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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The Vancouver Sun posts its list of the best Jesus movies

Douglas Todd, the religion and ethics reporter for The Vancouver Sun, has an article in today’s paper looking at the top five films about Jesus, the top five films with a “metaphorical Christ”, and the top five films “with Christian themes.” I was one of four people he consulted — the others include my friends Ron Reed and Darrel Manson, as well as theologian Marjorie Suchocki, who I have never met — and Todd quotes two of the blurbs I’ve written on Jesus films, including this one on Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) and this one on The Miracle Maker (2000). You can read the print edition of Doug’s article here, and the blog version here.

How well have movies depicted Jesus the exorcist?

The History Channel had a huge hit this year with The Bible, but the makers of that mini-series are taking the sequel to another network, so it’s not too surprising that the History Channel turned to someone else to make a follow-up of their own. What is surprising is that their next Jesus-themed series will be made by a bunch of horror-movie veterans, including Eli Roth, director of Hostel (2005-2007), Eric Newman, producer of the Dawn of the Dead remake (2004) and the prequel to The Thing (2011), and Scott Kosar, a writer whose credits include the remakes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) and The Amityville Horror (2005). Roth and Newman also co-produced The Last Exorcism (2010-2013).

Deadline says the series is currently called The Lost Years and will look at what Jesus was up to between the ages of 13 and 30. The series will also reportedly fit into the horror genre as it explores “a theory about Jesus’ origins as an exorcist.”

Given the pedigree of everyone involved, this could easily be very schlocky (“Jesus The Teenage Demon Slayer,” as Matthew Archbold puts it). And yet I can’t help thinking that performing exorcisms was a major part of Jesus’ ministry, and it’s possible the Jesus-movie genre hasn’t paid as much attention to that side of him as it could.

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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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