• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


    Monday, March 06, 2006

    The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ (1902-5)

    Having discussed what I can only conclude are two forerunners to this film last week, I thought now would be as good a time as any to comment on the film that is the best known version of much of this material - The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ. In 1995 it was one of the 45 films included on the Vatican Film list, and was released on DVD, along with From the Manger to the Cross (1912) in 2003. The text included on that DVD is as follows:
    La Vie Et La Passion De Jesus-Christ, N.S. was begun in 1902 by Ferdinand Zecca (1964-1947) for Pathé Frères in Paris, then the most important film company in the world. Zecca made 18 carefully costumed and staged tableaux against painted back-drops which are clearly influenced by the famous Biblical woodcuts of Gustave Dore (1866). In 1903, Pathé Frères developed a sophisticated system for applying up to four colors to each film print by a stencil process; that year and in 1904, ten new tableaux were added to the film. Finally, in 1905, Zecca's collaborator, Lucien Nonguet, added three final scenes, and the resulting color film of 31 tableaux with a running time of 44 minutes became the most impressive of its kind and one of the first long films in the world. Presented by missionaries and itinerant showmen from Indiana to Indochina, it helped establish the popular iconography of the Divine story. This edition is restored from two excellent 35mm original prints and presents The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ as it looked a century ago.
    What's most noticeable about this film is how unsophisticated the camera work is as Peter T Chattaway notes in his chapter in "Re-Viewing the Passion" (reproduced at Christianity Today):
    Nearly every shot is a simple tableau in which the camera stands still and observes the entire stage, as it were, while the actors move about within the frame. The few exceptions to this format stand out precisely because they are so rare.
    The following scenes are shown (citation guide)
    Annunciation - (Luke 1:26-38)
    Birth - (Luke 2:1-7)
    Shepherds - (Luke 2:8-18)
    Star & Wise Men - (Matt 2:1, 10-12)
    Massacre of the Innocents - (Matt 2:16)
    Flight to Egypt - (Matt 2:13-15)
    Boy Jesus in the Temple - (Luke 2:40-52)
    Baptism - (Mark 1:6-11)
    Wedding at Cana - (John 2:1-11)
    Mary Anoints Jesus - (Mark 14:3-9)
    Samaritan Woman - (John 4:4-29)
    Jairus' Daughter - (Mark 5:22-24,35-43)
    Walking on Water - (Mark 6:47-48)
    Catch of Fish - (Luke 5:1-6)
    Lazarus raised - (John 11)
    Transfiguration - (Mark 9:2-8)
    Triumphal Entry - (Mark 11:1-10)
    Clearing the Temple - (Mark 11:15-19)
    Last Supper - (Mark 14:16-25
    Gethsemane - (Mark 14:32-42)
    Trial before Caiaphas - (Luke 22:66-71)
    Peter's denial - (Mark 14:66-72)
    Trial before Pilate - (Mark 15:1-15a)
    Scourging & Mocking - (Mark 15b:15-20a)
    Crowds Condemn Jesus - (John 19:5-16)
    Road to the cross - (Mark 15:20b-22)
    (Veronica) - (Tradition)
    Crucifixion - (Mark 15:22-33)
    Death of Jesus - (John 19:30,34)
    (Actual Resurrection)
    Empty Tomb - (Mark 16:1-8)
    Acension - (Luke 24:50-53)
    A Few Notes:
    As far as I can recall, this is the only film about Jesus that chooses to show the Transfiguration. There are two others which also do, The Visual Bible's Matthew, and the Genesis Project's Luke (which was condensed into the Jesus film, both of which had to cover the as they were filming the whole gospel. That said the former film avoids showing it anyway - simply showing the narrator (if I remember correctly). The latter film, however, didn't have to include that episode in the cut down film Jesus, but still does.

    Since this has been professionally released the quality of the print is much better than the other films, but even so it appears that it has been restored to something of it's former glory - there is a real crispness to the images we see here.

    Another scene that is usually ignored is the Woman of Samaria. Other than this film and it's siblings (I should mention that this film was shot for shot re-made in 1914/1915 with a couple of extra scenes, and extra intertitles and released as Son of Man) the woman of Samaria story is only included in Il Messia (Rosellini - 1975), and the Visual Bible's Gospel of John (2003). Again in the case of the latter film the scene had to be shot. This story is a popular text for preaching, and so it's strange that it is generally ignored in film.

    Sadly despite this film having been widely available in the last few years there is relatively little comment available on it. The best review I've come across is by Steven D Greydanus. He says so many things so well that rather than repeat them all again, only less eloquently, it's better if I just link to his review at Decent Films. In addition to his discussion of the film linked to above, Peter T Chattaway also comments on the film at Canadian Christianity. The three of us also talk briefly about the film at Arts and Faith (there was a longer thread on the old forum, but sadly that appears to be lost). Finally, Mike Hernstein of the Flickerings festival discusses it as part of his excellent Survey of Jesus films - probably the best collection of comments on Jesus films on the web to date.

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    • At 7:22 pm, January 14, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said…

      Did somebody noticed that at
      the end of "Agony and death of
      Christ" Jesus is pored [John 19:
      :34] and then in "The descent of
      Christ" part Jesus has no wound.
      And in the same descent,the nails
      are taken of just from his hands,
      and not from his legs.

    • At 12:22 pm, January 15, 2009, Blogger Matt Page said…

      Good points - thanks.


    • At 8:41 pm, September 25, 2012, Anonymous Anonymous said…

      You are wrong about the woman of Samaria. She is in "Jesus" from 1999 with Jeremy Sisto. There, Jesus and his disciples are so thirsty that they all drink from the well. Jesus asks the woman if they may do it (why should he if it was a Jewish village?), she says yes and shows him to the people.
      There is no mentioning that the disciples are suprised about Jesus talking to a woman, no mentioning that this woman and the well belong to the Samaritans and no mentioning that the woman is living with a man without being married to him. So it is almost impossible to notice that this is the village in Samaria.


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