From mosaics and music to paintings and plays, the arts have proven to be a mighty vehicle for retelling the Bible and bringing its stories vividly before our senses. A special intensity marks the art created for the Lenten period. Allegri's Miserere, the moving rendition of Psalm 51 sung on Good Friday, Niccolo dell'Arca's Lamentation of the Dead Christ with its terra-cotta figures circling in wild grief over the dead Christ, and Dante's Divine Comedy, the poetic journey lasting from Good Friday to Easter Sunday, are but a few of the great Lenten works that can move the imagination to consider different aspects of the passion. In The Passion of the Christ, scheduled to open in theatres on Ash Wednesday, Mel Gibson adds a work of cinematic art worthy to be mentioned with these classics of Christian culture.
Gibson's Passion is bound to change our estimation of how a film can portray the life of Christ. Until now, movies about Jesus generally have been of two kinds. The first--perhaps to avoid trespassing on sacred terrain--abandons any ties to a canonical text. Here we can think of the whimsical Jesus in Montreal, or the hootenanny "gospels" of Godspell or Jesus Christ Superstar. There are also those provocateurs who try to win an audience through the "unauthorized biography" approach, such as Martin Scorsese in his film version of Kazantzakis' Last Temptation of Christ. Films of this sort pay the price of making Jesus appear smaller and less compelling than the figure we can encounter in reading or, as the case may be, in questioning the canonical texts.
The film that most nearly succeeds in this "relevant Jesus" mode is Pier Paolo Pasolini's avowedly Marxist rendition of The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964). (Gibson surely learned from Pasolini, as he makes use of the little town of Sassi Matera, where Pasolini also filmed his gospel.) Pasolini's cinema-verite shots, nonprofessional actors, and monochrome photography make a visually riveting movie, one that disarms our liturgically and textually informed imagination with its strange and sometimes grotesque iconography, particularly the faces of its common people. If pure film makes what we know depend upon what we see, Pasolini's movie comes very close to being pure film. Yet because he is so determined to interpret the life of Jesus as a Gramscian allegory of popular liberation, Pasolini makes Jesus less interesting than the rest of the cast of truck drivers, waiters, and prostitutes he recruited for the film. The theme of class liberation also makes for unintended comedy. After the resurrection, for example, the camera follows peasants running gleefully through the fields with scythes and pitchforks only to encounter Christ waiting for an audience before ascending into heaven.
The second kind of gospel film makes a serious effort to tell the canonical...