Review: A Man Called Peter (dir. Henry Koster, 1955); End of the Spear (dir. Jim Hanon, 2005); Saint Peter (dir. Giulio Base, 2005)

HOLLYWOOD studios are increasingly aware there is a market for religious films.

So lately, they have been making a point of creating special video labels, such as Fox Faith, and reissuing classic religious films – in addition to newer efforts. Here are a few such films.

A Man Called Peter, Fox, 1955

There is a big, big problem with the cover of this DVD: it shows Peter Marshall (Richard Todd) wearing a suspiciously large clerical collar, even though the film makes a big, big deal of the fact that Marshall – a popular Scottish Presbyterian minister who became chaplain to the United States Senate – was a spirited nonconformist who refused to wear such things.

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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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