments where drones fly and take close-ups, the cinematographer was always inside the balloon. He was moving with the movement. The camera, similarly, was like another character in the piece. Because just one centimeter outside, since we can’t suspend ourselves in mid-air, felt unreal.

Do you find it liberating to work within such tight confines like the basket? Does it force you to be more precise and conscious of your movement and blocking?

Yeah, it does. Because you’re confined, the freedom is in the minutiae. You can’t be making big, bold gestures. I think the intimacy plays to its favor in some ways.

The Aeronauts has a theme of looking up for inspiration amidst troubling times. The last few films you’ve made generally have some kind of optimistic feeling about them. Is that a conscious running thread running through your filmography?

I never relate my films to each other, but what I think is interesting is that the only way I choose work is by reacting to it. So maybe there’s a sense of that [optimism]. The reason I wanted to do The Aeronauts is because I got to that last passage where Felicity’s character is standing on top of the world, and I just thought I would love to see that. I loved the idea of working with Felicity again. I loved this old-school adventure thrill to it. I felt like you’ve seen space investigated, but I hadn’t seen the sky. Sometimes, on a cold, horrendously miserable day, there’s something ecstatic about a break through the clouds. And whether you can retrain an audience who’s so used to seeing the sky from planes to make it feel like something new, all those things were curious to me. I don’t specifically go looking for optimistic pieces, although there was a period in my career when I was playing incestuous teenagers and schizophrenic psychos, so maybe I need to go talk to a therapist about that!

I know some actors like Meryl Streep or David Oyelowo, just to name two that come to mind, say that they deliberately only put work out into the world that they think can make it a better place.

That’s really interesting. I haven’t read that, but I’m probably not that…selfless. It tends to be something I just react to. There’s a weird moment when you read a script and suddenly feel a bit sick. That’s when you transfer yourself from imagining it to imagine yourself doing it. That’s the reality of the responsibility.

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Review: Midnight Family Is an Intimate Look at Mexico’s Ambulance Crisis

It’s the mix of the humane and the calculating that gives the film its empathetic power.

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Midnight Family
Photo: 1091 Media

Director Luke Lorentzen’s Midnight Family opens with a startling statistic: In Mexico City, around 45 public ambulances serve a population of over nine million people. Picking up the pieces are private ambulances, such as the one owned and operated by the Ochoa family, whom Lorentzen follows over several nights as they pick up patients from accident sites, provide immediate medical service, and deposit them at various hospitals. Every element of this process is a negotiation, and Lorentzen captures a multitude of damning and haunting details. Following this family, Lorentzen fashions a documentary that serves as a wrenchingly intimate portrait of a country’s wide-reaching healthcare crisis.

For the Ochoas, particularly their portly paterfamilias, Fernando, and his charismatic 17-year-old son, Juan, the ambulance is firstly a business—a means of barebones survival. The Ochoa ambulance often resembles a kind of medical food truck, as it roams Mexico City looking for customers, who are, of course, individuals in pronounced danger and pain. Lorentzen vividly captures the chaos of the accident sites, including the maddening array of traffic lights and people wandering haphazardly among the twisted ruins of crushed vehicles and property. Into this chaos, Fernando, Juan, and others enter with a kind of cleansing purposefulness, though they also have to watch out for cops who are looking to shake them down for pay-offs. (The legality of private ambulances is somewhat vaguely rendered here; the Ochoas may or may not have the right paperwork, though they definitely need official license plates.)

It’s the mix of the humane and the calculating that gives Midnight Family its empathetic power. While saving lives, the Ochoas must focus on means of payment. They’re not ghouls, as we come to see that their next meal, and their ability to keep the vehicle running, depends on a night-by-night payout, which is threatened by the police as well as rival private ambulances. Since the Ochoas run a private business, patients can apparently refuse to pay them without recrimination from the government, which occurs often given the poverty of their largely uninsured clientele. Lorentzen is bracingly specific about money: One pick-up, of a teenage girl battered by her boyfriend, costs 3,800 pesos, at which her well-off mother balks.

Across Lorentzen’s documentary, viewers also learn of the equipment that the Ochoas need to pass regulations, and of the consequence that expense has on their ability to eat. In one evocative illustration of the effect of their profession on private life, we see the Ochoas at a gas station making tuna salad, which they eat on saltines. This meal occurs after an elaborate debate on whether they can afford to eat more than two tacos apiece.

Yet Lorentzen doesn’t turn the Ochoas into objects of our self-congratulatory pity. The filmmaker captures the despair as well as the adventure of such a livewire way of life, especially as the Ochoas race other ambulances. Fernando places a poignant amount of trust in young Juan, who daringly drives the ambulance, cutting off other vehicles with various improvisations of navigation. These chases are filmed by Lorentzen in a mixture of first-person and mounted-camera compositions that emphasize the limitation of a driver’s sight, establishing a sense of immediacy and danger that is far more thrilling than the standardly detached, alternating coverage of a conventional action film. In this fashion, Midnight Family sometimes brings to mind the brilliant chase sequence in James Gray’s We Own the Night.

Given the privacy of the scenes we witness in Midnight Family—moments of carnage, need, poverty, corruption, and love—the invisibility of Lorentzen’s presence comes as a mild disappointment. This project begs for an examination of how the filmmaking process informs the behavior of its subjects. This quality, or lack thereof, is especially evident when a family member of a patient is seen weeping in the front passenger seat of the Ochoa ambulance. How does she feel at being filmed at this moment of extremity? Midnight Family is a rich and textured film, but it stints on this kind of auto-critical answer.

Director: Luke Lorentzen Screenwriter: Luke Lorentzen Distributor: 1091 Media Running Time: 80 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: The Aeronauts Takes to the Skies, Without Much of a Dramatic Hook

As a suspense film, it’s so sluggishly structured that it borders on the avant-garde.

1.5

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The Aeronauts
Photo: Amazon Studios

Tom Harper’s The Aeronauts is such a sluggishly structured suspense film that it borders on the avant-garde. James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne), a 19th-century meteorologist, is attempting to prove that man can predict weather patterns, and he plans a hot-air balloon ride high into the Earth’s troposphere to conduct high-altitude measurements. With no available technology for breathing apparatuses or other modern safety equipment, James’s gambit is a bold one, but he hopes that by traveling so high he can use the most accurate measurements to prove his meteorological theses. Accompanying him is Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones), a daredevil aeronaut with experience flying balloons at extreme altitudes. They’re practically a study in contrasts. James, humorless and bookish, talks rapidly and in fussy detail, mostly holding conversations with himself and putting others in the position of needing to interject to get a word in edgewise. Amelia, meanwhile, is filled with a certain joie de vivre, literally arriving to the balloon launch doing acrobatics to liven up the assembled crowd.

This is the second time that Redmayne and Jones have starred in a film together, but familiarity has done little to deepen their stilted chemistry. James and Amelia don’t converse so much as recite their respective credentials at each other. This might have worked if The Aeronauts gave the characters specializations that the other lacked, yet each has similar strengths: James, the less experienced balloonist, nonetheless knows enough about piloting the craft to not need instruction, while Amelia understands enough about meteorology to not require James to dumb down his scientific jargon. As a result, the pair’s dynamic is devoid of inherent conflict, which might have distracted them from the monotony of their balloon’s ascent into cloud-studded skies, which Harper stages as if in real time.

Of course, sitting in a vehicle that slowly drifts upward as its two occupants engage in, at most, haughty disagreement makes for moribund drama, so Harper fills time with flashbacks to show how James and Amelia got to this point. Anyone who’s ever seen a historical fiction about a scientific pioneer will know what to expect of James’s backstory: repeated scenes of the man explaining his ideas to academic administrators with sideburns large enough to count as mating displays, all of them mirthfully wagging their turkey necks as they respond to James’s hypotheses with sayings like, “Hitting the sherry a bit early this morning, aren’t we, Glaisher?”

Meanwhile, across a series of frenzied, chaotically edited memories of trauma, Amelia relives the death of her husband, Pierre Rennes (Vincent Perez), in a ballooning accident. It’s a hysterically lopsided distribution of character motivation. We get a few shots of Amelia and Pierre tenderly embracing, but otherwise the dead man is a mere device, and all that she can say of him to James is that “his most enduring quality was a deep, true love for the beauty of the world,” which, as far as eulogies go, is about two steps above “He loved to laugh.”

George Steel’s cinematography, namely the way it captures the balloon’s ascent, is the film’s strong suit. Especially noteworthy is when James and Amelia break past the cloud layer and are left in direct sunlight that’s rendered with brilliant white light that washes out the frame even as it communicates the rapidly falling temperatures at that altitude. And that temperature drop becomes the first catalyst for actual drama when James lets slip that he didn’t pack a warm enough coat out of concerns for the balloon’s weight, setting up the last act’s belated decision to include some kind of suspense in order to give the film a dramatic hook.

Indeed, the film’s last hour, in which James and Amelia find themselves increasingly starved for oxygen as their balloon rises higher into atmosphere, is its most engaging. Here, a violently shivering James transforms into the reckless adventure, while Amelia becomes the more anxious and fearful of the two. As she urges caution in the face of falling oxygen levels, the mild-mannered scientist is suddenly overcome with delusions of grandeur and fame and does everything to keep them rising. The camera begins to blur at the edges to reflect the characters’ fading consciousness, while a series of desperate last-ditch efforts on Amelia’s part to save them both is mounted with real tension. Still, the film’s wonky, flashback-heavy structure puts so much emphasis on the by-the-numbers backstory of the characters that the actual drama of the balloon flight itself is muted, making the eventual turn toward chaos less of a narrative culmination than a last-minute recalibration of the film’s inert quality.

Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Phoebe Fox, Himesh Patel, Vincent Perez, Anne Reid, Tom Courtenay, Tim McInnerny, Rebecca Front Director: Tom Harper Screenwriter: Jack Thorne Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 100 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: Jennifer Reeder’s Knives and Skin Limply Aspires to the Lynchian

The film gets so lost in its affected idiosyncrasies that it stops probing any discernible human feelings.

1.5

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Knives and Skin
Photo: IFC Films

Something terrible has happened to Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley). But unlike Twin Peaks and its plastic-wrapped Laura Palmer, Knives and Skin makes it immediately clear what occurred to her: She was left bleeding and without her glasses in the wilderness by a vengeful jock, Andy Kitzmiller (Ty Olwin), because she wouldn’t have sex with him. She never makes it back. This transpires near the start of the film, and what transpires after this point is a dreamy, neon-tinted vision of a town overcome less by grief than ennui.

Throughout Knives and Skin, writer-director Jennifer Reeder draws heavily from the style of David Lynch, cycling through the townsfolk and their weirdest tendencies. Carolyn’s mother, Lisa (Marika Engelhardt), insists that she can smell her daughter on Andy. Andy’s sister, Joanna (Grace Smith), sells underwear to Principal Markhum (Tony Fitzpatrick), cash only. The girl’s father, Dan (Tim Hopper), who’s cheating on his wife (Audrey Francis), is seen at one point emerging from between a waitress’s (Kate Arrington) legs while wearing clown makeup. And Grandma Kitzmiller (Marilyn Dodds Frank) pesters everyone for weed. Certain objects glow, and the girls’ choir practices a series of haunting pop song arrangements, its members whispering to each other one by one while the rest of the ensemble keeps singing.

Other than Lisa’s persistent, unfounded hopes that her daughter is still alive, Carolyn’s disappearance seems to intentionally leave little impression on anyone. Everyone is wrapped up in their own concerns and pursuits, struggling to hold down jobs or dealing with disinterested partners. They’re united only by their vaguely odd feelings and a sense of being trapped, as one boy (Robert T. Cunningham) does when he stands on the roof of the high school; he doesn’t intend to jump, he just wants to see the highway that leads somewhere else.

But in untethering itself from what happened to Carolyn Harper, Knives and Skin ends up unfocused, shambling from one moment of self-conscious weirdness to another. Its themes, like the constant and varied violations of consent going on throughout the town, get lost in favor of things like the talking tiger T-shirt and the hamburger meat lobbed at a vehicle in protest until the entire purpose of these surreal flourishes seems to melt away.

The film is intermittently striking with its heavily stylized lighting and wistful electronic score, but it creates little sense of place. The town where these people all live, which seems to be affecting them to such a profound degree, is so nondescript beyond a few anonymous landscape shots that it stops evoking a place they would want to leave because it doesn’t really seem like a place at all. Rather than explorations of individual oddness, Knives and Skin becomes a rather tedious mood piece with an ethereal atmosphere so remote, so lost in its affected idiosyncrasies that it stops probing any discernible human feelings.

Cast: Marika Engelhardt, Raven Whitley, Ty Olwin, Ireon Roach, Haley Bolithon, Aurora Real de Asua, Grace Smith, Marilyn Dodds Frank, Tim Hopper, Audrey Francis, James Vincent Meredith, Kate Arrington, Kayla Carter, Robert T. Cunningham, Alex Moss Director: Jennifer Reeder Screenwriter: Jennifer Reeder Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 111 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Interview: Jessica Hausner on Little Joe and the Ways of Being and Seeing

Hausner discusses wanting to sustain the tension of the first act of a Body Snatchers production over the course of an entire narrative.

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Jessica Haustner
Photo: Karina Ressler/Magnolia Pictures

With Little Joe, director Jessica Hausner reinvigorates an Invasion of the Body Snatchers-type premise by boldly suggesting that modern humans don’t have any identities left to lose. The true body snatcher, rather than the beautiful, manipulative red flower at the film’s center, is a corporate culture that stifles our individual thought with double-speak and other subtly constant threats to personal status.

The challenge of such a premise, then, is to reveal the private individual longings that are suppressed by cultural indoctrination without breaking the film’s restrictive formal spell—a challenge that Hausner says she solved with co-writer Géraldine Bajard during a lengthy writing session. Little Joe is so carefully structured and executed that one is encouraged to become a kind of detective, parsing chilly tracking shots and flamboyant Wes Anderson-style color schemes for signs of a character’s true emotional experience.

Ahead of the film’s theatrical release, Hausner and I discussed her obsession with boiling societies down to singular metaphorical places, a tendency that unites Little Joe with her prior features, including Amour Fou and Lourdes. We also talked about the notion of social coding and pressure, and how the filmmaker was interested in sustaining the tension of the first act of a Body Snatchers production over the course of an entire narrative. For Hausner, such tension is certainly fostered with a rigorous devotion to sound and composition, which her actors found freeing, perhaps in the ironic tradition of her own characters.

Little Joe evinces a strong understanding of that staid, subtly restrictive office culture.

I think in all my films I try to find a closed space. Sometimes it’s a company or, in Amour Fou, it’s bourgeois society. I made a film called Lourdes where it was very clear it was that place in Lourdes. I’m trying to portray the hierarchies of a society, and I think it’s easier to do that if you have one place. Then you can show who are the chefs, the people in the middle, and the ones who just have to follow. Sometimes you can even see these statures on the costumes.

The brightly colored costumes are striking in Little Joe. It seems as if they’re expressing emotions the characters aren’t allowing themselves.

Yes. Well, they don’t allow themselves, or maybe I’d put it slightly differently: No one really shows their true emotions [laughs]. We all play a role in our lives and we’re all a part of some sort of hierarchy. And no matter what kind of life we live, we’re living within a society, and we do have to obey rules most of the time. My films focus on that perspective, rather than saying, “Oh, everyone has a free choice.” My experience is that free choice is very limited even in a free world. We are very much manipulated in terms of how we should think and how we should behave. Social codes are quite strong.

One of the lovely ironies of this film is that it’s difficult to discern which enslavements are caused by the flower and which are already inherently in place via society.

Absolutely. That’s the irony about it. When we worked on the script, it wasn’t so easy to build up a storyline that suggests a change that you never really see. Over the process of scriptwriting, we decided that the validity of feelings was invisible. We also had conversations with scientists, and we considered which part of the brain was responsible for emotions.

I’m curious if any singular story element led you to this premise.

I’m a big fan of science-fiction and horror films, and I do like those Invasion of the Body Snatchers films, but only the beginnings. I like the setups, those scenes where someone says, “Oh, my uncle isn’t my uncle anymore.” I had this idea to prolong this doubt about who people really are over the whole length of a feature film. Because it’s a basic human experience: You can never really understand what another person is thinking or feeling.

I love that there’s no overt monster in Little Joe. There’s no catharsis exactly.

No, there isn’t. The catharsis takes place on a very strange level, which leads to one of the other starting elements of the film. I wanted to portray a single mother who loves her job. So, the catharsis in the end is really very much centered on Alice as she finally allows herself to focus on her work and to let her son live with the father, which is okay.

You’re right that there’s a catharsis, from the fulfillment of the final line of dialogue.

Absolutely.

This is what’s hard to reconcile: Despite the loss of self that debatably takes place over the course of the film, Alice gets exactly what she wants and the flower does exactly what it’s supposed to do.

Yes, I’m glad to hear you say that. I do get a lot of questions about the dark, dystopian perspective, but there’s no such perspective in this film. It’s a very friendly, light ending. If we all change, perhaps it’s for the better.

I’m curious about the visual design of the flower. It seems to me that it’s both male and female at once, which I think is an achievement.

What do you mean male and female? The design?

The shape seems phallic. Yet the color scheme almost has a lingerie quality.

I think the basic idea is that it’s a male plant. I wanted that basic juxtaposition between the boy and the plant. The film suggests that it’s a male plant, but yet, of course, when the plant opens and is exhaling the pollen…well, I would say it’s a very male plant. [both laugh]

The release of the pollen, especially for the first time against the glass of the lab, does feel like an ejaculation.

Yes. That was very much a part of the idea. The plant is trying to survive.

It’s like a revenge of the sex drive.

Yes.

Which parallels how the humans are repressing their sex drives. It’s a lovely reverberation. What was the collaboration with the actors like? Such a careful tone of emotional modulation is maintained throughout the film.

I enjoyed the collaboration very much. the actors understood what the film’s style was about. You do have actors sometimes who are used to the fact that the camera is working around them, but in my films it’s always the other way around. The camera is determining the image and the actor has to fit in. The actors—Emily Beecham, Ben Whishaw, Kerry Fox, and the others—were able to cope with that method very well. I remember especially Ben Whishaw even liked it, because—if you don’t feel suffocated, if you’re strong enough to fight against the style—it can be a joyful way to work. The collaboration with the actors also focused very much on the undertone of what they’re saying. A lot of scenes have a double meaning. I’m always trying to show that people normally lie. So, everything that’s said is also said because it should be said, I don’t know if you know what I mean…

Yes, social coding.

I’m trying to make the actors act in a way that makes us feel a character’s position rather than any individuality, so that we know that the characters are a part of something larger and have to say whatever they’re saying now. We try to reveal the typical codes of a society.

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Review: The Wolf Hour Is Dubiously Content to Watch Its Protagonist Squirm

The film is all surface, and its depiction of trauma becomes increasingly exploitative and hollow as it moves along.

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The Wolf Hour
Photo: Brainstorm Media

An air of decay and discomfort pervades the dingy Manhattan apartment where nearly all of The Wolf Hour unfolds. An agoraphobic recluse, June Leigh (Naomi Watts) languishes in the unit, overwhelmed with guilt from a past misdeed. The cramped, underlit apartment, full of dusty old books and overstuffed trash bags, takes on an increasingly oppressive quality as the door buzzer continues to go off with unnerving frequency. Despite June’s pleas to whomever is on the other end, all she gets in response is an ominous, crackling static. It’s an unsettling sound that’s a fitting approximation of the feminist icon and writer’s brittle mental state, which is inextricably tied to the decrepit state of a 1977 New York City plagued by sweltering summer heat and the Son of Sam killer’s reign of terror.

From the limited perspective of this tiny apartment, writer-director Alistair Banks Griffin constructs an aura of danger and alienation, filling out the broader scope of the citywide upheaval with street scuffles and snippets of news coverage that June overhears on the radio or television. It’s a provocative setting, which could have served as a compelling backdrop for June’s mental unraveling, but the acutely detailed portrait of this specific time and place never extends to that of the muddled, half-baked characterization of the woman who inhabits it.

Watts has made a career playing the most brooding and agitated of characters, and with a practically unparalleled visceral depth. Here, her subtly skittish gestures and facial expressions lend June a raw, nervous energy that suggests a woman on the verge of losing her mind. Strange, cathartic scenes, such as when June abruptly lets loose and feverishly dances to Suicide’s “Ghost Rider,” gives a strong sense of how far she’s strayed from the person she once was. But such unexpected character beats arise too infrequently throughout the film, and for all of Watts’s efforts, the roots of June’s anguish are never more than vaguely explored.

In an attempt to flesh out June’s interiority, Griffin’s script works in a handful of people who visit her apartment. But none of these characters, from her sister (Jennifer Ehle) to a grocery deliveryman (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) to a compassionate gigolo (Emory Cohen), offer much insight into the celebrated genius that June used to be. In fact, it’s only through June’s viewing of a contentious TV interview that she gave when her first book was released that we get any sense of the catalyst for her downward spiral. It’s a remarkably contrived manner of inserting much-needed backstory into The Wolf Hour, but even worse, it hints at a story far more intriguing than the miserabilism that quickly reveals itself to be the film’s default mode.

That interview reveals that June had a tumultuous fallout with her family due to her leftist screed’s thinly veiled criticism of her businessman father. It’s a turn that suggests something akin to the complicated father-daughter antagonism between Shiv and Logan on HBO’s Succession, yet Griffin does nothing with this bombshell, simply returning to June as she continues to drown in her paralyzing guilt. An abrupt and woefully misguided deus ex machina attempts to do some heavy narrative lifting, but it changes our perception of June without laying the sort of groundwork needed to make such a twist land with any gravitas.

In the end, June remains an enigma and the film’s finale only solidifies the notion that Griffin never had any interest in plumbing June’s emotional struggles. Like the sweat covering June’s face at all times or the dust that coats her apartment, The Wolf Hour is all surface, and its depiction of trauma only becomes increasingly exploitative and hollow as it moves along.

Cast: Naomi Watts, Brennan Brown, Jennifer Ehle, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Emory Cohen, Jeremy Bobb, Maritza Veer, Justin Clarke Director: Alistair Banks Griffin Screenwriter: Alistair Banks Griffin Distributor: Brainstorm Media Running Time: 99 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Interview: Céline Sciamma on Redefining the Muse with Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Our talk ranged from the personal to the political, her singular work to the cinema at large.

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Céline Sciamma
Photo: Claire Mathon

My experience talking with directors leads me to informally sort them into three categories based on what element of their work they can speak most eloquently about: theory, emotion, and technical execution. Few have straddled all aspects of the filmmaking process quite like French writer-director Céline Sciamma, the mind and muscle behind Portrait of a Lady on Fire. She’s able to deftly answer questions that address the end-to-end process of how a moment germinates in her head, how an audience will interpret it, and how theory can explain why they feel the way they do.

Sciamma’s latest directorial outing relegates her minimalism primarily to the screenplay, which revolves around the interactions between a painter, Noémie Merlant’s Marianne, and the subject, Adèle Haenel’s Héloïse, that she’s been commissioned to covertly paint. The deceptively simple contours of Portrait of a Lady on Fire belie the ambition of the film, which sets out to achieve nothing less than a complete deconstruction of the artist-muse relationship. What Sciamma proposes in its place is a love story between the two women rooted in equality and artistry rather than in domination and lust.

I spoke with Sciamma after the film’s premiere at the New York Film Festival in September. Our talk ranged from the personal to the political, her singular work to the cinema at large, our present moment’s liberation to the centuries of patriarchal influence over our shared historical narrative. In short, a full spectrum of conversation that few directors can match.

You’ve placed Portrait of a Lady on Fire in conversation with discourse around the subject of muses. Does the film suggest that we need to dispense with this ideal altogether, or that we just need to update and revise our notions of what it means?

Well, it’s a contemporary conversation, and even though the movie’s set in the past, it definitely could be something that could have been set in 2019. It’s been a long [journey] for me, because it’s been five years from my previous film, and I thought about this for years. Within these five years, a lot happened. [The time] gave me confidence and new tools and ideas—also less loneliness—to be radical and without compromise. It gives you strength and structure to be radical with all the ideas. The movie is full of them.

Women artists have always existed. They’ve had more flourishing moments, like that time in the mid-18th century when there were a lot of women painters. That’s why we set [the film] in that period, of course, but mostly women were in the workshop as models or companions. That was their part in artistry, so that’s how they’re told [in cultural narratives]. The real part they took in creation isn’t told. Something is happening in art history because there are women researchers on the other side. Dora Maar was the muse of Picasso, but actually, she was a part of the Surrealist group. There’s a lot of them we know now. It was a way to tell the story again to reactivate this nature of art history. But I’m sure it’s true; it’s not this anachronistic vision.

You hired an “art sociologist” to help develop Portrait of a Lady on Fire. What did you learn from this person, and how did that affect the film?

It was a woman who [studied] that period when there were a lot of women painters. The fact that she’s a sociologist and not a historian actually was really important for me because, as we were inventing this character, sociology was really important to make her true to all of these women. Whereas if we’d picked [one historical figure], it would be about destiny. She read the script, and [determined that] there were no anachronisms. What I learned is that it gave me confidence to trust this character all the way. It was something I could hand to Noémie on set.

Is the notion of the “muse” inherently incompatible with equality?

The fact that you could be inspiring just by being there, beautiful and silent, there’s definitely domination. The fact that it’s told as something that always has to do with [being] in a relationship, even the love in creation in the muse—you have to fall in love with your actresses or models—is a fantasy that allows abuse of power. Even the possessive, sometimes I’m asked about my actresses. They’re not asked about their directors; they’re asked about the director.

When I wrote the part for Adèle, she was the model. When I talked about the film, and not much because I’m very secretive, people told me, “So, Adèle’s going to be the painter?” And I said, “No, Adèle is going to be the model!” People were like, “Why? She should be the painter.” And I was like, “Oh, so you find that the model is too narrow for her? You find that this isn’t the dynamic of power she’s entitled to. She should be the painter.” She and I laughed and thought, “Of course, [Adèle] should be the model because I’m the actress.” So, what are they saying? That it’s too small for her? That was also very nourishing, the idea today that she shouldn’t be in that position. It would be a weak position. And it isn’t.

I was surprised to learn that you didn’t write Marianne’s character from the start as someone assigned to paint Héloïse covertly. What did that discovery in the writing process unlock in the story for you?

When I got the idea, I was like, “Now the movie’s got a chance.” The movie is very full of ideas and has some theory of cinema, but that’s why it should be strongly dramatically charged. The fact that we embodied these problematic [ideas] really is important. The journey of the gaze, the fact that it’s stolen at first, then consensual, then mutual, then…we don’t even know who’s looking at who. It makes it really physical and organic. And also, it’s true that all my films are [thematically] bound with a character having a secret. Usually it lasts until the end, but this time it’s only half an hour of being secretive. The secret becomes this reservoir of what’s going to be said and what’s going to unfold, which felt different.

Unlike Tomboy, where schoolyard bullies embody the antagonistic forces of transphobia and heteronormativity, the villain in Portrait of a Lady on Fire seems to be time and the reality of Héloïse’s marriage on the horizon. Was this always your intent to write a story with a more abstract foe?

Yeah, because I really wanted not to go through the same negotiations and conflicts. I wanted it to be a new journey for the audience. Their love dialogue relies on a new ideal that’s equality. There’s no gender domination because they’re two women. That’s practical. But there’s no intellectual domination. We didn’t play with social hierarchy, either. We know their love is impossible, but we aren’t going to play with that. We aren’t going to try and project them into the future. Some people, the old culture, wants you to do that. Show the taboo, the impossibility, the struggle, the conflict with yourself. And we didn’t want to do that.

Because it’s about what you put in the frame. We’re just looking at what’s possible, that suspension of time, and we know very well the frame. We don’t have to tell you the prospects for these women, especially because it’s set in the past. They’re shitty. Lousy. We’re not going to waste time and put you in that position where you will go through this conflict to tell the same thing, that it’s impossible. The real tragedy is that it is possible, but it’s made impossible—by the world of men, mostly. That’s also why there are no men in the film. It would mean portraying a character whose sole purpose is to be the enemy, which isn’t something that interests me at all. I don’t need to take time to portray that. It’s not generous enough.

Are we to take the shot of Héloise on fire literally? That scene seems to enter such a representational, abstract realm, and then we’re jolted back into the reality of her walks with Marianne with that match cut of her extending a hand.

That [says] a lot about the film. It wants to be very embodied in a very simple but kind of brave [way], not just purely theoretical. She’s really going to be on fire! That was one of the key scenes I had in mind as the compass of the film. If you’re really setting her on fire, you’re setting the bar for the other scenes. They have to be in dialogue with this [moment]. It shouldn’t be this unique thing out of the whole language of the film.

I was so struck by the shot toward the end of the film where Marianne sketches herself in a mirror placed over Héloïse’s nether regions. It’s a masterly composition that also feels like a real thematic lynchpin. Can you describe both how the shot developed intellectually and how you executed it on set?

It’s about where you put the focus. In the mirror, she’s blurry. It’s about trust, about being playful, about going all the way with your ideas. But also, it’s fun. It’s a fun thing to do. Even the difficulty of it makes you think about cinema and how we’re going to do this. It’s a way to always be woke about your craft and having new challenges, solving old questions with new ideas. Really trying to harvest most of the situation of people looking at each other. It’s a very simple [way to] access ideas. She’s portraying herself with this mirror, this woman is naked, and her head is where her sex is. It’s really overt, so you don’t have to think about it. But, still, it’s this idea that’s given to you through a sensation. It should always be about this, I think.

I didn’t think it would be possible to top something like the “Diamonds” scene in Girlhood, but here you have a three-minute scene that features Adèle Haenel reacting to music. How do you go about shooting these scenes in a way that allows the audience to understand the impact the music has on the characters?

For Girlhood, I really tried to think of [the scene] as if it were a scene in a musical. When they start to sing in a musical, [they’re] very strong moments within the characters’ relationships. They’re saying things to each other, and, if they’re dancing, their bodies are expressing themselves. It’s about the music not being the commentary, but really thinking about it like, “Okay, if there was a Fred Astaire film, when would this thing happen? What would it say?” It’s always about the intimacy between the characters and what their bodies can express.

But this is kind of different because it’s the final scene. It unveils the fact that it’s cinema. It’s a shot-reverse shot. At first, you’re looking at Héloïse and Marianne looking at Héloïse. But, at some point, it’s about you the audience looking at Adèle performing. It’s about cinema. It leaves room for you. It’s the same in the “Diamonds” scene in Girlhood; it doesn’t become a clip if suddenly there’s room for the viewer. When we talk about the female gaze, of course it’s about not objectifying women, it’s also about mostly how you experience the journey of the character. You experience it with your body and mind. You’re fully aware. It’s not about you being fully inside the film; it’s about the film being inside you. I think that’s what we can offer.

You’ve talked about needing to develop a new grammar to tell the story of Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Now that you have developed it, do you think it will be applicable to other films? Or will you have to reinvent the wheel again?

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is my fourth film, and it felt like a departure. But it’s also a growing of a lot of decisions and myself as a 40-year-old woman. So next time, I never know what I’m going to do next. I really feel like I’ve said all I have to say right now. I feel relieved of something also. And now that we are having this discussion around the film, it puts it in the world. It’s something we share. When you craft a film, it’s really your secret for so long. Now I feel like I’m going to have to find a new secret for myself.

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