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The Life of Jesus on Film by Brendan O'Regan.

The first life of Christ on film was The Passion Play of Oberammergau (1898), 19 minutes long and shot on a roof in New York!. Early versions were unsure as to how to be reverent in their portrayals, using this exciting new medium. In some such films the face of Jesus was not shown, and in fact up to the 1930's the British Film Censor insisted that it be not shown. While this attitude did not persist for long it was the approach used in Rosary priest Fr Peyton's film The Redeemer (1965) which went the rounds of the Irish cinemas in the 60's but has rarely been seen since.
Hollywood versions such as the first King of Kings (1927) delighted in the potential for spectacle provided by the Jesus story (would you believe Mary Magdalene driving off in a chariot pulled by zebras?) but reverence was still a high priority. Nicholas Ray remade King of Kings in 1961 with Jeffrey Hunter in the title role, but one of the best known and most often seen of the Hollywood versions was The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) directed by George Stevens.
Stevens went to great lengths to get it right e.g. choosing a relatively unknown actor, Max von Sydow, to play the lead role so that star personality wouldn't be a problem. However this low key approach was marred somewhat by the casting of famous actors in the minor roles, the best known being John Wayne's drawling centurion at the foot of the cross.
The only non-English language version to make an impact was The Gospel According to St Matthew (1966). Despite being directed by a Marxist, Paolo Pasolini, this was also respectful, a straightforward filming of that gospel in medieval costume. It won Catholic film awards, and the U.S. Bishops' film reviewing service said that the director "succeeds exceptionally well in placing the viewer within the gospel events, avoiding the artificiality of most biblical movie epics". Interestingly the Spanish lead actor Enrique Irazoqui was harassed by Franco's government which was not so enamoured.
The 70's brought two Jesus musicals with a hippy flavour - Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) and Godspell (1973). They were certainly unconventional in their modern imagery and approach, and caused a low level of controversy with some Jewish accusations of anti-Semitism and Christian problems with inadequacies such Jesus Christ Superstar not taking the story as far as the Resurrection. However many believers took them to their hearts, finding no irreverence, and religious musicals have been fitfully popular ever since, though these two films, like much of hippy culture, have not dated well.
Also in the 70's came the film version we are probably most familiar with, Franco Zeffirelli's four part TV film Jesus of Nazareth (1977), with Robert Powell magnetic in the leading role. Producer Lew Grade has said he was inspired in this venture by Pope Paul VI who asked him to produce a version acceptable to all Christians. The Protestant based Genesis Project produced Jesus (1979), based on St Luke's Gospel, with British actor Brian Deacon in the leading role, as a cost effective tool for evangelism, which they have been dubbing into every language in the world spoken by over a million people.
Ironically, also in 1979, the 'consensus of reverence' well and truly ended with Monty Python's Life Of Brian. Strictly speaking this was not about Jesus at all but about the character Brian who was mistaken for Jesus and whose life paralleled that of Jesus, but its irreverent use of images and stories sacred to Christians, such as the Crucifixion, caused much furore, and initially it was banned in Ireland. It was re-released here in 1987 when it was given an over-18 cert by the Irish Censor. Martin Scorcese's film of The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), based on the novel of the same name by Nikos Kazantzakis rather than on scripture, probably caused more controversy than any other film in recent times, with huge protests by Christians in the U.S.A. particularly, where it attracted the opposition of the U.S. Catholic Conference, the Southern Baptist Convention, and the Eastern Orthodox Church of America. The Archbishop of Canterbury protested and Mother Teresa described it as "this ultimate disgrace". In Ireland it was given an over-18 cert, with the unusual stipulation that the audience had to be seated at least ten minutes before each screening. There was little protest here and it died a rather quiet death at the box office.
In late 1996 a new film The Gospel According to Matthew was released, using only the Bible text, and while aimed largely at the educational and evangelical circuit in four-video set format, a serialised TV version was also made and shown under the title Matthew. Newcomer Bruce Marchiano plays a warm, appealing Jesus with, however, a strong American accent. Perhaps it was the Millenium that sparked a renewal of interest in the genre Early off the blocks we got The Miracle Maker (1999), a gentle animated version of the life of Jesus (voice of Ralph Fiennes), which was well received and widely promoted on video.
Jesus (2000) was an ambitious American TV mini-series, with Jeremy Sisto in the title role. It had a contemporary feel, with Jesus being seen in modern and historical settings, especially during the temptation scenes. The Gospel of John (2003), a meticulous, word for word presentation of that gospel, with Ian Cusick as Jesus, was released to cinemas, but it was in early in 2004 that all the preconceived notions about the genre were exploded with the mould-breaking The Passion of the Christ, directed by Mel Gibson and starring Jim Caviezel as Jesus.
Commercially, this project didn't sound very promising a film about the passion of Christ in Latin and Aramaic (originally no subtitles planned) without any top name stars, but it was a major box office hit, partly due to the artistic quality and emotional impact of the film and helped by the publicity generated by controversy. It was criticized by some for anti-Semitism and by others for its graphic violence it got an "R" rating in the USA, an over-18 in Britain and most leniently of all 15 PG in Ireland. As it doesn't cover his full public life it is hardly the definitive life of Jesus on film, but it has certainly given the Jesus film an unexpected kiss of life artistically, commercially and spiritually.

© 2004 Brendan O'Regan