The temptation when making a movie about a major turning point in history is to make it all about one person, usually a man, and to frame it as that one person’s great struggle.
Moses at the Movies / When we trace more than a century of movies about the Exodus, what do we learn?
Ridley Scott isn’t the first filmmaker to tackle the story of Moses, and he certainly won’t be the last. There’s drama in the prophet’s confrontations with the rulers of Egypt, there’s spectacle in the miracles he performed to liberate his people, and there are lessons to be learned from the way he led the Israelites and forged them into a nation, not least by giving them the Law. And filmmakers have been turning to Moses’ story for inspiration since pretty much the dawn of cinema.
The story of Jesus has become so familiar to us that we sometimes fail to grasp just how shocking, disturbing, or ultimately motivating it really is. Even films designed to take us back to first-century Judea can tend to come across as soothing or reassuring, which hardly matches how the apostles would have experienced those events. Sometimes it takes a radical reimagining to get us to really think about the implications of that story, and how it might be applied to our present-day reality. And one of the most interesting such reimaginings — certainly in recent years — is Son of Man, a South African production that depicts Jesus as a political activist working in a war-torn modern African country.
Like most independent foreign films, Son of Man has kept a relatively low profile — it didn’t even come out on DVD on this continent until four years after it premiered at the Sundance festival in 2006 — but it can now be streamed on Netflix in the U.S., and it has attracted a fair bit of attention in some circles. The conversation surrounding the film is now further illuminated by Son of Man: An African Jesus Film, a collection of 16 essays that look at the film within the contexts of African culture and the Jesus-film tradition as a whole.
Darren Aronofsky makes movies about obsessive people. To be the protagonist in an Aronofsky film is to be a mathematician who studies the stock market looking for hidden or even mystical patterns, or a middle-aged woman who takes drastic measures to lose weight because she thinks she will be on television soon, or a scientist who neglects his wife because he’s trying to cure her terminal illness, or a wrestler or ballet dancer who would literally rather die than miss an opportunity to give the performance of a lifetime.
The producers behind Son of God are attempting something that hasn’t been tried for years, even decades — and I’m not just referring to the fact that their film is an explicitly Christian adaptation of the Gospels that is getting a wide release from a major distributor.
Son of God is adapted from the History Channel miniseries The Bible, which got huge ratings last year and has since become one of the bestselling TV-based DVDs ever — so this film may mark the first time since the rise of home video that filmmakers have repackaged a TV show for the big screen and asked an audience to pay to see it all over again.
The genre – which was very popular in the silent era and then, again, during the post-war boom of the 1950s and early 1960s – never went away entirely. Low-budget films like The Last Temptation of Christ and The Passion of the Christ have offered radically different, even opposite, interpretations of the life and death of Jesus. And there has been a steady stream of Bible films on television going back to at least the 1970s.
But when Paramount Pictures releases Noah – starring Russell Crowe and rumoured to have cost over $125 million – in March, it will mark the first time that a big-budget live-action Bible epic has been made for the big screen since Richard Gere starred in King David back in 1985. (The Prince of Egypt, released in 1998, was also a major Hollywood production, but it was an animated film, and so arguably doesn’t quite belong in the same category.)