Jesus of Hollywood, A Review

Few books on film and religion are as insightful as Adele Reinhartz’s Jesus of Hollywood.  Here, she blends film scholarship with scriptural analysis and cultural studies in seamless fashion.  She not only gives close readings of the Jesus story as told in the Gospels, but she shows how close viewings of Jesus films can highlight the differences between the four scriptural accounts as well.  In the process, she explodes many preconceived notions that we might have about the scriptural Jesus stories and Jesus films while posing serious questions regarding the theological and cultural implications of each.

Reinhartz begins her conclusion by writing, “If the historical Jesus of Nazareth was the unique and only Son of God, as the Gospels proclaim, then Jesus of Hollywood is his opposite–multiple, diverse, and born of many parents” (252).  All we need to do to verify her claim is watch From the Manger to the Cross (1912) and The Passion of the Christ (2004) to see these differences.  Throughout her book, Reinhartz breaks down the Jesus story into its component characters and events.  Analyzing nearly everything from Jesus himself to Satan, she discusses the cultural influences on these representations and how they reveal the films’ social locations and their ability to continually speak to audiences today.  For the most part, each chapter takes the form of a scriptural and cinematic back-and-forth.  Beginning with a theme, say Mary Magdalene for example, Reinhartz chronicles scriptural accounts and then analyzes how filmmakers have adapted them in Jesus movies throughout film history.

Reinhartz begins by discussing Jesus movies as biopics (feature film biographies), drawing from scholar George F. Custen’s book, Bio/Pics:  How Hollywood Constructed Public History, in the process.  The strong similarities are numerous.  These types of film, even the Jesus ones, are “fundamentally fictional narratives.”  Though they make claims to historical accuracy, they necessarily and inevitably undermine these claims through their very nature as films.  They contain cast members that in no way represent (physically accurately) the characters that they seek to embody and the dialogue/language is never genuine.  In the cases of films like Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), Godspell (1973), or Life of Brian (1979), the historical inaccuracies are even more prevalent.

For Reinhartz, the blessing and curse for makers of Jesus films are the overwhelming scriptural gaps regarding nearly every participant in the Jesus story, including the titular character himself.  Thus, the ways in which filmmakers choose to fill in these gaps and to adapt the “givens” reveals volumes about their socio-historical locations.  For example, Reinhartz’s analysis of the representations of the Jewish public and the Jewish character Caiaphas reveals a stark contrast between pre- and post-World War II Jesus films as public perceptions of or instances of anti-Semitism changed with increasing access to Holocaust news and images.  Given the four versions of the scriptural Jesus story and the gaps therein, specifically the lack of visual or aural clues, filmmakers face paramount decisions.  As such, Reinhartz concludes, “[…The] Jesus of the biopics reflects our own societies and cultures more than he illuminates the historical Jesus whose story these movies purport to tell” (10).

While there is a great amount of truth to her assertion, I also believe that Reinhartz’s scholarship betrays it as well.  In her process of screening these Jesus films, she looks at scripture repeatedly and clearly arrives at insightful lessons with each reading.  While cinematic Jesuses will never fully enhance our knowledge of the historical Jesus as a person, they can challenge our interaction with scripture and shape our developing theologies and Christologies.  For example, filmmakers’ decisions to show or omit Jesus’ miracles and the ways in which they do so have direct implications for our perceptions of Jesus as a divine-human being.  So too the films’ representation of Jesus’ death and resurrection.  In writing about The Passion of the Christ, Reinhartz argues:

Obviously Gibson himself believes in Jesus’ divinity, and expects that the reader will do the same.  But for some viewers, the film has the opposite effect.  Far from perceiving Jesus’ identity as the Son of God through his ability to endure the extreme suffering inflicted upon him, some viewers may fail even to perceive his humanity.  The reason is simple:  the relentless, numbing violence.  For most of the film Jesus does not resemble a man so much as a hunk of raw meat.  By reducing Jesus to an oozing pulp, Gibson has also demoted him from a human-divine being to a subhuman one.  If Gibson intended to show Jesus’ superhuman forbearance, he also made it almost impossible to feel compassion or concern as the relentless beating and bleeding prevent us from seeing Jesus as anything more than the broken body that becomes his own.  It is no wonder that some scholars and reviewers have referred to this film as religious pornography.  Not only is Jesus’ divine identity erased but his human identity is too. (121)

Reinhartz’s chapters on Judas, Caiaphas, and Pilate are also especially interesting and entertaining.  Reinhartz reveals Judas to be the most compelling character in the Jesus story, and one certainly deserving of repeated study and discussion.  Her analysis of the cinematic Judas and the close reading of his scriptural appearances paint a far more sympathetic character than many of us may remember.  Again, her discussions of Caiaphas and Pilate concentrate on how the Gospel writers and “Jesus filmmakers” use them to either enhance or downplay Jewish involvement in the crucifixion of Jesus.

Some readers will see similarities between Reinhartz’s work and Margaret Miles’ book, Seeing and Believing:  Religion and Values in the Movies.  However, in an important footnote, Reinhartz stresses their differences.  Where Miles is less concerned with films as such, Reinhartz “does not bracket out the films as such but also looks closely at the relationship between the film and the Gospels, characterizations, and other features of the film as a text” (258, fn 12).  In her analysis of the representation of Joseph in Jesus films, she notes the relatively consistent distance between Joseph and Jesus compared to the proximity between Jesus and Mary.  This repeated mis-en-scene (or framing) is an explicit attribute of the film and a point that a much more cultural studies centered approach like Miles’ might miss.

While Reinhartz is clearly aware of the breadth of Jesus films throughout history, she consistently returns to the “biggies” like The Passion of the Christ, The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), King of Kings (1961), and The King of Kings (1927).  However, she does give attention to some lesser known silent versions like INRI (1923) and Der Galilaer (1921).  Published before the release of 2006’s The Nativity Story, any subsequent edition of this book will no doubt benefit from this film’s fresh focus on the character of Joseph.  Film buffs or novices, religious studies students or lay persons will all find this book a beneficial and challenging read that will no doubt change they way they read about and watch Jesus.