Thursday, April 9, 2020

Movie Review: "Golgotha"; a.k.a. "Behold the Man" (1935)

a.k.a. Ecce Homo; Behold the Man

Director: Julien Duvivier

Screenplay: Joseph Reymond

Cinematographer: Jules Kruger

Starring: Robert Le Vigan as Jesus

Production company: Transat Films

Country: France

Initial release: 12 April 1935

Run Time: 95 minutes

When Jesus spoke for the first time on the cinematic screen, it was in French, not English. This French film was Julien Duvivier's Ecce Homo released in 1935 with Robert Le Vigan in the title role. Two years later, 1937, the film was dubbed in English and shown in the United States with the title Golgotha or Behold the Man. As the name suggests, this movie focuses on the events of Passion Week, beginning with Palm Sunday and ending with the Resurrection and Ascension. In doing this, the film returns to the origins of depicting Jesus on screen with a focus on the Passion, Death and Resurrection, much in the tradition of the old Passion Plays.

Golgotha, being 95 minutes in length, examines in particular the political realities against which the events of Christ's passion were played. In doing this, it focuses on the hostilities of the Jewish leaders and teachers with Jesus, as well as on the encounter between Jesus and Pilate. Being the first sound picture about Jesus, it does something never done before, mainly because it could not be captured well in silent films - it shows Jesus being mocked by the Jews and Romans over and over again, relentlessly, while he remains mostly silent. And while in previous films children sometimes played a special cute role as friends of Jesus, in this film the only real depiction of children is when they begin to throw stones at him. It also develops the story of Claudia, wife of Pilate, who was haunted by Jesus and tried to stop his execution; she is the primary female portrayal in this film.

For the most part, Jesus is shown from a respectful distance as was also the case in Ben-Hur, Quo Vadis, and The Robe, but there are also a few closer shots and even close-ups. The close-up shots are very powerful and penetrate deep, showing Jesus either in a serious mood, or suffering and in pain, or even appearing sad. There is no smiling Jesus in this film. The first thing we see Jesus doing in this film is overturning the tables of the money-changers in the temple. Often there seems to be an imbalance between Jesus and Pontius Pilate, played by the famous actor Jean Gabin. Pilate is strong and dominant, overpowering Jesus who is shown to be sad and anguished and distracted, and his soft voice (softer in the original French than the English) makes him come off as somewhat effeminate. Nonetheless, he is still well portrayed look-wise, though Le Vigan's image is a bit tainted when you realize that ten years later he would become a fascist and Nazi collaborator.

Years after this film, in his reflections on the making of his own Jesus of Nazareth (1977), Franco Zeffirelli remembered this Duvivier film as the "most beautiful" of all the Jesus films he had seen. Although Duvivier's film is in many respects superior to its predecessors, it manifests some of the weaknesses endemic to many later Jesus films. The elaborate sets and huge crowds of extras, for example, did not promote a very profound treatment of the spiritual reality of the passion, of the mystery of Jesus' suffering. The only part I felt somewhat moved by in the film was when Jesus was being mocked and crowned with thorns by Roman soldiers. Though a "talkie", Jesus here is best played silent. Otherwise, though a beautiful movie with gems here and there, it is still stale for the most part, though a recommended film for Holy Week viewing.

Out of a score of 1 to 10, Golgotha gets a 7.4.

You can see the movie here or stream it on Amazon Prime.