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Faith and Religion

The Egyptian (1954)

The Egyptian (Twilight Time)

Several years ago, the Seattle International Film Festival asked local critics to choose and present a favorite “guilty pleasure.” One chose the divinely silly Susan Slade, while another went for the historical comedy, Start the Revolution Without Me.

My pick was The Egyptian, Darryl F. Zanuck’s lush 1954 adaptation of Mika Waltari’s once-popular novel (the No. 1 best-seller of 1950) about the revolutionary reign of the “heretic pharaoh,” Akhenaten, who established a form of monotheism that was quickly dismantled by his successors.

I don’t regret the “guilty pleasure” label – parts of the picture are incredibly cheesy, especially the woozier patches of dialogue and the casting of heavily accented Bella Darvi as a Babylonian whore. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Spouting lines like “I’m an evil woman, Sinuhe” and “I did not ask for this trash,” Darvi could give Maria Montez a run for her money in the camp sweepstakes. But she seems to have wandered in from a different, sleazier, less ambitious picture.

The Egyptian was the first movie I’d seen that took a single central character from childhood to death. Its dark, troubling, sometimes pretentious account of that journey made a lasting impression. So did the lavish visualization of ancient Egypt. It’s full of lines like “all existence is vanity” and “I made the evil in myself,” as its self-loathing hero tries to come to terms with a mostly wasted life. Seeing it for the first time as a nine-year-old, I was riveted by an ancient-world epic that entertained such pessimistic thoughts and didn’t deal simply with the triumph of good. When Cecil B. DeMille’s staff first saw it, they stopped worrying that The Ten Commandments, the less ambiguous Egyptian epic DeMille was preparing, would be challenged by it at the box office.

The central character is not Akhenaten but the fictional Sinuhe, a peasant boy who is actually of royal birth (his fate is an ironic variation on the Moses story), though he doesn’t know this as he grows up to become pharaoh’s physician. When he makes a mess of his life, betraying his parents as he pursues the manipulative Babylonian, Sinuhe runs away from his birthplace, returning years later to see Akhenaten’s revolution collapse in civil war. Disillusioned by pharaoh’s mistakes and his own dubious adventures in other lands, Sinuhe is at first skeptical about Akhenaten’s achievements, and he prepares to be the king’s executioner.

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Playing Fair with Mel Gibson’s “Passion”

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Christ's suffering: "a down-and-dirty, medieval vision of flesh ruined and violated beyond enduring"

[Originally written for Queen Anne News, 2004]

In the week since I attended a press screening of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, I’ve talked and argued about religion, with believers and unbelievers alike, more than I have in decades. Every film reviewer, pundit and talkshow host in the country has fervently weighed in for or against this controversial, ultra-gory reenactment of the final 12 hours of Jesus’ life. So much, frequently hysterical, verbiage has heaped up that the movie itself — the way it looks, moves, its way of shaping a primal story into art — gets buried. Indeed, many have just skipped the film entirely, so that their opinions won’t be hampered by actually experiencing the gospel according to Gibson.

As almost everyone knows by now, Mel Gibson invested his own money in this 126-minute visualization of Christ’s Passion — not the euphemized, abbreviated, cleaned-up version that contemporary Christians have mostly espoused, but a down-and-dirty, medieval vision of flesh ruined and violated beyond enduring. (One Catholic novelist objected “to the way Gibson’s film disturbs [emphasis mine] our sense of peace and acceptance of the cross.”)

Distasteful and even embarrassing to many latterday Christians, this horrific chapter of Christ’s life on earth obviously possesses some special, visceral appeal for Gibson, a traditionalist Catholic whom some accused of anti-Semitism even before the film was released. (For the record, I didn’t register any anti-Semitic subtext in The Passion, and I didn’t come away filled with hatred for anyone. For me, the operative emotion was pity: for benighted humankind and Gibson’s religious hero.)

Take a look at the final 15 minutes of Gibson’s 1995 Oscar-winner Braveheart; it’s startling to see how literally Gibson rehearses — sometimes shot for shot — for The Passion, with himself as the suffering Christ. Praying for the strength to die well; spread-eagled on a cross; tempted by a satanic figure; empowered by the eyes of those who witness his awful torture; inspiring his followers with the sustaining legacy of Braveheart‘s last image, a sword-cross planted in the earth — the bloody end of Gibson’s Scots hero presages the formal, stylized contemplation of his god-man’s lengthier, equally barbaric Passion.

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In Praise of “Doubt” in the Certainty of Cinema

With every review I read of Doubt, I get the nagging feeling that I’ve seen a different film. It’s certain that I’ve had a different experience. Doubt, John Patrick Shanley’s screen adaptation of his own play and the first film he has directed since Joe Versus the Volcano, continues to rumble through my mind because the ideas and conflicts left unresolved in the film. This is Shanley’s witch hunt play, his Crucible, with a very specifically American setting and the reverberations it carries. I never saw the stage production of John Patrick Shanley’s original play in any incarnation, let alone the Broadway run, and though I keep hearing the familiar chorus “It worked better on stage,” I wonder of having seen the stage play is preventing viewers from actually seeing the film.

Meryl Streep has her certainty
Meryl Streep has her certainty

While the cinema can be used effectively to express ambiguity, it is also a medium of concrete imagery and particular sense of certainty: it’s a mystery until the reveal, where we have the privileged view of seeing what happened, or at least seeing the evidence left behind and being provided an explanation that answers all questions. There is no such certainty in Doubt. It’s not Rashomon (everyone lies), it’s not Les Girls (everyone tells the truth in their own way, as Sarris so lovingly put it), and it’s certainly not The Thin Blue Line, Errol Morris’ brilliant documentary that “recreates” various testimonies to illustrate how great minor discrepancies can be. There are no conflicting witnesses here, there is no forensic evidence to sift, there isn’t an accusing victim, merely the suspicion of a criminal act and one person’s drive for justice (or at the very least protective action) in a system that (as we all know too well given recent revelations) is more concerned with self-preservation than self-policing.

Set in the church and Catholic school of a largely Irish and Italian neighborhood of the Bronx in 1964, the film embraces so much – racism and integration, the tensions between the old Catholic traditions and the modernization of the church and its public outreach in the sixties, the acts of pedophilia perpetrated by priests and covered up by the church, hypocrisy, faith, power, morality – without lecturing or hectoring, placing it all within the very human struggle of fallible people doing what they think is right. Or at least that’s what we hope. The crux is, no surprise, in the title. Sunny, optimistic idealist Sister James (Amy Adams), a young nun teaching history to junior high boys and girls, witnesses what is at best circumstantial evidence of an improper relationship between the friendly and warm Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the well liked priest whose sermons bring religion to earth, and the school’s first African-American student, the brunt of student bullying. Flynn has extended his protection and support to the boy, but the imperious Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep), the authoritarian principal who fulfills every stereotype of the officious Catholic school who wraps the knuckles of distracted boys, suspects something more. Or is it that she just doesn’t like Flynn, whose new ways collide with her strict standards? “You don’t have any proof,” Father Flynn says to her when she vows to see him removed from the parish. “I have my certainty,” she replies. Belief without proof. Faith, in other words. She has no room for doubt. We aren’t so privileged.

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