Review: The Body

The Body is one of the component religion films in the current trend engineered to raise consciousness. It is weakened even in that task by its anticlericalism. Indeed, one gets the impression that its gnostic considerations – the possibility of faith apart from history – in this case Christianity without a risen Christ – are there merely to lure the viewer in to a trite lecture on clerical and ecclesiastical authority.

In the opening sequences of the film, the priest protagonist Father Matt Gutierrez is simultaneously indicated to be a devout Roman Catholic trusted by the Vatican and to maintain a Protestant anti-catholic ecclesiology. He immediately draws a dialectical distinction between the Church and the Faith. When asked to defend the one, he presumably corrects his superior by substituting the other. The film contrasts him with his Church by Cardinal Pesci saying that between Faith and Church there is no distinction. Immediately the direction, if not the general plotline, of the film is indicated:

We are given two choices – the one that opposes Church to Faith, and the one that fails to distinguish them. The premise is the old Augustinian one shared by Roman Catholic and Protestant alike: distinction equals opposition. There is no room in the film for a Faith distinct from the Church but not in opposition to it. The film concludes with an equivocation – faith for The Faith, ending up then on the Protestant side of its own dialectic. The protagonist, disillusioned with the stereotypical power-brokering of the Vatican, chooses his own “personal way”, and that is presumably a defense of The Faith and an indictment of The Church.

The pragmatic skepticism of the film’s ambitious Israeli bureacrat Moshe Cohen – ‘If Christ is found to be still in His tomb, Christianity may lose a few, but it will continue because religion is not about facts, it’s about human need’ is certainly a tired thesis. Christianity long ago answered that a need for something does not indicate its nature, cause, or reason for persistence. Choosing to explain a phenomenon in a particular way does not necessarily tell us these things; it tells us only about the one who is explaining.

The character’s view is in the film to represent a particular ‘common wisdom’ answer to religion as a generic total. What he and that ‘wisdom’ lack is the basic knowledge of the centrality of historical events, particularly the Divine Incarnation, to Christianity – unique in this way from all else that is called “religion”. If Jesus Christ was not God Incarnate, Christianity as such, will not continue. But the film does little to dispel the general theological ignorance.

Only the protagonist in the film seems to understand what is at stake in religious terms rather than psychological and political ones, and he is beset with the typically flippant theological ignorance of his counterpart and love interest (more on this) archeologist Sharon Golban, as she makes the most asinine comment of the drama, ‘Why is it such a big deal for you people if that’s Christ in the tomb? Isn’t it enough that he was a good moral teacher? Do you really have to have him rise from the dead too?’ We are granted the sense that the priest is frustrated with her failure to realize that the Incarnation, and specifically the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, is indeed necessary to His very morality and teaching. The latter makes no sense without the former, presume as non-Christians and anticlericalists would to understand a Christless Christianity.

What we do not see is much discussion of this point. He stands alone, with even the stereotypical Richelieu-esque Vatican cardinals arguing only the power of the Church. Golban’s naivete is further underlined when she cries and sniffles out, ‘Why won’t they leave me alone’, when zealots begin throwing stones.

Moshe Cohen tells Father Gutierrez he selected the Roman Catholic Church to investigate the dig because it is the most formidable of the Christian confessions, but the film wouldn’t have had a plot if he’d gone to the mainline Protestant denominations, whose revisionism might have answered that the body is irrelevant; only the spirit is raised. The film recognizes that it is historic Christianity of which an “unrisen Christ” would spell “the end”, not each of its various revised and amended versions. What was at stake, as far as Father Gutierrez was concerned, was whether or not Jesus Christ was God. Implicit in that concern is that historic Christianity insists that to be the case. One wouldn’t get that from many of the religious revisionists. This recognition in Father Gutierrez’ constant confession that Jesus Christ is God is the film’s most interesting and substantive element.

The film is further weakened by the usual religious shock sequences. There is a brief scene where the heroine kisses our hero the priest, and he seems to succumb for a moment. There are earlier moments as clues this will happen – when he stands as close to her as might a lover; had he been a construction worker, she would have slugged him or called for help. The sequence does not succeed in shocking, or even being interesting. It is merely bowing to the formulae of the current religious film genre, in which one would place films like Dogma, The Passover Plot, Stigmata, and Original Sin, where priests as presumably icons of the sacred, are cursed at, spit upon, or sexed up. The genre hasn’t come farther than the Exorcist, or perhaps a more interesting film Stranger Among Us.

Incongruently Golban, among the closing scenes of the film expresses some faith in a quasi-Judaistic God. This warm fluff, if meant to leave the viewer all cuddly, succeeds only in undermining the heroine’s skeletal integrity of which the rest of the film took such great pains to convince us.

In light of these failings, relatively minor flaws include the complete absence of the Jerusalem Patriarchy of the Orthodox Church, which would at least have noticed such events. There were never enough guards around the tomb. The Romans had a whole legion or something like it there; Israel had two to four guys and sometimes none. And there were all the typical elements of a Vatican plot: secret diplomacy, cryptography, theft, cover-up, the vow of secrecy – enough for the paranoid right or for the suspicious left, but no one dared call it “conspiracy”. At best it was noted that a perceived Vatican coverup would weaken its standing. The question of conspiracy as Vatican policy was either presumed or ignored.

There are interesting parts – Father Gutierrez briefly arguing Talmudic hermeneutics with a venerable ‘Rebbi’, and being called Rabbi in return – it’s weird seeing a priest in a yarmulke; the stone-throwing fest by Orthodox Jews – they got in some really good shots; the economical use of pyrotechnics to terrorize a Palestinian shopkeeper – just enough to be scary in a “we were in your place and we can get to you” kind of way.

In all, Banderas does a decent job, until his attempts to be in-your-face at the Vatican with over-rated “You can’t handle the truth” remarks that wouldn’t even have earned him a burning during the Spanish Inquisition. The subject matter was interesting enough – an earthshaking archeological find – an explosion of religious and ethnic violence in a region where Judaism, Islam, and Christianity coexist. But the film descends into an anticlimactic couple of booms, a bit of scientific incompetence, and a vaguely fundamentalist conversion for its big statement.

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