Today is Maundy Thursday, a few days before Easter Sunday. The timing couldn’t be more perfect for such a blogathon. Well, Andrew has planned this since mid March but he was gracious enough to extend the deadline, bless his heart!
I was actually planning to do a similar post for Easter anyway so I just had to participate!
The concept is simple. I want you to rack your brains for the film that, to you, defines how the Bible (and all of its facets) should be presented in film. Do you like your scripture presented in a grand, sweeping epic like 1956’s The Ten Commandments? Do you like your scriptures tampered with, as in Scorsese’s polarizing The Last Temptation of Christ? Do you want to see an artistic approach to God’s book, like with Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat? Or, do you prefer your faith handled in a more provocative and less direct way, as in the many works by Ingmar Bergman?
So Andrew’s assignment is to pick a movie (or style) and write a post explaining WHY it is your preferred dip into the Bible.
It’s a simple question but I’m going to expand on that topic a bit. as I was planning to do a post on that before I saw Andrew’s blogathon, I’m including my commentary about how Biblical movies as well as Christ’ portrayal in the movies.
I was actually re-watching Ben-Hur (1959) as I started this post… and I always rewound the Jesus scene as the enslaved Judah was bound and chained en route to the Roman galleys. He was dying of thirst when he fell to the ground and whispered, ‘God, help me…’ Almost instantly, someone came to him and gave him water.
That scene alone is wonderful, but the BEST part is when one of the Roman soldiers scolds the stranger for giving Judah water and is about to whip him. The man stands up and simply looks at him.
The soldier’s thunderstruck expression is priceless. It’s as if he knew that the stranger could see through his entire being, and that makes him uneasy. He then starts backing away. Later Judah too looks up at the stranger and is rendered speechless. The end of the scene shows Judah looking so revitalized and full of hope that he barely noticed being whipped. He can’t take his eyes off his Savior as he’s led away, still in chains but somehow free.
So by mentioning that scene, I guess you could say that is my preferred way of God being depicted in Hollywood movies. It’s subtle but powerful and undoubtedly moving. I’d think that people who have no idea about God nor Christianity would be intrigued by the long-haired man in ragged clothing and why people react to him the way they did. Even without his face being shown, his presence is certainly felt and that’s truly one of the most memorable scenes in the entire 4-hour film. In fact, Ben-Hur is my Easter film of choice, yes even over Charlton Heston’s equally epic adventure The Ten Commandments.
Truth be told, I felt that even with the sparse appearance of Christ in Ben-Hur, I was far more moved by those scenes than the entire film of Son of God. Now, as a Christ-follower, obviously I love films that glorify God and speak of His love for humanity. But even with the best intention of bringing the story to Jesus to mass audiences, the acting and dialog of the Mark Burnett’s film leave much to be desired and overall it just wasn’t as emotionally engaging as I had hoped. Cut from the TV-miniseries version of The Bible, the film was more of a Cliff-Notes chronicle of Jesus’ life. It also lacks any sense of mystique and grandeur, barely scratching the surface of His life on earth as uniquely extraordinary figure who’s both man AND divine. One of the main issue I had is with the portrayal of Jesus himself, which brings me to …
Christ Portrayal on Film
When we’re talking about how Christ is being depicted on film, it seems that Hollywood always subscribes to THIS classic drawing of Jesus that I often saw growing up in a Catholic household. Having seen Jesus of Nazareth and The Greatest Story Ever Told as a kid, Christ was always portrayed as tall and blue-eyed European figure. Slowly though, seems like Hollywood’s starting to concern themselves with authenticity, at least how the studio honchos see as authentic anyway. The latter portrayals of Christ is starting to look more Jewish, even Jim Caviezel wore prosthetic nose in The Passion of the Christ and had to wear brown contact lenses for the role.
Jim Caviezel, Henry Ian Cusick, Diogo Morgado
But to me, it’s not just about what Christ look like that matters. There’s a delicate sensitivity combined with screen charisma required of any actor portraying Jesus. Out the three most recent feature film about Jesus: The Passion of the Christ, The Gospel of John and Son of God, Jim Caviezel‘s portrayal is my favorite. He has the right mix of otherworldly compassion, eternal wisdom and commanding gravitas as a leader. I often wish we got to see more of his portrayal in an extended look into Christ’ ministry instead of just the last 12 hours of his life. The brutal violence made it tough for me to revisit that film again, I was literally in agony watching it, it shook me to the core. But that was the point, Mel Gibson wanted to illustrate the extreme passion that Christ had for humanity, the length He went through to atone for the world’s sin, which was in line with what the Bible said about how Christ became horribly disfigured that he was barely recognizable as a human being.
As for Henry Ian Cusick in The Gospel of John, I was skeptical about his casting at first as he seems too tough for the role. But he’s certainly got the charisma and screen presence, and portrays a more virile but also more relatable and approachable version of Christ. The adaptation itself was unique in that the dialog follows the Good News Bible, word for word, in sequential order from beginning to end. The excellent production quality + Cusick’s engaging portrayal made The Gospel of John my favorite Jesus feature film biopic so far.
In Son of God, we got a former Portuguese model Diogo Morgado, who despite his best effort is the least convincing of the three. He may look the part and has a serene and kind look about him but to me he lacks the gravitas and that effortless magnetism to make me believe he could inspire so many people to drop everything and follow him. His beatific smile seems more superficial and proved to be distracting rather than inviting.
So to answer Andrew’s question of
What movie/style is your preferred dip into the Bible?
I’ve already partly answered my question with Ben-Hur and the reason is the subtle way Christ is depicted actually made a greater impact as we saw how an encounter with Him changed a person life. At the start of the film, Judah Ben-Hur was not a believer and he became consumed with hate for Mesala after what he did to him and his family. Here we have a flawed man, just like the rest of us, being touched by God in the most unexpected way. Through a direct act of kindness (Jesus giving him water in his desperate hour), as well as seeing Him set an example of practicing what He preaches (forgiveness and loving one’s enemy) as Judah witness him being crucified, Judah’s heart is softened.
Judah Ben-Hur: Almost at the moment He died, I heard Him say, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Esther: Even then.
Judah Ben-Hur: Even then. And I felt His voice take the sword out of my hand.
We later see his mother and sister were also miraculously healed the day Jesus died on the cross. But even before that, Judah has already let go of his hatred, which is a miracle in itself. The film never overtly displays Judah’s conversion but his transformed heart is palpable and that is deeply inspiring. We’ve all struggled with faith at one point or another, and that to me makes Judah so relatable and his story made a lasting impression to me.
I think more than the style of how God is being depicted is the intent or the essence of the film in question. It’s not just about Christianity, it applies to other Deity being depicted on screen. I feel that a filmmaker ought to at least treat a story about God or faith with care even if they don’t believe in that viewpoint. That’s why I choose NOT to watch films that I feel is deliberately blasphemous (The Last Temptation of Christ, The Da Vinci Code) or show obvious contempt for the subject matter (Religulous).
So naturally I have mixed feelings about Biblical movies that are on the rise again in Hollywood. Creative license being taken is one thing, but taking something from the source material and turn it into something else entirely (i.e. Noah) is another matter. Just in time for Christmas, we’ll have Ridley Scott’s retelling of Moses leading the Israelite slaves out of Egypt in Exodus: Gods & King. Well, according to this article, [Scott] has chosen an unconventional depiction of God in the film,” and in Total Film April issue, it’s said that Christian Bale as Noah is more Maximus type warrior than the Charlton Heston’s deliver in The Ten Commandments. So it seems God is to be overlooked once again in His own story [sigh]
So pardon the elaborate essay, but some of these topics have been on my mind for some time. So back to the burning question, my favorite depiction of God in cinema is the kind that presents Him in a respectful and authentic way. I don’t think the [borrowing Josh' statement here] ‘hit me over the head with your belief’ approach appeals to me and I don’t think it rarely inspire people anyway. Subtlety paired with firm conviction can work wonders and as with the case of Ben-Hur, it proves to be quite powerful. The genre itself doesn’t really matter to me, whether it’s a grand, sweeping epic or a small indie about someone struggling with their faith, what I’d like to see is a stimulating and thought-provoking story of how God relates to man that makes me pause and reflect on our own belief, whatever that may be.
So there you have it folks. I welcome any comment you may have, and feel free to give your own answer to Josh’s question on your preference of God being depicted in cinema.