Imaging the Divine: Jesus and Christ-Figures in Film

By Lloyd Baugh | Go to book overview

1
The Early Years

How are we to deal with the problems created by the appropriation of sacred texts by a medium of illusion like cinema, or by the adaptation of a story that is presumed true into a vehicle of fiction?1

This rhetorical question, intended to point out a major difficulty faced by the makers of the earliest films on the life and passion of Jesus, may be used as a critical tool to appreciate all the films of the ninety-nine year history of the Jesus-film. If the question poses serious problems for some of the more recent Jesus-films, for example, the very high-key The Last Temptation of Christ of Scorsese or the very low-key The Messiah of Rossellini, it seems to find a simple answer in the early passion films, which in both content and style seem to reflect the Gospel texts. As we have already suggested in our introduction, the New Testament texts are linear in style, highly elliptical, often syncopated, with little organic narrative and relatively little attention paid to psychological motivation of character and action. Further, our normal experience of the Jesus of the Gospel is composite, reflecting elements of the four versions: "We mix up all the versions in our heads and produce for ourselves a rough-and-ready harmony." 2 One scholar attributes the undisputed popularity of the early passion films at least in part to this correspondence between the biblical text and the film text: "The Passion is a story made to measure for the early cinema. A known story, already written down, elliptical in development, with texts that are syncopated and paroxysmal." 3

The early Jesus-films are highly episodic in structure and content, composed of "series of tableaux, autonomous units." 4 Simple cuts and title cards join episodes and serve as rough transitions between them. The films evince "no shaping of . . . events into an integral narrative whole." 5 The real connections between episodes, the transitions, are spontaneously made by the "reconstructive capacities of the viewer familiar with the Gospels," 6 that is, one who has already done that work of shaping and integrating the Gospel story as he or she has read or heard it. Rather than a narrative recounting of the story of Jesus or a fictionalized reworking of the Jesus-material, both of which become popular approaches later on in the Jesus-film tradition, these early films are more like "reminders, iconographically cued remembrances" 7 from the source-text that is the Bible.

This explanation clearly accounts for the curious fact that in the catalogues of a number of production companies, the early passion and life of Jesus films were available to buyers in various versions, with more or fewer episodes. From the Pathé catalogue, for example, "one could order a Passion Play in three different versions: in 32, 20 or 12 scenes." 8 In some cases,

-7-

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