The naked Christ in film: birth, death and resurrection

“The Word became flesh,” according to John 1:14, but that flesh has been hidden, for the most part, in movie portrayals of Jesus. At certain key points in his life, history and even tradition would dictate that Jesus ought to be depicted nude — and there are good theological reasons for doing so. But films have tended to shy away from nudity in their own portrayals of those parts of the Jesus story.

There are some obvious reasons for this reticence, of course, starting with the fact that film, for much of its history, has been forced to skirt around images of nudity in general, and images of male nudity in particular. Plus, when a film does show someone’s nudity, it does not merely show you the character’s nudity; it shows you the actor’s nudity, as well, and the knowledge that you are seeing an actor’s naked body can sometimes distract you from the character. This is especially true when the character is meant to be an embodiment of divinity like Jesus.

There have been at least three significant exceptions, though — three films that each depict the nudity of Jesus at a different key point in his story.

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Peter O’Toole announces his “retirement” from acting

Peter O’Toole announced his retirement from acting yesterday, and I must admit I’ve been dwelling on Bible movies enough these past few days that my first thought was, “Well, I guess that’s another part that the makers of Mary Mother of Christ will have to re-cast!” O’Toole had been attached to play Symeon, the old man who was informed by the Holy Spirit that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah (as per Luke 2).

It wasn’t the first time O’Toole had agreed to play a small part in a Bible movie. In the early days of his movie stardom, he played the angels who bring condemnation to Sodom and Gomorrah in The Bible: In the Beginning… (1966), which I’ve always been inclined to see as sort of a meta-sequel in which O’Toole gets revenge for the rape his character endured in a similar Middle Eastern town in Lawrence of Arabia (1962). More recently, he played the prophet Samuel in the prologue to the Book of Esther adaptation One Night with the King (2006).

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Review: The Nativity Story (dir. Catherine Hardwicke, 2006)

The Passion of The Christ was an independent movie, paid for entirely out of Mel Gibson’s pocket. The Prince of Egypt was an animated film that emphasized the common ground between Jews, Christians and Muslims. The Last Temptation of Christ was a low-budget art-house flick based on a heretical novel.

You would have to go back at least as far as King David, the mid-1980s box-office flop starring Richard Gere, to find another live-action movie produced by a major Hollywood studio and based directly on the Bible. And you would have to go back even further — to the bathrobe epics of the 1960s, at least — to find a mainstream biblical movie that was as blatantly Christian as The Nativity Story.

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