Culture, Essays

Jesus in the Movies: Challenges of Cinematizing the Gospels

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If, therefore, the Son of God became man, taking the form of a servant, and appearing in man’s nature, a perfect man, why should His image not be made?[1]

Gregory of Nyssa’s question has provoked myriad artists in the successive centuries since the advent of the God-man into answering. The Incarnation proffers an invitation to the artist; the invisible Godhead has deigned to become drawable: come and draw.

With new advances in artistic technology, artists have sought to represent Jesus in each nascent medium. As photography developed, artists shot tableaux of actors in costume, recreating Gospel scenes with their static bodies.[2] When photographs began to move, religious movies were some of the first subjects: The Horitz Passion Play (1897) and Passion Play of Oberammergau (1898).[3] When talkies exploded onto the scene with The Jazz Singer in 1927, a whole new dimension of the movie-going element appeared. With all new technology comes new challenges, and the challenge presented to movies remained: how could an artist turn moving photographs of the natural world into images of incarnate divine transcendence? How could an artist portray Christ in this particular new art form?

A Deeper Vision: Painting Christ

First and foremost, the problem facing all artistic representations of the divine, from the “Wet Beard” icon to Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, is the puzzle of depicting incarnate divinity, a divinity that is enshrined in a commonplace figure. How does an artist indicate that this image is a Pietà, not simply another dead man in his mother’s arms? How does the artist show this mother and child are Madonna and Savior? How does the artist transform the miserable torture of crucifixion into an icon of divine love? How does an artist depict the numinous divine which is utterly beyond our limited scope of imagination and comprehension?

Emil Nolde, The Last Supper (1909); Photo: cea+; CC-BY-2.0.

In The Image of Christ in Modern Art, Richard Harries claims that modern artists actually have an advantage in imaging the divine: “Modern art has opened up new ways of indicating that there is something more going on in the picture than straightforward depiction.”[4] The expressionistic distortion of the natural world in modern art signals to the audience that this scene is not documentary, guiding the audience to look beyond the material figures of the painting. For example, in coloring the Apostles in his The Last Supper (1909) in hues of gold and green and purple, Emil Nolde is pushes his composition beyond naturalism. This is no photograph; there is a deeper reality present which Nolde gestures towards by painting the gaunt faces of Apostles with bold splashes of colors.

The Gospels contain no physical details of their most extraordinary subject; thus, in the primitive Christian representations of Christ, artists had to fill in the blanks themselves. In earliest images, Christ had been pictured “as akin to Dionysus, with curly hair, young and beardless, or as a philosopher, bearded.”[5] Christians co-opted the figures of Roman and Hellenistic culture: Apollo, Dionysus, Orpheus, etc., to say something about who Christ was. They could emphasize his Dionysian vitality and strength or his wisdom, greater than the most learned philosophers. The myths could be co-opted to visually depict truths about the God-man. Christ could be figured as the new, improved Orpheus. Like Orpheus, Christ had descended into Hades. Unlike Orpheus, he had successfully rescued his bride from the clutches of death.

In early crucifixes, the corpus often wears the colobium, a priestly garments which kings wore to witness their “sacerdotal role of service to their people.”[6] The focus is not on representing the crucifixion as it appeared historically, but on representing a symbolic, spiritual truth about the sacrifice of Christ, King of the Jews, priest and victim.

Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece, Crucifixion detail; courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Grünewald’s iconic Isenheim altarpiece (1515) is starkly dissimilar to the serene kingly corpus, the Christus Victor, of earlier crucifixes. Allison Milbank writes that Grünewald’s stunningly grotesque suffocating victim, the serenity of the lamb at his feet, the distress that contorts the witnesses into forms of rigor mortis, and the detached theological symbols floating in the horizon behind the Cross encourage the viewer to see beyond simply the grisly realism of the painting.

The distance between the kingly God and the weak humanity collapses. The entire artwork enacts a theology of participation in the body of Christ, whose power is revealed in his weakness, so that the mystical exchange of Godhead and humanity may be achieved.[7]

The harshly realistic image of the suffering Christ is not a capitulation to naturalistic painting, but it co-opts naturalism to paint a sacramental vision of the solidarity of the invincible Lamb with fragile humanity, in the suffering body of Christ.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Wittenberg Altarpiece (1547), detail; Photo: Nick Thompson; CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0.

An equally famous altarpiece in a different key, Lucas Cranach’s Wittenberg altarpiece (1547) also features a crucified Christ, but Cranach’s crucifix serves to incarnate the invisible power of preaching.[8] Cranach’s image is the revelation of the Gospel, the proclamation of Christ crucified. Cranach’s painting invites his viewers to listen, not look. Although Cranach’s crucified Christ clearly breaks from tradition in this regard, it has the same goal: to encourage the viewers to “see doubly,” to look beyond the presenting image to the deeper reality present. The artist’s aim is to draw the audience into communication with the theology behind the image.

Painters depicted the nude Christ not to scandalize … but to symbolize the mystery and awe of the Incarnation.

Renaissance artists focused their attention on Christ’s sexuality, which may seem uncomfortable to our contemporary sensibilities, but these artists sought to imagine Christ as fully, scandalously man. Sexuality was stressed, in part due to the medieval metaphor which symbolically situated Christ’s divinity in the upper body and his manhood “beneath his girdle.”[9] Accordingly, Christ’s sexuality became loving proof of “God’s assumption of human weakness; it is an affirmation not of superior prowess but of condescension to kinship.”[10] Painters depicted the nude Christ not to scandalize, nor to show off their mastery of human anatomy, but to symbolize the mystery and awe of the Incarnation. While Cranach’s crucifix invited viewers to listen, not look, for their salvation, medieval paintings of Christ in his full manhood dared viewers to behold the naked salvation of your Lord and your God.

Thus, artists answered the problem of representing divinity breaking into reality. John Damascene writes:

We see images in creation which reminds us faintly of God, as when, for instance, we speak of the holy and adorable Trinity, imaged by the sun, or light, or by a running fountain, or a full river, or by the mind, speech, or the spirit within us, or by a rose tree, or a sprouting flower, or a sweet fragrance.[11]

Humanity sees creation in a symbolic light, and accordingly, uses symbolic sight to read depictions of Christ. Similarly, film urges its viewers to interpret the image, not just accept the moving picture at face value, inviting them into the imaginative venture of storytelling. Accordingly, films about Jesus, like paintings, must be symbolic, because that is the nature of human beings’ recording and expression of divine activity in the world.

Yet the symbolic imagination of Christianity is circumscribed by historicity: Jesus was a man, who lived and worked in first century Palestine. Thus, the problem of painting Christ consists of representing the historical dimension of the Godhead while leaving space for symbolic vision which prevents the audience from receiving the painting as pure portraiture. Like the painter capturing a scene from the life of Jesus, an artist recreating Jesus’ life on film is hindered by lack of knowledge of the central figure around whom the story revolves, yet even more acutely than the painter who lacks archeological evidence of Jesus’ facial features. Filming the figure and story of Jesus involves a unique set of challenges.

Beyond the Picture

Adapting the Gospels into cinema comes with several particular challenges beyond those of the artist taking on the monumental task of painting the Divine Man. A unique predicament of cinematizing the Gospels has to do with story. Story is always the primary focus of film. While a painting can focus on a single scene, or even a single person, a movie must give context to its Man of Sorrows. The Gospels are not realized novelizations or journalistic records of the life of Christ, making them complicated literature to adapt to cinema.

As the actor portrays the character of Christ moving through the story, he will find further challenges. The film actor must not just resemble Christ, but also truly embody him. An artist does not simply provide a face and form for Christ’s body, but fleshes out his gait, his gesticulations, his vocal inflections, his facial expressions. The actor’s entire persona becomes an interpretation of the God-man.

Above all, dialogue can be the Achilles’ heel of a cinematic adaptation of a Gospel, a serious obstacle through which the director and writer must maneuver. In his The Gospel According to Matthew (1964), director Pier Paolo Pasolini finds the unique solution of using only the words of Matthew’s Gospel for his dialogue. This is an advantageous solution, as the audience is accustomed to associating the words of the Gospel with Jesus, so they sound more natural coming from Jesus’ lips. In The Passion of the Christ (2004), Mel Gibson set his movie’s dialogue in Aramaic, Hebrew, and Latin. This set an effective historical tone, and affective distance between the viewers and the subject of the film. A Jesus speaking in a language of first century Palestine maintains some majestic other-ness and strangeness to twenty-first century Western viewers.

On the other hand, Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) is a casebook example of cringe-worthy dialogue. Adapting the movie from Nikos Kazantzakis’ 1955 novel, Scorsese writes relaxed American English into the mouths of his actors. Referring to his upcoming mission, Willem Dafoe (Jesus) tells Harvey Keitel (Judas), “God has given me the tougher job,” and we’re no longer sure if he’s referring to the Crucifixion or a bank heist. The forced colloquial dialogue of Scorsese’s film could to be a reaction to the stuffy, stilted dialogue of ‘60s and ‘70s Jesus-films—Jesus of Nazareth (1977), King of Kings (1961), The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)—which may explain its aural faux pas, but does not expunge the grating discordance. Putting words in Jesus’ mouth would seem to be a task of extreme hubris, yet such are the occupational hazards of filmmakers who dare to tell the story of the King of kings.

Putting words in Jesus’ mouth would seem to be a task of extreme hubris, yet such are the occupational hazards of filmmakers who dare to tell the story of the King of kings.

Given all these challenges, how can a filmmaker successfully cinematize the Gospels? Many religious films have dodged these pitfalls by showing Jesus indirectly. In “sword-and-sandal epics,” a character in the first century will encounter Christ, and the viewer experiences the story of Christ indirectly, through his transformation on the character, as in Ben-Hur (1925 and 1959) and The Robe (1953). (The Coen brothers effectively riff on this genre in their marvelous Hail, Caesar! [2016]. And, in the process, they craft a movie executive and a put-upon actor who are both Christ figures operating in Golden-Age Hollywood.) Other films simply create post-figurations of Christ: the redemptive love of a French woman in Babette’s Feast (1987), or the miserable plight of an exploited donkey in Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar (1966). These characters bear witness to the transformative power of Christ, to the universal resonances of the Christ story, and to the power of loving sacrifice unto the end. Ultimately, however, they dodge the challenge of representing Jesus himself on screen. Surely, if Jesus Christ became a paintable subject, he must be film-able as well.

Twentieth Century Gospels: Godspell and Jésus of Montréal

Two films stand out as meeting the challenge to present a cinematic Jesus, in a symbolic, sacramental manner. Although neither is set in first century Palestine, both David Greene’s Godspell (1973), and Denys Arcand’s Jésus of Montréal (1989) present elegant and sincere Gospel narratives. Both films capture the message and particular flavor of the Gospels, while provoking viewers to look beyond the portrait painted. They do not shy away from presenting the character of Jesus himself in their twentieth century stories, and they paint their respective filmic portraits of Jesus in symbolic, sacramental brushstrokes.

Like Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Matthew, Greene’s Godspell (1973) is based on the Gospel of Matthew. Unlike Pasolini’s work, Godspell does not adhere strictly to the biblical text (or setting, as the action occurs in the midst of 1970s Manhattan), but it still retains several elements of heightened biblical language.

First developed at the experimental La Mama Theatre, Godspell’s theatrical roots serve the Gospel story well. Godspell is a musical, a popular genre of symbolic storytelling. In movie-musicals, the characters’ songs are not literal narratives but rather symbolize interior journeys. Thus, the music preserves an elevated, symbolic dimension of the Gospel story. Secondly, the cast of Godspell occasionally uses the heightened language of the Gospel. When doing so, they employ an emphasized—yet sincere—theatricality. Because the disciples and Jesus are represented as a band of improvising merry-makers, the heightened effect is consistent with the established world.

Moreover, Godspell is an effective representation of the persona of Jesus on screen. In Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Matthew (1964), the actor playing Jesus, Enrique Irazoqui, is a visually striking presence: his acting is simple, effective, and more active than emotive. Pasolini gives his audiences a direct, fiery Christ, who remains a poetic interpretation, inviting our own imaginations to flesh him out fully. Pasolini saw his Jesus as “an intellectual in a world of poor people ready for revolt.”[12] The underlying logos for Pasolini is Jesus’ troubling statement: “I come not to bring peace, but the sword” (Mt 10:34). Pasolini’s Jesus may seem like the antithesis of fun, but he and the playful, frolicking Jesus of Godspell function very similarly in their respective films. Godspell’s Jesus is a playful clown, in the midst of uptight, 1970s New York. Pasolini’s peasants and Greene’s city denizens both seek liberation: the peasants from societal oppression and injustice, the city-dwellers from the joyless rat race of the self-absorbed city. Godspell’s Jesus embodies Christ’s dictum “unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 18:3). In a stifling “adult” world, Jesus offers childlike liberation.

Both films capture the message and particular flavor of the Gospels, while provoking viewers to look beyond the portrait painted.

A particularly effective sequence is Christ’s star entrance into the film. As the Baptist splashes with his disciples in a joyful romp of Baptism in Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain, he catches sight of Jesus across the lake. The camera cuts to a strange figure standing stiff and straight, rigid, odd, and John’s countenance changes from joy to discomfort, in the midst of his song and slapstick splashing. He is struck by this figure. The Baptist returns to his celebratory water-play. But soon, the camera zooms back to the reflection of Jesus on the water, and a closer shot of Jesus himself. He is approaching.

The Baptist speaks like a ringmaster or ham actor in a Shakespeare play, as he announces grandly the coming of the one after him. Finally, the lanky Jesus (Victor Garber), flailing his arms, in his blue boxers splashes across the fountain to John. “HEY!” yells Jesus, approaching the astonished Baptist. “I wanna get washed up!” he shouts, an earnest, honest, curly-haired boy.

“I need rather to be baptized by you,” says John, clearly touched. “We do well to follow all that God requires,” replies Jesus, no trace of the formal about him, but full of simple serenity and confidence. As the Baptism occurs, the camera pans into a close-up on Victor Garber’s soft face, water dripping from his curls. The anointing of the Lord upon him is manifest not in a voice from the heavens, but in his new clothes: a simple clown costume and a Superman shirt, a strikingly modern symbol of his purpose of salvation. The disciples flock back to him, dressed now in similar clown costumes, having shed their city garb in the waters of Baptism.

Although a free-love-wheeling clown in Manhattan is an unlikely character for an orthodox image of the Son of God, Garber’s Jesus is an unusually successful portrait: he is fully human, laughing, playing, and weeping. But he has unique knowledge and divine perspective: insisting John baptize him and turning his apostles’ parables on their head. He is noble and good, a light-hearted Superman. Garber’s Jesus moves with the precision and intentionality of an expert clown. His heightened physicality signals that this performance is not-quite naturalism; like Emil Nolde’s inspired colorations or Grünewald’s symbolism, Garber’s Jesus invites a closer look.

Jésus of Montréal: Art Imitates Gospel

A poignant retelling of the Gospel, Jésus of Montréal’s dialectic of art and life ushers the audience into a symbolic vision of the world. The film opens with the final scene of a Dostoyevsky play. After the applause, backstage, the central actor, surrounded by fawning art enthusiasts, gestures towards a figure in white waiting to greet him. “There is a real actor,” intones the thespian Baptist, and thus the stage is set for Daniel Coloumbe’s passion, death, and unlikely resurrection.

Soon after, Daniel receives his mission from a priest: to update the tired script of a local shrine’s Passion play. And so Daniel ventures into the city to gather his actors/disciples. Just as Christ dwells in the midst of our weary, broken brethren, Daniel lines up with the men at a soup kitchen, holding out his bowl to Constance, an old conservatory-mate. “What are you doing here?” she laughs. “I’ve come for you,” replies Daniel, quite seriously. As Daniel and disciples round up their number, they find an actor in a perfume commercial, another dubbing porn, another voicing a documentary about the universe. “When do you want to start?” an actor asks Daniel. “Maintenant,” Daniel responds simply, definitively. Now. Accordingly, the actor doffs his porn script as those first Apostles did their fishing nets, and follows the master.

The character of Daniel is a radiant post-figuration of Christ. He is reverent and serious without being piously pompous. He is robustly human: he laughs and shares wine with friends (and fails to de-cork the bottle), he grows angry. Yet, he is a mystery, not fully understood, even by his loved ones. He cares deeply for his friends, passionately defending Mireille in a “cleansing of the temple,” comforting a lovelorn Constance. He is caring, and intense, but never histrionic or self-important. He is direct, simple, and wholly unimpressed by gaudy baubles of the world. Most importantly, Daniel is driven by his mission of bringing meaning in a sincere, singular manner.

The disciples Daniel seeks are actors in crisis; it is the poor, the losers, and the downtrodden whom he seeks out. Just like the poor and sinners with whom Christ ate and spent time, Daniel calls to himself these wounded folk, mired in the shallow, materialistic art world, who are ready to engage a deeper meaning in their life. Jésus of Montréal is a story that highlights the sense of purpose that Christ brought. “There’s got to be more to life than just waiting quietly for death. I may be naïve, but there must be more,” cries Daniel during a confrontation in the last act of the film. Daniel-as-Jesus is the logos, the deep meaning of the universe who speaks to our deepest desires and longings. Through the dual layers of Daniel’s Jesus-figure, Jésus of Montréal asks its audience to look for the deeper meaning, to seek the presence of the transcendent Christ present in the story.

The Final Challenge: Resurrection

Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece, Resurrection detail; courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Resurrection is a great embarrassment to Jesus-films and to art in general, an enigmatic coda tacked onto the story of The Man Born to Die. While many beautiful, moving iterations of Christ’s Passion and Death pepper the canon of Western art, depictions of the Resurrection lack the power and grandeur of the Cross. (The exterior panel of Grünewald’s Isenheim altarpiece, featuring the risen Lord, comes closest to being an exception to this rule.) Images of the Resurrected Christ depict a victorious, shining man back from the dead, which is safely within the bounds of our imagination. These images lack the emotional impact of the Crucifixion because these images fall short of the actual Resurrection, an historical event “of an entirely new kind.”[13] In its newness, the Resurrection frustrates all of our attempts to capture it in image. The Resurrection lies beyond the boundaries of our imagination. It is an event outside of history, yet because it has a “footprint within history,”[14] any film attempting to tell the life of Jesus must, in some way, account for this singularity, which is the sole reason his story continues to matter to us today.

In Godspell, the Resurrection is imaged in the continued journey of the disciples, and in their song of Easter joy. Gently, the disciples remove Jesus’ body from the cross of the chain-link fence, singing “Long Live God,” as they dance back into the city, bearing Christ’s immobile body. Their joy is a witness to his continued life. Given Jesus’ apparently still-dead body, it is an unsatisfactory solution, but it is a more-than-token vision of Resurrection.

In Pasolini’s film, the Resurrection is depicted in quick, successive shots of the stone falling away from the tomb, Mary smiling, an angel appearing, and then post-Resurrection Jesus is shown, continuing his mission of preaching. Pasolini gives us Christ the unstoppable, a Christus Victor of the little guy, whom neither The Man nor death can suppress. And for all its bizarre and potentially blasphemous qualities, The Last Temptation of Christ ends with a moving picture of Christ accomplishing the work of Salvation. With a joyful shout he cries, “It is accomplished!” and breathes his last. The mournful wailing of the world as the Savior dies fades into the bright lights and music of Resurrection. Christ’s mortal mission ends in a mysterious joy.

At the end of Jésus of Montréal, there are multiple symbolizations of the Resurrection: in the donation of Daniel’s organs—his eyes to a blind woman, his heart to a dying man—and in his acting companions continuing his work. Finally, the last shot of the film returns to the subway station where Daniel died. As two sisters mournfully sing, the camera pans into the darkness of the subway tunnel, into the fragmented universe. Slowly, as the credits roll, the camera ceases its horizontal movement and starts panning upwards, vertically, through the dark, to a stained glass window, the fateful cross on the hill above the city, and the sun rising. Like all images, it certainly falls short of the reality—the symbol never completely satisfies. But the Resurrection is there, hidden in poetry and in moving image, open to the eyes of those who will see.

To view trailers and learn more about five highly-recommended Jesus movies, click here.

Featured Photo: Carolyn A. Pirtle. Used with permission.

[1] Gregory of Nyssa, “Structure of Man,” quoted by John Damascene in On the Holy Images, §41.

[2] Some striking examples include a series by an unidentified artist Life of Jesus Christ (1902) at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. From the exhibition “Revelation: Representations of Christ in Photography” (Jerusalem: Israel Museum, 2003).

[3] Lloyd Baugh, Imaging the Divine: Jesus and Christ-Figures in Film (Sheed & Ward: Kansas City, 1997), 8.

[4] Richard Harries, The Image of Christ in Modern Art (Ashgate: London, 2013), 8.

[5] Allison Milbank, “Seeing Double: The Crucified Christ in Western Mediaeval Art” in The Oxford Handbook of Christology, ed. Francesca A. Murphy (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2015), 216.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 229.

[8] Joseph Leo Koerner, The Reformation of the Image (University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 2008), 187.

[9] Leo Steinberg, The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion (Random House: New York, 1983), 27.

[10] Ibid., 47–48.

[11] John Damascene, On the Holy Images, §12.

[12] Baugh, Imaging the Divine, 95.

[13] Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection (Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 2011), 275.

[14] Ibid.

Renée D. Roden

Renée D. Roden is a Master of Theological Studies student at the University of Notre Dame and a graduate fellow of the McGrath Institute for Church Life.