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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The gospel according to film

Jesus at the Movies: A Guide to the First Hundred Years
By W. Barnes Tatum
Polebridge Press, 245 pp., $18

John Dominic Crossan, co-founder of the Jesus Seminar and one of the wittiest historians working today, began his landmark work The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant with the quip that historical Jesus scholarship had become something of a bad joke. The same could be said of that peculiar genre of films based on the life of Jesus, but for a very different reason.

Crossan was responding to the many competing and contradictory accounts of the life of Jesus that have been produced by modern historians. But moviegoers tend to be cynical for a very different reason. In their efforts to please as wide an audience as possible, filmmakers who tackle the gospels have tended to make Jesus a rather bland, anemic figure who has remained surprisingly constant and unchallenging over the years. Even revisionist films like The Last Temptation of Christ emphasize his weaknesses more than his strengths.

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