23rd January 2007
I just received my copy of Adele Reinhartz’s new book, Jesus of Hollywood (Oxford University Press, 2007; Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). I have always been a fan of Reinhartz’s scholarship on the Bible and film, and it looks like this book will not disappoint. (Her other book on the Bible and film, Scripture on the Silver Screen [WJK, 2003; Amazon.ca or Amazon.com] is also worthy of perusal.)
This book has five major sections. The first section, “The Genre: Jesus Movies as Biopics” includes an introduction where Reinhartz orients the reader to the nature of biographical films and Jesus films in particular, deals with some methodological issues, and offers a brief survey of Jesus movies. She distinguishes between traditional Jesus films that portray significant portions of the life of Jesus, peplum or “sword and sandal” movies in which Jesus appears briefly within the story line of another character, and “Passion play” films that cover events surrounding the production of and actual clips from a Passion play. Her survey is not exhaustive, though she covers the most significant films between the Passion Play at Oberammergau in 1889 and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004/2005; Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). One Jesus film absent from her survey was Denis Potter’s Wednesday Play: Son of Man (UK 1969), though this may be due to the fact that it was produced for television. Understandably, recently released films such as The Nativity Story (Castle-Hughes, 2006; Amazon.ca or Amazon.com) and The Color of the Cross (La Marre, 2006; Amazon.ca or Amazon.com) were also absent.
The first section ends with a chapter dealing with the thorny issue of the relationship of Jesus films — and the gospels they are ostensibly based on — to history. Here Reinhartz’s background as a biblical scholar comes to the fore. While many filmmakers have claimed to present the “reel” Jesus in their films, i.e., a Jesus who is faithful to both the Scriptures and history, Reinhartz questions these claims. She deals deftly with the complicated question of the relationship of the gospels to history and how screenwriters have negotiated between the divergent portrayals of Jesus in the four gospels., focusing on the iconoclastic films Jesus of Montreal (Arcand, 1989; Amazon.ca or Amazon.com) and The Last Temptation of Christ (Scorsese, 1988; Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). Her conclusion that more recent fare such as The Gospel of John (Savile, 2003; Amazon.ca or Amazon.com) and The Passion of the Christ mark a “return to the reverential norms of the biopic genre” (p. 40) in contrast to the more provocative films of the 1980s, is correct up to a point, though The Color of the Cross demonstrates that there is still much controversy to be raised by the Jesus film genre.
The rest of the volume looks at the film portrayal of the primary characters in Jesus films: Jesus of Nazareth, Mary, Joseph, God, Mary Magalene, Judas, Satan, the Pharisees, Caiaphas, and Pilate. Each of these characters are the focus of a chapter in which Reinhartz shifts between the presentation of various aspects of their characters in the gospels and their portrayal in the movies. It is in these chapters that Reinhartz offers some close analysis of the biblical text and a wide variety of Jesus films.
The book closes with an afterword where she sums up her study of “Jesus of Hollywood” with the honest assessment that “it is unlikely that the Evangelists would recognize their own particular Jesus in any of the films we have discussed” (p. 252). Furthermore, while there are many similarities between the Jesus of the silver screen and the Jesus of Scripture, “the biopic Jesus is fundamentally different from his historical and scriptural counterparts” (p. 253). The “reel” Jesus is, according to Reinhartz, the Jesus transformed by “two thousand years of art, theology and interpretation, into Jesus of Hollywood” (p. 254). This Jesus is ultimately the product of a combination of history, theology, contemporary concerns, and — let us not forget — the entertainment industry.
All in all, this is an excellent study of the Jesus of Hollywood. I highly recommend it.