Matthew Modine employs what my 99-year-old grandma would call “mamaloshen,” a Yiddish term for common sense. In his new, award-winning, mini-documentary Jesus was a Commie, Modine puts this logical thinking to work presenting a visually compelling and thought-provoking 15-minute short documentary. The film intends to put a sensible spin on the traditional idea and interpretation of Jesus Christ, and what were perhaps Christ’s own communist practices and philosophies.
“When words lose their meaning, people lose their freedom’ is a quote attributed to Confucius,” says Modine to EcoSalon in an exclusive interview.
“Liberal is one of those words that has been pushed into a political context. The root of the word is liber, meaning free, something we Americans believe we have a special dominion over. The word liberal has been transformed to mean, by conservatives and Republicans to mean communist, weak, homosexual, immoral, and just un-American. Jesus, depending on how you personally feel about him, is another word, or idea, belief, or ism that has been hijacked for political purpose. If you take the stories of Jesus and look at them without evangelical glasses, you see a man that questioned and challenged the conditions of life in his time. And it can be argued, and has been by a lot of incredible people, that Jesus was a Utopian Communist,” adds Modine.
Modine describes himself as a spiritual person who leans liberal with his thinking.
“We all want a bit more for ourselves and our families. Monastic life – living as nuns and priests, is rather communistic – and they make it work. But, I don’t want to live like a priest. I enjoy the liberal and progressive western way of life. I also understand that with these freedoms come responsibility, not just to other people but to all forms of life that I share this earth with,” he says.
Mixing in archival live action footage, the first scenes are of the Berlin Wall falling, followed by images of Gorbachev – both quintessential images of America’s idea of communism. Modine has got a good point to make and draws the audience in gently to hear it: “Last night I began reading about the fall of communism; the more I read, the less I believed it fell because it didn’t make sense or didn’t work. It was something simpler. It seems the most logical reason communism failed was because of greed. I’d say rock and roll being broadcast on Radio Free Europe had as much to do with the Berlin Wall coming down as Ronald Reagan demanding it so.”
That’s certainly a notion we’re not exactly taught in the American school system.
“In the early 1980’s, I met and spoke with people from East Berlin before the wall came down,” Modine explains.
“I was at the Berlin Film Festival and had the opportunity to cross Check Point Charlie and enter into East Berlin. It was from meeting Russian soldiers that I realized the lies and propaganda about Russian people that I had been taught. Like many Americans, I was taught to believe that this Evil Empire was prepared to take over the world and destroy life as we knew it. After actually seeing it and being there, I saw that these people were no different than my brothers and sisters at home. They shared the same fears and desires, and many of the same likes and dislikes as people at home.
Radio Free Europe was the tool that was educating the Eastern German and Russian soldiers I met about life in the west. Radio Free Europe had no borders. The music of the 1960s floated wirelessly, without borders, across the Iron Curtain and influenced a generation of people to want a change in their country. The Utopian Communism didn’t exist or work. The songs of protest, the songs of loving, the songs of rebellion that define 60s music opened the minds of those listening to it and it transformed their expectations of living. Ronald Reagan and the Cold War, and the Arms Race, coincided with this new generation of young people that were about to transform their homeland. The change in the Soviet Union happened from within. Not because of Ronald telling Russia to ‘take down the wall.’”
There are plenty of less liberal thinking critics who will check out early after the testimonies and references Modine pulls in linking Jesus to communism an contributing rock and roll as part of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
As crazy as it might seem, the film points out that Jesus and his posse were all dictionary definition communists hitting the streets like traveling salesmen to sell their goods. Then, they’d return and bring the money they’d earned back to be shared in common with others. Based on Jesus’ kind actions Modine points out, his followers never got to thrive and being in the minority in the midst of a confused and greedy government, only pushed them into exile.
“When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist,” Modine quotes, Brazilian archbishop Dom Helder Camara from the book Peace Behind Bars: A Peacemaking Priest’s Journal from Jail.
While the combination of both “communism” and “Jesus” used at the same time most certainly create intense reaction by much of America, ultimately, Modine plays it safe and doesn’t turn his commentary into anything aggressive or offensive. His film has great timing to coincide with the Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Together movement growing across the United States and around the world.
“Occupy Wall Street doesn’t have a single voice, a leader,” Modine explains. “It is an extraordinary demonstration of civil liberty and democracy. I do think that if there were a bearded, barefoot man speaking about peace, liberty, love, and turning the tables of the Wall Street Money Changers over, he would be crucified by the news media. Mayor Bloomberg would demand his arrest. [Some media outlets] would call him hateful names and declare him a threat to capitalism,” says Modine.
When watching Jesus Was a Commie, the viewer realizes early that the movie is an extension of Modine’s own thoughtful and ongoing quest for answers to deep seated philosophical questions, and a ticket to opening conversation.
“I am troubled by the events taking place all over the world,” he says.
“The population [is] reaching 7 billion. Starvation exists globally. There’s a lack of drinkable water. Pollution threatens drinking water. The dangers of hydro-fracking. Nuclear waste. Environmental change. Dying coastlines. Over-fishing. Prescription drugs. There is so much confusion, blame and lack of responsibility in the world today. Finger pointing, murdering in the name, and justification for it, of a God.”
As we see even with the title Jesus Was a Commie, Modine likes words and the journey they can take us on. Challenging the meaning and the use of them is simply the American thing to do. Communism is merely a word – a word that Americans are overly-sensitive to. The conversations that the film will inspire after audiences view the film, in a way, are also an extension of his work.