issue 189 - November 1988
The Last Temptation of Christ
directed by Martin Scorsese
Scorsese's controversial film about the life of Christ has sparked protests by outraged Christian fundamentalists wherever it's been screened. And after sitting through this challenging, exhilarating 160-minute movie you'll scratch your head in genuine wonderment as to what these people found so upsetting.
The Last Temptation of Christ is a visceral, swirling, passionate movie filmed in Morocco with the sights, sounds, smells and historical detail of biblical Palestine scrupulously re-created. What it is not, however, is offensive, blasphemous or sacrilegious.
Based on a book of the same title by Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis, the movie is a profoundly religious film about the seesaw battle between spirit and flesh which characterizes all human life. But Scorsese's film owes more to Luis Bunuel's quizzical The Milky Way than to the lavish Hollywood epics of the past.
Jesus, played by Willem Dafoe, seems like the stereotyped Christ we've all come to recognize: lightly bearded, shoulder-length hair and boyish good looks. The difference is the eyes: this Christ looks like he is pursued by demons. He suffers seizure-like attacks, writhing on the ground and holding his head in pain as God invades his body. He is a reluctant and uncertain saviour, riven by fear yet driven in his mission by a volcanic spiritual energy.
His disciples coalesce around him as he lurches towards the inevitable. But even they are unclear where he will lead them next. 'We need love to break the chain of evil,' Jesus tells a crowd about to stone the prostitute Mary Magdalene (rising star Barbara Hershey is badly miscast and totally unconvincing). Then after 40 days and nights in the desert Jesus abruptly changes his tune. 'I believed in love,' he tells his disciples, 'now I believe in the axe.' He then sets out to scourge the thronging temples of moneychangers and idolators.
When questioned later by Judas (played by Scorsese favourite Harvey Keitel) about his inconsistency Jesus confesses that 'God only talks to me a little at a time'. Christ finally tells Judas: 'I have to die on the cross and I have to die willingly'. But Judas is by now highly skeptical: 'I'm worried he's going to change his mind again,' he confides.
He doesn't. But, in a dream sequence during the crucifixion, we do get a glimpse of what might have happened if he had. Satan comes to Jesus on the cross in the guise of a guardian angel, convinces him he's not the Messiah and invites him to have a normal life on earth. He marries Mary Magdalene and later Lazarus sister, has children, and lives to a ripe old age as a carpenter. Later in this interlude he meets Saul, who tells him it's irrelevant whether he lived or died: the point is that the myth continues. 'The truth is created from what people need,' Saul tells the spluttering Jesus. 'You started it and you can't stop it.'
You don't have to be a Christian to see the truth in that. And you don't have to be a Christian (or even religious) to appreciate this remarkable film by one of North America's most talented film-makers.
The Amnesty International World Tour
Amnesty International's series of concerts to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights is a remarkable achievement. Mounting a benefit concert for charity which involves enough big-name artists to guarantee both a sell-out and significant publicity: this is a difficult enough task. But organizing a world tour that will take in places like Harare, Delhi and San Paulo as well as the normal rich-world rock centres is a major feat.
What's more, they have also constructed the show with exemplary care. This is not just a showcase for any old star they could manage to drag along. Instead it works as an artistic whole: these performers fit together. New artists Youssou N'dour and Tracy Chapman contributed a vital freshness to the London evening: Chapman, admittedly, had much less impact than at the Mandela concert, mainly because she sang carbon copies of songs which are now heard anywhere and everywhere; but N'dour's intriguing vocal range and muezzin's inflections came over brilliantly in this company.
At the heart of the show, though, are three people with a significant track record of pursuing artistic quality rather than just commercial success. Peter Gabriel's commitment to world music is well known: here the political elements in his work, usually understated, were pushed well forward so that you wound up as moved by his concern as by his skill. Sting's set with a fascinatingly diverse band sounded as though he has moved into a different dimension from his Police days - to this reviewer at least, he was a revelation. And while Bruce Springsteen doesn't have quite his pre 1985 exuberance, he is still a great live performer - even if he insisted here on choosing some of his weakest songs (Cadillac Ranch hardly seemed appropriate in this context).
For once there was no one you wished to see less of, even when standing for six hours. And for once the finale - everyone coming together to sing Dylan's Chimes of Freedom - seemed not corny but exactly right.
The boom in Third World popular music has been dominated by African musicians, though Asian influences are beginning to break through (note the way modern Arab music is first reaching Western ears through the filter of the Yemenite Israeli Ofra Haza). Despite flirtations with salsa, Latin American music hasn't penetrated as deep.
Except, that is, in solidarity circles - by which is meant those people active in supporting the various struggles of people from El Salvador to Chile against oppressive regimes. Rumillajta have achieved a certain celebrity on this circuit - but they deserve to be heard more widely. They play the traditional Indian music of the Bolivian highlands, dominated by the breathy wind instruments that are so redolent of the Andes. In places, usually in its more reflective moments, this can be quite extraordinarily beautiful.
Not all the pieces have words, but those that do are a potent mixture of mysticism (Wiracocha was a pre-Inca deity thought to be the creator of all things) and revolutionary politics (El Condor vuelve, for example, sees the condor's flight wrapping 'General Sandino', 'Che the Hurricane' and Allende in Pan-American revolutionary embrace).
Any investigation of the heady altitudes of Andean music should begin right here.
Rumillajta can be reached at Casilla de Correo 20845, La Paz, Bolivia or at P0 Box 544, Bristol BS99 1NP, UK.
Thin Black Lines
by Colm Regan, Scott Sinclair, Martyn Turner
Political cartoons can seem like a lifeline. In countries where the major popular newspapers are owned by right-wing billionaires and the editorial line is adjusted accordingly, cartoons can often be the only countervailing force. How strange it is that cartoonists are allowed such licence to debunk hypocrisy simply because they are humorous - especially since the Rupert Murdochs of this world have built much of their success on the theory that people only read the funny bits with pictures:
This excellently produced book, subtitled 'Development education and the political cartoon', sets exercises and questions to stimulate thought about cartooning and its messages. That sounds rather dry. But its main service is to bring together quality cartoons from all around the world. Big names like Ron Cobb, Pat Oliphant and Plantu are healthily represented, but there is enough material by Third World artists from the Colombian Quayo to the Lebanese Naji al All to give the collection a genuinely internationalist feel.
The only notable omission is cartoons by women - there is no more than a sprinkling here. The only reference to power relations between women and men is a comment on Muslims, which not only neglects a rich source of humour but also an important arm of development education. But don't let that put you off: this is still a treasure trove of radical humour.
Available from Development Education Centre,
Selly Oak Colleges, Bristol Road, Birmingham B29 6LE,
UK for £6 (UK) and £9 (overseas), includes p&p.
Reviews editor: Chris Brazier
Tell My Horse
.being the book by one of black America's first great women writers
A book about voodoo in Haiti written in the 1930s might seem an unlikely candidate for an NI Classic - especially since it has just gone out of print. But enthusiastic reviewers have been known to nudge recalcitrant publishers into action. And Tell My Horse weaves together rituals, stories and social comment into one of the most enjoyable and absorbing works I have ever read. Here in Zimbabwe, my copy is always out on loan. I had to retrieve it to write this and they are lining up already for its release.
Zora Neale Hurston was lucky enough to grow up in Eatonville, Florida, a black town run by blacks, so that she was spared the experience of racism in her formative years suffered by most black Americans. She recorded much of this early life in her fascinating (if rather coy) autobiography Dust Tracks On A Road and revisited a fictional version of Eatonville in her most famous novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (both of which still are in print). What is striking about these two books is the sense they convey - little less unusual now than when they were written - of a strong and independent black community, in which people found their own way rather than having it mapped out for them by white expectations. The spontaneous self-confidence of her writing voice, when you first discover it, comes over as a triumph of the human spirit - but also as a terrible indictment of the society that makes such a voice so rare, so virtually impossible.
At 14, Hurston left home to work as a housemaid, then went back to school and on to university, where she studied literature and later anthropology. She began to write and gained attention (even notoriety) as the most prominent woman among the black literati ('niggerati', she called them) of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Rut she coupled her playwriting and stories with a serious interest in anthropology, and made numerous field trips to the Caribbean.
Tell My Horse was the result of one of these trips, written in 1936 as a study of voodoo which, like the 'hoodoo' of the Southern US, she saw as the African spiritual source underlying the fervour of black Christianity. Hurston's method is based on respect for people and their beliefs, enjoyment of their proverbs, songs and stories, participation in their rituals. Yet while she empathizes with her Haitian contacts and admires the beautiful and mysterious celebrations she sees performed, she never forfeits her sense of humour nor her commitment to the truth. She shows that it is possible to enter another culture imaginatively without losing oneself; more - that from such 'grounded' learning one can make something new and authentic that is one's own.
As with the storytellers she quotes, social and spiritual insight meets in Hurston's writing. 'Gods always behave like the people who make them,' she writes, opening the chapter on 'that boisterous god, Guede who 'does and says the things that the peasants would like to do and say'. She continues: 'The people who created Guede needed a spirit which could burlesque the society that crushed him, so Guede eats roasted peanuts and parched corn like his devotees. He delights in an old coat and pants and a torn old hat. So dressed and fed, he bites with sarcasm and slashes with ridicule the class that despises him.' For the mulattoes, she says 'pay Guede no attention at all. He belongs to the blacks and the uneducated blacks at that.' The title of the book is a translation of this god's opening words 'Parlay Cheval Ole' when he 'mounts' or possesses someone.
Hurston continually makes links between Haitian and Western abuses. And by seeing connections, she rejects the superior, alienating attitude often adopted by Western commentators towards other cultures. So readers are helped to appreciate the beauty of Haiti's traditions and to understand its problems, rather than invited to stare in horrified fascination at 'exotic' or 'primitive' rites.
To Hurston, people are people and life is life, whether in New York or Port-au-Prince, whether black or white. She doesn't avoid the painful issues that divide us - but, as few writers can, she makes us laugh at them and bring them down to size.
Margaret St Clare
Tell My Horse by Zora Neale Hurston (1938). Published in the US by Turde Island Foundation but currently out of print. Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) and Dust Tracks On A Road (1942) are published in the UK by Virago and in the US by Harper & Row.