Category: Christian film

Au Hasard Balthasar (1966)

Au Hasard Balthasar (1966)

Bresson uses an animal to make a powerful spiritual point in a simple but insightful movie

Director: Robert Bresson

Cast: Anne Wiazemsky (Marie), Walter Green (Jacques), François Lafarge (Gérard), Philippe Asselin (Marie’s father), Nathalie Joyaut (Marie’s mother), Jean-Claude Guilbert (Arnold), Pierre Klossowski (Miller), Jean-Joel Barbier (Priest), François Sullerot (Baker), Marie-Claire Fremont (Baker’s wife)

Robert Bresson valued naturalism in his actors above all things. So much so he would make them rehearse even the simplest actions hundreds of times, to drain all artificiality and performance from it and make it as ‘real’ and controlled as possible. He worked best with non-professional actors, whose lack of training meant there was one less barrier of artifice for him to break down. So, its perhaps not a surprise that one of his best collaborators, in one of his finest films, was such a non-professional he wasn’t even human. He was a donkey.

Au Hasard Balthasar (or Balthasar, at random) also throws in Bresson’s other great strength: a profound, but not overbearing, spirituality, a mark of Christian faith that turned simple stories told on an intimate scale into searching and intriguing metaphors for the human condition. He achieves something quite remarkable here, with a film that places a donkey near its centre but then becomes a meditation on the human condition and our capacity for cruelty and selfishness. And the donkey himself becomes a passive, Christ like figure, undergoing his very own passion on the way to his own Calvary where he will literally die because of – and maybe for – our sins.

Balthasar’s life is one of seemingly random, disconnected movements from one owner to another, all of whose lives loosely entwine. First, the kindly Marie (Anne Wiazemsky) who, as a child, adopts Balthasar and brings him into her home. This blissful life lasts a short time before the donkey is palmed off to farmhands then a baker whose delivery boy Gérard (François Lafarge) is a tearaway and criminal. Gérard treats the animal poorly – largely because he envies Marie’s love for it. They enter into an abusive relationship, while Balthasar is taken on by alcoholic Arnold (Jean-Claude Guilbert) who uses him to guide tourists up the Pyrenees. Balthasar works as a circus animal and a beast of exhausting labour for a miller, while in the background the threat of Gérard and his malign influence on Anne and his abuse of Balthasar lurk.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Au Hasard Balthasar is how readily Bresson embraces the nature of the donkey. Balthasar is never anything other than a dumb animal. He has no insight into what is happening around him. Instead, he stands passively chewing. He only rarely seems to recognise and respond to people. Events happen to and around him, but there is no attempt to show them having any impact on him. He is – and remains – simply a donkey, incapable of anything other than what a donkey can do. Bresson allows not a second of anthropomorphism. Babe this isn’t.

Instead, what happens to this donkey tells us more about the humans he encounters around him. This gives us a stunning insight into humanity and how we treat those below us. To most the donkey is not a person or even a creature, it is just a tool. As the miller says, it will be worked until it can work no more and then it will be euthanised. Gérard sees it as a petty scab to pick, a chance for a bit of casual sadistic fun, tying fire-crackers to its tail and watching its distress. The closest to a companion he has, outside of Marie, is Arnold – and even Arnold works him incessantly and drags him back to servitude from a brief release at the circus.

What Bresson does with this, is invest this donkey’s story with immense spiritual impact. The events that happen to Balthasar parallel the stages of the cross, moments of tenderness from strangers and friends mixed with labours dragging his own cross and the mockery of those who watch him. He’s met with indifference and disregard so many times, that his suffering eventually seems to be providing some sort of chance of retribution for the deeply flawed characters around him, that by treating him well the might save their own souls. Instead, Gérard will drag him over the border carrying smuggled goods and he will, uncomplainingly, suffer the punishment for him.

We can but hope that it is to give Gérard a second chance. But I doubt it. Bresson’s impact with his actors, beating the ‘acting’ out of them gives them a flat naturalness – but also allows us to layer our own feelings on top of them. Gérard is a choir boy with an angelic voice – but he’s also a selfish sadomasochist and a bully, charismatic but naturally cruel. Nevertheless, he has a demonic charm. The baker’s wife willingly covers him his theft and showers him with gifts.

And of course, Marie is drawn towards him with self-destructive yearning. She should love her childhood friend Jacques, but he’s a dull, uninspiring, sap. Gérard is rough, tough, wears a leather jacket and can sing like an angel and (you imagine) cuss like a demon. Their first encounter sees Marie torn between fear, fascination and attraction, as a roadside encounter leads to a sexual encounter in a car that has the whiff of lack of consent. Despite this, Marie returns again and again to Gérard, throwing away parts of her life and family to hang on his arm.

It’s only Balthasar it seems she can connect with. Perhaps because they are both sacrificial figures. Marie’s father loses his farm due to pride and stubbornness. She devotes herself to a bad man and rejects the one who idealises an idea of her. Marie’s motives defy logic to us – but maybe this is because she is closest to the donkey and, like him, content (condemned?) to lead a life where she is buffeted by events and people rather than controlling them.

Bresson plays this all out with a quiet, unfussy, contained camera, playing shots out in controlled takes and carefully selecting moments to cut to Balthasar. He avoids moral judgements but presents actions as they are. After all, shouldn’t a miller work a donkey hard? Shouldn’t a baker need him to walk miles? Don’t we go to the circus or zoo all the time and not think about the animals performing for us? Things are presented as they are and we are not pushed towards one view or another.

Except at the end as Balthasar makes his final sacrifice, lying down on his personal Calvary as Schubert plays on the soundtrack (the film’s only real sustained use of music). Quietly, life drains from this animal as sheep flock around him as if to pay tribute. It’s profoundly simple but somehow intensely moving – as if the pointless culmination of this life somehow sees the donkey transcend into something higher and more meaningful, and eternal symbol of virtue and sacrifice.

It’s what makes Au Hasard Balthasar linger in the memory. Bresson’s signature simpleness and restraint, his deliberate, observatory distance from characters and events leave it open to us to interpret what we will. Maybe it’s just a story about a dumb animal. Maybe it’s a story about all of us, about how we exploit things around us and how we treat each other with selfishness and greed. Eventually Bresson leaves it up to us to decide what we can take from it.

Tender Mercies (1983)

Tender Mercies (1983)

Quiet, contemplative and almost wilfully undramatic, Duvall wins an Oscar in this gently moving soul-searching film

Director: Bruce Beresford

Cast: Robert Duvall (Mac Sledge), Tess Harper (Rosa Lee), Betty Buckley (Dixie), Wilford Brimley (Harry), Ellen Barkin (Sue Anne), Allan Hubbard (Sonny), Lenny Von Dohlen (Robert), Paul Gleason (Reporter)

The music industry can be cruel. It’s bought out the self-destructive traits in Mac Sledge (Robert Duvall), a Country and Western singer whose career collapsed into alcoholism. Estranged from his wife Dixie (Betty Buckley) and a stranger to his daughter Sue Anne (Ellen Barkin), Mac finds himself crashing, penniless, in a rundown motel in Texas. Paying for his bed and board with labour, Mac falls in love with and marries the motel owner, widow Rosa Lee (Tess Harper) and becomes stepfather to her young son Sonny (Allan Hubbard). Mac quits the bottle and turns his life around, living quietly and determined to become a new man.

Tender Mercies is a slice-of-life film. It aims to present an ordinary man, facing challenges and struggling with demons. But in many ways, it’s quite remarkable. There can be few dramas that so consciously avoid drama. In Tender Mercies the expected fireworks and dramatic tentpole moments never happen. Events that in other films would have been “for your consideration” scenes or so underplayed they almost pass you by, or don’t even feature in the film. Mac and Rosa Lee’s courtship is made up of small, quiet conversations on the sofa. The proposal is a polite, softy spoken request. The wedding isn’t even shown.

This is a film that lets events play out with the random disconnectedness of real life. Characters from Mac’s past life drift in and drift out of the story with the unpredictability of reality rather than the construct of scriptwriters. Horton Foote’s Oscar-winning script is written in soft, quiet moments of silence, tenderness and quiet decency. It’s a film that wants to embrace classic, Southern values. Where religion, modesty and keeping your word are pivotal. Kindness, reserve and a lack of exhibition are traits widely praised. It’s a celebration of letting the ‘tender mercies’ of faith into your life and letting them define how you respond to the world and events around you.

It can feel like very little happens. But this is largely the point. That’s what life is like. Mac decides to change his life and knuckles down and does it. Rosa Lee trusts him to keep his word. Temptations and moments of anger are rare, and events are usually met with a suppressed acceptance. You could argue that Mac is emotionally repressed – that perhaps he associates emotional expression with the wildness that clearly plagued his early life of drink and violence – but also perhaps it is intrinsic in his stoic character. In the broader scheme of life – and in this faith-tinged world – accepting the rough with the smooth is a duty.

Robert Duvall won an Oscar for this, and he is at the heart of the film’s quietness, gentleness and lack of demonstrance. Duvall is so quietly restrained he masters the technique of doing a lot while seeming to do very little. He is softly spoken and carries much of his emotion behind his eyes. Mac does little that is conventionally dramatic, but constantly Duvall lets his face, body and the careful soulfulness of those majestic eyes convey great regret, guilt and tragedy. Duvall’s Mac is gentle, but with the careful determination of a man determined to keep his second chance alive. There is a weary sadness at him, a longing for emotional connection that he struggles to express. And few actors would be willing to embrace a part so low on emotional fireworks. Even when tragedy strikes, Duvall remains quietly restrained.

He’s the perfect lead for this Chekovian conversation piece, well filmed by Bruce Beresford. Beresford brings a marvellous visual sense for the wide-open spaces of Texas and a perfect empathy for the observational, careful balance of the film’s narrative. It’s a film made up of events taking place in long and medium shot, filmed with natural lighting. Beresford encourages all the actors to gently underplay and lets his camera observe without flash and flair, letting the deceptively simple set-ups focus on the emotions.

It’s a film about a quiet quest for happiness – but also a wary suspicion of the pain and guilt life can bring. The fear that happiness can lead to loss and pain. Its why Mac has placed such a premium on stoicism. It’s an attempt by a fragile man to emotionally protect himself. He silently longs for a bond with his daughter, played with a wonderful little-girl-lost quality by Ellen Barkin, and struggles with the responsibility for the unhappiness he has caused his ex-wife Dixie (a more overtly fragile Betty Buckley). Happiness might not be what you expect – jubilant music and an explosion of joy – but quietly finding a contentment.

And contentment is embodied here by Rosa Lee, played with dignity and rectitude by Tess Harper. Rosa Lee is gentle, understanding and in many ways defined by her faith of forgiveness and second chances. She represents the rebirth that starts the film – which opens with a drunk Mac crashing to the floor – and is the lodestone around which the plot rotates, the fixed-point Mac needs in his life. Duvall and Harper have a fabulous chemistry and fully commit to the honesty at the film’s heart.

Tender Mercies is a honest short story expanded into a thoughtful and (in its way) brave film. It veers towards silence where other films would hit noise. It presents inaction and acceptance where other films would pick melodrama. It centres a still, calm continuation of events over fireworks. Duvall is central to this, an affecting performance of immense complexity under a stoic exterior, all framed around Beresford’s reflective shooting style.

It’s lazy to say this is “old fashioned” – no 40s film would be as uneventful and restrained as this – instead this feels like a final flourish of 70s filmmaking, a late burst of Malick-style American romanticism and poetry. Perhaps that’s why it was surprisingly nominated for multiple Oscars. And why it carries a quietly hypnotic power.

Through a Glass Darkly (1961)

Through a Glass Darkly (1961)

Faith, family and femininity are put to the test in Bergman’s bleak meditation on religion and love

Director: Ingmar Bergman

Cast: Harriet Andersson (Karin), Gunnar Björnstrand (David), Max von Sydow (Martin), Lars Passgård (Minus)

Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly marks a new era in the Master’s filmography. It was the first of three thematically connected films about faith and religion (although you could argue The Virgin Spring really makes this a quartet). It saw Bergman make a firm commitment to seemingly theatrical chamber pieces, with small, focused casts of trusted collaborators handling complex (joke-free) and searching themes. It was also first of his films set on Fårö, a place that would become so associated with him it would effectively be rechristened Bergman Island.

Through a Glass Darkly (Bergman’s second consecutive Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Picture) is a brooding, intense chamber piece set entirely in a house and beachside jetty on Fårö. It’s a family reunion. Author David (Gunnar Björnstrand) returns to Sweden from Switzerland to see his children. They are 17-year old son and aspiring writer Minus (Lars Passgård) and Karin (Harriet Andersson), now married to respected older doctor Martin (Max von Sydow). The real purpose of the gathering is to monitor the recovery of Karin, a schizophrenic whose condition has (without her knowledge) been declared inoperable. Karin is drawn to obey the commands of voices only she hears which she believes emanate from an abandoned bedroom, covered in cracked wallpaper. There she believes God calls for her to join him on the other side of the wall.

There is much to admire about Through a Glass Darkly, not least the striking, haunting, cinematography of Sven Nykvist. In a film that takes place on an almost silent island – there is no music, other than a few bars of Bach on the soundtrack, and barely any natural sound, so much so that a late arrival of a helicopter seems (deliberately) like an almost demonic visitor – light becomes the main force. It beats down from the sun, wraps across rooms, seems to transform spaces in front of an eye (there is a beautiful stationary shot of it flooding an abandoned boat where Minus and Karin sit in shocked horror). It picks out every feature of the scarred wallpaper in Karin’s room and casts searching shadows and stark, interrogative beams across the character’s faces.

It greatly expands both the intensity and claustrophobia of a challenging chamber piece, exquisitely directed by Bergman. The acting of the four leads – three trusted collaborators and a newcomer – is faultless. Andersson, in particular, tackles an almost impossibly difficult character who we first meet as a carefree young woman and leave as a huddled, shattered figure hiding from the light behind sunglasses. Andersson’s raw and searching performance avoids all overblown histrionics, becoming a detailed and compassionate study of a woman losing control over her actions. Bergman holds the camera on her for long takes, while Andersson lets a multitude of emotions play across her face.

Björnstrand is equally impressive as a (disparaging) Bergman stand-in, an artist neglecting his children in a quest for perfection, coldly distant to others, guilty at his selfishness (at one point he excuses himself to privately weep at his inadequacy as a father, then returns unchanged) but quite happy to take what he can from his family to use in novels. von Sydow takes a quietly restrained role as a sombre, somewhat dour man, hopelessly in love with his wife but clearly little more to her (and he accepts this) than a surrogate father. Passgård more than matches them as a depressed teenager, yearning for approval and frustrated at learning how difficult life is.

Bergman’s family follows this complex and challenging family, which becomes a filter for understanding if love is where God is in our world. The family is distant and uncommunicative with each other – the opening scene sees them laughingly return from a swim, but the second any of them split into pairs for conversations, resentments about the others come bubbling out. Is any love here real or performative? And if it’s performative, where is love and therefore where is God?

In this world, has Karin’s schizophrenia may have emerged as an attempt to insert an acceptable love that is otherwise missing from her life. Her father is a cold-fish, who immediately announces at their reunion dinner he will soon leave for Yugoslavia, then produces a series of gifts “from Switzerland” all too obviously purchased at an airport and unsuitable for the recipient (such as gloves that don’t fit Karin). Her husband overflows with desire for her, but she can hardly raise a flicker of interest in him sexually and behaves him with more like an affectionate daughter.

The most affection filled relationship she has is also the most inappropriate. She and Minus have a relationship of physical intimacy, and she kisses and strokes him with an affection that from the start feels uncomfortably close. They confide in each other emotionally in a way they never would do with others, and Minus is the first witness of one of her schizophrenic breaks, invited by her to view the room she believes is a passageway to God. This unhealthy intensity builds, through confidences and whispered confessions into a terrible encounter in a ruined boat, where Karin is commanded by her voices to seduce Minus into crossing a terrible line.

Perhaps this is a search for love and meaning “to see but through a glass darkly” as St Paul wrote. Karin is searching endlessly for love – and therefore God – but her search seems fruitless. Her family only slowly adjust, she shatters her closest relationship and eventually even her visions in her wallpapered room tip into nightmares. Bergman never lets us see the visions Karin witnesses or hear the voices she does (this places more pressure on Andersson whose controlled and measured performance is more than capable of delivering on) but we see all the traumatic impact on her as they prove as incapable of delivering confirmation of love in her world as anything else.

It’s surprising, for a film which starts as a family drama and becomes a quietly nihilistic drama, that Bergman ends on a moment of hope as David and Minus share a moment of closeness. Bergman later said he regretted this, and the moment does feel forced at the end of a downbeat drama. It may be a reflection of the fact that Through a Glass Darkly, intriguing as it is, is perhaps a little too serious and leans a little too heavily into artistic intensity. It lacks the touches of warmth, hope and humanity that makes Wild Strawberries a masterpiece and at times hits its notes of intense brooding a little too hard (its more or less from here that the Gloomy Swede label stuck).

It’s frequently an artistic triumph, but in some ways I find it less complete than other Bergmans. It’s exploration of its themes of faith and love don’t always coalesce quite as sharply as I would wish. It strains a little too much for profound importance at the cost of some of its humanity and the characters – brilliantly performed as they are – feel a little too much like puppets in the hands of God-like Bergman, going as and when according to his needs. But then, a Bergman film that doesn’t quite make it, would be the crowning achievement of other directors – and Through a Glass Darkly haunts the mind, turning over and over again in your thoughts, for days after you’ve seen it.

The Virgin Spring (1960)

The Virgin Spring (1960)

Revenge, violence but also a touch of hope abound in Bergman’s haunting Oscar winning classic

Director: Ingmar Bergman

Cast: Max von Sydow (Töre), Birgitta Valberg (Märeta), Gunnel Lindblom (Ingeri), Birgitta Pettersson (Karin), Axel Düberg (Thin Herdsman), Tor Isedal (Mute Herdsman), Axel Slangus (Bridge-keeper), Allan Edwall (Beggar), Ove Porath (Boy)

Spoilers: If you can spoil a Bergman classic, the full content of the film is discussed below

If a film cemented Bergman as the master of misery, it was his Oscar-winning The Virgin Spring. On the surface, a grim fable of rape revenge shot in wintery horror, it’s hard to imagine most people nerving themselves to watch it based on a synopsis. But they would be missing out. The Virgin Spring is, for all its hard-hitting violence and cruelty, a surprisingly hopeful film. Like the best of Bergman, it’s profoundly challenging, searching and operates on multiple levels – but rewards the viewer with splashes of strange optimism that feel a world away when it opens. It’s one of his truly great films.

Set in medieval Sweden, Töre (Max von Sydow, magnificently, chillingly grief-stricken) is a prosperous and devotional Christian farmer, in a cooling marriage to Märeta (Birgitta Valberg). The light of his life is his daughter, the beautiful Karin (Birgitta Pettersson). One day, Töre tasks Karin to travel to the Church (half a day’s ride) to deliver some candles. She travels with Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom – bitter, damaged and brilliant), a pagan servant girl, heavily pregnant and resentful. Along the way they two are separated and Karin meets with three peasant brothers in the forest, who share her meal with her before the two adult brothers (Axel Düberg, Tor Isedal) rape and murder her. The brothers walk on and take shelter that night in Töre’s hall. When he discovers their deed, he murders them all (even the innocent youngest brother, a boy) then, horrified, pleads to God for forgiveness. At which point a spring, bursts forth where Karin was killed.

Not exactly a bundle of laughs. But this is powerful, compelling film-making from Bergman. His influence on horror has been overlooked, but The Virgin Spring show how much he inspired everything from shlock to The Exorcist. This is a tense, unbearably so, film which twice draws out the long build-up to shocking violence in a way that would make Sergio Leone proud. Played out in a beautifully moody, bleakly cold and wintery visual style from Sven Nykvist (his first collaboration with Bergman) and often in an atmospheric mix of silence and natural sound, you can feel your stomach knot as the inevitable transgressive act looms ever closer.

The film pulls no punches, while never being exploitative. The rape and murder of Karin (excellently played with just the right mix of innocence and spoilt certainty by Birgitta Pettersson) unfolds with a cold matter-of-factness, as she slowly realises these men are far more dangerous than she imagined. The event is hard-to-watch for its simplicity rather than its graphicness, and for the cold indifference of its perpetrators who act on a whim. It takes place almost in silence and the killing (mercifully off-camera) is more because they don’t know what to do next. Mix that in with the terrified stares of Ingeri from afar, and the shell-shock of the younger brother (who vainly tries to bury Karin with dirt before running away), makes a scene devoid of sensationalism but terrible to watch.

It’s reflected in the film’s later act of violence. The brothers having tried to pass off Karin’s blood-stained dress as their (imaginary) sister’s, sell it to Märeta (who instantly recognises a garment she stitched herself, even as she’s asked to admire the handiwork), are locked in the hall while they sleep. Töre’s slaying of them, however, never feels triumphant. Instead, the Christian Töre abandons his faith to embrace pagan revenge. Like a priest before a blood sacrifice he dresses himself in butchery gear, discards a sword for a smaller knife, carefully prepares the room for the brothers to wake and then sits, idol-like, in his chair waiting. This is a damning ritualistic insight into how our faith – the faith Töre was so proud of – can drop away to reveal our vengeful simplicity below.

The fight that ensues feels like something from the nether-regions of hell. One brother is skewered, arms wide, to Töre’s chair. Another is stabbed under Töre’s body weight – shot in a way reminiscent of Karin’s rape, with the flames of the fire dancing between them and the camera – his body left to burn in the fire. Their brother – a child – runs to Märeta for protection, yet Töre hurls him against the wall breaking his neck. There is no triumph. Töre speaks not a word – the brothers die having no idea who he is. Töre is left starring at his trembling hands in shock, as if waking from a dream not recognising the man he has become who turned his back on every article of faith he held dear.

It’s a film that shows the impact of grief and trauma. From the terrified face of the youngest brother – shovelling dirt on a dead body with tear-stained eyes – to Töre’s shell-shocked realisation his daughter is dead. Deep down, people blames themselves. Märeta believes she is being punished for envying Karin’s closeness to her father. Ingeri believes she has cursed Karin to suffer the same shame as her. Töre, perhaps, feels guilt at his own semi-incestuous closeness with his daughter. Why else does he struggle to bring down with his bare hands a new-planted birch tree (in beautifully haunting medium shot), cutting branches from it to flay himself in a sauna before he takes his revenge? It’s both punishment for past and future sins.

This is also a film that challenges us to decide whether brutal revenge is justified. The build-up to the murder of the brothers is very similar to the murder of Karin. A long meal, shared, even with similar food – so similar that the innocent younger brother vomits at the memories it brings back. This young boy is the death of innocence in this world. Betrayed into crime by his vile elders then forced to pay a terrible price for a deed he was powerless to stop and left him deeply distressed. How can we really triumph in Töre’s killing, when we see it performed so violently at such a price?

Bergman tests throughout how far faith goes, and questions what power God has. The film opens with two pleas, to two very different Gods. Ingeri pleads to Odin to punish the virtuous Karin, who in Ingeri’s eyes is a working rebuke for her wedlock-free pregnancy. Töre prays to a Dürer style carved cross for God to keep their household safe. Only one deity delivers: and rightly Töre will plead at the film’s end “You see it God, you see it…you allowed it. I don’t understand you.” Töre has even mirrored the rapists, in murdering an innocent. He repents later, but is a heathen in the moment.

Paganism is strong in The Virgin Spring. But it is not good. Ingeri separates from Karin when she meets a half-blind bridge-keeper, in a house full of ravens, in the wood. The man ticks every box for representing Odin and conveys dark promises of powers beyond mankind. But he is a vile, Devilish figure who takes an impish delight in cruelty and mischief. Ingeri’s departure from him coincides with Karin’s encounter with her killers – as if these demonic sprites had been conjured up by Odin to punish Ingeri by providing her with exactly what she asked for.

Why then is a film so grim, so cold, so difficult and challenging also feel strangely hopeful? Odin has won and Töre has turned his back on Christian faith to embrace cold, merciless, pagan violence. But as Töre pleads for forgiveness a spring bursts forth from below the point where Karin’s head lay. Suddenly, water pours out of the ground. Light bathes the clearing from above. Ingeri washes her face and hands, cleaning symbolically the parts of her that made those pagan pleas. Suddenly, from nowhere, the film presents an intense moment of spiritual hope that I found surprisingly moving. Rarely has something so grim, felt so cleansing at its close. Perhaps viewers need the simple, honest refreshing splash of water to help themselves after. That’s what helps makes The Virgin Spring difficult, uncomfortable but essential.

Pickpocket (1959)

Pickpocket (1959)

Bresson’s fascinating message of hope, simply but superbly deconstructs the addiction of a life of crime

Director: Robert Bresson

Cast: Martin Lasalle (Michel), Marika Green (Jeanne), Jean Pelegri (Police Inspector), Dolly Scal (Michel’s mother), Pierre Leymarie (Jacques), Kassagi (First Accomplice), Pierre Etaix (Second Accomplice), Cesar Cattegno (Inspector)

A man watches with fixed eyes, breathless and tense, as another man’s hands artfully dodge out from beneath his newspaper to caress the lapels of his fellow train passenger, coming away with a wallet clasped between the folds of his paper. It has a clammy sense of the illicit, a tempting underbelly of the world, where the normal rules don’t apply and the special can take advantage of others because they deserve the world’s benefits more. It’s about being a pickpocket, but it could be about any shadowy world just under what society permits, where the attraction is being part of the club more than any of the actual awards from the act.

No wonder pickpocket Michel (Martin Lasalle) starts to believe his own pumped-up hype: he’s no ordinary man, but a superman, an uber-mensch who has a right to help himself to the gains of others. Getting caught? It will never happen: after all just fools and little people stumble into that trap. Instead, Michel walks through the streets of Paris with the fixed glare of the addict, who can’t wait for his next stealing fix. He’ll take from anyone (even his own mother), ignore the pleas of friends, taunt a police inspector and hoard his gains in a secret nook under his bed. Even the glances that come his way from the daughter of his mother’s landlord, Jeanne (Marika Green), can’t win him away from his longing for the buzz of crime.

Bresson’s perfectly formed novella of a film (it clocks in at a trim 74 minutes) turns this into a profound journey into one man’s soul, where he will constantly dance between temptation and redemption. Loosely inspired by Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (the criminal who thinks he is a better man, the police officer he engages in a battle of wits), Bresson uses this underlying idea to craft a profound, articulate and focused study of the emptiness behind indulging our worst instincts.

Because that’s what Michel is doing. He’s clearly smart enough to find a proper job, casting aside the offers of his friend Jacques to fix him up. But he can’t raise the passion for a normal life. Bresson, whose style embraced the rawness of unnatural performers, almost literally plucked Martin Lasalle from the streets. Carefully tutored by Bresson, all artificial effects were hammered out of him, leaving Lasalle a blank and exact performer. It works perfectly for Bresson’s concept of the criminal as a dysfunctional human, unable to relate to or understand others, unable to engage in the world, coming to life for his crimes and plodding through the rest of time with monotony and a striking lack of emotional engagement. (It admittedly works less well for those scenes where Lasalle must demonstrate emotion, which he plays with a mechanical dutifulness.)

Michel can’t bring himself to see his dying mother, dropping money off with Jeanne to pass over for him (money, it later transpires, he had stolen from her in any case). His friendship with Jacques sees him go blandly through the emotions. We constantly see him trudging up and down stairs, opening and closing his door, moving his few possessions around, all of it with clockwork regularity that seems relentless. He falls in with fellow pickpockets but doesn’t even learn their names. The most he ever seems engaged is during his sly exchanges with a police inspector (avuncular Jean Pelegri) who seems certain he’s a thief.

Perhaps Michel is so relatively animated in these exchanges because he’s desperate to be caught. Because how can you be a superman, if no one can really see what you are doing? The bitter irony is, your genius for theft can only be publicly acknowledged by being caught, the greatest failure of any thief. But Michel longs, in some part of himself, for recognition, praise and to stand-out. His life – in a grimy bedsit, wearing the same ill-fitting suit (which hangs about him, as if exaggerating his blankness) – is strikingly un-special. His best attribute as a pickpocket is that he’s a non-entity you wouldn’t look at twice. Is there a bigger slap in the face for the man who would be king, that his greatest strength is his ability to not be seen?

It must be particularly harsh, as Bresson makes clear Michel isn’t even a particularly adept pickpocket. He fluffs his first few attempts, his heart pounding so much that he can’t bring about the steady hands needed. His early crimes are clumsy and ineffective. At a race meet that opens the film, he filches cash from a lady’s handbag and only a lack of evidence saves him when he is immediately picked up. When he is finally found by his expert accomplice (played by real-life thief, and master of sleight-of-hand, Kassagi), his crude techniques are ruthlessly exposed.

This would-be superman never reaches the heights of Kassagi. Bresson’s shooting of the pickpocket’s crimes are edited like the greatest heist thrillers, tense moments of balletic beauty. We see hands carefully unbutton jackets from behind. Wallets knocked out of pockets and caught as they slide down a person’s body. Wrists are clasped and stroked as watches are removed. The pickpockets work in a team of three: one takes the wallet, passes it to a second who palms it instantly to a third who escapes. All this is caught by Bresson with all the grace of Gene Kelly. It’s exciting, dynamic – and also (you can’t escape it) sensual. You can see why Michel gets such a thrill out of it.

But he’s also the least of his team of three – and when the other two get nicked, he really should take the hint. He practises at length to make his fingers more supple, his ability to grasp watches and wallets more fluid. But his movements are never quite graceful enough, his face always a little too sweaty, his eyes flicking a little too much as if worried about being caught in an assignation. Later he travels to London but returns penniless, too inept to keep hold of his cash from card-sharps.

Bresson’s film reaches, gently but highly effectively, for a spiritual message. What joy or grace is there for Michel? Crime and the dreams of being someone special fill a void in his life. That void has no room for friends or family. Not even for God, who he’s touched by “for three minutes” at his mother’s funeral. Even the (to us) evident love of Jeanne can’t really touch him enough to change his ways. Or at least, perhaps not until he hits rock bottom where, like Paul on the road to Damascus, he will have a sudden vision, trapped behind bars, that life can be different.

To give that impact, Bresson has to show (and understand) the lurid temptation of a life beyond the rules and the norms. Pickpocketing was his tool – and it perfectly conveys the addictive glamour of feeling superior to others – but really it could have been the buzz of any addiction, the thieves hunting each other out with the knowing eyes of fellow addicts. These sensual delights are false though, engaging and absorbing as they are. Told without melodrama, it’s a stunning, hard-boiled thriller that ripens into a profound, subtle and intelligent parable, assembled with a cool, exact genius that makes filmmaking look simple.

Lilies of the Field (1963)

Lilies of the Field (1963)

Nuns and a drifter find mutual respect (eventually) in this quaint, gentle drama

Director: Ralph Nelson

Cast: Sidney Poitier (Homer Smith), Lilia Skala (Mother Maria), Lisa Mann (Sister Gertrude), Isa Crino (Sister Agnes), Francesca Jarvis (Sister Albertine), Pamela Branch (Sister Elizabeth), Stanley Adams (Juan Acalito), Dan Frazer (Father Murphy), Ralph Nelson (Mr Ashton)

One day Homer Smith (Sidney Poitier) stops at a small Arizona farm to ask for water for his car. The farm is run by refugee Eastern European Nuns. Homer does a few repair jobs, teaches them a little bit of English and stays for dinner, assuming he’ll be paid in the morning. But the fearsome Mother Maria (Lilia Skala) tells Smith (or Schmidt as they call him) his presence is a gift from God and recruits him to build them a chapel, in return for food and lodging (but not money). Smith finds himself accepting – and, as the building work begins, finds a passion for the project building in him. Amen!

A humble “nice” film, based on a successful novel, Liles of the Field was shot in about two weeks by Nelson – who got the financial backing when Poitier agreed to play the lead. It went on to scoop a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars and a Best Actor Award for Sidney Poitier. To be honest there isn’t really anything in Lilies of the Field that you won’t see a hundred times before or since. Shot with an efficient (if Televisual) low-keyness by Ralph Nelson, it’s an inspiring tale about inspiring folks with a few laughs and smiles, set in a world that shows what we could achieve if mutual respect and decency were mankind’s watch-words.

Lilies of the Field is decisively a spiritual, feel-good film but it’s pleasantly told without any over-emphasis or lecturing, which allows it to remain a charming, engaging (if slight) watch. The story of the building of this small chapel in the middle of nowhere is as inspiring as seeing how a passion for the project gives Smith a focus and purpose he perhaps has lacked elsewhere in his life. But it’s also crammed with some charmingly loose scenes, such as Poitier playfully teaching the Nuns basic English phrases (far more useful than the ridiculous – and useless for everyday life – phrases the Nuns are learning from a record) and, later, the fundamentals of Gospel music.

Roughly in the centre is a rather sweet and well-drawn gentle struggle of wills between Homer Smith (an honest guy who expects an honest wage for an honest day’s work) and Mother Maria (a woman who has learned that you don’t get without asking again and again and again). These two feud using bible quotes (rather wittily, Mother Maria uses a massive embossed tone while Homer uses a well-thumbed pocket copy), butt heads on Mother Maria’s refusal to accept anything less than Smith agreeing to do the work gratis and Smith’s frustration at what he sees as her dictatorial stance. But, inevitably, respect grows between them over time (as it does in movies like this).

You could pretty much predict most of the beats in Lilies of the Field. Of course, the whole desert community rallies around to help. Of course, Smith and Nuns reach an understanding of mutual affection. Of course, the building contractor Smith works for part-time to keep himself in dollars (played by the director Ralph Nelson) overcomes his condescension to Smith to chip in. Of course, Smith falls in love with the chapel – and sees it as a chance to live his dream of becoming an architect. None of this should surprise you.

But it works because it’s all quite gentle and charming. A big part of this is down to Poitier’s performance. So many of his roles dripped with nobility and grandeur, that it’s really pleasant to see him cut loose and have some fun. This is surely one of the most relaxed performance Poitier ever gave, his Homer Smith loose-limbed, witty and relaxed, enjoying the comic banter and gracefully breaking into (dubbed) gospel singing. He has a natural and easy chemistry with the other actors – most of all Lilia Skala (also Oscar nominated) who is perfectly dry and starchy as Mother Maria – and keeps the whole enterprise just the right side of light and breezy. It’s Poitier getting a light, personality part very different from the roles he’s more associated with. He became the first black man to win an Oscar – and only the second person of colour after Hattie McDaniel.

The film has a few beats of racial tension: Nelson’s contactor condescendingly calls Smith “Boy” (much to his quiet anger) and there are references to prejudice. But what the film wants to celebrate is people coming together – which is what Smith, the Nuns and the (mostly) Latin American community do to winning effect. It does this with such honesty and simple pleasure that, for all its predictability and lack of narrative invention, it’s rather winning. It’s a simple, almost forgettable, little film – but when watching it you’ll at least feel heart warmed.

The Nun's Story (1959)

The Nun's Story (1959)

A nun struggles to balance faith and duty in this handsomely made, beautifully paced drama

Director: Fred Zinnemann

Cast: Audrey Hepburn (Sister Luke/Gabrielle van der Mal), Peter Finch (Dr Fortunati), Edith Evans (Reverend Mother Emmanuel), Peggy Ashcroft (Mother Mathilde), Dean Jagger (Dr van der Mal), Mildred Dunnock (Sister Margharita), Beatrice Straight (Mother Christophe), Patricia Collinge (Sister William), Rosalie Crutchley (Sister Eleanor), Ruth White (Mother Marcella), Barbara O’Neil (Mother Didyma), Colleen Dewhurst (“Archangel Gabriel”)

Gabrille van der Mal (Audrey Hepburn) has two passions in her life: her faith and a desire to heal the sick. Dreaming of combining these and working with native patients suffering from tropical diseases in the Belgian Congo, at 19 she joins an order of nuns who specialise in nursing. But the life of nun is far from an easy one, and Sister Luke (as she becomes) constantly struggles to square the circle of her faith, passion for medicine, ambitions and her natural antipathy towards authority. It’s a square she struggles with for almost twenty years, culminating in a crisis of faith during the German occupation of Belgium during World War II.

Zinnemann’s gracefully directed film, not surprisingly won the warm support of the Production Code Office, with its faithful depiction of the life and work of Nuns ticking all the boxes of a devout picture. However, The Nun’s Story is a more complex and intriguing film than this. While it finds much to praise in the self-sacrifice and devotion of the nun’s life, it isn’t afraid to look at how this institution (like many others) values obedience over innovation and praises submission over individualism. It stresses, in a way very few other films have done, how strikingly difficult it must be to lead your life in a religious devotion, and how much such orders (by their nature) demand we must put aside our natural inclinations.

Sister Luke is warned from the start by her doctor father (a genial Dean Jagger) that, with her stubbornness and independence, she is likely to find strictures on obedience hard to follow. He’s right. Superbly played by Audrey Hepburn (in her personal favourite performance), Sister Luke constantly finds it a near impossible struggle to submit herself to the authority of the order. Hepburn makes clear Sister Luke’s sincere faith, and her desire to belong, but also her unwillingness to accept that this might involve any compromise on her work as a nurse.

From the first she demonstrates she is unwilling to stop tending to a patient when the bell rings for her to attend prayer. She constantly reproofs herself for her inability to subjugate her personality to the requirements of her religious order. Training in tropical diseases at her medical college, she refuses a request from Mother Marcella to deliberately flunk an exam to prove her humility. As a ‘reward’, the best qualified nun in tropical diseases is dispatched to a sanatorium in Belgium to further learn obedience. Even when she is eventually allowed to work in the Congo it’s only in the “White’s Only” hospital (as they need the staff) and she is reproved for showing off when she makes much needed improvements to the hospitals working practices.

In many ways the film is a fascinating look at how hard it was for a woman to make a mark in the early 20th century. Clearly Sister Luke should have trained as a doctor – she graduates fourth in her class in tropical medicines – but that door was closed to her, and her only chance of working in Africa was as a member of a religious order. She ends up working in a system where she must constantly make difficult calls between her two passions (faith and medicine) – with her order placing devotion and obedience as the primary goal.

Not that the film is disparaging of religion. The devotion and goodness of the nuns is above question. Their ability to turn the other cheek and forgive is shown as an unparalleled virtue – even a shocking crime in the Congo is patiently forgiven. Many senior nuns are more than capable of balancing Sister Luke’s devotion to medicine with the orders demands. Mother Christophe (wonderfully and warmly played by Beatrice Straight) at the sanatorium, disagrees with the exam choice forced on Sister Luke and supports her to find a balance between her work and her order’s demand for obedience. Mother Mathilde (a matronly Peggy Ashcroft) in the Congo encourages her improvements – with the proviso she is told first. Others – such as Reverend Mother Emmanuel (a gently reserved Edith Evans) – consider it more important that Sister Luke dilutes her individualism in the order.

It makes for a fascinating film, that praises the devotion and self-sacrifice of religious orders, while not shying away from how rigid they often (by their very nature) are. Sister Luke in many ways is an ill-fit for being a nun. She can’t, or won’t, put her own beliefs about what is right second and she has an obstinance and pride (which she admits herself) that should really have ruled her out from the order in the first place. While the film doesn’t quite do enough to give as much space to her faith as it does her passion for medicine, it also makes it clear many characters – most astutely Peter Finch’s coolly professional Congo-based atheist doctor – recognise that she isn’t able to make the ultimate sacrifice that being a nun requires: the full submission of her own will.

Zinnemann directs this with a graceful, careful pace that finds many moments of quiet emotion amongst the imposing world of the order. The film is bookended by beautifully done sequences of departure and arrival, with possessions carefully left-behind and doors opening onto new and radically different worlds (the ending in particular plays out in a powerful silence). The film is beautifully shot by Franz Planer, with a wonderfully restrained score by Franz Waxman. It’s perfect material for this director, who was always strongest when showing the individual struggling within a system that demands they turn against their own nature.

The Nun’s Story is perhaps a little overlong and at times takes it stately pace a little too slowly. But it has a wonderful performance by Audrey Hepburn (who is in nearly every single frame), gorgeous location shooting and is directed with restraint and intelligence by Zinnemann. It also manages the difficult duty of finding things to both praise and criticise in the life of a religious order and both respects and questions the lifestyle and its rules. A middle brow film no doubt, but a fine example of highly skilled and professional Hollywood film-making.

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

Last Temptation of Christ header
Willem Dafoe plays the Son of God in Scorsese’s supremely controversial The Last Temptation of Christ

Director: Martin Scorsese

Cast: Willem Dafoe (Jesus Christ), Harvey Keitel (Judas), Barbara Hershey (Mary Magdalene), Harry Dean Stanton (Saul), David Bowie (Pontius Pilate), Verna Bloom (Mary), Barry Miller (Jeroboam). Irvin Kershner (Zebedee), Victor Argo (Peter), Andre Gregory (John the Baptist), Nehemiah Persoff (Rabbi), Tomas Arana (Lazarus), Gary Barsaraba (Andrew), Juliette Caton (Girl Angel)

There are few films as controversial as this. Scorsese’s earthy adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ has lived its whole life under the shadow of the parade of traditionalists, conservatives and evangelists who have called for everything from the negative being destroyed to the death of its director. All this is rooted in the film’s quest – as in the book – for the human in Jesus, the saviour who was both mortal and divine. As part of this, it showed him expressing anger, doubt and of course, presented him with temptation and threw him into the dirty, working-class world where he made his ministry.

The film follows the life of Jesus (Willem Dafoe) pretty much as per the Gospels, with several interjections and reinterpretations (some of which seem designed to piss off the faithful). We meet Jesus as a carpenter who crafts crosses for Roman crucifixions by day, plagued by voices and fits at night. He knows he has a purpose but is scared of what it might be. Eventually he finds it, encouraged by Judas (Harvey Keitel) his most faithful disciple and a passionate campaigner against the Romans. The last temptation itself fills the final act of the film. On the cross, a disguised Satan comes to Jesus and offers him the chance to leave behind being the messiah and live a normal life: marriage, children and content old age surrounded by family.

The Last Temptation of Christ is Scorsese’s wrestling with his faith. It’s a highly personal, defiantly modern and daring version of the gospels that strongly invests in the notion that true faith is only possible if we also have doubt to overcome. And it applies this logic to Jesus, who is shown here as far more grounded, human and flawed than He has ever been in the movies (or anywhere else). Voiceovers communicate His constant doubts and insecurities – and even His resentments about not understanding what God intends for him.

Where other Biblical epics are old, stodgy and stiff, The Last Temptation profoundly challenges its viewers. This is not a picture postcard world. Jesus’ surroundings are humble and dirty. His disciples are simple men – Judas, the only one with any form of intellect, attacks them as clueless yes-men. But it’s a film that stresses the humanity of Jesus. It wants us to admire him even more, because He needed to overcome the same internal demons we all confront. This is not a saviour unbent in purpose, but battling always. It asks us to try and relate ourself to Jesus in a new way, to ask how we might have felt and whether we would have been strong enough to take on that mantle.

Played with extraordinary passion and fire by Willem Dafoe, this is a Jesus who is scared, reluctant, shows flashes of bitterness and anger but struggles to put all this aside to embrace His destiny and purpose as the Messiah. On other words, He’s far more human than we’ve seen before. He’s also rough and unprepared, in many ways, for His ministry. We see His first attempt at preaching – having, with half-confidence, half-apprehension told Judas He’s sure God will give Him the words – which is carefree, impassioned and amateurish but full of inspirational fire. He doesn’t quite convey the message He’s aiming for, but it is enough to win the devotion of several of the men who will become his disciples.

Scorsese shoots this, as he shoots many of the scenes among the crowds, with an immediacy and urgency, using a mobile camera and throwing us in among those listening to Jesus’ words. John the Baptist’s ministry by the lake is a near-orgy of religious ecstasy (with added nudity), full of wild emotion and jubilant singing – all of which drops out on the soundtrack to just the lapping of the river, as Judas and John meet. (It’s a brilliant moment that shows the world-stopping impact of revelation). Scorsese mixes this with scenes of a spiritual stillness and gentle mysticism. During his time in the desert – during which Jesus sits inside a perfect circle, which He draws free hand in the dirt – He encounters, in scenes of haunting unknowability, temptation from Satan in the form of a snake, a lion and a jet of fire.

It’s a starting point for Jesus’ embarking on a series of miracles and world-changing preaching. Controversially, even now, He is still uncertain of what He is meant to – he tells Judas (who remains a constant confidante) that God only gives Him small parts of the total picture as He needs them. He comes from the desert inviting his disciples to war – against Satan, and to bring God’s word to the world. It seems another provocative image – Jesus brandishing an axe in one hand, His own heart (plucked from His chest before the disciples) in the other – and it’s one of the points in the film where I feel Scorsese overplays his hand. I’m not quite sure what he is suggesting here, as Jesus calls his disciples to war, unless it’s a campaign of muscular Christianity.

It competes with several other images and sequences that infuriated many. Some of these are too much: Jesus crafting crosses and even helping the Romans (in the film’s opening) nail a victim too one is far too much, a tasteless attempt to show a flawed man. Waiting to apologise to Mary Magdalene (a delicate Barbara Hershey) for his part in this, He sits while she services a roomful of men one after another. Moments like this always feel a little too much, even if it’s a more genuine insight into what Mary Magdelene’s life was actually like than we normally get.

But the Temptation itself is fascinating and moving – if a little too long. There was of course outrage at seeing Jesus marry and make love to Mary Magdelene, rejecting his purpose for a life of normality. Surely, if Jesus could be tempted by anything it might have been this: the man who never knew a moment of the life you and I lead, given a chance to experience it. With Satan – passing himself off as a young female guardian angel – guiding him, the vision sees Jesus age into an old man. Satan presents a plausible argument: man and Earth can live in a simple happiness, if they forget the demands of God in heaven.

The very idea of Jesus either deceived by Satan for a time – or seriously considering abandoning His divine purpose – is anathema to many, but again it re-enforces Scorsese’s view that doubt is essential for faith. That we can only commit the supreme act of commitment to God, if we are uncertain about doing it in the first place. And Jesus’ re-devotion at the end to his mission truly gives a sense of “It is being accomplished” in a way few other films have managed.

Ideas like this – and the earthy, vigorous nature of Jesus’ world – dominate the film and dare and push the viewer. Dafoe is superb – and Harvey Keitel excellent as a politically committed Judas, here not betraying Jesus, but taking on the harder role (that of betrayer – Jesus even tells him he is not strong enough for such a role, so has the easier part in dying). It’s shot with a brilliant modernism and has a superb score from Peter Gabriel, stuffed with lyrical etherealism and making use of several contemporary instruments. It sometimes overplays its hand, but as a personal work of a director juggling his own doubts, fears and faith on screen, it’s perhaps one of the most extraordinary religious films ever made.

The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)

Greatest Story Ever Told header
Max von Sydow carries a heavy burden in Steven’s far-from The Greatest Story Ever Told

Director: George Stevens

Cast: Max von Sydow (Jesus), Dorothy McGuire (The Virgin Mary), Charlton Heston (John the Baptist), Claude Rains (Herod the Great), José Ferrer (Herod Antipas), Telly Savalas (Pontius Pilate), Martin Landau (Caiaphas), David McCallum (Judas Iscariot), Donald Pleasance (“The Dark Hermit”), Michael Anderson Jnr (James the Less), Roddy McDowell (Matthew), Gary Raymond (Peter), Joanna Dunham (Mary Magdalene), Ed Wynn (Old Aram), Angela Lansbury (Claudia), Sal Mineo (Uriah), Sidney Poitier (Simon of Cyrene), John Wayne (Centurion)

You could make a case to prosecute The Greatest Story Ever Told under the Trade Descriptions Act. In a world where we are blessed (cursed?) with a plethora of Biblical epics, few are as long, worthy, turgid or dull as George Stevens’ misguided epic. Just like Jesus in the film is plagued by a Dark Hermit representing Satan, did Stevens have a wicked angel whispering in his ear “More wide shots George, and even more Handel’s Messiah. And yes, The Duke is natural casting for a Roman Centurion…”. The Greatest Story Ever Told has some of the worst reviews Christianity has ever had – and it’s had some bad ones.

The plot covers the whole life of the Saviour so should be familiar to anyone who has ever seen a Gideon’s Bible. It was a passion project for Stevens, who spent almost five years raising the cash to bring it to the screen. When he started, the fad for self-important Biblical epics was starting to teeter. When it hit the screen, it had flat-lined. It didn’t help that The Greatest Story Ever Told was first released as an over four-hour snooze fest, laboriously paced, that managed to drain any fire or passion from one of (no matter what you believe) the most tumultuous and significant lives anyone on the planet has ever led. The film was cut down to about two hours (making it incomprehensible) and today exists as a little over three-hour epic that genuinely still feels like it’s four hours long.

Stevens gets almost nothing right here whatsoever. Self-importance permeates the entire project. The film cost $20million, double the largest amount the studio had ever spent. Ordinary storyboards were not good enough: Stevens commissioned 350 oil paintings (that’s right, an entire art gallery’s worth) to plan the picture (which probably explains why the film feels at times like a slide show of second-rate devotional imagery). The Pope was consulted on the script (wisely he didn’t take a screen credit). Stevens decided the American West made a better Holy Land than the actual Holy Land, so shot it all in Arizona, Nevada and California. It took so long to film, Joseph Schildkraut and original cinematographer William C Mellor both died while making it, while Joanna Durham (playing Mary Magdalene!) became pregnant and gave birth. Stevens shot 1,136 miles of film, enough to wrap around the Moon.

There’s something a little sad about all that effort so completely wasted. But the film is a complete dud. It’s terminally slow, not helped by its stately shooting style where the influence of all those paintings can be seen. Everything is treated with crushing import – Jesus can’t draw breath without a heavenly choir kicking in to add spiritual import to whatever he is about to say. Stevens equates grandeur with long shots so a lot of stuff happens in the widest framing possible, most ridiculously the resurrection of Lazarus which takes place in a small part of a screen consumed with a vast cliff panorama. Bizarrely, most of the miracles take place off-screen, as if Stevens worried that seeing a man walk on water, feed the five thousand or turn water into wine would stretch credulity (which surely can’t be the case for a film as genuflecting as this one).

What we get instead is Ed Wynn, Sal Mineo and Van Heflin euphorically running up a hilltop and shouting out loud the various miracles the Lamb of God has bashfully performed off-screen. Everything takes a very long time to happen and a large portion of the film is given over to a lot of Christ walking, talking at people but not really doing anything. For all the vast length, no real idea is given at all about what people were drawn to or found magnetic about Him. It’s as if Stevens is so concerned to show He was better than this world, that the film forgets to show that He was actually part of this world. Instead, we have to kept being told what a charismatic guy He is and how profound His message is: we never get to see or hear these qualities from His own lips.

For a film designed to celebrate the Greatest, the film strips out much of the awe and wonder in Him. It’s not helped by the chronic miscasting of Max von Sydow. Selected because he was a great actor who would be unfamiliar to the mid-West masses (presumably considered to be unlikely to be au fait with the work of Ingmar Bergman), von Sydow is just plain wrong for the role. His sonorous seriousness and restrained internal firmness help make the Son of God a crushing, distant bore. He’s not helped by his dialogue being entirely made-up of Bible quotes or the fact that Stevens directs him to be so stationary and granite, with much middle-distance staring, he could have been replaced with an Orthodox Icon with very little noticeable difference.

Around von Sydow, Stevens followed the norm by hiring as many star actors as possible, some of whom pop up for a few seconds. The most famous of these is of course John Wayne as the Centurion who crucifies Jesus. This cameo has entered the realms of Filmic Myth (the legendary “More Awe!”exchange). Actually, Stevens shoots Wayne with embarrassment, as if knowing getting this Western legend in is ridiculous – you can hardly spot Wayne (if you didn’t know it was him, you wouldn’t) and his line is clearly a voiceover. In a way just as egregious is Sidney Poitier’s wordless super-star appearance as Simon, distracting you from feeling the pain of Jesus’ sacrifice by saying “Oh look that’s Sidney Poitier” as he dips into frame to help carry the cross.

Of the actors who are in it long enough to make an impression, they fall into three camps: the OTT, the “staring with reverence” and the genuinely good. Of the OTT crowd, Rains and Ferrer set the bar early as various Herods but Heston steals the film as a rug-chested, manly John the Baptist, ducking heads under water in a Nevada lake, bellowing scripture to the heavens. Of the reverent, McDowell does some hard thinking as Matthew, although I have a certain fondness for Gary Raymond’s decent but chronically unreliable Peter (the scene where he bitches endlessly about a stolen cloak is possibly the only chuckle in the movie).

It’s a sad state of affairs that the Genuinely Good actors all play the Genuinely Bad characters – poor old Jesus, even in the story of his life the Devil gets all the best scenes. That’s literally true here as Donald Pleasence is head-and-shoulders best-in-show as a softly spoken, insinuating but deeply sinister “Dark Hermit” who tempts Jesus in the wilderness and then follows Him throughout the Holy Land, turning others against Him. Also good are David McCallum as a conflicted Judas, Telly Savalas as weary Pilate (he shaved his head for the role, loved the look and never went back) and Martin Landau, good value as a corrupt Caiaphas (“This will all be forgotten in a week” he signs the film off with saying).

That’s about all there is to enjoy about a film that probably did more to reduce attendance at Sunday School than the introduction of Sunday opening hours and football being played all day. A passion project from Stevens where he forgot to put any of that passion on the screen, it really is as long and boring as you heard, a film made with such reverent skill that no one seemed to have thought about stopping and saying “well, yes, but is it good?”. I doubt anyone is watching it up in Heaven.

The Mission (1986)

Robert de Niro turns aside from the Jesuit rule to fight for right in The Mission

Director: Roland Joffé

Cast: Robert de Niro (Rodrigo Mendoza), Jeremy Irons (Father Gabriel), Ray McAnally (Cardinal Altamirano), Aidan Quinn (Felipe Mendoza), Cherie Lunghi (Carlotta), Ronald Pickup (Hontar), Chuck Low (Don Cabeza), Liam Neeson (Father John Fielding)

Spoilers: The incredibly grim and depressing ending of The Mission is discussed in detail.

When the world is run by men, how much of a voice does God have? Roland Joffé’s film explores colonial politics and religious duty in Spanish and Portuguese controlled South America. Needless to say, God doesn’t get that much of a vote when questions of land ownership, slavery and money are in play – and no noble stand from Jesuit priests is going to make a jot of difference. Joffé’s beautifully made and moving epic might be slightly self-important, but it won the Palme d’Or. With powerful imagery and sequences but some under-explored themes and characters, its one of those films that probably would have benefited from being at least an hour longer.

In the Paraguayan jungle in the 1750s, Jesuit priest Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) successfully converts a Guarani community at his mission. Problem is to the Spanish and Portuguese empires the Guarani are fit only for exploitation and slavery. Mercenary slaver Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert de Niro) is one of them – but his world collapses after he murders his brother (Aidan Quinn) in a dispute over the woman (Cherie Lunghi) they both love. Mendoza makes his penance with the Jesuits, and the forgiveness he receives from the Guarani changes his life, leading to his conversion. But when a treaty – with the reluctant agreement of papal legate Cardinal Altamirano (Ray McAnally) – calls for an end to the mission, Gabriel and Mendoza resolve to fight: one with prayers the other with the weapons he has sworn off. Can they help the Guarani defend themselves from colonialism?

I don’t think its too much of a spoiler to say, no they can’t. The Mission may occasionally muddle itself by trying to say a lot in a short run-time, but on one thing it’s clear: the world is what men have made it, and they’ve made it a pretty dreadful place. The final quarter of the film is entirely given over to the spirited fight to protect the mission, as Mendoza and the other priests take up arms to help these people defend their homes. Joffé doesn’t gloss over the hideous cost of this, with a staggeringly high body count. The Europeans don’t differentiate between combatants and non-combatants, and the killed (and everyone is killed) fall with a sickening finality.

Watching the senseless destruction of this entire community for no purpose other than stripping the Guarani people of anything of value and shipping it back to Europe, you can only agree with Cardinal Altamirano that perhaps it would have been better for all concerned if ships had never crossed the Atlantic. When the dreams of bringing Christian civilisation end with Father Gabriel leading a march of peaceful converts into a hail of bullets, something has gone badly amiss in the world. Hammering home how helpless decency is, Mendoza is fatally wounded (and the village finally doomed) when he is distracted from destroying the bridge into the village, by running to safe a wounded child. No good deed goes unpunished in The Mission.

All of this is, by the way, immensely moving. It’s a tribute to Joffé’s quiet, coldly realistic eye for violence among the natural world that the final half hour is a hard watch. The European invaders may be faceless, scruffy monsters, but even they are briefly halted by the sound of prayer from the village (before they burn it down and kill everyone). The Mission is a profoundly beautiful film, which strains hard for spiritual meaning, and this final sequence is almost impossibly tragic to watch. Just as he had done in The Killing Fields, Joffé’s ability to report without sensationalism on real life tragedy, amongst scenery of great beauty, makes for powerful viewing.

There is so much right about The Mission, it feels harsh criticising it. The film was shot entirely on location (at times the cast show clear signs of the jungle-tummy that spread like wildfire through the cast and crew) and Chris Menges’ (Oscar-winning) cinematography captures the exotic beauty of the jungle, with a powerful visual sense of the spiritual and the sublime. It’s an effect built on immeasurably by Ennio Morricone’s extraordinary score (one of the greatest ever recorded), every single note perfectly chosen to communicate the holy serenity of the Jesuits and the dark flaws of mankind.

Its in exploring those flaws that the film feels a tad rushed. I dearly wish this was an hour longer, if for no other reason that it could bring greater focus to the balance between faith and realpolitik in greater depth. Although the Cardinal gets a few moments to reflect on this, and explicitly question the self-appointed right the Europeans have given themselves as masters of the world, the film never quite manages to dive into these. (McAnally however is excellent as this tortured and ashamed man). Too often these ideas are boiled down into “worldly men bad, priests good”.

The role of the Missionaries themselves also goes unquestioned – these are, after all, people who have crossed the seas with the same sort of imperialist missions as anyone else, finding the indigenous tribes and aiming to make them (no matter how decent their motives) as much like the Europeans as they can. Instead there are presented as purely good and holy. Just think what another hour could have done for expanding the insight into the role of the Church here.

There is a few too many blunt statements of intentions and plot information, rather then real insight. You come out of it still with only a most basic idea of why Gabriel and Mendoza make the decisions they do – or what they hope the outcomes might be. More of a dive into the characters could have given more context to their holy intentions.

In the end the film’s main aim is pushing a message of peace. It’s the message Mendoza must learn. The film’s other most successful sequence covers his extraordinary penance, dragging a huge bundle of armour and weapons up a mountain to the mission. De Niro sells the anguish as beautifully as he does Mendoza’s shamed gratitude when he is greeted warmly by the very people he had enslaved. Its moments like this where The Mission achieves its aim of grappling with something close to how spirituality can move and change us – which often gets bogged down elsewhere in ticking off plot.

The message of peace is embodied by Irons’ profound and generous performance as Gabriel, a man who believes the world should be simpler than it is. I just wish the film had given itself more room to delve into its themes. In trying to cover imperialism, religion, spirituality and native rights, all in two hours (the Guarani draw a short story, with not one of them really being given a character) its too much. A richer, more textured film would make for a richer overall experience. It’s a film of great beauty in score and photography, often moving, but doesn’t make its message much more than give peace a chance.