Jesus at the Movies: A Review

In her book, Jesus of Hollywood, Adele Reinhartz claimed that Jesus films often tell us more about the socio-cultural locations of their filmmakers than they do about the character whose story they purport to tell.  W. Barnes Tatum, in his equally fascinating book on Jesus films, Jesus at the Movies:  A Guide to the First Hundred Years, would perhaps agree.  At least his in-depth research reveals such a reality.

In his book, Tatum discusses the significant Jesus films of the first one hundred years or so of cinema, form Sidney Olcott’s From the Manger to the Cross (1912) to Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004).  Of course, Tatum cannot discuss all Jesus films ever made because many have unfortunately been lost due to lack of preservation while others, those made for educational or evangelistic purposes, do not merit sufficient social capital to warrant his attention.

From the beginning, Tatum distinguishes between Jesus-story films (those that narrate Jesus’ life) and Christ-figure films (those with characters, events, etc. that recall the story of Jesus).  Though a couple of the films that Tatum discusses do contain elements of the Christ-figure film, they are all, primarily, Jesus-story films.  He does devote a concluding section to Christ-figure films to further clarify the difference.

Within Jesus-story films, Tatum notes two narrative trajectories, what he terms “harmony” and “alternative.”  Films of the former seek to draw material from all four of the gospels to construct their cinematic representations of Jesus.  These include Olcott’s film, Cecil B. DeMille’s The King of Kings (1927), and Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth (1977).  Films that take an alternative approach tell the Jesus story in more imaginative or selective ways, either through comedy (Life of Brian (1979)), the use of one gospel (Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1966)), or by drawing from literature (Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptaiton of Christ (1988) based on Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel of the same name).  Filmmakers are forced to choose one of these two directions (and then make a myriad of choices from casting to setting to decoration that both necessitate) because of four problems of Jesus in film:  artistic, literary, historical, and theological.

The first problem, the artistic, recognizes that Jesus films are films and must be visually pleasing and reveal a competence of skill.  Secondly, the literary problem recognizes that while the four gospels are confessions of faith, they are poor visual aides.  Moreover, these confessions of faith also differ drastically, particularly between John and the synoptics.  Third, the historical problem arises because of the distinction made between the historical Jesus that lived in first-century Palestine and the Christ of faith.  The ability to or ways in which filmmakers choose to treat the former will necessarily influence the latter.  Finally, the theological problem emerges because the diverse audiences that view these films all have a personal stake in the story.  These films will inevitably conflict with not only a host of Christologies but with beliefs in the infallibility or inerrancy of scripture as well.

After this brief but insightful introduction, Tatum sets out exploring fifteen Jesus films and how their producers responded to, and even influenced later responses to, these problems.  Unlike Reinhartz, Tatum also pays close attention to the changing techniques in the movie industry that influenced the ways in which filmmakers could respond to these problems.  Throughout each analysis, Tatum provides an introduction to the production of the film, a discussion of its plot/structure, the type of Jesus presented, and audience/critical responses to the film.  While each sub-section is fascinating in its own way, his thoughts on the portrayals of Jesus are most attentive and helpful.  From Jesus as Incarnate Word in George Stevens’ The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) to Jesus as Prophet and Apocalyptist in Denys Arcand’s Jesus of Montreal (1990), these cinematic portrayals of Jesus are as diverse as the sermons about him in churches across the globe.

Jesus at the Movies is a true gift to the field of film and religion because Tatum takes the history of the former so seriously and considers how it responded to and affected religious consciousness.  Film buffs and novices alike will appreciate this text, and religious studies students, or religious folk in general, will certainly be challenged by the cinematic Christologies that Tatum uncovers.