Has any story been adapted to film more than the tale of Christ?
This past weekend (among countless others), I took a journey through faith depicted on film. Some regular entries could be The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur, two Charleton Heston epics that always air on TV this time of year, but I chose landed on three others: The Last Temptation of Christ (for its annual Good Friday viewing in my living room), The Gospel According to St. Matthew (which I had never seen but long wanted to), and Jesus Christ Superstar (a musical I’d seen a couple times, but was very familiar with the music).
Perhaps it was watching three tellings of the same story within a 36-hour time span, or a deep-rooted familiarity with the Passion from my Catholic upbringing, but seeing these very different takes on the life of Christ within a short period became a richer experience than the sum of its parts. Watching any of the films in isolation would have been viewing it on its own merits (and there’s nothing wrong with that), but assessing them more as complements to one another made each movie all the more unique, defined, and artistic.
The Last Temptation of Christ, as explicitly stated in its introduction, is a “fictional” exploration of Christ’s battle between “the spirit and the flesh.” The conflict within Jesus as both man and god is, frankly, the point of the film, and this thesis drives the depiction of Christ even as a character. He goes on an emotional arc throughout the entire film: first in torment, troubled by his internal pain; determination to understand His purpose; a loving, enlightened figure inspiring and healing those around Him; then a defeated, dejected shell; and finally, the courageous, benevolent Son of God who sacrifices Himself for the world. Christ is a fully realized, human character, and His emotional journey and experience as a man makes His ultimate sacrifice all the more heartbreaking and powerful.
The depiction of Christ in The Gospel According to St. Matthew, however, embarks on less of a journey; in Pasolini’s film, Christ is confident, eloquent, though arguably cold, direct, and lacks the loving warmth we often see in Renaissance-era artwork or other film adaptations. The viewer’s relationship to Him is almost impersonal, with milestone moments such as Christ’s arrest and trial shot from a distance, from the perspective of a member of the crowd witnessing. This sense of detachment is washed away by the movie’s conclusion however, through the powerful depiction of the Resurrection. The cold tone permeating most of the film is foiled by a glorious chorus of song, believers rejoicing to spread the word of God, as Christ is heard in voice-over dialogue: “Behold, I am with you always, unto the end of the world.” Whether the voice is for His followers or to us directly, the disconnect is breached as He makes a promise to always be there.
The sense of glory from Christ does not quite shine through in Jesus Christ Superstar, the grooviest tale of the Passion ever committed to film. This depiction of Jesus is sad, frustrated, and troubled throughout, and no moments of miracles or God-given glory ever transpire. The life and spirit of the film come from, well, everywhere else: the excellent portrayal of Judas by Carl Anderson, going jumpsuit to jumpsuit as he fears for Christ, betrays Him, and even chastises Him. While Jesus is, of course, the center of the action, most of the songs and story are seen from the perspective of those around Him. Mary Magdalene is also portrayed terrifically, by Yvonne Elliman, effortlessly gliding between sensuality and an almost-motherly love toward Him. Jesus does not go on the emotional arc or display the vitality that the other characters do, and this may well be the point of the piece: the tale of Christ, told by the perspectives of those around Him.
These films are absolutely not to be taken as Gospel and are not documentaries (though how cool would it be if Jesus Christ Superstar were!), but experiencing three very different interpretations of this globally-known tale was a fascinating, enlightening journey through all the perspectives and artistic decisions that shape and contribute to our modern understanding of Christ.