Thursday, May 16, 2013

Capsule Film Reviews: Color of the Cross

I have, as I have said many times on this blog previously, watched a lot of films on television and in the theatre since the 1960s. Though I wasn't really old enough to see them in the cinema when they came out I have been able to see most of those religious epics that came roaring out of Hollywood in significant numbers after 1948 when Hollywood was under threat from the federal government and under even greater threat from the new kid on the block, television. So I was forced to watch widescreen Christian religious blockbusters like Quo Vadis (Mervyn LeRoy, 1951), The Robe (Henry Koster, 1953, The Ten Commandments (Cecil B. DeMille, 1956), Ben-Hur (William Wyler, 1959), The King of Kings (Nicholas Ray, 1961), my favourite of the genre, Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955) meets first century CE Palestine, and The Greatest Story Ever Told (George Stevens, 1965) in bastardised pan and scan versions on the small screen. This was, after all, before the age of video tape and the DVD and revivals of classic Hollywood films rarely occurred outside of New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and a host of college towns across the American Midwest and West, particularly revivals of widescreen blockbusters that bane of the cinema as art crowd.

While the Christian religious blockbuster has been on its last legs since the 1960s occasionally they still pop up once in awhile. Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004), a film I have not seen, shows that there is still big money to be made in harvesting those green Christian fields. Increasingly, or so it seems, it is small scale Christian films that are being made these days. I recently watched Catherine Hartwicke's 2006 The Nativity Story thanks to DVD, a film critics have described as the Jesus film meets the independent art cinema of Hartwicke's earlier film Thirteen (2003). Yesterday, again thanks to DVD, I watched Color of the Cross.

Color of the Cross, directed by Jean Claude Lamarre, co-written by Jean Claude Lamarre, co-produced by Jean Claude Lamarre, music co-written by Jean Claude Lamarre, tells, so the blurb on the back of the DVD keepcase tells us, the story of the last forty-eight hours in the life of Jesus Christ and challenges commonly held assumptions about him". Color of the Cross starts with an interesting premise, what if Jesus were black and his blackness affected how some of his fellow Jews looked at him and the attitude some of his fellow Jews had toward his teachings. It adds to this the traditional Christian film narrative tropes of the fear Jewish religious leaders had about Jesus's somewhat revolutionary ministry, though it gave it a racial twist, and the Roman fear of insurrection in one of its conquered territories. Color of the Cross begins with Jesus and his twelve disciples entering Arimethea to take their Passover seder in the upper room. It ends, thanks to a rather jarring jump cut from Gethsemane, where Jesus is arrested by the Romans thanks to Judas's betrayal, to an arresting scene of a bloody Jesus dying on the cross while mother Mary wails at the cross's feet all the while being comforted by the prostitute Mary Magdalene. There is no brutal passion of the Christ here. Only the brutal and bloody blood coloured death of Jesus on the cross.

My sense was that Color of the Cross wasn't quite sure, and perhaps didn't have the money, to be what it really wanted to be. It attempts to follow in the epic footsteps of Christian blockbusters before it with its grand King James Bible like language, but its music, which is largely synthetic, and its sets, which while excellent are not epic or grand, just don't cohere. Color of the Cross, in other words, is too epic and holy to be arty and really engage the issue of race and Western perceptions of Jesus as vanilla white and it is not epic enough to be moving in that religious blockbustery sort of way where believers relive, in widescreen technicolour you can almost touch, taste, see, and feel, the sacred tale they were taught (indoctrinated with) in Sunday School.

I, Ron, eek! cannot recommend Color of the Cross. Lamarre, by the way, has made a DVD only sequel, Colour of the Cross 2: The Resurrection. I could only make it through 15 minutes of this film, which uses a lot of footage from the original. What I saw was even worse than the first. Color of the Cross made only around $85,000 dollars at the box office in the United States, something that may tell us, better than the film itself, about religion and race and perceptions of Jesus in contemporary America.

Color of the Cross, 2006, directed, co-written, and co-produced by Jean Claude Lamarre, 89 minutes, 1:78:1 ( IMDb lists the film's original aspect ratio as 2:35:1 while the DVD version of the film lists 1:78:1 as the oar of the theatrical release of the film).

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