Sunday, February 15, 2004

The greatest story ever told, and told, and told . . .

Gibson's controversial 'Passion' latest of many cinematic portrayals of Christian Gospel

By Margaret A. McGurk
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Mel Gibson's The Passion of The Christ, opens on Ash Wednesday (Feb. 25).
(Marquis Films, Ltd.)
Mel Gibson's much discussed new film, The Passion of The Christ, opening nationwide on Ash Wednesday (Feb. 25), is the latest in a long and varied line of movie portrayals of Jesus.

Some are frankly evangelical, made to instruct and inspire more than entertain. This year's well-received The Gospel of John from Visual Bible International and the 1979 film Jesus, circulated worldwide by Campus Crusade for Christ, were produced by Christians primarily to solidify the faith of their fellows and to convert nonbelievers. Gibson has said he expects The Passion to serve the same spiritual purpose.

At the same time, the $25 million production - which Gibson financed, produced and directed - has aesthetic aspirations equal to any commercial film. The cast includes James Caviezel (Count of Monte Cristo, The Thin Red Line) as Jesus and Monica Bellucci (The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions) as Mary Magdalene. The cinematographer is Oscar-nominated Caleb Deschanel. Composer John Debney has 20 years of film music credits, including Bruce Almighty, Princess Diaries and Spy Kids.

Their work will be judged in part by how it compares to its cinematic forebears. Here are a few of the best known:

• King of Kings (1961) 171 minutes, not rated. Directed by Nicholas Ray, often associated with stormy, anguished stories such as Rebel Without A Cause, Johnny Guitar and In A Lonely Place. King of Kings starred Jeffrey Hunter, a blue-eyed leading man who, critic Leonard Maltin wrote, "may or may not have been the movies' most convincing Son of God, (but) was surely the prettiest.'' Ray succumbed to melodramatic pretension to the extent that narrator Orson Welles demanded his name come off the credits. Still, it was simpler and more spontaneous than the gaudy spectacle that followed in four years.

• The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) 260 minutes, rated G. Directed by George Stevens (Shane, A Place in The Sun, Giant), with uncredited help from David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia). Jesus is portrayed by Max Von Sydow with grim Nordic immobility in what became a textbook case of overwrought, overproduced, overblown studio-driven excess. At least five writers, including Carl Sandburg, were credited, and still the movie is so bad that humorist/critic Joe Bob Briggs described it as "atheism-inducing." Among its worst offenses was embarrassing stunt casting with Charlton Heston as a wild-eyed John the Baptist, Dorothy Malone as the Virgin Mary, and John Wayne as a centurion who drawls "This surely was the son of God" so clumsily that the line regularly made audiences laugh.

• The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), 137 minutes, not rated. Directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini. Although the director was a Marxist and an atheist, this Italian production became one of the most acclaimed renditions of the New Testament, winning three Oscar nominations and the endorsement of the Vatican. It made such an impression on Gibson that he shot The Passion in the same Southern Italian town where Pasolini worked. The movie has no narration and uses only dialogue taken directly from the Gospel. Shot in black and white with hand-held cameras in near-documentary style, it emphasized the outsider status of Jesus and his followers, all by non-professional actors. Architecture student Enrique Irazoqui delivers a convincing performance as a spiritual radical who threatened the status quo of his time.

• Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), 108 minutes, rated G. Directed by Norman Jewison (A Soldier's Story, In the Heat of the Night, The Cincinnati Kid) Based on the hit Andrew Lloyd Weber/Tim Rice stage musical, it generated controversy of its own by turning the familiar Biblical story into a rock opera. The movie tells the story of Jesus from the point of view of Judas (Carl Anderson), who along with Yvonne Elliman as Mary Magdalene, dominates the movie. Jesus, as written by Weber and Rice and performed by Ted Neeley, is so bland he barely registers. Even his confused and disorganized disciples are more engaging. The movie was filmed on location in Israel.

• Godspell (1973), 103 minutes, rated G. TV director David Greene oversaw the filming of this durable stage musical that casts the Gospel of Matthew in modern song and dance. With clown-like costumes and bouncy pop tunes by Stepyhen Schwartz, it is geared to young believers (thus its perennial appearance in high-school drama programs). Jesus was played by journeyman stage and TV actor Victor Garber, now best known for his role as Jennifer Garner's father on Alias.

• Jesus of Nazareth (1977), 371 minutes, not rated. Though created as a television mini-series by director Franco Zeffirelli (Romeo and Juliet, Jane Eyre) and co-written by Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange), this production is among the most beautifully crafted New Testament films. British actor Robert Powell played Jesus with sensitivity and grace, and the star-studded cast - Anne Bancroft, Laurence Olivier, James Earl Jones, and Anthony Quinn - amplified the movie's sense of grandeur.

• The Life of Brian (1979), 94 minutes. Rated R for nudity, sexual situations and profanity. Of course, the Monty Python crew would make a movie so scathing in its satire that it was denounced as blasphemous long before anyone saw it. (At one point, the Pythons intended to call the film Jesus Christ: Lust for Glory.) Jesus (Keith Colley) barely appears in the film. Instead, the story centers on the hapless Brian Cohen (Graham Chapman), who was born on Christmas one stable away from Jesus, and is mistaken for the messiah for the rest of his life.

• The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), 164 minutes, rated R. Based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, and adapted by screenwriter Paul Schrader for his long-time collaborator, director Martin Scorsese. The movie ignited a firestorm of protest because it shows Jesus on the brink of death tormented by doubts and hallucinating about the ordinary life, including marriage and children that he did not have. Scorsese invests the film with an intensity born of spiritual curiosity, and Willem Dafoe renders Jesus as a fully complex, emotional human being.

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