Jesus on the Big Screen

On Tuesday, 3/22, a new stage musical about Jesus joins Risen and The Young Messiah on American screens — and that’s not all.

Wallace Smith as Jesus and Erin Davie as Mary Magdalene in Easter Mysteries.
Wallace Smith as Jesus and Erin Davie as Mary Magdalene in Easter Mysteries. (photo: Register Files)

On Tuesday, there will be four — yes, four — Jesus movies on American movie screens at the same time, not to mention the new trailer for Paramount’s new adaptation of Ben-Hur, which will reportedly give more screen time to Jesus than previous adaptations.

Okay, technically one of those four movies isn’t really a Jesus film (more on this in a moment). But there’s more: In addition to those four films on U.S. screens, there are also special screening events this week in the United Kingdom for the Lumo Project’s word-for-word adaptation of The Gospel of Mark

Would you believe there are two American indies this year about Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness? Last Days in the Desert, starring Ewan MacGregor as both Jesus and the Devil, is coming in May. The other, 40 Nights, premiered last month in Michigan. And Ben-Hur is coming in August.

That might be it for films touching on Jesus’ earthly life — but a version of Jesus will make at least one more appearance on the big screen in November, in the movie adaptation of William B. Young’s pop-spirituality novel The Shack, in which he will be played by Israeli actor Haaz Sleiman.  

That’s at least eight films — a lot of Jesus on the big screen in one year.

Two of the three films now playing in the U.S. are well known. There’s Risen, starring Joseph Fiennes as a Roman tribune charged by Pontius Pilate with tracking down the missing body of Jesus, and The Young Messiah, with Sean Bean as a Roman tribune charged by Herod Archelaus with tracking down the Child of Bethlehem, reported to have escaped Herod the Great’s slaughter of the innocents, and finishing the job.

Each of those includes a dramatic scene in which the Roman soldier has a transforming encounter with Jesus. A very similar scene also features prominently in a third film, which also grapples with the mystery of Jesus’ nature, although it’s not really a Jesus film.

That would be the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar!, in which George Clooney plays a Roman soldier forever changed by his encounters with Jesus — in a fictional film-within-the-film, the similarly titled Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ. (Note the direct allusion to Ben-Hur, also traditionally subtitled A Tale of the Christ.)

Although the Coens’ Hail, Caesar! is an affectionate send-up of 1950s Hollywood rather than a Jesus film per se, the mystery of Jesus’ identity is the subject of a gently satiric but not disrespectful theological round-table discussion of clergy — a Catholic priest, an Orthodox patriarch (!), a Protestant minister and a Jewish rabbi — consulting on the making of the film within the film.

What about the fourth film? On Tuesday, March 22, for one night only, Fathom Events will host special screenings at selected theaters of Easter Mysteries, a filmed stage musical about the events of the Triduum (Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday), Easter Sunday and the days that follow.

Written and scored by Tony Award-winning Broadway producer John O’Boyle (La Cage aux Folles), Easter Mysteries was filmed before a live audience and staged in minimalist fashion, with a multiracial cast, simple costumes, no scenery or props and a simple geometric set resembling irregularly sized wooden blocks stacked in a roughly bleacher-like arrangement.

Players include Broadway veterans Wallace Smith (The Lion King) as Jesus, Kevin Earley (A Tale of Two Cities) as Simon Peter and Erin Davie (Grey Gardens) as Mary Magdalene.

Each of these three Jesus films (not counting the Coen film) takes creative license of various kinds with the biblical text. Take the depiction of miracles: Risen depicts Jesus healing a leper after the Resurrection and shortly before his ascension, where the canonical Gospels report no healings or similar signs after Jesus’ arrest in Gethsemane. Conversely, The Young Messiah imagines 7-year-old Jesus performing several miracles in childhood, long before the start of his public work.

Creative license emerges in each production in connection with the narrative point of view. Risen is told from the perspective of a Roman tribune who encounters Jesus in the Upper Room and goes on to follow the disciples to Galilee, encountering Christ again and even joining Peter and the other disciples on the fishing trip with the miraculous catch of fish in John 21.

The Young Messiah relates the experiences of the Holy Family as they return from Egypt, inventing a great deal of material and dramatically extending the threat of Herod the Great’s slaughter of the innocents to the reign of his son Herod Archelaus (Matthew 2:22). And Easter Mysteries, which tells the story of Jesus’ passion and resurrection from Peter’s point of view, imagines a rivalry on Peter’s part with Mary Magdalene, a picture perhaps inspired by various apocryphal gospels.

Finally, each of the three productions comes with theological and other caveats. The Young Messiah’s depiction of 7-year-old Jesus lacking human knowledge regarding his divine nature and Messianic mission conflicts with the picture of Jesus’ knowledge taught by Pope St. Gregory the Great and Pius XII, among others.

Risen’s picture of a pagan Roman witnessing Jesus’ resurrection appearances to the disciples, and even being invited by Peter to share in their apostolic work years before the vision in Acts 10 that would open the door for Gentiles like Cornelius, is at odds with the New Testament record.

Meanwhile, Easter Mysteries takes an opposite liberty: It suggests that the risen Christ could only be seen by eyes of faith and conflates the risen Jesus’ first appearance to Peter with Peter’s threefold affirmation of love and Jesus’ threefold commission to “feed my sheep,” only after which Peter is able to see the risen Lord.

All of that said, each of these three productions represents a serious, respectful effort to engage some aspect of the mystery of Christ from a perspective of faith, imagination and art. Even Hail, Caesar! could be described in part as a not-disrespectful exploration of faith, with its devoutly Catholic protagonist — an overly scrupulous man, perhaps, apparently confessing his sins almost daily, but not a fool, and a character of whom the Coens (who sometimes appear to hold certain characters in contempt) seem clearly fond.

That doesn’t mean these films are all equally worthwhile, or that what one viewer finds moving or off-putting must have the same effect on another.

For instance, I appreciated Easter Mysteries, with some caveats; others will feel differently. Full disclaimer: I’m actually in Easter Mysteries, sort of. With my Reel Faith cohost David DiCerto, I recently co-moderated a panel discussion of religious commentators about the film (a discussion quite different from the one in the Coens’ film!) with a Catholic bishop, a priest, a Jewish rabbi, a Muslim chaplain and a pair of Protestants. Some 23 minutes of that discussion has been appended to the film.

Inaccuracies or caveats aren’t necessarily a reason to condemn a work. The Christian world opted long ago, not least in the Iconoclast controversy, for the considerable benefits of bringing imagination to bear on matters of faith, even when it involves creative license.

Christian art — from early patristic images of Jesus as a shepherd to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes depicting a muscular Yahweh separating light from darkness on the first day of creation and blending Christian and mythological motifs (such as the figures of Charon and Minos in the Last Judgment) — has taken creative liberties with the Christian story. Dante did the same in the Divine Comedy.

Of course none of these movies is Dante or Michelangelo, and not all creative license is equal. Sometimes artistic imagination can open the door to blasphemy by turning Jesus into something else, as The Last Temptation of Christ effectively turned Jesus, by screenwriter Paul Schrader’s own admission, into a metaphor for the human experience of spirituality (specifically, Jesus’ divine and human natures became a metaphor for the human experience of duality, of the “clash” of “the spirit and the flesh,” in the words of the opening citation from the source novel by Nikos Kazantzakis).

In Risen, The Young Messiah and Easter Mysteries, we see storytellers using different artistic forms to grapple with the mystery of Jesus’ nature and mission through the faculty of imagination. How worthwhile we find their efforts we can discuss and debate. In any case, it’s a fascinating time to be writing and thinking about faith and film.

Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of Decent Films.
He is studying for the permanent diaconate for the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.

Follow him on Twitter.