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Imagining Christ: Three Wise Films (film series)

Dates: Saturday, May 31, 2008, 4:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, June 1, 2008, 4:00 p.m.
Location: Getty Center, Harold M. Williams Auditorium
Admission: Free; reservations required.

This three-film series complements the exhibition Imagining Christ (at the Getty Center, May 6–July 27, 2008) and explores the idea that Jesus Christ was simultaneously human and divine. The films reveal how different the telling of the "greatest story of all time" can be. Luis Buñuel's Simon of the Desert uses a Christ stand-in to criticize the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church, while the parodic Monty Python's Life of Brian lampoons the Christ story without pause. Far more serious is Jesus of Montreal, centering on a Christ figure who plays in and plays out the Passion.

The series is presented in cooperation with the UCLA Film & Television Archive.

Simon of the Desert: Saturday, May 31, 4:00 p.m.

Monty Python's Life of Brian: Saturday, May 31, 7:30 p.m.

Jesus of Montreal: Sunday, June 1, 4:00 p.m.

Still from Jesus of Montreal

Simon of the Desert (Simón del Desierto)

(Mexico, 1965, Luis Buñuel, 45 min.)
Saturday, May 31, 4:00 p.m.

For nearly the entire length of this short, pungent, powerfully affecting film, the 5th-century ascetic Saint Simon stands atop his pillar in the desert, arms splayed, a long scraggly beard blown stiffly perpendicular like a windsock. He eats one lettuce leaf a day. Simon's renunciation of the world, however, cannot keep the world away. His holy patience is tried by a cacophonous throng of supplicants, blaspheming monks, goatherds, and Satan disguised as a Victorian schoolgirl. But despite the radical absurdity of his sacrifice, Simon is the only character in the film who is spared the bite of Buñuel's satire. With absolute seriousness, the film asks: What is this awesome thing called faith that drives us to such beautiful extremes?

(USA, 1964, Rolf Forsberg, 22 min.)

The evening opens with this short film that bears a Buñuelian surrealist bent. Commissioned for exhibition in the Protestant Council's Pavilion at the 1964 World's Fair in New York, Parable is "basically an art film that got religion" (Time). The Christ in the film is a clown in chalky white makeup who both confronts and disturbs his fellow carnival performers. While many found the Passion play controversial, the film was nevertheless popular.

Still from Simon of the Desert

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Monty Python's Life of Brian

(Great Britain, 1979, Terry Jones, 94 min.)
Saturday, May 31, 7:30 p.m.

This parody on messianic worship and false religious piety is the Python's best work and one of the most hilarious films ever made. In his 33rd year, Brian Cohen of Nazareth joins an underground political organization seeking to overthrow the lisping Pontius Pilate and boot the Romans out of the Holy Land. Along the way, the real Christ appears on the scene to deliver his Sermon on the Mount, but the would-be followers are unable to hear his words. In his role as a Judean freedom fighter, Brian is eventually followed as the messiah, a role he does not want. Pursued by eager acolytes, he is also sought by the Romans to "nail some sense into him." Eventually, the cast yet finds humor on the cross as they sing a jolly round of "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life."

Still from Monty Python's Life of Brian

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Jesus of Montreal

(Canada, 1988, Denys Arcand, 119 min.)
Sunday, June 1, 4:00 p.m.

An actor, Daniel, who looks to be about 33, returns to Montreal after a long, unexplained absence. With fiery, haunted eyes, he declares that the only gig that interests him is the role of Christ in a Passion play on the grounds of a Catholic chapel atop Mont-Royal. Daniel gathers his cast from the tawdry underside of Montreal's acting community. Tasked by a theater-loving priest with "modernizing" the script, the actors turn to archaeology and resolve to present a historical Jesus, stripped of myth and miracle, who nevertheless dies on the cross. What remains is Christ's profoundly revolutionary message of compassion, a message too radical for the Québécois church hierarchy, who threaten to shut down the play, which has already reaped a fervently devoted audience. The film ends with a sacrifice as surprising as it is inevitable. Arcand directs with uncompromising intelligence and empathy, never turning to irony for an easy out. We are left with a searing sense of grief for this character who risked everything to resurrect the story of Christ.

Still from Jesus of Montreal

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Film stills from Monty Python's Life of Brian and Jesus of Montreal are courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Film still from Simon of the Desert is courtesy of Altura Films International/Photofest.

Text adapted from program notes by Andrea Alsberg and Theresa Schwartzman of the UCLA Film & Television Archive.