Review
Culture
6 min read

Cinematic Passions

Gibson, Darbont, Pasolini, Eastwood and Scorsese all feature in priest Yaroslav Walker’s top five Good Friday movies.

Yaroslav is assistant priest at Holy Trinity, Sloane Square, London.

A haggard Jesus is looks ahead during the night.
Jim Caviezel in The Passion of the Christ.
Newmarket Films.

Good Friday is a tough day for a Christian. It is a day of weeping and mourning; of venerating the Cross and meditating on the terrible reality of Christ’s tortuous death. It is an annual memorial service for a loved one, and the pain and grief is never made any easier because the reality of the Cross is fresh and relevant and immediate in the life of the believer: it is a moment that transcends time and space and is as real this year as it was in the thirty-third and final year of Christ’s life. It is also traditionally a day of intentional and serious fasting - mainly a diet of water and weeping for me. So, by the evening you’re wiped out and just want a bit of rest, perhaps relaxing in front of a film; that is certainly how I feel. Yet every Christian wants to spend the day focused on the Passion of Jesus, so not just any old film will do - it ought to be a film that allows us to keep Jesus’s sacrifice in mind. Below are my top five tips for a Good Friday evening watch… popcorn to be eaten plain, or salted with tears if you must! 

5 - The Passion of the Christ

The obvious choice. Controversial upon release for its depiction of the Temple hierarchy and the bloody violence with which it depicts Christ’s scourging and Crucifixion, it lives now in a certain ignominy. I would argue it deserves a reappraisal. Gibson is a solid director, takes the work seriously, and gives us a good-looking film. Jim Caviezel gives a terrific central performance (that makes you think he deserved a better career for the last twenty years), and all the cast put in good turns. However, it's the interpretation of the meaning of the death of Christ that intrigues me. When it first hit the screens, some saw it as a bloody expression of the view that Jesus dies to appease God’s wrath. Yet Gibson carefully intersperses scenes of the Last Supper with the scenes of torture, makes Satan a demonic inversion of the Madonna and Child, and constantly makes clear that it is the power of love and not anger or cruelty that is conquering the world. It is brutal and horrific (and so in fifth place) - but so is capital punishment… so maybe we need to endure it. In this film you can find many nuances of the Christian idea of love and redemption and salvation etched upon the screen. 

4 - The Shawshank Redemption 

An man stands in the rain, topless, with face and arms raised in celebration.
Tim Robbins in The Shawshank Redemption.

A less obvious choice, and a film in which there is no vicarious death, but bear with me. Frank Darabont's epic drama sees Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) locked up for a crime he did not commit. Over the decades he learns how to navigate the dangers of prison life, makes friends and enemies, and becomes implicated in a great web of corruption. His great supporter and confidant is ‘Red’ (Morgan Freeman), who is the only man in Shawshank Prison who will admit his murderous guilt. This is one of those films that it's hard not to love, and you’ve probably seen it so many times before that it is the cinematic equivalent of a comforting takeaway. Under the surface of some terrific performances, masterful direction, and a heart-tugging score, the film is full of Christian themes. The innocent man punished for the sins of another, the death of Andy’s ego as he learns to find purpose in improving the lives of his fellow inmates, the dark powers of corruption brought to justice, and a man descending in the very bowels (the right word if you know the escape scene) of hell and emerging clean and reborn. Its aged beautifully, and inaugurated the Freeman voiceover as a staple of cinematic culture. 

3 - The Gospel According to St Matthew 

Jesus carries a cross over his shoulder while Roman soldiers wearing armour look on
Enrique Irazoqui in The Gospel According to Matthew.

Approved by the Vatican and made by a director in his prime wrestling with his faith, Pasolini’s masterpiece is a sumptuous black-and-white exploration of the life of Christ. The entire film is saturated with the sense of living in the poverty of first-century Palestine. Static close ups jump-cutting between one another disorient the viewer and give the impression that the supernatural is taking over the world we are seeing. It is hardly dynamic by the standards of a modern Passion film, but this is to its great benefit. Pasolini lends the film an Italian neo-realist flair that makes it seem almost like one is watching a documentary. The great joy of The Gospel is that it is a telling of the full Gospel, rather than the Passion in isolation. We see Jesus grow into manhood and into ministry, we see the shocking impact of his radical teaching, we see the conspiracy, and so when the Crucifixion of Jesus does happen it is remarkably impactful while also seeming ‘right’. We see how such a Gospel of radical devotion to God and love of neighbour does terrify a world that thinks in terms of power, and we see the great victory that the Cross really is.

2 - Gran Torino 

An older man kneels over in anguish, a window casts light and shadow over him.
Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino.

Clint Eastwood playing a role of a lifetime, and teaching us what loving one’s neighbour really looks like… what more could you want. Eastwood plays Walt: a widower, and veteran, a retired blue-collar worker, and an inveterate racist and tobacco user. Walt is embittered and alone, disgusted by the state of his Detroit neighbourhood, which has morphed from an all-white working-class community to a mainly Asian community blighted by gang violence. One night Walt saves his young neighbour from a forced gang initiation, and grudgingly becomes a mentor and quasi-father-figure to the boy, and soon his sister. Walt has no desire to connect with the world outside, but does so out of a sense of discipline and duty, and this is an excellent corrective to modern sentimental notions of love. On the Cross, Christ performs the most perfect act of love, offering forgiveness even to his executioners… it is unlikely that in that moment Jesus liked them. In the Gospel narratives Jesus is often frustrated to the point of anger, with the stubbornness of his hearers, and the lack of understanding of his disciples. Jesus doesn’t always like them, but he does love them. In the climactic scene of the film Walt resolves to make a great sacrifice to protect his community - a community he doesn’t really like anymore. This is real love, the love of the Cross. It does not emanate from fleeting and flighty emotionalism, but from a tremendous act of dedication and will. Eastwood gives us a great Good Friday lesson in love, and his performance is superb. 

1 - The Last Temptation of the Christ 

Jesus, scared and wearing a crown of thorns, looks directly into the camera.
Willem Dafoe in The Last Temptation of Christ.

My number one pick is a mammoth of visual spectacle and a roller-coaster of emotions. Martin Scorsese has always been fascinated with the Catholic faith that he can’t quite embrace, and many of his most interesting and personal films have had the Christian narrative of redemption woven through. In 'Temptation' he tackles the subject head on, and gives us a religious epic to rival any Charlton Heston flick. Willem Defoe is a lean, wild eyed, and manic Jesus - plagued by doubt and anxiety and horrific migraines that could be demonic…or they could be God. Scorsese and Defoe work together to present the ministry of Jesus in very human terms. Christ is a psychologically complex man who is struggling to cope with his mission in a world that is so very broken. Much like Pasolini’s Gospel, this is a film that takes the supernatural seriously. Nothing is ever just what it is. There is no weather event or vision or animal encounter that is not suffused with eternal meaning. The film touches on every emotion: from furious anger, to heart-rending sadness, to uproarious laughter (to this day I can’t see a priest friend of mine without shouting ‘Judith’ and bursting into laughter). The closing acts of the film allow us to see just what Christ was sacrificing on the Cross - not just the life he had led, but the life he could have led. Christ is tempted to the very end, with the worst psychological torment possible, and still he remains faithful to the end. Scorsese may not know exactly where he stands before God, but he was graced with the talent to give the world a remarkably evocative take on the Passion of Jesus. 

Review
Culture
Music
1 min read

Beyoncé’s breaking barriers

Cowboy Carter sees the star crack her whip in the temple of the music industry.

Krish is a social entrepreneur partnering across civil society, faith communities, government and philanthropy, He founded The Sanctuary Foundation.

Side by side, two rodeo riders on horses trot toward the camera. One is Beyonce, the other a cowboy
Beyoncé at the Houston Rodeo.
Beyoncé.com

I sometimes wake up in a cold sweat with flashbacks of one terrible swimming lesson at school. I had accidentally forgotten to forget my kit, so was forced to face not only the freezing water, but the spouting of ignorant prejudice from my teacher.  

“Kandiah, you’re useless,” he said, as I heaved myself out of the pool at the end of the lesson. “Although I guess it’s not your fault you can’t float like the white children. Your bones are heavier. Look at the Olympics – you never see black and Asian swimmers, do you?” 

I opened and closed my mouth a few times, like the fish out of water I suppose I was, but inside I was seething.  

Being told I couldn’t do something made me all the more determined to do it. Back in I jumped.  

Last week, in another splash aimed at proving people wrong, Beyoncé’s magnificent album “Cowboy Carter” became the first album by a black woman to top the country charts. 

On her Instagram feed she said: “the criticisms I faced when I first entered this genre forced me to propel past the limitations that were put on me.” 

It was a brave move. Back in 2016, she had received heated and hate-filled reactions when she performed her song Daddy Issues at the 50th Country Music Association Awards with the country music group Chicks, formerly known as the Dixie Chicks. Many country music fans were outraged, calling it an act of cultural appropriation. One response on social media put it starkly: “SHE DOES NOT BELONG!!”.  

But as a Texan who had been brought up around country music, Beyoncé disagreed. She would spend the next five years planning her response. Cowboy Carter proves her country credentials beyond all doubt. It’s not only about the music. It also does three important things that show the world what can be done when faced with barriers of prejudice and ignorance. 

She honours the past

The album is clearly an act of tribute to trailblazing country artists before her. Beyoncé included notable guest appearances and feature tracks and took the unusual step of sending flowers to all who had inspired her.  

Beyoncé sent flowers to Mickey Guyton, the first black female artist to be nominated for a Grammy Award in the Country category. She also sent flowers to K. Michelle and featured Tanner Adell, Brittney Spencer and Reyna Roberts on the Cowboy Carter track Blackbird, a song that Paul McCartney wrote as a response to the case of the Little Rock Nine, a group of African-American schoolchildren initially barred from attending a previously racially segregated school in Arkansas. It took the direct intervention of then President Dwight Eisenhower in 1957 to make it possible for these children to attend their school. She also included guest appearances from country music royalty Dolly Parton and Linda Martell, who both introduce songs on the album. Dolly’s introduction to Beyoncé’s reworking of Jolene is particularly poignant: “Hey Queen B it’s Dolly P”.  

The song Jolene sticks faithfully to the guitar riff from the original, but the words and the tone of this song are completely different. Dolly’s original Jolene was begging another woman not to take her man from her. But Beyoncé will have none of that. She is full of threat and menace:

“I’m warnin’ you, don’t come for my man… don’t take the chance because you think you can.”  

As Beyoncé pays her dues to the greats that have gone before, she also offers a very different picture. She can recognise the past, and yet not be imprisoned by it. She can appreciate those who have laid the foundations for a new era, unbound by cruel stereotypes.  

She challenges the present 

We don’t have to look far to see the way that western society is splintering. It is becoming harder to find common ground, harder to move from one tribe to another.  Beyoncé’s album is political in that it is deliberately breaking down a wall and smashing a division. She refuses to accept that there are no-go areas for people of colour. The album feels like Beyoncé’s famous baseball bat from Lemonade, but this time it isn’t smashing cars, but preconceptions and prejudices instead. 

There’s anger in this record. The first song is “American Requiem” and includes the line:  

“They used to say I spoke ‘too country’./ And the reaction came,/ said I wasn’t country ’nough / If that ain’t country / I don’t know what is?” 

Full of confidence and rage she asks over a bed of country music guitar chords:  

“Can you hear me? / Can you stand me?”  

Beyoncé does not disguise the ironies. The fresh anger and challenge weaves into classic forms and tropes of country music. The artist that some wanted to exclude from the genre tops the charts. The pop icon becomes an iconoclast.  The smashing of divisions makes way for the building of something new.   

She opens a door for the future

It is within living memory of many that black people were prohibited from sitting at the front of a public bus or drinking from the same water fountain as white people. Beyoncé’s Cowboy Carter is not just a smash hit it is a smash down of the boundaries of genre that had excluded her and others. With this boundary smashed the opportunity is opened for others too.  

For example, there was a recent stand-out performance at the Grammy awards watched by millions around the world – the duet between the country star Luke Combs and Tracy Chapman. Luke, a young white man, is part of a new generation of country singers with a huge following. The legendary black artist Tracy Chapman recently turned 60. The joyful performance was particularly touching as the two of them looked genuinely delighted to be singing together. The video went viral and lead to a huge uplift in Chapman’s sales. The song Fast Car rocketed to the top of the charts some 36 years after it was first released.  
 
Cowboy Carter is Beyoncé using her voice and talent to push back against prejudice and push forward to a new era. She is cracking her whip in the temple of the music industry. She is driving out those who have commandeered the space that rightly belongs to those from any and all backgrounds.  She is righteously angry at the injustice. She is declaring that country music be reclaimed as a meeting place for all nations to enjoy.  

When Jesus unleashed the whip against the tables of the moneychangers in the temple who were excluding the non-Jews the space rightly belonged to, he fiercely declared: “My father’s house is to be a house of prayer for all the nations.” He was not only breaking the barriers of the past but ushering in a new future, a future where everyone could gather together before God on equal footing. Jesus would eventually die on a cross to ensure this free access to God was available to everyone - wherever they were from, whatever they had done and whatever they looked like.  

I welcome this album by Beyoncé in that spirit of challenging prejudices, breaking down barriers, and clearing the decks for a new future equally available to all.  

If only I could have whipped myself into shape, I believe I could have been the Cowboy Carter of the swimming world forty years ago.  

 

Beyoncé in her own words

“Ain’t got time to waste, I got art to make/ I got love to create on this holy night/ They won’t dim my light, all these years I fight.”  

16 Carriages 

“Say a prayer for what has been / We'll be the ones that purify our father's sins / American Requiem / Them old ideas (yeah) / Are buried here (yeah) / Amen (amen) 

 Amen