God on film

Dark Habits (1983)
Pedro Almodovar

It is in imperfect creatures that God finds His greatness. Jesus didn’t die for the salvation of saints, but for the redemption of sinners,” reflects the Mother Superior, preparing to shoot up a line of coke with her very intense crush Yolanda Bell, a trashy yet fabulous nightclub singer and junkie.

This is definitely one of the film’s best scenes, a perfect representation of Dark Habits in all senses of the phrase. Almodovar got his moralising spot on – it is scandalous, but absolutely fine, in the end, because Jesus loves you. And what are the nuns doing wrong anyway?

Acid, heroin, erotic novels, sadomasochism, blackmail, lesbianism – it’s all in this film alongside a confessional, regular mass and a healthy dose of self-mortification and humiliation.

Bent nuns are definitely the way to go. This is black comedy for sure, yet it is simultaneously raw and emotive, and not without meaning.

On the surface, Dark Habits is just plain offensive and slightly crass, but in fact the film’s extreme depiction of religious corruption was Almodovar’s own way of inviting us to question blind faith and our preconceptions of morality. He examines, tongue firmly in cheek, whether we really should be moderate in our actions and take everything with a pinch of acid. If not, simply live to the extreme and absolve yourself at mass once in a while.

It can make us angry; it can certainly offend us. But Almodovar’s searching humour represents a positive side of faith in films. ‘Cinema became my real education, better than the one I received from my priest,’ Almodovar has said.

Four stars

The Ten Commandments (1956)
Cecil B. DeMille

I’ve heard the story of Moses and the commandments about four thousand times – blame it on my Sunday school, Presbyterian Church and Catholic Comprehensive teaching. Sadly, Cecil B. DeMille’s final film shows no such awareness of Moses’ story, one of the most moving and interesting stories in the Old Testament.

In this truly bizarre adaptation of Exodus, several characters are introduced for no apparent reason, and strains of narrative are either omitted completely or created out of thin air in a miraculous trick worthy of God Himself.

Admittedly, part of the problem is the simple issue of its age. The film is more than fifty years old, and boy does it show. The shots of ancient Egypt are laughable, and when Moses walks into the river and turns into ‘blood’, the water adopts a strange hue of, well, a kind of orange. It’s as if they’ve shovelled a tonne of terracotta into the Nile and hoped for the best.

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I really shouldn’t judge a film so dated for its lack of technological power. A lack of acting power, however, is free game.

The late Charlton Heston plays Moses. I say ‘plays’, when really the extent of his acting is the ridiculous hairstyle. Otherwise, this could be any other wooden Heston performance, complete with a highly inappropriate American accent .

In a film about Moses, it is his enemy who truly steals the show. The great Yul Brynner oozes arrogance and stubborness as Rameses, perfectly capturing the essence of a man whose very belief system is being challenged by a man he once called brother.

Of course, there’s quite a way to go between the crossing of the Red Sea (more of a bog really) and the actual collection of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. Hours, actually. Cue a boring slog through the wilderness and you’ve arrived at an anti-climactic and ever so melodramatic celebration of God’s covenant with humanity.

This film may stand for something, but fails to truly capture the wonder of the story.

Two stars

The Passion of the Christ (2003)
Mel Gibson

There is certainly a lot of passion. A lot of sweat, blood and dirt also.

Mel Gibson’s blockbuster The Passion of the Christ attempts to bring to life one of the most influential events in history, sweeping aside the polite idealism which has oversimplified images of the story since Raphael, and returning to the core message of terrible suffering, and pregnant hope. Unfortunately, to a certain extent the film becomes more obsessed with the pain and brutality than the story.

It is a wonderful and visceral film, which uses only the languages of the time (lots of good stuff for Latin and Aramaic fans here). The characters are treated as humans, which elegantly brings to life figures which are part of the Christian cultural landscape, but who are often elevated to the point that they become inaccessible.

We can believe, I think, in a Christ who visibly bleeds, who is clearly as much a man as he is God. This very humanity of Christ before the crucifixiion is a great part of his enigma. He is so very weak, so very fragile, that we can scarcely believe him divine. Yet this pain is the mark of the sacrifice and compassion which can lead us ultimately to accept faith.

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Yet this is precisely what the emphasis on all the blood threatens to do with this film. The Passion is indeed a portrait of suffering, and almost becomes such for the audience too, succeeding in conveying to the audience Christ’s pain and message (‘Pick up your cross and walk with me’), but obscuring the later and transcendental hope.

Three stars

The Silence (1963)
Ingmar Bergman

The last of Bergman’s Faith Trilogy, this film deals with the arrival of two sisters along with the son of one of the pair in a foreign city. The threat of war is present from the beginning, with the specters of tanks looming from the start.

The film relies heavily on the visual, with very little speech throughout. The name obviously suggests this, but the silence of the title comes through in many different ways.

The incomprehension of mother, sister and child in a city whose language they don’t know; the wordless suffering of one sister, slowly dying; the failure of the other sister to properly acknowledge this; the silent, passionate sex in which she attempts to escape the necessity of her sister’s suffering and her child’s needs; the all-encompassing, dreadful silence of God in the face of all this pain.

It has been well observed that the two sisters act essentially as two halves of the same character. As one sister dies, concentrating only on exercises of the mind, the other walks the streets of the city, watching and engaging in carnal acts.

And, just as the body of the sister whose intellect is all she can rely upon withers, so the soul of the other seems to be dying. Her compassion is eaten away, not only cruel and desensitized to the suffering of her sister, but also to her son.

He, a boy of maybe twelve, is left to roam the halls of the hotel. Clearly incomprehending, clearly damaged, his love for his mother is met, of course, with silence. He is required to wash her naked body in the bath, the only act through which he can gain access to his mother’s attentions being physical.

Shot in black and white, it is a tense, perfectly wrought masterpiece, which questions not only the divine, but also the humane, and dissects, with sincere compassion, the nature of suffering and salvation.

Five stars