If you’re a Bible-movie buff and a space-movie buff like me, then you can’t help but notice how the two genres sometimes overlap.
Fred Clark posted a really interesting item this morning, noting that “the true meaning of Christmas” can be found in a poem spoken by Mary not long after she learned that she was pregnant with the Son of God — and he notes that the poem in question has a significant political edge, in which the powerful are brought down from their thrones while the humble are lifted up, and the rich are sent away hungry while the poor are filled.
This got me curious as to how many films have actually reflected the edgier aspects of this poem, which is known as the Magnificat. And the answer is: not many. In fact, there are very few films that incorporate the Magnificat at all, and those that do usually cut out the more politically-charged stuff. Usually, but not always.
It seems like every time a Bible movie hits the big screen, the BBC does its own version of the story a few years later. The Passion of the Christ came out in 2004. The BBC aired The Passion in 2008. The Nativity Story came out in 2006. The BBC aired The Nativity in 2010.
So now, of course, with Darren Aronofsky’s Noah still in theatres around the world, the BBC is planning its own version of the Noah story, called The Ark — and instead of waiting four years to produce it, they have already started filming it.
Yesterday I passed along the news that Exodus, Ridley Scott’s version of the life of Moses, was “gathering steam” at 20th Century Fox, even as Steven Spielberg had dropped out of directing another Moses movie over at Warner Brothers. Well, now comes word, via Deadline, that Fox and Scott are talking to Christian Bale — who landed one of his first acting gigs in Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun (1987) before growing up to star in the Dark Knight trilogy (2005-2012) etc. — about playing Moses himself. This would not be Bale’s first biblical role; he previously played Jesus in the TV-movie Mary Mother of Jesus (1999), and he briefly considered taking the starring role in Darren Aronofsky’s Noah as well. Bale passed on that role in the end, and he might pass on this one too, but still, it’s another sign that the studios are very keen on making another big-screen movie about Moses — the first such live-action film in almost 60 years.
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?
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.