By Tom Hinchliffe
In the late 1980s two films presented Jesus in ways that challenge traditional religious representations. The Last Temptation of Christ, directed by Martin Scorsese, attempted to show Jesus in an existential light, succumbing to earthly temptation. In Denys Arcand’s Jesus of Montreal, the narrative takes shape around a controversial passion play staged by its main Christ-like protagonist. Both movies steer clear of religious dogma and emphasize the humanity and anti-authoritarian message of Jesus. In different ways, both highlight the tension between religious authority and spiritual expression in the media. While Jesus of Montreal deals with the subject in its plot, the reaction from institutionalized religions to The Last Temptation of Christ testify to the power of media as popular presentations of religious imagery.
The treatment of Jesus on film must be understood in the context of a wider process of the mediatization of religion (Hjarvard 2008). Hjarvard identifies this process as the way in which traditional religious messages and representations are shaped by – and come to depend upon - modern media (2008: 13,24). Film has come to be a powerful medium in communicating the narrative of the gospels – as far back as the 1960s the Vatican acknowledged religious films “had taken on the former function of large frescoes and sculptures” (Grace 2009: 3). While the Vatican had considerable influence over the content of religious frescoes in the past, it is powerless to control modern cinematic representations of religion. Instead, it is up to filmmakers to negotiate the difficulties in adapting the narrative and symbolism of biblical texts to the structural, cultural and symbolic contexts of modern cinema (Mahan 2002). Religious authorities are left only to praise or condemn.
From the beginning, the biggest dilemma filmmakers have faced is balancing the divine and human aspects of Jesus (2002). Early depictions in cinema tended to “focus on Jesus’ divinity at the expense of his humanity” (Mahan 2002: 5). However, this perspective was increasingly challenged by the genre demands of film. Audiences look for motivation and empathy and from the 1960s, increasingly found it as directors sought to inject more humanity into their presentations of Jesus. Scorsese’s Jesus, played by Willem Dafoe, constantly displays his human weaknesses, and shows self-doubt about his divinity.
The release of The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988 was the realisation of Martin Scorsese’s decade long attempt to bring Nikos Kazantzaki’s novel to the screen. Kazantzaki portrays Jesus struggling, as did Kazantzaki himself, “between the spirit and the flesh” (Kazantzaki, quoted in Taubeneck 2007: 111). Scorsese continues this dualism in the film. Jesus is constantly torn between worldly and spiritual concerns, oscillating between a message of love and that of the axe. Scorsese uses cinematic devices to alternatively invite intimacy between the protagonist and the viewer, and suggest a more reverential perspective (Snee 2003: 53). In these moments of intimacy viewers are positioned by Scorsese’s manipulation of the medium to experience the spiritual struggle of Jesus (Snee 2003: 60).
Religious organizations were quick to condemn The Last Temptation of Christ, and protestations began years before the film was released (Bakker 2009: 37). Although Scorsese himself was a practising Christian and described making the film as “my way of worshiping”, conservative Christians saw his vision as blasphemous and distressing. Despite the disclaimer at the beginning of the film that the plot is not based on the gospels, The Last Temptation of Christ appears to have been judged on its departures from the Bible. The reaction attests to the anxiety of religious institutions – and many religious practitioners - towards the mediatization of religious narratives.
The conflict over popular depictions of biblical narrative is dealt with directly in Jesus of Montreal. Set in the urban landscape of Montreal, the plot revolves around the actor Daniel, asked to stage a modernised passion play by the local priest, Leclerc. Increasingly drawn to the immateriality, universal morality and humanity in the preaching of Jesus, Daniel creates a contemporary production that includes several controversial theories that emphasises Jesus’ human origins. Despite, or perhaps, because of the play’s success, Leclerc vehemently opposes the production, and tries in vain to stop the performances. As Daniel’s life becomes more interwoven with his subject, Father Leclerc and the ecclesiastical authorities come to resemble Jesus’ own hypocritical and materialistic accusers, the Romans. When they descend on the crucifixion scene in the third play, the tension explodes between the receptive audience and the censoring religious authorities. In the ensuing chaos, Daniel falls under the cross and suffers a fatal head injury.
Intentionally or not, Arcand parallels the censoring of the word of Jesus with that of the media. The spiritual freedom the group of actors experience through exploring the radical aspects of Jesus’ sermons allows the audience to empathise and identify with a demystified Jesus. In stark contrast, the rigid dogma and censorship of Leclerc shatters this personal connection to the religious material. Leclerc exemplifies the institutional anxiety to control religious representations in the media. By focusing on the radical humanism of Jesus, which rejects institutionalised authority in favour of personal salvation, Scorsese and Arcand “undermine the authority of institutionalised religion” (Taubeneck 2007: 24). At the same time, by contemporizing the spiritual struggle at the core of the message of Jesus, they “may further a re-sacrilization of society” (Taubeneck 2007: 24). They do so by using the medium of film to project radical but sympathetic portrayals of Jesus.
Bakker, Freek L. 2009. The Challenge of the Silver Screen: An Analysis of the Cinematic Portraits of Jesus, Rama, Buddha, and Muhammad. Leiden: Brill.
Grace, Pamela. 2009. The Religious Film: Christianity and the Hagiopic. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
Hjarvard, Stig. 2008. ‘The Mediatization of Religion: A theory of the media as agents of religious change’. In Northern Lights. Vol. 6: 9-26.
Mahan, Jeffrey H. 2002. ‘Celluloid Savior: Jesus in the Movies’. In Journal of Religion and Film. Vol. 6. No. 1: 1-39.
Taubeneck, Steven. 2007. ‘The Existential Turn: Refiguring Christ from Kazantzakis to Scorsese’. In Jesus in Twentieth Century Literature, Art, and Movies. Paul C. Burns, ed. New York: Continuum.