• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as current film releases with spiritual significance, and a few bits and pieces on the Bible.

    Friday, January 26, 2007

    Book Review "Jesus of Hollywood"

    Scholarship on Jesus in Film has really come of age in the last ten years. 1997 saw the publication of two books which sought to examine the relationship between Jesus Christ and the cinema - Lloyd Baugh's "Imaging the Divine" and W. Barnes Tatum's "Jesus at the Movies". Two years later Stern, Jefford and Debona published "Savior on the Silver Screen" and in 2003 Richard Walsh added "Reading the Gospels in the Dark".

    During that period, Adele Reinhartz's output has been fairly prolific, writing various chapters, articles and papers on the subject as well as teaching courses at the University of Ottawa. In a sense then, "Jesus of Hollywood", her own contribution to the field, is long overdue.

    The challenge for a writer seeking to contribute to this, now significant, body of work is how to bring something fresh to it. The first three volumes mentioned above devoted each chapter to one or two of the major films and looked at each different interpretation in light of the four gospels. Walsh's book followed a similar format, but sought instead to look at each film in comparison to the single gospel it most resembled.

    "Jesus of Hollywood" takes a completely different approach. Instead of looking at the subject film by film, the main body of the book looks at the gospels and the films character by character, giving a chapter to each. The strength of this method is that it allows Reinhartz to focus on the trends across the genre, as well as highlighting the differences between films on specific issues. For example, chapter 10 looks at the Pharisees, and the way that their portrayal on film could lead to accusations of anti-Semitism. Reinhartz concludes that "it would seem that the filmmakers themselves are not particularly interested in the historical Pharisees but only in the dramatic purposes which they can be put to".1 However, she also notes how "Arcand’s identification of the Pharisees, and the Jewish opposition to Jesus, with the Catholic Church circumvents the potential anti-Semitism that is problematic in the Jesus movie genre".2

    Each of these chapters starts with a brief introduction before looking at how that character / those characters are portrayed in the gospels, and then how that compares to their portrayal in the various biopics Reinhartz is concerned with. On occasions different aspects of the character(s) are looked at in series, in other chapters one or two films are analysed particularly closely. Any relevant historical points are either noted in the introduction or the chapter’s conclusion.

    This main section is topped and tailed by two introductory chapters (which form part 1), and a brief Afterword. The opening section acts as a lens through which the reader views the rest of the book. It is here that Reinhartz raises doubts about the absolute historicity of the gospels, and how the biopics distort that further. In considering Last Temptation of Christ and Jesus of Montreal she notes how "their very departures depend upon expectations audiences have developed on the basis of films such as DeMille’s The King of Kings and the epics of the 1950s and '60s".3

    Another advantage of the chapters by characters approach is that it enables Reinhartz to pick and choose the films she wishes to discuss depending on their relevance to the topic in hand. This results in the more popular, but less interesting, films not being explored so much, whilst a number of lesser known films get far greater prominence in this work than they have elsewhere. So Reinhartz discusses the silent films Der Galiläer, INRI, and Christus (none of which I have ever seen), as well as more recent films such as Golgotha, Il Messia, and The Milky Way. "Jesus of Hollywood" also has the advantage of being written after the glut of Jesus film released either in the run up to the Millennium or very shortly thereafter. So it is the first work of it’s kind to consider The Miracle Maker, Roger Young’s Jesus and the Gospel of John. (Reinhartz also discusses The Passion of the Christ which the second edition of Tatum’s book also considered). There are a couple of surprise omissions. Discussion of Mary, the Mother of Jesus perhaps would have enhanced the chapter on Jesus’s mother. Likewise the evaluation of Joseph might have benefited from including Hail Mary.

    The other major strength of "Jesus of Hollywood" is Reinhartz’s writing style. The lively, flowing prose, is complemented by its clarity all of which makes engaging reading. Reinhartz’s substantial use of quotes from many of the films is an excellent way of illustrating many of the points she seeks to make, as well as giving the reader a feel for films they are unfamiliar with. There is the occasional bit of unnecessary repetition (such as the observation about Jesus’s house in Young’s film)4, but this does not distract from the whole too greatly.

    It is unlikely that this will be the last book published exploring Jesus in Film, particularly as new films about the life of Christ are being made all the time. But this book’s character based approach, as well as Reinhartz’s insightful but non-judgemental observations regarding anti-Semitism mean that this is a significant edition to the canon.

    ============

    1 – p.211
    2 – p.211
    3 – p.39
    4 – See p.94 and p.117

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