Jesus Sells

Hollywood keeps resurrecting the story of Christ, but can it make the perfect movie?

Photograph by James Shepard

Hollywood is addicted to sequels, prequels, and repetition. If it makes money, make it again. Whether it’s Star Wars or Friday the 13th, Star Trek or The Fast and the Furious, the excellent or the execrable, more of the same seems to work. So when it comes to the life of Jesus Christ, it’s hardly surprising that the film industry repeatedly resurrects it—as it were. It is, after all, the greatest story ever told. That, at least, is what the title of the 1965 Biblical blockbuster tells us, the one with Max von Sydow as a slightly incongruously Germanic Jesus, the obligatory Charlton Heston as John the Baptist, and John Wayne almost spoiling the not-at-all bad production as the Roman soldier at the close of the movie who intones in a western drawl that “He surely was the Son of God.”

That was far from the first movie about Christ, and it certainly won’t be the last. This year alone, in the space of two months, three were released that included the Christian story in their plots. The Young Messiah was a loose adaptation of Anne Rice’s book Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, in which the talented New Orleans writer best known for her vampire novels explores her rediscovered Catholic faith. I interviewed Rice just before the book was published, and her attempts to reconcile her progressive, enlightened views with the quintessentially conservative Christianity that is dominant in modern America was fascinating. The movie, alas, did not do justice to that ambiguity.

And here is the perennial problem with films about Christ: the audience. It’s one thing for directors to shock and provoke mainstream moviegoers and to push at a genre’s edge, but most people who go to see movies about Jesus are Christian and American, and that means they are there to be comforted rather than challenged. The Young Messiah explores the largely unknown years of Jesus’s childhood, mingling isolated passages from the Bible with bits of the Gnostic Gospels—traditional stories about Jesus not included in the official canon—and products of Rice and director Cyrus Nowrasteh’s imagination. Sean Bean as a Roman centurion chasing the young Jesus is earthily convincing, and Adam Greaves-Neal isn’t as bad as most child actors, but it’s all a bit of a mess, more Game of Thrones meets Fiddler on the Roof than a compelling and fresh account of a figure Christians believe is the Son of God.

It’s not easy for this movie, of course, in that we sort of know what will happen—the nasty Romans are not going to catch the family and slaughter the prepubescent Jesus. So there’s lots of open-mouthed wonder and incredulity and the now routine comic interest—evangelical humour, at that, which is something of an oxymoron—in the form of Jesus’s uncle, who’s just a little wacky, as only Bible characters apparently can be. He’s incredibly irritating, Satan is absurdly blond and absurdly spooky, King Herod is a caricature, and by the end we’re just hoping that they’re not considering The Teenage Messiah.

From the early life to the afterlife. Risen, which came out a few weeks earlier, is a more accomplished, grittier attempt to say something new about a 2000-year-old story. Joseph Fiennes plays Clavius, a Roman tribune who, after crushing a Zealot rebellion, is sent by Pontius Pilate (who has finally finished washing his hands) to find out what really happened to the body of that Jesus fellow. It’s perhaps significant that Fiennes also played the reformer Martin Luther in a half-decent biopic that had about the same limited exposure as Risen. He’s always capable, and in this flawed but watchable movie he finds Jesus—well, of course he does—and sees him ascend into Heaven. Pilate now wants Clavius captured, and the rest of the movie is pretty much taken up with our poor Roman evading his former comrades, helping the disciples escape, and trying to reconcile his cynical paganism with what he has seen with his own eyes.

Once again, it’s for a Christian audience, so those expecting a debunking or deconstruction of the orthodox Christian narrative are going to be disappointed. But it works as a depiction of first-century life, avoids most if not all of the stereotypes, and at least attempts a new slant.

There was one early 2016 release, though, that steered clear of the standard awe, total belief, and all-embracing worship stuff. No surprises there: it came to us courtesy of the Coen brothers.

Hail, Caesar! is a bitingly honest, clever, and funny film about the inner workings of a Hollywood studio that is in the midst of making a movie about the crucifixion. The religious content, then, functions as mere background. Jesus doesn’t figure largely, and he’s certainly not presented as godlike, but in one beautifully constructed scene, Catholic and Greek Orthodox priests, a Protestant minister, and a rabbi meet to discuss the planned movie and whether they can approve of it or not. It’s not only genuinely funny but also deliciously poignant. Remember, Monty Python’s Life of Brian was banned in many places, as a number of other Biblical movies have been. The Coens may not have made a film about Jesus, but they did acknowledge the importance of the issue of representations of the Bible—by making a movie about the making of a movie about Christ.

And the debate about what is acceptable and what is not strikes to the heart of such films. Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) was an adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’s 1953 novel and is an original and, in truth, affirming account of Jesus’s struggles with fear, reluctance, sexual desire, and depression.

So controversial was the film considered, however, that a right-wing Catholic group attacked the Saint Michel theatre in Paris with a potassium-chlorate and sulphuric-acid device, injuring thirteen people. Other theatres suffered tear-gas canister and stink-bomb attacks, graffiti, and bomb threats. More common were demonstrations and boycotts by those who charged that Christianity was once again under attack by Godless Hollywood.

Actually, Scorsese was taking part in the dialogue that is at the heart of the Christian faith. For moderate believers, scripture is not divine dictation, and while the Bible is a vehement and inspired account of God’s relationship with his creation, it does not answer or claim to answer every question. As for Jesus himself, a man who spent most of his time with the marginalized and ostracized, with prostitutes and terrorists, his followers now want movies in which he is shown as a lifeless statue, lacking in the flesh-and-blood reality that genuine Christianity emphasizes: truly God as well as truly human. It’s sex, of course, that troubles the ostensibly devout the most, and Last Temptation shows a dream scene in which Jesus and Mary Magdalene consummate their marriage. For people who often define their faith by opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion and obsess about adultery, this was simply too much. We need more suffering, more miracles, and fewer tie-ins to contemporary issues.

All that was provided in spades in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004). Gibson, as we all know, went on to greater things: drunken abuse, anti-Semitic rants, divorce, and racist and misogynistic phone messages. When the film came out, however, he was given an apostle-like status by the Christian world. The movie laid claim to historical verisimilitude but was, in fact, alarmingly inaccurate. We didn’t know then just how eccentric—or even positively loopy—Gibson actually was, but at the time, he was certainly misguided, perhaps even dishonest, when he claimed that historians and theologians had guaranteed that this monument to conservative Catholicism was reliable. He had, for example, the Romans speaking Latin (they spoke Greek in the Eastern Empire), the Pharisees wearing black (they never did), and Jesus carrying a complete cross (he almost certainly carried only the crossbar). Most offensive of all, though, was the simplistic nature of the thing. Everybody is bad—especially the Jews—apart from Jesus and a few followers. No room for ambivalence in Gibson’s world, whether it takes the form of Braveheart’s Scotland, The Patriot’s colonial America, or Jesus’s Judea. His Christ is untouchable, distant, paradoxically beyond belief, and the film dwells on the blood and gore of Jesus’s experiences with so little subtlety that at times it becomes almost Pythonesque. Carnage in the hands of a gifted director can be overwhelmingly effective—Saving Private Ryan is such a case—but in Gibson’s clumsy hands, it was just sadistic and messy. But a lot of Christians adored it. Catholics saw the Mass portrayed in the flesh; evangelicals didn’t realize it was the Mass and just saw Jesus suffering because of this horribly sinful world.

Speaking of Pythonesque, the team that made Life of Brian (1979) always argued that whenever the real Jesus was portrayed in the film, he was in the background calling for love, peace, and forgiveness and that their movie was in fact about the potential dangers of unquestioning belief and religious pedantry. Brian was not Jesus, they claimed, and that was the point. But it was one lost not only on the mob, but on some Christian scholars, too. Hard to forget the inflated British author Malcolm Muggeridge on television berating and condescending to John Cleese and Michael Palin.

Godspell, an adaptation of the off-Broadway musical, was released in 1973; it caused some almost predictable outrage from the usual quarters, as did Jesus Christ Superstar in the same year. Both were sincere efforts to readdress a figure that, back in the early ’70s, was still considered beyond criticism by most people in the West. Godspell probably has the better songs and more Christian relevance, but, alas, as with so many movies of the era, it’s difficult to expunge all of the annoying hippy-ness from either musical.

The Miracle Maker (2000) was a disarmingly charming and surprisingly moving stop-motion animation film about Christ seen through the eyes of a terminally ill girl living in Capernaum. It depicts scenes that are not recorded in the Gospels, but animated characters can get away with all sorts of things. It was, sadly, too quickly forgotten.

Some of the best depictions of Christ have been on the small rather than the large screen. Jesus of Nazareth, which featured Robert Powell and a star-studded cast, may be almost forty years old now, but with direction by Franco Zeffirelli and script from Anthony Burgess, it continues to hold its place as a penetrating account of the life of Christ. One of its advantages is that it’s more than six hours long, thus allowing everybody concerned to explore the Christian story properly. The much shorter but nevertheless quite superb British television comedy Rev portrays the life of an Anglican priest in inner-city London. Liam Neeson makes a cameo as a tough, lager-drinking street person. Whether Neeson is supposed to be the real Christ or a hallucination we’re never quite sure, and that’s part of the power of it all.

The perfect movie about Christ hasn’t been made. In fact, it seems any attempt to do so is doomed from the outset. For those who believe in him, he is too intimate and vital to represent; for those who aggressively do not believe, he (or at least his followers) have a great deal for which to answer. For actors, the role is arguably even more challenging and risky than a Hamlet or a Lear. Like those Shakespearean roles, it’s been done so many times before; but unlike them, it comes with its own inherent limitations and on a practical level can be intensely career limiting. After Jesus of Nazareth, Powell appeared in a few poorly received films and television shows and then recorded lots of voice-overs for commercials—who wouldn’t want to buy something recommended by the Messiah? This won’t stop more movies being made, of course. There are lots of Christians out there, the story is already written, and Morocco, Italy, and Israel love renting out sets and towns for filming. A ready box office, a cheap script, and camera crews and casts who love the sunshine. Hooray for Hollywood. And hooray for Jesus.

Michael Coren
Michael Coren writes for the Toronto Star, Globe and Mail, and New Statesman. His latest book is The Rebel Christ.