One controversial Jesus movie turns 25, another turns 40

Two movies about Jesus, both of which were quite controversial in their day, are celebrating major anniversaries this month.

First, there is Jesus Christ Superstar, which premiered in New York City 40 years ago yesterday before going into general release on August 15, 1973.

I don’t appear to have written all that much about this film over the years, though I did write the following about the 25th-anniversary edition of the soundtrack in an article for BC Christian News that was first published in 1999:
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Review: Jesus (dir. Roger Young, 1999)

By now, it’s become standard practice for filmmakers tackling the gospels to say that they will show Jesus in a more ‘human’ light. What this usually means is that the Jesus in their films will smile more often than the Jesuses in other films. He will laugh, he will cry, he will help the fishermen with their nets, he may even get up and dance at parties.

But this definition of humanity, with its implicit assumption that God, in his divinity, is somehow above all that stuff, does a disservice to both sides of the equation. The God of the Old Testament definitely has feelings, so emotion itself is no big sign of humanity. If Jesus is fully human, as the creeds insist, then there has to be more to it than that.

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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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