I could have easily named this article "Who Does Hollywood Say That I Am?". Because it's Passion Week (aka Easter Week), the time when you see all of the usual 'Life of Christ' movies shown on TV, I'd like to discuss a few of them that may be aired in the next few days, along with some others that I just enjoy and appreciate for various reasons. Many stations even play The Ten Commandments during the Easter season (never sure why, since it's not about Jesus or the resurrection) but usually you just see movies shown about the Savior of the World starring very white, Euro-centric actors with British accents who portray Him in a very mannered and contrived way. Some of those films are listed here, but I do think that even they have redeeming facets to them. This isn't necessarily my Top Ten Favorites list, I would just like to comment on each of these.
1. The Passion Of The Christ. This movie made so much money for Mel Gibson that it altered the way Hollywood views all independent projects like this. I think that Gibson is a good actor and director, but in the case of TPOTC, he really shined (shone?) as a producer. He promoted his project heavily with and in churches before release, and as a result the movie developed a huge, grassroots following, and paid for itself in its first weekend.
There are many things about it that I like, particularly the fact that it was spoken entirely in Aramaic, Jesus' native tongue, and I also thought that Jim Caviezel was very effective in it. What's interesting to me, however, is that certain high-profile Evangelicals such as John Hagee, who are decidedly anti-Roman Catholic, promoted it so heavily. They seemed oblivious to the fact that it is so overtly Catholic in spirit and viewpoint. Director Gibson intended fidelity to the New Testament, yet expanded the screenplay by making use of additional sources. The principal, most controversial source is The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ ,the meditations of the stigmatic, German nun Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774–1824), as told to the poet Clemens Brentano. Her vision of Christ’s Passion depicts certain Jews as more vicious and bloodthirsty than the Romans ruling Judaea. A secondary, extra-biblical source is The Mystical City of God by Maria de Agreda (1602–1665), a 17th century Spanish nun, and some imagined sequences. Many critics noted that the costumes worn by the Blessed Virgin (Maia Morgenstern) and Mary Magdalene (Monica Bellucci) resemble the habit of the Augustinian Order nuns, in homage to Emmerich. There's also a scene where Mary seems to display telepathic powers, and sees and hears Jesus being tortured on the other side of a stone wall.
The Jewish community passionately protested the movie, and Gibson's subsequent anti-Semitic remarks have seemingly confirmed some of their accusations of his motives in making it. The movie was also controversial because of its graphic violence, but I personally don't think it even scratched the surface in conveying the horrors of the crucifixion. If that were portrayed accurately, the film couldn't even be released in theatres. But all in all, it's a very well-crafted film, and is definitely worth seeing.
2. The Gospel According To Matthew. This movie was produced by the International Bible Society, and has a script that is taken, verbatim, from a modern translation of the Scriptures. I was greatly impressed with the performance of Bruce Marchiano as Jesus, because, for one thing, he at least looks a little more middle eastern and a little less Anglo than the typical actor who portrays the Nazarene. His Jesus is probably the most joyful one you'll ever see in a movie...it's the only time I ever remember seeing a film that showed Jesus laughing...and his interaction with the disciples seems real and is quite believable. I like this one a lot.
3. The Gospel of John. Here you find the standard white, British "movie" Jesus (at least he doesn't have blue eyes like Jeffrey Hunter in King of Kings) but I have to say that this is really a beautiful film. The depiction of Jesus washing the disciples' feet is particularly moving, and the scene where Jesus asks Peter if he loves Him is the best I have ever seen portrayed. I recommend it.
4. Jesus of Nazareth. Some would say this is the best Jesus film; it is certainly the most. At six and a half hours, Franco Zeffirelli's mini-series gets to explore the Gospels at greater length than usual, and it fleshes out the supporting characters in ways that convey the breadth and depth of the impact Jesus had on his contemporaries. This Jesus does have blue eyes, though. I generally like Zeffirelli as a director, but this isn't one of my favorites. The DVD makes a nice gift, though.
5. Jesus Christ Superstar. You don't want to get me started on JCS...too much to say, not enough time. Let me try to be succinct. Jeff Fenholt, the original "Jesus" on broadway is a good friend of mine, so I have a special appreciation for the Original Broadway cast album...didn't care too much at all for the movie...hated the revival of it on Broadway a few years ago because the director didn't seem to unserstand what it is about.
Theatrically, it's written with Judas as the protagonist, and it explores the human side of Jesus, and how he dealt with the fame that came from His public ministry. The whole thing is supposed to be seen through the eyes of Judas, who is meant to be portrayed as a sympathetic, conflicted character. It is generally denounced by mainstream ministers as being blasphemous, but I've never seen it that way...mainly because I understand that it's not meant to be the Passion Play from First Baptist Church, and I do believe that Judas was not who we traditionally have thought that he was (see School of the Bible I), and I accept the fact that Jesus was and is every bit as human as He is divine!
The picture posted here is of the studio album that came out before the Broadway show, with Ian Gillan, the lead singer for Deep Purple, as Jesus. For me, it's the only Jesus Christ Superstar, and I love it. Maybe I just understand it because it was so much a part of my generation, but I had to include it here.
6. Godspell. Also part of my generation, and also loved by me. Not everyone gets it...you kind of had to have been there. Movie is pretty good (pictured on the right)...came out just as the twin towers of World Trade Center were being completed, and a big musical number is shot on top of one of them (the picture of it is on the cover of the movie soundtrack album). Great celebration of Matthew's gospel, and particularly effective in teaching the parables in an entertaining fashion. The picture on the left is the cover of the original broadway cast album...I love all of it except for the voice of the guy who sings "All Good Gifts".
7. The Greatest Story Ever Told. In my opinion, a little boring and pretentious, but beautifully shot. The main attraction of this one for me is the large and notable cast...I mean practically everyone who was alive in Hollywood in 1965 is in this! Charlton Heston is John the Baptist, Telly Savalas is Pontius Pilate, Claud Rains is Herod, Jamie Farr (M.A.S.H.) is a disciple...Pat Boone, Sydney Poitier, Carroll Baker, Victor Buono, Van Heflin, Russell Johnson (the professor from Gilligan's Island), Martin Landau (Mission Impossible), Angela Lansbury, Sal Mineo, Donald Pleasence, Marian Seldes, Shelley Winters, and Ed Wynn are all in it...even John Wayne plays a centurion!
I don't really enjoy Max Von Sydow as Jesus, but it's interesting to see him in the role because he's played the devil in a couple of things, and was Father Merrin in the Exorcist! I recommend this only for true cinefiles, simply because of the sheer uniqueness of it.
8. Color of the Cross. I really wanted to love this one more than I did. It has a lot of potential, and, to my knowledge, is the first big-budget Jesus movie with an all black cast (I don't use "African-American" here, because I'm not sure all of the players are American). Some of it is quite compelling, but I was looking forward to seeing a more powerful and magnetic Jesus of color on the big screen. Unfortunately, the gentleman who played Him was my least favorite cast member (I had my own ideas about casting Him, especially after seeing Blair Underwood read the words of Jesus in such a mesmerizing way in the DVD of The Making of 'The Bible Experience'). Some viewers may not know what to make of Mary asking Joseph, after finding out that their son had been crucified (or maybe it was after she found out He had been arrested, I can't remember), if they were punishing Him because He was black. It wasn't a great line, especially because the ones arresting Him were black (or at least that's the way I remember it...I'm open to correction on this). Anyway, it's not bad, and is worth a viewing.
9. The Gospel Road. I hadn't seen this in thirty-something years and ran across it in a store recently and bought it. After watching it I realized that most of it wasn't as good as I remembered, but parts of it were still pretty enjoyable. If you're a true Johnny Cash fan you'll appreciate it just for the music. My personal favorite part is seeing June Carter Cash play Mary Magdalene and sing the John Denver (yes, I admit it...I was a huge John Denver fan) song, Follow Me. But be warned, Jesus isn't just white in this one, he's a blond! This one I recommend mostly for the soundtrack.
10. Cotton Patch Gospel. I haven't screened the taped version that is pictured on the left, but I've seen it live on stage with Tom Key, and it's one of my very favorite versions of the Jesus story! CPG is a musical that retells the story of Jesus as if in modern day, rural Georgia. Based on the book The Cotton Patch Version of Matthew and John by the very cool and totally ahead-of-his-time Clarence Jordan, the music and lyrics to the musical were written by Harry Chapin (Cat's in the Cradle) and were his last work before his death. The stage version was written by Tom Key and Russell Treyz. As if the gospel weren't scandalous enough, having a teenage girl impregnated by God to bear the Messiah, the Cotton Patch Gospel ups the ante. Mary, it seems, is the daughter of a deacon at First Baptist Church of Opp, Ala. And Jesus isn't crucified by Pontius Pilate but lynched by the Ku Klux Klan working in concert with Gov. Pilate of Georgia. It's got awesome bluegrass music, and even after all the years that it's been performed on stage, some theatergoers still walk out in protest of the play's inference of racial equality as a gospel cause. I love, love, love this one!
One more thing...
The Last Temptation of Christ. This much-misunderstood movie is based on the novel written by Nikos Kazantzakis (Zorba the Greek), first published in 1951, which follows the life of Jesus Christ from his perspective. The novel has been the subject of a great deal of controversy due to its subject matter, and appears regularly on lists of banned books. The central thesis of the book is that Jesus, while free from sin, was still subject to every form of temptation that humans face, including fear, doubt, depression, reluctance, and lust. By facing and conquering all of man's weaknesses, Kazantzakis argues in the novel's preface, He struggled to do God's will, without ever giving in to the temptations of the flesh. His premise is based on Hebrews 4:15 which says that Jesus was “tempted in all points, yet without sin.”
The movie was directed by Academy Award winning director, Martin Scorsese, and when it first came out it set off a major protest movement from Evangelicals, led mostly by Jerry Falwell. It’s not what I would call an uplifting movie because of the heaviness of the subject matter, in fact it’s a little dark, but it’s not AT ALL what the televangelists said that it was! I own it and have seen it many times, but I don’t necessarily recommend it to everyone. It isn’t your garden variety ‘Life of Christ’ flick, and many church people aren’t intellectually deep enough to grasp its concept, or to even understand the meaning of “fiction”, for that matter. None of the stuff that Falwell and others like him said was in it is actually in it.
Basically, the whole thing is about a satanically-suggested dream sequence that Jesus has while He’s dying on the cross. In the dream an angel tells Him that He doesn’t have to die for the sins of the world, and He comes down off of the cross and begins to live a natural life, in which He marries Mary Magdalene and has children with her, and lives out a normal existence as a carpenter. I hate to spoil the ending (by the way, Bruce Willis was one of the dead people in The Sixth Sense, and “Rosebud” is Kane’s sled!)…but He wakes up from the dream and realizes that He is still on the cross, and that He still wants to fulfill the will of the Father in dying for the world’s sins, and then He dies. The end.
Neither the novel nor the movie was ever meant to be intentioanlly blasphemous. On the contrary, in fact. Do I recommend it? If you’re intelligent enough to understand that Jesus was and is as much Son of Man as Son of God…as human as He is divine…and if you believe that “tempted in all points” means just that...and if you understand the definition of "fiction". If not, you may need to stick with King of Kings.
If there's one that I didn't mention that you like, feel free to write your own review.