Friday, February 3, 2012


CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, metaphysical*

Ironically, though I just finished this essay for the ARCHETYPAL ARCHIVE detailing why I found it appropriate to associate "religious fantasy films" with all other types of marvelous movies, the first explicit Christian fantasy I'm reviewing hews more toward my category of '"the uncanny."

Christian films vary greatly in their depiction of the miraculous, and some, like THE STORY OF RUTH, depict no miracles whatever, in marked contrast to show-stoppers like THE TEN COMMANDMENTS.  However, 1954's THE SILVER CHALICE (based on a bestseller novel) falls into the interstitial category of "the uncanny."  No explicit miracles are seen, though it's evident that the miracles of Christ have occured in the past and are assumed to be real.  Nevertheless, in terms of what appears on the screen, there is no clear break between consensual reality and another, stranger realm, such as I described in my essay on the 1948 HAMLET:
...a similar affectivity; of something that seems wondrous but which does not, in the end, have the same boundary-altering effect on the mortal realm that "the marvelous" does.
Indeed, of the film's two main characters-- the sculptor Basil (Paul Newman) and the Messianic pretender Simon Magus (Jack Palance)-- only the evil Simon attempts to perform miracles, using trickery and illusions (hence my trope "enthralling hypnotism and illusionism.")  Basil, a Greek artisan called upon to sculpt the faces of Jesus and the disciples for the chalice of the title, experiences what might termed a "passive miracle."  For much of the film Basil tries to capture the look of Jesus based on descriptions by the Apostle Peter, but he only manages to truly render the face of the Messiah thanks to a possibly God-given inspiration.  However, such an inspiration doesn't qualify as a "miracle" in my books.

Most of Basil's story concerns his temptation between a Bad Girl and a Good Girl.  Helena (Virginia Mayo) knows Basil from childhood, but she's fallen into wicked ways, becoming the assistant (and possibly consort) to Simon Magus; additionally, it's implied that she may have been a prostitute.  Her rival Deborra (Pier Angeli)-- who to be sure has no real chance of losing the contest in this sort of film-- is a sweet and demure girl whom Basil marries, only to fall in love with both her and her Christian religion a little later. 

The Basil sections of the film are mawkish and predictable, and probably contributed to the greatest fame SILVER CHALICE has these days: the fact that following the film's release Paul Newman took out an ad in VARIETY apologizing for his part in the film.

Mayo and Angeli don't fare any better in this pious parable, but Jack Palance has a ball as the blasphemous magician Simon, who intends to trump the miracles of Jesus by performing his illusions before the crowds of Rome.  Simon's only appearance in the Bible has him attempting to buy magical powers from Peter, but the thrust of his plot here derives more from the apocryphal Acts of Peter.  In that Simon-story, the magician literally levitates above the crowds of Rome, but the Apostle Peter prays against him, and Simon falls to earth, though he doesn't die of the fall. 

In contrast, the film never shows either Simon or Peter displaying true magical powers.  Simon's flying-trick fails because he becomes irrationally convinced that he can perform real miracles, so that he falls to his death.  Perhaps he's the victim of a "negative inspiration" from the Man Upstairs?  Given that this story was a modern fiction only loosely based on scripture, it may be that both the book's author and the film-writers hesitated to show any "real magic" in the world following the sacrifice of Christ.  This theory finds some support in the moral coda at the film's end, when Peter looks forward to the rise of mankind's taming of great powers, which the film indirectly associates with potentially-ungodly chicanery:

"[The Chalice] will be restored, but for years and for hundreds of years, it will lie in darkness; where, I know not. When it is brought out into the light again there will be great cities, and mighty bridges and towers higher than the tower of Babel. It will be a world of evil and long bitter wars. In such a world as that the little cup will look very lonely. But it may be in that age when man holds lightning in his hands, and rides the sky as Simon the Magician strove to do it will be needed more than it is needed now."

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