DOASKDOTELL MOVIE REVIEWs of Luther, This Obedience, The Gospel of John, The Passion of the Christ, (The Last Temptation of Christ) and Judas and Jesus and Jesus and Paul and Witness to Hope , Pay It Forward , Heaven: Where Is It? , Peter and Paul , The Gospel of Judas , Walking the Bible, The Exodus Decoded, Kingdom of David, In the Beginning, The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Nativity Story

Title:  Luther

Release Date:  2003

Nationality and Language: Germany: English

Running time: 108 Min

MPAA Rating:  PG-13

Distributor and Production Company:  Thrivent Teleart

Director; Writer:

Producer:

Cast:   Joseph Fiennes, Peter Ustinov, Alfred Moline, Bruno Ganz, Claire Cox

Technical:

Relevance to doaskdotell site: Freedom of speech

Review:

 

Apparently this film was financed and distributed in large part by the Lutheran denomination. The pace of the film is fast, and it resembles a documdrama that one might see on Biography, the History Channel or PBS. But it is really not preachy, and it brings up some subtle points as gives the basic historical story of Martin Luther and his founding of the Protestant reformation around the beginning of the 17th Century. It is telling that Dr. Martin Luther King’s name coincides.

 

Luther, as a monk and religious professor, became preoccupied with the idea that he should be able to write about and teach spiritual and Biblical matters as he understood them, not as he had been told to teach them by the Catholic church in Rome. New technology, the printing press, had recently made it much cheaper for anyone to disseminate his ideas to many people than ever before in Europe (China is a different matter), just like today the Internet makes it efficient for novices to make themselves known. Previously, religious writings were passed down only in hands by scribes, usually in Latin or Greek. Now Luther objected to the way the Catholic Church was selling indulgences, that is “shares” of a treasury of good works or karma from Christ, available to sinners. He felt that his was unscriptural, and a way for the Church to rip off the common people in Germany. He posted his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenburg. However, his writings were also published—widely printed, copied, and disseminated. Thus his long religious, political and sometimes military battle, traced by the film, started. Later, Luther would translate the Bible into German so that the average person could read it for himself or herself, rather than having to depend on church officials to give them the words.

 

As Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare in Love) carries off the role, Luther comes across as a creative writer, who did this partly to satisfy his own ego. Of course, he believed in what he was teaching, and believed he was telling the truth. But he seemed proud that he could draw attention to himself and step on other peoples’ toes by doing so.

 

Toward the end of the movie, Martin Luther finally falls in love, marries Katharina van Bora (a former nun), and has a big family—six children and various nieces and nephews. “Normal” heterosexual family life here serves as sexual liberation for the church—the Cardinals in Rome come across as men who probably couldn’t marry for reasons of emotional makeup (whether “latent homosexuality” or not) and therefore drew satisfaction from religion and power and controlling the lives of others. Of course, this bears on today’s problems in the Catholic Church, including the controversy over celibacy in the priesthood. But liberation is relative, as today the gay movement seems to be at the center, seeking to fend off the shackles, personal liens or “family values” supposedly imposed by today’s religion.

 

The movie, to be sure, raises some subtle moral questions. Luther engaged his audience with unsupervised speech, before he took on the normal responsibilities of family. (Of course, as a monk he was not allowed to have a family first until he changed the religious precepts for his own new faith.)  Much like today’s Internet blogger, he took advantage of a loophole in the system to reach a relatively large audience with a shocking message. His speech preceded his other good works, out of personal necessity.

 

The other end of the spectrum for the Lutheran church (here, The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, ECLA) comes about with the independent film THIS Obedience (2001), which documents the journey of Anita C. Hill after her congregation in St. Paul, MN ordains her, knowing that she is an committed relationship with a woman who also wants to leave the business world and go to seminary. Most of the film is shot on location in St. Paul and at a subsequent ECLA general conference in downtown Indianapolis. Much as did the Episcopal church at a 2003 convention in Minneapolis concerning Rev. Gene Robinson, the delegates struggle with the issue, finally tabling her vote. Outside, her supporters demonstrate and are finally arrested and carried away in a black Sheriff’s paddy wagon. One of the supporters is the MN family with a seventeen year old, Jake, who makes a chilling statement that the church wants to “study” people like him, as if he were a lab animal (remember a similar statement in Smallville when Luthercorp wants to “study” Clark Kent’s blood.) In the early moments, the film talks about “obedience” to God, as if this were a ruse to escape the question of why the gay issue so disturbs the cohesion of some conservative congregations. When the United Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches applied for membership in the National Council of Churches, it was asked to withdraw because of the fear that even a vote (let alone acceptance) could drive members out of the council (sermon at MCCNOVA, 10/5/2003). The film (90 minutes) was directed by Jamie A. Lee and Dawn Mikkelson, and had considerable support from gay businesses in the Twin Cities as well as from individuals active with the local Independent Film Project (ifpmsp.org).  Readers will want to watch the trailer at the movies website. The capitalization of “this” in the title rings with software geeks, since “this” is a critical keyword in object oriented languages.

 

The Gospel of John, produced by Joel B. Michaels Garth Drabinsky, written by John Goldsmith, directed by Phillip Saville, 180 Min., provides the experiment of providing the entire text of the Gospel of John with the actors only speaking the quotes. Henry Ian Cusick should have made a charismatic enough Christ, but in this setting he comes across as preachy and stilted, demanding loyalty of his loving disciples because he simply says so. This makes an interesting comparison to young male heroes in a number of movies and TV shows, such as Smallville’s Clark Kent (Tom Welling), Everwood’s Ephram Brown (Gregory Smith), One Tree Hill’s Lucas Scott (Chad Michael Murray), Jake 2.0’s Jake Foley (Christopher Gorham), or even Spiderman (Tobey Maguire). All of these are much more lively, and in some cases replicate the essence of Christ’s message, as in a Season 3 episode of Smallville where a visitor tells the extraterrestrial Clark, “You are simply a good person; you like to help people and you expect nothing in return.” But isn’t that in the Gospel? Okay, there is salvation through faith and grace rather than works, but if you have faith, you will accept the Light and do the works. Some of the scenes do come to life, as the foot washing ritual, and the crucifixion seems much smaller than one expects. The political problems within the Jewish religious hierarchy after Roman occupation of the eastern Mediterranean. Spain makes a convincing substitute for the Middle East. John has the ultimate Christmas story when he says "the Word became Flesh" even though there is no Christmas narrative as in Matthew or Luke.

 

The Passion of the Christ (New Market Films, ICON, 2004, 130 Min, R), is Mel Gibson’s controversial film about the last twelve hours of the life of Jesus Christ.  First, I applaud NewMarket for its interest in intense, cutting edge, controversial films. Mel Gibson spent about $30 million of his own money to make this movie as a declaration, as he sees it, of his Catholic faith. The dialogue is in the original Aramaic and Latin (hardly a dead language now), with subtitles.

 

The film is said to be close to the details in the four Gospels. It is one thing to read it, another thing to see it, as this film is as graphic in its violence as any. In some ways, it is like a horror movie, and the world that it puts us in seems claustrophobic, like we were on another planet. It is also a bit like the 20th Century Fox CinemaScope spectacles of the 50s, except that it is so much more intense. (I remember crying at the end of The Robe when I saw it in 1953 at the age of 10.)  At times, it does invoke supernatural “monsters” like the rather feminine or androgynous hooded figure of Satan.

 

Jim Caviezel (Frequency) plays Jesus, and his display provides an object lesson in what can be expected of an actor aspiring to the A-List today. Supposedly, his body was manipulated with glue for all the wounds. There is some technical inconsistency, in that in one of the early flashback scenes his body appears to have been waxed. The appearance in the very last shot, when He Is Risen, is noteworthy. During the filming, he was struck by lightning, and I don’t know if this had any permanent effects.

 

But this brings me to the lesson about free speech and what film is for. First, Mel Gibson did this out of conviction for his ideas. Of course, it will make money and for once the major studios will get an object lesson on passing up something because it was too specialized or “controversial.” Gibson claims that the responsibility for the crucifixion follows the Gospels, in which the Romans first appear to be willing to release him but give into the demands of Jewish leaders who incite their followers, probably with fear. Now, some claim that the film is anti-Semitic (“blood libel” pickets have appeared), because historical evidence suggest that the Roman government wanted to get rid of Jesus, too. Charles Krauthammer provided a column (“Gibson’s Blood Libel”) in the March 5, 2004 Washington Post that discusses the rejection of Vatican II and that claims that Gibson is gratuitous in his presentation of the “facts” in the Gospels.  It is certainly believable that the religious leadership of the day would have protected its public status from someone who claimed to know a new religious Truth and presented a “threat.” In Luke 13:31 Jesus mentions that the Pharisees are already claiming that Herod (that is, the Romans) wants to kill him. This film, then, is more a lesson on what happens when religious truth is the basis of people’s lives to the detriment of freedom, and when it becomes the basis of political power (whether secular or theocratic, which is often in support of the secular). The situation in the Holy Lands then may have been more like that in Saddam Hussein’s pre-2003 Iraq, with a secular government willing to manipulate religious interests for its own ends. But I certainly applaud Mel Gibson for making a film so true to his own convictions and vision. And his own vision is, that Christ died (and then was risen) because of all of our sins, not because of the sins of any one specific group.

 

NewMarketFilms is releasing a “gentler” (presumably PG-13) version of this film called The Passion Recut on March 11, 2005.

 

I also made an observation about this film’s relevance to the COPA litigation at this location on doaskdotell.com.

 

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988, Universal/Criterion, dir. Martin Scorsese) was very controversial as Mary Magdelene tries to talk Jesus out of sacrificing himself, just before his crucifixion. Willem Dafoe looks appropriately emaciated, to the point almost of disgust. The Da Vinci Code will be even more controversial in 2006. 

 

Judas (2004, Paramount), was aired by ABC on March 8, 2004. It stars Johnathon Schaerch as Judas Iscariot and Jonathan Scarfe as Jesus. This movie was shown shortly after Mel Gibson’s The Passion had begun its run and at first glance seems as gentled as The Passion is violent. Of course, this is the story of Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus with a kiss for just a little bit of money. But what is interesting here is the dynamics of their friendship and of Jesus with all of the disciples. Most of the film summarizes the life of Jesus, with only the last forty minutes or so dealing with the Passion. Although the film is well within PG-13 territory, almost PG, there is warmth that goes beyond just the religious idea of love to include a certain undercurrent of homoeroticism and psychological polarity. There is, for example, the early scene of Jesus and Judas “wrestling” as if they were dancing. Jesus himself is made to look like a soft man (like a [psychological] “feminine”), rather hairless of body and rather flamboyant with his gentleness. Judas, on the other hand, is like the stereotyped modern aggressive but culturally fitting male, the “you can have it all” type who could win Donald Trump’s Apprentice contest. He is the sort that you expect to be the “star” of the disco floor today. Historical accounts suggest Judas’s different ancestry as setting him apart from the other disciples, but in the film it comes across as a desire to succeed, with a certain capacity for moral rationalization that undercuts our modern culture with all of its scandals. Of course, young successful males presented in the movies and dramatic television today are all aggressive and adventurous in a certain sense.  Smallville’s Clark Kent, after all, has a “miraculous origin,” struggles with his own personality and identity and need to balance aggression with gentleness, but, when exposed to red kryptonite, gives in to temptation, at least temporarily, so he becomes human and definitely with sin (remember that the series opens with a “crucifixion”). The contrast between Jesus and Judas, then, heightens the difficulty of reconciling self-advancement not just with compassion for others but also really caring for them in a way that does not imply condescension or mere obligation. At the end of Judas, we experience the crucifixion with some of the gore of Gibson’s movie (but within PG-13), but instead of the Resurrection we will see the tragedy of Judas’s own suicide. This was simply unnecessary.

 

In 2000, the CBS film simply called Jesus (starring Jeremy Sisto as Jesus and Gary Oldmann as Pilate) did not create such a stir, even though it pins most of the responsibility for the cruficifixion on the Jewish religious leadership in Palestine.  The Passion scenes move too quickly to have much effect, despite the schmaltzy late romantic music score. Sisto is a convincing Jesus, and is much more “manly” looking. There is an interesting flashback to the Temptations, as well as the storm at the time of the crucifixion. More is done with the Resurrection in this film (“the body is stolen” and “He’s Alive!”) than in the Gibson film. In places the script deals with the faith v. knowledge dichotomy (as with doubting Thomas at the end when Jesus reappears), as also with a quick early reference to the Rich Young Ruler (the film could have presented the Prodigal Son, in order to further oppose the idea of faith and grace to our cultural icons of achievement, affluence, and appearances). This film is more like the hardbound testament Bible-story books that I treasured as a child myself in the 50s.

 

There’s one thing about the Christmas story: Joseph never spoke about anything and never questioned God’s authority. He took Mary and the baby Jesus to Egypt. He never tried question an unfair political system. He gave credence to the idea that Christian social ideas are for living and the sharing of burdens and the value of family regardless of external adversity; in fact the promise of salvation makes it worth it to struggle through hardships and privations imposed by the aggression of others. This seems abnit-libertarian. But wait…

 

ABC News and Disney, with Peter Jennings producing and writing, presented Jesus and Paul: The Word and the Witness (180 min, G) on Monday April 5, 2004. This time the presentation and style is pure journalistic documentary, with the visual images of the modern day Middle East, complete with cars and stoplights against the barren stacked architecture, moving out from Israel and Palestine to Turkey and then the entire Mediterranean region. (There is also modern rock music in the score, like “The End of the World,” as well as one quick shot of Peter Jennings scuba diving for ruins; yet this is a film that talks or tells more than shows.)  The first hour recounts Jesus and the Passion, and presents the likelihood that Jewish leaders had a lot to do with authorizing the crucifixion. Then the story of the apostle Paul, the conversion near Damascus, and the style of his ministry is told. Much is made first of the idea that Paul, despite the fact that he was not “founding” a religion, decided that Christian faith did not require prequalification with the ritual of circumcision, indicating more or less becoming a Jew first. The practice is telling, but it is not unusual for religions to require some kind of ritual cleansing or body modifications. Some male Muslims shave their bodies before the Hajj, and the film American Wedding comically presented a similar idea before a Jewish wedding. But none of that is necessary, just faith. Paul was also practical in the way he would go about his carrying out of the Great Commission. He was practical with tools and working with his hands, and he would set up little businesses in new cities and then, with a quiet assertiveness expected of bill collectors, go about telling a couple people the story of God and his son and the coming of the end.  Some people claim that Paul set the stage for anti-Semitism two centuries later by bypassing Judaism. More important is the paradox of his political and moral views. Paul, always single himself, seemed to believe in individual freedom, but as a responsibility—to convert other people to Christianity and to help the poor. If people did not do this out of their own desires and freedom, then others would die. Sexual morality was a real paradox. Sex was not for procreation or “family values” and babies in the sense of modern debates on issues like gay marriage. After all, Paul expected a kind of turning of the world, if not exactly a purification. But sex was to be channeled into marriage (or else abstinence) as a kind of self-discipline that left one open to caring for others and spreading the Gospel, even at cost to oneself if one had only average talents and means. So there is a curious mix of libertarianism and moralism. Of course, Metropolitan Community Church and others of similar views can argue on the clobber passages that purport to deal with homosexuality, and I guess the film is fair enough about this.

 

There’s something to note about the way both Jesus and Paul both became controversial and well known and a threat to the established order. Their teachings, where verbal (Jesus) or in letters certainly got spread around quickly, in an ancient time before electricity and certainly millennia before the Internet and Google. Yet, they were both persecuted for drawing attention to themselves, which still seems like a cultural no-no to some people in a society based on loyalty. In fact, this facet of Jesus’s activities presents a certain paradox for Christianity. Jesus could only be unselfish and caring by being in a certain sense selfish and self-righteous at the same time.  And given all the concerns about the family and its role in motivating people, Jesus was a single attractive male (Da Vinci’s ideas notwithstanding) and his example gives credence to some modern ideas about individuality and individual attractiveness.

 

Jesus and Paul both accepted the long term reality of unfair political systems, as did the early Christians, who lived communally with solidarity. They did not try to overturn the systems. But they did try to reform the way people thought, which is the first step in overturning political and social injustice as we understand things today with modern liberal democracies. Their message, however, was not to overturn the political system first, but to get the individual to see his own spirituality and salvation as something independent of politics; don’t let the politicians matter that much. Maybe that is a lesson now for the Islamic world. Today, a liberal activist is inclined to believe that you have to change the system, have freedom and some kind of equality first, before life itself can be lived. That does not seem to be what Jesus taught.

 

Peter and Paul (2005, PBS/Delville, dir. Margaret Koval, 101 min, G) was shown on 12/21/2005. Peter gathered together the early Christians in the years following the Resurrection and Pentecost. They lived communally, sharing food and resources on the basis of need, with little notions of money or the competitiveness of individualism. The Christians would be scattered around quickly. Saul’s conversion to Paul is well known, but it is not known what Paul and Peter said when they first met. It sounds a bit like the mystery meeting between Hiesenberg and Bohr in the film Copenhagen. The apostles traveled together as a community of men, a kind of priesthood. There is no mention of conventional notions of family. The early Christians expected the Second Coming soon, and Paul once dismissed family values with the statement, “It is better to marry than to burn.” But abstinence seemed to be the holiest possible state. Eventually Paul attracted too much attention from his enemies, and spent some years in jail after two decades. But he was freed miraculously, as if by the hand of God. But it was probably the result of his own integrity and self-consistency. One can check one’s own actions for integrity to one’s own self-declared principles – especially today with an Internet.

 

Witness to Hope: The Life of Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II (2002, PBS, dir. Judith Dwan Hillet, based on the book by George Weigel, 116 min) is a comprehensive biography of Pope John Paul II, who would become Pope in 1978 and pass away in 2005. There is enormous intellectual sweep in this film, of the combinatorial problems of world politics and personal moral values. Karol would be born in 1920, endure family tragedy (the early deaths of both parents, although he learned his religious values from his father), and emerge at the outbreak of World War II in Poland as able to deal with the levels of one’s own character, including performing manual labor in a quarry. (There is a famous salt mine cavern and chapel near Cracow today, which I visited in 1999.)  By all accounts he was an exemplary role-model young man with talents in acting, writing, and scholarship. He would join the priesthood and live in low profile, escaping from the Nazis, while some priests were sent to concentration camps. Then he would endure Communism, and the Church would strike a Faustian bargain with the Communist satellite government in the 1950s after one of the cardinals spent three years in prison. Karol has by now earned his doctorate in Rome and is an esteemed professor of religious philosophy in Poland. Why does evil exist, and why has society undergone the cataclysms of the early 20th Century, with various totalitarian governments? Karol believes that there is a lack of definition of the human individual, which must start first with religious freedom, ideas which he expanded in his manifesto “Freedom, Responsibility and Marriage,” published in 1960. He would, as we know now, become a major subterranean force, helping the Reagan administration in the 1980s overthrow Communism. But he would begin to become visible with his ideas about personal morality with the Second Vatican Council (as a cardinal) in 1965. Sex was beautiful only in marriage and only when open to procreation. (I have discussed the whole controversy of Catholic moral sexual thinking at http://www.doaskdotell.com/controv/catholic.htm ). In the 1980s, the Catholic church would attract notoriety with claims that homosexuality was an “objective disorder.” We can see that his moral thinking must be that marriage is the fulcrum that joins the individual to social responsibility. Homosexuality, he sees as narcissistic and a diversion intended on dividing men along the lines of man’s ideas about attractiveness and power and merit. Yet we all know from Rosenfels that there are other ways to look at this. Karol’s own personal life, away from biological family apparently due to God’s calling, must present a certain paradox. Since John Paul came from Poland, the film bears comparison to the Lloyd C Douglas novel and 1968 film The Shoes of the Fisherman.

 

Toward the end of the film, there is coverage of the Polish labor movement called Solidarity, which the Pope turned into a pun, “There is no freedom without solidarity.” The Catholic Church has always been a bit of a standout against the modern world in taking left wing positions on economic issues but conservative stands on social issues. Looking at Karol’s like, you can see that this makes some sense. Personal achievement ought to be predicated on doing good for others, even going to bat for others. For most people, the most straightforward way to get at this is marriage and family. “Anarchistic” sexual freedom tears down the ideals that give meaning to most people’s personal commitments to others. For someone with usual gifts, like the Pope, variation is possible as long as one is led by God.  We don’t know for sure about all of Karol’s private life as a young man, because it would have been just that—private—well before the days of a Holocaust, AIDS, and then the modern culture wars (fueled by the Internet) would make sexuality into a way for people to divide themselves publicly from others. But to be led by one’s own egocentric desires (separated from the needs of others), in Catholic thinking, is to set up a process that marginalizes many less competitive people and can eventual lead to social and political breakdowns leading to runaway catastrophes like Nazism,

 

Pay It Forward (2000, Warner Bros., dir. Mimi Leder) is a famous film that would seem to the layman to develop the New Testament idea of social charity as a goal that precedes self-promotion. Trevor McKiney (Haley Joel Osment) accepts a social studies assignment to improve the world by doing three good deeds for others in the hope of setting up a “chain letter” of charity. His benefactors are his alcoholic mother (Helen Hunt), a disfigured teacher (Kevin Spacey) and Jerry, a drug addict (James Cavaziel). What is striking, however, as how this ties in to New Testament ideas to give charity without condition, as one’s first priority. The early Christians lived communally and shared resources, with little idea of personal property or self-defined identity. The parables (especially those like “The Rich Young Ruler” and “The Parable of the Talents”) place great emphasis on meeting the real needs of others, even if it requires a certain indulgence of others, in contradiction to current social norms about individualism and self-sufficiency. You can make the case that this kind of charity generates healthful individualism. Compared to the free-wheeling individualism of the mid 1990s,  the current political climate, post 9-11 and post Katrina, gives us reason to believe that this kind of approach may become semi-mandatory in the future. Those who do not sign on will be left off the train.  It’s interesting that this film precedes 9/11 by over a year. It’s also interesting that it came from a major studio and not from the Christian film establishment.

 

Heaven: Where Is It? How Do We Get There? (2005, ABC, narr.  Barbara Walters, dir. George Paul, 120 min G) is a journalistic essay by Barbara Walters on all of our major conceptions of Heaven, broadcast Dec 20, 2005.  She spends some time with the Dalai Lama (whom I met accidentally at the Amdsterdam Schipol airport on May 7, 2001), who talks about reincarnation. Evangelicals talk about Grace. Then there are the skeptics, whom some call doubters. If you don’t do your best on earth, can you really be yourself in the next life? I wonder that. In some sense, Heaven would have to be a real place somewhere in space-time, with some kind of meaningful geography. Perhaps it is like the First Dominion in Clive Barker’s Imajica. There is something I resent about the idea of using heaven as bait: others can try to use their needs to force you to serve their purposes, compromising your own identity, but there is always salvation by grace if when you fail because of others. That sounds no good, or at least unacceptable.

 

I could not watch much of National Geographic’s The Gospel of Judas (2006, dir. James Barrat) on April 9, 2006 because of technical cable problems. I’ll try to see it as soon as possible. The story would raise interesting philosophical questions about “always telling the truth” and integrity. Here is a web reference listing many apocrypha, missing or hidden Biblical books. The “Gospel of Thomas” has some circulation, as did The Book of Jasher in the 1970s when the Rosicrucian Order (AMORC) published and offered it. A few of the Old Testament books are in the Jerusalem Bible.

 

National Geographic rebroadcast this on Maudy Thursday, April 13. The documentary mentions that there are about thirty “unauthorized” gospels, and many of these were used by early Christians meeting in private groups before there were "real" churches. It regards these gospels as Gnostic, indicative of personal insight (the "eternal feminine") much more important than adaptive physical life. Of course, the idea that Judas could have been a good guy that Jesus set up to “betray” him as if this were some kind of vigilante trick, or even an "act of obedience," is controversial. But what is more interesting is just the idea of how books and ideas were circulated in the ancient world, long before electricity or anything like an Internet. In those days, much literature was oral. The accepted gospels were retold verbally for years before they were written down and the names may not reflect their authorship. Apparently the book was well known in the second century and suppressed as heretic. Apparently, there was a lot of cloak-and-dagger work (including a major heist) in the coverup, suggestive of Dan Brown and “The Da Vinci Code.” There is discussion of the carbon dating of the codex, which seems to date the document to about 280 AD, although the original could have been written decades earlier. But books were copied by hand in those days. At the end, the Gospel of Judas becomes an argument for other kinds of Christianity. 

 

Walking the Bible (2006, PBS, dir. David Wallace, wr. Narr. Bruce Feiler, 160 min) has Bruce taking us on a 10000 mile journey from Iraq, near Ur, through Palestine to Egypt and back to Canaan, the Promised Land. Many of the places on the Exodus are conjectural, and he climbs the mountains most likely to have been climbed by Moses. He visits one obscure monastery in the Sinai.  Another interesting portion occurs when he discusses the sociology of Joseph’s self-proclaimed wisdom of seeing things in dreams, and of the demographics of society when the “Jews” were in Egypt. The pharaoh feared their overpopulation. The social values of that society placed tremendous value on male lineage. Dr. Feiler, who makes himself out to look like an athlete, also discusses the group and family oriented mindset of their society. Why is it so cold on Mt Sinai that he needed layered hiking clothes?  The scenery in this film is spectacular and would look great in Imax. (When I was 11, I made a filmstrip called “The Land of the Bible.” Maybe it will show up some day.)

 

The Exodus Decoded (2006, History Channel/Associated Producers, dir. James Cameron) is a documentary from the famous filmmaker of Abyss and Titanic. Working from a snazzy set built with computer animation and looking like it came from The Time Machine, Cameron develops the archeological evidence that the second Book of the Old Testament really did happen. The research team dates the Exodus a few hundred years earlier than does conventional wisdom, and looks for Joseph’s original journey at a town (Avaris) that the Egyptian government tries to cover up, for fear that archeological fact would give Israel more legitimacy in its land claims based on religious documentation. That’s a case where truth is suppressed for tribal advantage—an evil in an individualistic society, but it will get more subtle in other settings. Cameron goes on to explain the ten plagues when Moses demands “let my people go!” in terms of the Santorini volcanic eruption in the Mediterranean. The evidence is overwhelming, even the death of the first born sons, who, privileged by inheritance, slept in beds in lower ground and who succumbed to carbon dioxide from the sea released by the eruption. A similar tragedy happened in the Cameroon in 1986 near a volcano. The crossing of the Red Sea was really a crossing of the “Reed Sea”, a lake near the coast, that rose during the earthquakes following the eruptions, allowing a bridge for the Israelites to cross; the Egyptian armies may well have been drowned by a tsunami 50 feet high, again released by the eruption, either an earthquake or underwater landslide. This hazard to modern civilization is becoming known now, as with the danger of the Azores. The pillars of smoke by day and pillars of fire by night are explained by natural oil-field fires after the earthquakes at the end of the cataclysms.

 

The film is a good lesson in the philosophy of knowledge. Powers and religious authorities will fight dispassionate scientific logic as threatening to their political power base and to the psychological faith of peoples. This film contradicts that tendency, however differently the faith v knowledge issue plays out on a more personal level in the cultural wars.

 

Kingdom of David: Saga of the Israelites (2006, PBS, dir. Carl Byker and others, 240 min) documents this history of the Jews from the time of Abraham to the destruction of the Jersualem Temple in AD 70 (by Romans) and Massada. The early narrative history of Abraham and Moses, and then the kinds (most of all David) is covered fairly quickly in the first hour, and a lot of attention is paid to the more obscure history, with the exiles and captivities, in the few hundred years before Christ. The idea of monotheism and one God, with the denial of idol worship and a set of laws as to how people should behave (the Ten Commandments) is covered. The values of the Jews at the time of the Exodus certainly stressed tribal solidarity and identity as well as the individual. In time, notions of charity and caring for the poor developed. The Jews believed that their captivities were group punishments for disobeying God. They were disturbed by Hellenistic or Greek culture, with its intellectual detachment and apparent worship of the human body.  By the time of Christ, they needed a rationalization for their new peril, which would include an end-of-time theology, and Christianity. The theology would challenge the notions of the family (like the firstborn), and replace these ideas with a certain kind of communalism and socialism. After the destruction of the Temple and Massada, the Jews had to reconstitute themselves with new practices, like prayer.

 

In the Beginning (2000, Hallmark/Trinity, dir. Kevin Connor, 189 min) is a picturesque recreation of the first two books (Genesis and Exodus), where Frederick Weller, usually in testy male roles, is tested as Jacob (and not Esau), the schemer. Was a major TV event.

 

The Nativity Story (2006, New Line, dir. Catherine Hardwicke, PG, 101 min, Italy) is a spectacular telling of the tale of Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes) and Joseph (Oscar Isaac), with their journey to Bethlemen for the birth of baby Jesus. In CinemaScope, the toned down color sharpens the textures of the countryside (actually filmed in Italy and Morocco). But the film really takes its shot at presenting modern social issues. Joseph marries Mary as on assignment (arranged marriage) when he is told to. He is also told that she will bear a child without his paternity, and expect him to be the father. That’s a pretty heavy order for a man, to be ordered to accept family responsibility without the usual success in sexual competition. The story really would make pretty good sense even if Joseph were gay. Mary goes away, watches an elderly Elizabeth (Shohrel Agdashloo), who was impregnated conventionally, give birth to John the Baptist when laying in a hammock. When she comes back, she has to defend herself from the townspeople, who want to stone her for infidelity, while Joseph has to calm them down like a man, making them believe that she is procreating a baby without sexual intercourse. Visually, Joseph looks a little gentler than his “competitors,” with his smooth chest and softer face. The three wise men progress into the story, although they seem a bit silly (the astrolabe looks good, though). The political circumstances with King Herod, who imposed on his son Antipas to accept his will, is interesting; it is interesting how the authorities feared normal word-of-mouth speech about a new Messiah in an age with no electricity and no fast travel, not to mention no Internet and no Google. They would even spy on Jewish villagers and track the town criers. But word got around more quickly in those days than one would think.

 

The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965, MGM / United Artists, dir. George Stevens, book Fulton Oursler, Henry Denker) is the famous epic on the life of Jesus, shot in Utah in Super Panavision 70 (2.76:1), shown as single projector Cinerama. The scene at Great Salt Lake is particularly striking. The Passion sequence (after the intermission at almost the 2 hour mark) is much less melodramatic or violent than in the “Passion” movie above. The temptation sequence poses the existential question of testing one’s own reality and as to whether it is reversible. In his trial, Jesus is accused of “sorcery” as well as blasphemy, but the slow unveiling of the script gives us a feel for why “blasphemy” is such a crime in religious societies. The music score by Alfred Newman recalls Samuel Barber, and music from Handel’s Messiah and Verdi’s Requiem is included.   

 

After Jesus: The First Christians (2006, CNN, Anderson Cooper 360, 110 min, narrated by Liam Neeson), blogspot.

 

The Mystery of Jesus (2007, CNN, 60 min), blogspot.

 

Secrets of the Sistine: Michaelangelo’s Mystery (2008, ABC 2020), blogspot. 

 

Who Framed Jesus? (2010, Discovery, dir. Mark Lewis, 100 min). Blogger.

 

Related reviews: Corpus Christi   Book: Clive Barker’s Imajica;  The Lost Tomb of Jesus, Three Faiths: One God   The Mormons (blogger)

 

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Email me at Jboushka@aol.com