Screening for Jesus

9th April 2004 at 01:00
The back page of The TES Scotland might appear to be the last place to see an article based on Mel Gibson's Passion of Christ.

But if a multibillionaire film actor and producer can exploit the Easter message to get publicity for a film that will earn him even more millions, this humble scribe harbours few scruples in broaching the subject - all in the best possible taste, of course.

By all accounts Gibson's film is realistic to the point of goriness. It has evoked paeans of praise from Christians and equally passionate claims of anti-Semitism from others. Not yet being in a position to make a judgment, I will take the Fifth Amendment on that but I cannot deny having been influenced by Gibson's passionate defence of his father when the elder Gibson was accused of being a Holocaust denier.

Charges of anti-Semitism were something that could never have been levelled at earlier films featuring Christ, at least not when Hollywood studio heads had names like Goldwyn, Mayer, Bronston and Cohen.

Of course, school parties are out of the question since the film has been given an 18 rating. Christians in the United States, on the other hand, have been making block bookings to what they call movie theatres for days at a time.

Whether it's a pity schools are missing out remains to be seen. It certainly was not ever thus. In the 1950s my school bussed scores (hundreds?) to see Quo Vadis and The Robe. Presumably, being a Catholic school, someone thought that it would be spiritually uplifting and wholesome for us young academic pupils (ie we did Latin).

Little did they realise that the worst ambience for any young person to watch any performance is among their peers, where the opportunities to misbehave and make inappropriate comments at vital stages of the action are usually too difficult to resist.

At a special schools' performance of Julius Caesar in the Citizen's Theatre, Mark Antony's exhortation to the boy Lucius to play his lyre was greeted with coins being thrown on to the stage.

Ben-Hur was another biblical epic that was thought worthy of a school trip, an experience that led to a lesson in pronunciation and raised suspicions about the proclivities of my English teacher. When the English department at our school invited parents to buy books as Christmas presents and then, after the books had been read, donate them to the school's library, mine bought me Ben-Hur and Nicholas Montsarrat's wartime navy story, The Cruel Sea, obviously influenced by the fact that both had recently been popular films - or maybe my mother was a fan of Jack Hawkins who starred in both.

My pronunciation of the Jewish hero of Lew Wallace's story as "Ben Hoor" did not go down well in a good Catholic household, but fortunately my parents had not checked out the other gift which contained lots of what we adolescent boys called "dirty bits".

When I somewhat naively gave the books to my English teacher for the library he accepted them and shortly afterwards informed me that the Montsarrat story was not suitable, but did not return it to me. I never did find out what happened to it, but I could not help but look at him in a somewhat different light at the thought of him reading the dirty bits.

Films have come a long way from the days when it was regarded as almost blasphemous to depict an actor in the role of Christ. Directors preferred instead to supply not so subtle clues like back shots of someone working in a carpenter's shop, or dazzling sunbursts and soaring strings accompanied by awed expressions on the faces of other actors.

Hollywood actor Jeffrey Hunter broke the mould in King of Kings in 1961 when his appearance on location in Spain had many of the film's extras dropping to their knees in reverence. Well, it was Franco's Spain.

Interestingly, one Scottish film critic has described the Christ in Gibson's film, actor James Caviezel, as "so close to the Sunday school visual stereotype that he's almost a caricature". Apparently that is as close as the film gets to previous portrayals.

For myself, while I profess to have an open mind and go to the pictures at least once a fortnight, I am currently favoured to give it a miss. One American commentator claimed that the film's main appeal would be to Christian fundamentalists and lovers of horror movies, an unholy alliance if ever there was one.

Since I am neither of these, and am somewhat deficient in Aramaic and Latin, the film's chosen languages, maybe I will have to settle for the sunbursts and soaring strings.

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