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The first sound film made about the life of Jesus Christ, although it only covers Palm Sunday, the Passion, and the Resurrection. See more »
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Eight years after Cecil B. DeMille's definitive silent film about the life of Christ, The King of Kings, Julien Duvivier brought Jesus back to cinema screens. The difference between the two films, however, is far greater than mere language. The King of Kings typifies the stagey pseudo-piety that has typified most American cinematic Christs, whereas Golgotha like Pasolini's more widely known Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo (Gospel According to Matthew) captures something deeper, mysterious and more spiritual with its simpler feel.
That is not to say that Golgotha has not been done a grand scale. The opening scenes of Jesus's triumphal entry into Jerusalem are as vast as anything Hollywood has had to offer us; but the scene also typifies the difference. Jesus is almost entirely absent from it. Yet, even without subtitles or a knowledge of French it is clear what is happening. Duvivier teases the audience showing the hustle and bustle of the crowd, the Pharisee's discussing what has been going on, the action at a distance, and even a shot of the crowd from Jesus's point of view as he passes through, but delaying showing us Christ himself.
When Jesus (played by Robert Le Vigan) finally does appear, over ten minutes into the film, it is at a distance, and shot from a low angle. He is almost obscured by his disciples, and there is a moment of confusion as to whether this is really he. The effect is to give the viewer the impression of actually being there, and discovering Jesus for the first time.
Inside the temple Duvivier delivers the finest sequence in the entire film, and one of the most memorable scenes in any Jesus film to date, as Jesus drives out the money-changers. The sequence culminates in a single long take, over 30 seconds long which is the most impressive of them all. The camera tracks through the palisades of the temple in Jesus's wake, straining to catch up with him as he zigzags from stall to stall.
Like Jesus Christ Superstar, and to a greater extent the most recent Jesus film - Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ - Golgotha returns to the roots of the Jesus film genre and focuses on the immediate events leading up to Jesus's death. Hence the majority of the dialogue focuses on the political machinations both within the Sanhedrin, and between the Jewish leaders and Pilate. The centrepiece of the film is arguably the conversation between Pilate (played by French star Jean Gabin) and Jesus, culminating in the former declaring "Ecce Homo" (behold the man), which was actually the original title for the film.
What is surprising is that despite this being the first Jesus film with sound, Duvivier focuses on these conversations, many of them fictional, and ignores nearly all of Jesus's teaching.
Duvivier emphasises the mystery around Jesus, and as a whole his divinity is presented very well. As noted above this starts with the mystery around his entry into Jerusalem not only the way it is filmed but that the scene where Jesus is hailed as a king forms one of the bookends for the film. It sets the tone of this man being someone special. The vast crowd adds to the effect. Perhaps the most obvious device used is the miraculous events that are included. By restricting itself to the events of Passion Week the screenplay truncates a good source of the accounts of miraculous happenings around the life of Christ. Given how other films have included these and converted them into kitsch set pieces then this may very well be deliberate.
Instead of these grand spectacles Duvivier again presents three beautifully understated events, but invests them with a deep sense of transcendence. Incredibly, the first does not occur right up until Jesus's arrest. Even then Duvivier shuns the more crowd pleasing healing of Malchus's ear in favour of the obscure words of John 18:6. As Jesus identifies himself as the man the soldiers seek he simply says "I am he". John then records that as he did so the soldiers "drew back and fell to the ground" (RSV). Duvivier shows a range of responses, with some soldiers falling, and others remaining upright, but he films it so astonishingly that it somehow captures the truly phenomenal nature of such an event.
One of the flaws with The Passion of the Christ was that it failed to round out the Roman soldiers who sadistically inflicted so much suffering during the films two hours. Despite a shorter run time, Golgotha imparts the relevant scenes with a far greater degree of realism than The Passion, capturing, as it does, the sadism, but also the underlying insecurity, that drives such bullying. Harry Baur's Herod typifies the approach. Herod's ruthless mocking is interspersed by subtler indications that he is desperately trying to gain the approval of his all-too-pliant courtiers.
Duvivier also uses these scenes to commentate on the very real political events of that time. As the soldiers beat and ridicule Christ one of them mockingly salutes him with his arm fully aloft in a manner clearly reminiscent of the fascist and Nazi salutes. Golgotha (dangerously) challenges an ideology in such a way that it embodies the risky and prophetic spirit of its central character.
As with the earlier scene in Gethsemane, Duvivier manages to get the resurrection just right, skilfully combining the early accounts in Luke (the woman at the tomb, and the road to Emmaus) with the later events in John (appearance amongst the disciples, Thomas, and Peter's restoration). There is also something special about the first appearance of the risen Jesus as he materialises in the middle of the upper room. It is simple and effective, yet it also manages to capture the otherness of it.
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