Thursday, March 6, 2014

'Son of God,' 'Noah,' 'Exodus' -- the Bible epic returns!

Robert Powell as Jesus in "Jesus of Nazareth." He also made a great Mahler.

Who’s your favorite Jesus?

Before you get started, I mean no disrespect whatsoever. I like Bible movies! The recent release of “Son of God,” and the impending releases of Aronofsky’s “Noah” on March 28, and Ridley Scott’s “Exodus” on December 12, and the “long-awaited prequel” to “The Passion of the Christ,” “Mary, Mother of Christ,” in December as well, not to mention the little-boy-comes-back-from-death-and-affirms drama “Heaven Is for Real” on April 16, all testify to the continuing pull of Biblical narrative.

Hollywood has long relied on sacred literature for big profits. “The Ten Commandments,” “Ben-Hur,” “Kings of Kings,” “Quo Vadis?” and “Noah’s Ark” were all originally silent-era epics. 

In 1949, “Samson and Delilah” was the highest-grossing film of the year, triggering an avalanche of sacred epics such as “David and Bathsheba,” “Saul and David,” “Salome,” “Solomon and Sheba,” “The Story of Ruth,” “Esther and the King,” “The Robe,” “Demetrius and the Gladiators,” “The Big Fisherman,” “Barabbas” . . . we didn’t see these in the theaters, but we were bombarded by them on network television.

As the inheritors of a dry, understated yet fervent and thoroughly judgmental Danish Midwestern Lutheranism, we knew our Bible thoroughly -- and we had little Bible comics, and little Bible picture books, and Youth Bible Illustrated. We were trained to conceive of these stories visually. Even the big old Danish Bible of great-grandfather’s was profusely illustrated with plates; most of them prints of the exquisite and vehement Dore engravings. When these writhing visions came to life in color on the big screen, no wonder we gazed amazed.

I remember being dragged to “Sodom and Gomorrah” (1963) and freaking out when Pier Angeli was turned into a pillar of salt, in Cinemascope. We were dragged to “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” featuring Max von Sydow as a melancholy Scandinavian cuss that we Lutherans could identify with; and “The Bible: In the Beginning,” featuring George C. Scott as the angriest Abraham on record.

Georgetown professor Diane Apostolos-Cappadona writes that “During the 1950s and 1960s, the most acceptable cinematic path for movies to incorporate sex and violence was the biblical epic”. Amen, I can testify to that. Everyone on screen in these items always seemed to be all greased up, held together with a few thongs, and looking for trouble. Plenty of hot, heavy, and nominally not-OK behavior was lavishly illustrated. It’s the perfect catharsis – you get a bunch of spectacular sinning up front, and redemption and/or annihilation later. This resonates later in Kubrick’s “Clockwork Orange,” when Alex finds he prefers reading the Old Testament to the New in prison, as it’s much more graphic.

The admixture of high-minded piety and lowest-common-denominator spectacle confused and enthralled us. I don't judge religious film on doctrinal grounds; I judge it by how crazy things get.

We rode the surge of that ‘60s crest – naturally, as I got older, my tastes grew subversive. They tried to teach "The Bible as Literature" in high school, a cautious secular effort that met with a complete lack of success. Soon, guitar-strumming hippies were leading services. Soon, everyone in our teen groups could sing all the songs from “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Godspell.” Soon, however, we could also sing all the songs from Zoso.

When “Life of Brian” came along, we were ready for it. “Last Temptation of Christ”? Couldn’t sleep for a few nights after, but I got through it. (Thus my aversion of “The Passion of the Christ” – gotta pass on the gore.) I still enjoy other comic takes such as the Hannum Brothers’ “The Real Old Testament,” or the appearance of Sexy Jesus, inexplicably, in “Hamlet 2.” (I will never be ready for “Wholly Moses!” again, though. No one should be.)

We still know every line in “The Ten Commandments” and “Ben-Hur.” Try us. “Prince of Egypt”? Thanks to the kids, I almost have all the tunes down from that one. And I have to say, my top Jesus is Robert Powell in “Jesus of Nazareth.”

Ted Neeley, you were SO CLOSE!

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