Jesus Christ, Movie Star: A Stay-Home Film Series
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We are re-viewing and contextualizing a diverse selection of films about the life of Jesus Christ.
Selected Jesus Film Titles
* THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD (1965)
* KING OF KINGS (1961)
* THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ST. MATTHEW (1964)
* GODSPELL (1973)
* JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR (1973)
* THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (1988)
* THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (2004)
* MONTY PYTHON’S LIFE OF BRIAN (1979)
* JESUS OF NAZARETH (1977)
* SON OF MAN (2006)
* THE MIRACLE MAKER (1999)
* JESUS (1999)
* THE GOSPEL OF JOHN (2003)
* THE JESUS FILM (1979)
* SON OF GOD (2014)
* JESUS OF MONTREAL (1989)
* PETER AND PAUL (1981)
* JESUS OF NAZARETH, TWO SCREENPLAYS BY CARL THEODOR DREYER. PLUS: JESUS FILMS IN PROCESS BY VERHOEVEN, MALICK, GIBSON, NOLLYWOOD, DALLAS JENKINS, AND MORE.
Contextual commentary will include:
* Textural accuracy of the adaptation.
* Jesus’ portrayal and ethnic representation; his divine vs. human natures.
* Film techniques. Reviews, pro and con. Box office figures. Fun stories from production.
* The society of the times as well as ours. News and polling data highlight issues raised.
* Anti-semitism in scripture and each film. Unpacking other topics, like the agency of women, people of color, and LGBT+ folk.
* Questions for discussion/reflection for small groups and classes.
Pandemic Viewing Notes:
* Films are free or inexpensive. Kanopy & Hoopla use a library card for free viewing. JustWatch links to the lowest rentals or subscription platforms.
* Unlike pre-pandemic in-person screenings, home viewing allows for longer films, those with subtitles and/or adult content. Alternative Jesus films are in the Appendix.
* Watch whenever, this was for Lent/Eastertide 2021, with church “kalendar” events noted.
Précis: Purpose of the Series
“The cinema has always been interested in God.” ~ Andre Bazin
Whatever you believe, or even if you don’t believe at all, Jesus figures large in history and still influences lives two millennia later. Ye, many don’t know or haven’t read the story, including evangelicals who can’t name the four Gospels.
How we imagine such a figure impacts our world, our networks, our very selves. With only a few hundred words to draw upon and no physical description, the depiction of Jesus Christ in art for centuries has varied greatly; the Jesus film tradition is no exception.
Recent social movements like #MeToo, Time’s Up, Black Lives Matter and especially #OscarsSoWhite, all emphasize the importance of representation and agency in film, as we will see with the casting and characterization of Jesus and his followers, male and female, who were historically Jewish, middle-Eastern people of the first century C.E.
In light of recent global populist fascism’s mix of religion and politics, culminating in the failed coup on 1/6, we’ll be looking at the social, political, and religious milieu in which each film was made, and see how they echo current events. We will also look at film technique, film reviews, and a dozen scholarly books about Jesus in film (see Bibliography). In passing, we’ll mention other Jesus films of note, relevant biblical/theological topics, and Lent/Eastertide church holidays.
Finally, each film can be used devotionally for those who wish to, and I’ll link to resources for further exploration of the spiritual dimensions the film raises. So, something for everyone.
Some key questions we’ll address:
* What does Jesus look like, sound like, dress like, etc.?
* How closely does the script adhere to the Gospel texts?
* How is his humanity versus divinity depicted?
* How are miracles depicted, if at all? The resurrection?
* Is he political? Why is he put to death?
* How are his family and followers depicted?
* How are his enemies depicted? (Anti-Semitism?)
* How about women, people of color, LGBT+ folk?
* What do these depictions say about our own relationship to the divine? To others? To ourselves?
* What’s your answer to: “Who do you say/see that I am?”
FEB 18: The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)
G - 137 to 260 minutes (depending on version) - Free/$3.99
Watch the trailer on YouTube:
Stream the film on aggregator JustWatch:
Learn more about The Greatest Story Ever Told at the film's wikipedia page :
The Greatest Jesus Film Flop Ever Made, commentary by Eric David
“Jesus is far too important a figure to be left only to the theologians and the church.”
~ Jaroslav Pelikan, Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture
So. We'll be watching films out of chronological order.
Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, and I’ll be pointing out interesting dates in the church kalendar as well as other religious holidays as they happen throughout this series. Ash Wednesday is a day of fasting and prayer in preparation for the six weeks of Lent, focused on penitence, abstinence, and growing closer to God. Ash Wednesday derives its name from the placing of repentance ashes on the foreheads of participants to either the words "Repent, and believe in the Gospel" or the dictum "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The ashes are prepared by burning palm leaves from the previous year's Palm Sunday celebrations.
This first week of Lent, we underscore the title of this series with the version of the life of Christ that has the most movie stars, from Charlton Heston to John Wayne, featuring the ethereal Swede Max von Sydow playing Jesus. Directed by George Stevens, it received five Oscar nominations.
The Greatest Story Ever Told is a very loose adaptation of the novel of the same name by Fulton Oursler, which itself was an adaptation of a Peabody Award-winning radio series. It illustrates the "harmonization" approach: taking stories from all four Gospels.
All we have to go on regarding the life of Jesus are four Gospels and a little bit of the book of Acts, totalling about 90,000 words, the length of The Hobbit, or 1984, about nine hours on audiobook. And these were not narrative biographies in the modern sense of the word. They were faith declarations, testaments.
Many novelists have written Jesus stories of their own: David Strauss, Ernest Renan, George Moore, D.H. Lawrence, Robert Graves, Kahlil Gibran, Ivan Naschiwin, Gore Vidal (twice!), Nikos Kazantzakis (of more, below under The Last Temptation of Christ), Anthony Burgess (of more, below under Jesus of Nazareth), William Barclay, Norman Mailer, Jim Crace, Anne Rice, Philip Pullman, Jeffry Archer, and Colm Toibin, to name just a few. Like all the films we’ll look at, most of these books were fairly well received, but did not succeed like most of these novelists’ other works. Their approaches to the Gospel story are well-described by Theodore Ziolkowski in Fictional Transfigurations of Jesus.
The films for the most part fail to involve viewers, often because Jesus is too remote as an identifiable character, even when his humanity is stressed over his divinity. The greatest story ever told is often not a great story as far as storytelling goes, at least not as stories are expected to be told by (post)modern audiences. Like the novels, before the films we’re watching were produced, a rich history of global silent films about Jesus were made from the very earliest days of celluloid exposure. In the first decade alone, we have: The Passion (Lear, 1897), The Passion (Lumière, 1897), The Passion Play (Lubin, 1898), The Passion (Guam, 1898), The Passion Play of Oberammergau (1898), Christ Walking on the Water (1899), The Passion Play (Topi, 1900), Soldiers of the Cross (1900), The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ (1905), The Life of Christ (1906), The Life of Jesus (1907), and The Life of Christ (1907). Most notably after that, we have: From the Manger to the Cross (1912), The Star of Bethlehem (1912), The Shadow of Nazareth (1913), The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ (1913, a re-edit of 1905), one storyline of Intolerance (1916), Christus (1916), Der Galiläer (1921), Leaves from Satan’s Book (1921), and I.N.R.I. (1923), culminating in Cecil B. DeMille’s epic The King of Kings (1927), which held pride of place as the Jesus film for more than three decades until the shamelessly titled King of Kings in 1961. See the Appendix for Alternative Jesus Films for links to a couple of these silents. Others are hard to find online, many no longer exist at all. Note these are mostly the American titles in English.
I’m assuming familiarity among my readers here with the basic outline of the gospel story, but if you don’t know it, The Message is an eminently readable paraphrase/translation and Mark is the shortest Gospel to start with (and probably the first written) and is online at any number of bible websites (see Appendix at bottom for links). Perhaps one of the best introductions to the Four Gospels and how very different they are from each other is the book The Four Witnesses: The Rebel, The Rabbi, The Chronicler and The Mystic, by Robin Griffith-Jones. The subtitle starts to show the differences already; the book goes into great depth:
So in retelling the story of Jesus, the first choice is whether to choose one of the Gospels or t