Saturday, March 31, 2007

A few words on religion in film, in which I say an evil thing about "Song of Bernadette."

Yes, I know many political matters demand our attention. But this is the weekend, and I'm in the mood to write on non-political matters. Besides, Easter is coming, and the season always makes me long to jot down irreverent thoughts.

Today's topic is religion in film. Religion plays a massive role in the other arts -- think Bach, think Bernini -- so why do most religious films reek?

Indeed, how do we define a religious film? Do we count Bad Lieutenant? The Exorcist? Meet John Doe? The Devils?

(To read the rest, click "Permalink" below)

Heathen I may be, yet I've seen nearly every Jesus movie ever made, including Roberto Rosellini's little-known The Messiah, which is terrible. Here are a few thoughts on some of the best-known works in the genre:

The most notorious attempt to put the life of Christ on film is probably George Stevens' elephantine The Greatest Story Ever Told. Although I used to despise that movie, it improved on my most recent viewing. The script contains many clunkers, Utah makes an unconvincing Israel, and the pacing is all wrong. But Max Von Sydow -- an atheist, or so I've heard -- delivers a superb performance as the Big Guy. Some of the images will haunt you. I've never forgotten the crane shot revealing the valley of the crucified men; it's a tableau one might have expected from Werner Herzog. This was certainly the best-photographed film of the 1960s -- a fact which led one wag to quip "When a good director dies, he becomes a cinematographer." The star cameos grate less now that I've forgotten who some of those people were.

King of Kings -- the Nicholas Ray version -- has many virtues and many howlers, such as the magical moment when Mary the Magdalene meets Mary the Mom: " a woman of sin!" Anyone who doesn't guffaw must have a heart of stone. The action scenes are well-done, but they leave you wondering why a Jesus movie needs action scenes. Ray gives the impression that he really wanted to make a Zealots-vs-Romans war movie; alas, the producers insisted on including extraneous dialogue scenes with that preachy kid. Interestingly, the film begins not with a nativity but with the conquest of Jerusalem. This is a Jesus movie that tries very hard not to look like any of the others -- which is odd, because the others hadn’t been filmed yet. Many have praised the final shot, but I always found it bewildering: After Jesus has risen from the dead, the disciples walk away from him -- while he's still right there talking to them! One wonders what the guy has to do to keep their attention.

When I saw the 1927 C.B. DeMille version of King of Kings at the Pantages theater in the '70s, Jacqueline Logan -- DeMille's Mary Madgalene -- was in attendance; she made a short speech in which she proclaimed it "the greatest film ever made." It isn't -- although it remains watchable. Jesus' big intro is cleverly done: We first see him through the eyes of a young blind boy whom he heals; the boy turns out to be Mark, the gospel writer. Ms. Logan's scenes are the apotheosis of camp: DeMille pictured MM as both the ultimate 20s vamp and the highest-grossing harlot in history, luxuriating in decadent orientalia: "Show me my zebras, gift of the Nubian King!" (1920s erotica looks hilarious nowadays. I wonder how today’s erotica will seem eighty years from now?) At film’s end, Caiaphas lets the audience know that the death of Jesus is his fault -- that is, Caiaphas' fault, his alone, nobody else's, just his. So at least that's clear.

The best of the JC movies is undoubtedly Pier Paolo Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew, filmed in black and white on a tiny budget with a non-professional actor named Enrique Irazoqui in the lead. Best Jesus ever. He may not have von Sydow's talent, but -- those eyes! Most of the snaggle-toothed actors look as if they haven't bathed in weeks, which adds to the sense of verisimilitude. The film's great virtue is that it does not fear the text: This is a Jesus who talks. And talks and talks. The Sermon on the Mount is given in full, with Enrique/JC in close-up, literally in your face. This scene usually goes missing when the film plays on TV in horribly dubbed prints. On the big screen, the impact is extraordinary. One wonders why other films about Jesus tend to edit what the fellow had to say.

I've written about the Mel Gibson film before, both under my own name and as the abominable "John Dark." I can add this: Gibson knows full well that the Jews of that day ate while reclining, Roman style, facing a communal table. (Remember that bit about John the Beloved leaning his head against JC's breast? Makes a bit more sense now, dunnit?) Yet Gibson still wanted his Last Supper to maintain the visual tradition established by Leonardo and the other Renaissance artists. So -- get this -- the film features a flashback scene in which JC invents the technique of upright dining. I'm not kidding. Oddly enough, it's the most charming bit in the movie. In fact, it's the only bit in the movie any sane person could call "charming."

The only American religious film that I truly like is The Song of Bernadette, based on the novel by Franz Werfel.

I pause for your laughter.

After thumbing through a biography of Franz Werfel recently, I decided to track down the film for another viewing. And...

(Digression: Werfel married Alma Mahler, which is why I sought out that bio -- and until I read it, I never knew that old Gustav's widow was such a bitch. Despite having married two famous Jews, and despite being chased out of Europe by bloodthirsty fascists, she remained an anti-Semitic Nazi sympathizer. Franz settled in Hollywood and often socialized with Jewish friends, such as Edward G. Robinson. Alma would storm into the room, sing the praises of Hitler, and belittle Franz in front of his guests. Tom Lehrer was way too kind to her.)

...and what was I saying? Oh yeah -- Song of Bernadette. I really like it. Shoot me.

The film has a surprisingly convincing look, even though it was filmed in California during wartime -- no doubt on the same 20th Century Fox ranch you see in every episode of M*A*S*H (and which is now a state park where I sometimes hike). The actors resemble their real-life models, although the accents can be a bit odd: Bernadette’s sister sounds like she came to the Pyrenees by way of Alabama. The film stars a young Vincent Price, who manages to convey a sinister impression without a hint of ham; he's quite good. The best performance in the film comes from Louise Revere (later a victim of the HUAC witch hunts), who plays Bernadette’s mother. She doesn’t wear any make-up -- which I wish could be said of the other female performers.

I will probably serve a few centuries in purgatory for noting that the real Bernadette was prettier than Jennifer Jones, who never passes for 14. Even so, Jones does fine work. (When the film came out, the moviegoing public had no idea that JJ was already a mother, and they never forgave her when they later discovered that she was a human being, not a saint.)

Parts of the film don’t work. The film-makers hint at a love interest for Bernadette -- not true; in real life, that guy was ten years older than she was. The final scene with Vincent Price is unbearably mawkish. In an early scene, character actor Aubrey Mather keeps blowing his lines; why didn’t the director demand a retake?

So why do I, impious fiend that I am, enjoy a film that most viewers consider a sentimental hagiography? For one thing, director Henry King, a veteran of the medium’s early days, always conveys sympathy for working people and their struggles; this is a film about poverty and sickness. Some of his compositions are quite striking -- they make me wish modern directors would rediscover the formal joys of the stationary camera. Alfred Neumann, who specialized in music for religious films, contributes an outstanding score with hints of Wagner and Bruckner.

The script is cleverly constructed to please the devout while allowing skeptics room for the occasional cynical smile. This film is indeed a sentimental hagiography -- on first viewing. On second viewing, one can’t help suspecting that Vincent Price’s character -- the debunker, the intellectual, the forerunner of Third Republic anticlericalism -- is correct about everything; he’s an unhappy man precisely because he sees the world as it is, while those around him, the poor and wretched working folk, derive their satisfaction from their myths. The film delivers some nice jabs at the commercialism which overtook Lourdes, and offers a portrayal of the clergy that is neither uncritical nor unbalanced. The script also gives us a nice (and accurate) scene featuring Napoleon III, a fascinating rogue who, to the best of my recollection, is not portrayed in any other film.

All told, this may be Hollywood's most satisfying attempt to film a "real life" bit of Forteana. I'd like to see a movie about La Salette, the first of the "great" apparaitons, but I doubt if anyone will make the attempt, since the chief visionary, Melanie Calvet, was no Bernadette. Melanie was one of those "difficult" women for whom menopause starts at puberty and lasts until death.

A couple of trivia notes:

1. Song of Bernadette concludes with a Hallelujah Chorus which remains something of a musical mystery. It was first heard at the end of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (which features Neumann’s finest score). It was later used toward the end of It’s a Wonderful Life. But Neumann did not write it, and nobody knows who did.

2. Here’s the evil part. In the first scene, Bernadette’s father, played by Roman Bohnen (another victim of the HUAC days), puts his pants on over his longjohns. Sharp-eyed viewers will note an obvious fact -- a very, very, very obvious fact: If the Soubirous family ever gets thrown out of that jail cell, Daddy can supply his own pup tent. Although Bohnen was not one of the most famous actors in Hollywood, he was surely one of the biggest.

Also, Bernadette’s cute sister -- the one with the southern accent -- displays a surprising amount of cheek when she hikes up her dress to cross the river. I suppose I’ll do another century in Purgatory for mentioning that.
John Dark? Where can that be found?
You can read the Dark works here:

You can also doing a Google Groups search on the name.
Add on some Purgatory time for "Melanie was one of those 'difficult' women for whom menopause starts at puberty and lasts until death."
Pray for me, gmanedit.

But she really WAS, you know.
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