From cinema’s earliest days, filmmakers have been attracted to the subject of the Bible. The Scriptures appealed for a variety of reasons. The very first Jesus film, La Passion du Christ (1897) was commissioned by a French Catholic organisation in a quest against secularism. Others were more drawn to the sense of mystery. Within a few years filmmakers had adopted a range of camera tricks to portray miraculous events from the Bible, from a giant hand appearing and writing on the wall in Le Festin de Balthazar (1905) to angels materialising throughout Alice Guy’s Vie du Christ (1906).
Many of the earliest biblical movies emphasised the connection between heaven and earth. One of cinema’s first close-ups was of Veronica’s freshly-imprinted veil. Angels with cardboard-cut-out wings often appeared, announcing God’s messages. Pathé’s early silent The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ (1899-1914) ends with Jesus ascending on a cloud to heaven literally to take his seat at God’s right hand. Steven D Greydanus sees parallels between these earliest films and icons, noting how their “staginess and pageant-like nature have a timeless quality that encourages reflection on the Gospel events themselves” (Decent Films website, 2003). What is less widely known about early silent films is that often someone would speak over the pictures as they were played, explaining the scenes being shown.
As the medium grew, so many saw the movies as a way to preach about God’s laws that was also entertaining. Cecil B DeMille’s first version of The Ten Commandments (1923) not only showed Moses receiving the Commandments, but also included a “modern” segment warning of the consequences of breaking them. After World War II, big-budget epics – such as DeMille’s 1956 version of The Ten Commandments – returned with aplomb, employing enormous sets, huge casts and spectacular set-pieces while promoting a new creed: traditional American values.
Others also rediscovered cinema’s potential to spread Christian beliefs. Karunamayudu (“Ocean of Mercy”, 1978), from India’s Telugu region, was bought by the missionary organisation Dayspring International to promote the Gospel across the subcontinent. Filmmakers around the world have continued to recreate Jesus in ways familiar to them, with notable examples from India, Kenya, Mexico and Iran. Jesus (1979) has been taken by missionaries around the world, often projected onto ad hoc cinema screens in remote villages. Yet as the Church’s influence over society waned, certain films be-gan to challenge traditional Christian beliefs, such as Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) and Jesus of Montreal (1989).
By the turn of the century, app-roaches were becoming increasingly diverse. The Prince of Egypt (1998) sought common ground between Christianity, Judaism and Islam – the kind of search for reconciliation and “the sacrament of unity” that both Pope Benedict and Pope Francis have repeatedly argued is vital for bringing justice and peace. In The Passion of the Christ (2004) many found its contemplation on Christ’s wounds profound; others were perturbed by concerns around potential antisemitism. An increasing number of films have focused on Our Lady, including The Nativity Story (2006) and the more feminist presentation Io sono con te (“I Am With You”, 2010). Others have highlighted Christ’s passion for justice, equality and human dignity. Son of Man (2006) relocated Jesus to a modern African township, preaching “Solidarity! Unity!” Meanwhile, the role of computer-generated imagery has become increasingly prominent. The special effects of the 1950s epics – so groundbreaking when they were first produced – were supplanted by CGI miracles in Noah (2014) and Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014).
Yet amongst the noise a quieter and more contemplative style of filmmaking has emerged, offering audiences a more meditative, prayerful, experience. In The Hidden God (New York, MOMA, 2003), Nathaniel Dorsky outlines “devotional cinema” which “reveals the depths of our own reality” and “opens us to a fuller sense of ourselves and our world”. Films such as El cant dels ocells (“Birdsong”, 2008) and Su Re (“The King”, 2014) typify this approach, as does 2018’s Mary Magdalene, an interesting exception to Hollywood’s usual approach. It not only restored St Mary Magdalene as an important figure among Jesus’ early followers, but it dwells in Jesus’s presence, embracing a quieter, more reflective, spirituality.
In his Spiritual Exercises, St Ignatius Loyola encourages his readers to imagine being present as certain biblical events occurred. In a sense, many filmmakers have taken this a step further and encourage us to do the same. Films preaching creeds of any variety rarely make engaging movies, but those encouraging viewers to explore the material and wrestle with important questions offer more meaningful experiences. Films like these enable us to view events through someone else’s imagination, and consider them from a fresh perspective.
Matthew Page’s new book, 100 Bible Films, is published by BFI/Bloomsbury Academic
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