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    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.


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    Sunday, June 14, 2020

    Assassin 33 A.D. (2020)


    After all the campaigns and protests about Life of Brian (1979), Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Jerry Springer: The Opera (2005) it turns out the most sacrilegious Jesus film of all time is not one made by sceptics in search of a quick buck, but by conservative Christians. Assassin 33 A.D. is a piece of well-intended Christertainment so jaw droppingly wrong-headed, it's a miracle no-one stepped in to stop it. Yet I cannot stop thinking about it. After all, how many movies can there be which have the sheer audacity to send terrorists back in time to assassinate Jesus?

    The "Christian movie" elements of the film are most pronounced at the start. Brandt (Donnny Boaz) and his wife (played by reality TV star Heidi Montag) are in the process of relocating so he can start a new job when a juggernaut ploughs into their car. Montag and the couple's children all die,but Brandt somehow survives. Shortly afterwards we see Brandt, channelling as much Scarlet O'Hara as he can muster, growling "I am not your guy anymore" towards the sky, but somehow you get the sense his mustering is only going to last for the next 90 minutes or so.

    The next scene cuts to two new characters in  a university lecture hall - an increasingly popular location for Christian movies. Here, though, the location is more about flirting than creating of flimsy straw men, (c.f. God's Not Dead) notably between socially-awkward-though-not-in-a-loveable-way Ram Goldstein (Morgan Roberts) and fellow scientist Amy Lee (Isla Levine). The two are competing in a test, run as part of the assessment process for a highly paid tech job, which it turns out is the same mysterious company that Brandt has started working for as Head of Security. Despite Ram's awkwardness, and his outspoken scepticism about Amy's beliefs, the two somehow get together and, having both passed the test, they end up working together on a project to create a matter transfer device. Three months later and not only have the team all but completed the teleporting machine, but Ram also realises that a few extra lines of code mean it can also double as a time machine.

    Such a discovery is immensely pleasing to the couple's secretive employers who turn out to be Islamic terrorists. On discovering Ram's new invention their boss Ahmed decides the best way to use it is to go back in time to "eliminate Jesus before the resurrection", thus "effectively dismantling Christianity" and "correcting the greatest deception of all time". No-one asks how putting a bullet in the saviour's brain will prevent rumours about Jesus' resurrection spreading any more than when he was crucified by the Romans, so Brandt and his team are dispatched to Gethsemane with machine guns and body armour.

    What follows is a complex mess of tangled timelines, alternative realities, eccentric theology and convenient plot devices. Assassin 33 A.D.'s unusual combination of genres (sci-fi and biblical epic) mean that it's uniquely able to manoeuvre out of any narratorial tight spots with recourse to either pseudo-scientific babble ("time doesn't change instantaneously, it has to re-write itself") or theological clichés ("God works in mysterious ways" is actually uttered at one point). The scientists and Brandt's SWAT team jump back and forth between both the ancient and recent past resulting in several different Jesus timelines. 

    Aside from this offering a novel solution to the synoptic problem, Jesus eventually reveals that these events are all part of God's plan. Freshly resurrected, he appears to Amy in the garden and tells her the Parable of the Lost Sheep where the shepherd is happy to risk ninety-nine sheep in order to save the hundredth. The choice of this one parable combined with the odd timing - given he is also meant to be meeting Mary Magdalene at any minute - seems to suggest this is meant to be the whole message of the film. Brandt is the missing sheep and all the time travel, plotting and redundant timelines just turns out to be God's unnecessarily over-complicated plan to shepherd Brandt back into the fold. 

    Unfortunately, the problems with the film go further than simply its theology or implausibility. Despite the filmmakers seemingly wanting to do the right thing in terms of ethnicity, racial prejudice crops up repeatedly. The science team may tick the right boxes diversity-wise - Simon, an African American; Felix, a Latino; Amy, a white Christian; and, in Ram, a Jewish atheist - yet their portrayals lapse all too easily into racial stereotypes. Despite being a top scientist, Simon is portrayed as being lazy and goes round telling his colleagues to "chill out" and "be cool". Ram is overly proud. Felix corresponds to the Hispanic stereotypes Berg has classified under "The Male Buffoon" ("simple-mindedness", "failure to master standard English" and "childish regression into emotionality") typified by his bizarre cuddling of a toy penguin even in a science lab (184).

    Then, of course, there is problematic portrayal of the Muslims in the film all of whom are Islamic terrorists. Again it feels like the filmmakers do try to circumnavigate the potential problems. One of the terrorists does question their mission. Jesus is Islam's second most holy prophet, shouldn't he be respected? Likewise, later Felix asks why Muslims would act this way, leading Ram to explain that "they wouldn't, but Ahmed's part of an extremist group". Nevertheless, these instances do little to balance out the uneasy way Ahmed, "the world's most famous refugee", is leading a bunch of homegrown terrorists in acts of 'Jihad'.  Of course, "Islamic terrorism" has been a staple feature of Hollywood dramas for a quarter of a century, so it perhaps seems a little churlish to object now, but there's something particularly uncomfortable about the way things are portrayed here, perhaps because of the film's strong Christian affinities. 

    In many ways the filmmakers' uneven handling of ethnicity typifies the film's uneven contradictions. From a theological angle Laura Robinson describes is as being "both thoroughly sincere in its obvious love for Jesus, and also the most blasphemous thing ever made by filmmakers". Moments such as the one where Simon and Jesus are discussing The Passion of the Christ and trade lines from The Terminator (1984) jar with heavy themes such as terrorism, salvation and determinism. Minor players in the Gospels have their places filled by time travellers. Occasionally an interesting idea crops up, but somehow each and every one is fumbled. At times I found myself mulling over how a particular problem might have been solved by cutting a line here or a scene there, only to be struck, once again, by the sheer abundance of its problems. Worse still, even were they all to be fixed, doing so would only strip the film of its vagarious charm.

    The result of all this is a movie that feels destined to be a cult classic. It's a film so bad, it shoots right past 'good' without drawing so much as a breath. In many ways, it's truly something which could only be conceived in Trump's America, with a theology so muddled it has God go extraordinary lengths to reverse a crisis of faith, rather than prevent a simple accident. It's "faith-based" story finds its greatest threat in a naturalised citizen who arrived escaping terrorism as a child, and features a white man in riot police gear shooting a peaceful, unarmed, Middle-Eastern, protester in the head at point-blank range. It thinks diversity is important, but can only conceive of others via racial stereotypes.Having toured the festival circuit for years seeking a big distributor it was eventually released in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic. Somehow, that could not be more fitting.

    If you'd like to read more about this film I recommend the various threads about it on Twitter from the NT Review Pod's Laura Robinson, Jeremy Thomas parts one and two and Nathaniel Ralstin (@Hoosier 2012). Robinson also discusses it in episode 91 of the NT Pod.
     
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    Berg, Charles Ramírez (2011) "Hispanic Stereotyping" in Richard Delgado, Jean Stefancic (eds.) The Latino/a Condition: A Critical Reader, Second Edition. New York: New York University Press.p.183-188

    - For a time this film was known as Resurrection Time Conspiracy and Black Easter Resurrection.

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