Jesus Christ, Movie Star

Article excerpt

Whether the intent is to entertain or evangelize, there's just no denying that his is the greatest story ever told. Patrick McCormick looks at Jesus' many portrayals on the silver screen and recommends those that are truly golden.

"IN THE BEGINNING" THERE WAS JUST THE WORD, FOUR gospel accounts, and a collection of New Testament letters. But images weren't far behind. Soon there were catacomb drawings of the Good Shepherd, Roman mosaics of the Last Supper, and Byzantine icons of Christ and the saints. Later came medieval altar pieces, stations of the cross, intricately carved bronze doors, and the stained glass windows of Christendom's Gothic cathedrals, each with ornately illustrated allegories and narratives from the life and Passion of Jesus. And then, in the fullness of time, came a heavenly host of Renaissance frescoes and Baroque statuary, and the Word was--so to speak--made flesh.

Still, as breathtaking as it was, Michelangelo and Bernini's flesh didn't breathe, or walk and talk. For that, we had to wait for Mr. Edison's kinetescope and the Lumiere brothers' cinematographe. But we didn't have to wait long. Within the first five years of "moving pictures" there were six films on the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus, and by the time the movie industry was celebrating its first century, there were more than 115 celluloid versions of the gospels. Whether playing the lead in Intolerance, King of Kings, The Greatest Story Ever Told, or Godspell--or casting a shadow from offstage in Ben Hur, Quo Vadis, The Robe, or Barabbas--Jesus has proved to be more popular down at the Roxy than Tarzan, the Marx Brothers, or Jane Austen.

In living rooms everywhere, epics and miniseries about his birth and death remain perennial favorites at Christmas and Easter. On top of that, countless films as varied as La Strada, Shane, and Babette's Feast center around a "Christ figure" who takes away our suffering or sins. This year is no exception: With all the millennial New Year's Eve bashes behind us, it's now time to fete the God-man whose existence has us marking this millennium in the first place--as portrayed in Jesus, an upcoming CBS miniseries, and The Miracle Maker, an upcoming ABC movie (scooped only by last November's Mary & Jesus, produced by the Kennedy Shrivers and aired on NBC).

Christians, it would seem, have found a new way of bringing the Good News to the ends of the earth.

The advantages of a celluloid Christ would seem to be legion. No longer relying on a thin stream of words to fuel our imagination, we are suddenly immersed in a cinemascopic epic with a cast of thousands, our every emotion enhanced by the full orchestrations of Handel's Messiah. Without the burden or cost of an international flight or time machine, we find ourselves whisked back into first-century Palestine, trailing Jesus as he presses through crowds in Jerusalem's narrow streets, or listening to him preach from a fishing boat at the edge of the Sea of Galilee. Before our eyes he and his disciples act out gospel encounters and episodes we have read about again and again, following a screenplay that adds nuance, immediacy, and psychological depth to the bare bones of the gospel account. In the faces of Peter, Mary, Judas, and Caiphas we see the shape and color of faith, wonder, shame, and resistance, and in the portrayal of Jesus' healing miracles the camera seems to bring our hearts within reach of God's merciful touch.

NONETHELESS, THE TRANSLATION FROM SCRIPTURE TO screenplay hasn't been trouble free. Part of the problem is that the gospels were written to evangelize, while Hollywood's main purpose is to entertain. The two goals do not always coincide. For while the Good News proclaimed in the accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John offers hope and consolation to the downtrodden and broken, it is primarily a call to repentance and conversion. Again and again, Jesus' audiences are challenged to listen to God's Word with an unprotected heart. …