There is a meme going around on Top Three Bible Films started by Matt over at Broadcast Depth (I noticed it over at Mike Kok’s blog, The Golden Rule). I figured since I am lecturing this week on Religious films in my religion and culture class, I would weigh-in with my personal favourites — although limiting it to three is tough.
1. One of my favourite films based on the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament is an oldie, but a goodie: The Green Pastures (Director: Marc Connelly and William Keighley, 1936; Buy from Amazon.ca: VHS or DVD | Buy from Amazon.com: VHS or DVD). This is a fascinating retelling of a number of stories from the Old Testament. This folksy film was innovative for its day in that black actors fill every role — from God to Moses, Noah to Pharaoh. (Fair warning that some may be uncomfortable with some of the racial stereotypes in the film; is was made in 1936 after all). Any film that includes a heavenly fish fry where “de Lawd” walks about drinking “fire-custard” and smoking 10-cent cigars and singing gospel songs is pretty cool in my books!
2. My favourite “Jesus film” is not quite as old, but is still black and white: Son of Man (Director: Gareth Davies, 1969. This film was aired on BBC as part of the Wednesday Play series in 1969. Unfortunately, it is not available for purchase (I got my copy from a friend who recorded it when it was rebroadcast on TV), although you can see some clips of it on the BFI website. The highlight of the film for me is Colin Blakely’s portrayal of a gruff and passionate Jesus — definitely not your typical blue-eyed blond Jesus of most hagiopics. The other Jesus film that comes in a close second for me is The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Il Vangelo secondo Matteo; Pier Pablo Passolini, 1964; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com).
3. Finally, for “something completely different,” my third pick is Monty Python’s Life of Brian (Terry Jones, 1979; IMDb; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). While technically not a “Jesus film” (it is about Brian, not Jesus), this affectionate parody is a classic. If we can’t laugh at ourselves, then something is wrong. Eric Idle himself is reported as saying, “If anything can survive the probe of humour it is clearly of value, and conversely all groups who claim immunity from laughter are claiming special privileges which should not be granted.” But this film is not all laughs — it actually presents aspects of the time of Jesus somewhat accurately, such as the ubiquitous messiahs and prophets during that period as well as the sheer diversity with Judaism at that time.
I could go on and on, but I will end it here. If you are interested in more films based on the Bible, check out my “The Old Testament on Film” pages.
I just received my copy of Adele Reinhartz’s new book, Jesus of Hollywood (Oxford University Press, 2007; Buy from 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; Buy from 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; Buy from 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; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com) and The Color of the Cross (La Marre, 2006; Buy from 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; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com) and The Last Temptation of Christ (Scorsese, 1988; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). Her conclusion that more recent fare such as The Gospel of John (Savile, 2003; Buy from 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.
I haven’t seen The Nativity Story yet, though I am hoping to see it this weekend. I may post my impressions of the film after I view it, though there is an incredible amount of reflection and reviews of the film on the Internet, so I doubt I would add anything new.
I just came across an interesting article in the Independent Catholic News on the history of Mary in the Cinema. It’s definitely worth a read.
In addition, make sure to check out Matt Pages’s Bible Film Blog for many relevant posts on The Nativity Story.
Cinema Blend is reporting a rumour that Paul Verhoeven, director and Jesus-Seminar member, is planning on making a Jesus film. I have heard this rumour before, but it seems that this rumour may have some basis in reality:
The rumor comes from the frequently unreliable guys at WENN, so donâ€™t believe it until someone else confirms it, but it is true that there has long been talk of Paul working on such a film. The working title once rumored for it was Christ, the Man, and apparently thereâ€™s now some movement on the whole thing again. The current incarnation is supposed tell Jesusâ€™s story as if heâ€™s not a god made man flesh but instead just a dude. Verhoeven plans to completely ignore all the superstitious mumbo jumbo surrounding him and focus on Big J as a guy navigating the complex political and social landscape of his time.
It seems that the boobs, guns, and gore director has an insatiable interest in the Christ figure. Heâ€™s a member of the Jesus Seminar, a group of scholars who use historical methods to determine who Jesus was. One problem though. Heâ€™s afraid itâ€™ll get him lynched.
He reportedly tells Empire Magazine, “My scriptwriter told me not to do the movie in the United States because they (Christians) might shoot me. It’s not a joke at all. I took that very seriously. So I took his advice and decided to write a book about it first.”
I can’t find any corroboration for this rumour, but I don’t think Verhoeven really has to fear for his life.
I have been getting behind in my coverage of Bible films. I have watched quite a few recently, but just haven’t found the time to blog about them. Such is life.
There are a number of intriguing Bible films that have just been released or are coming out in the next little while — unfortunately, in most cases no Canadian release dates have been set, so I am not sure when I will have a chance to actually view them.
In the “just released” category falls Michael O. Sajbel’s One Night With the King (2006; IMDb; Official website). This movie about the biblical Esther has opened to favourable (not amazing) reviews. Make sure to check out the thorough review by Matt Page over at Bible Films Blog, as well as his scene analysis. While no Canadian release date has yet been set, it will be released on DVD on 23 January 2007. You can pre-order it from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com.
Sticking to the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, I should note the DVD release of the made-for-TV film The Ten Commandments (Robert Dornhelm; 2006; IMDb; Official website). This two-part film was released in April 2006 on ABC to less than spectacular results (see this review). The movie is OK. I was glad to see that it departed from previous films covering the same topic by including a bunch of stuff after the Hebrews cross the red/reed sea — and it even finds space for Aaron as Moses’ sidekick! If I have time I will post a more thorough review in the future. It is available for purchase from Amazon.ca and Amazon.com.
On the New Testament side of things (you know, that other testament, the small one ), there are two noteworthy films being released this fall.
I am thoroughly intrigued by The Color of the Cross (Jean-Claude La Marre; 2006; IMDb; Official website), which is being released in the United States today. This film is the first historical Jesus film to cast a black actor to play Jesus — which has provided some free publicity for the film (see the Associated Press report). I personally think it will be refreshing considering how many blond, blue-eyed Saviours have been filmed. There is an article on the film in the Chicago Tribune that is worthy of a read and includes interviews with the director as well as Canadian biblical studies scholar Adele Reinhartz (HT Mark Goodacre).
Finally, the birth of Jesus will be the subject of the film The Nativity Story (Catherine Hardwicke; 2006; IMDb; Official website), which is slated for a December 1st release. Matt Page has a convenient summary page for this film here.
For a complete listing of films based on the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible see my Old Testament on Film pages. An excellent place to visit for news and reviews of Bible films is Matt Page’s Bible Films Blog.
Matt Page at Bible Films Blog has an excellent discussion of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988; IMDb; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). While I appreciate this film, I have to admit that everytime I have watched it I find it quite slow moving. I also have a hard time with Willem Dafoe and Harvey Keitel playing Jesus and Judas — I have seen too many of their other films to appreciate their performances (especially Keitel).
While I am at it, I should highlight Matt’s Bible Films Blog. Matt and I share an interest in Bible films (and rugby), and this common interest led to some correspondence last year when I was working on my “Old Testament on Film” pages. Matt’s blog is in my blogroll under “Faith & Film” and I encourage you to check it out regularly.
Mark Goodacre notes on his NT Weblog a recent article on Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004) that examines the response to the film from a Jewish perspective. The article, “The Passion by Mel Gibson: Enthusiastic Response in the Catholic World, Restrained Criticism by the Jews,” by Sergio I. Minerbi appears in the online journal Jewish Political Studies Review 17:1-2 (Spring 2005).
The article provides a much needed Jewish perspective on The Passion, highlighting the uncritical way that Christians (including evangelicals but especially the Catholic Church, according to Minerbi) embraced the film and the lack of significant opposition from Jews.
I tried to have a variety of perspectives represented in the public lecture I organized on the film last year (14 April 2004) entitled, “Mel’s Passion: An Analysis of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ from Evangelical, Catholic, and Jewish Perspectives.” Rabbi David Kunin of Beth Shalom Synagogue, Edmonton, presented a Jewish perspective and Rev. David Norman, O.F.M., Professor of Systematic Theology at Newman Theological College, Edmonton, presented a catholic perspective, while yours truly gave an “evangelical” assessment. The three lectures (in MP3 format) are available for free download from the Public Lectures section of my website.
Peter Chataway, on his FilmChat blog, recently announced a special Vancouver viewing of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew, along with a short entitled, Seeking Locations in Palestine for “The Gospel According to St. Matthew.” This short looks quite fascinating. It doesn’t appear that it is available in DVD yet (the 2003 Water Bearer DVD release of The Gospel According to St. Matthew doesn’t include it, nor does the more recent 2004 BCI Eclipse edition).
I recently viewed The Gospel According to St. Matthew again with a friend. I am quite taken by Pasolini’s work — I see why many critics consider it one of the best Jesus films ever made. Pasolini’s stark interpretation of Matthew provides quite the contrast to Hollywood’s grand biblical epics. The bleak landscape of southern Italy and the casting are both brilliant. Most of the extras are Italian peasants and the lead roles are played by non-actors. Pasolini’s Jesus, played by Enrique Irazoqui, challenges our culturally-manufactured, stereotypical blue-eyed blond Jesus.
There are many other things I like about this film. Pasolini’s use of camera angles is captivating. The viewer seems to see Jesus from the perspective of a disciple, always following Jesus or looking at him from a distance (as when Jesus is before the Sanhedrin and Pilate). From what I could observe, Jesus almost never looks directly into the camera. He is always looking slightly off-centre, with one or two notable exceptions. The first such shot (see the picture above) is when Jesus turns and looks straight into the camera and says “if any man come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 8:24). This is a powerful shot.
Even the way Pasolini presented the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) is fascinating. Jesus doesn’t say the sermon in one setting, but gives parts of the sermon in various contexts — the scenes shift between day and night, between inside and outside shots, Jesus with and without a scarf, etc. In my mind (and perhaps only in my mind!) this suggests that Pasolini wanted to present the sermon as more of a compendium of Jesus’ teachings, not a long sermon that took place at one time. And the “blessed are the cheese makers” line is brilliant! Oh, so sorry, that’s Monty Python.
To make a long blog entry short: I highly recommend Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew. And if you live in the Vancouver, B.C., area, make sure to see it on the big screen! (I am quite envious)