In my first post in this series I noted how it’s possible you can’t literally show God or angels in a movie without it seeming cheesy.
Anker makes a similar comment about movies that tell the story of Jesus. He argues such films struggle partly because it’s hard to characterize Jesus (no matter how you portray him, someone will argue you’ve gotten it wrong) and it’s just hard to create a sense of divine mystery in a film (Anker 122-123).
Consequently, Anker argues “the best of the Jesus filmmakers” were Pier Pasolini (The Gospel According to St Matthew) and Franco Zeffirelli (Jesus of Nazareth), who “eschewed spectacle, bluster, sentimentality, and trendiness, those usual strategies for making God visible, impressive and godly” (123).
Pasolini’s movie is an interesting choice, because he portrays Jesus very differently than most films.
He focuses on the tougher, blunt side of Jesus that comes up so much in the Gospel of Matthew. This Jesus tells his disciples he’s sending them out like sheep among wolves. He tells people to do good in secret, speaking with a direct tone that captures how shocking and revolutionary his ideas are.
But as strange as it feels to see a tough Jesus, it actually causes Jesus’ story to make more sense.
It helps us understand that Jesus said many things that sounded strange and even offensive to human sensibilities, and that consequently people would have either loved or hated him. As a result, we understand why the Jewish leaders found Jesus offensive and tried to kill him.
In other words, Pasolini’s film works because he leans into how shocking Jesus was, how a holy man would have seemed strange to mortals.
To a certain extent, you could say the same thing about Passion of the Christ, another highly controversial Jesus film.
Like Pasolini, Gibson avoids big spectacle filmmaking. He chooses instead to capture how harsh crucifixion was and how strange it is that Jesus didn’t resist his treatment.
In the middle of his torture, Jesus looks at his mother and says, “See mother? I make all thins new.”
As Thomas Hibbs notes in his book Arts of Darkness, when Jesus gets dragged before the Romans and the Jewish leaders, he says little. He “adopts a position of silence, an admission of the gap in intelligibility between divine justice and worldly power” (Hibbs 256).
As with Pasolini’s film, Passion of the Christ makes us face the idea humans cannot understand a sinless man, his actions confuse us.
After all, as we noted in a previous post in this series, heavenly standards and human standards are different.
So, perhaps the truth is we can sometimes portray God in a movie and it feel compelling, but we have to focus on a side of God we don’t often think about.
We can’t fully capture what something holy looks like from an objective view, because we’re sinful human beings with mortal viewpoints.
But we can capture what it looks like when something holy appears on earth and how it confuses us, how sinful mortal beings struggle to understand it.
Thus, the Jesus movies that work best are usually ones that shake us up a bit, highlighting our struggle to understand Jesus.
Any thoughts about this? Please leave a comment below, I’d love to hear them.
Also, stay tuned for the next article in this series, where I examine another possible way to show divine encounters in films.