When I bought the DVD, I presumed that I had seen the movie as a kid. The reason I hadn’t is that it came out in 1953, the year I had gone into the Franciscan Novitiate. I saw it today, 63 years later, for the first time. Not knowing that it had won three Oscars, I was not expecting anything but another peplum with syrupy scenes like Peter’s sermon in “Quo Vadis ?”, accompanied by tear-jerking piety pressed down and flowing over. I should have known that with a line-up of stars like Richard Burton, Jean Simmons, Victor Mature (who had played Samson, “The Hairy Hero” of an earlier post, January 2, 2015) and Michael Rennie, it could not be all that bad. To my surprise it turned out to be one of the best religious movies I have ever seen. It not only deserved its Oscars for Best Costumes, Best Artistic Direction and Best Decor, but its scenario avoided the excesses too common in the genre. There were just two scenes spoiled by Angels vocalizing at the moment of conversion of the central character, Roman Tribune Marcellus, who had crucified Jesus, and the same Angels breaking into an anachronistic “Alleluia” chorus when he and his lady love were led off to their martyrdom in the final scene of the movie.
The robe of the title provided the pretext for what turned out to be a gripping, credible yarn about the birth of Christianity. The fictional garment which Jesus is supposed to have worn as He trudged up the Via Dolorosa to Calvary, unlike “real” relics such as splinters of the “True” Cross, the Shroud of Turin and the Crown of Thorns, had no supposed miraculous powers, but provides, if one may be allowed such a play on words, a red thread for the drama. Miracles are mentioned in the movie, but are in fact downplayed. The faith of Jesus’ disciples is based rather on His person, the message He preached and the vision He gave them of a world, a kingdom, of love and justice. The movie no doubt reinforces that faith and could perhaps even inspire it. The trouble, if not the pity, is that it’s just a story, like the Gospels themselves – minus their contradictions and the dark side of the just and gentle Jesus, as detailed in the previous post, “Jesus Imposed Instant Death On Dissenters” (P.S. The post referred to has since been deleted, because based on a totally mistaken reading of Luke 19:27. I have posted a formal apology for my stupid, inexcusable mistake.)
The film will not disturb the atheism of those who have already rejected their religious upbringing. But it is a salutary reminder to us of the reasons Christianity has managed to survive for so long. Don’t tell anyone, but it should be part of the arsenal of the Christian catechist. However it won’t convince the Believer on the Brink, who has begun to discover serious obstacles to swallowing the myths on which Christianity is based. It would take more than even a powerful peplum to bring him or her back to full-blown traditional belief.
D E L E N D A R E L I G I O