Born of a virgin, brought up in humble conditions with phenomenal dignity, poor all throughout his life but desired as king by thousands, famous for healing the sick and raising the dead, the target of conspiracies of the highest officials, killed by crucifixion and resurrected after three days—Jesus Christ is at the centre of the most fabulous script ever to fall into the hands of filmmakers.
The presentation of biblical stories through film is as old as film itself. The first movie about the passions and crucifixion of Christ was made in 1897, in New York – The Passion Play. “Some silent filmmakers, as well as many ministers and priests, thought that Bible-based movies could easily bridge the gap between entertainment and devotion,” notes Colleen McDannell, professor of history at the University of Utah.
Most of the time when watching biblical films, viewers remain unsatisfied: some because the film adds scenes that are not in the Bible, and others because the film did not bring anything new.
Nativity, as a story on the big screen
The Nativity Story is a film made in 2006 about the birth of Jesus. It was released in cinemas after it premiered at the Vatican in front of over 7,000 spectators. For the first time in the last 50 years, a major studio—New Line Cinema—put a huge budget at stake to make a non-commercial biblical film. The story of the nativity did not arouse controversies like The Passion of the Christ and thus from the start missed the chance to secure the number of viewers or the revenues made by Mel Gibson’s Passion.
After eleven months of research with the goal of maintaining historical accuracy, screenwriter Mike Rich admitted that he was intimidated by the task of filling in the gaps in the Gospels. Given that the account of the birth of Jesus is presented succinctly in the books of Matthew and Luke, “…my goal was just to make sure that all of those scenes [those imagined by the screenwriter] were very consistent in tone with the writings of Luke and Matthew,” declared Rich. Catherine Hardwicke, the film’s director, strove for the scenes shot in Italy and Morocco to correspond to the biblical texts. Therefore, the settings and houses in Nazareth were built to represent as faithfully as possible the framework of the original history.
The Nativity Story follows the journey of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, alongside that of the Magi, and King Herod’s plans to get rid of a possible rival to the throne. The picture focuses on the human details of the story of the nativity of Jesus rather than the supernatural side of the event (the visits of the angel, for example). Mary (played by Keisha Castle-Hughes) is a teenager frustrated by the fact that her parents have arranged a marriage for her with a man she barely knows. “I wanted to see Mary as a young girl and not perfectly pious,” said Hardwicke.
A performance acclaimed by the public was by the young Oscar Isaac, in the role of Joseph. Laconically described by the evangelist Matthew, with the adjective “just”/”righteous”/”faithful to the law” (Matthew 1:19), Joseph comes to life as a complex character, a concerned husband and father. “Every line he delivers is rich and indicative of his love for Mary,” notes Lori D’Augostine, in the review of this film.
One of Joseph’s memorable lines is the rhetorical question: “How do we raise such a child?” The film abounds in allusions to biblical texts that go beyond the narrow framework of the nativity story. In one scene, Joseph crushes the head of a snake—hinting at the text from Genesis 3:15, and the scene of the breaking of bread suggests the later sacrifice of Jesus.
“We hope that for years to come, many families will watch this on Christmas Eve and see why this story is so important,” said producer Marty Bowen.
The gospel of Zeffirelli
The Italian Franco Zeffirelli “establishes in the media a new, fifth gospel” says Stephenson Humphries-Brooks, professor of religious studies. He was of course referring to the television miniseries Jesus of Nazareth (1977), an Anglo-Italian co-production of six hours and 20 minutes, which became the “canonical” cinematic version of the life of Jesus.
“The film also includes a large amount of interpretative and explanatory material that seamlessly connects each scene. This leaves viewers with the impression that they are looking at the complete history of Jesus.” A good part of the success of the miniseries is due to the charismatic actor that plays the role of Jesus, Robert Powell.
In the script written by Franco Zeffirelli and Anthony Burgess, the life of Jesus’ family is enhanced with numerous details not mentioned in the Gospels. Part of the script is based on late legends, while some aspects are pure fiction. Joseph is presented as a gentle man who loves children and teaches them the secrets of carpentry in his small workshop in Nazareth. Mary (played by Olivia Hussey) appears as a pious woman, and is, in the opinion of Humphries-Brooks, “the most beautiful Mother of Jesus to be portrayed on screen.”
Zeffirelli included scenes of the engagement and wedding of Joseph and Mary and tried to paint a detailed picture of the Nazarene community formed around the local synagogue. Details such as the presence of Anne, Mary’s mother, or Joseph’s discussion with the rabbi regarding Mary’s inexplicable pregnancy are not found in the pages of the Bible, but they help the viewer to better understand the context and the social and spiritual dimensions of the nativity episode.
Joseph as a movie character
Some films omit Joseph as a character, as did the evangelists John and Mark in their gospels. Joseph is missing from those films that move further away from the biblical text (The Last Temptation and Jesus of Montreal). In the more recent version, The Gospel of John (2003), which strictly follows the text of the Gospel of John, Joseph does not appear because John did not mention him.
The film From the Manger to the Cross (1912) shows a Joseph preoccupied with his son. Still, the relationship between Mary and Jesus is observed more closely, while Joseph is more of a background character. The exception is Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film, Il vangelo secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to St. Matthew) in which the attention is also directed to the relationship between Joseph and Mary.
People learn the major details of Jesus’ life from movies rather than from the Bible or other written sources. This is the opinion of author Adele Reinhartz, who teaches New Testament courses at the University of Ottawa and who has used films in her classes to help students understand that the interpretation of the gospel also appears in the arts (in music, literature or film). In the 21st century, general culture is formed predominantly by watching and less by reading.
Books have not disappeared, but the public’s interest in reading has decreased compared to previous generations. The phenomenon leaves its mark within various Christian denominations, as young people prefer to watch a movie than to read a book about the life of Jesus. Thus, cinematographic productions become a source of biblical culture. Movies like The Ten Commandments (1956) and The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) provided images that formed the basis of the mental constructions of generations of viewers regarding the history of the Jewish people and early Christianity.
So many films, as many Jesuses
Some of the films with biblical subjects reflect Christian fundamentalism and are conceived and created to “teach, convert, reaffirm beliefs and save” as author Shirley Ruth Steinberg of McGill University (Montreal) summarises. Beyond these, however, there is a long list of film adaptations of the life of Christ that deviate from the biblical story.
The actors wear costumes specific to the era, the sets are made based on rigorous research on the constructions of the time, and the scenes are filmed in landscapes from the East. The passive viewer is led to believe that the details are completely true, although oftentimes, the films about the life of Jesus contain obvious fictitious details.
Sometimes, under the director’s thumb, Jesus acquires the face of a too-ordinary man, with feelings towards the opposite sex (some have explored the idea of a relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene), or frustrated because He does not have the freedom of a personal life, being destined against His will to a cause too big (as in the movie The Last Temptation of Christ, adapted from the novel of the same name by Nikos Kazantzakis). Such details are not only missing in the biblical text, but are blatantly opposed to biblical history.
Cinematic adaptations, like paintings or literary creations, reflect the mentalities and social concerns of the periods in which they were made. The first films about Jesus were limited to reproducing details from the Gospels. Depending on the social changes, the cinematic biographies interpreted Jesus by adapting Him to the ideals and beliefs of the time. Pier Paolo Pasolini brought a reformer Jesus to the screen (Il vangelo secondo Matteo, 1964), while Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Weber caused a stir in the Christian world with the musical Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), with a Jesus who is closer to the Woodstock movement than the biblical portrait.
Fictional details in movies about Jesus
In The Greatest Story Ever Told, Max von Sydow (the actor playing Jesus) recites the 13th chapter of 1 Corinthians. However, the text was written by the apostle Paul and is not part of Jesus’s speeches. The production of Jesus of Nazareth, directed by Franco Zeffirelli, brings Zerah to the stage, the one who orchestrates the arrest and condemnation of Jesus from the shadows. The character is not mentioned even once in the Bible. In King of Kings, Judas Iscariot and Barabbas are the leaders of a group of nationalist activists who want to use Jesus to promote the interests of their group.
Many films seek their source of inspiration in apocryphal writings, in Christian traditions and legends, in works of art (Michelangelo’s Pieta, or Da Vinci’s Last Supper) and even in other films on the same subject. A unique scene occurs in Il vangelo secondo Matteo, where, on the way back from Egypt, Jesus’ family stops by the sea. Mary rests on a blanket, while Joseph walks on the beach. New details are preferred by filmmakers because they attract an audience.
When Mel Gibson released The Passion of the Christ in 2004, the press wrote about the debates between Christian theologians, Jews and simple moviegoers regarding the extent to which the on-screen translation corresponds to biblical and historical reality. Even Pope John Paul II intervened in the debate, pointing out that “it is as it was.”
Whoever watches needs to understand!
Jesus is far too complex a character to be described by a single biographer. The four Gospels included in the canon of the New Testament prove it. One by one, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John narrated the life of Jesus from different angles. While Matthew or Mark wanted to highlight His human nature, John emphasised His divine character.
For Matthew, the speeches and sermons of Jesus were important, while Mark and Luke explored the dimension of His activity. From this point of view, it is understandable that each of the films about the life of Jesus offer viewers a unique perspective, a personal interpretation, born from the vision of the director and the performance of the actors.
Movies are only interpretations, as are Renaissance paintings, the music of great composers or even voluminous theological treatises. The fictional details of the screenwriters can make the story easier to follow or have the role of reflecting contemporary problems and mentalities (Colour of the Cross, from 2006, brings before the viewers a Jesus played by a person of colour, while The Messiah, from 2008, made in Iran, presents an Islamic perspective on Jesus).
Beyond what is seen on the screen, however, or the intention of some directors to reproduce history as faithfully as possible (Mel Gibson went so far as to ask the actors to learn the lines in Aramaic), the Gospels remain the only credible source of information about the life of Jesus Christ—four books full of substance, depth, and a message of hope. Likewise, whoever reads or watches must understand.
A Jesus portrayed on the screen can be sympathetic or emotional, can remain a pleasant memory, and can arouse interest to learn more. But only Jesus of the Gospels can change people’s lives, giving them new, unexpected meanings and offering them the hope of eternal life.
Florin Bică is a children’s book author, writing both fiction and non-fiction for this exacting audience.