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The latest film by the Coen brothers, “Hail, Caesar!” presents us with the problem of the ministry of the gospel on screen: how to see in order to believe.
Since the beginning of the history of cinema, Christians have dreamt with a film that would show the Risen One. Many are still trying to achieve this, though in reality the Christian film industry has been synonymous with everything that is wrong with Hollywood: sentimentalism, sensationalism, and simple falsehoods. The latest film by the Coen brothers, “Hail, Caesar!” presents us with the problem of the ministry of the gospel on screen: how to see in order to believe.
The two main protagonists in the film, Josh Brolin and George Clooney, meet a character who is supposed to represent Christ in the opening and closing scenes of the film. In the first, a catholic family man is complaining about having to smoke in secret, while he has no qualms about finding a rapid and legal solution to the unwanted pregnancy of one of the stars (Scarlet Johansson) of the studio for which he works. At the end, an actor who is playing a Roman in a film about Jesus, is kidnapped by a small group of the faith prohibited by the “witch hunt” (Communism) when he is going to do the scene in which a Christian persecutor converts at the feet of the cross.
The Coen brothers’ work is full of religious references, especially their most personal film, “A Serious Man” (2009), which shows how the religion in which this singular duo were brought up is not that of the Torah or the Talmud, but the secularized Judaism of the “Gospel according to Hollywood”. One of the funniest moments in the film is when the producer sits down with a catholic and an orthodox priest, a rabbi and a protestant pastor, to discuss whether the “reasonable viewers” of any creed could be offended by the film… you can imagine just how reasonable they turn out to be.
THE COENS’ WORLD
Interviewing the Coen brothers – as Luis Martinez says in El Mundo – is like going to an amnesic dentist who forgets what he is about halfway through an operation. As they explain in their brilliant interview with El Mundo, they work in a strange symbiosis. When they answer, they are perfectly synchronized. In general, though, they are the ones asking the questions. They are interested in everything to do with the journalist, from his glasses to his recorder, everything except for the questions that they are being asked. While one of them gets up, opens the window, sits back down or talks to the back of the interviewer’s head, the other one looks steadily into his eyes. In the middle of long silences, they look at one another, hardly saying anything. As a result, trying to understand their films in their own words is not an easy task.
Those who have followed their work since the 1980s know that there are two types of antihero in the Coen brothers’ world – as Paula Arantzazu Ruiz observes in the Spanish weekly Ahora –. The first is a man hemmed in by his own doubts. The second is a happy idiot in his constant complexity. Both these characters can be found in “Hail, Caesar!”, which shows us the “dream factory” at a time when the studio system focused on large productions encompassing all genres, from acrobatic westerns to underwater musicals, and including more sophisticated melodramas and the peplum of the biblical epic. Welcome to the 1950s.
However, the film isn’t about the dark side of Hollywood, as in “A star is born” or “Sunset Boulevard”. It is a story about making a film about Jesus, in the style of “The Robe” (1953) or “The Greatest Story Ever Told” (1965). There is no doubt that the biblical genre has always had commercial success. However, the epics combine a weird mixture of exhibitionism, eroticism and vulgarity, with naivety stamped on them by the piety factor. Two themes are predominant in primitive cinema: the Bible and pornography. The first theme gave respectability to the new art form, while the second made it a no-go area for most Christians.
JESUS IN FILM
Christ’s first appears in scenes similar to living pictures. Shadows and mist are often used to create an atmosphere of mystery, but in reality what they are trying to do is avoid showing a clear image of Jesus. Showing Jesus was actually not allowed in many countries, such as Great Britain, until after the Second World War. Accordingly, some films limit themselves to showing a hand, foot, back, or a far-off figure, as is still the case today with images of Mohamet.
The golden age of the Biblical genre was the 1950s, when there was an abundance of films set in early Christian times, such as “Ben-Hur” (1959) or “Quo Vadis” (1951). Many of these stories are adaptations of historical novels, but the Gospel itself seems to be notably absent, even though the early Christian context is taken as a given. George Stevens said that he read more than thirty translations of the New Testament before directing “The Greatest Story Ever Told”. He claimed to have consulted 36 protestant pastors, Pope John XXIII, and to have discussed the script with Ben-Gurion himself. But any similarity with the Biblical text is only a matter of coincidence…
We should not be too hasty to criticize, though. Representations of Jesus in evangelical films, as in the literal version of the gospel according to Luke by Agape, have a tendency to show Jesus as a blond, blue-eyed young man from Wisconsin. He has a bland, peaceful and asexual appearance, lending him an ethereal quality. Human passions seem to be reserved for more interesting characters such as Judas, Peter or Barabbas. The traditional iconography on which films about Jesus are based, is not synonymous with faithfulness to the Gospels either. There are errors in its recreation, which have a stronger link to history of art than to the realistic context of the gospels.
SEEING IS BELIEVING?
While the Bible does condemn the use of imagery, it refers to its use in adoration. The incarnation teaches us that the Son of God became truly human. Accordingly, I do not think that representing Jesus dramatically is the same thing as being guilty of worshiping images. One thing is art and the other is idolatry.
It is possible to imagine the Saviour physically, but it is also true that we can end up confusing that image with the person of whom it is said: “though you have not seen him, you love him; and even through you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy.” (1 Peter 1:8).
As the demon in C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters says to his nephew, we can confuse that “composite object” of images with which we imagine the Lord, with the person of the Saviour himself. We should not forget that the reality and the purpose of Christ is understood by faith, and not in seeing.
IMAGES OF THE MAN
Jesus on film is ultimately no more than a reflection of Man. In the same way that biographies about Christ tell us more about their author than of the historical figure of Jesus that they are trying to glimpse beyond the gospels. His nature is impossible to express visually. But why do we try to represent someone who is both Man and God?
Films, like any other art form for that matter, are trying to define and redefine mankind. They try to help us to understand and communicate the meaning of life, but it is ourselves that we see in their reflection. Christ is unique and there has been no one else like Him. He is the living Word made flesh (John 1).
Visually, therefore, Jesus on film is an exaltation of the divinity of man, and the proclamation of the humanity of God. Christian films are only an excuse for evangelization and not an expression of cinema as art. In order to know Christ, we still need to rely on his Gospel. It provides the only historical source and the only Word that gives life, and that in abundance.