On Saturday I took my seat knowing little more than the title of the film I was going to see, and the inkling that I’d seen a positive review posted by my go to movie reviewer. It meant I had no idea what to expect from Hail, Caesar!, the latest offering from the Coen brothers.
And when the credits rolled I wasn’t sure whether I’d seen an enjoyable film, or a brilliant film. It certainly was enjoyable, the tap dancing number with Channing Tatum alone made it that. The comedy of the characters intoning on the Marxist dialectic and the end of history, made this political philosophy geek chuckle. The minor roles played by Scarlett Johansson, Ralph Fiennes and Tilda Swinton shone brightly, and the mixture of 1950s Hollywood studio narrative combined with the pastiche of films in production was executed beautifully.
Yet it was far more than that. I had a sense there was more going on than I appreciated at first viewing, and after my initial reaction: ‘I enjoyed that’ came a second: ‘I need to see that again to really appreciate it’. To my aid came Alissa Wilkinson, my go to reviewer (usually for Christianity Today), who opened her review with: “Look, I know there’s no bigger cliché that a Christian critic sitting around identifying “Christ figures” at the movies. But in their latest, Joel and Ethan Coen show their hand so obviously – the subtitle for the Ben Hur-like film-within-a-film, also called Hail, Caesar!, is “A Tale of the Christ” – that I’m either being trolled or baited. I’ll bite.”
A colleague who had also seen Hail, Caesar! commented on the review: “I can’t decide if these links to the passion are ridiculously tenuous or ridiculously obvious!” It seems to me that the film is either incredibly clever at weaving theological ideas into the storyline or incredibly religiously illiterate to get this much into the story without it being intentional. I’m certain it is the former, as Wilkinson notes: “The Coens are too meticulous to not have intended all that.”
I could simply repeat Wilkinson’s review, but that would be tiresome. And plagiarism. So read what she has to say. But to paraphrase: her thesis is that Edward Mannix – the studio executive at the centre of the story – plays a sort of Man of Sorrows, bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders as he runs around sorting out the crises of the actors and actresses, all the while being tempted away from this path by the offer of an easier and more rewarding life.
In the climactic scene of the film, as well as the recording of the film-within-a-film Hail, Caesar!, Clooney’s character, playing a centurion, gives a speech at the foot of the cross. You’re not sure whether he’s pledging his allegiance to Christ or to Mannix, and to spurn the idea that Mannix is actually the Man of Sorrows, can’t get the crucial word out at the end of the speech. He lacks faith.
What strikes me, to take Wilkinson’s thesis further, and of particular relevance during this Passion Week, is our tendency to seek rescue from the people and things that can’t provide it. Whether this is an employer, an organisation, or a relationship, whether it’s in success, money or sex, whether it’s through independence or dependence, we intuitively “get” that for us to benefit, someone else will often have to suffer; that there are failings that need to be accounted for.
Paradoxically, we frequently do two things at once: we look to others to shoulder the burden of what really should be ours, and we try and achieve salvation through our own means. We look to our strengths as the way out, while wanting others to take the blame.
In his Palm Sunday sermon author Andy Crouch reflected on the idolatry at the centre of searching for meaning from things that cannot provide it. The irony of idols is that they begin by offering satisfaction but with time they demand more from us and give us less, until sometimes they take it all.
The image he used was of Diana, Princess of Wales, a face known to the world and perpetuated through attention to the fawning gaze of the media, and yet at the end the paparazzi were chasing her through a tunnel in Paris to get one more image.
The contrast was given in Mother Theresa, a woman whose face was also known by many but achieved her renown by finding the divine in the faces of those the world rejected.
Our strengths are more often the root of our problems than our weaknesses. The more reliant we become on our strengths to come to our rescue, the closer we come to the point when they cannot.
When Jesus cried out in the Garden of Gethsemane that if it be the Father’s will, that this cup would be taken from Him, it was His weakness on display and not His strength. As He was taunted on the cross to take Himself down if He really was God, He left His strength and allowed Himself to become weak.
Jesus, the Man of Sorrows, the bearer of the weight of the world, calls to us across the millennia that our strength is of no value to our rescue. Our strengths can be redeemed and used for His purposes, but only once we allow our weakness to come to the fore. Passion play or not, Hail, Caesar! was a timely reminder that it is only in weakness that we accept we cannot do it on our own.