The Prodigal Son: three filmed interpretations (and more)

Today was the Sunday of the Prodigal Son in Eastern Orthodox churches, and once again, I found myself thinking about how our gospel reading for the day had been handled in different films.

The parable of the prodigal son appears just once in the Bible, in Luke 15, so of course it is featured in the word-for-word adaptation of that gospel produced by the Genesis Project in the 1970s. And just as the Genesis Project dramatizes some of the other parables while Jesus recites them, so too it dramatizes this one. You can watch the relevant sequence by clicking here.

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Mary Goes to the Movies / How the mother of Jesus has been portrayed through a century of filmmaking.

Making a movie about Jesus is difficult enough. Anyone who would dramatize the life of Christ must strike a fine balance between his full humanity and his full divinity, and many filmmakers have erred on one side or the other. But at least the Scriptures give us ample data to work with, and at least there is broad agreement across church boundaries that Jesus was, and is, both divine and human.

But making a movie about Mary poses even thornier challenges. The Bible says little about her life, so dramatists who focus on her life — such as the writer and director of The Nativity Story, which opens Friday — must invent whole aspects of her story from scratch. Even more daunting, for filmmakers who want to reach as broad an audience as possible, is the fact that different churches have strongly different views on Mary.

Was she as fallible as any other human being? Or was she free from the stain of sin? Did she bear any other children? Or did she remain a virgin throughout her life? Should Jesus ever be shown correcting her, possibly even offending her? Or, as the mother of Jesus, should she offer him any guidance and possibly correct him?

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Top Ten Jesus Movies

They’ve been making films about the Son of God for over a century. Here’s one man’s list of those that ascend to the top of the cinematic pack.

Of the making of movies about Jesus, there is no end. In the first three months of this year alone: Son of Man, which casts a black man as Christ and sets his life in modern South Africa, got positive reviews at Sundance; the makers of Color of the Cross, which also casts a black man as Christ, established a website with trailers for their work-in-progress; and New Line Cinema announced that Oscar nominees Keisha Castle-Hughes (Whale Rider) and Shohreh Aghdashloo (House of Sand and Fog) will star as the Virgin Mary and her cousin Elizabeth in a new movie about the Nativity, to be released in time for Christmas.

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Come and See: How Movies Encourage Us to Look at (and with) Jesus

In orthodox Christian belief, Jesus is both God and man, fully divine and fully human. And it is because God has revealed himself in the form of a particular person who lived in a particular time and a particular place that Christians down through the ages have generally felt free to portray Jesus in icons, passion plays, and other forms of religious art. But except for the most basic and theologically essential points, such works of art generally pass over the particularities of Jesus’s life. His humanity, expressed in the mere fact that he can be depicted at all, is often balanced with his divinity by a degree of artistic abstraction: Whether depicting Christ in static paintings or following the stations of the cross according to a set pattern, artists have tended to downplay realistic or naturalistic details to focus on the more eternal truths.

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Jesus at the Movies

In Jesus of Montreal, Denys Arcand’s witty satire about a group of actors who put on a revisionist Passion play, the church sponsoring the play sends in some security guards to call off the production in mid-performance. The actors have tinkered with the Gospels too much; their reconstruction of the historical Jesus challenges church tradition at nearly every point, so out it must go. But the audience objects; one woman says she wants to see the end, and the head of security replies, impatiently, “Look, he dies on the cross and is resurrected. No big deal. Talk about slow!

The scene neatly sums up one of the main challenges faced by films about the life of Jesus: namely, overfamiliarity. Jesus has been represented in paintings, sculptures, and stained-glass windows for centuries; since the invention of moving pictures in the 1890s, he has also been a perennial subject in films and television. All these portrayals tend to fuse together in the popular imagination; audiences think they’ve seen it all before, and they can remain blind to the unique perspective each film sheds on the life of Jesus and his relationship to modern moviegoers.

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