The Birth of Japan (1959)

Nippon Tanjō ; aka The Three Treasures
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Director: Hiroshi Inagaki
Screenwriters: Ryuzo Kikushima, Toshio Yasumi

By Roderick Heath

There’s no shortage of movies that borrow from and remix mythology. That sort of thing has been the backbone of film industries, from westerns to Italian peplum or sword-and-sandal films and Chinese wu xia action flicks, through to fare like Peter Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations, the Harry Potter and Star Wars series, and superhero blockbusters, all of which depend to some extend on appropriating and recontextualising themes, images, and ideas harvested from the most ancient storytelling forms. And yet, serious, faithful, accomplished screen versions of authentic mythology aren’t that common. The best-known examples include the Greek mythology vehicles for Ray Harryhausen’s effects, Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and Clash of the Titans (1981), takes on Arthurian legend like Excalibur (1981), Biblical tales like Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1949) and The Ten Commandments (1956), and Fritz Lang’s monumental version of Die Nibelungen (1924). After watching Die Nibelungen a few years ago I became interested in finding other ambitious, scrupulous takes on such stories, particularly from beyond Hollywood and Western European cinema. Making these kinds of movie usually demands money and resources beyond most filmmakers. The Soviet Union produced a handful of authentic takes on national folklore, like Ilya Muromets (1956). The Indian and Chinese film industries have produced their own derivations of works like the Ramayana and Journey to the West. But most of these remain fairly obscure outside their homelands.
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The Birth of Japan is an intriguing, hugely enjoyable example of such mythological filmmaking produced with heft and class, recounting some fundamental tales of Shinto creation myths and local cultural traditions, given a makeover in keeping with the epic movie styles of the 1950s and the social upheavals that had been gripping Japan since the end of World War II. Purportedly made as a home-grown answer to The Ten CommandmentsThe Birth of Japan was a major production for Toho Studios, which hired the proven hit-making team of director Hiroshi Inagaki and actor Toshiro Mifune. Inagaki came from a stage background and had been a child actor, before starting his film career at Nikkatsu Studio in the 1920s and debuting as a director at the age of 22. By the 1950s he had become one of the country’s most prolific and admired commercial filmmakers, alternating big-budget historical dramas with smaller films depicting working-class characters and children. The first of the two versions he made of Life of Matsu the Untamed, also called The Rickshaw Man, released in 1943, has been voted one of the ten best Japanese films of all time, whilst his second, released in 1958, won the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion. Inagaki captured an Oscar in 1955 for the first instalment of his highly successful trilogy about Miyamoto Musashi, also starring Mifune, and the two men were just coming off another notable collaboration, Samurai Saga (1958), a cross-cultural adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac.
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Inagaki’s career faltered eventually, for similar reasons to those Akira Kurosawa confronted in the 1970s, as his brand of filmmaking was held to be dated and too expensive, and unlike Kurosawa his story didn’t have a happy ending, as he became embittered and drank heavily up until his death at 74 in 1980. Inagaki became an increasingly stylised filmmaker in his later career, his theatrical roots flaunted as he incorporated sequences of song and dance with a quality akin to pan-cultural curation, and happily used the lush colour of the period to realise an affectedly illustrative style in strong contrast to the crisp, subtly stylised naturalism of Kenji Mizoguchi’s late work and Kurosawa’s cool, stark expanses. The Birth of Japan gave free rein to such an approach, as the film unfolds through counterpointing Shinto creation myths with the more worldly narrative of Prince Yamato Takeru, tracing the legendary divine origins of the Japanese Imperial family and some of the iconography attendant to the royal throne. The three treasures mentioned in one of the film’s alternate titles and featured in the several vignettes are still part of the closely-guarded coronation regalia of the Emperors, only ever glimpsed by the Emperor and a select number of Shinto priests: the sword Kusanagi or “Grasscutter,” the mirror Yata no Kagami, and the jewel Yasakani no Magatama.
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The film opens with the creation of the world and humanity as recounted into Shinto belief. One intriguing aspect of The Birth of Japan from a western perspective is how familiar some aspects of the legends found within are, from its Adam and Eve-like first lovers to the martial drama of national unification revolving around singular magical swords. The opening depicts the formation of heaven in the midst of a chaotic universe, and the advent of the pantheon on Shinto gods and goddesses. Two of them, the male and female gods Izanagi and Izanami (Shizuko Muramatsu), are assigned to try and make the drowned world below heaven into something solid and inhabitable. Astride a rainbow that bridges the two realms, Izanagi stirs forms of boiling mass to emerge from the waters by waving a spear. The gods visit the resulting land form, called Onokoro. Finding themselves defined in mortal form as they descend to Earth, they perform the first ever marriage rite by circling the island. Eons later, this tale is recounted by an old woman storyteller (Haruko Sugimura) to the citizens of Yamato, a kingdom on Honshu named after the clan of the area’s rulers, who would later become the imperial dynasty of the whole of Japan. The storyteller’s recitations of the creation tales contrast and punctuate the central drama, which involves the Prince of Yamato, Ōsu (Mifune), son of the elderly Emperor Keikō (Ganjirô Nakamura).
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Returning from a successful hunt, Prince Ōsu is told his older brother (Hajime Izu) is cavorting with one of his father’s serving girls in a gross breach of family honour. Finding them together in a hut, the Prince brutalises his brother and drives him into exile. The Emperor is coming increasingly under the control of his second wife’s clan, led by the devious patriarch Ootomo (Eijirô Tôno), and when the Prince’s brother tries to return, Ootomo kills him, and lets the Emperor think Ōsu did the deed, so the Emperor keeps sending his son off on risky military ventures, hoping he’ll be killed or at least kept away for a long time. Meanwhile, as the Ootomos gain greater control, a law banning marriages between people of different local clans and states results in many being executed or exiled. The Prince’s first assignment is to take on some a fearsome pair of brother robber barons, the Kumasos (Takashi Shimura and Kôji Tsuruta), and bring their territory under Yamato control. When he does manage to bring the Kumasos down, the younger brother, a more reasonable and philosophical man, suggests to the Prince with his dying words that he be known from now on as Yamato Takeru, variably translated as the Strongest or the Bravest in the Land, and begs him to bring peace to the warring nation by unifying it under a strong hand.
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Like much mythology from around the world, the legends portrayed here have political and religious motives. Much of this lore was synthesised to provide divine origins and stature for the Japanese Imperial family, as well as offering conduits connecting human order to the celestial, wrapping certain ritual dictums in a tangled knot with historical facts. In the original tales Yamato Takeru stands as a culture hero with many ready analogues in western traditions, including Hercules, with whom he shared a ferocious temper and great strength, Arthur, as a unifying warrior-poet associated with a divinely invested sword, and several protagonists of the Trojan tales, immortalised by great feats and powers but brought low by his failure to properly heed the Gods. In legends codified in the Kojiki or Book of Ancient Things, Yamato Takeru really did kill his brother, ripping off his arms no less, and eventually died when he unwittingly picked a fight with a local god who struck him down with disease. Other histories neglected such piquant details, and The Birth of Japan exploits this wriggle room to revise legend with contemporary resonances and personal meaning for Inagaki, toning Takeru down and making the wayward Prince more a misunderstood hero, rueing his reputation for headstrong ferocity whilst evolving into a statesman who finally pronounces his faith that more can be achieved by talking than with force of arms.
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One immediate subtext inferred by the title and borne out by the approach to its hero is the film is also about the rebirth of Japan as post-war state, striving to leave behind a reputation for bellicosity, trying to better understand itself and achieve a new blend of ancient and modern precepts. Inagaki emphasises construction, glimpsing the Yamato citizens building new and increasingly ambitious structures as their city-state grows, nodding to the postwar reconstruction process. Inagaki tries to intuitively depict ancient Japan, a time before much of the familiar cultural paraphernalia of the country evolved – Kusunagi, for instance, is no katana blade, but a more primitive type of sword. The narrative, suggesting the government is being twisted out of shape by a malign and prejudice-mongering set of usurpers, has its own suggestive aspect. Inagaki’s fondness for conflicted, down-to-earth protagonists manifests as he  remakes the aristocratic titan as a figure striving to find self-control, a man who loves the company of his fellow soldiers, and struggles against creeping forces of prejudice and xenophobia he sees starting to infect Yamato under the repudiates the intermarriage ban. The ban sees his loyal lieutenant Yakumo (Kô Mishima) and his lover Azami (Kumi Mizuno), who has been mobbed and exiled by her people, forced to romance in secret until the Prince takes them under his wing.
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The Birth of Japan bears a notable relationship with Toho’s Godzilla (1954) and other kaiju eiga films, with two of that film’s most vital collaborators contributing to Inagaki’s film: the special effects provided by Eiji Tsuburaya and music by Akira Ifukube. The fascinating imagery of the opening depiction of the Heaven and Earth being created wield a majestic flavour although they maintain Inagaki’s stylised approach by retaining a look reminiscent of paintings and theatrical backdrops, swirling mists in the void giving way to boiling waters and thrusting rock piles, out of which are born cosmic entities. Tsuburaya’s effects work had a strong effect on fantastical styles in Japanese film and television. The beloved ‘70s Japanese TV take on Journey to the West, Monkey, which in dubbed versions would become the first exposure to Asian mythology and culture for a generation of young westerners, bore the influence strongly in its craggy, misty fantastical landscapes and ingenious effects. As he had touched on in his Musashi trilogy, Inagaki here becomes bolder in utilising anti-realistic set design and special effects to suggest the presence of the ethereal and a protoplasmic sense of reality becoming real. He rhymes the barren, protean landscape Izanami and Izanagi first tread upon and the volcanic pool where Takeru meets his end, blasted cradles of birth where new dimensions open up after deeds of creation and extermination.
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Takeru’s film journey includes the most famous episodes from his folklore, most particularly one in which he dresses as a serving girl to defeat his foes, an image beloved of classic ukiyo-e artists, an adventure in cross-dressing that fascinatingly serves the purpose of giving the hero a feminine side, a purposeful humiliation that liberates him from the dark and marauding side of his masculine character. The Prince is driven to such lengths after a successful sneak attack by the Kumasos’ warriors with flaming arrows kills many of his men, and gets his chance to strike back when the Kumasos and their people throw an orgiastic celebration in victory. Clad in a woman’s clothes, the Prince infiltrates the Kumasos’ fortress and gets close enough to stab the older brother to death. Inagaki extends the gender-bending joke when the Kumasos find the veild Takeru more attractive than one of the other maids. After slaying the older brother, Takeru and the young duel in a ferocious sword-fight, and after he wins the younger Kumaso bestows upon the Prince his new name and destiny. Takeru’s ploy here allows an otherwise bloodless conquest of the Kumaso territory, and he’s able to return home to his father. But he soon finds himself ordered on another perilous mission, and begins to despair of his father’s love and of ever gaining a safe footing in the world. Visiting his aunt, Princess Yamato-hime (Kinuyo Tanaka), who serves as High Priestess in a temple of the sun goddess Amaterasu, placates him by giving him Kusanagi, which she tells him his father sent to him to protect him. Takeru is cheered by this, although one of the Priestess’s shrine maidens, Princess Otohachibana (Yôko Tsukasa), realises she’s lying. Otohichibana and Takeru fall hopelessly in love with each-other, but cannot be married because of her religious vows.
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Whilst Takeru’s story unfolds, Inagaki returns at times to depictions of the gods and the ongoing making of the world, particularly the stately Amaterasu herself (Setsuko Hara) and her wild brother, god of sea and storms, Susanoo (Mifune again). Both gods are counted as ancestors of the first Emperor Jimmu and so of Takeru himself. Susanoo’s penchant for mean pranks culminates when he tosses a dead horse in the midst of Amaterasu’s circle of maidens who sew lengths of shimmering material that resemble the sun’s rays, accidentally killing one of the maidens. Offended and infuriated, Amaterasy retreats into a cave, taking the sun’s light and power with her and leaving everything in darkness, the Earth overrun by evil forces and the gods in heaven bored and fatigued. Trying to think of a way to lure Amaterasu out again, the gods eventually decide to throw a wild party, so the sun goddess will emerge to see what she’s missing. To stir laughter and high spirits, they get the goddess Uzume (Nobuko Otowa) to perform a saucy dance, whilst other gods make the mirror and jewel that will become two parts of the Imperial regalia to reflect Amaterasu’s reflection back at her when she looks out, to make her think another goddess is taking her place and make her jealous. The ruse works and the sun returns to the world. Susanoo, banished for making trouble, sucks all the water out of the world in his incessant bratty crying, but eventually gains control and begins wandering the Earth.
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Inagaki has Takeru’s aunt make the connection between Susanoo’s bratty lack of emotional control and Takeru’s tendency to feel sorry for himself, turning the film, after a fashion, into a tract on what we might now fashionably call toxic masculinity; the act of maturation is the process of gaining self-control and stoic virtues. As well as genealogy the divine vignettes are also a form of psychologising, contextualising Takeru as a man lost in the most complex and cruel world of humans by comparison to the outlandish passions and gifts of the gods, and also are explicitly presented as structures though which people communicate values and ideas as a common inheritance of parable. In the last vignette, Susanoo comes to a village where the inhabitants live in cringing fear of a monstrous, eight-headed dragon. The village chieftain Anazuchi (Akira Sera) and his wife explain that the monster has already eaten seven of their daughters, and only have left, Kushinada (Misa Uehara). Susanoo vows to protect her and transforms her into a comb, lodging her in his hair whilst he ventures out to do battle with the monster, which he baits into getting drunk with vats of sake. Attacking the woozy beast, Susanoo manages to pierce its stout tail repeatedly, bleeding it to death. As he hacks open the dragon, he finds the sword Kusanagi lodged in its flesh. Susanoo presented it as a present in apology to Amaterasu and married Kushinada.
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Susanoo’s duel with the dragon is the most colourfully visualised and familiarly fantastical sequence in the film, anticipating some of Harryhausen’s sequences like the battle with the Hydra in Jason and the Argonauts, although Tsuburaya’s puppetry effects for realising the dragon aren’t nearly as sophisticated as Harryhausen’s stop-motion work. The dragon does bear a strong resemblance of Tsubraya’s work animating the monstrous Gidorah in later Godzilla entries. The faintly comic-erotic touch of Susanoo transforming Kushinada and wearing her strikes a droll note before Ifukube’s music turns dark and momentous and Tsuburaya announces the monster’s arrival with a waterspout and rainstorm. The grotesquely wriggling beasts cleaves a path through the sea and arrives to sup greedily upon the vats of sake. Here Susanoo transforms himself, from lawless and chaotic figure to saviour and defender, whilst confronting the dragon, distinguishing divine order from the primal terrors unleashed by Amaterasu’s retreat and giving new moral form to the world. Takeru mimics his evolution as he tries to forge new alliances and modes of diplomacy, but he finds his reputation hard to shake. When he’s visited by an envoy of the Owari, Princess Miyazu (Kyôko Kagawa), she, fearful for her aged and crippled father and their kingdom, tries to poison Takeru with poisoned sake – a subtle rhyme with the use of drink to disarm the dragon. Miyazu warns him off drinking it as she realises in listening to him that he’s a sane and decent man. Frustrate by Otohachibana’s hysterical repudiation of him, Takeru begins romancing Miyazu, but Otohachibana seeks him out on hearing of their impending nuptials, and this time succumb to profane passion.
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Ootomo’s sons and pretenders meanwhile visit a local warlord, Kurohiko (Jun Tazaki), and talk him into killing Takeru for them. Kurohiko’s fiefdom lies in the shadow of Mount Fuji, which Takeru has never seen before – Tsuburaya’s model version of the mountain depicts it before it blew its top off, smoking and smouldering with baleful rumblings. Kurohiko tries to kill Takeru when on a boar hunt in the grassy plains under the great mountain. Otohachibana pursues him to warn him, and they become trapped as Kurohiko’s men set fire to the grass, threatening to engulf the lovers. Takeru coins the magic sword’s name as he uses it to hack away the grass in a space surrounding them, to try and rob the fire of fuel. Takeru finds quickly the sword has the power to summon wind and turns the flames back on his enemies, allowing him to rejoin his warriors and slay Kurohiko, who vengefully tells Takeru that his father ordered his assassination. Fate claims is price as Takeru, his bride, and his army sail on their way to another mission only for a terrible storm to strike the fleet and threaten all aboard with destruction: Otohichibana realises that it’s punishment for her breaking her vows, and she throws herself into the ocean. Her sacrifices works, pacifying the storm, and Takeru stares into the water where she sank, which glows an eerie green. Heartbroken and wearied, he decides to take his men back to Yamato to let them see their loved ones and to beg for an end to his wandering, warlike exile.
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The most awkward aspect of The Birth of Japan is also its most interesting: the structure is made diffuse by the alternation of the main story of Yamato Takeru and the more archaic, symbolic myths, and try as they might, Inagaki and the screenwriters don’t always counterpoint them effectively. Aspects of the central story, whilst potentially as complex as Inagaki managed in the Musashi movies, don’t really go anywhere, like Takeru’s foiled relationship with Miyazu, who becomes the keeper of Kusunagi after the Prince gives it to her to protect. Mifune’s presence in the dual roles of Susanoo and Takeru does a lot to yoke the hemisphere together, however; although much less famed than Mifune’s collaborations with Kurosawa, his work with Inagaki is the definition of a great director-star collaboration, and The Birth of Japan depends greatly on the actor’s charisma and physical prowess as well as his ability to project emotional complexity in a role that might easily have been reduced to a heroic blank. Surrounding him is a startling survey of well-known actors, some, like Mifune’s costars from Kurosawa films like Shimura and Uehara, only appearing briefly if in totemic parts. Casting Hara, so often the lovelorn lovely at the heart of Yasujiro Ozu’s films, as the proud sun goddess has a faint quality of in-joke, whilst Tono, so often a great villain, makes you hate his conniving Ootomo with great efficiency. Inagaki’s scenes of battle and spectacle are superb, like the fight between Takeru and the younger Kumaso.
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And yet some of the film’s best moments are meditative, as when the Yamato warriors listen to one of the men playing a wistful flute under the shadow of the simmering Fuji, whilst Takeru and Otohichibana lounge in brief respite from their angst, a sequence in which Inagaki seems to be grasping directly at some kernel of folk-memory, his sense of a culture of musical performance as the truest connecting thread of his national sensibility. This is also the only time Inagaki makes a direct, present-tense correlation between the human and divine levels comes when he dissolves from Takeru and Otohichibana embracing in the night to the sight of Uzume dancing for the gods, signalling the accord of wistful, fleeting happiness and the role of the dancing goddess as the bringer of dawn, before the day brings its sad duties. The relative innocence and playfulness Inagaki emphasises in the anecdotes of the gods in their moments of vanity, savagery, silliness, and eventually heroism, moreover offsets the tendency of the human characters to take themselves too seriously. Even the sometimes awful Susanoo is an overgrown brat at first. Inagaki’s sense of the Shinto inheritance is essentially a joyous one, busy with characters who amass into an oddball community maintaining a pacific balance in the universe.
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Only the film’s very end suggests a truly solemn sense of spiritual awe, and that comes, perhaps meaningfully, when the offence to human and divine order finally stirs cosmic wrath. Upon returning to Yamato, Takeru and his men decide to leave again and continue with their peace-making quest rather than stir up trouble at home. But the Ootomos lead out an army to meet them, pretending to be a friendly welcoming committee, before attacking in treacherous fashion, sparking a bloody battle on the hills of Yamato that rages until only Takeru and Yakumo are left. The final eruption of violent chaos makes a mockery of Takeru’s peacemaking plans but also provides his warrior crew with their moment of sacrificial grandeur, as his men link arms and form a human chain to protect their leader from arrows that skewer them instead. Takeru meanwhile fights to save Yakumo so he can get home to Azami, ripping paths through the Ootomo warriors. Yakumo manages to escape after slaying a few pursuers, whilst Takeru crawls on his hands and knees to a pool on a mountain peak to drink, only for lurking archers to riddle him from afar with shafts. The slaying of Takeru’s mortal form sees his soul emerge as a white bird that flies high above Yamato and unleashing a deus-ex-machina spectacle.
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A volcanic eruption spews rivers of lava and cracks the ground, swallowing up the Ootomo forces, and the survivors who make it down to the shoreline are washed away by tsunamis crashing upon the land. It’s a tremendous finale, courtesy of Tsuburaya’s technical ebullience as he plainly tries to match the parting of the Red Sea scene in The Ten Commandments, delivering the villains their comeuppance on a grand scale. But it’s also a purposeful invention by the filmmakers appended to Takeru’s legend, turning him from victim of hubris into the spirit of justice, with a reverent attitude to the instability of the Japanese landscape itself, trapped between peaks that unleash hellfire and oceans that swell and crash, not seen as mere natural chaos but as a different kind of order, evoking the state of existence for the humans who dwell between the consuming extremes of their own natures. Takeru is reborn as exemplar for the citizens of Yamato. Ifukube’s career-best work might be found here, too, as he avoids the usual clichés of epic scoring, instead filling the soundtrack with a soaring chorus both eerie and majestic at once, signifying the spiritual power behind the surface chaos, before the white bird wings its way to heaven, glimpsed amidst sun-stroked clouds.

Calvary (2013)

Director/Screenwriter: John Michael McDonagh

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By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers.

John Michael McDonagh debuted as a feature film director with 2011’s wry comedy-thriller The Guard, which became the most successful independent film ever made in Ireland and clearly established McDonagh as a major new talent in the national cinema. Like many of the new wave of Irish filmmakers, including his brother Martin McDonagh and Conor McPherson, both of whom came from playwriting, and their forebear, novelist and poet Neil Jordan, John Michael’s talent has a highly literate, theatrical inflection that stands at odds with the mantras fed to modern film students. Calvary, his follow-up to The Guard, plainly declares itself to be no run-of-the-mill social-issues movie, even as it tackles some of the most pervasive and passion-stirring issues relevant to modern societies. Whilst the conventionally pretty cinematography drinks in the grandeur of Ireland’s rugged west coast, the drama is compact, even claustrophobic, befitting the film’s revision of an old and hoary theatrical event, one that used to tie together and define communities in festivals of religious fervour: the passion play. Brendan Gleeson, Irish film’s stocky Atlas since John Boorman made him a movie star in The General (1997), counters his lead role as the Falstaffian antihero of The Guard with a role here as Father James Lavelle, the priest of a small Catholic church in a coastal town. A cold opening sees Lavelle enter the confession box on Sunday as per his roster of duties. The man on the other side of the screen is silent for a moment, to the point where Lavelle is confused, but then the man says, “I first tasted semen when I was seven years old.”

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Lavelle, startled, nonetheless utters the first in the film’s manifold self-referential quips: “Certainly a startling opening line.” The man querulously asks Lavelle what he means, and then informs him of his design. In revenge for the abuse he suffered as a child at the hands of priests, he intends to gain attention and make a statement by killing a cleric. Not a bad priest, mind, but a good one—Lavelle himself, whom he predicts will die by his hand on the beach in precisely one week’s time. Lavelle emerges from the confessional quietly shaken, but continues his holy duties without demur, alongside Father Leary (David Wilmot), a dim, rubbery poltroon of the faith. Lavelle reports the incident in abstract to his bishop, Garett Montgomery (David McSavage), and confirms he knows who the man is. The bishop tells Lavelle he’s free to go to the police because the man showed no sign of penitence and received no absolution, but Lavelle makes no move to do so. Instead, he picks up his daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly) from the train station. Sporting a bandaged cut on her wrist from a recent suicide attempt, Fiona has retreated from her London life to recover from the bleak depression that followed a break-up. Fiona has been in pain, however, since the death of her mother, the event that drove Lavelle into the priesthood, a move which Fiona felt was akin to being abandoned by him.

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The week before the next, fateful Sunday thus sees Lavelle engaging not only with his wounded daughter, but also the denizens of the town, still hewing to an old-fashioned sense of the job as one demanding an active interest in their lives. Lavelle is not an old-fashioned priest, however. Thoroughly worldly and experienced in personal folly (he’s a recovering alcoholic), he’s up-to-date on all the modern perversities he and Leary hear about in the confessional (“Do you know what felching is?” “I do know what felching is, yeah.” “I had to look it up.”). This fillip of modern lifestyle was mentioned by one of their female congregants, Veronica Brennan (Orla O’Rourke), who’s recently left her husband, the town butcher Jack (Chris O’Dowd), in favour of pursuing erotic dalliances around town, particularly with Senegalese immigrant Simon (Isaach De Bankolé), a car mechanic. Because Veronica sported a black eye in church on Sunday, Lavelle sets out to find out who gave it to her. Jack blames it on Simon, and Simon takes umbrage to the point of flicking a cigar against Lavelle’s chest and threatening to beat him up for his unwelcome prying. Veronica herself tells him more politely to mind his own business.

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Other people around town whom Lavelle ministers to, interacts with, or merely swaps jests and insults with, include Frank Harte (Aidan Gillen), a black-humoured, professionally cynical doctor who works in the local hospital emergency room, Mícheál (Mícheál Óg Lane), an altar boy who swipes communion wine and paints the coastline, and retired stock trader Michael Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran), who’s bought a nearby mansion with an ill-gotten fortune and now is stewing in a solitary, alcoholic haze of bile and self-regard. Lavelle also ferries supplies to an elderly American writer (M. Emmett Walsh) who lives alone on a small island off the coast. The writer is aging and asks for Lavelle to find him a gun so he can end his days when the time comes. Lavelle does obtain a gun, from Police Inspector Stanton (Gary Lydon), who entertains a wise-cracking rent boy, Leo (Owen Sharpe). Does Lavelle intend the gun for the writer’s peace or for self-defence?

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Ireland is a country wrapped up in a specific mythology that long since went international in fame and allure, one that’s both a blessing and burden for contemporary artists to work with. The last 20 years has seen both the boom of the “Celtic Tiger” and then the bust, and the ongoing exposure of the septic underbelly of the Catholic Church’s dominance of a society that might well be said to have swapped imperialism for theocracy in the 1920s, shaking up some of the most fetishized aspects of the Irish myth: poverty, religion, and detachment from modernity. Calvary’s essential conceit, mapped out by McDonagh in interviews, is the potent irony provided by setting up a good priest as the martyr for the bad ones in the context of an age when cumulative disgust can cause divorcement of the public at large from a once omnipresent institution. Calvary starts as a kind of deadpan situation comedy where the oddball assortment of characters and their helpful priest interact with barbed geniality. But as the film continues and deepens, jokey conversations quickly show real teeth, and Lavelle is quickly exposed to the level of real anger, contempt, and fear in the community, as cheeky humour gives way to purposeful mockeries and acts of licenced cruelty. Calvary’s title gives an immediate hint as to the oncoming stations-of-the-cross epic Lavelle is facing, his faith not so much tested as his commitment to his role in an age that doesn’t seem to care much for what he offers, even when he sees many proofs that his function is still needed, and especially when confronted by a seemingly imminent date with fate that demands affirmation of just how dedicated he is.

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McDonagh bites off as much as any artist, literary or cinematic, could chew here. Indeed, the scope of his ambition almost feels anachronistic in an age of oblique independent films and buffed-down mainstream pseudo-dramas. McDonagh’s writing pitches itself on the outer verges of archness, as his carefully studied characters exchange knowing witticisms whilst not budging from their sharply drawn, almost caricatured postures—indeed, a couple of them, like Sharpe’s Leo and Milo (Killian Scott) never quite escape the realm of improv-theatre exercise. Milo is a young, bespectacled, bow-tie-sporting gent who’s considering joining the army to release sadistic fantasies provoked by his inability to get laid in his small and claustrophobic town. Lavelle derides his plan and suggests moving to a bigger city where “young women with loose morals” are in greater supply. The village is a stage that only offers a small roster of major players, each one charged with a certain relevance to Lavelle’s predicament. Those characters seem to be aware of the roles they are playing, inhabiting types they know are types. Harte, tiring of baiting Lavelle for a moment, mutters that “the atheistic doctor, it’s a clichéd part to play – there aren’t that many good lines.” “You really should talk you know,” Lavelle tells Fiona, “Let it all out.” To which she replies, “Like one of those shit plays at the Abbey?” McDonagh’s highlights his work’s postmodern, smart-ass tilt with a purpose that finally reveals itself by the climax, as the film reproduces with slippery awareness that way the characters hold life at arm’s length with humour and wryly stoic pith that the unknown nihilist seeks to violate with intimate anger.

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Lavelle’s controlling viewpoint is a vital, subtle aspect of the film, as the increasing tension and darkness of his situation begins to colour every exchange, and every piss-take joke at his expense and provocation becomes more loaded. Historical abuses of the church, including Simon’s cool statement that “we’re not in the missions now,” are fired at him by several characters. Harte approaches him at the wrong moment with a bleak and horrifying anecdote about his early days doctoring in Dublin when he saw a kid left completely paralysed, blind, deaf, and dumb by an anaesthetist’s failure. The doctor suddenly plays the part of serpent in the garden, a satanic taunter armed with life’s dumb cruelty to goad Lavelle. The priest’s nerves have already been rubbed raw by a series of events, from finding his beloved pet dog with its throat cut to his and Leary’s church burning down. Whether these crimes were committed by his would-be murderer or others remains unclear, but it certainly seems that Lavelle recognises a common disdain for him. That disdain finds apogee when he encounters a small girl walking a laneway and chats amiably with her, only to have her father roar up in a car and furiously threaten him after bundling her away. Lavelle is confronted by the severed cords of trust and amity to which he’s supposed to be tied to his community, the assumption that he’s the force for good suddenly stricken and actively derided by Simon and publican Brendan Lynch (Pat Shortt). Lavelle responds by breaking his drinking ban, whereupon he gets pie-eyed and unleashes his own wrath on the publican by firing his gun off, shattering bottles. When he’s out of bullets, however, Lynch pulls out his own weapon, a baseball bat, and when next we see Lavelle, he’s washing a broken nose.

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Calvary’s seriousness of intent reveals itself steadily, a palpable anger and mournfulness about the State of Things, but this is also a vitally funny film, with verbal comedy lethally sharp throughout. Lavelle’s conversations with his melancholic daughter are laced with a spiky, rhythmic style of humour that suggests their deep accord whilst also defining the toey, touchy space each maintains in their mutually therapeutic exchanges. The film’s comic highpoint comes when Lavelle goes to visit Fitzgerald at his house to discuss Fitzgerald’s proposed, large cash donation to the church for the hell of it: “That interests you doesn’t it? he asks, “It’s goin’ to be a black day altogether when the Catholic Church is no longer interested in money, huh?” Lavelle finds Fitzgerald, completely tanked, seemingly determined to make some sort of point to the priest as he waves airily at artworks that have cost him fortunes whilst decrying his wife, children, and servants, all of whom have quit him, and mentions his quasi-illegal financial dealings, which might be investigated but certainly won’t ever see him imprisoned. Finally, for a last piece of anarchic one-upmanship, Fitzgerald shows off his copy of Hans Holbein’s “The Ambassadors.” “I don’t know what it means, but I own it,” he notes, not recognising the weird smudge in the foreground of the frame is actually a carefully distorted skull that can only be seen through a special lens, a memento mori inserted into the original painting’s apparent celebration of lucid, scientific achievement. Lavelle finally loses patience with Fitzgerald and turns to go after berating him for inviting him over merely to tease him. Fitzgerald stalls his departure by saying he can piss on the masterwork he owns, and takes down the painting for that purpose. Lavelle retorts, “Why not? People like you have already pissed on everything else,” and departs as a stream of yellow fluid begins raining upon the masterpiece.

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Whilst it could be said McDonagh’s epochal anger (albeit of a type many feel) is a bit obvious here, he’s made it, firstly, very funny and caustic, but also has contoured it into a drama that takes on a legitimate, even fundamental question facing most modern societies: as old faiths wane, what takes their place? In effect, who cares? What constructs tether a society together, beyond a mutually negative reaction? At its best, as McDonagh intends Lavelle to exemplify, the priest fulfils a holistic role that conjoins therapist, carer, interlocutor, concerned friend, public philosopher, and social worker, a contradiction to the modern world’s presumptions of specialisation that result in compartmentalisation. Harte can repair bodies, but has no feel for humanity; Fitzgerald is a member of a ruling class that no longer rules, but simply hoards and decays. Lavelle’s own outlook holds that his job is to provide “solace,” and later, at a crucial juncture, tells Fiona he thinks there’s far too much obsession with sin these days, and that forgiveness is underrated. This line isn’t given much weight but is very much the key to the film, and particularly the very final scene which portrays a stirring act of forgiveness and outreach that represents the triumph of Lavelle’s spirit. Lavelle reaches out to the cocky, provocative Leo, who cracks wise about his own sexual abuse by priests, having dealt with it in the utter reverse manner to the secret would-be murderer, by turning himself into an extroverted male prostitute.

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Calvary has spiritual similarities with many studies of faith and commitment, particularly Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951), an evident influence on this film in the segmented vignettes of the torments and quandaries besetting both priest and flock. The film’s kin are also found in other studies in the martyr complex where the heroes find themselves faced with a choice between physical survival and moral success, from A Man for All Seasons (1966) to The Crucible (1996) and Hunger (2009). The latter film’s epic ethical argument between prisoner and priest in brusque, tart, Irish accents feels like close kin to McDonagh’s work, and though he lacks Steve McQueen’s gifts for alchemising his concerns into the raw expression of cinema yet, McDonagh remains clearer-headed about his hero’s confrontation with mortality. A sneaky piece of prefiguring sees Lavelle note two sketchy figures in Mícheál’s beach painting: Mícheál is bemused as to where they came from, suggesting they’re some kind of echo, but actually, of course, it’s presentiment. Otherwise, however, McDonagh steers far away from wrestling with the specifics of the material’s possible transcendental side. His concerns are worldly.

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Calvary also resembles a thematic follow-up to Antonia Bird’s once-controversial Priest (1994), with its script by Liverpool Catholic writer Jimmy McGovern, which similarly set up a pair of committed, faithful, but unusual priests, one gay, the other a pulpit radical, to face the modern Pharisees. Calvary’s new prognostication of the ills the older films identified looks squarely at a time when doubt is a way of life, and presents the unusual notion of its protagonist as scapegoat and outcast in a society where he would once have been automatically venerated, or at least tolerated. McDonagh’s smart enough to understand why, too, whilst empathising squarely with his hero’s battered sense of commitment and humane interest.

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McDonagh provides two deeply serious sequences that serve as pivotal moments, as Lavelle goes about the most important tasks before him as a priest and anchor the film and catalyse the darkening tone. The first comes with a very Dostoyevskian scene in which Lavelle goes to a prison to visit a former student of his, Freddie Joyce (Gleeson’s son Domhnall), who’s been imprisoned for life as a serial sex murderer. Joyce pathetically reports his desire to be hung in spite of the absence of a death penalty in Ireland, and speaks of fantasies about the afterlife when he’ll be reunited with his victims, purged of all his malicious urges, and begs of Lavelle an answer to the question of why, if God made him the way he is, he would not understand him. Lavelle answers with utmost consideration, “If God can’t understand you, no one can.” Later, he’s called to the hospital where Harte has lost his fight to save the life of a French tourist who was in a car crash. Lavelle sits with the tourist’s wife Teresa (Marie-Josée Croze) in a chapel, coaxing her through grief and doing his job’s ultimate function, acting as the midwife between states of existence, with unerring sensitivity. Lavelle encounters Teresa again at the point where his wavering resolve threatens to drive him from his town, and her deep gratitude and admiration arms him with new strength to return and face whatever fate has been allotted to him—to save a soul or give his life.

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The way McDonagh’s distancing ironies and those of the characters’ are entangled might, with a less talented filmmaker, have caused too much friction against the material’s deadly earnest elements and considerations, but for the most part they work well in tandem, and with gathering power. McDonagh sharpens this to a beautifully nasty point when a man is shot after preaching detachment from the film’s vital central problem, followed by the shooter’s angry declaration, “Detach yourself from that!” The finale of Calvary is enormously powerful for precisely its invocation of this shedding of posture and confrontation with immediate reality, in terms of cause and consequence. More than that, it’s an unsparing climax that surprisingly validates not just the potential martyr’s feelings, but also those of the wrathful agent, who screams with a fury as natural and potent as the rolling storm swell crashing on the coast, “I was one of the lucky ones! There’s bodies buried back there!” McDonagh manages to complicate rather than polarise the morality inherent in the final confrontation, as the fury and pain of the would-be killer is depicted with such stirring force that it presents to the audience the possibility that not only Lavelle, but the audience itself is not so innocent, complicit if only by detachment from the evils that beset the world and dog others like demons. By meeting the challenges he sets himself with unremitting focus at last, McDonagh redeems his flaws and arrives at a genuinely compelling and relevant piece of cinema.

The Ten Commandments (1956)

Director: Cecil B. DeMille

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By Roderick Heath

Legend has it that young film director Cecil B. DeMille arrived by train at a Midwestern location to shoot his debut project, The Squaw Man (1914), only to find a rainstorm was drenching the locale. DeMille decided to head on to the end of the line and film in the outskirts of Los Angeles, where some film production was already taking place and the climate was almost always favourable. The result of this miniature, comically fateful Exodus was the founding of another promised land, Hollywood, as America’s film capital. DeMille’s subsequent career all but defined the public’s idea of Tinseltown’s evolution from dusty backdrop to powerhouse industry, whilst his name became synonymous with what was, until the rise of special-effects-driven blockbusters, the biggest of cinematic genres: the costume epic. But DeMille, consummate showman, was always ready to change genres and modes when he sensed audiences were tiring of certain material. His original forte was sexy melodramas about temptation and punishment, like The Cheat (1915); later, he transferred the impulses he explored and exploited onto ostensibly more elevated material in religious dramas, like his first tilt at The Ten Commandments (1923) and The King of Kings (1927). DeMille was cunning, ardent, and hypocritical all at once: his parties had been the wildest in Hollywood in the ’20s, and he nailed down his audience appeal by flooding the eyes with sensual gratification whilst preaching in the ear.

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DeMille’s best work usually made such clashes his subject, like the Christian martyr tale in The Sign of the Cross (1932), that gets the audience off on seeing faith tested with pleasures and terrors of the flesh that correlates this voyeurism with the sexual and sadistic impulses of Nero’s Rome. With films like Madam Satan (1930) and Four Frightened People (1934), DeMille tried to examine his audience’s fantasies in a more upfront fashion, with heroines desiring to transform themselves in liberating situations, but both flopped. So it was back to such self-consciously legendary historical films like Cleopatra (1934) and The Crusades (1935), and then, as he sensed post-Depression audiences were getting more parochial, equally mythical studies of U.S. history like The Plainsman (1936), Union Pacific (1939), and Reap the Wild Wind (1942). After WWII, DeMille, who retained such status he was Hitchcock’s only rival for audience recognition amongst directors, revived the religious epic with Samson and Delilah (1949), proving that on the cusp of the 1950s, the audience again wanted lush escapism mixed with a patina of unflinching moral import. DeMille’s instincts proved prescient again as the historical melodrama, usually with heavy religious themes, found natural symbiosis with the new widescreen and Technicolor-blazoned super-cinema that Hollywood was using to retaliate against TV’s growing threat. Coming off one of his flattest films, The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) (of course, the one that gained him his lone Oscar), and 40 years after The Squaw Man, DeMille tackled, in his mid-70s, the largest and most ambitious of his epics, a redo of The Ten Commandments. At a budget of more than $13 million, it was the most expensive movie of its time and one of the biggest money-makers of any time.

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The Ten Commandments is the sort of film that now tends to be appreciated with a smirk. With its blazing colour, stylised acting, florid dialogue, and commitment to telling its story in the most magnified and unequivocal of fashions, DeMille made a film that’s proved gold for satirists and camp enthusiasts ever since, and defined one ideal of old Hollywood cinema so thoroughly that everything that followed seemed like reaction. Wood for the trees, however; DeMille wasn’t trying to make On the Waterfront (1954), but its absolute opposite in stylistic terms, and it’s a version of cinema that demands much more respect than it usually receives. It approaches a defiant extreme in manipulation and sublimation of technique and human elements to the iconographic tale DeMille was telling, and yet, of course, DeMille’s take on Old Testament material is a version of a moral melodrama that reaches across the breadth of ’50s American cinema, including, yes, On the Waterfront, as a character hears the irrepressible call of his conscience that will lead him into a terrible power struggle.

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DeMille’s achievement is close to what another silent cinema hero, Sergei Eisenstein, had managed with his Ivan the Terrible diptych (1946, 1959), tossing out the rules for realistic drama they had only half-heartedly played by since the coming of sound. Both men were surely remembering the likes of Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924) in turning past mythology into totalised conceptualism. DeMille’s reputation as a maker of big movies went further than his penchant for huge sets and large casts: every aesthetic element in them was rendered in an outsized manner. DeMille’s visual style was replete with a grand salon artist’s framings and arrangements of elements, as well as deep-focus shots emphasising space and physicality. His cultural armoury referenced Victorian genre painting, Wagnerian operatic staging, primitive and early civilisation art forms, cubism and art deco decorative and dance styles.

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DeMille’s approach was perfect for portraying Old Testament myth for the benefit of mid-century audiences: the very anti-realism of it painted a palpable dream past where all-powerful deities casually part seas and god-kings battle with shamanic heroes for overlordship of humanity. The opening lays out DeMille’s iconographic talent in all its loud glory, his own inimitably stentorian voice reciting “Let there be light!” over shots of crepuscular-rifted clouds and perverse snapshots of massed slaves hauling monumental statues. Egyptian royalty and guards are arrayed like the friezes on tomb walls, as Ramses I (DeMille regular Ian Keith), scared by omens that proclaim the birth of the prophesised deliverer of his Hebrew slaves, is talked into massacring all their newborn. This slaughter is communicated with perfect economy in a dissolve to a dead-eyed mother sitting next to a cradle with a soldier, sword covered in blood, retreating from his murderous work. Yochabel (Martha Scott) saves her lad by setting him adrift on the Nile, and has her daughter follow his reed basket to make sure he finds a safe landing point. He certainly finds that, as he is rescued by Bithiah (Nina Foch), the Pharaoh’s daughter and a recent widow, and claimed as her gift of consolation from the gods. Exodus’ famously sketchy narrative until Moses, as Bithiah dubs him, leaves his gilded royal life to stick up for his people, is here fleshed out as a tale of adoptive familial strife. As a grown man, Moses (Charlton Heston) competes with Ramses (Yul Brynner), son of Bithiah’s brother Seti (Cedric Hardwicke), the next Pharaoh, for Seti’s favour.

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Moses returns from war both as venerated patriotic hero and wise leader, having brought back the King of Ethiopia (Woody Strode) and his sister as allies. With Ramses having fallen behind schedule in building Seti’s “treasure city,” Seti gives the job to Moses whilst ordering Ramses to discover if the Hebrew messiah is alive, as the slaves hope. Ramses would almost be reduced to the Jan Brady of religious epics in contending with his cousin’s constantly recapitulated excellence, except that he’s so swaggeringly arrogant he scarcely doubts for a second that, sooner or later, his birth-imbued status will win out. Between them as a love interest is Nefertiri (Anne Baxter), dissemblingly referred to as the “throne princess” to disguise the prickly detail that she is Ramses’ sister and, as per ancient Egyptian custom, expected to marry her brother. Nefertiri’s preference for Moses is understandably unabashed. Moses’ innate decency almost gets him into trouble, however, as he’s appalled by the Hebrew slaves’ treatment. This comes to a head when Yochabel, employed as a grease layer to smooth the movement of enormous blocks of stone, is almost crushed; stone artisan Joshua (John Derek) saves her life by assaulting a foreman, and Joshua’s girlfriend, waterbearer Lilia (Debra Paget), calls Moses to intervene. Realising that the slaves are too malnourished and exhausted to work effectively, he has grain seized from priestly granaries to feed the slaves and gives them a day off each week. This allows Ramses to impugn his loyalty, but Seti is so impressed by the progress Moses makes that he declares him his heir.

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Say what you will about DeMille’s boldface dramatic style, far from getting lost in pageantry and swagger or in religious and cultural vagaries, The Ten Commandments puts sketchy holy writ and gargantuan cinematic trappings at the mercy of immediate human drama. Sexual desire, jealousy, righteous anger, the nature of political might and worthiness of it, genetic versus emotional loyalty, family love, family hate—all are mixed together in a brash and muscular manner in the film’s first hour. Howard Hawks and William Faulkner blanched at the problem of what a Pharaoh sounded like, but DeMille and his battery of screenwriters charge right in with fake poeticisms and would-be arcane turns of phrase mixed with colloquialisms: one of my favourite moments tweaks the disparity, as Seti, listening to a litany of glorifying titles recited by a high priest, mutters to Nefertiri, “The old windbag!” In a manner so different to many modern spectacle films, the humans are never lost amidst the epic—quite the opposite in fact, as Seti’s city reshapes the world to reflect an individual’s ego back at him, something Seti himself is above but which Ramses is all too willing to accept as natural law. The dialectic continues through the film as Moses comes into contact with a greater power and uses it to pound that grand world back into clay. DeMille partly achieves this because his actors, particularly the titanic bodies of Heston and Brynner, are treated like landscapes in themselves. The two actors understand this well, playing with intense gestural and postural acuity that rapidly steps between the friezelike and the dancelike.

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Moses’ journey from the very edge of his society to the centre and back again culminates in two murders, each an act of faith and love, but for sharply divergent ends. Nefertiri kills Memnet (Judith Anderson), Moses’ and Ramses’ former nurse, when she threatens to reveal Moses’ true identity to Seti, whilst Moses, when he discovers that identity, makes his first act of liberation the killing of Baka (Vincent Price), the self-indulgent governor of the slave town of Goshen, when he attempts to whip Joshua to death. Nefertiri kills nominally for love, but really to sate her own ego, whilst Moses does so not just to save a man, but also as a kind of declaration of war and identity. Nefetiri, initially merely a spoilt brat with a likeable streak of bravado, not so slowly disintegrates into an unstable egotist. Whilst beefcake masculinity covets the screen, Baxter’s gloriously arch turn as Nefertiri (all together now: “Oh, Moses, Moses! You stubborn, splendid, adorable fool!”) fits neatly into DeMille’s penchant for featuring wilful, transgressive women. She is indeed more complex than her predecessors and resolves in an image of tortured union as its own perdition. DeMille inverts the gender format of The Sign of the Cross as pagan tart tries to seduce adamantine man of faith even as Moses transforms into a prematurely wizened patriarch and enemy of the state. Whereas Samson and Delilah only works in fits and starts, as Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr failed to build the necessary over-the-top lust, Baxter keeps The Ten Commandments percolating on a level of erotic excess. She also gives the film jolts of impudent malice throughout, particularly in the second half, as Ramses’ confident alpha masculinity, expressed through his repeatedly stated intent to possess both Nefertiri and the crown, crumbles in the face of both Moses’ miracles and, worse, Nefertiri’s contemptuous jibes that fulfil the task of hardening Pharaoh’s heart via a process of relentless emasculation.

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Downfall for Moses waits just around the corner, as Nefertiri hurls Memnet to her death from her balcony, and then meets Moses still gripped by a skittish mania that gives her deed and the reason behind it away. Moses heads to Yochabel’s home, where he learns the truth of his origins. DeMille milks Yochabel’s and Bithia’s converging, but polarised maternal grieving, but strikes an ingenious and graceful note as Moses contends with the radical shift in awareness, but ponders just how much he hasn’t changed. His subsequent self-immersion in the mean life of the Hebrew slaves brings him into contact with brutality and perversion as an old man who protests his humanity to a guard is casually murdered, and Lilia is lecherously picked out by Baka for forced prostitution. Such corny, but memorable vignettes give the film a moral context that resists reduction to mere theatre, in part because DeMille stages them vividly—the grimy mud clinging to Moses and the old man and the smear of red blood the guard wipes off the straw-chopper he used as a weapon, the maelstrom of intently oblivious activity around them—and because, like so many creative people who had lived through humanity’s worst epoch, DeMille seems to have had recent likenesses in mind.

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Moses’ early triumphs culminate when he shows Seti his grandiose new city, complete with colossi and obelisks, impressing his surrogate father with gratification of the ego on a cosmic scale. Moses’ and DeMille’s showmanship conflate here as curtains are brushed back to reveal scales of achievement hitherto unimaginable, doubling as DeMille’s first real acknowledgment of the new vista and reach of the widescreen format. DeMille emphasises Moses as exemplar of all worldly virtues—great warrior, super-stud, loyal scion—before he’s transformed by sacred calling, DeMille’s way of assuring his audience that religion’s not for sissies or those merely fond of contentiousness. Whereas Quo Vadis? (1951) and The Robe (1953), immediate predecessors in the religious epic stakes, look today fascinatingly like metaphorical soul-searching for a United States talking through its split personality of conscientious citadel and newborn empire, DeMille disposes of the disparity by portraying the religious leader as titanic conqueror, terrifying his enemies with displays of force. But DeMille also keep in focus a notion fundamental to much religious mythology, that of the son of wealth and fame who abandons all for a higher calling: once he hears the call of suffering and oppression, Moses cannot ignore it or his own nature, whilst his intelligence and propriety prove as valuable, if not moreso, when he finds new roles to play. His status as accidental race traitor is counterpointed with Baka’s Hebrew underling Dathan (Edward G. Robinson), who volunteers himself to Ramses as the man to turn up the messiah. Dathan does just this, albeit through a stroke of luck at seeing Moses kill Baka, and he reaps the rewards of collaboration, down to taking possession of Lilia, who gives in to sexual blackmail to prevent Joshua from being killed.

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Amidst this vast tapestry, DeMille’s attention zeroes in on the minute as well as the enormous aspects of mythic texture, like the scrap of Levite cloth that had been his blanket in the escape raft: Memnet uses it as proof of her story, and Moses finds the larger cloth it came from draped over his birth mother. Later, it’s given to him as an ironic cloak of princedom over the desert, along with the staff that was part of his manacling, from Ramses. This is, of course, the equivalent of a superhero’s costume finally coming together, as he’ll come back in his tribal livery with the staff transformed into a magic weapon. I also enjoy some of the physical business employed, like Seti and Nefertiri playing a board game called “Jackals and Lions” in a mood for gamesmanship, with Seti irritably snapping off the head of a Jackal; the trinket slides across the floor to be imperiously snapped up by an entering Ramses, setting the scene for his scooping up the spoils of his birthright. Or, Ramses, prodding Moses over his acts of supposed betrayal, counting them off as he adds weights to a scale, to which Moses retorts by placing a brick on the other tray to emphasize that dead slaves make no bricks. Baka and Dathan both make a point of picking out a flower for Lilia to wear when she’s first presented in chattel finery to them: Baka chooses a warm-hued bloom in sensual anticipation, whilst Dathan appends a white flower, depicting his delight in inevitably soiling her innocence. Moses is ritually cleansed by ordeal in the desert after losing everything, after DeMille offers one of his most concertedly iconic shots of Moses marching slowly into the desert away from a marker stone, facing the external and internal wilderness.

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DeMille’s voiceover gets particularly flowery in describing Moses’ torments as he crosses the desert, but lo, masculine fantasy awaits, as he makes it to the well of Sheikh Jethro of Midian (Eduard Franz), whose soccer team of daughters tend to sheep nearby. Moses proves he hasn’t lost his touch as he beats up a bunch of bullying goatherds (damn dirty Amalekites!) who try muscling in on the well, earning him a place under Jethro’s tent. Love blooms between Moses and the odd one out amongst Jethro’s deliriously horny brood, the sober Sephorah (Yvonne De Carlo), in purple but uniquely lush dialogue aiming for Song of Solomon-esque rhapsody. After Moses has married her and they’ve had a son grow halfway to manhood, Joshua, having escaped captivity, turns up dangling rags and chains, forcing Moses to remember the continued state of his fellows. This stirs Moses to at last take the challenge that’s been before him for years, to climb Mt. Horeb and find if his God really lives there. The genuinely weird encounter with the Burning Bush, which causes even Moses to crumple like a fig in awe, segues into Moses returning to Sephorah and Joshua looking like history’s first stoner guru high on his particular, fiery weed. Whilst the parochial school teachers were all nodding in approval, what secret seeds did this film place in the psyches of a generation of psychedelic artists and dropouts, whilst also perhaps instilling quiet fortitude in the minds of civil rights campaigners?

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For all his delight in the profane, DeMille’s Episcopalian faith was strong, and shared that dual instinct in common with much of his audience. He had a troubled relationship with his own half-Jewish identity, but the fervency of feeling that troubling status stoked in him contradicted his stance as Hollywood’s conservative stalwart, as his films indulge many racial caricatures (as they strike us now) but also often have pointed humanist messages. He had no trouble shooting parts of the film in Egypt in a time of vocal Arab nationalism because the local authorities remembered The Crusades with appreciation. As DeMille himself puts it in his personal appearance as emcee at the opening, his version of The Ten Commandments is unexpectedly political, positing the question of whether individuals are “free souls under God” or the property of the state and dictators like Ramses. The Book of Exodus is often troublingly chauvinist, with the slaughter of the inhabitants of Jordan is par for the course in claiming the Promised Land. DeMille and his battery of screenwriters, including the son of DeMille’s former production partner, Jesse L. Lasky, Jr., and Æneas MacKenzie, the Damon Lindelof of ’50s epics, tweak and twist Torah lore and blend it with details from the Koran and some pure pizazz from popular novels. DeMille’s Passover is inclusive, as Bithia and her Nubian servants join Moses and his family to avoid the final plague whilst Moses’ siblings Aaron and Miriam become, respectively, easily led and xenophobic. If modern takes on figures of Judaic and Christian tradition like The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Noah (2014) look precisely at the fault lines between faith and practice by studying the doubt of the individual hero in the face of eternal forces, DeMille takes the more old-fashioned tack: Moses never doubts himself, his God, or his purpose once he finds it, though he is wrenched by the awesome forces he is given to direct others, and appalled by the imminent, brutally ironic curse he knows Ramses’ arrogance has brought upon his people.

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The long set-up of Moses’ exile and return, and the portrait of a world of such outsized power and ignominious humanity is, of course, a long set-up for the biggest takedown conceivable, and DeMille goes to town portraying the various calamities the new-minted, vastly changed prophet wields. DeMille downplays the shock of Moses’ return to Ramses and Nefertiri, though, in a scene that mirrors Nefertiri’s earlier, easy seduction of Moses back to the courtly life, she now fails as the purposeful man declares her “the lovely dust through which God will work his purpose.” Now that’s a chat-up line. But Nefertiri’s new-stoked ardour turns to vindictiveness when Moses not only rejects her, but humiliates her husband and finally, if incidentally, causes her son’s death along with that of all the other Egyptian first-born in a bleak mirroring of the opening slaughter. This act finally breaks Ramses’ will, and he releases the Hebrews. The sequence of Exodus’ commencement lets DeMille do what he did best, stage a vast number of extras heading out into Sinai, stretching the screen’s capacity to hold detail to the limit, a flood of humanity following a suitably spectacular and momentously archaic opening as men blow into horns to announce freedom and great events, framed against colossal walls and vast horizons. Stanley Kubrick, with Spartacus (1960), and David Lean, in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965), notably tackled similar scenes with an almost competitive gall and still came off a close second, whilst George Lucas and Richard Marquand had the sequence quoted for the kick-off of the Ewok battle in Return of the Jedi (1983).

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DeMille is rarely noted as a visual stylist, and yet a pictorial genius is in constant evidence throughout the nearly 4-hour film, essayed via Loyal Griggs’ cinematography. No shot is dead or merely functional. DeMille had experimented with fusing dance, theatre, art, and a blankly rectilinear cinema in Madam Satan, with its Zeppelin musical sequences that create moving canvases of cubist action, and similar flourishes are scattered throughout his career. But in The Ten Commandments, he makes these elements the keynote of his visual style, emphasising ritualistic and self-consciously antique qualities in the drama, most notable such in moments as when Ramses declares war on the fleeing Hebrews: the supporting cast swoop in, arrange themselves in rough geometry mimicking tomb wall paintings, and Ramses in centre frame stands in a X pose as his armour is placed upon him. DeMille reserves these formalised images, however, always for the Egyptians, or Moses’ power contests, whereas the Hebrews move in brawling, organic masses or arrange into vignettes from Renaissance art, as when Moses at the table during Pesach references Da Vinci’s “Last Supper” and awed Hebrew women watch the Red Sea part in studied triptychs. Vying with the more spectacular images in the film as the most memorable is the eerie prelude to the nightmarish Pesach, as the “angel of death” appears as a ghoulish green mist that spreads across the sky like a great gnarled hand, watched in silent wonder by Joshua, who endeavours to save Lilia by painting ram’s blood on the door of Dathan’s villa. Joshua then makes his way through the night to Moses’ house, and pauses at the threshold so they can listen to the moans of the dying and bereaved. The rest of the Pesach scene passes with a use of sound that’s as great as the visuals.

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The Ten Commandments has its DNA scattered right through modern spectacle cinema, particularly in its influence on Steven Spielberg, who acknowledged the debt outright in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) with a clip, George Lucas, who recast DeMille’s titanic sensibility for the Star Wars series, Richard Donner, Peter Jackson, James Cameron, Roland Emmerich, and Ridley Scott, all of whom have subscribed to DeMille’s desire to stretch cinema to breaking in portraying the fantastical. One of DeMille’s distinguishing gifts, which not all of his followers possess, however, was a sense of how to employ structure and metaphoric emblems, knowing that effect was not special without the velocity of narrative necessity behind it. The Ten Commandments uses its special effects, provided by John P. Fulton, a veteran of fantastic cinema who had worked on the Universal horror films, with a sense of mounting awe and verve. At first they’re used to portray massive, but very human-driven works, in the making of the treasure city, but they are employed to signal a divine presence as Moses stares up Mt. Horeb with its crown laced in an infernal glow.

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Finally, as Moses brings down plagues on Egypt, the effects get a little creakier as they strain to portray checklist miracles, like the Nile turning to blood and fiery hail falling on Ramses’ rooftop patio. Then, of course, is the scene we’ve all been waiting for, as Ramses, worked to frenzy by grief and Nefertiri’s goads, rides out with his charioteers to exterminate the Hebrews caught on the edge of the Red Sea. Moses and God, of course, have it covered, as a giant pillar of fire holds back the charioteers whilst the ocean splits and parts to let the Hebrews flee. The power of this sequence doesn’t just lie in the ostentation of Fulton’s effects, but in the intricate staging that transforms it into cinematic demagoguery. Elmer Bernstein’s scoring is particularly important, propelling the images of Ramses preparing for and launching into battle, and careening toward the Hebrew camp. Images and words crash in upon Moses from every angle—from Ramses and from Dathan, who, forced to leave with his nominal fellows, wants to lead the slaves back to Ramses for a great reward. Clouds blacken and boil, winds rise, and the sea peels back upon itself in one of the great goose-flesh moments of cinema.

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The second climax of the film sees Moses watch the eponymous commandments being carved in rock by Yahweh manifesting as a whirlpool of fire, whilst the Hebrews are whipped up by Dathan into a splendiferous orgy. This sequence could have been a comparative throwaway or diminuendo after the Red Sea, but is rather the cherry on the top of the great teetering cake. The onscreen depravity is quite nakedly pitched as everyone’s idea of a good time in the last and most enjoyable example of DeMille’s two-facedness, offering a sprawl of collegiate naughtiness whilst chiding it in a voiceover that almost begs satiric delight from the audience. But DeMille keeps other, purposeful notions in focus for all the pleasant carnage. He depicts the inevitable, explosive self-indulgence of a recently freed and exultant populace threatening to devolve into not just idolatry but human sacrifice, a surrender to a past Moses is supposed to be leading them away from. He comprehends the significance of the tablets’ carving as a creation of a new level of civilisation, a time of written law that cements mutuality as the key to future society and promises the wrath of God to keep it in place. DeMille crosscuts between carnal frenzy and transcendent rite, Moses cowering against a rock as stunning power quite literally carves the word of God in stone, perfectly visualising that basic, primordial image of communion between human and deity against a stark landscape, whilst the whirling fire matches the spiralling dance of the rioting Hebrews depicts another extreme.

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DeMille gains the desired tone of something having run badly out of control, of sublimely self-destructive surrender to chaos not through the actual depiction of depravity, but rather from a mounting sense of madness derived by the maelstrom of actors churning before his camera, swallowing the individuals in the crowd. One of my favourite throwaway moments of the dizzying collage of images here is Carradine’s hangdog Aaron bleating, “Dathan and the others made me do it!” when another Hebrew accuses him of ruining them all by helping Dathan make the idol. Another is when Robinson’s performance hits lunatic grandeur as he happily avenges himself on Lilia by nominating her as sacrifice to the golden calf, and then sings and chants like a pimped-out druid in rapturous delight at his gift as the anti-Moses, the wizard of sin, as Lilia screams, “Are you insane?” from her prostrate perch above her absurdly fickle fellows intending her death. Moses struts in, and, seeing his profound mission already despoiled, has the mother of all hissy fits, hurling the commandments to explode in fire and brimstone on the golden calf and open a chasm that swallows Dathan and his ilk. The coda offers another splendiferous set of images as Moses, called to meet his maker, bids farewell to family and successor Joshua, and climbs back up the mountain to be illuminated in a shaft of light. Like so much of the film, this moment is utter cornball on one level, and yet perfect in another, an authentic vision of heroic stature that transcends dull reality and transfigures human nature.

Noah (2014)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Darren Aronofsky

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By Roderick Heath

The myth of the Great Flood is one of the most famed and ingrained in the modern world’s cultural inheritance. The tale was probably sourced in the ancient Mesopotamian tale of Gilgamesh, and spread along with cultural traffic to plant narrative seeds in Indian, Judaic, Arabic, Greek, and Christian traditions. But it also has doppelgangers in folk traditions the world over. The flood-prone nature of the Tigris-Euphrates region is often thought to have inspired the legend, but in contemplating just how widespread variations of it are, scholars have speculated whether the story might be sourced in an oral tradition extending back to the last ice age. In the Western world, the version found in the Book of Genesis with its hero named Noah is, of course, the best known. The story contains within its brief narrative walls—about 2,700 words of Genesis—the demarcations of a profound cultural underpinning, the story of a simple, goodly patriarch who, blessed with divine mission, saves the natural world whilst the sinful are washed away in primeval retribution. What father has not seen himself at some point as steering family and charges through times of calamity, and what child doesn’t delight in the idea of the world’s creatures as private barnyard parade? It certainly stands with the most powerful tales in the Old Testament, including Moses as heroic liberator, David the giant-slayer, and Samson the sex-addled freedom fighter, all of whom take up Noah’s mantle as shepherd of the populace with differing degrees of success.

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How one will respond to Darren Aronofsky’s retelling of this elemental tale will inevitably be coloured by personal scruple: many religious and irreligious folk alike will judge it both by its seriousness of intent and concordance with tradition, whilst others will look to it for much the opposite, insights that ransack that tradition and ask it to speak to different worldly concerns. Since he debuted with Pi (1997), Aronofsky has been one of the most visually and formally experimental of modern American directors, but also a violently awkward artist, one with little capacity to sort his best ideas from his worst ones. This has tended to make works like Requiem for a Dream (2000), The Fountain (2006), and Black Swan (2010) at once stirring and excessive, visionary and ungainly. Noah fits into this strand well in some respects: it’s an outsized work of great ambition, driving along in adherence only to its creator’s singular ideas no matter how batty they seem. Aronofsky’s chutzpah aims at zones not penetrated in the genre since Martin Scorsese studied The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). Mythologies associated with living faiths are much more problematic to adapt than those springing from dead ones: no one minds Norse and Greek myths being remixed for big and noisy special-effects movies, as per recent Lord of the Rings and Clash of the Titans films, but Noah was the subject of studio angst as to how it would play to religious stalwarts and the crowd who lapped up The Passion of the Christ (2004), with its brutal and hypocritical take on Gospel.

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In reaction to Mel Gibson’s paean to righteous suffering, Aronofsky offers parable laced with concepts imported broadly from extra-canonical Judaic lore, New Age spirituality and symbolism, deeply rigorous cultural enquiry, and CGI blockbuster cinema. His contemporary urges are pretty plain-spoken, making the flood an overt metaphor for climate change. Noah and his kin, descendants of Adam’s third son Seth, are all vegetarians eking out an existence in a world blasted by the rapaciousness of the descendants of Cain, who eat meat and have mastered technological arts. Such greenie fable-telling could have been a drag, but Aronofsky is at least restrained enough to let these elements speak for themselves. His real aim, it soon proves, is a rather more intimate contemplation of the impact of humanity’s capacity for both ferocity and creation. Noah (Dakota Goto) sees his father Lamech (Marton Csokas) murdered by Tubal-cain (Finn Wittrock), leaving Noah as the last Sethite. He grows to manhood in the shape of Russell Crowe, whose new-found capacity for biblical gravitas was well exploited in last year’s Man of Steel; here, he gets to do the real thing. He’s also reunited with his A Beautiful Mind (2001) co-star Jennifer Connolly, who plays Naameh, Noah’s wife. Noah, Naameh and their sons Shem (Gavin Casalegno) and Ham (Nolan Gross) maintain their foraging ways when Noah sees a flower bloom in an instant. An intimation of cosmic intent, this proves prelude to Noah’s dream of a world flooded over.

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Sensing this is a prophecy sent by “the Creator” but unsure what it means, Noah sets out with his family across a cursed patch of land to reach the mountain where his grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins) lives. The family, pursued by Cainites, save a young girl, Ila (Skylar Burke), the lone survivor of a massacred tribe. They also encounter the strange inhabitants of this corner of Creation, the “Watchers” or Nephilim, angels who tried to aid Adam and Eve but were cursed by the Creator for their intransigence; their naturally radiant forms are now encased in hulking stone sporting pathetic, vestigial wings and glowing eyes. The Watchers detest humankind, whom they tried to help but who hunted and killed many of them, and propose abandoning Noah and his family to die in the wilderness. One of the Nephilim, Magog (Mark Margolis), decides to help them however, and when Noah reaches Methuselah, the ancient shaman gives him an incantatory brew so that he can see his dream completely. This helps Noah grasp that his mission is to build a craft that will weather the flood and contain animal life. Methuselah gives him the last seed saved from Eden, and, when planted, this seed causes water to spring from the earth and colossal forests to grow in minutes to provide a source of wood for the ark. Building the vessel takes years, long enough for Shem, Ham, and Ila to grow to adulthood (Douglas Booth, Logan Lerman, and Emma Watson), and for Noah and Naameh to have a third son, Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll).

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Aronofsky’s script, written with Ari Handel, is fascinating and original in its willingness to encompass such figures as the Nephilim, described vaguely as “giants” in the Torah but in Apocrypha like the Book of Enoch (where they are called the Watchers) as the sons of human women and angels, and envisioning Methuselah as a massively powerful prophet-sorcerer who is the last keeper of Edenic lore. He is seen in flashback wielding a flaming sword, perhaps inspired by Genesis 3:24’s mention of this totem as God’s barrier to Eden, to defend the Nephilim against the Cainites, striking the ground and releasing concussive shockwaves of magic that drive the wicked men back. His gifts also provoke one of the narrative’s major crises as he works magic that promulgates fertility in true shamanic fashion. One reason texts featuring the Nephilim and other figures of the Apocrypha lore are excised from the Torah and Bible does seem to be because they represent a more superstitious, fantastical edge to the old faith, as well as a possible rival moral schema, a notion Aronofsky exploits to a certain degree. The Watchers, distorted and aggrieved, stand between Creator and Creation, resenting both but finally looking for redemption, and finding it in fighting for the ark. There’s richness and brilliance in incorporating them into this tale. This, however, makes how they’re animated and portrayed the most awkward aspect of Noah: they look and sound like lumpen monstrosities from dozens of other CGI fantasy fests, dragging the film perilously close to such territory.

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Similarly intrepid, but logical, too, is how Aronofsky and Handel recast Tubal-cain as antagonist to Noah, leader of the rival tribe with arts of metal-working (biblically accurate) and concoctions close to gunpowder (not so much). Tubal-cain, played in hirsute and haggard middle-age by Ray Winstone, turns up with his followers as the ark nears completion, with an eye to getting aboard if the spreading rumour of impending apocalypse proves true. Noah has already been seen in combat, kicking ass for the Lord in righteous style but never taking a life, a stance that seems about to become impossible, especially as Noah sees his divinely inspired job as ensuring that none of the sinful survive. As the tale unfolds, indeed, Noah eventually admits to Naameh that as far as he can tell, the human race is meant to die out, with his children all dying in their allotted time and leaving the Earth cleansed. Noah’s certainty that the Creator is speaking to him is counterbalanced by the Watchers and Tubal-cain’s shared frustration at the lack of response: Tubal-cain prepares for war whilst quietly, but with the faintest tone of confused angst of an uncomprehending, rejected son, asking for such a sign as he bashes metal into shape. This, however, proves a double-edged sword, as Noah’s comprehension of his task transforms him from the most righteous man to an increasingly committed, fanatical, dark-eyed tool.

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This touch is the most substantial amplification of the bare-bones tale: Noah, whose name means ease or comfort, is traditionally seen as the most beneficent of the Old Testament patriarchs. He’s not a character at all, really, not in the same way King David or Samson manage to be in their violently contradictory natures, but rather an emblem of a figure of grandfatherly shelter. Crowe’s more virile father is crossbred here with a later biblical figure, Abraham, as Aronofsky strikes deep at the heart of the patriarchal faith. Other films have depicted the Noah tale: Michael Curtiz’s 1929 version turned it into a parable for the Wall Street crash, whilst a more recent, godawful TV version featured Jon Voight speaking to a Jehovah who sounded like a TV sitcom dad. The best, and the one with which Aronofsky’s take feels in a dialectic, was John Huston’s The Bible…In the Beginning (1966). Huston, a rigorously nonreligious artist who emphasised the starkly symbolic and arcane virtues of Genesis, painted his Noah as a gently comedic figure and his story as colourful juvenilia before letting Lot and Abraham do the moral heavy lifting. Huston had his own parable for contemporary apocalyptic urges in mind: his Sodom was wiped out by a mushroom cloud and the intended sacrifice of Isaac takes place near the Hiroshima-like ruins of the city. Huston spread this notion out across most of the Genesis narrative, whereas Aronofsky packs it all into Noah’s, as his hero accepts his task and tries to carry it out, a burden Naameh tries mitigate, recognising the scale of guilt it imposes on her husband. However, even she threatens to abandon and curse him when he makes clear that he will follow through on his mission no matter how unpleasant it becomes.

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Noah, then, is not just Aronofsky’s recapitulation of Old Testament wrath but an account of his active struggle with its meaning and intimations for a modern man, beggared by the scale of both offence given and taken apparent in the cause for the deluge. The wisdom of the patriarchs likewise is given a beady eye, as Noah’s cause sparks generational mistrust and war in his own family, a family he feels required to cheat of all future even as he saves them. Ila had been left barren by a wound as a girl, and as she grows and falls in love with Shem, she tearfully tells her adopted father that she doesn’t want to burden Shem with childlessness. But Naameh decides to help Ila by appealing to Methuselah in contravention of her husband’s word, and the old man agrees: he touches Ila’s belly, making her fertile again, and quickly she falls pregnant. Noah, outraged once he learns of this, howls that he’s now bound to kill her child if it proves to be a girl. Meanwhile Ham is pained by the sight of Shem and Ila’s physical intimacy, and sets out to try to extract a potential mate from the Cainite camp, which is in constant tumult from debauchery and violence. He tumbles into a pit and encounters a grotty, terrified girl, Na’el (Madison Davenport), and offers her a chance to flee with him to the ark. As they do so, however, the rains begin, and the Cainite horde makes for the ark. Noah ventures out to bring back Ham, but doesn’t try to help Na’el, who falls over and is crushed under the feet of the horde.

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The first half of Noah is uneven and feels incomplete in that it could have yielded far more facets to its interesting elaborations and more insight into the tribal struggle. For instance, Aronofsky’s telling avoidance of the detail that in the Bible, Naameh was Tubal-cain’s sister and the sorts of loyalty conflict that might have stemmed from this, dismisses a potential source of strong drama. The flourishes of fantastic imagery, too, even if they disturb the faithful, beg for enlargement. Aronofsky is one of the few contemporary, mainstream directors with roots in experimental-edged filmmaking, and some of his most memorable and specific directorial flourishes here retain that edge, particularly in the stroboscopic edits of still pictures into a time-lapse effect depicting passing years via the flow of water out of Noah’s little Eden: here is a poetic charge of visual beauty and strangeness. Equally striking in execution is a similar sequence in which Noah recounts the history of the world to his children to illustrate the necessity of the Creator’s exterminating judgement. Aronofsky offers in super-speed the epochs of universal birth and expansion and earthly evolution equated with the six days of Creation, a state of balanced perfection despoiled by humankind’s peculiar gift for slaughter and calamity, with Aronofsky intercutting a silhouetted portrayal of Cain’s first murder with endless repetitions through the ages.

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Aronofsky’s awesome craft in such moments is, however, contrasted with bluntness, like the witless, horror-movie flourishes in Black Swan. Biblical filmmaking works best when it’s allowed to boil down to powerful visual metaphors, such as DeMille’s collapsing temple in Samson and Delilah (1949) and parting Red Sea in The Ten Commandments (1956), or when it can possess a touch of the alien, such as Scorsese managed in The Last Temptation of Christ’s abstracted miracles and atavistic visions. Aronofsky’s conceptual imagination still seems limited in some regards: his canvases are huge and ripe, and yet his idea of spiritual imagery is, as in The Fountain, corny floods of CGI sunshine and rock-album-cover notions of fantastic landscapes. Occasionally, he still yields to plasticity, like in the instagrow Eden and firefly angels. The hordes of animals sweeping through the forest to take refuge in the ark are impressive but regulation special effects. Still, making a film as expensive as Noah demands concessions, and it seems Aronofsky was willing to make a trade-off to give his film appeal to a broad audience steeped in a more literal visual language of the fantastic.

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Moreover, Aronofsky offers up many more powerful visualisations, like in a sequence that calls back to the orgy scene of Requiem for a Dream in which Noah visits the Cainite camp and perceives a morass of human depravity, filled with assault and rape, squirming acres of desperate flesh in the muck giving him a vision of degenerate humankind that bolsters his misanthropic interpretation of his mission. The igneous nature of the drama here suits Aronofsky’s sometimes reductive gift for portraying squalor on both physical and metaphysical levels. Aspects of Aronofsky’s stylisation blur the difference between distant past and distant future, with a hint of a science fiction to the alien-like Nephilim and Ouroboros-like rebooting of time represented by the Flood. Particularly in the bold and startling moment of Na’el’s death, the film clicks into a mode of sustained ferocity and genuinely powerful spectacle, kicking off a climactic sequence as the Watchers fight off the Cainites whilst Noah tries to seal the ark, the deluge starting as rain but soon giving way to colossal geysers. The Watchers, upon being felled by the humans, including Tubal-cain’s prototypical cannon, revert to angelic form and shoot back into the heavens. The brilliance of transcendence is painted in fiery colours and surges of mystical force amidst a struggle that remains one enacted in elements: flesh, blood, fire, water, and earth. There’s visual similarity here, indeed, to the similarly beautiful battle at the climax of Chris Weitz’s underrated The Golden Compass (2007). The actual flood is predictably colossal stuff.

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Noah gains its greatest power as it sets up and marches towards a second, more intimate, but no less fractious climax, a difficult feat considering the seemingly inevitable and well-known resolution to the legend. The seeds of danger are sewn as Noah announces his intention to kill Ila’s daughters when she gives birth to twins, and sabotages her and Shem’s attempts to abandon the ark. Meanwhile Ham has smuggled the injured Tubal-cain aboard. The two older men begin to look increasingly similar, as the formerly warm and protective Noah becomes a hollow-eyed engine of merciless prosecution of his divinely appointed job, Naameh cracks and refuses to play along anymore, and Ham helps Tubal-cain recover and conspires to kill Noah, the young man receptive to Tubal-cain’s insinuating words in his fury at his father’s actions and intentions. Aronofsky is surely commenting on the ease with which zeal turns into fanaticism as he deconstructs the flat biblical hero and evokes real disquiet at the aspect rarely explored in versions of the arcane tales, the virulence in their images of sin and wrath, the pain facing individual men and women asked to accept or mete out cosmic force. This Noah is slowly destroyed by his task, as any decent man would be.

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Aronofsky is deeply attentive, too, to the essential symbolism that drives the original tale, with its direct and unalloyed teaching tool portraying essential natural systems and physical and conceptual binaries sharing an enclosed space, the literal world in miniature, with male and female as breeding pairs as the essential truth, equated with human and animal, sin and redemption, disgrace and cleansing. Each binary is maintained and enlarged upon as Noah’s gift for interpreting prophecy is revealed to have failed in the clear presentation of twin daughters from Ila, giving each brother in the family a potential mate. There’s some humour in here, too, as Winstone, who’s been the go-to actor for plebeian bastardry since Nil By Mouth (1997), plays Tubal-cain as an earthy embodiment of humanity’s greed. When Ham catches him eating one of the ark’s animals, he protests, “There was only two of those!” to which Tubal-cain retorts calmly, “Yes but there’s only one of me.” The approaching climax threatens the collision of two programmes threatening intrafamilial homicide. Indeed, Aronofsky’s vision of the family is as a set of united, but finally individual viewpoints.

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Aronofsky’s take on biblical drama is often infused with a rival, equally consuming mythos, that of classic American cinema: the inevitable three-way tussle of a son and two father figures recalls in a good way the similarly mythic climax of Return of the Jedi (1983), whilst the ultimate confrontation of Noah and Ila on the cusp of new worlds evokes John Ford’s The Searchers (1956). One knows the white dove with the sprig in its beak will turn up at a fortuitous moment, but just when Aronofsky has it fly in has its own subtle and telling resonances, arriving less as deus ex machine than confirmation of mercy’s necessity. Is Noah a work that our multitudinous contemporary cults, religious and otherwise, with their various viewpoints can sit down around and get something from? Probably not, but that’s a huge ask. This Noah is, finally, a strong, intelligently wrought and probing reaction to the present through the lens of the distant past/future, and an extremely impressive film with some significant flaws. It represents new ground for Aronofsky and the first work of his I’ve actually liked on a dramatic level as well as appreciated on formal grounds. He wrings great performances out of his cast in a genre not usually known for good acting: Crowe is excellent, and so is Connolly, whilst Watson follows up last year’s The Bling Ring in delivering a revelatory performance that finally ties all to the anguish of the individual young mother.

Sebastiane (1976)

Directors: Paul Humfress, Derek Jarman

By Roderick Heath

Before his sad death at age 52 from AIDS in the early ’90s Derek Jarman, had established himself as one of British cinema’s true enfants terrible. He helped define gay cinema, maintained an aesthetic guerrilla war against the Thatcher government of the ’80s, and claimed a corner of demanding, semi-abstract narrative filmmaking that took up challenges laid down by the likes of Ken Russell, Nicholas Roeg, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Pier Paolo Pasolini, but dragged them off in his own direction. Sebastiane, his first film, codirected with Paul Humfress, ventured into new realms of lucid, unveiled, homoerotic image-making, conflated with an effervescent intellectual blend of classicist humour and spiritual seriousness.

Unlike the odious Peter Greenaway, with whom Jarman shared dominance of the British arthouse scene in the ’80s, Jarman’s cinema was urgent and personal in its provocations and learned references, angrily ransacking the massed detritus of the European cultural tradition for forms and voices through with to articulate his peculiar aesthetic: following Sebastiane, his subjects included Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Marlowe’s Edward II, Caravaggio, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Based around the life and martyrdom of St. Sebastian, Humfress’ and Jarman’s film aggressively appropriates the barely veiled rendering of the saint as a sadomasochistic erotic object in Renaissance painting for their own ends, reconstructing him as a gay icon. Sebastiane has a claim to a certain distinction for being the first film made entirely in Latin, even going so far as to have a translator render patches of the dialogue in the vulgar form for deeper authenticity. As such, it stands as an influence—or at least prefiguration—of a film like Mel Gibson’s similarly antiquarian, S&M-hued religious work The Passion of the Christ (2003), a film motivated by polar opposite moral and philosophical urges.

Sebastiane actually follows a very familiar narrative line for religious epics, depicting the attempt of a pagan Roman to browbeat his rapturous Christian love object into surrendering his or her body and thus, implicitly, his or her ideals; in the likes of The Sign of the Cross (1932) and Quo Vadis? (1951), the love object was female. Here the love object is Sebastian (Leonardo Treviglio), and the film is closer to the eroticised beefcake-suffering of Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur (1959). In spite of the feeling of authenticity in the photography and the use of Latin dialogue, strict realism is a long way from Jarman’s mind, and this is soon apparent in the anachronistic touches that dot the film.

Sebastian is a favourite of Emperor Diocletian (Robert Medley) and captain of his personal guard. The opening sequence depicts Diocletian’s court celebrating the birth of the sun in the time of his jubilee in a scene of Felliniesque excess. Male dancers sporting huge fake genitals tied to their groins dance around a man painted as a caricature of femininity, who is spread-eagle on the floor and mock group-raped, fake jism squirting on him, in a droll parody of Roman phallocratic sexuality and politics. It’s a stylised representation of what follows. Roman high society sprawls in decadence, suggested through a punkish mix of historically accurate tropes and glam rock pizzazz that includes the reigning whore supreme Mammea Morgana (played by punk emblem Jordan). Diocletian loses his temper with one of his toy-boys who is weeping for a man sentenced to death for one of the conflagrations started by Christian insurgents in Rome: the Emperor has the boy strangled. When Sebastian tries to intercede, Diocletian strips him of his rank and exiles him. The rest of the film takes place in Sardinian locations, standing in for the unnamed desert outpost to which Sebastian is exiled. Maximus (Neil Kennedy), also present in at the festivities, is posted to the same locale, and reports this directly to the audience.

In that hot, dry, unpopulated part of the Empire, Sebastian makes it clear that he’s become a Christian, and won’t train for fighting anymore with the other men. The commandant Severus (Barney James) abuses and humiliates him, a regimen that worsens when Sebastian won’t let Severus screw him, to demonstrate his contempt for browbeating power. The introductory scene has already made clear that this refusal to submit, to allow access to the body and, more importantly, to the private conscience, infuriates the representative of the dying regime. This theme, of the powerful figure that forces obedience and conformity, runs side by side with the religious and sexual themes; those three basic concepts—sex, power, spirit—constantly shade into each other but occasionally are shocked into polarisation.

Amidst the small band of soldiers, the leading personality is Maximus, a dirty-minded git with a false nose strapped to his face and a false penis sometimes strapped to his groin. He has a relentless hunger for amusement and dirty by-play, whilst the other bored, horny soldiers turn to each other for gratification after looking at dirty pictures. One of the soldiers, Justin (Richard Warwick), empathises with Sebastian’s plight and tries to understand his strange idealism, which, as Sebastian meditates on his own, seems partly composed of narcissism—making his prayers whilst gazing at himself in the water—and lust, as he wishes to be embraced by Jesus. Sebastian communes with his rugged landscape and prays, conflating the sun god Phoebus Apollo, whom Sebastian used to worship, with his version of Jesus. So the searing touch of the sun, of which Sebastian gets plenty when Severus has him staked to the ground as a punishment, is only more ecstatic bliss for him.

Like many beginner filmmakers with artistic ambition as well as an urgent intellectual position to articulate, Jarman—and it’s hard to doubt Jarman was the driving cinematic force here—gives into the tendency to indulge longeurs and pound select ideas into the ground. Early in the film, Jarman presents a beauteous sequence in which Sebastian awakens early in the morning and washes himself down in the morning sun, enjoying and idolising the physical sensations which are part and parcel with his spiritual understanding. Severus watches him with a predatory intent and fascination with a species of man beyond his experience. Jarman shoots the male body like he’s the first person to discover it, and in a manner of speaking, he is: he doesn’t just eroticise it, but also renders it as a universe unto itself.

But on occasion, Sebastiane starts to resemble a motion picture edition of a Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, except with sporty young guys frolicking and wrestling in the water rather than girls, lounging about in the sand, and cleaning their sweaty bodies in a Roman bath. The actors are barely clothed through much of the film, as Jarman said they didn’t have enough money for costumes. A lengthy sequence with two of the soldiers in an initially romantic clinch that gives way to them wrestling in the water, goes on forever, and though it clearly had political heft in 1976—Sebastiane pissed off people exactly as it was supposed to, though there are no literal sex acts in the film—it seems like soft-core self-indulgence now. And yet the evident erotic enjoyment is imbued with a hint of the alien, anticipating Claire Denis and David Cronenberg, as Jarman communicates a sense of the body as a thing of mystery and beauty in his languorous, slow-motion scenes of muscles flowing under skin with ineluctable beauty.

The body is a war zone throughout the film, strong and lustrous, yet also disturbingly vulnerable, easily damaged, abused, and controlled; the only riposte is the untouchable and inviolable soul, which is why Sebastian crushingly rejects Severus late in the film when he tells him he can have his body but never have his true, inner self. The scene in Diocletian’s court establishes the atmosphere of physical ferocity, where murder is casual and the entertainment a plain parable for rape and exploitation. Jarman jams his camera in the gruesomely made-up face of the “female” dancer writhing under faux-ejaculate, and the bloodied mouths of slaves as one strangles the other in a dizzying image of animalistic humanity. The Emperor’s exile of Sebastian is the necessary gambit to his assassination, and yet the remote location and the vagueness of their mission causes the men to feel the weight of whatever angst they suffer, from Maximus’s basic desire to get back to Rome and hole up with a prostitute, through to Severus’ inability to obtain his obsession, whilst Sebastian finds the path to his destiny through unimaginable cruelty. Jarman sets up dichotomies—abusive strength, religious fervour, Roman decadence—but doesn’t easily separate them. The basic joke is easy enough to grasp: the Christian in this context is the outcast, aberrant, abused figure, mocked for effeminacy and arrogance, not the homosexual. Jarman seems to be trying to depict a moment in time in which humanity evolved from a purely physical creature into something deeper and better, but also less coherent and natural.

Jarman doesn’t make the assailed Christian emblematic of a desexualised, denaturalised ideal about to supplant the free and easy paganism, however. Sebastian’s idealisation shares a certain homoerotic tone with John Donne’s Fourteenth Holy Sonnet (“Except you enthrall me, never shall be free/Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.”), envisioning God as an invasive, beauteous, erotic force. Brian Eno’s eerie, electronic score pulsates throughout with spacey beauty, underscoring scenes alternately banal, bizarre, and violent, constantly suggesting weird, transformative potential. The images seem engaged in a perpetual search for signs of transcendence only to be found in a surrender to the utterly physical, a loss of distinction between world and self. Throughout the film flows a brand of humour blending poles of donnish esoterica and Carry On-style scatology, particularly when the soldiers stage death battles between beetles they name Messalina, Boadacea, Sappho, and Dido, imagining them in a mass lesbian rape, and those passages of vulgar Latin proliferate in the soldiers’ excited sexual language. At one point Sebastian demonstrates for Justin a dance he used to do for the sun god in Rome, which Maximus sees and satirised feverishly before the other soldiers as he pretends to make love to a pig. Kennedy’s earthy performance dominates the film, playing Maximus as a human being with no high ideals, violently contrasting Sebastian’s elevated aspirations, and appointing himself the chief persecutor of the Christian until Severus orders him to stop.

As its story unfolds, Sebastiane displays surprising similarities to the likes of Platoon (1986): amongst its many aspects, one that emerges strongly is its portraiture of the volatility of soldiers, beset with rampant sensual hunger while trapped in an existentially ambiguous exile in distant territory. Perhaps the likeness isn’t coincidental, as Jarman surely had the Vietnam War and the soldiers who fought it on his mind, as well as any regimen of forced social normalisation. As the film entwines sexual, political, and spiritual anxiety, cranking up on virtually subliminal levels, the casual sex that some of the soldiers indulge contrasts Severus’ building hysteria in his need to dominate Sebastian and force his surrender. He has Maximus and the others snatch and beat Justin to a pulp, and Sebastian dragged to Severus’s cell where he plans to rape him; instead, he only reaps his own humiliation, and so, as in many a horror movie, erotic unease is deflected into physical destruction, as this finally makes Severus decide to have Sebastian killed. In the glare of day on a rocky plain, Sebastian is tied to a pole, where the soldiers, several stark naked, riddle him with arrows. Even the bloodied and barely conscious Justin is manipulated into firing a bolt. Sebastian’s martyrdom sees the ironic fulfilment of his desire to physical communion with his god and of Severus’ desire to penetrate him in a welter of blood. In a point-of-view shot from Sebastian on his pole, the world is suddenly rendered in the distortions of a fish-eye lens, inverting space and changing the devastated plain and his torturers into a permeably false reality. It’s one of the most grotesquely beautiful scenes ever shot, and galvanises Sebastiane’s final haunting effect.

Ben-Hur (1959)

Director: William Wyler

By Roderick Heath

Ben-Hur is still amongst the most dramatically nuanced, intricately constructed, and sheerly entertaining of the old-school blockbuster epics. The film’s reputation for at-all-costs size and bludgeoning bluster has always somewhat obscured what a damn well-put-together piece of moviemaking it is. It was a career highlight for William Wyler, who, after decades of refining his cinematic technique, applied his integrity and care in drawing out realism in his acting and approach to mise-en-scène to the most unlikely genre and came up trumps. The pressure was on Wyler, as MGM spared no expense on the risky production to save itself from bankruptcy; he likened the experience to working as one of the film’s galley slaves. Nonetheless, with its great cost and even greater profit, Ben-Hur represented the high-water mark of Hollywood’s efforts to combat the encroachment of television, both in terms of popular appeal, production craft, and confidence in the act of total cinematic creation. Within a decade, filmmaking looked and sounded completely different.

Ben-Hur was chosen as a project by MGM executives and brought to fruition by producer Sam Zimbalist, who died during filming, because of the great success they’d had more than 30 years before with Fred Niblo’s entertaining, if comparatively cartoonish silent version, a production that had been hellishly protracted and fatal for several crew members. Wyler’s film is often considered together with Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956) for obvious reasons: both are religious-themed sagas, both star Charlton Heston, and both feature Martha Scott as his on-screen mother. Actually, the films are quite different. DeMille’s film is spectacle in the purest sense, achieved in his cheerfully two-dimensional, almost ritualised style; Ben-Hur attempts to be intimate and artful in balancing out the grander elements, and employs naïf touches more carefully throughout. DeMille based his visual style on academic historical painters like Lawrence Alma-Tadema, whilst Ben-Hur’s production designers and cinematographer Robert L. Surtees obviously went to school on Renaissance Italian painters like Caravaggio and Michelangelo, whose Sistine Chapel panel “The Creation of Adam” provides the iconic backdrop for the credits.

Ben-Hur was, of course, based on the novel by Lew Wallace, subtitled A Tale of the Christ, and the narrative sustains a counterpoint of the life of Jesus and its hero, a fictional Jewish prince, Judah Ben-Hur (Heston), commencing and finishing explicitly with Gospel scenes. But at the heart of Ben-Hur is a Dumas-esque tale of betrayal and revenge. The pretitle sequence, a visually striking Nativity scene, hits exactly the right momentous note, with the standard picture-book images of the Magi gathering along with sundry locals to look upon the holy family. A shepherd blows his horn to announce something incredulously wonderful in the most nondescript of forms, ringing out with curious eeriness as the Star of Bethlehem fades, leaving us momentarily with the remote, rugged landscape of ancient Judea before Miklos Rosza’s grandiose horns blare out a thrilling fanfare. And yet a stand-out quality of the film is that the first hour is chiefly a series of carefully wrought, complex, interpersonal scenes that build the drama in a mosaic of phrases and gestures.

Messala (Boyd), appointed as military governor of Judea where his father had once served, returns to the land where he grew up, full of swaggering pride in gaining his appointment and overjoyed to see his youthful chum Judah again. “Close in every way!” Judah states happily when the two men bond over a little javelin target practice. But the differences enforced by time, nationality, and personal philosophy keep revealing themselves, in their first meeting and again when Messala visits Judah’s home, greeted like family by Judah’s mother Miriam (Scott) and especially his besotted sister Tirzah (Cathy O’Donnell, Wyler’s sister-in-law), becoming evident in such throwaway yet charged moments as when Messala realises he’s committed a faux pas in recounting tales of glorious Roman slaughters to Judah’s family—citizens of a conquered nation.

But the break doesn’t fully manifest until Messala presses Judah to give him the names of Judean patriots who dislike Roman hegemony; their rift suddenly defines itself in religious, personal, cultural, and political terms. When Tirzah accidentally knocks a tile from the roof of their house, causing the new governor to be injured, Messala grasps the opportunity to further his career and punish his former friend by having Judah, Miriam, Tirzah, and Judah’s slave accountant Simonides (Sam Jaffe) imprisoned. Judah spends the next four years chained to the oar of a Roman war galley.

One of the assistant directors on this film was 30-year-old Sergio Leone. I’ve always suspected the influence of Wyler’s technique on his—that way both men had of constructing quiet, rhythmic, slow-burn sequences full of small but eventually revelatory details. It’s particularly evident in a scene like the one on which the ship Judah is serving is taken over by the new admiral, Quintus Arias (Jack Hawkins), who, fascinated by Judah’s still-fiery hate and determination, tests him and all the other slaves by making them row at increasingly high speeds, trying to shake the impenetrably hard stare Judah keeps fixed on him. It’s a galvanising scene that possesses undercurrents of emotional, physical, and sexual power. Judah is subsequently herded up to Arias’ cabin and offered a chance to become a gladiator, his near-nakedness and the disparity of power between the two men full of potent homoerotic overtone. Although rebuffed, Arias is still intrigued enough to make sure Judah is left unchained during the subsequent, thunderous battle with Macedonian pirates.

Another strong aspect of Ben-Hur is the level of physical grit and gore it allows to seep into the usually cardboard epic genre, and the sea battle offers great examples—a man so desperate to get a chain off his ankle he rubs the flesh off his leg, another man with a severed arm sporting a stump of bone, and half-a-dozen rowers crushed by the great ram of an enemy ship puncturing the hull. Whilst the model work of the ships shows its age, the editing and staging of the whole sequence is impeccable cinema.

Judah, having saved Quintus from the ship and stopped him from committing suicide when he thinks the battle lost, gains his freedom thanks to the amusingly dotty-seeming Tiberias (George Relph), and becomes Arias’ adopted son and a champion chariot driver. He finally returns to Judea to meet in swift succession one of the Magi, Balthazar (old Scots stalwart and compulsory epic star Finlay Currie), who’s searching for the holy child he saw born, and his host, Sheikh Ilderim (Hugh Griffith). Before you can say “dramatic device,” the Sheikh offers Judah the chance to race his four white Arabian steeds against Messala’s champion blacks at the great circus in Jerusalem, an offer Judah initially turns down. When he finally gets home, he finds his house being cared for by Simonides’ daughter Esther (Haya Harareet), who was supposed to have been married, but instead has settled for caring for her father, who emerged crippled from the prison where Miriam and Tirzah remain. Judah confronts Messala and demands he get them out, but when they are extracted from the black hole they’ve been kept in for five years, they’re found to have contracted leprosy. Returning to the house of Hur at night, they beg Esther to keep their illness secret, so she tells Judah they died in jail, prompting him to finally seek out revenge on Messala on the circus track.

Ben-Hur is melodrama, no question, but the film aims unabashedly to transcend into myth, a form always distinguished by a simultaneous cosmic and microcosmic sweep. Wyler pays close attention to totems and symbols with important emblems recurring throughout. Horses, from the pale horse Judah offers Messala at the start to the Manichaeistic duel of their white and black steeds in the chariot race, are emblems of good and evil. Water—the water that Jesus gives to Judah at the moment of crisis, and that Judah tries to give back at the end, the cleansing rain that falls at the end—is the sustenance of faith. Rings—the ring of slavery Judah removes from Esther at the outset to keep as an emblem of chastity, and the ring of Arias—are the bonds of family and loyalty. The crossbeams at which Judah and Messala aim their javelins clearly anticipate the crucifix, and the spear they both throw in friendship Judah soon enough takes up and aims at his betraying friend. The structure of the drama sustains the weight of the metaphysical mythology, particularly in building first to the good-versus-evil climax of the chariot race and then the more subtle miracle that erases suffering.

A majority of the screenplay was famously rewritten by Gore Vidal, but credited only to initial author Karl Tunberg, and Vidal’s contributions are usually only mentioned in terms of his playful gay subtext. But Vidal’s fingerprints are all over other aspects of the script, particularly in the portrayal of militaristic imperialism, which reflects a lot of Vidal’s meditations on the patrician America with which he was familiar, and the pointed portrayal of Judah’s refusal to name names to Messala: Judah is destroyed by blacklisting. “Patriots?” Messala repeatedly sneers when refusing to countenance the idea Judah offers that men who dislike the system aren’t necessarily dangerous or wrong. It’s also hard to miss the political wish-fulfillment of Jewish Judah and Arab Ilderim joining forces to combat a common enemy. Ilderim even pins a Star of David to Judah’s cloak to “shine out for your people and mine” before the race, and the conclusion is altered from the book (where Judah became a Roman aiding the Christians in getting a foothold there) for a true homecoming. Whilst the story is officially New Testament, the plot is closer to Job, and the characterisations of Judah and Messala stand in effectively for a battle of creeds as well as more personal motives; Judah eventually channels his hate for Messala into a general disdain for Rome, which he feels twisted his friend up with evil values.

Wyler’s deep-focus, widescreen compositions, always a hallmark of his style, are used throughout for grand dramatic purposes, as when Judah hides behind a stone whilst Esther gives food to Miriam and Tirzah—the landscape and composition of the shot communicating the jagged pain he’s in. The moment when Judah and his family retreat under a hail of stones by people hysterical at the proximity of lepers, whilst the blind man to whom they just gave a coin sadly drops that sullied money onto the ground, offers wild disparities of provoked emotion encompassed within the same shot. I love the gothic vibe that infuses the film at several junctures, particularly the creepy scene when Miriam and Tirzah encounter Esther in the courtyard of the house of Hur, swathed in concealing robes like living ghosts with Hammer horror leaves swirling desolately in the winds; Judah later describes their state as like “living in a grave!” The conclusion is similarly lushly stylised, as Wyler cleverly has the miracle of their healing revealed in strobing flashes of lightning, the Hurs contorting in pain and the world consumed by momentary furious darkness, as a flailing storm plunges and washes Jesus’ spilt blood down to mingle with the earth. This works better than the Sunday school visions of Jesus giving the Sermon on the Mount and the passion play affectations of his end, but the overt contrast between the patient, tactile realism of the rest of the film and the mystic visions of Jesus does place the juxtaposition of the sacred, profane, and merely earthly with fervent effect.

Of course, the chariot race is the film’s great set piece, and that sequence, directed from start to finish by Andrew Marton and realised thanks to the skills of Yakima Canutt and his team of stunt artists, is still an effortless contender for the greatest action sequence in cinema history. That’s largely because it’s a carefully composed movie in and of itself, with fluent logic of detail, from the wicked spikes that jut from Messala’s chariot and Judah removing his helmet to make sure his enemy can see his face, to the climax of the race when Messala gives into his most debased impulses and makes the mistake of trying to beat Judah—he starts whipping him—rather than his chariot. The widescreen compositions are particularly great in absorbing the landscape of wildly working horses and wheels, the hysterical tumble of events as chariots crash, men are killed, and Judah himself is nearly vaulted head over heels when his vehicle has to jump a crashed opponent’s. The decision to leave music out of the scene is particularly admirable, opting for the urgent thrum of hooves and the roars of the crowd, building to the inevitable comeuppance of Messala, stamped into a bloody mess and lolling broken in the sand, sudden shame and regret stamped on Judah’s face.

The old line “should’ve ended at the chariot race” has never really rung true for me, though, because Ben-Hur still manages to go to an interesting place after this; the simple effect of the race’s concussive, satisfying violence gives way to a portrayal of the inability of such vengeance to heal hurt. Messala’s so desperate to keep hurting Judah even after death that he delivers an evil piece of news rather than let surgeons try to save his life, and his malignancy, as Esther somewhat too pointedly states, seems to take Judah over. Judah rejects Pontius Pilate’s (Frank Thring Jr.) offer of protection as a gnawing, increasingly inhuman passion for violent cleansing consumes him. As the religious vignettes move in, meaningful lines like “In his pain, this look of peace!” get a bit much, but it’s still notable to me how carefully Wyler builds the rhythm of the film toward the final miracle. He also manages, unlike so many screen depictions of the Crucifixion, to communicate a proper metaphoric sense of what the event signifies by concentrating not merely on horror, but also on consequence; the healing of Miriam and Tirzah is in itself symbolic of moral and emotional renewal. Wyler, who was Jewish, wanted to make a film that appealed to all faiths in portraying faith itself as an ennobling ideal rather than a mere sectarian triumph. Even a godless heathen like me likes the point.

Ben-Hur cleaned up at the 1959 Oscars, taking home 11 statuettes, including one for Heston. It might not be Heston’s best performance—he’s arguably better, for instance, in El Cid—as he tends to hit some of his dramatic moments too hard, too early, but it’s still admirable how he prevents the mass of the production from crushing him. He acts like a man with a weight on his shoulders, his great bearish frame buckling under the impact of suffering, constantly wishing to bring his innate physical and psychological strength to bear, but hampered by his own better sense and will. Boyd, on the other hand, is beautifully, perversely malicious as Messala: I especially love the mordant precision with which he pronounces the lone word “Return?” in mocking Judah’s promise of revenge. Neither man was a subtle actor, but the job of keeping their bristling bombast in balanced counterpoint is nicely fulfilled by Harareet, the only actual Palestinian in the film. The more I watch the film, the more I admire her performance in a problematic role. Griffith, as Ilderim, gives the kind of hammy, scene-stealing performance that’s easy to love, and Hawkins is as fine as he ever was. No, Ben-Hur’s not perfect—I’d really like to know who does Jesus’ hair—and yet it still stands effortlessly tall.

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

Martin Scorsese: A Retrospective in Words

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By Roderick Heath

Whilst making Boxcar Bertha in 1972, Barbara Hershey gave Martin Scorsese a book, The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis, the Greek author whose novel Alexis Zorba became the famous film with Anthony Quinn. The novel of the Christ led to Kazantzakis’ excommunication, and the work was often banned. Last Temptation remained lodged in Scorsese’s imagination until he began developing the project in the early 1980s. Nervousness pervaded all stages of bringing the film to realization. Paramount, which had agreed to bankroll the film, pulled out before shooting began. The production went ahead in Morocco on a $7 million budget provided by Universal and Cineplex/Odeon. The early hand-wringing proved justified by the film’s reception. Christian organizations lobbied for its banning. Some offered to buy the negative for the production cost and destroy it. Picket lines attended screenings. French zealots threw Molotov cocktails at a Parisian showing. Wildfire controversy accompanied the work wherever it went. If it was a grindhouse film, its video cover might still boast “Banned by Bulgaria and Blockbuster!”

All this from a guy who came close to enrolling in the seminary? You’d think Marty had portrayed Jesus as joining in a cocaine-fuelled threesome with Mary and Judas and voicing support for Michael Dukakis. Rather, The Last Temptation of Christ is merely a vivid, strident, intellectually curious work. It is also possibly Scorsese’s greatest film—not that it’s ever likely to win that consensus from a popular culture that has made a fetish of Taxi Driver or Goodfellas—and one of the most vigorous and original religious films ever made.

Kazantzakis’ written prologue establishes the spiritual territory; the disturbing, incomprehensible struggle of a man who is also divine to reconcile the struggles between the flesh and godliness. The Jesus thus conjured is not a beatifically smiling savior assured of his own rectitude and sublime purpose, but (as embodied by Willem Dafoe, dedicated to the role with hypnotic effort), instead chased by restless dread and unseen torments, filled with self-loathing and hate for the God he knows wants something great and terrible from him. He struggles through deadly stigmatic fits and phases of doubt, fear, anger, despair, and human longing.

Spurning the lamentable history of Jesus flicks, Last Temptation dedicates itself to a portrait of the beginnings of Christianity as it sprang from the brute soil of Roman-occupied Judea—this raw, dirty, poverty-stricken landscape on the edge of both the Empire and the realms of the human psyche; beyond here is only the bone-cracking desert, playground of Yahweh and Satan. Judea’s native culture has been reduced to ineffective theatre. It’s a multicultural crossroads, infused with Bedouins, Arabs, Persians, and Africans, tough and vital. The land has turned its attention to wandering preachers and soothsayers like John the Baptist. Guerrilla resistance simmers; the Zealots, including Saul (Harry Dean Stanton), act as paramilitary enforcers, searching out traitors both religious and secular. Jesus has made himself a pariah by being the only carpenter willing to manufacture crosses for the Romans. He even participates in crucifying a seditious prophet, anticipating his own hideous fate. “God loves me…I want him to stop! … I make crosses so he’ll hate me. I want him to find somebody else!”

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Jesus determines to pursue his fate, and leaves his home and mother (Verna Bloom). Walking the shores of Galilee, he senses himself being followed by an invisible thing that strikes him with pain before directing him to the house of Mary Magdalene (Hershey – Scorsese made her audition so she wouldn’t think he was just returning the favor of the loan of the book in casting her). He watches the degrading sensual spectacle of Mary with her clients for the day. At the crucifixion he helped perform, Mary, amongst the jeerers, had spat in his face. Jesus begs her forgiveness; they were childhood sweethearts, but Mary lost Jesus to his crisis, which caused him to reject the possibility of marrying her. Broken-hearted and out of suitors, taking up a whore’s life was her only option, and she taunts him sexually and emotionally with forlorn rage. And yet a powerful friendship still holds them together.

Jesus reaches a remote, rugged, desert monastery. He is greeted by the spirit of the recently deceased Abbot, who states that he knows who Jesus is. Jesus confesses his purposes and weaknesses to young monk Jerobeam (Barry Miller), who tries to advise him on the tasks that confront him. When two black cobras emerge from a hole in his cell and speak with Mary’s voice, Jerobeam recognizes it as a sign Jesus’ impurities have been cast out, and he can return to the world.

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The film’s greatest twist on the traditional story is Judas, embodied with great force and emotional complexity by Harvey Keitel. Taking a cue from the Gnostic texts, Judas is Jesus’ angry doppelganger, another childhood friend who has become an agent of the Zealots. Jesus takes Judas’ knock for whatever it is that dogs him, and indeed, he is the incarnation of Jesus’ merciless responsibility. Judas kicks at Jesus’ tools and wood for the cross he’s building, and when Jesus plaintively explains, “I’m struggling,” Judas ripostes, “I struggle. You collaborate!” When Jesus returns from the desert, Judas holds a knife to his throat—the Zealots have ordered his assassination. Jesus accepts the knife if it’s what God wants for him, but, stirred by Judas’ hesitance, suggests, “Perhaps He didn’t send you here to kill me. Maybe He sent you to follow me.”

Judas walks with Jesus back to civilization, stating “If you stray this much from the path, I’ll kill you.” A righteous opportunity quickly presents itself; the pair comes upon Mary being stoned by a mob, scapegoat for festering frustration. Jesus intervenes, facing down the righteous hypocrites, accosting wealthy Zebadee (Irvin Kershner—yes, the one who directed The Empire Strikes Back) with a telling count of his sins: “He’s seen you cheat your workers! And what about that widow you visit, what’s her name?” Jesus leads them instead to deliver the Sermon on the Mount, except that both the crowd and the impact of his words aren’t what they’re cracked up to be. Jesus is too crippled by the conflict of his ideas and impulses to trust himself as a preacher: “God is so many miracles. What if I say the wrong thing? What if I say right thing?”

Jesus gives a parable of a farmer sewing wheat, some of which withers, some of which finds no soil, and some of which grows and feeds a nation, and then explains, when he’s met with stony looks, he’s the farmer. His parable proves immediately true; some declare him an idiot, some take him for a provocateur and bay for blood, ltocapostle.bmpand some, the most intellectually and spiritually curious, are intrigued. Jesus’ band of adherents swells. Taking a leaf from Roberto Rossellini’s The Flowers of St Francis, Scorsese uses the Apostles for gently, highly human, comic relief as they fight for sleeping space by the fire. Judas finds them silly and useless, whilst Jesus ponders the purpose-sapping contradictions of his efforts. His return to Nazareth is met by mockery and stones.

Judas suggests they go to see John the Baptist (Andre Gregory), who condenses the spirit of the Old Testament in his scrawny, wild-haired body. He rants prophesies of judgment, brimstone, godly wrath. “Now he sounds like the Messiah!” Judas croaks. They have come upon The Baptist at a ceremony, surrounding by religious ecstatics; women dance naked, drums bang, chants sound. As Jesus comes toward John from behind, John turns abruptly, just as Jesus had with his own unseen pursuer, and demands, “Who are you?” The noise of the ceremony dies, leaving only the sound of rippling river water, and does not return until John anoints Jesus’ head.

This is a scene that captures Scorsese’s jarring approach at its finest. Scorsese achieves a vivid sense of the past by spurning pure historical detail; he emphasizes the raw remoteness of time and place by mixing Judaic scenery with multicultural tropes. Roman soldiers are dressed in stylized garb that might have come from a punk staging of Jesus Christ Superstar. Isaiah visits Jesus in a bleached Darth Vader costume. With dashes of ’80s New Wave and punk aesthetic, right down to Peter Gabriel’s gorgeously weird score and casting alterna-music figures like David Bowie and John Lurie, Scorsese reinvents history with a melding of modernist dance, art, and film styles. Partly enforced by the low budget, there is a complete rejection of epic plush; this is a desert world.

“The God of Israel is a God of the desert,” John the Baptist tells Jesus, and that is where he must now go for his first confrontation with Satan, a pillar of flame with an elegantly mocking English accent (voiced by Leo Marks, writer of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom). The miracles, visions, and apparitions are starkly simple, in contrast with Mel Gibson’s setting in the The Passion of the Christ, where the only angels one could sense Gibson’s God trying to hold back were ten-thousand CGI artists (one could write another essay comparing these two films).

Facing down Satan’s taunts finally gives Jesus the warlike purpose he lacked; he returns with an axe he finds in the sand, ready for revolution, and pulls his heart from his body to display his newly granted capacity for miracles and to awe his followers. He passes through the landscape determined to heal and cast out demons; madmen and cripples slither out of crevices like he’s dragging the disease out of the flesh of the earth. Lobbied to raise Lazarus (Tomas Arana), brother of Mary (Randy Danson) and Martha (Peggy Gormley), who sheltered Jesus when he returned from fasting, Jesus bids the stone on his tomb rolled away, at which point everyone covers their face from the stench. Yet Lazarus still claws his way out of his tomb, numbed and covered in green rot.

Jesus enters Jerusalem and throws out the moneylenders from the Temple in fiery indignation in a scene met with the shock and anger of a rabbi (veteran character actor Nehemiah Persoff), who perceives himself as stalwart defender of Judaic tradition in a time of assault by foreign mores and Gods. Saul and the Zealots, seeing Jesus’ influence and that Judas has joined him, visit Lazarus and murder him, eliminating the proof of Jesus’ greatest miracle. When Jesus leads a mob to assault the Temple again, he is stricken by stigmata; God telling him he will not die a quick, heroic death, but with the ignominious cruelty of crucifixion, and there’s no way out of it. Jesus collapses and is helped away by Judas as Roman soldiers slaughter the mob.

ltoc10%5B1%5D.BMPJesus already expects his end, told to him by a visitation of Isaiah. He tells a grief-stricken, conflicted Judas that he needs him to give him up. When Judas asks if he could give up a man he loves to such an end, Jesus replies, “No. That’s why God gave me the easier job.” In short time, Jesus writhes in doubt at Gethsemane before being dragged off to see Pontius Pilate (David Bowie), a calmly intellectual appraiser (“You’re just another Jewish politician.”) who swiftly diagnoses Jesus as being more dangerous to the Zealots. “It’s one thing to change the way people live, but you want to change the way they think, the way they feel,” Pilate explicates, as embodiment of Pax Romana logic. “It simply doesn’t matter how you want to change things. We don’t want them changed.” Jesus is beaten, crowned with thorns, and led to his bloody consummation on Golgotha. Jesus screams forlornly as a grimly apocalyptic dust-wind rises.

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As it had with The Baptist, the clamor of the scene dies, and a golden-haired girl (Juliet Caton) approaches through the crowd. Tugging the nails from his feet and hands, she tells Jesus she is his Guardian Angel, and that God has granted a reprieve—he’s not the Messiah, and he can lead the rest of his life in simple ease. Led into a newly verdant Israel, Jesus is married to Mary and living in sublime peace with her before God appears to her and kills her. Jesus is enraged, but the Angel assures him, with her honey-toned, oddly psychopathic rhetoric, it was simply her time, that all women are the same. She encourages him to take a new wife, Lazarus’ sister Mary, and eventually also to bed her sister Martha. He fathers children and lives to a ripe old age, where he’s ashamed to think of his self-abnegating, egotistical, religious mission. He encounters Saul, now calling himself Paul, preaching in a public forum, of his conversion to Christ’s teachings and of the legend of his sacrifice. Jesus angrily declaims his death and mocks his own legend. Paul ripostes, “I’m glad I met you…my Jesus is far more powerful.” Paul is popularizing Jesus’ legend, arguing that humanity needs Jesus’ message of universal love and redemption.

Jesus is dying as Jerusalem is laid waste in the wake of rebellion, and his Apostles emerge from hiding to gather at his side. “Be careful, he’s still angry!” they warn of Judas, who enters, blood staining his hands from fighting the Romans. Judas erupts, accusing Jesus for not following his path, then lifting the veil on the Angel as Satan; this has been his most powerful, bewitching assault on God’s plan. Jesus, horrified and appropriately penitent, crawls out into the fire-stained, scream-riddled night and cries to return to the cross, which he promptly is, muttering “It is accomplished!” before dying. The movie literally dissolves, sprocket holes, scratches, and strips of film showing like the reel has broken.

The Last Temptation of Christ affirms Christ’s sacrifice; although Jesus wants earthly fulfillments—and those earthly fulfillments are twisted as Satan slyly draws away from the singular purity of his ardor for Mary Magdalene into a more ego-fulfilling threesome—he recognizes its insignificance before his great task, which is to reinvent the religion of his forefathers and humankind along with it. The film, scripted by Paul Schrader with contributions from Jay Cocks, is built around symbols, with sensitivity—as perhaps only a filmmaker can be sensitive to them—to the meaning that can charge images.

The film charts one of the Jesus myth’s strongest contributions to modern religious thought—the substitution of the physical for the symbolic. In the Last Supper sequence, Scorsese cuts betweens the rivers of blood spilt in Temple sacrifices—wasteful and grotesque in a starving country—and Jesus reinventing the idea in drinking “his blood.” “God is not an Israelite!” Jesus shouts on the Temple steps to an outraged crowd, losing their sympathy. His specific condemnation of nationalist self-love continues the film’s study of Jesus recreating the hard concepts of old Judaism into the symbolist thrust of Christianity—from real blood to transubstantiation, from Promised Land as a physical state to Promised Land as a spiritual promise. Stanton embodies Paul, the greatest convert to Jesus’ worldview, with whacko, shifty fervor; the symbolism is crucial. He doesn’t care whether Jesus really died on the cross or not for he recognizes the force of the idea and its appeal. The symbol is more powerful than the deed.

This leads to one of the film’s most forceful subtexts: the strong suggestion, dimly perceived by, and thus perhaps explaining, the rage of the film’s attackers, of a pointed rejection of the ’80s ethos of monumental greed (Scorsese stages the ejection of the moneylenders forcibly and repeatedly, making the film seem like an historical prequel to Wall Street) and the fatuous posturing of Moral Majority-era figures like Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggart, and Ronald Reagan. “God is not an American!” Jesus might as well be shouting. Simultaneously, by portraying the Zealots as religious terrorists as theoretically rebellious, but really tools for power, the film engages with the troubles that engulf present-day Israel and drive many of the contradictions of current terrorist movements. The film’s Jesus, pained, morally questioning, tempted, and dedicated to multitudinous truth, stands at a vast distance from absolutist hypocrites of all stripes. Scorsese and Schrader, essentially unbelieving men but obsessed with the religious grounding of their perspectives, attempt with the film to recreate Jesus for themselves.

Scorsese’s most stylistically rigorous film, Last Temptation evokes the spiritual terrors that chase Jesus with a hungrily mobile camera (Michael Ballhaus behind it again). Having a blonde little girl as the harbinger of Satan was a touch directly inspired by Mario Bava’s Operazione Paura, and cunningly, during the alternate reality of the last temptation, it’s the only time Scorsese recreates the sun-kissed, twee atmosphere of standard Jesus portrayals. Finally, Scorsese had confronted the root source of many of his fixations head-on. For his next feature, Scorsese headed home again. l