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A Contemplative Synoptic
on January 30, 2014
"The Greatest Story Ever Told" is not an uninspired Sunday school lesson, soap-box lecture nor "holiday" movie and probably shouldn't be lumped in with other biblical epics. Rather, it's more of a 260 minute art film that attempts to capture a few moments from arguably the most influential life in human history.
Such an unprecedented and large cast of established actors may be distracting to some, however so many of the performances hint at an underlying passion. Whereas actors such as Charlton Hesston, Jose Ferrer and Martin Landau do justice to the subject other performances such as Sal Mineo, Sidney Poitier, Van Heflin and even John Wayne somehow give the impression of a desire to be part of something larger than themselves thus adding to the overall credibility. Gary Raymond is an impetuous and sometimes abrasive Peter, Telly Savalas embodies Roman imperialism and arrogance, Donald Pleasance presents a surreal personification of evil and Max Von Sydow is such a palpable source of gravitas whose piercing eyes speak volumes.
There are few greater examples in cinema that come to mind where extended pauses in dialogue are used to such powerful effect especially in emphasizing one of the most hauntingly beautiful, original musical scores on film while the innovative use of the American Southwest rather than the Middle East for location shots enhances the overwhelming breadth of the story itself. Particularly noteworthy scenes include: the temptation of Christ, healing of a blind man in Nazareth, the resurrection of Lazarus accompanied by the Hallelujah chorus from Handel's "Messiah", the inner turmoil of Judas' betrayal, recitation of the Lord's prayer on the banks of the Jordan at dusk, the solemnity of the Last Supper, the abject darkness of Christ's trial before the Sanhedrin, the bleakness of the crucifixion and the triumphal Easter morning. At first glance the script seems to employ an almost disjointed use of scripture lacking context however it is more of an example of added exposition and definitely requires some thought on the part of the viewer.
Cinematic masterpiece is probably a term thrown around a bit lightly (I even do it myself sometimes) but this truly represents a profound adaptation of a weighty subject. The overall tenor possesses a welcome hint of cynicism rather than the unrealistic optimism typically associated with religious films of a previous era but without the blunt irreverence of subsequent decades; "Greatest Story Ever Told" is a mentally demanding and emotionally evocative film that shouldn't be taken lightly. :o)