This week I saw two new films, each featuring a Fiennes brother, about a Roman tribune (senior soldier) who encounters Jesus at the end of his life.
I bet I’m one of few to have seen both, because Risen, starring Joseph Fiennes, hardly got any theatrical release. In my city, only one cinema had it, for one week, only twice a day at awkward times, pulling it before the Easter weekend it is all about. Thus its low audience numbers were self fulfilled. And it’s gone before, like the disciples at the tomb, I could go and tell anyone else to come and see it.
I am also one of the few drawing a comparison between these films, because the subtitle of the film within film, Hail Caesar, is not mentioned in any cinema brochure I’ve read. Along with other inaccuracies, it is called “a sword and sandal” epic. But there’s no sword fights and no George Clooney is not Caesar – he encounters a more paradoxical alien leader. There’s a scene where the religious leaders whom the studio is trying to placate discuss the nature of the incarnation (interesting for Jewish film makers), a beautiful closing speech at the foot of the cross (for which scene the crucified actors received “hardship pay”) and confusingly, a section featuring Saul of Tarsus with a title card “Divine Intervention to Be Inserted”.
Risen also consulted with Christians to avoid upsets, and likewise, found them happy – though I was not at the depiction of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute. This is not in the Bible and even Catholics – who pretended she was – have officially un-tarted her now. Hasn’t the writers heard of even the Di Vinci Code and who Mary is believed to be by many? She’s Jesus’ no 2, covered up by Peter ‘I want the Keys just for Me’ and friends.
Both films had powerful and profound moments, but the tones were very different. Hail Caesar was often funny, though most of my laughs were at the points described above; the studio debacles often did little for me. I am not a proponent of the multiple storyline and so I wished we spent more time with Rome and Jerusalem, and less (or none) in aquariums, deserts, drawing rooms and bars filled with sailors who sang about the lack of dames at sea, by by their antics (some dance moves were suggestive of a number just before 70) they were not sorry. Not all the characters really fitted together, and I found were by some rather conspicuous sewing.
Risen had no humour and was for the first part often brutal, opening as a high budget and adrenaline thriller, just incase you thought this was for church halls. I think it is a film for church halls, though not for families or sensitive people of any age. The usually doe eyed, gentle and sensitive Joseph Fiennes is harsh, interrogative and even murderous as Tribune Clavius. I found it hard to watch him being so unjust and bullying. He is one of a few well known actors in the film, such as Peter Firth from Spooks as Pilate, who pushes Clavius to find Jesus’ missing body because Pilate fears the next tier of the chain – his emperor.
The brutality in the Coen’s film – some of which was verbal threat – was from film studio producer Eddie Mannix, fixer of any legal and publicity embarrassments. I hated Eddie (Josh Brolin) for hitting Baird (that’s Clooney) and silencing his communist sympathies. Eddie becomes the tribune, the old kind of God – telling people what to do, what to think, and what they can know; judging by narrow standards, being non-negotiable and using perceived virtue to guide those in his care; and of course, money.
Both tribunes alter at the experience of Jesus, yet Joseph’s conversion feels more like a Christian Union mission film. I am trying to work out why. Did I feel the disciples too spacey and squeaky good? Was I angry that they never fought back? Was it the snippets of their sermons on the beach? But wouldn’t frightened, crushed followers feel exonerated and empowered and impervious to threat if they thought their leader was truly alive again?
The Coen brothers leave us, as so many Jesus films and plays, with him on the cross – yet for George’s tribune, even then, it is enough to change him. The makers of Risen (and Waterworld) let us see Jesus to the end of his earthly life (I was going to say, off the premises), but the ascension is more of a disappearance into the sunset – ET had a more memorable and convincing take off. They obviously didn’t have the budget to show us what the guards at the tomb saw either – shame as modern film is wonderful for bringing such stories to us visually.
The Coen’s Jesus is a back of a rather strawberry blond head and a pair of feet on a maximum comfort cross. Risen features Cliff Curtis – is this the first Maori Christ? – whose face has have the expected unnerving quality, but his less conventional Messiah looks and Tears For Fears hairstyle also slightly beguile and unsettle. However, he behaved like we like to think of Jesus – in the imaginary last miracle where he truly saw and loved the person he healed.
What was hardest for me was reconciling the kind of Jesus we want to believe in – like this – to the one who actually appears to be in the gospel. I’ve been at a study group where we heard that one writer thinks that Jesus snorts in fury at his healees; a Jesus whose first line in John’s gospel is a snap at would-be followers; a Jesus who is incredibly rude to that Gentile lady seeking healing for her son… Commentators let him off by saying, he must have meant…ah, but really he knew… Is this disciples and early church fathers scribbling in, or…? I’ve written an article on this before. I nearly entitled it “Going off Jesus.” It doesn’t affect my relationship with God, but this is the central person who makes Christians distinct. So where does that take me…?
It’s a search I continue. Meanwhile, I found these films as worthwhile as any church service and yet not exclusive of those not seeking a spiritual message this Easter.