Hail, Caesar!, the newest film from the Coen brothers, opens this Friday. The film is set in 1950s Hollywood, and one of its central plot elements is a movie-within-the-movie — also called Hail, Caesar! — that depicts the crucifixion of Jesus. This got me wondering, how many other films have depicted the making of a Bible movie?
The National Geographic Channel’s adaptation of Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Jesus is now filming in Morocco, and thanks to The Hollywood Reporter, we now know who many of the actors are — and they’re an eclectic bunch, to be sure.
In keeping with other recent efforts to depict Jesus as something other than a blonde-haired, blue-eyed European, the part of Jesus will be played by Haaz Sleiman, an actor born in Lebanon who is perhaps best-known for playing a Syrian immigrant in Tom McCarthy’s The Visitor.
Herod the Great, on the other hand, will be played by Kelsey Grammer, who doesn’t seem like a particularly Middle Eastern kind of guy to me. (The fact that he’s best known for his comedic roles on Frasier and The Simpsons doesn’t help!)
So many movies have been made about Jesus, and so many of those movies have been mediocre, that it’s sometimes surprising to realize how many world-class directors have tried to get Jesus movies of their own off the ground but never succeeded. The list includes Carl Theodor Dreyer, who passed away in 1968; Gillo Pontecorvo, who passed away in 2006; and Paul Verhoeven, who published a book about Jesus in 2008 and has talked about making a movie on the subject since the 1980s, but is no closer to actually getting the film made now than he was back then.
You don’t often hear about people dying to make movies about Saint Paul, though. But it turns out that one of the best Jesus-movie makers of them all — Pier Paolo Pasolini, director of The Gospel According to St Matthew, which incidentally celebrates its 50th anniversary this year — tried to make a movie about the apostle who took Christianity to the Gentiles, and yesterday his screenplay was published in English for the first time ever.
Four years after I first mentioned that a film version of the Langston Hughes musical Black Nativity was in the works — and three months after cameras finally started rolling on the adaptation — we now, at last, have some images from the film, courtesy of USA Today. Alas, all four of the pictures in question seem to be set pretty firmly within the real world, so we’ll just have to wait to see the “dream sequence” that re-tells the story of the birth of Jesus. The article that accompanies the new images does describe at least one part of that sequence, though:
If you’ve seen as many Jesus movies as I have, then one of the things you cannot help but notice about Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel according to St. Matthew (1964) is its heavy use of close-ups.
Later films about Jesus used their fair share of close-ups, too, of course — partly because many of them were made for television, at a time when the average TV set was still quite small — but Pasolini’s film, which was one of the last great Jesus films to be made for the big screen, is particularly intense in this regard.