Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Robe

The Robe (1953), like the last film Ben-Hur, is the story of a man who lived in the time of Jesus and was radically changed by his experience with Jesus.  But where Judah Ben-Hur witnessed both Jesus’ life and death, the Roman soldier Marcellus (Richard Burton) in The Robe begins his story with the death of Jesus, which he is assigned to oversee.  He is the soldier who won Jesus’ robe in a dice game after the crucifixion.  Afterwards, the robe appears to have some sort of spiritual power to cause Marcellus great pain or guilt, so he gets rid of it.  When, a year or so later, he sees the loving behavior of those who follower Jesus’ teachings, he is convinced he was wrong to allow the crucifixion and converts to Christianity.  The emperor Caligula fears this Christian sect, and is angered by their refusal to acknowledge the him (and Rome) as the highest authority - Caligula views Christians as traitors.  When Marcellus refuses to abandon Christianity, claiming that he can be loyal to both Rome and Jesus, Caligula apparently sentences Marcellus and his girlfriend Diana to death, which is portrayed as Marcellus and Diana walking out a door into a sea of white fluffy clouds.

There are so many problems with this movie.  Really, like, a lot.  

I’ll begin with the representation of Jesus, which is the purpose of this series.  Jesus is on screen for very little time - we basically only see him entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, then a scene later he is walking to his death and put up on the cross.  The crucifixion here is an important plot point on which Marcellus’ story hinges, but is not the focus of the movie.  As such, Jesus is shown dutifully, but not substantially.  The image of Jesus that is more important is image of him we see in his followers - a loving, peaceful people who are persecuted for apparently no reason.  

It is what this movie does in its portrayal of those influenced by Jesus that I do not like, and the historical details in particular are fairly horrendous.  One man is converted on the spot when looking at Jesus enter Jerusalem, claiming things like, “Only his eyes spoke...”  Something about these moments make me feel like Jesus is more like a magician than the Son of God.  

There was one almost laughable scene after Jesus’ death when Marcellus encounters a man on the street, obviously emotionally distressed, who says he should tell people to believe, before running off.  He says before he goes that his name is Judas (accompanied by loud music and thunderclaps), and exits up stairs leading to a gnarled dead tree.  While I did like the visual cue of the tree implying Judas’ imminent suicide, as soon as I realized that this was Judas, wracked with guilt and claiming people should believe in Jesus, I just thought, “You can’t do that.  You can’t just take a vital character to the Jesus narrative and invent feelings and words that you don’t know he had.”  This was slightly different in Ben-Hur when we see Pontius Pilate a few times because those encounters were not offering much insight into his character - they were more anecdotal coincidences.  This struck me more as a serious mistreatment of history and as just one of many attempts to manipulate the audiences emotions.

Meanwhile, even though the “Christians” in the movie are loving and understanding of the importance of their messiah’s sacrifice, Marcellus is driven for a bit almost entirely by guilt.  When he put on Christ’s robe for the first time, he convulsed in pain, and I could imagine the robe was essentially whispering in his’ ear, “Look what you did to me!  I’m Jesus!  And you killed me!  Don’t you just feel so terrible about yourself now?!”  Richard Burton’s over-the-top, exaggerated pain gestures do not help the case much.  I was able to excuse the style of acting of older films in Ben-Hur, but it is more difficult to hear.  People do not cry, they sob and heave and grit their teeth.  People do not get injured, they writhe in excruciating agony.  Even the more positive emotions struck me as a bit too much - the Christians were not just kind and generous, but grateful to be crippled, and almost simple-minded when trying to understand their persecution and low place in Roman society.  (Perhaps this is what Christians are supposed to act like, but it did not seem like a very organic result of their faith in Jesus, more like a wistful dreamy show of faith.)  

But let’s talk about that persecution of Christians for a minute.  Marcellus encountered these people just a year or so after the crucifixion.  At this time, there were no Christians.  It was not a thing that people could be.  There were some Jews and some Gentiles who knew who Jesus was, and followed his teachings.  But the Gospels had not been written yet.  Paul had not yet begun his ministry.  There was no such thing as a clearly identifiable religion called “Christianity.”  And what’s more, if there was a defined group of these Jesus-followers, Caligula was not the emperor who ordered their deaths.  One scene showed Roman soldiers shooting arrows without cause into a crowd.  This was not the work of Caligula.  That’s more like the behavior of Nero, and even then, the persecution and martyrdom of Christians was the exception, not the rule.  

But these details do not matter so much because in this movie the point is that Rome is bad.  Rome does not want you to be a Christian.  Even the opening shots of the film, showing the slave trade in the middle of Rome itself seem designed to make us think, “This is a bad place because they sell and own people, which we now know is morally wrong.  This is not the side I should be rooting for.”  

There are some nice moments, as when Marcellus gives a young boy a donkey as a gift, and discovers that boy had re-gifted it to his crippled friend for transportation.  But these moments are not plentiful enough to rise above some of the oddities - there is a sword-fight for two that seem too, I think the correct word would be swashbuckling to feel natural in Rome or Nazareth.  Maybe it’s right for Robin Hood or a pirate ship, but not here.  

But ultimately I simply could not get over the fact that this whole story seems to depend on a really severe guilt trip.  The author of the novel says he wrote it to ask what happened to the soldier who won Christ’s robe.  Apparently the answer this film has is that he was wracked with guilt and converted to kindness to assuage that guilt.  I just don’t believe that is how Christianity works.  I don’t think that system of guilt-repentance-guilt-repentance on a seeming loop is the way a relationship with Christ should operate.  Sure we sin, we confess, we repent, we try not to do it again.  But there’s more too it than that, and while Marcellus does seem to reach a point of total change, the way he gets there seemed strange to me - and considering this is a movie to be watched by an audience, that guilt trip extends to them as well.  I don’t think a movie about the role that Jesus plays in our lives should serve to make an audience feel worse about themselves, but better.  And the assurance at the end that if we stick to our guns, we’ll be rewarded in heaven with awesome cloud shoes is ultimately unsatisfying, since we’ve still got to live our lives on earth for a while.  Unless we choose martyrdom like Marcellus and Diana did...but I suppose being executed isn’t all that bad since they skipped that part in the movie and went straight to the part about walking on clouds.

The Robe has flawed theology, seriously inaccurate history, and a disrespect for the secular cultures in which we live.  But hey, look on the bright side, at least we get to feel bad about ourselves for killing Jesus, right?  

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