NETFLIX FILMS FROM BRAZIL, PARODIES OF THE GOSPELS
Here is an alert concerning two 48 minute Brazilian films screening on Netflix, worldwide, since December 2019. Their titles are: The Last Hangover, The First Temptation of Christ.
With the word “Hangover” instead of “Supper” in the title of the first film, it is clear that these films would be not straightforward Gospel films. And they are not. They can be described as parodies. Some angry bloggers, for example on the Internet Movie Database, have been using the word “blasphemy” and have been calling for action against Netflix.
Bloggers have also been noting, critical of Netflix, that a parody of Islam or the Prophet, Mohamad, would not be streamed. We remember the violent consequences of Danish cartoons in the past as well as the shootings at Charlie Hebdo.
The Christian tradition, on the whole, has incorporated humorous interpretations of biblical episodes. Many contemporary political cartoons make their point with reference to biblical characters and biblical themes, especially for justice and for peace. And there have been some films which relied on audience knowledge of Gospel events to make their points by humour. Prominent was the 1979 The Life of Brian, and a Last Supper episode in Mel Brooks’ The History of the World Part I (1981). By and large, Christians and Catholics around the world saw the humour and recognised the Gospels while Christians of a more fundamentalist persuasion, with their adherence to literal interpretation without knowledge of literary forms, did not.
It would be very surprising if many, even any, Christians found these Brazilian films truly humorous. They are exaggerated parodies. If looked at as comedies, that would be judged as exercises in the broadest type of comedy for which the adjectives raucous, course, crass, irreverent quickly come to mind. Slang would call them “ratbag” humour. And, it would seem, that they have been calculated to be offensive to a wide range of people, especially Christians. The writers of the films indicate in their screenplays that they are familiar with the Gospel texts and with the theological/spiritual meanings of the texts. But then they ‘go to town’ on them.
The Last Hangover is basically a drunken binge, the effect of the supper felt the next day, the mystery of Jesus’ behaviour and his disappearance. The apostles are presented as a group of gross “boofheads”, not a spiritual thought in the heads, welcoming prostitutes to the meal, Peter particularly promiscuous, some Roman soldiers arriving, Jesus moody and erratic.
The First Temptation of Christ (with title echoes of The Last Temptation) offers another party, presided over by a rather cautionary and a somewhat clownish Joseph. Jesus is returning from his 40 days in the desert and is being welcomed home but wanting to leave. Once again, a lot of the behaviour is boorish, raucous and coarse. And the characterisations seem particularly crass. There has been a lot of criticism of the presentation of Jesus, implications of a gay orientation, some camp behaviour. However, the gay character he met in the desert turns out to be Satan himself, initially camp but ultimately vicious and vindictive. One of the strong criticisms of the film’s screenplay would be the character of Uncle Victor who turns out to be an incarnation of God the Father, Mary and Joseph revealing to their son that Uncle Victor is truly his father. There is a grubby parody tone when Uncle Victor is made to have lascivious designs and desires towards Mary – and she seems something of a willing accomplice.
Which raises the question of how to describe these films and whether they are blasphemous. Blasphemy implies explicit intent in mockery. Whether these films are blasphemous can be debated. Perhaps that was not the intention but rather the use of the usual explanation/ excuse: “just having a bit of fun”. At the least, the film-makers are quite profane in their interpretation of situations, creation of characters, crass dialogue (of the four-letter kind in the English subtitles), certainly an attempt to bring characters from sacred writings and traditions as far down to earth as possible.
In general, there can be too kinds of responses to films like this – the crusading response, the educating response. Crusaders prefer a militant approach, an attack on Netflix, urging customers to boycott the streaming service. Some would argue that this approach gives too much air and publicity to the films which might be better ignored. On the other hand, educators prefer to explore the phenomenon, offer some analysis, enable viewers to look at the material with some informed critical judgement.
There will be more nuanced responses to these films according to different sensibilities and sensitivities, cultural differences. This response echoes an English-speaking world culture. The most telling commentaries would be from Brazil, commentaries both religious and secular, and other responses from Latin American countries.
Eventually, after the controversies, the question would be raised whether these films are worth this kind of attention.
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.