To find the truth he will risk his life and challenge his faith.
I can remember, back when I was a kid, looking at the selection of reading materials offered at the supermarket checkout line while my mom paid for the groceries. Amongst the tabloids with their tales of alien abductions and celebrity gossip there were also books that were thought to appeal to the kinds of people who pick up their reading material in supermarket checkout lines. I remember being repelled and yet perversely fascinated by the premise of one such book. It was called The Body, and it told the tale of an archaeologist in Jerusalem who finds a crucified body in a hidden tomb, with evidence that it is the body of Someone who really shouldn't be there at all.
Well, I never did get a chance to read the book, primarily because at that age I had no spending money of my own, and I knew darn well I'd better not ask my mom to buy it for me. However now, fifteen-plus years later, I've finally gotten the chance to satisfy my curiosity.
Facts of the Case
All that Jerusalem hardware store owner wanted to do was dig a basement and expand his tiny, overcrowded store. Of course, this being Jerusalem, it's pretty much impossible to dig a hole in the ground without uncovering some sort of archaeological find. Enter Sharon Golban (Olivia Williams—The Postman, Rushmore, The Sixth Sense), an Israeli archaeologist sent by the government to check out an ancient tomb uncovered by the construction activity. It is apparent that this is a rich man's tomb, carefully carved out of solid rock. When the stone is rolled away and Golban enters the tomb, she finds that it is empty, save for a small coin on the floor bearing the inscription of Pontius Pilate. However, a stone and plaster wall at the back of the tomb attracts her attention, and soon she has found another room, a secret compartment at the back of the tomb. This room contains the skeleton of a man who has clearly been crucified. This is puzzling; the Romans only crucified the lower criminal classes, and generally left their bodies to be consumed by vultures and dogs. There is no reason that a crucified body should be laid out so carefully and hidden away in a rich man's tomb. As a matter of fact, there is only one incident in recorded history of a crucified man being placed in a wealthy man's tomb: Rabbi Yeshua ben Yusef, better known to the world as Jesus Christ. Clearly the body in the tomb could not be His—or could it?
Word of Golban's discovery soon finds its way to the Vatican, where the suggestion that the body of Christ might be lying in repose in Jerusalem is not welcomed warmly. They respond to her find by sending an emissary, Father Matt Gutierrez (Antonio Banderas—The Mask Of Zorro, Philadelphia, Evita). Gutierrez has not always been a man of the cloth; before entering the priesthood he was a military intelligence operative. His superiors charge him with defending the interests of the church in the investigation, but he has other ideas; his main interest is a simple, honest pursuit of the truth about the mysterious bones in Jerusalem. Still, Golban sees him only as a pawn of the church powers in Rome, and does not trust him or his contributions to the investigation.
Of course, a potentially sensational discovery like this does not stay secret for long, and soon the competing powers looking to control Jerusalem are doing their best to take advantage of the situation. As the Palestinians and Israelis jockey for possession of the body and its potential leverage in geopolitics, Gutierrez is faced with mounting evidence that threatens to destroy not only his life and his faith, but the sustaining hope of millions of people around the world.
The premise behind The Body is for me just as repellent yet perversely fascinating as it was at the checkout counter all those years ago. It is a hypothetical situation that goes against my every belief to even entertain, yet it clearly has potential for some (literally) earth-shaking drama. It also provides an opportunity to examine the nature of faith, and to contemplate how we might react if our most basic beliefs were somehow destroyed.
At the center of this crisis of faith is Antonio Banderas as Father Gutierrez. Banderas gives a convincing, emotional portrayal of a man faced with a cold rejection of everything he has ever believed. However, his Gutierrez is not dogmatic; he is genuinely interested in finding out the truth, even though he knows it could destroy him. Banderas captures the conflict within the character and makes him very real.
Another good performance comes from veteran actor Derek Jacobi (I, Claudius, Henry V, Gladiator) as an archaeologist/priest who first informs the church of the potentially devastating find. Jacobi shows us the mental and emotional anguish of a man desperately searching for an answer that can reconcile his beliefs with the evidence in front of him.
The Body comes to us from Columbia TriStar in a 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer with Dolby Digital 5.1 sound. The transfer is good but not perfect. There are noticeable instances of moiré patterns and shimmering, noticeably in stone buildings during exterior establishing shots of Jerusalem. The image is occasionally a trifle soft. I did notice a few isolated cases of edge enhancement, but nothing severe. Black levels are okay but occasionally a bit undersaturated, as are reds. The transfer overall is an average effort, with quality that might have blown us away three years ago but is pretty standard or even a bit below par now.
The Dolby 5.1 audio mix makes good use of the surround channels for special effects and music, and has a pleasing atmospheric effect for the most part. It did seem to lack a bit of punch during gunfights and explosions, and dialogue did have a hollow "echo chamber" effect from time to time. Like the video, the audio is adequate without being impressive.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
You may have noticed that I referred to gunfights and explosions. That is one of the more disappointing things about The Body; it takes this interesting and provocative premise and allows it to degenerate into a fistful of action movie clichès. What starts out as potentially a very interesting character study and examination of personal faith spins so far out of control that it culminates in an old-fashioned shootout between the Palestinians and the Israelis.
Also disappointing is the depiction of Christians in the movie, with the exception of the Banderas and Jacobi characters. Everyone else is a Machiavellian schemer, much more interested in pushing their material agendas than in serving God. As a side note, it is interesting how the Catholic Church is always used in movies of this kind as shorthand for all Christians; I guess we Baptists just don't have clergy who wear cool outfits like their Catholic counterparts. A larger issue is the overall tendency to paint the church as a monolithic conspiracy far larger than anything Fox Mulder ever investigated. I would think that Catholics would object to this sort of portrayal after a while.
The premise remains interesting, but the plot is cluttered with schemes and counter-schemes that seem unrealistic at best and pointless at worst. The convoluted story seems like a weak attempt to create some Tom Clancy-style intrigue. It works in theory, and it is easy to see how the various factions in the Holy Land would see this as an opportunity to further their cause, but the execution by writer/director Jonas McCord is clumsy and feels contrived.
With the exception of Banderas and Jacobi, the rest of the performances leave a lot to be desired. They are mostly one-note performances: the hawkish Israeli government operative, the shadowy Palestinian terrorist/freedom fighter, the manipulative church potentates noted above. Even Olivia Williams's portrayal of Sharon Golban leaves a lot to be desired; she never really gets out of "defiant scientist" mode. She isn't helped much by a script that gives her little to do but play the defiant scientist. However, even when she does get a chance to do some emotional acting and show some range, she never really convinces us that her character is anything but a creature of the script.
As a final note, there are almost no special features on this disc. We are treated to two trailers for Antonio Banderas movies, and an Antonio Banderas filmography. That's it. Again, no production notes, no bios of other cast and crew, not even a few paltry production stills. Columbia TriStar usually does a great job even with their lesser-known flicks; I hope this new wave of bare-bones (no pun intended) discs is not their idea of the future of DVD.
One last complaint, not just limited to this disc. I have no idea why the studios will include French subtitles or audio but neglect Spanish subtitles and/or audio on Region 1 releases. With the growing Spanish-speaking population in North America, the exclusion of at least Spanish subtitles is becoming less and less acceptable in the eyes of this judge.
I am glad that I finally got to see what The Body was all about, but I suspect that the book in the checkout line would have been more interesting. The movie starts with an interesting idea but goes downhill in short order, devolving into a standard action/chase/thriller with the body as a standard-issue MacGuffin. Fans of Antonio Banderas might want to give this a rent just to see him in a very different sort of role, but anyone else will probably find this movie dry and predictable.
Antonio Banderas and Derek Jacobi are free to go, but everyone else is guilty of various petty crimes and misdemeanors. I think "time served" working on this movie and its subsequent dismal performance at the box office is probably a sufficient sentence.
Columbia TriStar is beginning to worry me, however, and I sentence them to probation until we can determine whether this new bare-bones DVD craze is their new M.O. or just a passing phase.
We stand adjourned.
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