This is not as long as my usual reviews, but because I did not watch the entire episode, I can only comment on what I saw. I don’t like to do this, but I will not have the time to watch the entire first episode of The Bible this week, and I wanted to post something while it is still relevant. This may be a breath of fresh air for my readers, especially when it comes to History Channel productions, but I did not hate this opening episode at all. In fact, it actually was decent. There are still plenty of little nuggets to poke fun at, and a few cringe moments, but overall, it was a pleasing effort for those who take the Bible as the literal word of God, and those who just like it as a good story. Some highlights that caught my attention are below:
In the Middle Ages, a bubonic plague that would come to be known as the “Black Death” ravaged Europe, decimated populations, and forced survivors to fall to their knees, seeking the source of such a devastatingly fantastic event. Diseases are invisible, and because of this, people believed that the plague was a curse sent by God to purify an unclean population. Little did they know, the real source of this was infected rats who stowed away on boats during trading between Eurasia and the Mediterranean. The plague is said to have entered Europe through the Italian port of Messina, slowly but surely cutting a swath of disease and illness that stretched from Italy all the way up to Scandinavia. But with the death that came to millions also came the birth of pop-culture, the first of its kind. Stories and paintings involving the plague, and more singularly, death itself, were in high demand. Just like today, when a topic intrigues a majority of the populace, movies are made, and products of all kinds hit the markets. The “Black Death” had that effect, and it still does today.
There is no subject on earth more intriguing, more marketable than death. It is the one event that is sure to happen to everyone in life, therefore it fascinates us. When someone tells us a story of how someone died, even if we never knew the person, we listen intently. We, as humans, have an obsession with death. Whether we are just trying to understand it, trying to come to terms with it, trying to find away around it, or losing sleep because of it, our lives revolve around death; it is the ultimate irony of our worldly existence. Without death, there would be no need for religion. Without death, there could not be life, because if no one died of natural causes, overpopulation would find a way to kill us any way.
For the first time in recorded history, an invisible force was killing people by the millions, and the feeble minds of the time could not grasp just what exactly it was. Due to being a religious population, it was immediately attributed to God’s wrath. And how does one go about correcting something that has an other-worldly origin? By praying. Men, women, and children prayed for an end to the pestilence, and some took it a step further. Known as “Flagellates”, large groups of men traveled across Europe from city to city, bare-chested, whipping themselves in the back to imitate the suffering of Jesus Christ. Some went beyond that, and had themselves nailed to a cross and carried around by other Flagellates. The people of the small towns and large cities that they passed through ran to see them. They were the first celebrities of their time—they were celebrated and revered, and offered hope that someone on earth could do something about a plague sent by the heavens. It is here where we see the birth of an entirely new genre of art, one that still captivates us. The reason why this is pop-culture, to be differentiated from other art at the time, was because this was not religious in origin. Most artwork back then was commissioned by churches, and artists felt compelled, or coerced, depending on how you look at it, into sticking with church doctrine.
However, there is no “Grim Reaper” in the Bible, there is no personification of death anywhere, except that of angels who bring it. Artists now took it upon themselves to bring their version of the death story, and people were eager to take a look. The paintings were horrifying, but people love to look at what scares them. Perhaps they are trying to find some kind of closure in all of it, perhaps they just want to courageously confront it. As the church painter said in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, which details a knight’s journey through plague-ridden Sweden, “A skull is more interesting than a naked woman”, in regards to artwork. This film, was the first ever depiction of death as a person, predating the modern, yet tacky Grim Reaper look that we see in B-level horror movies. This film got across the same point that Medieval artists wanted to get across hundreds of years prior: death comes for us all—it does not matter who you are, or how much wealth you have, death will take you. Perhaps this was even the origin of the popular catch-phrase, “You can’t take it with you.” If you are wealthy and own two houses and five cars, a casket in the cold ground feels the same to a person that lived their life on the streets in a cardboard box. This is where we see the most popular artistic depiction, which is a “Dance of Death”, better known as Danse Macabre.
Though there are many different versions, the one above is the most endearing. Death, seen almost always as a skeleton, is surrounded by people of all different kinds of backgrounds and occupations, holding hands. Wealthy nobles join hands with peasants, poor friars with bishops and governors, the available cast of characters is endless. No style of art has ever been recopied and altered more than a Dance of Death. No form of personification has been used as much as a Grim Reaper figure, who appeared the most human in the above mentioned film, The Seventh Seal. Here, once again, we are reminded that there is no way to outsmart death, and that it will triumph in the end. The impression that the film leaves is one of authenticity. Had motion pictures been around in the 1300’s, chances are, it would have looked like Bergman’s timeless creation, one that stays with you long after your first viewing. But back to paintings, Pieter Bruegel gave us this horrifying image in 1562, titled “The Triumph of Death”. (Click to enlarge.)
What did audiences do when they gazed upon this harvest of terror, torture, and killing? Did they run away aghast? Or did they delve deeper and ask for more? The latter is what happened, and it is then that we see a massive birth of depressing and terrifying paintings that people flocked too. Once again, death attracts more people than it scares away, ironic considering that we will all be attracted to it in the end. The “Black Death” even makes its way into songs and fairy tales. Troubadours and minstrels wandered the countryside, setting up stages in the backs of their wagons, and playing to small audiences. Their payment was perhaps an optional donation by a viewer, or maybe a meal at the local inn. The pop-culture of traveling theater is now born. And what of nursery rhymes our children sing? It is possible to find a dark and sinister undertone behind many, but the one recited at one time or another by almost every person in the world, “Ring around the Rosie”, is much more blunt, but has been disguised over the years. Though there has never been proof it derived from the Black Plague, just one look at the lyrics and you can see its morbid inspiration.
- Ring around the Rosie: This refers to the plague marks that scattered the human body by the hundred upon infection. Early warning signs of catching the plague were red sores surrounded by a small ring.
- Pocket full of posies: These wonderful smelling flowers were used in an attempt to ward off the disease by the unknowing population who did not realize that the flowers were accomplishing absolutely nothing. The odor could even be used to mask the smell of the hundreds of rotting corpses that laid about the towns until they were taken away and burned.
- Ashes to ashes: What’s the only way to dispose of a body with a contagious disease? Burning. Bodies were stacked into pyres and set ablaze. The pay was pretty good, though, for the poor souls who had to gather the dead bodies.
- We all fall down: Remember, this is a plague sent as vengeance directly from God. For all these people knew, the apocalypse was at hand and everyone was going to die.
In short, no event in human history has inspired as many legends, folktales, songs, and stories as the “Black Death”, aside from early religion itself. But these grim creations are more important, because they are the testimony of a population whose majority could not read or write. Many of the stories we know were passed down orally until they could be recorded by someone who did know how to write. This explosion of artwork is still fancied by many today. How many t-shirt designs and tattoos contain skulls and skeleton figures? How many popular movies set in Medieval Times bring up this plague in some way? It has inspired everyone from Boccaccio to Bergman, from Petrarch to Monty Python, all of whom spin their own versions of this horrifying tale. The impact has been more profound than perhaps anyone has ever realized. The first ever commercialization took place here, and has capitalized on our uneasiness with death. It has, and always will intrigue us—nothing can ever change that.
In celebration of Easter weekend, I thought I would give you my favorite religious movies, and believe me, they are more than wide-ranging. Even though I have come to be weary of all religion, my own included, how can we not love a good religious epic from the 50’s and 60’s, the decades that spawned some of the best? If only for some good action scenes and maybe some inspiration, religious movies have a place in cinematic history, and below are my favorites, in no particular order.
Life of Brian
(1979; Directed by Terry Jones) Some call it blasphemous, I call it absolute genius. A true man of religion should be able to step back and make fun of himself every now and then, and this Monty Python spectacle, to which they actually received death threats, does an excellent job at that. Paralleling the life of Jesus Christ with a man named Brian, who is mistakenly thought of to be the messiah, and actually crucified in his stead, this film mocks anything and everything to do with religion. Okay, so the final “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” scene may have overdone it, but this is still a great film that should be enjoyed by all, fanatics aside. The only movie this team of British comedians did better was Holy Grail, but somehow, that does not leave a lasting impression like this one does. And of course, do not forget, “Blessed are the cheese-makers!”. 7/10 stars.
The Ten Commandments
(1956; Directed by Cecil B. DeMille) In a world where television does not accommodate religious themed movies, this epic film finds a way to be screened annually on ABC every Easter Saturday. Not many films from that time period age well, but this is an exception. Aside from Charlton Heston being one of my favorite actors, and Yul Brynner nailing the role of Ramses, the supporting cast of this film is even better. Vincent Price, who I always thought of as typecast, was able to morph his horror/science fiction personality into the role of Baka, while Edward G. Robinson is absolutely superb in the role of Dathan, the slave overseer. And one still cannot watch the parting of the Red Sea scene without wide eyes, even more than fifty years later. 8/10 stars.
(1959; Directed by William Wyler) This film is not one of my favorite religious movies of all time. It is one of my favorite any movies of all time. Period. In the dictionary, next to the term “epic”, you would expect to see this film’s poster. Winning 11 Oscars, this film has everything you could ever want—outstanding performances, breathtaking scenery, and of course, first-class action by way of a naval battle and one of the most exciting scenes ever filmed, the famous chariot race. This film also indirectly follows the life of Jesus through the life of Ben-Hur, as they cross paths several times, including at the crucifixion. The one thing about this movie that always stood out is the fact that the audience never sees Jesus’ face. It is either a shot from the back or from the front at a distance. This was done by the director intentionally, so that the audience could have in their own minds what Jesus looks like, and Wyler felt that he could not do it justice by personifying him. The same thing went for when this was a play, before the film was made—the character of Jesus was represented by a beam of light, that shone down on the stage. 9/10 stars.
The Greatest Story Ever Told
(1965; Directed by George Stevens) I always loved this movie, despite what most of the critics said, who ripped it apart when it first came out. I do understand their concerns, because one is pretty much spot on, and that is the director taking every big name actor he could find, and stuffing them into this movie in some way. That includes John Wayne, whose Midwestern drawl nearly ruins the climactic scene in the film, when Jesus dies on the cross. Nevertheless, if you can get past that, you can see what a beautiful movie this is. Max Von Sydow does an excellent job as Jesus, and gets plenty of supporting help from the likes of Charlton Heston (again!) as John the Baptist, Claude Rains as King Herod, Telly Savalas as Pilate, Sidney Poitier as Symon, and Donald Pleasance as Satan—you could make a who’s who guessing game out of a viewing of this movie. The music is also very good, and for years, I wondered what music was playing as Jesus was carrying his cross through the streets. I searched all over the place, even for the soundtrack of this film, and found nothing. Then one night, I was listening to Verdi’s Requiem, and sure enough, that was it (the opening Kyrie movement)—a truly haunting and appropriate piece 0f music. Every year, I try to watch this film on Good Friday, or at least the ending. That’s my tradition. 8/10 stars.
The Passion of the Christ
(2004; Directed by Mel Gibson) Say what you want about Gibson’s politics and his overuse of violence in this film, but it is still one of the most accurate movies ever made having to do with Jesus. Though I must admit, when I first saw this when I was 13, I was sick to my stomach and never wanted to watch it again. But then I rented it a few years later, and developed an appreciation for it. James Caviezel breathes a breath of fresh air into the Jesus character, as finally we have someone who comes close to looking like him. He is very tan, has long, dark brown hair, and digitized brown eyes—a far cry from the blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus that early Hollywood liked to show off. What gets my attention in this movie is not the endless scourging scene, one that makes you want to get up and leave the room, but the opening scene of the agony in the garden. There is such an intensity to this quiet, unassuming scene that gets the film started on the right foot. There is also one more, a little bit later on in the film, where Jesus flashbacks to himself building a table and talking with his mother, who he splashes water on as a joke. This is probably the most humanized Jesus has ever been shown. I only wish we could have seen more of that instead of the violence. 8/10 stars.
The Gospel According to St. Matthew
(1964; Directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini) Out of all the films on this list, this is probably the only one where you are going, “I never heard of it.” Filmed in Italian by the legendary and controversial Pasolini, who gave us shocking and depraved films such as Salo, this is probably the most down-to-earth film about Jesus that you will ever see. Filmed using a massive cast of locals and people who had never acted a day in their lives, Pasolini is able to accomplish sheer brilliance. Jesus, played by Enrique Irazoqui, for the first time, is seen as a simple man and not an all-knowing robot. The dialogue is taken directly out of the King James version of the bible, which can lead to some boring lapses over the stretch of this two-hour plus film, but if you can get past the sermon on the mount scene, you are in for a treat. Pasolini even cast his own mother as Mary, because he loved her so much that he equated her to such a high level of standing. Over the years, the Vatican has gone out of their way to support this movie, citing how spiritual it is. At the end, you will sit in amazement at how beautiful a film this is. Then you can amaze yourself further when you learn that Pasolini was actually an atheist. 8/10 stars.
Kingdom of Heaven
(2005; Directed by Ridley Scott) The only film to crack this list where Jesus is not a character, though he is the focal point of the story. Set more than a thousand years after his death, in the middle of the Crusades, we have a fantastic film that examines the life of Templar knights and their allegiance to their religion…and their own conscience. The reason why this film does make the list is because it aligns with my ever-changing view-point of religion. Throughout the film, we are showed these God-fearing knights doing un-Godly things, such as murder, and how those around them react. Balian, played by Orlando Bloom, struggles with his inner longing of wanting to be the perfect knight. In a world where we are surrounded by religious fanaticism, both Christian and Muslim, this is an important film to see. My favorite quotes comes from Hospitaler, played by David Thewlis, when he says, “I put no stock in religion. By the word religion I have seen the lunacy of fanatics of every denomination be called the will of god. I have seen too much religion in the eyes of too many murderers. Holiness is in right action, and courage on behalf of those who cannot defend themselves, and goodness.” Sound familiar? We also have a star-studded cast that includes Liam Neeson, Jeremy Irons, and Ed Norton. The cinematography and battle scenes are some of the best, and along with the theme of Bloom’s character just wanting to do good for God, even if it means going against his own religion, will really hit home with many viewers. It also tries very hard to show how Christians and Muslims can coexist in peace after all. Perhaps someday, that will be more than just wishful thinking. 10/10 stars.
As an honorable mention, I will throw in the Franco Zeffirelli mini-series “Jesus of Nazareth” as well. I remember the days when the History Channel used to play it every Saturday before Easter, but those days are long-gone. I hope everyone here has a very Happy Easter!
Not being a huge fan of the comedy genre, I decided to give this film a view, mainly because it was produced in England (their films are light-years ahead of American ones in terms of overall quality) and because of the actors appearing in it, some that are not associated with comedies.
Parting Shots is a heavily flawed movie (the plot isn’t totally unrealistic, but how it is carried out is), but I am glad I watched it. This is not your typical comedy as it has a very dark theme to it. Harry Sterndale, played by Chris Rea, finds out he has stomach cancer and only six weeks to live. Rather than make peace with himself, he sits down and goes through a photo album, recollecting all the people whom he loved in life, and all the people who made his time on earth a living hell. He then decides that he is going to kill everyone who did something to upset him in his life.
His first victim is his ex-wife, played by Diana Rigg. She nails the role as your typical bitchy woman who dumped her loving husband for a younger man who is loaded with money. He then goes after a Bernie Madoff-type character, played by Bob Hoskins, and drowns him in a swimming pool. The murders are not graphic, and they are off camera—the mood is also very lighthearted.
After taking his first two victims, he then falls in love with Felicity Kendall, from the very popular British TV series Rosemary and Thyme. He takes her to a very expensive restaurant wanting to impress her, and they are met with horrible service because of how they are dressed—everyone else in the restaurant was wealthy and wearing tuxedos. After he complains about the inedible food, that seems intentional, the maitre di summons the chef, Renzo, who is world-renowned for his gourmet cooking, hot temper, and arrogance. The chef is played by Ben Kingsley (Gandhi) and I felt he gave the best performance even though his part was only about five minutes. Not noted for appearing in comedies, he did not look out of place and was very funny. Because Rea’s night was ruined, you can tell who his next victim will be.
After another murder or two, and realizing how much he loves Kendall, Rea hires a hitman to kill himself because his will has a “valiant death clause” which states that if he was murdered, the person on the receiving end of the money would get more. This hitman is played by Oliver Reed (Gladiator), who is excellent as an eccentric and professional, yet clumsy, hired killer. He tries several times to murder Rea but someone always seems to walk in front of his gun that is not expected, including police officers and the visiting president of a foreign country, he is arrested and all the murders Rea committed are blamed 0n Reed’s character because the gun they used were one in the same.
As I said, this is not a great movie but its 90 minute running time will provide you with something to watch if you have a busy schedule. You will not laugh out loud, but there is some decent comedy including an appearance by the legendary Monty Python member John Cleese, who is Rea’s ex-business partner who conned him out of a chance to be a millionaire businessman for an advertising company. I will give this a 6 out of 10, which is higher than its IMDB rating of 5.1. There are also good performances by the supporting cast, including Gareth Hunt and Nicholas Gecks as policemen hunting down Rea, and Joanna Lumley as the highly spiritual pub owner who sells Rea his gun.