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Christ On Celluloid
A brief historical view of the portrayal of the Life, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ by the film industry.
By Mario Gauci
With the invention of a new medium of narrative and communication, it was inevitable that the story of the Messiah would immediately attract the attention of those seeking to dabble in the nascent enterprise. The Life And Passion Of Christ (1902) is a primitive artifact of historical value, not for being the very first movie to deal with these events but because, it was later considered to be the first feature-length film ever released – despite the fact that, running just under 45 minutes, it isn't one technically (besides, it was originally shown in segments in serial-like fashion)! More importantly, for the next few years after its making, rather than setting up newer and more elaborate productions, it was being exploited by exhibitors by getting re-edited and distributed under various aliases.
Though the static camera-work makes From The Manger To The Cross (1912) feel more like a succession of religious tableaux than a film, framing is generally pretty crammed and sometimes even offers admirable depth for its era. Aiming for absolute authenticity, not only is the entire script composed of direct (albeit stilted) quotes from the Scriptures but the film-makers even went so far as to shoot in the actual Palestinian locations! At the then-remarkable length of 70 minutes, the film virtually breezes through Christ's tenure on Earth but there are a couple of surprising blunders along the way: we are told that Christ was capable of working miracles before presenting the one which is recorded as having been His first (at the Wedding of Cana) and, later, Jesus being shown indiscriminately raising a man from the dead before the famous revivification of his friend Lazarus diminishes the desired effect of the latter moment and, astonishingly enough, the Resurrection episode is skipped entirely! On the plus side, the violence inflicted upon Jesus in the Calvary stages are quite realistically done for its time.
The second decade of the twentieth century saw the release of three movies titled Christus (in 1914, 1916 and 1919) the second one is more elaborate than its predecessors. The character of Judas is naturally given his space during the Passion segments but, what makes his scenes interesting, is that the figure of a horned devil thrice appears to him as a hallucination – when he betrays Jesus to the High Priests (goading him on), when he repents of his deed (mocking him) and when he hangs himself in desperation (inviting him to take his place in the infernal Hades which open up beneath his dangling corpse). One of the film's early highlights is the scene at the temple where the Virgin Mary faints as the shadow of the boy Jesus preaching forms the shape of a cross! It is also notable for depicting the events following the Passion i.e. the Resurrection, the "Doubting Thomas" episode and the Ascension, and for the portrayal of Jesus himself (Alberto Pasquali) which is perhaps the most passive and sullen-looking Christ ever!
Then came what was the Silent era’s definitive depiction of the life of Christ, Cecil B. DeMille’s alternately extravagant and sublime The King Of Kings (1927). Although it was later trimmed to 112 minutes for general release (which omits several sequences, changes others around but also featuring very brief exclusive scenes), the original 155-minute “Roadshow” version hardly feels draggy and contains quite a few impressive individual sequences: the first view of Jesus (H.B. Warner) as a blind girl regains her sight; the tax-paying episode when Christ asks Peter to catch a fish – found to be carrying a gold coin in its mouth – followed, amusingly, by the Romans themselves casting hooks in the river hoping to make a similar catch!; a spectacular earthquake sequence following the Crucifixion, in which even the tree on which Judas hangs himself is engulfed; the final dissolve from Christ being surrounded by the Apostles to his ascent over a modern-city skyline, etc.
The first Sound film about Jesus came from France in 1935: Julien Duvivier’s curiously little-known Golgotha boasts impressively fluid direction that yields any number of striking compositions – right from that remarkably long opening tracking shot over the walls of Jerusalem – which truly elevate the film towards the upper echelons within the Biblical subgenre. Another significant contribution comes via Jacques Ibert's powerful score that is virtually a constant companion to the on-screen images (so much so that Ibert is atypically billed right under Duvivier in the opening credits)! Duvivier chooses to focus on the final week of Jesus' passage on Earth – from Palm Sunday to just after the Resurrection – but, although Christ's presence permeates every foot of the film (with the Jewish elders conniving against and the commoners exalting Him), the director cleverly withholds His first truly distinct appearance until the 20-minute mark (during the remarkably P.O.V.-shot hubris at the Temple)...but the audience is made to wait a further 6 minutes before we get a bona-fide close-up of the actor playing Him! Also noteworthy is that fact that, for being the first Sound film made about Christ, rather than focus on His teachings we get to experience Him through how others (Caiaphas, Judas Iscariot, Pontius Pilate, Herod Antipas, a fainting spectator at the flagellation, the distraught disciples at Emmaus, etc.) see Him. Robert Le Vigan's Christ must surely be the most haunted and haunting one ever caught on film (perhaps never more so than when He comes face to face with His heartbroken mother on the way to the titular hill). Sadly, the actor’s off-screen life was equally tragic: openly advocating his anti-Semitism and collaborating with the Nazis during their occupation of Paris, he was eventually stripped of his French citizenship and had all his assets confiscated, was imprisoned to ten years' hard labor (of which he served three) until, in late 1972, he ended his days impoverished and insane in Argentina!
In an era dominated by Roman Empire-set epics like QUO VADIS (1951) and BEN-HUR (1959), it was unsurprising that producer extraordinaire Samuel Bronston would bankroll a new version of KING OF KINGS which would be the first veritable Talking picture about Jesus Christ ever made in Hollywood. Despite engaging the intelligent vision of Hollywood maverick Nicholas Ray and setting it to the rousing strains of Miklos Rozsa’s music, contemporary commentators were skeptical of the huge enterprise and derisively dubbed it “I Was A Teenage Jesus” – a direct reference to young Jeffrey Hunter’s blue-eyed Christ; ironically enough, Hunter’s promising career did not really survive the critical drubbing and, after struggling in low-grade European Westerns for a while, he died in 1969 aged just 42 from a skull fracture suffered during a fall! Even so, the film’s popularity has endured worldwide since it is virtually revived yearly via TV reruns on Good Friday.
The traumatic WWII experiences of director George Stevens transformed him from a master of comedy (he started his career with Laurel & Hardy!) into a pretentious award-winning film-maker. He took four years to make his gargantuan version of the tale of Christ, The Greatest Story Ever Told released in 1965 which, visually striking and occasionally impressive though it might be, proved to be a bum-numbing bomb at the box-office: with versions running anywhere between 260 and 141 minutes, the most commonly available one today is 199 minutes long.The earnest central performance of Swedish star Max Von Sydow was swamped by pointless (and sometimes risible cameos) by virtually every actor currently working in Hollywood at the time, from Charlton Heston (as John The Baptist) Telly Savalas (who shaved his hair off to play Pontius Pilate and remained bald-headed for the rest of his life!) to, most notoriously, John Wayne (as a Roman Centurion)!
Having already brought the ‘Jewish’ musical FIDDLER ON THE ROOF (1971) to the screen made Norman Jewison the natural choice when it was the turn of the phenomenally popular Tim Rice-Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock opera take on Jesus to be turned into a film, Jesus Christ Superstar released in 1973. Gleaming cinematography on authentic Israeli locations and energetic musical numbers softened the potentially controversial elements inherent in the modern, youth-oriented outlook through the eyes of a coloured Judas. The actor who played Christ here (Ted Neeley) was still portraying the role in stage revivals of the musical as late as 2010!
Godspell was another musical depiction of Jesus Christ’s tenure on Earth to be released in 1973; Stephen Schwarz’s songs are pretty good, with the best numbers among them – "Prepare Ye The Way Of The Lord", "Day By Day" and "Finale" – possessing a decidedly haunting quality. Besides, their staging (shot on location in New York City, with much prominence given to the World Trade Center!) is undeniably energetic; the confrontation with a tin monster (standing in for the Pharisees) is particularly inspired. What hasn't aged well are the various hippie/ethnic characterizations on display (including an insipid and curly-haired Christ!), with their mostly silly antics - amid re-enactments of episodes from St. Matthew's Gospel - rendering the film's pacing uneven to say the least.
Dubbed "the most Catholic of all film directors" by one critic, it was only a matter of time before Italian film-maker Roberto Rossellini tackled the life of Christ on celluloid. Ironically, this he did in what proved to be his last feature film, The Messiah (1975), which was, in itself, a follow-up to his TV mini-series Acts Of The Apostles (1969). That earlier work was interesting for treating little-known passages from the New Testament; conversely, here Rossellini presents all-too-familiar events – with the overall effect feeling lengthy still, yet distinctly more cinematic. Actually, this is also one of the few films to show the famous incident in which Jesus is lost in the temple as a boy.
Naturally, the bulk of the narrative is devoted to Christ's public life – though no overdue emphasis is placed on the miracles he performed (these are mentioned but rarely seen) – which also provides the film with its essential core since in the latter section, revolving around the more commonly-depicted events of Jesus' trial, crucifixion and eventual resurrection are curiously skimped here!
On the visual side, The Messiah seems closest to the contemporaneous Jesus Of Nazareth– yet the lyrical style and quiet dignity on display makes of The Messiah a more than worthy companion piece to Pier Paolo Pasolini's more renowned The Gospel According To St. Matthew (1964). With this in mind, while perhaps not the definitive film on the subject, it certainly emerges as an underrated achievement – both among the myriad treatments of Christ's life over the years and in Rossellini's own highly respected canon.
Again, after tackling St. Francis of Assisi in BROTHER SUN, SISTER MOON (1972), Italian director Franco Zeffirelli took on the daunting task of making the definitive TV version of the life of Christ in 1977’s Jesus of Nazareth. The end result was a reverential, star-studded 6½ hour mini-series that gave us what remains, arguably, the most satisfactory and charismatic portrayal of Jesus Christ on film. Hailing from the impudent excess of Ken Russell’s films, British actor Robert Powell landed the role of a lifetime and proceeded to set the standard against which all future depictions of Christ will have to be judged. Apart from the occasional impressive performance and sequence, the film was typically highlighted by Maurice Jarre’s stirring score.
The controversial Jesus Of Montreal (1989) from acclaimed Canadian film-maker Denys Arcand is an absorbing, original, savage, funny, and frequently stunning piece of work – although, in view of its subject matter, it does have the occasional heavy-going passage. The 'Passion Play' sequences are quite powerful, thanks also to excellent performances all around: Lothaire Bluteau is quietly impressive in the demanding central role (of an actor who eventually goes mad from playing Christ!) and, overall, Jesus Of Montreal is a superior effort to that other notorious Christ-movie of the day – Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation Of Christ (1988).
Which brings us to the one film most people are aware of or familiar with: Mel Gibson’s The Passion Of The Christ (2004) is undeniably harrowing in its violence but somewhat lacking in character development (Christ, especially, is presented as one-dimensional) though it does have unmistakable artistic merit, notably a number of striking images: the putrefied donkey whose rope Judas uses to hang himself, and the raven which comes to sit on the ledge of the cross and starts pecking at the bad thief's face (immediately after the latter 'provokes' Christ into doing one last miracle) were unexpectedly surreal touches; a bloodied Christ looking up at a white dove flying into the scene just after the scourging was almost poetic in its incongruity; God's tear falling from Heaven, and the recurring presence of an androgynous Satan, etc. In the end, it's not quite the definitive statement on the subject one would have expected (given the director's sometimes punishing fussiness over getting the details right above all else, including filming it in the extinct language of Aramaic!), and certainly not as challenging as The Last Temptation Of Christ.