The naked Christ in film: birth, death and resurrection

“The Word became flesh,” according to John 1:14, but that flesh has been hidden, for the most part, in movie portrayals of Jesus. At certain key points in his life, history and even tradition would dictate that Jesus ought to be depicted nude — and there are good theological reasons for doing so. But films have tended to shy away from nudity in their own portrayals of those parts of the Jesus story.

There are some obvious reasons for this reticence, of course, starting with the fact that film, for much of its history, has been forced to skirt around images of nudity in general, and images of male nudity in particular. Plus, when a film does show someone’s nudity, it does not merely show you the character’s nudity; it shows you the actor’s nudity, as well, and the knowledge that you are seeing an actor’s naked body can sometimes distract you from the character. This is especially true when the character is meant to be an embodiment of divinity like Jesus.

There have been at least three significant exceptions, though — three films that each depict the nudity of Jesus at a different key point in his story.

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Review: The Passion of the Christ: Definitive Edition (dir. Mel Gibson, 2004)

A lot has happened since The Passion of The Christ came out three years ago and broke a series of records, becoming the top-grossing R-rated movie, the top-grossing foreign-language film, and the top-grossing religious movie of all time — at least in North America. (The Matrix Reloaded is still the top R-rated film worldwide.)

Major movie studios have tried to replicate its success — by setting up faith-oriented divisions like FoxFaith, or by producing entire biblical movies of their own, such as The Nativity Story — and the careers of several of the film’s key players continue to reflect the film’s influence. Jim Caviezel, who played Jesus, will do so again in an audio Bible for Thomas Nelson. Hristo Shopov, who played Pontius Pilate, reprised the role last year in a remake of the Italian film The Inquiry. Benedict Fitzgerald, who co-wrote the script, recently wrote a prequel of sorts called Myriam, Mother of the Christ, and sold distribution rights to the as-yet-unproduced film to MGM.

And then there is director Mel Gibson, who bucked a wave of controversy over the film’s raw violence and alleged anti-Semitism, only to be caught making racist remarks shortly before finishing the similarly gory Apocalypto last year.

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Ethnicity in Jesus films – does it matter?

In 1961, Metro–Goldwyn–Mayer produced King of Kings, the first major Hollywood film about the life of Christ since the silent era. The virgin Mary was played by Siobhan McKenna, a respected Irish actress in her late 30s, and the villainous Herod the Great was described by the narrator as “an Arab of the Bedouin tribe.”

Nearly half a century later, things have flipped around. The Nativity Story, produced by New Line Cinema (the same studio that made The Lord of the Rings), casts an Irishman as King Herod; and several of the supporting actors were born in primarily Muslim territories, such as Iran and Sudan, or can trace their family roots there.

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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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Review: The Passion of the Christ (dir. Mel Gibson, 2004)

The Passion of The Christ may be the most artistically and commercially ambitious feature film about Jesus to come out of Hollywood since the 1960s. It is certainly the most devout, though at first it seems odd that Mel Gibson should be the one to produce, write, and direct a film about the Prince of Peace.

From the buddy-cop Lethal Weapon franchise to revisionist epics like The Patriot, Gibson has specialized in playing violent action heroes who take bloody revenge for the deaths of their wives, children, and girlfriends. In Braveheart, the 1995 film for which he won the Best Director Oscar, Gibson kept the fatal wounds inflicted on William Wallace and his wife just out of frame, to spare his audience the full brutality suffered by these heroes, but he reveled in the gory details with which Wallace executed his personal enemies.

In some ways, The Passion seems like a repudiation of much of his career to date: last year, Gibson, a traditionalist Catholic whose faith has surfaced in recent films like Signs and We Were Soldiers, told Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly he wanted to promote faith, hope, love, and especially forgiveness through this film. But The Passion also dwells, at considerable length, on the physical pain inflicted on Jesus. Has Gibson found a way to baptize, as it were, the sadistic or masochistic impulses of his other films? Is it possible he is indulging himself under the cover of religious piety?

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Mel Gibson still tweaking his death-of-Jesus movie

FROM THE extra definite article in the film’s title to the digital re-colouring of actor James Caviezel’s eyes, Mel Gibson is still tweaking The Passion of the Christ, his film about the death of Jesus.

The film, which was originally going to be titled The Passion, was re-named The Passion of Christ a few months ago when it turned out Miramax had already registered ‘The Passion’ for an adaptation of the Jeanette Winterson novel of that name. Gibson has since added an extra “the” to give the film its present title.

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