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The Body (2001)

Though the most visible of the millennial blip of religious-themed films have been hokey horror movies like Stigmata, Lost Souls and Bless the Child (not to mention the Fundamentalist-backed The Omega Code), there has also been a trickle of more theologically interesting if equally far-fetched dramas like Angnieszka Holland's The Third Miracle and Stuart Urban's Revelation, probing into the meaning of the miraculous and the origins of Christianity. Despite its shaky political thriller mechanics, The Body falls into the latter category by proposing an intriguing 'what if?' in the unearthing of bones which a convincing accretion of evidence suggest to be those of Jesus Christ.

While it makes for crises of faith all round, the build-up of scientific and archaeological clues - Holmesian pathologist Ian MacNeice deduces that the developed forearm bone suggests 'a mason or a carpenter' and there's a spear-wound in the ribs – is overly convenient. The site is so well-preserved that any real tomb raider would suspect a hoax, a possibility Olivia Williams's intellectual Lara Croft lookalike doesn't consider, even though she throws a hissy fit when hunky priest Antonio Banderas cites the long-discounted Turin Shroud as evidence that Jesus was a good six inches taller that the 5' 5" corpse in the tomb. In a typical example of playing it both ways, the film finally cops out by having Jason Flemyng's Irish fashion-plate computer hacker monk decode a prayer in the tomb that suggests the body is that of a copycat who has died in exactly the same way as Christ and been interred identically by a Christian father who implores God to receive his David as He did His own son.

The premise is elaborated in a thumpingly obvious way with the Vatican, represented by conspiracy movie creepies like John Wood and Vernon Dobtcheff, moving swiftly to protect its vestmented interests, while similar obvious villains in the Israeli and Palestinian factions treat the body as just an opportunity for diplomatic leverage and resort to car chases, kidnaps, bomb outrages and helicopter attacks to advance their causes. Actually, this action man stuff is less interesting than the fact-based aside that Israeli archaeologists whose sites include human remains are liable to be stoned by Orthodox Jews who regard their academic discipline as a sacrilege. Based on a novel by Richard Ben Sapir, who used to be known for his part in churning out the 'Destroyer' series of paperback novels that inspired the film Remo: Unarmed and Dangerous but has graduated to airport-style blockbusters like The Far Arena, director Jonas McCord's script harps on solemn, repeated pronouncements like 'I believe God has no place in politics' but is stuffed with miniseries-style howlers like the cardinal's musing of Banderas 'not many of our priests are ex-combat soldiers' or the archaeological footnote that 'Romans gave out crucifixions like parking tickets'.

Banderas - following Ed Harris (The Third Miracle) and Gabriel Byrne (Stigmata) - gets the 'you don't look like a priest' priest role and smoulders in mufti, a dog collar or a white yarmulke, knitting his brows and showing off the scars he got as a liberation theologian in El Salvador to suggest an inner spiritual turmoil, while Derek Jacobi - inheriting the sorry tradition of John Hurt (Lost Souls) and Ian Holm (Bless the Child) - does the distinguished-British-actor-in-a-cameo-as-a-cracked-cleric bit before his suicide pushes Banderas to follow the path of Christ (and, incidentally, Dolph Lundgren in Cover-Up) by struggling in mental agony along the Via Dolorosa. The only participants who emerge with credit for the most part are Williams, who throws away the lines that deserve it and gets points for at least trying to seem sensible, and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, who makes capital of interesting, unfamiliar locations.

First Published In: Sight and Sound (issue unknown)

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