Fahrenheit 11/9

Posted September 16, 2018 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: documentary

fahrenheit119Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 11/9 is a sloppy but affecting essay about American crisis. Like all of his movies, it’s not only about what it seems to be about — Bowling for Columbine, for instance, wasn’t only about guns, Sicko wasn’t only about the health-care system, and God knows Fahrenheit 11/9 isn’t only about Donald Trump. In fact, I’d guess there are fewer minutes of Trump footage in the movie than there are of, say, the furiously eloquent Parkland shooting survivor Emma González, or the fresh, charismatic Congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or the fiery West Virginia State Senator Robert Ojeda. This is no accident — Moore is saying that these are the kinds of people we’d better listen to. They may be left but they’re nowhere near establishment Democrat.

Perhaps understandably — after his 2016 concert film Michael Moore in Trumpland whiffed in its attempt to shake America’s 100 million non-voters out of their indifference — Moore isn’t feeling very comedic these days. Fahrenheit 11/9 is the least funny movie he has ever made, and I’ve seen Canadian Bacon. The mood here is sickened and uncomprehending — “How the fuck did we get here?” Moore asks at the top of the film. He still makes his jokes, pulls his stunts (like one involving a truck full of poisoned Flint, Michigan water), but ultimately the goal seems to be to give us the creeps. (A weird montage of Trump acting skeevy towards his daughter goes on a little longer than it needs to.) At times the movie gets rather doomy and macabre, reflecting the current American mood.

Sometimes the film seems like Moore’s debate with Trump; he answers “Make America great again” with “When was America ever great?” It’s great for some people, for sure. Maybe not so great for people of color, or women, or its original people, or the otherwise marginalized. A historian in the film corrects Moore’s “200 years of democracy” — two hundred years of democracy for white males, sure. How about zero years of democracy? Rule by the people? We’re still not quite there yet. But Moore isn’t all that interested in being inflammatory this time, which is why I don’t think Fahrenheit 11/9 will make the splash that his peak-popularity films did — Bowling, Fahrenheit 9/11, and Sicko. Moore seems to know this, and to know he and documentaries are on the way out. They can’t change the world any more; a tweet or a Facebook post can.

After an opening act that points scorn at the big orange target, Moore spends what feels like a quarter or maybe even a third of the film on the water crisis in Flint. He talks to whistle-blowers, families, doctors; not coincidentally, many are people of color, and Moore characterizes the poisoning of Flint’s water as “a slow-motion ethnic cleansing.” Then he goes to West Virginia, where he visits with teachers who are going on strike. Then he sits down with some Parkland kids, including David Hogg. It seems like the first hour of Fahrenheit 11/9 is darkness, and the second half is light, represented by the growing number of young political hopefuls, agitators, and kids sick of growing up in a post-Columbine reality of shooter drills in their schools. These kids, Moore suggests, can save us and rescue America’s true destiny as a “leftist nation.”

So the movie feels like a loose anthology on the theme of American decline and, perhaps, rise, if enough people want it. I’m a Moore booster but thought Fahrenheit 9/11 was a bit too much of a glib slam-dunk on George W. Bush. It felt like agitprop after the wounded, searching quality of Bowling for Columbine. But Fahrenheit 11/9 is something else, something deeper and thornier and oddly personal. It’s as if Moore made the movie in order to convince himself and the like-minded not to eat a gun. Moore rejects bromidic words like “hope” (and boy, does Obama come in for a withering pan of his drinking-Flint-water stunt), but he likes words like action and revolution and together. He wants to see this divided, hemorrhaging country united. But he doesn’t know how to do it, and he wonders if a new generation might. By the end, Trump almost seems beside the point. The country that produced him is the bigger fish to fry.

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Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Posted September 9, 2018 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: documentary, one of the year's best

neighborcover.0Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a lovely film about a lovely man, Fred McFeely Rogers, known to generations of children as Mr. Rogers. This gentle and loving spirit, who was ordained as a Presbyterian minister, exemplified everything Christianity should be but too often is not. Rogers used his show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, to reassure children that there was nothing the matter with them — that they were fine exactly the way they were. Many children heard this sort of thing for the first time watching the show; they didn’t get it from their teachers or even their parents. Even François Clemmons, who played Officer Clemmons on the show from 1968 to 1993, and who was a grown man of 23 when he started working with Rogers, tells us that ultimately he came to see Rogers as a surrogate father.

Rogers, who died in 2003, had a soft and lilting voice and a genuine, eager smile. (The perfect person to play him in terms of how he looks and sounds is Jim Parsons, though Tom Hanks was announced in the role last January, playing a later-life Rogers around the time that Tom Junod famously profiled him for Esquire in 1998.) What the movie, unobtrusively assembled by director Morgan Neville, shows us again and again is that Rogers’ soothing yet no-nonsense demeanor was no act. The show handled tough topics — death, divorce, assassination — and refused to talk down to its young audience. Rogers strove to use language that would best and most healthily resonate with children, and he used the same plain-spoken voice with everyone regardless of age or position in life. I’ve seen a photo of him sitting with the Dalai Lama; they are both wearing expressions of perfect pure childlike happiness. At times, Rogers seemed to represent the best of every faith, every belief system.

That same childlike happiness is partly what has choked up millions who’ve seen Neighbor, including me, and I completely missed the whole Mr. Rogers thing (and Sesame Street) since our analog antenna didn’t pull in PBS during my formative years. In my teens, like every other asshole teen, I razzed the too-wholesome-seeming Rogers and laughed at the many parodies — the parodies became who he was, to me. Later in life, starting with that Tom Junod profile (he’s in the film, too), I began to appreciate who Rogers was and what he stood for — and against. His basic message spoke of the importance of self-esteem, and he must have sensed, back there in the late ‘60s when the country’s waters were starting to churn, that such a message was about to be needed. If you didn’t love yourself, he reasoned, you couldn’t love others, and that was what this life was — was supposed to be — all about. “We are here to help each other get through this thing,” Mark Vonnegut once said to his father Kurt, “whatever it is.”

That reminder of happiness, of goodwill towards all, makes us wistful and unhappy now, in this least neighborly of eras. Where have you gone, Nancy Rogers’ son? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you. The viewer leans toward the screen in yearning for this avatar of decency. The spiritual leader America may have needed in the sunset of the 20th century was not in a political office or beseeching us for funds on PTL; he was off to the side on a kid’s show on public television. Rogers’ great gift was empathy so keen that he couldn’t bear to treat anyone any differently than he would wish to be treated — not even Koko the gorilla, with whom Rogers sat and communicated as best he could, and who returned his love with hers. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? doesn’t let us get too down about Rogers’ physical absence during our current turbulence; he would have been at odds with our culture now, but then he was always at odds with it.

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Hereditary

Posted September 3, 2018 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: horror, overrated

hereditaryA strange bird, Hereditary is. This shrill and unhappy supernatural drama starts off as a sort of psychological character study and ends up in the wild hinterland of sulfur and vile spirits. Much the same, I suppose, could be said of The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby, to which Hereditary has duly been likened, but the more useful comparison might be to Darren Aronofsky’s genre-smashing, audience-polarizing mother! I deeply admired that film’s art and intensity while admitting I didn’t have a great time at it — not all art is meant to be entertaining. Is Hereditary another case of a wooly bully of cinematic expression, destined to dazzle the elites while displeasing the mundanes?

In this case, I have to stand with the mundanes. Director Ari Aster, making his feature debut, wants to bowl us over with Hereditary. He reaches into a big dusty box and hauls out every trick he can find — there’s one embarrassingly “look, Ma, I’m a director” shot that puts a character upside down in the frame as she runs, and then the camera follows her and rights itself. It’s a disorienting shot, and it calls attention to itself needlessly, as so much else does in the film. I could go spelunking thematically and justify the narrative quirks, but I don’t want to. It’s an effectively made bad movie. It plays fast and loose with logical expectations, but not in a way that especially illuminates anything other than its own facile twists.

For the longest time, the movie seems to be about Annie Graham (Toni Collette), an artist whose mother has recently died. Annie had and has a fraught, complicated relationship with her mother, and she’s well on her way to raising two neurotic kids, the brooding stoner Peter (Alex Wolff) and the morbid Charlie (Milly Shapiro), even though her husband and their father Steve (Gabriel Byrne) is usually a soothing source of calm. The movie starts to seem as though it’s concerned with the derangement of grief and trauma, especially when Annie meets a fellow in bereavement, Joanie (Ann Dowd), who teaches her how to contact the dead.

There’s more than a hint of “The Monkey’s Paw” here, and Pet Sematary and all the other spooky pop culture that advises us not to mess with the occult: “Sometimes dead is better.” Eventually, as the omens and freaky scares add up, it becomes clear that this is all the movie is going to be about; and yet it touches on annihilating despair, and asks its cast (particularly Collette, but also young Alex Wolff) to lower themselves into an emotional meat grinder in a way that the film, I say, does not earn. I did not need to see a sad body part seething with ants on the side of a godforsaken road in the morning light, and I came to resent Hereditary and Ari Aster for making me look at it for no reason other than effect. Speaking of effects, there are a few scenes featuring the fakest-looking swarm of flies I’ve ever seen in a movie. Another scene involving a screaming character engulfed in flames is just high-pitched stupidity, as is another scene in which someone flips out in a classroom.

I called Hereditary effective, which it is; an incident at about the half-hour mark pulled a loud gasp out of me, and not only because the hopes we’d placed in an intriguing character were suddenly cut off. Ari Aster has some chops, but he uses them to make us feel, well, bad — on edge, more irritated than frightened. At two hours and seven minutes, the movie dawdles at a few points, including an early shot that tracks into one of Annie’s impossibly detailed miniature houses until it comes to a stop in Peter’s bedroom — his real bedroom. Is Annie’s art relevant to the movie thematically or narratively? No, it’s meaningless, and so is she. Pretty much anything we came close to caring about in the film is thrown away for the insipid climax, during which a character opens her mouth and cheese falls out — “Give us your knowledge of all secret things. Bring us honor, wealth, and good familiars.” At which point the viewer is either rapturous at having been so bamboozled or heading for the sweet release of the exit. Some will love Hereditary. I understand why, but I don’t understand them.

First Reformed

Posted August 26, 2018 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: drama, one of the year's best

firstreformed“There’s no escape. I’m God’s lonely man.” – Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, written by Paul Schrader

First Reformed is Paul Schrader’s twenty-first film as a director, and probably his best. It seems to sum up a lot of things Schrader believes in, artistically and spiritually. It is quiet and modest; it adopts the boxy “Academy format” of 1.37:1, in which most films were shot before the widescreen revolution of the 1950s, and which is seldom if ever employed today, even on television. First Reformed has been released the same year as the re-issue of Schrader’s 1972 book Transcendental Style in Film, which meditated on the cinema of Robert Bresson, Yasajiro Ozu and Carl Dreyer, and the two Schrader works can stand alongside each other, or atop each other, as two characters in the film do in a fantasy sequence — at least I think it’s a fantasy sequence. Past a certain point the distinction becomes unhelpful, and when Schrader draws the final curtain we are left with doubt regarding the image immediately preceding the darkness. We are left, much like the film’s protagonist, balanced between despair and hope.

Pastor Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) presides over the sparse congregation of the First Reformed Church in the drab, snowy, fictional town of Snowbridge in eastern New York. Toller was once a military chaplain, married with a son, but he lost his son and then his marriage, and now he is here, drinking too much in his lonely, barren rooms (which make Travis Bickle’s apartment look like a Chuck E. Cheese). He coughs; his stomach hurts; at one point he pours Pepto-Bismol into his whiskey, and Schrader’s camera hovers above the slimy, blobby mix the way Martin Scorsese’s camera detained itself over a glass seething with Alka-Seltzer in Taxi Driver. Toller resists any attempts to bring him into the family of man; he would much rather brood in solitude and wrestle with God in his journal.

Decades of moviegoing have conditioned us to expect Toller to respond to a calling raised by the plot, and that happens, sort of. A parishioner, the tremulous, pregnant Mary (Amanda Seyfried), approaches Toller and asks him to advise her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger). Michael is concerned about the environment, to the point of being arrested at a protest in Canada. He wants Mary to have an abortion, since bringing a child into a disintegrating world seems to him like selfish folly. First Reformed is not about what anyone thinks or feels about abortion, though. Mary discovers a suicide vest in the garage, and soon after, Toller discovers Michael’s body in a park, head shattered by a self-inflicted shotgun blast. The plot, as they say, thickens; Toller is shown to absorb the dead man’s fear and loathing about the environment and its despoilers (including the corporation that bankrolls Abundant Life, the megachurch that oversees Toller’s church).

Yet I don’t get the sense that the movie becomes about the environment, either, or that Toller becomes fixated on it. He is drawn, I think, to the kind of passion that would resolve itself by a self-extinguishing gesture — something Toller has lacked until now, a vital and bleeding connection to Christ. He is ill and alcoholic and mad with loneliness and despair. He says that a blend of despair and hope produces life, but hope is what he has been missing. So he lunges for someone else’s hope, the hope that one’s life and death will matter, make a difference. In essence it’s the same impulse that drives Travis Bickle to blast through anonymity (to paraphrase Pauline Kael). I have always felt that Travis’ liberation of the teen prostitute Iris was incidental to his real mission, to announce himself to an indifferent world. Same dynamic here. Does Toller really love Christ, or is he just hiding inside the bleak asceticism the religious lifestyle makes possible?

First Reformed has a lot of moving parts (and nods to other directors besides Schrader’s triumvirate, the big one being Ingmar Bergman and his Winter Light), but its emotional/spiritual throughline is plain and simple. Schrader pulls career-best performances out of Hawke, Seyfried, even Cedric the Entertainer (billed here as Cedric Kyles), creating quiet, intense moments the actors can share inside the pinched square of the frame. It’s a rigorous, unadorned film except for two bits between the pastor and the pregnant woman that are sure to be debated as long as there are films and debaters. It’s at these points that Schrader seems to acknowledge the movie-ish tradition he’s a part of, the foundation from which artists can then leap free via surrealism or symbol. As for the other tradition studied here, the Dutch Reformed Church has been home to various people of note over the years, including two presidents, Evel Knievel, and Fred and Mary Trump.

Deadpool 2

Posted August 19, 2018 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: action/adventure, adaptation, comedy, comic-book, sequel

deadpool-negasonic-teenage-warhead-girlfriendThe Deadpool movies are more or less the only superhero films I’ll sit still for these days. Filthy and irreverent, splattering the camera lens arterially with great gusto, these are not remotely elegant examples of what the medium can do, nor are they conceived as such. They’re parties, all winks and grins and farts and jostling elbows. Somehow, despite (or maybe because of) their raunch and gore and in-jokey tone, the movies occasionally achieve real pathos, as in Deadpool 2, when the eponymous anti-hero (Ryan Reynolds) mopes around suicidally after his girlfriend Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) exits the picture early on, or when new antagonist Cable (Josh Brolin), a grim ass-kicker from the future, reveals his true motivation for trying to kill burgeoning, unhappy mutant teen Russell (Julian Dennison).

Some deaths and agonies are a lark; others are to be mourned or avoided. Hypocritical? I prefer to think that Deadpool 2, despite its meta clownishness, has a grasp of conflicting priorities. The plot demands that a bad character not be murdered by a character poised on the line between good and evil; however, there’s nothing saying the bad character can’t die some other way, preferably abruptly and hilariously. That’s not really a spoiler, because at a Deadpool film you know anyone who deserves an ignoble reduction to a fine red mist will get one. Because nothing in the movie is actually real, and because the moviemakers (Reynolds gets a cowriting credit along with original Deadpool scripters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick) know this, there’s a freedom to play, to bend reality.

Director David Leitch (John Wick, Atomic Blonde) uses the CG palette to turn the movie into a roughhouse live-action Looney Tunes romp. It’s easy to create amusing chaos with a character cursed with bad luck, but how about a hero — Domino (Zazie Beetz) — whose superpower is good luck? An entire concussive sequence follows Domino as she casually sidesteps certain death at multiple turns, and it’s a lot funnier than misfortune plaguing someone relentlessly. (Unless it’s the lottery winner in Final Destination 2. Nothing will ever be funnier than that.) Deadpool himself has a healing power that renders him pretty well unkillable, though the same can’t be said for other members of Deadpool’s team X-Force, including regular guy Peter (Rob Delaney) — whose function here is similar to the comically bland human Stu in What We Do in the Shadows — and an invisible hero called the Vanisher, who brings us one of the film’s many cameos, references, and gags. (A subtle one is Deadpool’s fixation on a song from Yentl, a musical by Barbra Streisand, who’s married to Josh Brolin’s dad.) I’m sure I didn’t catch all of them, and Deadpool 2 may well be funnier for viewers who get the joke about “a guy who can’t draw feet” (a common fan complaint about Rob Liefeld, the original Deadpool’s co-creator). But as in Spielberg’s Ready Player One, the fun here doesn’t depend on a grounding in nerd trivia.

Famously, Reynolds hungered for years to play Deadpool, even settling for playing a ridiculously muted version of the character in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Now that he’s on his second outing with the preferred iteration of Deadpool, Reynolds still seems grateful and happy to be a part of this unexpectedly lucrative franchise, which, being a 20th Century Fox enterprise and not helmed by Marvel/Disney (well, until this past July, when Disney slurped up Fox), is off to the side with the X-Men, playing in a goofball backyard far away from Iron Man, Spider-Man, Captain America and the rest. Deadpool seems to take place in a reality where people watch the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies and the DC Universe movies, or maybe it’s just Deadpool, whose powers might include the ability to comment on all entertainment, including that which features himself — or features Ryan Reynolds. (Keep watching through the end credits.)

The movie spreads its fun around; not only white hetero males get to bring the pain. Aside from Domino, there’s the very welcome return of the deadpan-hostile Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand), who turns up with her new girlfriend Yukio (I assume a variation on Yukio from The Wolverine). The casual and, dare I say, mature way the movie handles NTW’s sexuality — there are neither jokes nor hubba-hubba leering — is refreshing and good-hearted. And despite all its hip mayhem, directed both at anonymous thugs and at well-thumbed pulp tropes, Deadpool 2 is also good-hearted. It doesn’t strike me as nihilistic or even cynical (the way some parts of the Kick-Ass movies and, God knows, their source comics did). It doesn’t want to punish you for enjoying the boomies and the splats and such spectacles as an enormous prisoner-transport vehicle tearing through cars like a bullet through wet Kleenex. It just wants to have a disreputable doofus good time and share it with us.

Madeline’s Madeline

Posted August 11, 2018 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: art-house, drama

MadelinesMadelineThose of you whose craving for experimental actors flailing around wasn’t quite sated by Who’s Crazy might want to discover Madeline’s Madeline. An elliptical art-house film, the third such effort by writer/director Josephine Decker, the movie centers on a difficult girl, Madeline (Helena Howard), who has fallen in with a New York theatrical troupe. The group’s director Evangeline (Molly Parker) keeps asking her players — all of whom except sixteen-year-old Madeline are adults — to express their inner pigs or cats or turtles while circling around a vague theme that always seems to be changing.

Madeline, who has a history of mental illness, butts heads often with her brittle mom Regina (Miranda July), who’s a bit overprotective and knows less and less what to make of her daughter the older Madeline gets. At one point, at a gathering at Evangeline’s house, Madeline confides in Evangeline’s nonplussed partner that she’s thinking of losing her virginity for her seventeenth birthday. The movie is made up of awkward interactions like that, and there’s one sequence near the end, when Madeline is encouraged to act out the part of her impatient mother while Regina sits watching in agony, that practically demands we avert our eyes in discomfort.

Is Madeline’s Madeline enjoyable? It took me a good while, maybe half an hour, to get used to its diffuse style — Ashley Connor’s cinematography takes us very close in and glides in and out of focus — and its emphasis on shrill, bouncing acting exercises, which I generally find embarrassing. Gradually, though, a portrait coalesces out of jagged pieces, of a girl casting about for a self. Who is Madeline? A daughter? An actor? A student (she goes to regular school, where we hear that kids make fun of her, but we never see her there)? Who is her real mother — Regina or Evangeline? The theater director always seems on the verge of flipping into a cult leader, but it turns out she’s just trying to hold everything together — her theater project, her life, her marriage. The evident fact that Evangeline is more or less based on Josephine Decker does not escape notice.

Most of the critical attention has focused on Helena Howard as Madeline, as well it should — hers is a guileless, open performance hungry for revelation. That climactic bit Madeline does about her mother is like a lightning bolt of clarity slashing through a humid fog of repressed, ignored emotion. It’s also something of a centerpiece, an actor’s moment handed to Howard on a platter, and she runs with it. The movie is completely an actors’ film, built to be warmly hospitable to its players — though with efforts like this, you never can tell if Decker, like Evangeline, is running all sorts of vulnerability games meant to extract raw truth from an actor like a rotten tooth out of a suffering jaw. Howard is obliged to spit out a few such teeth, not without emotional blood. The true test will be how well she aligns with a film not so snugly fashioned to her particular set of skills. (Though, please, keep her clear of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.)

If your first response to oblique films like this when the end credits roll is “Will someone tell me what that was about?,” you should probably give Madeline’s Madeline a wide berth. Even I, who perhaps has more patience than most for artsy doodling, sighed and checked my watch once or twice. But if you enjoy the soft-grained, difficult, probing nature of Decker’s film — and I did, for the most part — it pays off in quiet, almost peripheral ways. The various problems of the characters don’t lead to drama or even resolution; they just add to the fabric of the piece and give the actors something to work with. The ending might be ambiguously happy, Decker’s way of saying she’d be gratified if her art got out of her control and became its own thing. The last shot expresses freedom while literally leaving us behind to think about it.

The Last Temptation of Christ

Posted August 5, 2018 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: adaptation, drama, one of the year's best

lasttemptation_89_033_current_mediumEnough, I think, was written about the controversy over The Last Temptation of Christ when it opened thirty years ago this August 12. If it’s all the same to you, I’d rather skip all that, except to say that the outrage showed a thunderous lack of understanding of context and of literary inquiry. The movie, and its source novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, imagined a Christ confronted on the cross by an angel (Satan) who offers him escape into the life of a normal man, a life with wives and children and, yes, lovemaking. Christ’s agonized mind turns this possibility over at length — the possibility of simple human contentment — until finally he realizes and embraces his literally God-given role, and finds himself back on the cross, radiantly happy as he passes from life into legend.

Last Temptation is director Martin Scorsese’s act of cinematic worship, the movie he had hungered to make since boyhood. Of course, most of his films have that stream of Catholic blood and guilt running through them. Again and again in Scorsese’s work we see men (he has never, with a couple of exceptions, been interested enough in women to put them front and center) sinning yet yearning for redemption, or at least respect or peace or a point at which they can rest assured that “it is accomplished,” whatever it may be. The movie is imperfect — its colloquial dialogue and casting of homely urban types and musicians (hey, John Lurie! hello, Victor Argo!) as the apostles bring it, at times, perilously close to camp. But it doesn’t need to be perfect.

Much of the movie’s soul can be traced to the long and many disputatious talks between Jesus (Willem Dafoe) and Judas (Harvey Keitel). Dafoe seems to be experiencing the same insecurity and fear playing Jesus as Jesus himself feels — Dafoe and Jesus both have to grow into their roles. Keitel, for his part, approaches Judas with the same spiritual anguish he brought to The Piano and Bad Lieutenant. In this telling, Judas is merely the guy who has to embrace his intolerable role, the betrayer, so that God’s plan for Jesus can proceed. Late in the film, when the elderly former friends meet again in Jesus’ mortal bedroom, Keitel makes us feel the betrayal Judas feels — he has betrayed his master as ordered, only to see that act of love rendered meaningless when Jesus chooses the life of a man. We first see these two together when Judas is chastising Jesus the carpenter for building crosses for the Romans. Here is a Jesus in need of redemption.

Dafoe and Keitel, and also Barbara Hershey (who gave the book to Scorsese in the first place) as the Magdalene, get to run the gamut of inflamed, wounded emotion. The rest of the cast, eclectic to say the least, sometimes falters in the face of the moment’s importance — some of them, we gather, like the late Call frontman Michael Been, are there out of their own Christian passion. And then David Bowie swans into the picture as Pontius Pilate, unimpressed with what Pilate clearly sees as (sigh) yet another Jewish troublemaker, and the conception and almost comically perfect casting transcend camp (even with Pilate’s deathless, amazing line “We have a space for you up on Golgotha”) and achieve a kind of show-biz nirvana. Bowie takes his few minutes of the film away from Jesus and Scorsese and suavely tucks them in his pocket.

The filmmaking here, though rushed and on the cheap, is a hot stew of influences; Peter Gabriel’s sometimes alarming world-music score, Michael Ballhaus’ savagely unadorned photography of a dusty and near-uninhabitable land, Thelma Schoonmaker’s gliding and intuitive editing — all of it coalesces into a cinematic essay about the violence and chaos, and also the vitality and urgency, of worldly life, the solace Jesus must renounce — the heat and hard dirt floors, the cool fleshly comforts. This renunciation would be meaningless if it were too easy and did not come freighted with self-doubt and conflicting desires. Scorsese manages to make us feel what pulls Jesus towards normality, what he has to give up. We do not see the resurrection; instead, at the climax, the very celluloid itself seems to rupture, shudder, flare into a blood-red death. How else would a director equally indebted to Christ and cinema end such an inquiry?

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