Note: “The Liturgical Year in Cinema” is an ongoing series, a personal exploration of the thematic connections between the Christian calendar and films. We celebrated Easter Sunday on March 27. This installment explores the connection between our personal Christologies and the cinematic Christ in the sub-genre of Jesus films.
It’s come and gone. Easter. Resurrection Sunday. This Holy Week, we celebrated the triumphal entry, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s the most theological significant moment in human history. In the story of Jesus, this is a week full of emotion and drama, twists and turns, betrayal and redemption, death and life for the sake of love and glory.
So, of course, we’ve gotta make a movie about it.
From the very beginning of cinema, Jesus was present in film. Theologian Jaroslav Pelikan’s book Jesus Though the Centuries outlines the various portrayals and perceptions of Christ in the history of culture, ranging from literature to the visual arts. Pelikan asserts that “the way any particular age has depicted Jesus is often a key to the genius of that age.” Yet notably absent within the book is an exploration of the cinematic Christ, a significant artistic portrayal of Jesus in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
The history of film parallels and intertwines with the history of Christology for the past 120 years. Author Lloyd Baugh tells us, “In its first hundred years, the cinema produced more than one hundred fifteen films that treated, in one way or another, some with greater and some with lesser success, the story of Jesus.” The two earliest Jesus films were made in 1897, just two years after the public debut of movies by the Lumiere brothers in France. Like many of the early Jesus films, both were silent passion plays, episodic narratives that looked and felt like a theatrical performance placed on screen. Filmmakers recognized that the unique medium of film could “bring to life” the story of Jesus in ways icons and paintings could not.
While Christological ideas have existed since the first encounters with Jesus, “the twentieth century produced more Christological interpretations than any other century in the history of Christian theology.” With the advent of film and the explosion of Christological ideas at the beginning of the twentieth century, each discipline informed the other, especially in regards to the academic approaches to Christology, such as the “quest for the historical Jesus.” Our theology of Jesus has been interpreted and put up on the big screen for our entertainment and edification.
Building on the foundation of the silent filmic passion plays, the Jesus film has become its own sub-genre in cinema. Jesus films have ranged from being evangelistic tools—the makers of Jesus (1979) claim over 200 million people have put their faith in Christ after viewing the movie—to musicals—both Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar were hit stage musicals brought to the big screen in 1973—to eliciting outrage and controversy—Martin Scorcese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) was boycotted by both Catholics and evangelicals, and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004) was criticized as being anti-Semitic and gratuitous with its violent content. The wide variety of filmic portrayals of Jesus mirrors the range of Christologies in the modern era.
If one does decide to make a Jesus film, how does one choose to visualize the person of Jesus on screen? Both filmmakers and audiences bring their own preconceptions about how Jesus and the scenes from his life should look—his visual appearance, his voice and posture, and the aesthetic and cinematic tone of the overall film. The filmmaker must understand that, “any film about Jesus Christ is preceded by the dense heritage of nineteen centuries of visual art on the Jesus-theme.” Connected to these preconceptions is the film-making itself: What actor will portray Jesus? What locations will be used to elicit an authentic experience? What scenes will be included or omitted, and how will they be filmed? Typically in Western cinema, a white, bearded American or European male with long, flowing hair and a white robe has portrayed Jesus. Some films, such as Ben-Hur (1959), have avoided showing Jesus altogether, portraying only his hand or shadow, or viewing him from afar. Only in the last year, with the TV movie Killing Jesus (2015), has Jesus been depicted by a Middle Eastern actor in an American film. The artistic decisions behind such portrayals are nuanced and numerous, as the Gospel accounts contain no explicit physical description of Jesus, leaving the filmmakers open to interpretation.
So what are the interpretations of Jesus occurring today? In the first half of 2016, we will have four major-release films focused on the life of Christ in some form or fashion. Yet none of these fall the traditional Jesus film, i.e. a biopic focusing on the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. These are a bit unorthodox in their approach (though not entirely unorthodox in their theology). The new comedy from Joel and Ethan Coen, Hail, Caesar!, is centered around a 1950s production of a sword-and-sandal epic, with a Christological subtitle: A Tale of the Christ. We never actually see the face of Jesus in the film, which the Coens use for moments of quirky theological humor. While he’s hanging from the cross, the extra playing Jesus is asked whether or not he’s a principle character. His uncertainty is for laughs, but it also portrays our present-day culture’s consideration of Christ—he’s probably important, yes, but we’re still not entirely sure what to make of him in our story. The best scene in the whole film involves Hollywood fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) and a variety of Christian clergy and a Jewish rabbi. Mannix has asked these religious leaders to read over the script and make sure the studio is keeping their theology straight and audiences happy. As they discuss the nature of Christ as the incarnate Son of God, it’s both amusing and theologically-rich dialogue. “So he’s God, and he’s God’s son?” asks Mannix. “Yes…and no!” replies a priest. That’s Jesus for you, existing as an incarnational paradox.
Then there’s Risen, a mystery whodunit focused on a Roman Tribune (Joseph Fiennes) and his quest to find the body of Jesus, which has gone missing from the tomb. (Spoiler alert: it turns out Jesus rose from the dead.) The film is a personification of our quest to understand and reconcile Jesus with our empirical proclivities—we can resonate with Claudius as he begins to dig up the truth about Jesus (or rather, not dig it up…because he’s been resurrected). Can a person truly rise from the dead? What is the historical significance of the resurrection event? What’s unique about Risen is its approach to Christ’s life, which is told indirectly through the search for his body. This is not a passion play or a Jesus biopic; Clavius is the central character here, and Jesus serves as the macguffin.
In striking contrast, The Young Messiah focuses not on the death and resurrection of Jesus, but as an account of his childhood, a period of his life we know little to nothing about. Based on Anne Rice’s novel, The Young Messiah focuses on seven-year-old Jesus and his burgeoning discovery of his identity as the Messiah. Even as he does the extraordinary and miraculous, this is a very human look at Jesus. It’s a kenotic portrayal of Christ; kenosis is a theological idea based on Philippians 2 and the description that Christ “emptied himself” in the incarnation. A kenotic Christology emphasizes the humanity of Jesus, recognizing that while he was still ontologically divine, he was also the fullest expression of what it meant to be a human being. Luke 2 tells us that Jesus “grew in wisdom and in stature,” and The Young Messiah may have taken this verse as its guide. This Jesus is not all-knowing or all-powerful; at least he is unaware of his divine capacities. He grows in wisdom and understanding of his divinity, just as every human child and teenager must grow into their identity.
A unique Jesus film appeared at last year’s Sundance film festival: Last Days in the Desert is getting a wide release this May. In a similar kenotic vein, the film focuses not on the events of Holy Week, but on the temptation of Jesus in the desert. Ewan McGregor portrays both Christ and the devil in Rodrigo Garcia’s exploration of the character of Jesus (read the CT interview with Garcia and McGregor here). While I haven’t seen the film yet, it intrigues me with its approach—a Jesus film which doesn’t portray the cross or resurrection, but focuses on a very human Jesus and his wandering in the wilderness, experiencing temptation, frustration, anger, sadness, and questions. This isn’t the doe-eyed, glowing Christ of previous films–this is a gritty, down-in-the-dirt Jesus, who wrestles with his own identity as the Son of God.
Put together, perhaps these four Jesus films capture the Christological zeitgeist of our culture, both within evangelical Christianity and the wider Western world. These films approach Christ in new and diverse ways, emphasizing his humanity and approachability, while still in awe of the mystery of the divine walking among us. As visual and immersive stories that both interpret us and are interpreted by us, these Jesus films offer a unique opportunity to unearth one’s personal Christological convictions in light of the cinematic Christ. The variety of Jesus films can be understood as a parallel of the plurality and diversity found in the Gospel accounts; no single story or perspective could contain all of the transcendent-yet-incarnate person of Jesus Christ. Importantly, they illuminate the diversity of Christological convictions through a popular artistic medium that may engage more audiences than a theology textbook. This may broaden the Christological conversation, inviting film audiences to consider the person and nature of Christ in ways they never anticipated. This Easter, the cinematic Christ emerges from the tomb for greater theological and artistic reflection, inviting the viewer to respond to the question Christ posed to his disciples, and continues to pose today in the modern temple of the cinema: “Who do you say that I am?”
 Veli-Matti Karkkainen, Christology: A Global Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 109
 This number is found on the front page of The JESUS Film project website: http://jesusfilm.org/
 Lloyd Baugh, Imaging the Divine: Jesus and Christ-Figures in Film (Kansas City, MO: Sheed & Ward, 1997), 5