Screen Jesus: Portrayals of Christ in Television and Film

By Vredenburgh, Steven | Journal of Religion and Film, October 2016 | Go to article overview

Screen Jesus: Portrayals of Christ in Television and Film


Vredenburgh, Steven, Journal of Religion and Film


Peter Malone, Screen Jesus: Portrayals of Christ in Television and Film (Boulder, CO: Roman & Littlefield, 2012), 348pgs.

In his book Screen Jesus: Portrayals of Christ in Television and Film, Peter Malone catalogues the various depictions of Jesus Christ since the invention of film more than one hundred years ago. The history covered in this book stretches from Christ Walking on the Water (1899), produced only four years after the Lumiere brothers showed their first movie, to The Passion (2008). While there have been numerous depictions of Jesus on screen since 2008, publishing deadlines limit what may be included in a printed volume. Malone briefly mentions some of these post2008 Jesus films in the latter chapters of Screen Jesus, however, these are given a few sentences at most.

To begin his consideration of Jesus on screen, Malone first takes the time to define exactly what the book will be addressing. Malone differentiates between a Christ-figure and a Jesus-figure by stating, "The Jesus-figure is any representation of Jesus himself. The Christ-figure is a character.. .who is presented as resembling Jesus in a significant way (1)." The former is the focus of Screen Jesus, with Malone further dividing Jesus characters into realistic depictions of Jesus, as in Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), and a more stylized Jesus, as in Jesus Christ Superstar (1973). Despite this distinction, Malone is sure to point out that even these so called "realistic" depictions of Jesus are stylized according to expectations, usually from the West, of what the setting and characterization of the Gospel story should be.

In the second chapter of Screen Jesus, "Biblical Portraits of Jesus," Malone discusses several scriptural portrayals of Jesus in the New Testament, and Messiah in Hebrew Scripture. These include, Jesus Redeemer, Jesus Savior, and Jesus Liberator. Next Malone compares these three characterizations with the offices of prophet, priest, and king (12). Finally Malone discusses the way Jesus fits into the biblical tradition of the Holy Fool. Malone seems to have included this chapter to connect the various depictions of Jesus on screen with the various depictions of Jesus in the bible. Unfortunately, these categories don't appear again, though they might have been useful in the analysis of the films that follow.

Having laid this ground work, Malone turns to the films themselves, beginning with "The Jesus Films: The Early Twentieth Century." This chapter covers the earliest era of film production, and briefly discusses some of the earliest films made, which were mostly passion plays. About these Malone laments: "Unfortunately none of them exist today because of the corrosion of the materials on which they were filmed" (15). Malone spends more time covering the films Civilization (1915), D.W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916), and I.N.R.I. (rereleased as Crown of Thorns in 1934). Most of the chapter is devoted to Intolerance, and includes a description of the film including notes on which events from the gospel are included, how the film handles the woman caught in adultery, and Jesus' appearance. Malone also comments on the actor's portrayal of Jesus, writing, "Jesus was personality-less, going through familiar reverent movements and moments that were aimed at inspiring audiences" (20). These observations are characteristic of all the films to which Malone devotes special attention.

Next, Malone looks at "The Jesus Films: The 1920s and Cecil B DeMille" In this chapter Malone covers Ben Hur (1925), The King of Kings (1927), Le Berceau De Dieu (1926), Chizome No Jujika, and Jesus of Nazareth (1928). Of these The King of Kings looms large given its influence over subsequent Jesus films. Despite the film's somewhat austere depiction of Jesus, Malone writes: "It shows us that DeMille was conscious of Jesus' humanity and Jesus' divinity, and sometimes they fuse" (24). Beyond this Malone describes the film's depiction of Judas, the woman caught in adultery and the Jews in the film. …

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