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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Videos tell story of early church / Strengths and weaknesses in dramatizing New Testament church

There have been many films about the life of Jesus, and a handful of high-profile movies from The Sign of the Cross to Quo Vadis? have detailed the persecution of Christians in Rome some 35 years later. But the dramatic transition Christianity made between those two points — from a marginal Jewish sect to a thriving, if persecuted, community in the seat of Gentile power — has received scant attention even from Christian filmmakers.

Into this void steps Acts, the second film from The Visual Bible. (The first was Matthew.) Like the aborted Genesis Project of the 1970s, the minds behind this South African venture hope to film the entire Bible, using the New International Version as their script. Says the press kit in bold, coloured letters: “No scriptwriter’s liberties. No interpretations. No dramatic license.”

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