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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Monday, June 15, 2020

entry arrow10:00 AM | The Film Meme No. 51

[51st of 100]. “The dual substance of Christ–the yearning so human, so superhuman, of man to attain God…has always been a deep inscrutable mystery to me. My principle anguish and source of all my joys and sorrows from my youth onward has been the incessant, merciless battle between the spirit and the flesh… and my soul is the arena where these two armies have clashed and met.” So an epigraph goes quoting Nikos Kazantzakis at the beginning of this 1988 film by Martin Scorsese. (Kazantzakis is also the author of the controversial novel on which this equally controversial film is based on.) As far as I'm concerned the film fulfills the promise of that epigraph, and demonstrates what many might find hard to believe: that this is arguably the most spiritual film ever made of the Jesus story. I've seen most of them, and while there are some I admire for one thing or another, they often reduce the life of Jesus into a conceit that feels more or less cosmetic, or even incidental: as mystical focus in beautiful pageantry [George Stevens' The Greatest Story Ever Told or Cecil B. DeMille’s The King of Kings], as sporadic magical dream being [William Wyler's Ben-Hur], as neorealist martyr [Pier Paolo Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew], as comic counterpoint [Terry Jones's Life of Brian], as angst-ridden rock star [Norman Jewison's Jesus Christ Superstar], or as the central figure of extreme anti-Semitic sadism [Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ]. Most of these films are understandably reverent, and so they work as totems while falling flat as movies of discerning spirituality. Jesus films for the longest time did not engage in a deeper way, until Scorsese came along daring to make an adaptation of Kazantzakis' work. And it's no surprise that a man who was supposed to become a priest, and who has dealt with the themes of sin, guilt, and redemption in many of his films would dare take on dangerous material. And needless to say he was publicly crucified for it, with screenings of his film attended to with threats of boycotts and bombs from the religious right. The angry panic stemmed from the story's departure from the Jesus canon: First, its sympathetic depiction of Judas as Jesus' concerned best friend and right hand man who wants a Messiah as a smiter of Rome. Second, its depiction of Jesus as a self-doubting man forever resisting God's call to the point of doing carpentry work as maker of crucifixes to use against Rome's enemies. And third, its depiction of Jesus' chaste but still romantic connection with the prostitute Mary Magdalene, which ends in a near-death fantasy of him possibly succumbing to Satan's titular temptation: give up the burden of the cross and all that it entails, and have a happy future as a married man -- a temptation he ultimately rejects of course, thus ushering in the promise of John 3:16. With my descriptions, I do no justice to the subtle nuances these plot points are actually executed in the film; on paper they do sound scandalous, and that was what drove the religious right to near hysteria in 1988, the film largely unseen by them. If they had only seen it with their own eyes, they would probably marvel at how elegantly draped in faith the film actually is. It's philosophical underpinnings, summed up by that epigraph I've given above, is one for deep contemplation: If Christ is at once fully God and fully man but only one person, then that person is full of doubt, of questioning and uncertainty. Scorsese was able to portray this oscillation and questioning by showing the inner life of Jesus in this film. For me, the film remains an influence because it gave voice to my idea of what it means to be Christian. I use the metaphor of Jacob wrestling with God, in Genesis 32:22-32, in my pursuit of a Christian life. To wrestle, to consider carefully each Christian tenet, to be a good Christian is to weigh everything, especially the spiritual significance of the utterances of “prophets”—because there are too many false ones, alas. [I still remember a pastor advocating that the place women should be relegated to is the bedroom and the kitchen -- and I was horrified to witness the congregation nodding in assent to his sexist sermon. I've since abandoned that church.] To know God is to struggle in the pursuit of knowing. The irony is truth: to have a strong faith, one must question. What's the film?

For the introduction to this meme, read here.

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