The Birth, Life and Death of Christ

Film Review by Dean Duncan Jun 1, 2015

Did I count that right? Twenty-one or twenty-two episodes, almost all played practically whole, in a combination of sequence shot and Sunday School tableau. The assembly is contradictory, or maybe simultaneous, in all sorts of interesting ways. It’s kind of primitive, but there are confidences and clarities in the midst of the elementary. It’s kind of tentative, but then uncertainty or partiality will frequently resolve into sufficiency and even excellency.

We start with Bethlemen, with lots of figures circulating through the space. We get a real impression of place and population. The Magi and the shepherds come at the same time. The baby is a year old! At this point it’s almost all composition and staid gesture, barely any shape or drama. Spatially speaking the entry and exit of characters is interesting, and capably executed.

The sleep of Jesus features a dissolve to attending angels, including angelic musicians. Very nice! A big leap follows, as we come suddenly to the Samaritan, and Jairus’ daughter. Compare this up-frontness with the indirection of the Danish painter Carl Bloch’s rendering of that same story.  The music here is very pretty, and reassuring. This Magdalene episode looks to have been staged in an actual location. It is less happily composed. Those two facts may be related, and understood too.

Now, already, we have Palm Sunday. Like they all say about these very early narrative films, these are bare signposts to a longer story, fragments of a pre-existing narrative already familiar to the audience, and which the audience will actually complete in their own minds. Now we have the Last Supper, featuring Judas, the Catholic communion—predictably and quite properly—and a dramatic transformation. There’s a sermon now, which doesn’t register at all. We need dialogue, or a more poetical, expansive silent film method in order to adequately portray this kind of thing, or to adequately portray anything. Film can do it, and silent film can do it too. Miss Guy, at this point, cannot.

The Garden of Olives, they say. The Night Watch. The very centre of the Christian story, or of Christ’s accomplishment! (Depending on the faith to which you subscribe, of course. Welcome, all!) These two scenes fail to give a proper sense of that gravity. Other fine filmmakers have also come up short, in this respect.

Judas betrays Jesus. Figures come in from behind the camera and go out the same way, which makes for a striking effect. Jesus is before Caiaphas. Here’s an elaborate set, and here is some more good theatrical composition and movement. Some actual manhandling adds some spirit to the proceedings. Peter’s betrayal is very effective. The action looks kind of lost in the lengthy, deep shot. Until Jesus pauses at the back, and transforms everything in the foreground. With regard to a judgment rendered a couple of paragraphs back, Miss Guy can, on occasional.

Now Jesus stands before Pilate. There are crowds in the vicinity, and they’re all left offscreen. Very interesting, slightly awkward. There’s a good effect as the whips  leave actual marks during the scourging. Ecce Homo. Bearing the cross. Jesus’ first fall. Again, naturally, the film reflects a traditional Catholic ordering, prioritization and interpretation of the various events.

They’ve gone to a lot of expense here! The Saint Veronica sequence (cf. Mel Gibson!) has real walls and arches, lots of striking diagonals. Now there’s a close up, with Veronica removed from the diegesis, as it were. She presents the imprinted cloth to the audience. Hang on. This is no longer primitive at all, but devotional/confrontational. After all, these things are supposed to apply to and affect our lives. Wonderful.

Jesus climbs Golgotha. The music is very pretty. Wow! Here’s a pan, and an actual, painful, at least partly perilous climb up a forbidding, rocky incline. Unfortunately they cut before Jesus gets all the way up there. If they hadn’t, if they’d portrayed the action entire, then that would have constituted an actual cinematic response to the problems of religious representation.

The mechanics of the crucifixion are impressive. The Agony doesn’t change at all from the previous shot. We need a close up! The soldier cuts him! He’s dead. The forsaking, the feeling of isolation are foregone. As a result, much of the poignancy is gone as well. On the other hand the deposition—still the same shot—is very powerful. As so often in this period, or always, there’s a documentary component. This is a really guy, really being lowered. It’s not like the real thing, it sort of is the real thing. (Cf., surprisingly enough, the charged-with-blasphemy Pasolini episode from RoGoPaG [1963].)

The Birth, Life and Death of Christ is theatrical, and commercial, but all of this accumulation is making me think that these collaborators are most committed to this project, to this story, and to what it represents and requires. Care and even reverence are in ample evidence.

The resurrection is so climactic as to be anti-climactic. It’s all dissolves and angels and pretty music. A last dissolve brings us to Jesus in the air, then rising. For the second time in the film we have a second shot in a sequence. Outside, angels proclaim while the mortals are consternated and then consoled.

That’s it. Not there yet, but this not there is still plenty of somewhere. Brava!