RELN2011 - Final Assignment
By Sarah Fallon
Jesus is both a popular and controversial topic in Hollywood Films. The following Essay will discuss three Jesus centred films and how they represent the individual filmmaker’s view, the times in which they were made, the controversy surround them, and their varying depiction of Jesus himself. Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004) is the most recent film discussed here and will be looked at first, followed by The Last Temptation of Christ (Scorsese 1988) and finally the 1973 film adaptation of Jesus Christ Superstar (Norman Jewison). Each of these films explores the life of Jesus Christ in different ways and was responded to differently.
The Passion of the Christ is a unique depiction of Jesus’ life and is representative of Mel Gibson’s own theological perspective. Mel Gibson is a Pre-Vatican II Catholic and rejects scholarly work on Jesus and his life (Schaberg 70). As such he has a strong opinion on Christ’s story and passion, which can clearly be seen in The Passion of the Christ. Gibson’s film had a lot of Christian support, but was however accused of anti-Semitism, misogyny and homophobia (Pope 68 & 87). The devil in Passion is played by a women and purposefully androgynous, Mary Magdalene is marginalised due to his Pre-Vatican II persuasions (Schaberg 70) leaving only a virginal mother as an acceptable female presence. The marginalization and demonization of any female image which isn’t ‘pure’ or belonging to a traditional female role could be the reason for the misogyny claim. Anti-Semitism, however, is a much larger criticism of the film, Goodacre says “Few can have seen this film without having been aware of this charge.” (39). With multiple Gospel accounts to choose from, Gibson has included the three main anti-Semitic features of the New Testament. Pilate is portrayed as a reasonable and compassionate man, making the Priests look even more irrational a cruel by comparison, and the scene in which he washes his hands and leaves Jesus fate up to the Jewish people is included. Caiaphas, the head priest, is brutal in his determination to destroy Jesus, as well as being shown to hit Jesus. And the Jewish Crowd repeatedly calls for Jesus’ crucifixion and cheering at his torture. Pope says The Passion “claimed authenticity,” (86), a particular difficulty in films based on Jesus, because of its religious context and multiple and varying sources on which to draw. The Passion does well in its attempt; appropriate looking costumes, the use Aramaic a now unused language as the primary language of the film, and the gritty violence all feel authentic. However “almost all Jesus-figure’s are, in fact, stylized.” and “A movie may be a product of the artistic sensibility of a writer or director, of a deep personal religion and conviction, and of a faith” (Malone 60 & 70-1). Therefore The Passion of the Christ is only authentic to Gibson’s personal vision.
Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ depicts the last twelve hours of Jesus’ life within a primarily theological framework. The opening quote in The Passion, “He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our inequities; by His wounds we are healed.” from Isaiah 53.5, sets up the main focus of the film; violence and suffering, and the amount of which “would be sufficient to atone for the sin of humanity.” (Pope 86). As is typical of representations of Jesus, Gibson’s Jesus has long brown hair, is bearded and robed often in white, but also in brown. Jesus’ simple, modest dress in muted colours, which is also how his followers dress, is contrasted with the elaborate and ornate costuming of the priests, presenting them as opposites, and enhancing claims of anti-Semitism. He speaks very little, resolute and courageous. His lack of speech also mystifies his character by preventing the audience from connecting with him on a basic communicative level. This is further accomplished by the use Aramaic as the primary language spoken in the film, even when he does speak it is in a language not easily recognisable by a general audience. Gibson’s Jesus is a traditional depiction of the Christ figure which continually reinforces Christ’s goodness and divinity.
Jesus’ divinity is established from the first scene. He is positioned in Gethsemane, an important biblical site, which in the film is visually very mystical. The scene begins with Jesus praying to God in his only moment of doubt in the film, and simultaneously being tempted by the Devil. He overcomes the Devils temptation, stepping on a serpent and never again showing a moment’s hesitation. He seems to have a strength no later Jesus’ discussed in this essay manages to obtain. Later in the same location Jesus performs the films only miracle, healing a Roman guard’s ear. Jesus’ divinity carries throughout the rest of the film particularly in the inhuman strength necessary to survive the extreme physical torture he is subjected to throughout the film until the moment of his death. The only real glimpse of humanity seen in Gibson’s Jesus is through the eyes of his mother, Mary. It is with Mary that our empathy really lays, rather than the stoic, almost emotionless Jesus. She provides the audience with a human framework with which to relate and view his suffering. She also provides us with the only flashback which presents him as a person rather than a saviour; one in which he builds a table and talk as a son to his mother, and another when he falls as a child and Mary runs to him. Gibson’s Jesus is the most divine of the three discussed in this essay, with no real attempt to explore his human side.
In 1988 Martin Scorsese adapted Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel, The Last Temptation of Christ, to film. The film, like the book, courted much controversy, largely due to the final dream sequence which features Jesus living a normal life including marriage, sex, children and eventual death at a ripe old age. Another point of the movie which caused much discussion was the portrayal of Judas not as a betrayer, but carrying out God and Jesus’ wishes, to help bring about Jesus death. Furthermore Judas’ role in the dream sequence was not well liked amongst Christians, as it is he who once again forces Jesus to face his destiny and abandon his illusionary dream of a normal life. Conservative Christian groups were outraged by this film, even attacking Universal studios and Martin Scorsese (Riley 3). Last Temptation avoids the threat of appearing Anti-Semitic by completely eliminating Caiaphas and the Jewish crowd demanding Jesus’ death from the film. Last Temptation also avoids the issue of historical accuracy by basing the film on a novel rather than the Gospels. At the beginning of the film there is a disclaimer saying that the film is not based on the Gospels. In theory this allows the filmmaker to avoid any responsibility towards Christianity; however this did not prevent controversy or outrage. Pope says “It is inevitable that the film would be judged (at least by Christian groups) according to certain theological and devotional expectations.” as it draws on religious imagery and accounts and still attempt to tell a story of the life of Jesus (83). And Christian groups definitely didn’t approve, labelling the film as blasphemes (Riley 3). Unlike the other two films explored in this essay, Last Temptation portrays in great detail Jesus’ miracles including healing of the sick and raising Lazarus from the dead. Forshey suggests that one of the problems in creating a film about Jesus is the representation of the miracles, “They must somehow be portrayed plausibly and not appear to be optical illusions or cinematic tricks.” (np). Ultimately it is up to the individual viewer as to whether they find the portrayal believable or not. I personally found them overly dramatic and the scene in which he raises Lazarus from the dead reminiscent of a horror film rather than miraculous. Last Temptation is by far the most ill received and controversial film explored in this essay.
The Last Temptation of Christ is unique from other films based on the life and times of Jesus Christ because it does not claim any factual, historical or religious accuracy. Like Passion of the Christ, Last Temptation opens the film with a quote, this time from Kazantzakis’ novel, “The dual substance of Christ – the yearning, so human, so super human, of man to attain God.” The quote goes on, but just like The Passion of the Christ it provides the basis for the entire film; the struggle between humanity and divinity in Jesus. Again Jesus has brown hair and is robed, but in Last Temptation his appearance develops through the narrative. As he begins to accept is role as messenger of God, then Son of God and finally the necessity of his death, his hair grows longer, his robe becomes lighter and his beard grows until he is the complete visual stereotype of Jesus Christ. However his spiritual transformation seems as superficial as his physical one. His “manic journey through the last few years” of his life appears disjointed as he moves rapidly from hating and resenting God, to accepting the mission of love, then changing to the mission of the axe, realising he needs to die, then falling for the final temptation and abandoning his mission of the last few years until Judas yells at him. He is a Jesus without any conviction, described by Paffenroth as “neurotic and disassociated.” (np). Pope goes so far as to say “Rather than throw light on the battle which raged in Jesus... here [ he] is typical of Scorsese’s characters... a Jesus in Scorsese’s image... little more than a stage burlesque of the Jesus of the Gospel.” (85). Last Temptation was unsuccessful with both the Christian audience and a wide range of critics, failing to appear relevant within or without of a theological framework.
Jesus’ voice is explored and developed in this film above others because he is the narrator. The film uses “the cinematic technique of voice-over to explore Jesus’ tortured but developing messianic consciousness.” (The Problem of the Cinematic Jesus np). The narration gives an insight into Jesus’ struggle not seen before, and definitely not represented in the Gospels. While this is the only film discussed here which features an extended look at Jesus’ miracles, including the raising of Lazarus from the dead, He is still less divine than Gibson’s Christ. His continual temptation is so great that his overly dramatised miracles are not enough to overcome them. Sexual tension is present throughout the film, from the early scene in which Jesus watches Mary Magdalene service other men, through to the final temptation scene when he indulges in sexual activity (Pope 84). When he does finally commit to his crucifixion, after a long sequence in which he is allowed, even if only superficially, to indulge in all of his temptations, it lacks meaning. At the beginning of the film he actually made and carried crosses for the Romans making his death ironic and seems more an act of redemption for his own sins than the masses. As a result “it is not entirely clear what it is his death achieves (Pope 84). Last Temptation tells a confused story of Jesus’ life. The portrayal of his internal and eternal struggle clashes with the known biblical story.
In 1973 Norman Jewison adapted the Andrew Lloyd Weber musical, Jesus Christ Superstar, to the big screen. Jewison presents Jesus and his story in a stylised way using it to grapple with the various struggles of the 1970’s. Unlike the previous two films, Jewison does not strive for realism, for one it is a musical, but Jewison goes even further by merging contemporary and historical imagery in sets, costumes and dance scenes. Even more central to the cultural context of the film is the casting of an African-America as Judas. Paffenroth suggests that this portrayal of Judas will subvert expectations, as Judas is traditionally and well-known as the betrayer and villain of the story, however in this particular film he is “the most appealing and powerful character” (np). The use of a black Judas allows the film to interact with race and civil rights issues of the 1970’s. Reinhartz says “Jesus Christ Superstar tackles race and civil rights issues through its African American Judas.” He also suggests that the film “also deals, more indirectly, with the war in Vietnam and the Six Day War in Israel.” (np). This is a clear indicator of Pope’s idea that “Jesus must speak into, as well as out of, the contemporary situation and not just as a disembodied voice speaking from a distant and sometimes dim past.” (71). Jewison use a well known biblical story as well as an extremely popular musical to raise issues pertinent to the times and people of the 70’s.
Jesus Christ Superstar depicts the last few weeks of Jesus’ life. Like the two previous Jesus’ discussed, Jewison’s Jesus is robed, bearded with long brown hair, and like Gibson’s Jesus had brown eyes, maintaining traditional imagery. Jesus is one of the few characters in this film dressed in historically accurate clothing. Others, while having hints of the historical period, are distinctly stylized. Similarly again to the other two films Jesus and his Apostles are mostly dressed in browns and other muted tones, with a few exceptions. Mary Magdalene and Judas are dressed in bright red and orange, marking their significance. Paffenroth writes, “the other disciples practically disappear... It is Mary Magdalene and Judas that rise to prominence.” (np). Mary Magdalene is the only female character, Mary the mother being completely absent from the film. One of the most beautiful songs of the film is Mary’s “I Don’t Know How To Love Him”, which suggests a romantic interest, at least on her side. While the film does not go as far as Last Temptation in explicitly portraying Jesus as a sexual figure, it does frame him in a romantic context which implies the possibility of his involvement in romantic and, by extension, physical love. Jewison’s Jesus is not as stalwart or determined as Gibson’s neither is he like Scorsese’s Jesus. He is perhaps the least divine of the three, unable to accept his necessary death. Reinhartz describes him as a “weak and whiny man without a clear sense of identity.” (np). Such character traits are seen throughout the film, such as in The Last Supper, “I must be mad thinking I’ll be remembered... Look at your blank faces! My name will mean nothing / Ten minutes after I’m dead!” he sings furiously. And where Gibson’s Jesus calmly tells Peter of his inevitable denial, this Jesus is outraged. Even at the very end, when crucified, he is still doubtful and angry. All of this lessens his divinity. Pope believes Jesus Christ Superstar to mark “the demise of both the reverent portrayals and the epic style,” of Jesus Christ (68). This Jesus is continually complaining, and while his uncertainty makes him more relatable he is much less of a divine figure.
Jesus Christ is a difficult topic to portray and most likely impossible to do so without some level of criticism or controversy. The Passion of the Christ was well received by Christian audiences despite its ignorance of post-Vatican II doctrine. However it did court controversy from secular viewers for anti-Semitism and misogyny. Gibson’s Christ was brave, heroic and utterly divine, allowing only for a moment’s hesitation at the very beginning of the film. The Last Temptation of Christ, hardly a story of Jesus, received the most criticism from Christians and critics alike. Humanizing Christ to the point of sexual desire and activity and elevating Judas to the hero of the piece was a daring attempt at a unique vision of Jesus’ life but was ultimately unsuccessful and Scorsese’s Jesus confusion left his actions meaningless. Jewison’s Jesus Christ Superstar was the most relevant to the cultural context of its time. Jewison’s Jesus is easily relatable as the film does not strive for divinity rather explores and natural human doubt and uncertainty. He is less annoying than Scorsese’s Christ and as such his death is more meaningful, but perhaps more tragic than heroic as it excludes the resurrection scene which give The Passion of the Christ it’s uplifting conclusion.
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