The Ascension of Christ in film: literalism, symbolism, etc.

Today is the Feast of the Ascension, when Christians remember how Jesus was taken up into heaven 40 days after his Resurrection. It’s one of the stranger bits in the Gospels — both difficult to understand, given our modern cosmology, and difficult to pull off visually — and most of what we know about it actually comes from the Book of Acts. So it’s not too surprising that most films about Jesus have tended to skip this episode.

Nevertheless, a few films have depicted the Ascension, often by mixing it with elements from other stories in the gospels, and even those that don’t depict it have often made a point of ending on a note that suggests Jesus has transcended this life in some way that parallels the Ascension. Here are a few examples.

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History and tradition in movie depictions of the Cross.

Western Easter came and went last week, but the Eastern churches are currently only half-way through the Lenten season, so yesterday was, for us, the Sunday of the Veneration of the Precious Cross.

Thinking about this, I inevitably started thinking about Jesus movies, and I began to think about the fact that the recent mini-series The Bible has joined Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ in taking a step back from recent “historically accurate” depictions of the Crucifixion towards a more traditional sort of iconography.

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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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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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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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