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The Passion on celluloid

24 March 2016

Stephen Brown provides a round-up of the best and worst of Easter films


Human: Willem Dafoe as Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ

Human: Willem Dafoe as Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ

IN THE beginning (long before Cecil B. De Mille or Mel Gibson) was the Easter film. In fact, churches were a key venue for early motion pictures alongside the risqué fairground of popular imagination. The first Passion film was made in 1897 by a Frenchman, Léar, who was more accustomed to directing pornography. The Lumière brothers shot the Horitz Passion play the same year, and Georges Méliès, utilising all his showman’s panache, was also including religious themes (such as in The Sign of the Cross) in his output. In 1898, Richard G. Hollaman filmed the Oberammergau plays on the rooftop of the Grand Central Palace in New York. You can even see snow in the Mount of Olives scene.

Gaumont’s The Passion (1909) was a rare British representation of Christ. Films such as Ben Hur, with Jesus as a bit-part player, soon followed. These oblique references (as with the foot of the cross in The Robe, 1953), or the use of Christ-figures (The Passing of the Third Floor Back, 1918 & 1935; Jesus of Montreal, 1989) have often found greater approval among cineastes than head-on portrayals of Jesus.

Sidney Olcott’s From the Manger to the Cross (1912), more than an hour long, paved the way for full-length movies. Filmed on location, and with stunning effects, its London run exceeded eight months. Later re-edited, and with a soundtrack added, it continued to be widely shown in church circles. But, at about the time that the Edison Company was providing religious films for US churchgoers, Pope Pius X prohibited the showing of films in churches. Cheeky shorts about erotic monks had not helped. When the British Board of Film Censors was formed in 1912, the first of its nine prohibited categories was “religious”; depicting Jesus on screen came to a virtual end in the UK.


IN CALIFORNIA, D. W. Griffith’s mystical inclinations peaked with Intolerance (1916), which included one section about Jesus, but the film was not a success. Instead, film makers were finding the Old Testament more congenial and raunchy. Betty Blythe, describing her role in The Queen of Sheba, famously said: “I wear 28 costumes, and if I put them on all at once, I couldn’t keep warm.”

Cecil B. de Mille, rather like Mel Gibson now, possessed a certain air of destiny, and defied convention by making The King of Kings (1927). The look of the film is reminiscent of the Pre-Raphaelites, and H. B. Warner (aged 50 at the time) plays Jesus in a rather Victorian manner. Apparently, the director commanded that nobody but himself should speak to Warner when dressed as Christ. The film draws on all the Gospels, and supplements the narrative with new material: Mary Magdalene, for example, is drawn as a courtesan in love with Judas, and given intertitles such as “Harness my zebras, gift of the Nubian king.”

The difficulties of a cinematically satisfying Jesus movie can be attributed to a number of factors, but most films are already compromised by this cut-and-paste approach to the four source materials, with their differing theological pre-occupations. The Marxist existentialist Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St Matthew (1964), which he dedicated to Pope John XXIII, sticks to just one source, which may explain why it is arguably the best Easter film. In typical iconoclastic form, the Spanish-Mexican film maker Luis Buñuel portrayed Jesus as impish and compelling in The Milky Way (1969), for which he relied solely on biblical texts as sources.


WITH the coming of sound to cinema, Jesus movies went in-house with productions from the likes of the Religious Film Society, founded in 1933 by J. Arthur Rank. The First Easter was an early production from this lifelong Methodist Sunday-school teacher. We only see Jesus’s feet, and he speaks as if reciting the King James Bible. When asked a question, the camera shakes or nods in response.

Blue-eyed Caucasian Christs tend to dominate Western cinema. Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings (1961) became the director’s latest way of examining contemporary questions about masculinity, juxtaposing the all-American Jeffrey Hunter (complete with shaved armpits) with the might of Rome, represented in the person of Pontius Pilate as weak and indecisive. Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber may well have been emboldened by this portrayal of Pilate when they wrote a decidedly camp Herod into their musical Jesus Christ Superstar.

George Stevens’s The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) has a similar mood. Filmed in Utah, it feels like a Western: a posse is gathered by an other-worldly Max von Sydow to fight evil. Released in the same year that the Second Vatican Council declared the Jewish race not responsible for Christ’s death, Stevens is even-handed in attributing guilt.


TELEVISION excursions into this field have been mixed. Dennis Potter’s bewildered Son of Man (1969) keeps wondering who he is. Pilate explodes with frustration over Jesus’s silent dignity in the face of crucifixion. Leaning forward, Jesus tells him there is no need to be frightened. Some may not class Son of Man as a fully-fledged Easter film because it ends at Golgotha, although it does triumphantly contain Jesus’s last words, according to John’s Gospel: “It is accomplished”.

Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth (1976) is a good deal more reverential. Beautiful to behold, it casts Robert Powell as a pale Galilean with piercing blue eyes. Its producer, Lew Grade, insisted on Jesus having a historically implausible bar-mitzvah. Concerned about the budget, he also wondered if they could cut down the number of apostles from 12.

The Second Coming (2003) is a curiously old-fashioned treatment, despite its modern setting. Steven Baxter, a Manchester shop-worker, believes that he is the Second Coming of Christ. After various displays of divinity, Baxter is persuaded to die so that humanity may live, relying on its own resources rather than an infantile dependence on “God”. It is an ending traceable to second-century “death of God” theology, although it is not clear whether the writer Russell T. Davies (best known for his Doctor Who scripts) knew this when he wrote it.


ALTHOUGH it was banned in some cinemas, Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) is not strictly a movie about Christ, more a lampoon of organised religion. A case of mistaken identity turns Brian into a respectable theological via negativa, defining Jesus by what he is not. I have mixed feelings about the mass-crucifixion scene, where dozens of victims sing “Always look on the bright side of life”: is it a riposte to facile interpretations of the Cross, or to those who fail to acknowledge suffering for what it really entails?

Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) was a noble failure artistically, but it bombed at the box-office. Always intriguing, it remains one of the few biblical movies where I do not lose the will to live midway through. Far from being blasphemous (which is how some regard Jesus entertaining the possibility of retiring, and having a sex-life), the film is, if anything, too respectful. One wishes that Scorsese’s consummate directorial skills were given more freedom.

The other interesting cinematic development with regard to Jesus has been to employ sub-Bretchtian devices which distance the viewer from the activities on show. Both Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell achieve this dislocation through their musical and theatrical origins. The same effect is achieved in The Miracle Maker (2000), the first-ever full length animated Jesus movie. Stanislav Sokolov’s image of Christ, voiced by Ralph Fiennes, makes Jesus hauntingly beautiful and credible.


MEL GIBSON’s The Passion of the Christ (2004) was the first Easter film to be awarded a Certificate 18. It is certainly a powerful antidote to those who perceive the cross as a pretty trinket to wear. Gallons of tomato sauce must have been commandeered to provide the necessary make-up. The scourging of Jesus takes up a solid 20 minutes of film time. Some will argue that, for once, we are being given a realistic picture of the crucifixion; but, for me, it is too often gratuitous. One of the dying thieves has an eye pecked out by a raven, for instance — there is no scriptural warrant for this. Our ego defences finally ensure that compassion fatigue sets in.

Gibson makes an appearance in the movie when his hands are seen nailing Jesus to the cross: a symbol, he maintained, of the part he played in putting Jesus there. The emphasis is what we did to Christ rather than what, through the Cross, Christ did for us. The worst indictment of The Passion, however, is its lack of a theology of resurrection. After two hours of blood and guts we get about five nano-seconds of a resurrected Christ. A baleful Jesus stares accusingly straight to camera, as if to say to every member of the audience, “I hold you personally responsible for what has happened.” With The Passion of the Christ we are served guilt for breakfast, lunch, and supper.


IN THE past few weeks, a new film, Risen, has been released in the UK. Joseph Fiennes plays Clavius, a Roman soldier given the task of investigating the disappearance of Jesus’s body from the tomb, in the manner of a Scandinavian detective story. Fiennes gives a sensitive performance of a character who realises that the more witnesses he interviews, the less he knows. The film’s chief weakness, however, is Jesus’s farewell, which comes across as a rather bungled cosmic conjuring trick and is quite unnecessary, after the rest of the film has been so careful to take us with Clavius on a credible journey of faith.

Indeed, the resurrection is notoriously difficult to accomplish cinematically. Not even the Evangelists describe how it happened. A physical resurrection is a vital element for some believers, although the scriptures tell us that the risen Christ is very different from Jesus of Nazareth. He can now appear through locked doors, and go unrecognised on a walk to Emmaus. But, if the resurrection appearances are simply metaphors to affirm that Christ has defeated death, then many share John Updike’s fear that “If the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecule reknit, The amino acids rekindle, The Church will fall.”

Pasolini goes for a literal portrayal, complete with earthquakes and the graves giving up their dead. Most filmmakers follow the Gospel accounts, and confine themselves to appearances of Christ after the resurrection. In King of Kings, the risen Lord casts a gigantic shadow across a shore suffused with light, where fishermen are working with their nets. The Greatest Story Ever Told is more ethereal: the tomb is empty as the Hallelujah Chorus on the soundtrack heralds the start of a new age.

One of the best presentations of Easter is in The Miracle Maker (2000). Perhaps because it is an animated version, we are more aware that we are inhabiting a story, a narrative that conveys a greater truth. We are sufficiently distanced from any kind of lifelike reality, which gives us more room to ponder: what if Jesus really is alive for evermore?

One is left with a real sense of joy in new life in Christ, a joy available to us all. Indeed, the best Easter films are those that help us to understand and experience true resurrection — those moments of reversal where physical or spiritual death does not have the last word — rather than restrict it to what happened in Palestine 2000 years ago.

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