Last updated: March 17, 2008 7:58 am

Imitations of Christ

What is the connection between a bunch of penguins in the Antarctic and a wardrobe leading into a wonderland? Or between a modern-day murder in the Louvre and a 2,000-year-old story of a man crucified for teaching messages of love and forgiveness?

It’s a weird time in Christendom, and for no one more than this doubting film critic, once educated by Anglicans. I meet religion every day on the screen, be it self-declared or subtly disguised. I challenge its myths and mysticisms in my mind with rational humanism. Yet what westerner born in the 20th century – to the emergent din of new audiovisual support systems for the scripture stories (movie epics, TV, rock operas) – can ever quite escape the Good Book or its echoes? Even when those echoes take, as they do today, a more elusive, changeable form.

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Nigel Andrews

There is a hymn – I sang it often in my college chapel on the English coast – that went: “Christ before us, Christ behind us, Christ above us, Christ amongst us.” Nothing better illustrates the diaspora, the ubiquity of Christian themes in modern cinema. The face of Christ is seldom seen. The story of Christ is seldom told. Yet the obsession with Christ marches on, covertly when not overtly.

Easter used to be the time when a raft of religious movies went out to remind us what we were celebrating. But the last Godbuster to take block-bookings at Passiontide was The Passion of the Christ (2004), and that film ended a long Lent for screen gospel stories. Today, in an age of greater-than-ever schism between the devout and the secular, the Bible’s message must fight for gaps in the calendar, or else find non-biblical story forms – such as the Narnia of CS Lewis or Philip Pullman’s world of warring metaphysical forces – in which to reach out and re-enthrall. Sometimes a film is even plucked, startled, from secular obscurity to do missionary service, as when US Evangelicals bizarrely discerned a New Testament meaning in March of the Penguins (2005).

Christianity, far from moving out of earshot, can seem even louder in these attempts to adjust the volume or to relocate its station messages. As a critic, half of me sides with the paid-up atheists keen to rid the screen and world of these heaven-lovers who can make life hell (with their fanaticism and factionalism). The other half knows that Christianity gave us cathedrals, JS Bach and a few enduring moral wisdoms, and that it may occasionally inspire great movies, even if today’s don’t sing from quite the same forthright hymnal as yesterday’s.

To see what I mean, rewind. Early in the last century, God was in his heaven and Christ in the box-office counting house. In DW Griffith’s Intolerance (1916), Fred Niblo’s Ben-Hur (1925) and Cecil B. DeMille’s King of Kings (1927), Jesus wandered the earth radiating audience appeal in images borrowed mainly from pre-Raphaelitism: a glowing, flowing paragon of male grace lit from within by some unworldly wattage. (The knottier, earthier, more anorexic saviours of Grünewald or El Greco had to wait for Pasolini.)

Reverence was the keynote and the reverence grew. After King of Kings Christ’s face was deemed too sacred even to show. For more than 30 years, Christ appeared merely as the back of a head, a disembodied hand or foot, or a figure in a landscape. He only reappeared full-face, full-figure and fully scripted in the remake of King of Kings (1962).

With the Jesus genie now out of the bottle, no one could predict how it would behave. The casting of sex symbol Jeffrey Hunter as Christ in the second King of Kings, directed by Rebel Without A Cause film-maker Nicholas Ray, earned the film the nickname “I Was a Teenage Jesus”. After that the 1960s proceeded to live up to the love-and-liberation reputation that became its label. Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St Matthew (1964) made Christ youthful, demotic, Mediterranean. Dennis Potter’s Son of Man (1969) on British television was a slice of rough, vernacular-scripted neo-realism. And the 1970s had barely arrived before two bopping, popping Christ musicals reached cinemas in the same year: Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell (1973).

So much excitement had to end in tears, and did. Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) took freedom too far, for some, and allowed ridicule to rain down on Calvary. “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” was the catchy crucifixion song. To protesters, the comedy team protested back that the hero of their film was one “Brian”, not Jesus. The then Bishop of Southwark, Mervyn Stockwood, said, one seismic night on TV, that the rightful collective name of John Cleese, Michael Palin and Co was Judas and they would get their 30 pieces of silver.

For a while, the New Testament curled up into a ball, afraid to show itself at all. Before Brian it had still had enough devotional cred to furnish a glazed and handsome small-screen mini-series, Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth. After Brian the years ticked by, like a waiting bomb, until the nearly inevitable second explosion. This was Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988).

A respectable literary source, Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel, made no difference to the outraged. A Messiah who has an on-the-Cross reverie of sex, marriage and children with Mary Magdalene was a blasphemy. Today it seems more like a preview of The Da Vinci Code (2006). But doesn’t that prove the point? The genie was not just out of the bottle; it was rollicking around the skies, asking scary questions about the meaning of religion, the roots of belief, the veracity of the Bible and our whole dilemma of understanding Christ’s supposed humanity on earth.

For instance, did He have sexual feelings? If not, why not? If so, what did He do with them? A pre-millennial world that was deciding sex was OK, and not intrinsically sinful, wanted to incorporate Christ in the welcoming embrace of this universality, this catholicism of spirit. It was at this point, by my Zeitgeist watch, that the traditional screen Bible story collapsed. As the tale of Adam and Eve illustrates, there is something about sex that explodes structures, templates and organised sanctities. It was a small step, even if it took 15 years, from The Last Temptation of Christ to the mewling vitality of the diaper-wearing grown-up Christ in Jerry Springer the Opera. Jesus’s polymorphous sexuality is presented by this musical’s creators, bravely if recklessly, as a kind of absolute human exuberance. If Christ existed at the high end of human nature, as He surely did, then who says that an all-encompassing sensuality, a victimless joy in the body as well as the spirit, is not part of that high humanity?

Screen Jesus, a forthcoming book by Peter Malone, a film critic and past president of Signis, the World Catholic Association for Communication, is the first, exhaustively researched study of representations of Christ on screen. Fr Malone, a London-based colleague, gave me an advance peek. One of the book’s persuasive and pervasive notions is a distinction between literal representations of Christ and Christ-figures.

I accept that distinction but would go further. The two trends in the broad church of modern religious cinema – the humanising of Jesus and the encoding of Christian themes in non-Biblical stories (The Chronicles of Narnia (2005), The Golden Compass, 2007) – are the newly visible tip of an old iceberg. The trends catch our attention today not because they weren’t there before, but because more literal religious movies once stood in the way, or because more censorious times demanded they conceal or disguise themselves. An entire history of glamorous martyrdom, even glamorous masochism, on screen has borrowed from the iconography of the Passion.

It gives us the rebel hero redeemed by virtuous intent or visionary aspiration while he is hewn down by prejudice or repressive tradition. In the mid-20th century Brando, James Dean and Montgomery Clift were struggling against society, racked by psycho-spiritual growing pains and often caught in near-literal crucifixion poses. (My favourite pop-Calvary moment is Dean’s outstretched arms slung over that across-the-shoulders rifle in the 1956 Giant)

Pin-up martyrdom turned into a pandemic in the 1960s. Remember those Che Guevara posters? You may be too young. (But you may have seen Gael García Bernal as Che in 2004’s Motorcycle Diaries). They depicted a bearded, melting-eyed sex-bomb emanating a Christly glow: a man who died to save us from imperialism. Che was the Jesus for New-Age revolutionaries and his androgynous beauty leapt across divides, including that of sexuality.

On screen, in Che’s wake, British gay directors Derek Jarman (The Garden, 1990) and Terence Davies (The Long Day Closes, 1992) brought Christly invocations to stories of young men persecuted for their homosexuality. American gay director Gus Van Sant has lent a bold gutter religiosity to his tales of doomed or anguished youth: Drugstore Cowboy (1989), Elephant (2003), Paranoid Park (2007). Brokeback Mountain (2005) turned Heath Ledger into a hero suffering for forbidden love, with the bizarre real-life pay-off – a gift to martyrologists – of the actor’s own tragically early death.

Today on screen the surrogate Christs, and the thinly camouflaged Christ resonances, seem to be multiplying. Is that because the west sees so many young men martyred on Middle-Eastern battlefields? (2007’s Redacted and In the Valley of Elah, for example.

Is it alternatively, or additionally, because the hippie dream, revived in an eco-conscious new century, venerates the missionary drop-out who dies to save or honour the planet? Sean Penn’s Into the Wild (2007) is the master-text here: an epic screen poem to nature and solitude, whose wilderness-tramping hero dies if not with a crown of thorns on his head then at least from a mouthful of poisoned leaves.

None of these films picks up a bullhorn and proclaims: “We are a Christ allegory.” But neither do the films which blatantly are Christ allegories. Western cinema may not want to scare off Mr and Mrs Non-believer: the agnostic demographic might stay home en masse if The Chronicles of Narnia publicised itself for what it is, a dyed-in-the-lambswool New Testament fable.

Equally, the Christian demographic would stay home if The Golden Compass, alias part one of novelist Philip Pullman’s God onslaught trilogy His Dark Materials, trumpeted the missionary heathenism of its source. (Many did stay at home, since the Bible-belters did a fair job of trumpeting the film’s Godlessness themselves.)

So as Hollywood plays hide-and-seek with its holy messages, secularising Narnia and purging The Golden Compass of the God-word, is there a funk-free zone in religious screen drama today?

“Funny you should ask that,” two television companies might respond. “Here, for Easter 2008, is a prestige mini-series we have made called The Passion. It cost us a fortune and is about to land in your living rooms.”

“We” are HBO and the BBC and they have made a religious drama all right. Unfortunately, it is the kind that smothers both religion and drama. The Passion scrolls through the Jesus story with a cast of hundreds, authentic costumes and a wall-to-wall burlap visual glow. The money is up on the screen; so is the earnestness. A reverential literalness weighs the project down, giving us the old lines cosmetically renovated by banal vernacular, a dog’s dinner of accents in old Judaea (Pontius Pilate does Ulster, Christ and his cronies do Estuary English) and a Messiah who delivers his right-on verities with all the visionary charisma of a polytechnic teacher.

This is the Christian screen tradition that kills the Christian spirit. Its cinematic ancestor is The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), with poor Max von Sydow as Christ droning his lectures to the pie-eyed.

Screen Bible stories such as these, diligently researched but paralysed by the impulse not to offend, get a T for timidity.

Some film-makers, thank God, say: “A plague on such timorousness; put Christ on the screen.” Yes, it’s The Passion of the Christ. You may have loved it or hated it. Mel Gibson’s Bible film was forgivable because it had no qualms about being deemed unforgivable. It pleased people by taking no pains to please them. It charged at the mealy-mouthed, its lances raised and its mouth frothing. It proved what may be the most important truth of all about religious movies. The only unpardonable act of art, in this arena of film-making, is a Passion without passion.

Nigel Andrews is the FT’s chief film critic

‘The Passion’ starts tomorrow on BBC One and concludes on Easter Sunday

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