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Peter T. Chattaway

Jesus at the Movies

In Jesus of Montreal, Denys Arcand's witty satire about a group of actors who put on a revisionist Passion play, the church sponsoring the play sends in some security guards to call off the production in mid-performance. The actors have tinkered with the Gospels too much; their reconstruction of the historical Jesus challenges church tradition at nearly every point, so out it must go. But the audience objects; one woman says she wants to see the end, and the head of security replies, impatiently, "Look, he dies on the cross and is resurrected. No big deal. Talk about slow!"

The scene neatly sums up one of the main challenges faced by films about the life of Jesus: namely, overfamiliarity. Jesus has been represented in paintings, sculptures, and stained-glass windows for centuries; since the invention of moving pictures in the 1890s, he has also been a perennial subject in films and television. All these portrayals tend to fuse together in the popular imagination; audiences think they've seen it all before, and they can remain blind to the unique perspective each film sheds on the life of Jesus and his relationship to modern moviegoers.

But there is a second challenge faced by films about Jesus, which is also addressed in that scene from Jesus of Montreal: hostility. Directors who put too unique a spin on the life of Jesus are met with controversy, much of it loud and unthinking, and the debates that swirl around their films tend to fall along a predictable faultline, pitting repressive authority against artistic freedom. The deeper issues raised by such films get lost in all the sound and fury.

Fortunately, in the past decade, the biblical epic in general, and the Jesus movie in particular, have begun to at tract a more positive sort of criticism. Three of the most recent books that have come out—W. Barnes Tatum's Jesus at the Movies: A Guide to the First Hundred Years, Lloyd Baugh's Imaging the Divine: Jesus and Christ-Figures in Film, and Savior on the Silver Screen, ...

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