This week, we brought in a special guest: college professor and pop-culture writer Donna Bowman, whose academic specialty is Christian theology.
Keith: I have a distinct childhood memory of my parents taking me to see the 1979 film Jesus. I was raised Baptist, and the film was touted at the time for being a Biblically accurate portrayal of Jesus’ life, based on the Gospel Of Luke. It was also, I thought at the time, pretty boring, which felt a bit heretical to admit. I haven’t revisited Jesus since then, but nothing I’ve read has suggested I would change my childhood perceptions. But I do know the film has had a long afterlife, getting re-released and translated into other languages as an instructional tool. Most films about Jesus have a spiritual agenda: Though widely decried at the time, Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation Of Christ plays like an act of faith, and an earnest attempt to engage with Christianity. Based on a Nikos Kazantzakis novel, Last Temptation veers away from the Bible rather than feeling burdened to stay true to it. To my eyes, it’s a much stronger film than more faithful accounts, and one much more likely to reach those who aren’t already believers. Is that the trade-off? Artistry for faithfulness?
Tasha: That’s one trade-off. Reverence vs. accessibility is another. I was raised Southern Baptist, and I still remember the foofaraw when Last Temptation was coming out—a petition circulated against it in the church, revealing details from the film based on an early script. I was so shocked, reading the petition’s description of the film based on an early script—it sounded like Jesus/Mary Magdalene porn, full of deliberate provocations and crudity, and I shamefacedly signed the petition. Then I actually went to see the film, and was surprised to discover that the sex was in a fantasy sequence—the entire point of the film is that it doesn’t actually happen—and none of the quoted material was in the final cut. That was the last time I signed a church petition, or got involved in public indignation over a movie I hadn’t actually seen.
But it seemed to me then, and still does now, that the protests were largely based on a deep-seated discomfort with the idea of portraying Jesus as actually human, with human flaws and needs, even in a fantasy crafted by the devil to tempt Jesus away from the divine plan. In fact, there’s been a strong cultural feeling that portraying him with anything less than the formalized, airless, heightened tone of classic Biblical epics like King Of Kings or The Greatest Story Ever Told is the equivalent of open mockery.
The same people who believe that, I later realized, often think the Bible was originally written in King James English, and that more modern or colloquial translations are disrespectfully dumbing it down from Jesus’ actual language. I’m fairly sure that many of the people I grew up with actually believed that Jesus’ day looked exactly like Ben Hur, and anything else was historically inaccurate.
But all that aside, I was still taken fairly early to see Godspell, the 1973 musical that literally portrays Jesus as a singing clown in a Superman-S shirt. I suspect Godspell gets away with it because it’s obviously presented as metaphor rather than reality. (Plenty of people honestly believe the Biblical Jesus was a blonde-haired, blue-eyed white guy, and are offended by any other idea of him, but no one actually believes he ever tap-danced atop the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers.) And also, it’s so goofy, heightened, and upbeat, it feels like it’s meant for kids. In other words, it’s meant to be accessible and fun, so it doesn’t have to be reverent or “accurate.” Martin Scorsese’s version, on the other hand, is obviously for adults, not just because of the sex, but because of the grittiness and perceived realism.
Donna: Keith, “faithfulness” is a loaded word. Faithful to what? The Jesus movies that aim for realism make an implicit promise to the audience that they are being faithful to the gospel sources (narrative embellishment aside). But the gospels don’t all present the same picture. Most of us have a Jesus story in our heads that consists of bits and pieces plucked from all four gospels, with a controlling religious interpretation based on the Gospel of John. New Testament scholars make a distinction between the historical Jesus and the “Christ of faith,” the latter being the post-Easter understanding of the first-century church superimposed on the stories about Jesus that it inherited. Jesus movies, insofar as they are designed to present a dramatization of a God-man walking the earth, are always going to be more about the latter than the former.
But that’s a tension for films that aspire to realism. Unlike a passion play, which is presented in a theatrical frame that lends an air of unreality and requires a more-or-less active suspension of disbelief, the Jesus movie Keith mentions (and its many mission-motivated successors) can’t help but show Jesus the man first and foremost, even though their aim is to persuade viewers that divinity with all its omnipotence is hiding inside. I also think that portraying the miracles on film tends to subvert that goal of provoking worship and wonder—it’s a medium that has deep roots in illusions and magic tricks, after all. To that end, something stark and distancing like 1964’s The Gospel According To St. Matthew, or weird and stylized like The Last Temptation Of Christ, is going to work better to provoke a spiritual frame of mind than something like that 1977 NBC miniseries Jesus Of Nazareth, which was my first Jesus movie, and which came across as a Sunday School flannelboard lesson with better production values.
Keith: Last night I saw Son Of God, the film that prompted this discussion in the first place. It isn’t very good, but it did get me thinking about how hard it is to act the part of Jesus. Diogo Morgado plays him in the film, and there’s a smugness to his performance that really makes it hard to believe him in the part. In part because of that performance (and in part because the film doesn’t do a great job of establishing what Jesus stands for, and what he’s up against), I wound up kind of siding with the Jewish elders. Who is this guy, and what kind of arrogance does it take to upend tradition and present himself as the Son Of God? That surely can’t be what the filmmakers were going for.
That seems to me like the great contradiction of attempting to make a movie about Jesus: Make him too godlike, and he becomes distant and unknowable. Make him too much a man, and he starts to seem too earthly to be divine. And make him kind of annoying—as Son Of God does—and he doesn’t seem like someone anyone would want to follow.
Donna: Tasha mentioned that people get uncomfortable with a Jesus who’s “too human.” I sometimes shock my students with something one of my professors told me once: Jesus had bowel movements. Jesus had wet dreams. The reaction from Christians to those elements of being a fully (male) human entity speaks to the appeal of the Docetist heresy, a view that Jesus only appeared to be a human being. It arose in the first century and was rejected at the Council of Nicaea in the fourth century, but it’s never really gone away; in my opinion, almost all Christians have Docetist tendencies, simply because the implications of full humanity are so repugnant in a religion that still elevates spirit over body. I’m with Tasha that depicting struggle with a divine mission and its meaning, rather than the serene holiness of certainty, is the only way for us to engage with Jesus as a character. But that’s the problem, isn’t it? Making the pre-existent Logos of God into a character in your movie is already an act that flirts with sacrilege.
Tasha: I’m always fascinated by the process of translating books to film: Readers tend to form their own relationships with book plots, characters, and events, and it can be hard to match up your own personal mental images from a favorite book with the way someone else perceives the same images and puts them on the screen. That dissonance is so much stronger with something as deeply personal as religion: It’s not just a question of adapting the words in the Bible into an onscreen image, it’s a question of adapting the feeling of faith and the emotional needs religion fulfills into an onscreen image, and that feels like an impossible task. No wonder virtually any film featuring Biblical characters draw protests—the viewers aren’t just thinking, “That isn’t how Jesus looks in my mind,” they’re thinking “This isn’t how my personal beliefs make me feel.”
But just as a movie adaptation with a strong vision can warp our perception of a previously loved book, I’ve found that movie images of Jesus have changed my perceptions of him. Jesus Christ Superstar in particular depicts a Jesus I’d never seen before: a grubby, wild-eyed, yowling, desperate version of Christ who veers sharply toward the human side of the human/divine equation. That film’s version of him has stuck with me as one that cracked the difficult problem of making him distinctive from his disciples and followers—of showing the spark of the divine in him—without turning him into a removed, polished avatar.
Keith: It occurs to me the deeper we get into this that there are many famous depictions of Jesus I haven’t seen, from King Of Kings to The Gospel According To St. Matthew. So let me return to one that made a deep impression on me, The Last Temptation Of Christ. Part of its effectiveness stems from the fact that Scorsese is one of the best filmmakers around. But it wouldn’t work without Willem Dafoe’s performance, which feels informed by an unearthly grace and a deep reluctance to take up the burden that’s been given to him. Dafoe has an otherworldly quality—always, but especially here—but he remains deeply, unmistakably human, and a deeply sad human at that. (If I were looking for the same qualities 15 years ago, I would have cast the part with Elias Koteas. Five or 10 years ago, Peter Sarsgaard.) Donna, what movie Jesuses have worked for you?
Donna: Although I disagree strongly with the mystical and theological underpinnings of The Passion Of The Christ, Jim Caviezel does command attention better than the whole lot of bland, blond Jesuses before him. The best I can say for the movie’s theology, though, is that the relentless focus on Jesus’ suffering in Passion doesn’t allow viewers to escape his embodiment.
I hope it’s not a cop-out to mention a movie that isn’t really about the historical Jesus: Jesus Of Montreal. Denys Arcand wrote and directed this portrayal of an actor who’s asked to modernize the traditional Catholic passion play, and comes to identify more and more with Jesus’ prophetic struggles against his era’s secular and religious culture. Overwhelming concern with the inviolability of temple and ritual, rather than the souls of people, characterize the actor’s opponents, and that’s as effective a way of showing what Jesus was about (and John the Baptist, and the eighth-century prophets on whom both modeled themselves) as any I’ve seen.
Actually, I take it back; I know Jesus Of Montreal is a cop-out. The truth is that movies that don’t have to portray Jesus The Christ, but instead can suggest truths about Jesus through narrative parallels and surrogates, have a much better chance of navigating between all these traps we’re talking about. So Tasha, the way is clear for your suggestions to depart from the Jesus-movie premise entirely.
Tasha: Shall we talk a bit about movies that aren’t about Christ, but use blatant Christ imagery for effect? Few things in cinema give me so severe a case of the eye-rolls as the use of the crucifixion pose to underline the importance and nobility of any sacrifice a character makes. I’m looking at you, Keanu Reeves at the end of The Matrix: Revolutions, Charlton Heston at the end of The Omega Man, and Sigourney Weaver at the end of Alien 3.
I have no particular problem with films that equate a protagonist with the Messiah in relatively subtle ways, especially if they’re creative about it—that Marlon Brando Superman monologue, equating Jor-El with God sending his only son to Earth to save it, was a pretty brilliant way of drawing out the significance of two icons by combining them—but the crucifixion image itself always strikes me as laying it on too thick. Even in a sequence that otherwise works well, like Spider-Man’s dangerous self-sacrifice to save the lives of a train full of New Yorkers in Spider-Man 2, can easily overdo any parallels, at which point iconic misappropriation turns into pretension. Even people with no religious beliefs might admit that Spider-Man momentarily exhausting himself to stop a train isn’t exactly on a level with Jesus voluntarily dying to save the world from hell.
Mostly, I just hate having the imagery thrown into my face. Fiction is full of characters who die for the greater good and then are resurrected, from Gandalf to E.T. to Spock to “American Jesus” Alex Murphy in RoboCop (as we discussed in the film’s Movie Of The Week Forum). But it’s always a more effective plot gambit if the writers don’t point out its religious DNA.
Donna: You know what is even lazier than crucifixion imagery? Giving your self-sacrificing or salvific protagonist the initials “J.C.” John Connor (Terminator), James Cole (12 Monkeys), John Coffey (The Green Mile), the list goes on and on. Heck, even my beloved John Carter, Warlord of Barsoom, whose seemingly dead body lies in a cave on Earth while he has his adventures on Mars, then revives to tell the tale. The J.C. naming convention seems like a quick archetypal reference writers tick off their list, rather than a detail that gives any real insight into the substitutionary atonement performed by the character.
If I had to show an alien from a distant galaxy one scene to explain what happened to Jesus after the Ascension, when his legacy became his followers’ property, I would cue up the “shoe is the sign” scene from Monty Python’s Life Of Brian. The Jesus of Mark’s gospel is forever trying to escape the crowds that pursue him, begging people not to talk him up, and refusing to explain the meaning of his cryptic statements, except to his disciples. Brian captures that reluctance better than any other Jesus on film, meaning the fickle, faction-ridden, misguided zeal of his devotees overwhelms who he actually was and what he actually taught. “Let us, like him, hold up one shoe and let the other be upon our foot!” “No, the shoe is a sign that we must gather shoes together in a bundle!” “It is a sign that, like him, we must think not of the things of the body, but of the face and head!”
Keith: If you hadn’t brought up Life Of Brian, I was going to, because as you imply, it shows how hard it would be to be the Messiah: the fractious followers, the misunderstandings, the threat of authority, and lest we forget, the dying. Son Of God notably leaves out the moment when Jesus asks, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me,” one of the most humanizing moments in the Gospels. (I’m not sure whether it was in the miniseries.) Brian gets the worst parts of being a messiah without the rewards, but as irreverent as that movie is, it’s also a pretty essential film about Jesus. It’s smart about the politics of the time, in the way it portrays Christianity as one of a number of rebellious fringe elements in a volatile time and place hospitable to such things. It’s smart about how quickly principles get distorted by those trying to follow them. It’s tremendously funny, too. Not to return to a movie we don’t like, but I definitely did not get that from Passion Of The Christ, and I’m not sure any film about Jesus is effective if it turns the Bible into a simple tale of good vs. evil, with little concern for the facts of history.
Tasha: Unless, perhaps, it takes the story entirely outside history, like the film adaptations of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia parables, which turn Jesus into a lion in an imaginary country with its own metaphorical history. Or for that matter, films that use Jesus as an image to acknowledge church history, rather than as a character in his own right. Dogma’s Buddy Christ is a silly gag, but it’s also a pointed one, implying how the Catholic church has changed to accommodate altering social views over the years. In the same way, culture keeps changing what Jesus looks, sounds, and acts like, matching film image to cultural image. It’s funny, in a way, how something so ancient keeps finding new faces, usually in the hands of people who think they’re respecting the past, but are often actually reflecting the present.