It may come as a surprise to some of you that I am a Christian (and a seminary-trained one to boot). It shouldn’t because I explicitly state this in my bio, but I understand if that is potentially shocking given the fact that (a) I haven’t reviewed any explicit Christian films (and haven’t intentionally watched one in nearly a decade) and (b) I’ve reviewed and watched a lot more potentially unsavoury material (without hesitation) than might be expected of a so-called Christian.
The reasons why I have generally avoided explicitly Christian movies are wide and varied to discuss here (and might warrant another post someday) but it generally comes down to a “preaching to the choir” syndrome I find present in most Christian media – making black-and-white arguments to nonbelievers that are generally only persuasive to people who buy Christianity’s basic premises in the first place. It is infinitely more interesting for me to discuss faith and film in the works of Ingmar Bergman and Krzysztof Kieślowski, an agnostic and privately Catholic respectively, whose works while not explicitly Christian in itself nonetheless find the filmmakers wrestling hard with the complexities of faith (Is this my plugging a future post in which I dive deep into Kieślowski’s Decalogue? Maybe). Ultimately the questions that filmmakers that Bergman and Kieślowski raise are much more intriguing to me than whatever pat answers seem to be readily provided by Christian movies put out today.
But seeing as this is Holy Week (which to the uninitiated, is kind of a big deal to us Christians) it seemed appropriate to spend this week exploring more explicitly Christian films. And nothing is of course more explicit than a Jesus film. The retelling of the life of Jesus has happened so often in film that it is almost a genre onto itself. They range from the explicitly evangelistic (The Jesus Film which is used by missionary groups around the world) to the probably sacrilegious (the excellent Life of Brian). There have been straight adaptations (Franco Zeffireli’s epic Jesus of Nazereth) to the largely metaphorical (the criminally under-seen Jesus of Montreal). The most famous of the lot is probably Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ – a movie I actively dislike for its seeming revelry in explicit violence, a violence level that ironically would have been actively condemned by the church had it happened to anyone but Jesus.
One thing has become clear about film adaptations of Jesus however: the story has been retold so many times along the same story beats that each film reflects the theological interests of the people who made them rather than on Jesus himself. In this way it is not dissimilar to the Bible itself, in which there are four separate retellings of the life of Jesus (the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) and the way each individual Gospel is told is more interesting than any attempt to synthesize the four.
Since there are four Gospels, I’ve decided to tackle four film adaptations of Jesus. And like the Gospels themselves, most of these movies (save for one) seem to reflect more on the filmmakers than they do on the subject of Jesus himself. Which, as you might guess, I find absolutely fascinating.
THE KING OF KINGS (1927) dir. Cecil B. DeMille
Cecil B. DeMille’s career is synonymous with spectacle. In fact the phrase “cast of thousands” was tailor-made to describe most of his filmography. In an age of golden-screen stars and anonymous directors, DeMille also managed to distinguish himself as a celebrity in his own right. He made populist blockbusters decades before that word was invented. And before he trained his eyes on making religious films like The Ten Commandments and The King of Kings the man made his name by making films with sordid pre-Code material like Roman orgies filled with scantily-clad women.
This last point is important because when DeMille decided to make an adaptation of Jesus’ life, his instincts for spectacular and populist entertainment are combined with a need for some reverence and these two elements form an uneasy mix. This can be seen in his choice of the two scenes that got the expensive technicolor treatment. The last, the scene of Jesus’ resurrection is a classic expression of the DeMille’s reverence as the colours of dawn breaking create a transcendent and tranquil scene and seems an appropriate strategic use of technicolor. But it is the first scene to receive the technicolor treatment that betrays DeMille’s larger intentions for the movie. In the extra-biblical scene that serves as a prologue to the proceedings, Mary Magdalene is reimagined as a wild courtesan who is drunkenly ranting about her love interest Judas and the way he has thrown himself at the feet of Jesus to anyone who would listen. The set used is opulent and Bacchanalian, with Mary Magdalene herself looking the most revealing of all the adaptations I saw for this blog post. These two scenes thus reveal that though DeMille did want to create a movie that would appeal to the faithful (or at least not offend them) he wasn’t beneath using his usual tricks to attract his blockbuster crowd either (or may not have even been aware of the inherent contradiction seeing as he is so sincere in the rest of his production).
From that bizarre opening, the movie settles into more or less a straightforward retelling of Jesus’ story, albeit with some creative embellishments in a couple of ways. DeMille either adds details to the story that have never existed in any Biblical narrative or even been a part of the tradition. For instance he imagines the Gospel writer Mark as a young boy who is healed by Jesus and then follows him as a proxy disciple. But it is his second choice of creative embellishment that is both more typical of what we tend to do as Christians and problematic theologically: he retells the story of Jesus by mashing up all of the separate Gospels together. Most of the dialogue of these scenes, like the raising of Lazarus or Jesus’ sermons, are direct quotations from Scripture but sometimes even within the same scene DeMille jumps from Gospel to Gospel patching together a scene that probably never actually took place. The use of direct Scripture gives DeMille the superficial of legitimacy and authenticity, but a careful analysis shows that he is still manipulating the story for his own general purposes of entertainment.
Of course I would have little problem with the playful entertainment shown in some of these creative embellishments in the periphery of the story if the central personification of Jesus and the major events were not so sanitized. There is an important concept in Christianity regarding Jesus’ nature, being that he is simultaneously both fully human and fully divine. It should come as no surprise that Christianity has wrestled with this seemingly paradoxical theology and it usually has landed on the side of emphasizing his divine nature at the expense of his humanity. This is exactly what happens in The King of Kings. Here Jesus is continually shrouded in a halo of light and is ephemeral in appearance and attitude. Whereas side characters like Mary Magdalene, Judas, Peter, and even the high priest Caiaphas get extra-Biblical lines of dialogue, Jesus’ words are reduced to being strictly from Scripture. As such he ironically becomes the least interesting person in The King of Kings and is reduced to a wax figure. He is a person strictly to be strictly admired from a distance, so far removed from anything resembling normal human experience. DeMille goes to great pains to show Jesus’ divinity that he ceases to be someone whose teachings and life we should wrestle with. Far removed from the gory depiction of his death in The Passion of Christ, DeMille’s Jesus doesn’t even wince when he is whipped suggesting that he didn’t actually suffer physical pain on his path to his eventual death (which is coincidentally the heresy of Docetism).
Despite this admittedly typical failure, the silent film is still extremely watchable thanks to DeMille’s penchant for spectacle. The earthquake scene at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion is a wonderful showcase of DeMille’s inventiveness in filmmaking as it manages to still look convincing despite being made a half century before computer visual effects. The movie moves at a steady pace, buoyed by masterful recreations of the greatest hits of the passion narrative (triumphal entry to Jerusalem, last supper, garden of Gethsemane, trial, crucifixion, and resurrection) and a simple sincerity in the production that makes it still surprisingly moving in places. But ultimately the movie is so concerned with pleasing the audience of the faithful that it fails to say anything new.
JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR (1973) dir. Norman Jewison
It is hard to imagine a starker contrast than between DeMille’s “cast of thousands” sincere epic and the bare-bones and highly irreverent rock opera musical Jesus Christ Superstar. Where The King of Kings‘ focus was on the awe-inspiring divinity of Jesus, Superstar presumes from the get-go that this is probably an illusion and focuses entirely on the premise that he was probably just a man. Lyricist Tim Rice has gone on record to say that “we don’t see Christ as God but simply the right man at the right time at the right place.” Their operating thesis is simply that the birth of Christianity is probably an ancient precursor to celebrity worship like Beatlemania.
Eschewing a literal retelling of the Christ story, Norman Jewison firmly plants the movie in the hippie counterculture of the 1960s. His Jesus (Ted Neeley) is a waifish rockstar who is almost amused by the adulation and following he is garnering as he travels the Israeli countryside and sings about salvation and kingdoms coming. He is a man who increasingly begins to believe the incredible hype being told about him and assumes a more Messianic role as the movie progresses. But just as The King of Kings is so thoroughly emphatic is emphasizing Jesus’ divinity that he ceases to be interesting, Jesus Christ Superstar is less interesting because it is similarly as emphatic in emphasizing that Jesus was just a man.
Thus once again it falls on the supporting players of this story to take up the mantle of keeping the film interesting. Fortunately Judas, as expertly played by Carl Anderson, delivers a throughly scene-stealing performance and his presence correlates almost perfectly with the best moments of the film. While someone taking a superficial glance at the film may find it problematic that Anderson, the only black member of the cast, gets the role of the most famous betrayer in history while Jesus remains a (historically inaccurate) white man it only takes about three bars into his opening number “Heaven On Their Minds” to realize that Anderson has obviously gotten the better role. In addition, the choice to portray of Judas not so much as a snivelling and cowardly villain (like in The King of Kings) and instead as a man whose feelings of Jesus’ mission become complicated as Jesus moves away from a message of social revolution into more spiritual concerns. His betrayal is less of an outright rejection of Jesus and more of a tactical error on his part.
The larger controversies of the film fall into two categories: the possibility of anti-Semitism in the portrayal of the religious authorities and the hint that Jesus may have had the hint of being romantically interested in Mary Magdalene. Of the two controversies, the former bears more weight as the movie spends a great deal of time detailing the jealousies and spite of Caiaphas the high priest and his followers which would not necessarily be a problem in and of itself except that anti-Semitism’s root has traditionally stemmed from Christianity placing the blame for Jesus’ death squarely on the Jews (never mind that Jesus is Jewish and that the Bible explicitly places that blame on all of us).
Of course it speaks to where the heart of the church is that growing up I heard not a word about the potential anti-semitic sentiments of Jesus Christ Superstar and all I heard from leaders in the church was the second problem of a potential romantic link between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Once again as in The King of Kings the mere hint that Jesus might have been as human as the rest of us, even in romantic inclinations (that the movie expressly shows as originating from Mary Magdalene and largely unrequited by Jesus) is seen as threatening to the faith. Yet all it reveals is that, as in The King of Kings, the church in the West is generally much more enamoured to the ancient heresy of docetism than they would like to admit.
If anything, the only real “offensive” thing in this movie is that the rock opera sometimes devolves to an eye-rolling level of over-the-top grandiosity. Fortunately, this is par for course as far as rock operas go and most of the time the movie is simply a raucous and psychedelic ride. And there is some great irony that after the movie spends so much time unequivocally trying to show Jesus as just a man, the movie ends on an ambiguous note that leaves, whether intentionally or not, the possibility that he could have been something more than merely human.
THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (1988) dir. Martin Scorsese
Growing up several things were imparted to me by leaders in my church that turned out to be outrightly wrong or severely distorted. I was taught that listening to rock music would leave me open to the devil (somebody literally once attempted to exorcise the demon of rock and roll music out of me, unwillingly I should add). Playing Dungeons and Dragons or Diablo would similarly be invitations to the devil. I was taught that homosexuality was a disease spread by sex-depraved men who were actively preying on young boys like me. And most poignantly for my trajectory as a human being, watching R-rated movies made you a bad Christian. There were many other micro-aggressions that my early church upbringing tried to impose on me to control my behaviour and monitor my beliefs. And as I have grown older (and deeper in my faith) I have grown increasingly angry that I was taught to be afraid of things that were ultimately not true (which ironically is completely a violation of the Christian command not to bear false witness).
I mention this because I realized I had avoided watching The Last Temptation of Christ because unconsciously it had been ingrained in me that this movie was immoral. The vitriol with which the Christian right in America rose up to attack this movie was so fierce (while being completely off-base) that the movie’s “obvious” wrongness made its way all the way to my Christian upbringing in Malaysia. I knew absolutely nothing about this movie except that this was the movie where Jesus had sex (a less than accurate claim as it would turn out) and that therefore the movie had to be condemned, rejected, and buried outright. And so for thirty years of my life I deprived myself on what is possibly the most theologically interesting depiction of the life of Jesus Christ because the church had caricatured to drive up a frenzy against it, while labelling its content heresy and its makers heretics all the while sight unseen.
I am convinced that the Christianity is less threatened by the outright atheists and opponents of the faith but rather finds those who earnestly and passionately wrestle with faith and doubt because the great danger is that doubters may have a point and may end up shaking the status quo. So it is obviously the case with The Last Temptation of Christ and Martin Scorsese. Anybody who has studied the career of Scorsese knows that wherever he lands on the spectrum of faith he is a man who has wrestled intensely with it from his earliest films like Taxi Driver (Travis Bickle as distorted Christ-figure is an extremely interesting way to read that movie) to his latest exploration of faith and doubt in Silence (another criminally under-seen movie because of its lack of a clear-cut message and embrace of ambiguity).
The Last Temptation of Christ is no different. The opening title card explicitly states that this is not a literal depiction of the Gospels but is instead an exploration of faith, doubt and temptation and an attempt to capture the battle between the spirit and the flesh. In this way the easiest and most obvious way to look at Willem Dafoe’s incredibly human Jesus is not as a direct representation of the Biblical figure but as Scorsese’s confession as a man with doubt and his desire to believe. It is an allegorical Gospel of Thomas, entrenched deeply in the theological wrestlings of Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader who were both brought up in a Catholic and Reformed Christian faith respectively.
The movie is thus the only one to tackle the question of Jesus’ nature, and how it could be remotely possible that one who is fully divine could also be fully human. And so Dafoe’s Jesus is a weary and self-doubting man because there had to be some way in which to be fully human, Jesus had to experience first hand the same trials and tribulations we go through. He had to experience the depths of despair and face first-hand the same crippling power of temptation. Perhaps the historical Jesus was stronger in the face of it than what Dafoe portrays and maybe he was more firm in his belief, yet in a sub-genre littered with overly reverent depictions of Jesus Dafoe’s depiction is a breath of fresh air. Is it possible that Scorsese, Schrader, and Dafoe go too far at times and stray into potentially heterodoxy? Undoubtedly, but by taking so seriously the claim that Jesus had to be fully human they also come closest to portraying God made human amongst us and there is great power in that.
Now onto the big controversy – the aforementioned sex scene that probably garnered 95% of the arrows slung at the movie. It is important to know the true context of this scene. After overcoming the usual temptations that the Devil throws in Jesus’ path and as Jesus is dying on the cross, the Devil shows up one last time in disguise to offer (as the title of the movie might suggest) one last temptation to Jesus. And contrary to popular belief, that temptation was not carnal, but rather the temptation of normalcy. The Devil offers Jesus a chance to cast off his Messianic claims and the heavy weight that this imposes upon him. Instead he is shown a vision of what a normal life away from the spotlight might be. As part of this, Jesus is shown to get married to Mary Magdalene, and within that marital bond to have sex with Mary. He is also shown growing old and having a family until he arrives at his death bed. But here is the critical point to take-away: after seeing the extent of this vision and how it would make him unfaithful to his ultimate calling, Jesus rejects the Devil’s offer. Jesus is shown his last temptation, and though perhaps he dwells on the temptation longer than we would like (twenty minutes or so of runtime) he ultimately chooses instead to fulfill his purpose and die on the cross. His final words, “It is accomplished” thus seal his journey serious doubt to deep-felt faith.
To refuse to engage with Martin Scorsese’s work because of some presumed blasphemous elements is the worst sort of knee-jerk reaction. It is a reaction of people unwilling to dive deep into their own presuppositions of faith for feat that they might uncover their own doubts. But (and allow me to be slightly preachy here) as Thomas so clearly shows in the Gospels, it is often when we plunge headlong into our doubts that we find Jesus. And no other movie explicitly religious exemplifies that journey better than The Last Temptation of Christ.
THE REVERENT ATHEIST
THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ST. MATTHEW (1964) dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini
Pier Paolo Pasolini is a decidedly unconventional candidate to make a film about the life of Jesus Christ. Openly atheist, Marxist, and gay, he could’ve easily produced an irreverent and biting tale of Jesus Christ along the lines of his later work with The Canterbury Tales or The Decameron. And yet here is one of the most powerful religious films ever made and it is because, as Roger Ebert so eloquently put it, the movie was made by a nonbeliever who refused to “preach, glorify, underline, sentimentalize or romanticize his famous story, but tried his best to simply record it.” Without embellishing the Gospel of Matthew and rooting the story in an Italian neorealistic style Pasolini paradoxically shows the strength and power of the Gospel narrative by allowing it to stand on its own.
By choosing to focus solely on the Gospel of Matthew instead of awkwardly trying to synthesize all four of the Biblical Gospels, Pasolini already establishes more unbeknownst latent theological cred than the average Christian. This is because there is always the tendency to want to explain away one difficult part of the text by using another passage from another book of the Bible. By limiting his film to just the Gospel of Matthew, Pasolini engages in a significant wrestling of the text on its own worth.
What this means is that certain scenes that we usually associate with the Gospel story don’t end up in the movie. For instance there are no shepherds going to visit baby Jesus (that is from Luke) nor does Jesus end up turning water into wine (John). But more interestingly this does mean that there are plethora of lesser-known and more ambiguous stories from Matthew that do get included in the movie such as Herod’s slaughter of the children of Bethlehem, the execution of John the Baptist, or Jesus cursing a fig tree (one of the strangest episodes ever recorded in the gospels).
Eschewing a traditional script, Pasolini instead uses the Gospel as his guide and every line of dialogue in this film is more or less a direct quotation of Scripture. Of course in order to keep the film to a manageable length, he had to cut some aspects of the twenty-eight chapter book and that is where the film becomes truly interesting. It is here that Pasolini’s Marxism seeps through as he is most drawn to the portions of the text where Jesus stands as leader of the outcasts and people on the margins over and against a corrupt ruling class (a theme that has been taken up by many a liberation theologian). Gone are most of Jesus’ healings, but the ones Pasolini does include are significant because they show Jesus defying the religious authorities by healing on the Sabbath. Pasolini also only includes the parable of the tenants (Matthew 21:33-46) which is easily among the more confrontational of Jesus’ parables as he once again condemns the religious ruling class. His is also the only Jesus movie I’ve seen that devotes close to three minutes to Jesus’ polemical “Seven Woes” sermon which is nothing short of a damning indictment against the hypocrisy of religion. But what helps save Pasolini from accusations of politicizing Jesus is the mere fact that he includes all of these scenes almost word-for-word from the Bible itself.
The inclusions of these scenes along with the stranger sayings of Jesus have the powerful effect of creating an extremely complex and mysterious portrait of Jesus, in stark contrast to the usual Christian instinct of simplifying him and his message. Ironically the end result is that Pasolini, a man who is as far removed from Christianity as one could imagine, has gifted the church with the most compelling film about his life, teachings, and work. His Christ is a stark reminder to all of us who live comfortable lives in the West that his Kingdom will not be comprised of the kingdoms of this world; those who put their stock and fortune in those kingdoms should suitably be made uncomfortable by him. And until this film is bettered (an extremely tall task) I have no qualms recommending this film as the definitive version of the life of Jesus that one should watch whether you count yourself among the faithful or not.
Watching all four of the films reminds me that there is no one definitive way to tell the story of Jesus. It has also convinced me that the key aspect to a good Jesus movie is curiosity on the part of the filmmakers. Those who cannot approach the story of Jesus without understanding his complex nature and embracing mystery, whether they be believers or non-believers, ultimately will create films that are less compelling and easily dismissed. But those who willingly wrestle with the story and their own presumptive beliefs are the ones who will always find a new way to illuminate new light on this ancient story.