The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio. Via Wikimedia Commons

Fiction and Reality

In motion pictures, since the end of World War II to our own day, the figure of Christ has interrogated and continues to interrogate audiences, asking them, “Who do you say I am?”
Luca Marcora

“I could have demystified the real historical situation, the relations between Pilate and Herod. I could have demystified the figure of Christ, mythologized by Romanticism, Catholicism, and the Counter-Reformation, demystified everything, but then, how would I have been able to demystify the problem of death? The problem that I cannot demystify is the profoundly irrational–and thus somehow religious–element there is in the mystery of the world. This cannot be demystified.”

With these words, Pier Paolo Pasolini described his Gospel According to Matthew, which opened movies up to an unprecedented and more problematic approach to Jesus Christ.

Pasolini’s Gospel
Dedicated to the “dear, joyous, familiar memory of John XXIII,” Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Matthew (Italy, 1964) is an extremely faithful transposition of the evangelist Matthew’s text, chosen by Pasolini because it is a simple, unadorned chronicle of Jesus’ life. Filmed among the rock houses of Matera, Italy, the Gospel, in its spare but also harsh and unattractive style, harkens back to the Passion films made in the earliest days of motion pictures, which told their stories by means of simple juxtaposition of the events in strict chronological order. Here too, Pasolini borrows from popular religious drama in his decision to use non-professional actors, so that the real focus of the viewer’s attention would not be the aesthetic beauty of the image, but rather the words spoken by Jesus, dubbed in the clear, well-pitched voice of a real actor, Enrico Maria Salerno. The very image of Christ is stripped of all its classic iconography in favor of a totally unprecedented choice: after numerous screen tests and after having even thought of casting figures of the Beat Generation like Jack Kerouac or Allen Ginsberg in the part, Pasolini found his Jesus almost by chance in the face of Enrique Irazoqui, a young literature student from Catalonia who had come to Rome to meet the author of Ragazzi di vita [Street Kids], picked precisely because of his facial features, which were much closer to the hieratic images of Byzantine painting and the elongated faces of El Greco’s paintings than to the iconographical tradition diffused by the Counter-Reformation.

While political interpretations of the film have been legion, perhaps it is the simple, austere manner in which the miracles are presented that furnishes the key to understanding the standpoint Pasolini adopted in his approach to Jesus. Pasolini, a Marxist intellectual and a non-believer, did not understand the dynamic of the prodigious events narrated by Matthew, but he could not help observing that something really happened in the encounter with that Man. Analogously, the entire film, fully respecting the historical truth of the existence of Christ, observes that at a certain point in history, it happened that a Man said He was God; and it does this simply by presenting the facts as they have been preserved by tradition. This is an event whose import escapes Pasolini’s full understanding, but this does not mean it can be demystified. In this absolute honesty lies the extraordinary nature of this film, but probably its limits as well, because it stops a step short of a free and aware adherence to the Truth made flesh.

The Messiah
Ten years later, Roberto Rossellini made Il Messia/Le Messie (Italy-France, 1975), his last film, apparently falling in line with Pasolini’s choice to eschew spectacle in favor of the Word. Nonetheless, despite the formal analogies, the film is profoundly different from the Gospel, because of a markedly Utopian ideological interpretation that determines the course of the entire operation. In this film, Rossellini uses the same historical approach that characterized his educational works made for television, placing himself outside the scene in order to observe it from a distance, considering this to be the only method by which history can be objectively narrated through images.

From this viewpoint, the Jesus of the insipid Pier Maria Rossi ends up moving about always in long shots; a close-up of his face is shown very rarely. The dominant element is the setting, stripped of any spectacular attributes in the illusion of approaching historical reality as closely as possible. But by eliminating everything that might seem too big, and thus spectacular, Rossellini falls into the opposite excess of reducing everything to the too small, such as the hardly credible crowds following Jesus, made up of a handful of men who seem far distant from the universal import of the incarnation of God. The Messiah, in its calculated distance from what it is recounting, is a film lacking any religious feeling and totally unbelievable in outlining an historic Jesus. Not only does Rossellini not risk any personal interpretation of Jesus, but he even chooses not to take a stand at all, arriving at best at the illusion that he has achieved an objective and truthful result by virtue of having shown only His human side.

But it is precisely this humanity that has become, in recent years, the most widely used theme in movies portraying Jesus, onto whom the anguish and expectations are projected of those who, already in the late 1960s, had begun to hope they could change the world by their own strength.

Jesus Christ Superstar
The most famous film reflecting this new cultural climate is undoubtedly Jesus Christ Superstar, by Norman Jewison (USA, 1973), which transposes onto the screen the highly successful musical by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Structured like a religious drama, this time featuring a group of hippies gathered in the desert and expressing themselves in rock music, the movie attempts a direct approach–but one suited to the younger generation–to the enigmatic figure of Christ. In fact, the central theme, both narrative and musical, is just this question about his identity: “Jesus Christ, who are you? What have you sacrificed?” Jesus, played to great effect by Ted Neeley, is, for these young people surrounding him, a great man who defies the whole world and its rules with a revolutionary message. But at a certain point, for no apparent reason, He starts acting like a “superstar,” saying that He is God, and things start to go badly, despite the fact that Judas, His right-hand man from the beginning, tries in every way to make Him back down from this strange claim.

The merit of this engaging film, supported by an excellent score, is that of having attempted to propose Christ’s claim that He is God to young people in a direct way. But this initial question ends up becoming a claim at the same moment that these young people have the last word and provide their own answer. The final sequence is emblematic: after the Crucifixion, everyone goes away, leaving Christ still nailed to the Cross, as though to affirm that this sacrifice was indeed great, but in the last analysis incomprehensible and useless since, after all, Jesus Christ is but a mere man.

The Gardens of Eden
More recently, this human reduction of Christ appears again in I Giardini dell’Eden (The Gardens of Eden, Italy, 1998) by Alessandro D’Alatri, who starts from the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls, belonging to ancient Essene communities, to create an imaginary story about the years of Jesus’ life that are not recounted in the Gospels. D’Alatri shows the young Jeoshua, played by Kim Rossi Stuart, who in his travels comes into contact, above all, with Essene thought, from which he learns all of his doctrine, gradually becoming aware of the possibility of changing the world through a message of peace that can truly be a remedy for the great discontent of every man. But here too, Jeoshua is merely a man, another great prophet, just like the Buddha whose temple He visits during one of his long journeys.

Comic parody
It is not surprising that in this process of simplistic reduction there is also room for a comic parody. Made by the English Monty Python and Terry Jones in 1979, Brian of Nazareth (Monty Python’s Life of Brian) tells the story of a contemporary of Jesus. The two babies are exchanged in the cradle, with all the possible consequences. The comic group aims squarely at man’s stupidity in not being able to use his own head, and above all, at the spectacular clichés of this film genre, creating a parody that is often very funny but sometimes bordering on blasphemy.

The Last Temptation of Christ
In 1988, Martin Scorsese made The Last Temptation of Christ, adapted from the novel The Last Temptation, by the Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis. The movie can be categorized with the great Hollywood epics, even though its spectacle is repressed, never used to astound or as an end in itself–factors which certainly do not contribute to defining it as a purely commercial product. The film, attacked as scandalous when it first came out because of a scene in which Jesus supposedly makes love with Mary Magdalene–a scene that in reality is little more than an embrace–is the result of a project tenaciously pursued by Scorsese, obsessed by the themes of death and an oppressive destiny, which he here projects completely onto the movie’s protagonist. Chosen by God to effect His plan of salvation, Jesus does not want to take this burden onto Himself because, like today’s man, He is full of doubt and uncertainty, incapable of deciding by Himself how to react to this inner voice that is calling Him, to the point that He needs the betrayal of His friend Judas in order to be crucified according to God’s will. But on Calvary, His last temptation comes along, or rather, His last hallucination: as in the case of Abraham with Isaac, an angel of the Lord takes Jesus down from the cross, because God the Father no longer needs His sacrifice. Going back to being a man just like everybody else, he can marry and have children and live a normal life to old age. But on his deathbed, while Jerusalem is being destroyed by the Romans, his disciples return to him, and his old friend Judas accuses him of being the real traitor because he has renounced being the Messiah, because he has listened to the voice of an angel, who it turns out is none other than Satan himself. In the face of this defeat, Jesus asks the Father to be able to get back up on the cross. There is a sudden zoom forward, and here He is once more on Calvary, where everything can be accomplished and He can finally die according to God’s plan, while on the screen, marks of colored light similar to a movie film inform the viewers that the movie is over and the fiction has ended. While ambitious in scope and certainly not predictable, at least visually, this Last Temptation remains a profoundly ambiguous and in many places unresolved work. But its greatest limitation lies in the fact that the initial claim to probe Jesus’ two souls, the human and the divine, remains unresolved; Scorsese does not manage to give a precise answer and ends up essentially reducing Jesus solely to the human factor, characterizing Him as a man of today, torn apart by uncertainty and division, on the edge of schizophrenia, and unable to achieve the unity capable of grasping the profound Mystery.

Films for TV
The challenge of bringing Jesus onto the screen is so great that the desire to try again seems never to cease, involving also new means of communication like television. Films made for TV provide a new terrain for exploration, especially because of the possibilities offered by the serial structure, enabling the narrative to be stretched out into several parts and giving greater freedom for exploring the characters and the story.

As early as 1968, Roberto Rossellini adapted The Acts of the Apostles for television, but only in 1977 was Franco Zeffirelli given the chance to make Jesus of Nazareth for RAI-TV. Its astonishing success with the public the first time it was aired makes it still today one of the great prides of Italian state television.

Borrowing from the spectacular splendor of American film epics, yet not failing to go more deeply into the narrative and characters, Zeffirelli put together an enormous, glittering scene, enriched by a not always well-calibrated use of iconographic references taken from centuries of Christian art, through which he wanted simply to suggest the sacred but ended up showing everything, in a visual heaping up of images that unfortunately finds its worst synthesis in the aesthetic figure of Jesus, masterfully played by Robert Powell but essentially abstract.

The movie’s real strength lies in the portrayal of the Apostles, rendered with an extraordinary sense of truth heretofore unseen. In showing the dailiness of the relationships between men of different characters, Zeffirelli’s visual skill is right on target, especially in the figure of Peter, played by James Farentino, a rude and quarrelsome man, to be sure, but undoubtedly real in the drama of his humanity in front of Christ. The men Zeffirelli shows in their daily relationship with this out-of-the-ordinary presence are men portrayed in front of the Mystery, and in them Zeffirelli puts himself on the line as a believer, becoming involved in his film in a way that is completely lacking in Pasolini’s Gospel.

The “Bible Project”
More recently, RAI has taken on the task of picking up again an ambitious project already attempted in the movies by the producer Dino De Laurentiis, but dropped right after the first episode (The Bible, John Huston, Italy, 1966), which is to transpose the entire Bible into a series of movies. Ettore Bernabei succeeded in doing it, producing over the span of ten years, in a series of international co-productions led by RAI and his own Lux Vide, a good thirteen films illustrating the Holy Scriptures, from Ermanno Olmi’s Genesis to the final, frankly embarrassing episode of The Apocalypse, which was aired on Italian television last December. The formulation of the “Bible Project” can be summarized in the words of Bernabei himself: “Together with the various directors, we asked ourselves often if perhaps we shouldn’t borrow from the narrative models on which popular genres like soap operas or telefilms are based, taking advantage of the tricks used by the authors of ‘Dallas’ or ‘The Bold and the Beautiful,’ for example, to communicate a very different kind of content.” The culmination of Bernabei’s Bible could hardly be anything other than the life of Christ, televised in 1999 in view of the Jubilee Year. Jesus, in which Christ is played by the young unknown Jeremy Sisto, offers a new version of Christ, taking into account not only the fact that He is God, but also and above all that He is a man in flesh and blood. But in actuality, as we have already seen, the idea is not new at all. This is all the more evident as some developments, such as Martha (Lazarus’ sister) falling in love with Jesus, which is indicated as absolutely original, seem to have been borrowed from Scorsese’s Last Temptation.

Inexhaustible attraction
Despite this, viewers liked it, a sign that the figure of Jesus still manages to command considerable interest on the part of TV and movie audiences.

And undoubtedly, this inexhaustible attraction that seems never to falter was one of the reasons that led Mel Gibson, too, to try his hand at making a new film on Christ. Passion focuses on the last hours of His life, testifying how this two-thousand-year-old story is still the most topical of all. This is because, no matter what people say, even today, no one can avoid taking a stance with regard to this Presence, in daily life as in the movies–perhaps in the wait to encounter Him not only on the screen, but also along the crowded streets of our cities.