Rendering Of Jesus Christ in Film
Portraying Jesus Christ in a movie presents a number of difficulties for a film director and producer. The choice of an actor for one thing can be problematic since it is truly difficult to portray someone as both human and divine. In addition, leading men in contemporary films usually capture or enchant people’s attention through the act of sex, romance and violence but Jesus Christ is neither of those obviously. Moreover, it is also hard to portray Jesus in film because this kind of portrayal in film is sensitive to criticisms and controversies especially from religious communities and believers. Since the existence of Jesus Christ is a significant event in history, one expects that in portraying his life it should be faithful to what truly happens. However, people created various views and interpretations towards Jesus and as time passes by these interpretations grow and develop. Literature and film medium became significant vehicles that consider and reconsider Jesus’ story, his characteristics, and the impact he created in the world. The cinematic portraits of Jesus Christ differ considerably from one another. Jesus has a large variety of depictions, from the detailed narrative of the four Gospels, the epistles of Paul and his successors, the prophecies in the Old Testament, the book of Revelation and the views and researches of the past and present scholars. Moreover Jesus’ character varies in film depending on the individual perceptions of directors and producers, the broader social trends and depending on the specific purpose of each movie.
The Italian film The Gospel According to St. Matthew for example is one of the most revolutionary film in history that portrays Jesus Christ. Director Pasolini said that he used the Gospel of Matthew because “Luke is too sentimental, John was too mystical and Mark was too vulgar” while Matthew “conveyed the passionate violence of [Jesus’] politics” and he was “the most earthly of the evangelists” and “the most revolutionary; he is the nearest to the real problems of an historical epoch” (Oswald). The movie is shot in black and white where most of its narrative and all of its dialogues come from the Gospel of Matthew itself. Seeing it, the film only used the printed text from the Gospel of Matthew without the incorporation of extraneous material normally written into screenplays about the life and death of Jesus Christ for the sake of good and effective story telling. Pasolini, the film’s director, present Jesus according to the text of Matthew. The way he presents the story of Jesus seems that Pasolini wants to make the film as simple and faithful to the Gospel as much as possible, with little embellishment. The film is in a “stark and neo-realistic style that used most non professional actors and shot the scenes in remote locations in impoverished Southern Italy” (Stone 76). The film with its faithful adaptation in the Gospel of Matthew is without narrative transitions and overly dramatic structure, and therefore portrayed as it is. Unlike other narrative stories, Pasolini in this film provides no creative introduction and development of the characters. The characters’ dialogue is not word heavy but only consist of sparse exchanges present in the Gospel of Matthew itself. Unlike other films, the connection or interior life of the characters in this film is not explained or explored. For example, nothing is added that would explain the disciples’ motivation in joining Jesus Christ in his mission as well as how Jesus first made contact with them. Pasolini did not attempt to explain the meaning of the gospel or did not attempt to incorporate his personal ideas about Jesus in general. This film apparently leaves the audience with multiple interpretations.
In terms of camera movement, the director uses a handheld camera– just like how a reporter or camera man in a documentary film holds his camera. The camera lingers on every outskirts of the action as if it is held by a news reporter. The camera in the film is like an outside participant that only watches, observes and records what is happening. This technique actually add a sense of realism, credibility and authenticity to the depiction of Jesus’ life. For example, the camera weaves in and out among the crowd or behind people’s heads and with a long shot of the trial as if the camera man was one of the people watching the action. The fiery prophet, Jesus, in this film is intolerant and solitary(though he is exceptionally warm and affectionate to children). In terms of depiction, Pasolini did not tolerate a sentimental mode in the film. It is noticeable that Pasolini depicts Jesus’ as a physically and emotionally distant human being. Jesus in this film is not the usual evangelist of peace, love and harmony created by most writers and filmmakers. Instead Jesus is a social critic that is often angry. The film can be paralleled with Jesus’ words that appear only in Matthew “Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth : I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (10:34). Moreover, Pasolini did not include Peter’s confession in faith in Christ and some of the parables of the reign of God. Conspicuously, this film is completely a faithful adaptation to the gospel of Matthew.
Any film adapted from a printed text runs the risk of minimizing the impact of the original story. Yet filmmakers who illustrate the life of Jesus Christ on screen never shied away from visualizing the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. The Passion of the Christ film directed by Mel Gibson is truly a contemporary adaptation of the life and death of Jesus Christ. This film by Mel Gibson unlike The Gospel According to Matthew only portrayed the last 12 hours of Jesus Christ by which its theological message is very much emotional and conservative. “The controversy surrounding the film indicates once more the conceptual impossibility of making a universally accepted motion picture portrait of Jesus of Nazareth at a time when the traditional understanding of Jesus has largely disappeared” (Christology). The film is rich with visual imageries and expressiveness with the help of advance camera and acting techniques. The accounts of Jesus’ arrest, trial, torture and crucifixion are portrayed emotionally and dramatically. The film is inevitably emotional since it portrays the last twelve hours of Jesus Christ more than 2000 years ago. The film’s sequencing like Jesus’ last supper, the betrayal of Judas, the confrontations of the Pharisees against him, his condemnation to crucifixion, his torture, death and resurrection are all faithful to the printed text in the New Testament. However, the film is highly intimate and emotional that makes it tremendously powerful in the heart of the viewers compared to other films that portray Jesus Christ. Many times during his torture the screen is dominated by a close up face of Jesus with many blood shot after numerous beatings, with one eye swollen and with his painful and deep facial expression. Jesus lying on the ground, the mob rages, his rasping breath, his blood that mingles on the ground, his humble embrace to the cross are all moment of intimacy that invites the viewers to embrace emotionally and visually the final hours of Christ. Knowing Gibson as a “traditional Catholic believer”, perhaps he purposely catches the viewers’ emotion in order to show them the enormity of Christ’s sacrifice and to let them see that someone could endure such sufferings and ridicules and still come back with love and forgiveness. But apparently, the film is dominated with explicitly detailed violence about the torture and death of Jesus Christ. It focuses on the brutality of Jesus’ final hours instead of his religious teachings. Unlike other films that recount the life of Jesus, this film lacks a rich presentation of Jesus as a prolific and inspiring teacher and healer.
The use of Aramaic and Latin ancient languages forces the viewers to read and rely with the subtitles. It is predictable that the audience will be more committed to the visual imageries that reaches thousands of emotions than looking at its subtitles. The use of ancient language therefore became an effective tool for the viewers to be vulnerable with their emotions– focusing more on the visuals than the dialogue. Furthermore the language makes the film and story adaptation more credible, hearing Jesus’ language itself is more powerful.
Jesus Christ in the The Passion of the Christ is depicted in a dramatic and highly reverential nature to keep the tragic plot structure of the Gospel narrative. Jesus Christ Superstar however is a musical film that introduces Jesus Christ in a more different angle and setting. The film was initially a sound recording for Broadway stage productions before it appeared on screen. The story “implicitly propose an answer to the question of how a “hippie” Jesus would look and sound” (Reinhartz 16). Jesus Christ Superstar “depicts the staging of a Passion play in the Negev desert in Southern Israel” (Reinhartz 16). The film primarily illustrates Jesus as a famous star who, like other Hollywood movie stars, is surrounded by a widespread of interest or the “cult of celebrity that distorts his message, neutralizes it, remove its substance, and renders it incapable of sustaining the burden of starstruck crowds”. His popularity and stardom in the story reduces him to a publicity-driven Hollywood figure that brings him in danger of losing his real sense of self and the very reason of his mission. The setting of the film, the costume and other properties are a combination of first and twentieth centuries.
Israeli Phantom jets soar through the sky and tanks stalk Judas over sand dunes. Costumes combined Biblical-looking garb with contemporary styles. Mary Magdalene’s sackcloth dress had a low neckline. Roman soldiers carried machine guns and wore Israeli Army fatigues and booths. Herod wore tennis shorts and granny glasses. In the opening scene, the cast arrived in a bus, framing the action as a show within a show (Denisoff & Romanowski 210) .
Jesus Christ Superstar on the other is set in a contemporary world and culture. It chronicles the last seven days in the life of Jesus Christ as seen and perceived through the eyes of one his disciple Judas Iscariot. Judas Iscariot in the story has become disillusioned with Jesus’ popularity. In the initial part, Judas already agonizes over his belief that Jesus’ followers have become inappropriately fanatical and unrealistic, “hailing him as a god and twisting his words into monstrous prophecies”. For Judas however, Jesus is only a man with imperfections and certain inconsistencies. Judas is determined that Jesus, having lost control of the crowd, has become dangerous and thus must be stopped. He goes then to the priest and other authorities, and he gives all the information they need to catch Jesus alone. Basically the filmmakers of this production made Judas as their principal character, a man who is not an atheist but convince that though Jesus has a divine mission Jesus is still a man. Meanwhile, the film also subtly reflects an emerging media-dominated culture. It subtly criticize how media make stars and the effect of exaggerated portrayal for marketing purposes. But nonetheless the standout scenes and musicals in this movie are intense. The choreographed number that imitates the hippie movements is a subtle illustration that Jesus adapts to the world as it progresses and develops. The imagination inspired by it is truly amazing. Unlike other two films that made Jesus strong and reachable, this film put Jesus in the high standing. His super star status becomes a dilemma. Meanwhile, this particular movie that used biblical past somehow address the social concerns of the present. The film, which is a rock and roll musical, treats Jesus as more than just a man. Jesus gets swept away by his own fame and popularity. Apparently, the film uses Jesus to critique contemporary celebrity culture and vice versa.
The technological, pluralistic and liberated society that the world now has made Jesus story and character approach in different ways. It is understandable, with the world’s imaginative resources, that artists and filmmakers would want to present the story of Christ in the most technologically and artistically advanced medium. Moreover due to freedom of expression in arts, no one can just question the filmmakers’ approach on Jesus’ character. The intellectual and artistic imagination behind the scene is not limited to the written gospel. Contemporary filmmakers approach Jesus’ in a wide variety of depictions depending on how human experience, history, printed texts and testimonials approaches him.
Work Cited Page:
“Christology.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 01 Jul. 2009
Denisoff, Serge. Romanowski, William. Risky business: rock in film. Transaction Publishers, 1991
Oswald Stack, ed., Pasolini on Pasolini (Thames & Hudson, 1969), pp. 14, 87, 94-5.
Reinhartz, Adele. Jesus of Hollywood Oxford University Press US, 2007
Stone, Bryan. Faith and film: theological themes at the cinema. Chalice Press, 2000