Come and See: How Movies Encourage Us to Look at (and with) Jesus

Come and See: How Movies Encourage Us to Look at (and with) Jesus October 7, 2004

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 have generally passed 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.

Film, therefore, poses a special challenge for the artist who would dramatize the life of Christ. Traditionally, movies about Jesus have respected his divinity by keeping him at a distance; he has typically been portrayed in objective terms that keep him mystical and otherworldly. But in recent years filmmakers eager to explore the humanity of Jesus have tended to portray him in more subjective terms, through the use of voice-overs, dreams, and other techniques that draw us into the minds of a film’s characters; however, in doing so, these filmmakers have often demystified Jesus so thoroughly that he seems to lose his divine authority.1 The Passion of The Christ (2004) presents a striking balance between these two approaches. Through its frequent use of flashbacks and point-of-view shots, the film gives the audience the sense that it is experiencing Jesus’s thoughts and memories from his own subjective perspective, yet the memories themselves are often portrayed in an objective, iconic fashion that preserves the film’s more mystical inclinations.

Subjective and Objective Perspectives in Previous Jesus Films

The basic element of a film is the shot. The word “movie” is short for “moving picture,” so film itself can be said to have a dual nature of sorts: The filmmaker arranges people and objects within a specific visual space (the shot, or “picture”) and then strings these shots together in a linear fashion over a specific length of time (the “motion”). Both the composition of the shots and the way the images are paced and edited together convey some sort of meaning to the viewer. The earliest filmmakers, however, did not grasp the key dimension of editing at first. For them, the basic element was not the edited series of shots but the scene, and their films were little more than wordless plays set in front of a static camera.

A typical early example of this is The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ (1905), produced by the Pathé company in France. Nearly every shot is a simple tableau in which the camera stands still and observes the entire stage, as it were, while the actors move about within the frame. The few exceptions to this format stand out precisely because they are so rare. When Pilate presents Jesus to the crowd, the film cuts to a medium shot of Jesus accompanied by the words “ecce homo” (Latin: behold the man). Later the film cuts to a medium shot of St. Veronica holding a cloth with the image of Jesus’s face, which she offers to one side of the screen, then the other, and then up in the direction of heaven. Again, we as film viewers are invited to behold the man. In all of this, the Pathé film’s treatment of Jesus and the other characters remains fairly objective — the camera sits and observes the characters, and it specifically encourages us to gaze on Christ but not to identify with him, as such.

Hints of subjectivity begin to crop up in From the Manger to the Cross (1912), the first feature-length film about Jesus, produced by the Kalem company and filmed in the Middle East. The shots remain fairly simple and static, but director Sidney Olcott makes greater use of depth, sometimes putting the camera behind characters’ backs so that we can see what they are looking at. For example, in one early shot, Joseph stands in the foreground and mulls over what to do, now that he has learned Mary is pregnant, while Mary passes by in the distance. Joseph turns as he paces and pauses — and as he looks at her, so do we. Similarly, the camera is positioned behind John the Baptist when he addresses his followers, sees Jesus far off in the distance, and points him out. On both occasions we are invited to identify with a person who is looking on someone who embodies a divine or mysterious quality.

However, the camera is also positioned behind Jesus’s back as he regards his disciples sleeping in Gethsemane. The Gethsemane episode, in which Jesus asks God to take the cup of suffering away from him, is one of a handful from the Gospels in which Jesus expresses emotions and desires that lend themselves to a more human and subjective interpretation. Thus, on this occasion at least, the film invites viewers to identify with Jesus as he anticipates his arrest.

The filmmaker most often credited with first realizing the unique power of film — its ability to combine different sorts of shots from different perspectives and to pace these images in a way that involves the audience in the lives of the characters — is D. W. Griffith, whose Civil War epic, The Birth of a Nation (1915), advanced the art form but also generated controversy for its positive portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan. Griffith responded to those criticisms with another film, Intolerance (1916), which cuts back and forth among four stories set in four different eras, to show how intolerance has plagued the world down through the ages. One of these stories concerns the life and death of Christ, and one of the striking things about Griffith’s treatment is that, in contrast to the more subjective mix of shots and rhythms that he uses in the other stories, he stands back and regards Jesus with an otherworldly objectivity. In contrast to the other story lines, the camera never comes very close to Christ; in fact, it seems to move farther and farther away from him, until the crucifixion is so far off that we can barely make it out.

In sharp contrast to Griffith’s reticence, Cecil B. DeMille made bold use of a point-of-view shot to introduce audiences to his Jesus in The King of Kings (1927), the last of the silent biblical epics. For the first 15 minutes or so, we do not see Jesus at all; instead, we see characters talk about him, until finally a blind girl approaches him — at this point, Jesus is still offscreen — and asks to be healed. A title card declares: “I am come a light into the world — that whosoever believeth in me shall not abide in darkness.” Then we are introduced to Jesus, his face briefly framed by a halo, in a tight close-up that fades into view as the girl gains her sight.

But while DeMille brings his camera much closer to Jesus, he remains fairly objective in his treatment of the character. Jesus is someone to look at, not someone with whom we are to identify, and his gaze does not reveal anything about his character as much as it is intended to effect a change in the lives of other characters. Shortly after Jesus heals the blind girl, Mary Magdalene arrives, haughty and proud, but something about the way Jesus looks at her makes her uncomfortable, until finally he casts the seven deadly sins out of her.

DeMille’s film was the last major Hollywood movie about the life of Jesus until the 1960s. Some of the biblical epics of the 1950s may have been set during Christ’s lifetime, but they generally avoided showing him directly; in The Robe (1953) and Ben-Hur (1959), he is seen only from behind or from afar, and in Quo Vadis? (1951), he is seen in a brief, static flashback that is also a near-exact replica of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper. By keeping the face of Jesus safely out of sight, or by adhering extremely closely to existing religious art in their depiction of him, these films were careful not to compromise his divinity.

The first major film to dramatize the life of Jesus in the sound era was King of Kings (1961), but director Nicholas Ray handled this material very hesitantly. Jesus himself appears in less than half of the film, which largely concerns itself with scenes of Roman authorities, Jewish rebels, and various supporting characters, such as the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist. When Jesus himself does enter the story, he is often shot from behind: on some occasions, especially when he asserts his divine power and authority, only his shadow is depicted. As in DeMille’s film, we are not supposed to sympathize with this objectified Jesus so much as let his gaze scrutinize us and convict us of our sinful imperfection. In a few scenes, such as when Jesus leans over the table to speak to Judas at the Last Supper or when he flicks his eyes up at Herod Antipas after the latter calls him a “faker,” the camera does come in close on the faces of certain characters as Jesus looks at them, but the angle is generally too great to be considered a true point-of-view shot; however, the other characters do seem uncomfortable, and the tight framing of their faces suggests that they feel trapped or caught by Jesus’s eyes.

The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), directed by George Stevens, goes a different route, but fits very well within the tradition of projecting Jesus’s divinity by filming him objectively. Stevens makes frequent use of wide-angle tableau shots, but when he does use close-ups, he often alternates between virtually head-on shots of Jesus and more angled shots of the people to whom he is speaking. This happens when Jesus meets John the Baptist; when Jesus gathers his disciples; when he speaks to the cripple he is about to heal, to the woman caught in adultery, to Mary and Martha before the resurrection of Lazarus, to the disciples at the Last Supper; and finally when Jesus ascends into heaven. In all of these sequences, Jesus looks virtually straight into the camera, while the camera looks at the other people from a point just off to the side; often when the camera looks at Jesus, his face is alone in the frame, suggesting his unique transcendence, but when the camera looks back at the other people, we see Jesus’s back or his head somewhere in the shot. So the film encourages us to identify not with Jesus but with his followers, as they behold him.

By the time Stevens’s film came out, the biblical-epic genre had pretty much come to an end, and its conventions were already being challenged. The Gospel According to St. Matthew, directed by Italian neorealist Pier Paolo Pasolini in 1964 and released in North America in 1966, was revolutionary on a number of levels. Instead of harmonizing the Gospels and introducing other historical or fictitious elements, Pasolini took his script almost entirely from a single Gospel; and instead of the slow, deliberate pace and frequent wide shots favored by earlier filmmakers, Pasolini shot the film in an active, aggressive style, full of movement and close-ups. The actor playing Jesus often sounds angry or raises his voice in an unconventionally aggressive manner that reflects the filmmaker’s background in political activism.

Pasolini makes stunning use of point-of-view shots in the film’s very first scenes, as Joseph copes with the shock of Mary’s pregnancy, but he never really challenges the basically objective portrayal of Jesus that we see in the earlier Hollywood films. The point-of-view shots typically belong to characters other than Jesus, such as the disciples, who walk behind Jesus and strain to hear the teachings that he gives them over his shoulder. Sometimes the camera lurks in the crowd and beholds Jesus from a distance, as when he utters the “Woe to you!” passages; and during the trial before Pilate and his beating by the Romans, the camera’s point of view is explicitly identified with that of the disciples Peter and John. Jesus himself remains a more objectified character, rather than someone with whom we are encouraged to identify.

The longest and most ambitious of Jesus films, Franco Zeffirelli’s miniseries Jesus of Nazareth (1977), embodies aspects of both the Stevens and Pasolini films. Because it was produced for television, not for the big screen, the film eschews wide landscape shots in favor of regular close-ups, but it also features many head-on shots of Jesus as he gazes at or near the camera.2 And Zeffirelli’s Jesus is very much a mystical Jesus. The interactions between most of the characters are frantic, busy, antagonistic, even humorous — but at the heart of it all, Jesus himself remains serene. Rare hints of subjectivity are overwhelmed by their more mystical significance. For example, Jesus tells the parable of the prodigal son after observing, in a point-of-view shot, that a sullen Peter has shown up reluctantly at a party thrown by the despised tax collector, Matthew. Whatever insight this point-of-view shot might give us into Jesus’s motives for telling that story at that time is overshadowed by the close-ups on Jesus’s face as he reaches the climax of his story and implicitly bids Peter to be reconciled to Matthew. Jesus, looking at the camera, approaches it, and we realize that we are now seeing him from Peter’s point of view; the mystical gaze of Jesus has fixed on him, and on us, with the aim of changing his heart and ours.

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) marked the first truly subjective cinematic interpretation of the life of Jesus. Not only does director Martin Scorsese, working from the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, revise the Gospel narrative in a way that emphasizes Jesus’s doubts and uncertainty about his identity, but he also uses voice-overs and point-of-view shots in a way that encourages the viewer to identify with Jesus and that draw the viewer into the mind of Jesus. The film’s sexual content, the source of much controversy when it was first released, is made even more shocking because we often see Mary Magdalene and other naked women through Jesus’s own eyes; where the Jesus of the Bible said men should not even look lustfully upon a woman, the Jesus of this film chooses to watch as Mary has sex with her clients, and the viewer is obliged to watch along with him. Scorsese has said that he believes in the divinity of Jesus, but his highly subjectivized interpretation of the character makes it difficult to find any sort of mystical transcendence in him.

A similar problem plagues Jesus (1999), directed by Roger Young and produced for television. Although the screenplay is more sensitive to orthodox belief, it too emphasizes the subjective humanity of Jesus, through dream sequences and romantic subplots, rather than his transcendent divinity. The film clearly identifies Jesus as the Son of God, but its overly familiar approach to the character ultimately presents him as more or less just another person grappling with the problem of evil and trying to make the world a better place.

One of the most interesting treatments of subjectivity in a Jesus film is in The Miracle Maker (2000), a British-Russian animated film partly financed by Mel Gibson’s Icon Productions. This film cleverly alternates between two kinds of animation: clay puppets, which represent the objective, physical world; and hand-drawn animation, which is used to convey more subjective states of mind, spiritual experiences, and products of the imagination such as parables, stories, memories, flashbacks, even demonic temptations and possessions. In one scene the puppet Mary strokes the hair of Jesus as he sleeps, prompting a hand-drawn flashback to the Nativity; in another, the puppet Jesus enters the Temple and, just before he drives out the moneychangers, he has a hand-drawn flashback to his first visit there when he was an awestruck 12-year-old, suggesting perhaps that his childlike innocence has given way to a more mature criticism.

Subjective and Objective Perspectives in The Passion of the Christ

The Passion of The Christ takes the subjectivization of Jesus even further, while at the same time restoring some of the divine objectivity that has been missing from recent films. Director Mel Gibson starts the film on a very human note, by beginning with Jesus’s last moments before his arrest in Gethsemane. This episode, as we have seen, is one of a handful that have allowed filmmakers to underscore the humanity of Jesus without straying from the biblical text; however, Gibson adds a few details that emphasize his humanity even more. Jesus, played with emotional intensity by James Caviezel, is first seen praying fervently. Then he goes to check on three of his disciples, who have fallen asleep. These three are members of Jesus’s inner circle and are closer to him than the other apostles; when one asks if they should alert the others, Jesus replies, “No, John. I don’t want them to see me like this.” This unique bit of dialogue emphasizes the very human, and very intimate, bond between Jesus and these fellow human beings.

Similarly, the first flashback emphasizes the bond between Jesus and his mother, Mary, in an earlier time when Jesus was a carpenter plying his trade and had not yet embarked on his ministry. The scene underscores the humanity of Jesus partly by underscoring his physicality: He sits and hops on the table he is building, to test its strength; he splashes Mary with water; he even draws her to him and gives her a playful kiss. In one striking sequence, Mary and Jesus peer at each other through the table’s decorative carvings, their eyes framed in a way that suggests they see and know each other in a special, intimate way that no one else can share.3

The subjectivity and humanity of Jesus are also conveyed through the prayers he offers at various points throughout the film. Before he is scourged, he prepares himself by whispering, “My heart is ready, Father. My heart is ready.” And as he holds his cross for the first time and embraces it, he says, “I am your servant, and the son of your handmaiden.” Although these prayers are perfectly consistent with the orthodox Christian belief in the divinity of Jesus, the use of first-person pronouns and the references Jesus makes to his “heart” and to his earthly mother draw our attention primarily to his humanity and to his submission, as a human, to the will of God.

But the most significant, and most cinematic, technique through which Gibson encourages our subjective identification with Jesus is his use of point-of-view shots and flashbacks. Gibson uses point-of-view shots from the very beginning of his film, when Jesus is praying in Gethsemane and looks up at the moon. In later scenes Jesus goes on to draw strength from some of the other people and objects that he observes. As the priests make their charges before Pilate, Jesus looks up and sees a dove flapping its wings, which presumably represents the Holy Spirit. Later, after the Roman soldiers have beaten him with rods, Jesus sees Mary watching him from the crowd, and the sight of her empowers him to pull himself up and stand tall before the next round of beatings begins.

Sometimes the point-of-view shots encourage us to share with Jesus in his suffering. When Judas runs away after betraying Christ, he looks over his shoulder in the direction of the camera, and the film cuts to a shot of Jesus’s face, marked by sadness and disappointment — indicating that the earlier shot of Judas also was seen from Jesus’s own perspective. After the scourging, Jesus is dragged on his back out of the courtyard, and we see it from his point of view, upside-down. Similarly, there are several point-of-view shots of the hostile crowds and the backs of the Roman soldiers as Jesus carries his cross — and when Jesus falls over on his back, we see another point-of-view shot as the world turns upside-down. All of these images enable us to share in the frailty and disorientation that Jesus experiences in those moments.

Gibson also reverses the visual approach of earlier films such as The Greatest Story Ever Told. In that film, George Stevens invited us to gaze at Jesus by pointing the camera directly at his face and by keeping the face of Jesus alone within the frame; he also differentiated Jesus from the other characters by shooting their faces from a slight angle and allowing the back of Jesus’s head to occupy one edge of the frame. But Gibson does the exact opposite with the healing of Malchus, the temple guard whose ear is cut off by Peter in Gethsemane: When the camera points at Malchus, it looks directly at his face, which is isolated within the shot; and when the camera points at Jesus, it looks at him from more of an angle, with the back of Malchus’s head visible on the right side of the frame. Instead of gazing directly at an otherworldly, objectified Jesus, we are encouraged to see other people through Jesus’s eyes.

Point-of-view shots are also key to the film’s use of flashbacks. Every flashback represents a memory, and each memory is triggered by something that someone witnesses during the events between the arrest and death of Jesus. Jesus himself has several flashbacks, nearly all of which are preceded by point-of-view shots. When he observes a carpenter in the Temple, he thinks back to his own days as a carpenter. When he falls to the ground during the scourging and sees the soldiers’ feet, he thinks back to that moment during the Last Supper in which he taught his disciples to be servants by washing their feet. When he observes the bowl in which Pontius Pilate is about to wash his hands, he thinks back to the washing of hands that took place during the Last Supper. When he carries his cross and sees the hostile crowds filling the streets of Jerusalem, he thinks back to his triumphal entry, when just a few days before people welcomed him with palm branches. When he leaves the city and sees Golgotha in the distance, he thinks back to the sermon he gave on another mountain, about forgiving one’s enemies. The cumulative effect of all these flashbacks is to give us the feeling of being drawn into the flow of Jesus’s own thoughts; thus, the film subjectivizes Jesus and draws us toward his humanity.

However, the film also maintains a certain degree of objectivity in its approach to Jesus and thus manages to convey his divinity as well. Indeed, the very fact that Jesus is often more of an observer than an active participant in the events that surround him lends a certain abstract quality to him as a character. His relationship with Mary, so human and winsome in the flashback to his life as a carpenter, turns more mystical as he is detained by the authorities. At one point Jesus is imprisoned in an underground cell, and Mary, standing in the room above him, senses his presence beneath the floor and kneels directly above him; in return, Jesus, sensing his mother through the ceiling, looks up.

Significantly, Gibson retains the tradition of showing how the very sight of Jesus can affect people and convict them, at least momentarily, of their sins. When Jesus is brought before Herod Antipas, the king and his entourage mock Jesus mercilessly, but one soldier trades point-of-view shots with Jesus — and when Jesus looks at him, the soldier looks away uncomfortably. Similarly, the Barabbas of this film is a vile, vulgar brute who eggs the mob on when they cry for Barabbas’s release, and who rudely wags his tongue at the Roman who sets him free — but when he looks at Jesus, his coarse confidence falters, and he seems slightly troubled before he turns back to the crowd and basks in its attention once more. (As with Malchus, so with Barabbas: The person observed by Jesus is framed in isolation, while the head of the person Jesus observes is visible when the film cuts back to a close-up of Jesus’s face.) Even the high priest Caiaphas, so resolutely antagonistic toward Jesus throughout the rest of the film, hesitates before leaving Golgotha.4

Gibson also points his camera directly at Jesus’s face on at least one occasion, when Jesus answers the high priest’s question and says he is the Son of God; the bold camera angle underscores the boldness of Jesus’s claim. The shot lasts only a few seconds, so it cannot be said that Gibson encourages us to gaze on Jesus as other directors have, but Gibson does confront us with Jesus’s divinity on a visual level, just as Jesus confronts us with his divinity through his words. In addition, when Jesus is finally crucified, Gibson densely mixes scenes from the crucifixion with flashbacks to the Last Supper and the farewell discourse that Jesus delivered at that time. Although some of these flashbacks may represent the thoughts of specific characters, such as John or perhaps even Jesus, the overall effect is to transcend any particular point of view and to suggest that the physical body and blood of Christ being nailed to the cross on Calvary is itself intimately connected to the mystical body and blood of Christ served at that first communion.

Gibson also draws us into the minds of other characters besides Jesus through point-of-view shots and flashbacks. Judas is hounded to his death by children whom he perceives as demonic; we see their distorted faces from Judas’s point of view, and as he staggers away from them, the camera waves back and forth, suggesting Judas’s own disorientation. Peter and Jesus exchange close-up point-of-view shots after Peter denies Christ, which prompts Peter to recall, in a flashback, how he promised Christ he would never let him down. As Mary Magdalene kneels to mop up the blood of Jesus after his scourging, she has a flashback in which she recalls kneeling at his feet as he rescued her from a mob that was calling for her death.5

After wiping his face with her cloth, Veronica watches Jesus, who is looking at her, as he is led away. Gesmas, the thief who is crucified next to Jesus and mocks him, gets a frighteningly up-close look at a crow that has perched itself on his cross, before the crow pecks out his eyes. And most startlingly of all, after Jesus dies, Gibson has his camera look down on Golgotha from high above — at which point a divine teardrop sends ripples around the edge of the screen before falling away from the camera and causing the earthquake that rips the Temple in two. Overhead shots such as these are sometimes called “God shots,” because they suggest that we are seeing the world with the same dispassionate objectivity that God supposedly has. Gibson’s God shot, however, suggests that even God has a point of view and an emotional attachment to his Son.

The film’s last shot, not counting the brief resurrection sequence, has Mary kneeling over the body of her son and looking directly at the camera. Many Jesus films have ended by breaking the “fourth wall” and appealing directly to the viewer: One of the final scenes in King of Kings ends with Mary Magdalene looking toward the camera and proclaiming “He is risen!” Other films, like The Greatest Story Ever Told and The Miracle Maker, have Jesus himself looking into the camera as he promises to be with his followers until the end of the world. The Passion of The Christ faces the viewer with a somewhat different agenda in mind. It asks us to observe, objectively, the sacrifice that God the Son has made on our behalf. And because it has drawn us into the subjective experience of Jesus’s own commitment to making that sacrifice, the film has given us in the audience a taste of what it might be like to become imitators of Christ ourselves.

1. For an interesting discussion of the difference between “mystical” and “demystified” interpretations of the gospels, see Robin Riley, Film, Faith, and Cultural Conflict: The Case of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003), 40-46.

2. Zeffirelli has said he hired actor Robert Powell for his eyes: “The eyes, which, more than anything else of the human body, are the portals of the spirit, became in Powell two penetrating beams of light.” He later describes them as “crystal eyes that pierce you, sending fire through your eyes to the very brain.” Franco Zeffirelli, Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus, trans. Willis J. Egan, S.J. (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984), 41, 50, 52.

3. There is indeed something almost romantic about the way the eyes of Jesus and Mary are framed here. For an intriguing discussion of the possible romantic elements in portraits of the Virgin and Child, such as the “chin-chuck” the infant Christ gives to his mother, see Leo Steinberg, The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 3-5, 110-118.

4. The film may also suggest that Mary, too, can have a life-changing effect on those who gaze upon her. In the scene where Jesus speaks to Mary after falling under the weight of his cross, the Roman soldier Cassius looks back and notices Mary and asks a colleague who she is.

5. Gibson here erroneously identifies Mary Magdalene with the woman caught in adultery in John 8:1-11, presumably because of the western tradition, found nowhere in scripture, that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute.

— A version of this essay was first published in the book Re-Viewing The Passion: Mel Gibson’s Film and Its Critics (ed. S. Brent Plate, Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!