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Jesus' Humanity at the Movies
by Lyle Penner

Last Temptation of Christ movie coverIT IS SIMPLY astonishing to me that in this fever-paced, individualistic, “post-Christian” age, we as a culture are still fascinated by the legacy of a first century Jewish peasant who lived and died near the edge of the ancient Roman Empire.

Jesus of Nazareth not only fascinates us, but many are adamant about exactly who he was and what he means - or doesn’t. Think of it. In these politically correct times, who is still more controversial and enigmatic than Jesus?

Portraying this “ideal man” on film has been fraught with difficulties, not the least of which is our over familiarity with the subject. (At least we think we’re familiar with the subject!) Other problems include source materials that are impossible to condense into a cohesive, linear plot, the absence of autobiographical memoirs to fill in interior motivation, and an ancient setting whose cultural and religious questions were radically different from our own. And then, of course, there are the inevitable controversies springing from those, on the reverent right or the educated left, who do not wish to see their preconceptions challenged.

Yet somehow through it all, Jesus has vicariously become a shining star of the silver screen! That online repository of movie knowledge, the Internet Movie Database, lists at least 68 Jesus movies, 11 Jesus TV movies or documentaries, and 7 Jesus TV mini-series, among other related productions. Just recently there has been a series of excellent documentaries produced on the search for the historical Jesus, including ABC’s The Search for Jesus (2000), narrated by Peter Jennings, and PBS Frontline’s From Jesus to Christ (1998). In a sense, filmmakers, as reflectors as well as shapers of the cultural imagination, seem unable to separate themselves from this pivotal historical figure, no doubt a highly mythologized one, who somehow continues to define us.

Each cinematic portrait of Jesus, however, is different. From a five-minute French filmstrip in 1897 called La Passion, the first known “film” about Jesus, to the successful remake of the rock musical Jesus Christ Superstar in 2000, each production makes an interpretative stab at the meaning of it all based on the particular vision of the screenwriter and director involved, and the culture in which they stand. Like the Gospel writers before them, and every western theologian and artist in between, each director Quoteof a Jesus movie has attempted to make sense of this remarkable life, and the incredible stir he created. The resulting - and often confounding - images of Jesus have ranged from a patriarchal, miracle-worker to a non-violent revolutionary, from a super-confident, all-knowing God-man to a self-doubting, neurotic servant of his inner call.

If we desire to make up our own minds about who this Jesus is - to answer his own question “Who do you say that I am?” - we need a pathway into the fray. If Jesus is in any sense our “hero”, an exemplar, worthy of respect and study, even of following, which one is he? Is he the perfect, chosen man sent by a transcendent God to redeem us from our woefulness? Or is he the vulnerable everyman whose God-consciousness rose to the level of what humans are capable? If we live a life in search of meaning in this culture, we probably will need to intelligently answer this question. The Jesus, or Jesus-inspired, films around us may be of help. But how do we evaluate this varied collection of films that seem to hide as much as they reveal?

I suggest that we need, first, to take a look at the historical aspect or exterior of the films; then decipher the cultural mythology expressed within; and then examine the interiority of our own experience with them. By seeing the interconnectedness of the answers, we may find that these films become mediums for greater self-understanding.

How did the films come about?

From an objective perspective, we need to look at the “facts” surrounding the films' conception and making. If they are intended to be historical biographies, do they in any way relate to the Jesus of Nazareth as recorded by reputable historians? Do they reflect his Jewishness, the fact that he lived from approximately 4 BCE to 30 CE, was a teacher and miracle worker, however defined, and died by crucifixion under Rome’s Pontius Pilate?

How do the films use the Gospels? Do they try to harmonize these essential sources, or do they take a particular point of view and attempt to bring it to life? What were the stated intentions of the screenwriter and/or director? Are they trying to be authentic to the first century context, or do they consciously have a more contemporary, metaphorical goal in mind?

King of Kings 1927 movie coverWhat are the particular secondary sources used? When Cecile B. DeMille created his melodramatic, silent epic King of Kings in 1927 (from the point of view of Mary Magdalene whose lover was Judas, accompanied by King James Version Bible subtitles) it may be important to note that he used Renaissance paintings as well as Bible illustrations from the Victorian era as references for his visual style. His “Western Caucasian, non-Aramaic” Jesus style influenced later Jesus movies as well.

These are some of the more objective questions that come from a historical, scientific point of view. They are tests of whether an outward truthfulness is poured into a film. For instance, at the beginning of Last Temptation of Christ (1989), director Martin Scorsese outlines his intention that his movie not be taken literally as history, but as an exploration of Nikos Kazantzakis’ 1955 book of the same name. The movie is framed as an examination of the internal battle between an uncertain, uncomfortable divine calling and a comfortable human lifestyle - through the lens of Jesus of Nazareth. Although we may surmise that Jesus may have experienced the same inner conflict that Kazantzakis did, the point is that our minds are directed to a modern situation much closer to home.

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