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O Magazine
2015-2017

MODERN MARTYROLOGY

BY

ENRIC ROS

THE SAINT SEBASTIAN OF THE RING, ACCORDING TO GEORGE LOIS.

By now, practically the whole of humanity knows that Leonardo DiCaprio –whom, since The Revenant, has become the real ecce homo of contemporary film– won the Oscar for Best Actor by painfully crawling on the snow, bathing in frozen waters and gnawing raw bison liver, among other tortures orchestrated by film director and part-time dominatrix Alejandro González Iñárritu. Merely a year earlier, the actor had been nominated for a more varied role, the ruthless broker of The Wolf of Wall Street; but the members of the Academy didn’t seem eager to award him with a prize just by playing a guy with a modus vivendi so similar to that of any Hollywood star. If DiCaprio wanted the Oscar, he should renounce to his image of spoiled brat, party hopper, regular of yachts full of models and cocaine, and suffer a martyrdom comme il faut, in order to purge his sins as insolent film star.

MARLON BRANDO, READY TO SUFFER FOR OUR SINS.

CRUCIFIXION ACCORDING
TO GRÜNEWALD,
A PIONEER OF TORTURE
PORN.

Modern martyrology – O Production Company

At first, it might sound surprising for a fundamentally profane art to consecrate its most relevant figures through rituals of physical pain and sacrifice similar to religious representation. In the iconography of films –and, by extension, all mass culture– there’s a space reserved for modern saints who undergo their particular via crucis on the screen, and also in real life. It isn’t by chance that in the gratest popular culture myths there is always a trace of “Christ-like” maladjustment that brings as a result a plethora of predicaments, when not the tragedy of premature death, which –like the son of God’s– grants them immortality. We love the characters we secretly want to destroy, as proved by necrophiliac idolatry towards a whole series of “funerary” stars, from James Dean to Kurt Cobain or Amy Winehouse. When they manage to survive beyond their youth, changing their heroine shots for tai chi, we are tempted to call them cynics or impostors. That’s why Marilyn Monroe, the star system’s great misfit, is, from the day she died, an immortal star. As philosopher Edgar Morin says in The Stars, her presence on the screen provokes on the audience something that goes beyond pure sexual discomfiture or other “scopophiliac” emotions; it testifies a maladjustment, a problem, a search” connected to greater existential dilemmas, of which she probably wasn’t even too conscious. Maybe we love Marilyn so much because, like Christ, she was able to die for us.

THE IMITATION OF CHRIST

THE PASSION, FOR HOLBEIN, WAS A PURE LYNCHING ACT.

Pain is often considered a proof of sanctity. Blood, the five wounds, the wound in his side, are incontestable confirmations of Christ’s sacrifice. The objects of sin, taken directly from the torture rack, are also worshipped by believers. The cross, the spear, the crown of thorns, the spikes, become the arma Christi; that is, the “arms” Christ would have used in his war against Satan. Christ was saved (or he saved us), thus, destroying himself. From here on, letting ourselves get carried away by a somewhat heterodox line of thought, we might affirm that the seminal act of the catholic religion is, symbolically, a great sadomasochistic ceremony of idolatry/mortification of its founder’s body. And that the subsequent reincarnation of such body in the communion wafer manages to blend in a sublime way, as affirms French historian Jacques Gélis, the feeding, the sacramental and the scatological”. The Messiah we see in images (or Franco Zeffirelli’s, it’s the same thing), with long hair, blue eyes and harmonious features is transformed during the Passion into A Man of Sorrows, the deformed and almost grotesque figure, massacred on the cross, portrayed by Flemish and High German painters as Hans Holbein, the Elder or Matthias Grünewald, fetishists of physical torment as spiritual road. This (forbidden) drive to immolate the body of the son of God finds its maximum modern apotheosis in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, an excess that, we don’t know whether for a hyper realistic or heretic will, or maybe due to its director’s derangement, applied to the conventions of religious films the efficient techniques of torture porn. 

But beyond the usual Jesus Christ hagiographies and biopics, films propose a series of lay revisions of the traditional martyrology that condensate all the ambivalence contained in the image of the suffering body. The neo-martyrs of film manage to move audiences with a poetic of lacerated flesh, while at the same time they stimulate certain hidden pleasures, not devoid of regret, in the contemplation of all this ceremony of cruelty. This will to unite desire and pain isn’t exactly new. Painting had already used it repeatedly, as confirms such a blatant work as François-Léon Bénouville’s The Miraculous Communion of Saint Catherine of Siena, at the Louvre Museum, which shows the Saint kissing with obvious pleasure the wound on the side that Christ serenely offers her. After God’s “official” death in the 20th century, there will emerge a series of artists with religious preoccupations –whether orthodox or heretic– like Carl Theodor Dreyer, Luis Buñuel, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Abel Ferrara or Lars von Trier, eager to unite libido and blame in a series of visions of devastating predicaments and disturbing acts of mortification. Directors of the second generation of sound film, like Elia Kazan or Nicholas Ray, also torment their protagonists to exhaustion. The individual hero becomes thus the Romantic outsider who collapses in style in front of the audience. Dean’s and Montgomery Clift’s perpetual lassitude contrasts with the rocky and imperturbable presence of the idols from the previous generation, Gary Cooper and John Wayne; although classic stars such as James Cagney had also represented death and the transfiguration of new urban martyrs, like gangsters Eddie Bartlett, in The Roaring Twenties, or Cody Jarrett in White Heat; both by Raoul Walsh. At the end of the day, the never-ending agony of Jean-Luc Godard’s À bout de souffle was nothing else than a pop parody of Cagney’s Passions in Walsh’ films.

PASSION AS PERFORMANCE IN MARINA ABRAMOVIĆ.

The second great variation of the urban martyr, according to classic film moulds, is the figure of the failed boxer. Pugilistic noirs such as Robert Wise’s The Set-Up reach their maximum peak of beauty when the common man, who tries to emulate the gods, collapses, exhausted, on the ring. Although boxers live continually obsessed by victory, they get part of their “mystic” halo by offering proof of their intense pain. That’s probably why clever art director George Lois decided to present Muhammad Ali as a modern Saint Sebastian in a popular Esquire cover. Also Martin Scorsese, a director interested in atonement and the fight to achieve sanctity in modern scenarios in the ghetto of Little Italy, saw the spiritual side of the ring. In Raging Bull, the great defeat of Jake LaMotta before Sugar Ray Robinson is shot as pure thaumaturgy, as a paroxysmal crescendo that grants spiritual redemption to the character when he falls. As the director himself affirms, violence is an internal thing. I know, positively, that a broken nose doesn’t bleed that way. That vision becomes a mental projection.” The insistence to show the massacred body of the boxer becomes neo-Baroque, almost cartoon-like, in a recent film by Darren Aronofsky, The Wrestler. There’s a particular kind of poetry in Mickey Rourke’s Frankenstenian and perpetually damaged body; the actor, thanks to anabolic steroids and the stapler (his particular arma christi), becomes a sort of suburb Christ-like figure. As you may know, the old star of 9 Weeks and 1/2 lives trapped in a perpetual spiral of self-aggression and (failed) reconstruction, in which set-up boxing matches and cheap plastic surgery operations follow each other. In time, he has moved from an interpretation that mimicked, with better or worse luck, “Brando’s style” to a total body performance, as if he were a gangster version of Marina Abramović. The Wrestler absorbs the excess of traditional representations of the Passion and spits it out as a tacky and colourful version, explicitly pop, but which doesn’t take away a dot of transcendence to Rourke’s suffering. Before Aronofsky, the misunderstood Uli Edel of Last Exit, Brooklyn had already offered a heretic and proletarian version of the Passion, crucifying a repressed homosexual in a Brooklyn fifties side street by (almost) literally killing with sex a prostitute interpreted by Jennifer Jason Leigh, condemned as a Joan of Arc of the 20th century by a psychopath patriarchal society.

JENNIFER JASON LEIGH, A JOAN OF ARC OF (MEAN) STREETS.

ART CRITIC JEAN-MANUEL TRAIMOND CONDENSED THE BEAUTY OF THE MIRACULOUS COMMUNION OF SAINT CATHERINE OF SIENA IN ONE SENTENCE: “WHAT A BEAUTIFUL FELLATIO!”.

THE NEW MAN OF SORROWS

One of the first to capture the plastic beauty of a body in pain on the screen was Marlon Brando, the king of a whole generation of film sufferers. One of his particular abilities was to contrast his evident bodily vigour with a certain spiritual vulnerability. If we take a close look, we’ll notice that Brando’s characters frequently receive punches but rarely strike back, something that goes hand in hand with a process of personal redemption, as in On the Waterfront or The One-Eyed Jacks. The principle of offering the other cheek acquires almost co(s)mic proportions in The Chase, where sheriff Calder, played by Brando, is lapidated by some village thugs as if he were a new messiah in a long sequence that confirms the sadomasochistic tendencies of the star. Even the almighty Godfather is, in fact, a figure of moving frailty: in the first film of the trilogy, Vito Corleone is shot on the back while he’s buying fruit for his grandson and, finally, he dies while playing with him in a sort of garden of Eden. Also in Neorealism, a style looking to “transform” the audience, we can find instances of epiphanies through showing martyrs of the people such as Cesira (Sophia Loren) and her daughter Rosetta (Eleonora Brown), two modern saints that are raped in a church by the goumiers fighting alongside the allies in Vittorio De Sica’s La ciociara; or as courageous Nina (Anna Magnani), who dies from Nazi shots in Roberto Rossellini’s Roma, città aperta. Aesthete Luchino Visconti turns the figure of the martyr into an agonising body of neoclassical beauty, contrasting with a certain present social and moral decadence, as can be seen in Gruppo di famiglia in un interno, in which the Passion of young Helmut Berger condenses the existential anxiety of the old professor, played by Burt Lancaster, before a new world characterised by the sound and the fury. The figure of the martyr finds its necessary aesthetic counterpoint in the visual image of Piety, which –as Jordi Balló has pointed out in Imágenes del silencio– is at the same time Antigone, and Orestes, mother and avenger. Images so different as the survivor Panama Smith (Gladys George) embracing the corpse of the converted gangster Bartlett (James Cagney) on the steps of a church, or of Batman holding the apparently dead body of his pupil Robin, in a famous cartoon by Neal Adams, recreate all the spiritual and lecherous character of the seminal representation of Michelangelo’s sculpture.

Should we agree with Marcus Aurelius, life looks more like fighting than like dancing. Dance steps come in fact with our farewell, when our dying body seems to be in tune with the eternal movement of celestial bodies. The machine gun fire of film noir shakes bodies, creating a disturbing and magnetic choreography for the dance of death, as happens at the end of Bonnie & Clyde. Films are, before everything else kinesis (movement, excitement), but sometimes they manage to produce stasis (bewilderment, ecstasy) through a beautiful composition of lost souls redeeming their sins, and exhaling their last breath before the audience’s eyes.

MEL GIBSON’S MAN OF SORROWS.

MICKEY ROURKE, A CARNIVALESQUE AND POP MARTYR.

GOD’S FIST/SUGAR RAY ROBINSON + JAKE LAMOTTA/ECCE HOMO.

MICHELANGELO’S PIETÀ REVISITED BY RAOUL WALSH AT THE END OF THE ROARING TWENTIES.