by Bonnie Anderson and Dan Webster
It was a shock to see the subtitle—A Story of the Christ—in the opening credits of this movie. But then the opening image of a huge crucifix was a bit of a surprise, too.
In none of the ads or trailers for this film did the subtitle appear. The expectation is a normal Coen brothers “spoofalogue” in the vein of ‘Oh Brother Where Art Thou’. There is some of that, for sure. But religious imagery and direct dialogue raise some very significant moments for an audience of people of faith.
There’s the obvious homage to Hollywood big number films reminiscent of Gene Kelly dance scenes and Esther Williams’ water ballet movies. And there’s another look, in typical Coen fashion, of Hollywood’s “Red scare” with a cell of writers that includes a character named Professor Marcuse a likely reference to the left wing philosophy professor in the late 60s and early 70s at the University of California, San Diego.
This great cast—George Clooney, Josh Brolin, Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Robert Picardo and Frances McDormand—is so good. Even if you get lost in which plot you’re following these actors take you for a joyride.
But people of faith will be especially interested in (Brolin) the head of the movie studio’s frequent trips to the confessional; his praying the Rosary; his meeting with clergy to discuss the plan to tell the story of Christ through the eyes of a Roman military officer.
So there’s a kidnapping, and a ransom, and a nosey Hollywood gossip columnist (or two both played by Swinton) to entertain you while you get to the finishing scene of the movie Clooney is making about the Christ. Of course those who remember Richard Burton in ‘The Robe’ (1953) might be disappointed in this version of Jesus through the eyes of a Roman soldier. But Clooney’s reaction to meeting Jesus and his final scene at the foot of the cross are really quite moving.
Yes, this is a Coen brothers’ movie so you won’t get to be moved very long before they’ll take a quick turn. But Clooney’s soliloquy staring at the crucified Christ—who we never see—may be one of the best sermons Hollywood has ever put on film. It might be second only to Karl Malden’s in ‘On the Waterfront.’
See this movie for fun but don’t be surprised if a gospel message jumps out at you along the way.
Bonnie Anderson is a very active lay leader in her parish, diocese and in the wider Episcopal Church. She is an experienced community organizer and lives in suburban Detroit. Dan Webster is an Episcopal priest in Baltimore, Maryland and a former broadcast news executive. But don’t expect only east coast urban perspectives here. As it turns out, they both grew up in Southern California. They blog about films and faith at Faith Reels