• 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


    Tuesday, March 13, 2007

    Lucifer - Movie Star

    Whilst the devil never quite seems to get the leading role in a movie, he is certainly a frequently used member of the supporting cast in two particular genres – the horror film and the biblical epic. Leaving the horror genre to those better equipped to comment on it I thought I would make a few comments on the portrayal of Satan in Jesus films. Since the main place that the devil appears in films about Jesus is his temptation in the desert, that will be the main focus.

    The earliest silent films didn't really have much room for the temptation scene. The lack of sound meant that dialogue could only be conveyed by using intertitle cards whilst the actors mimed. Wordy episodes like the Sermon on the Mount, or the temptation in the desert didn't really work with these restrictions so such episodes tended to be either ignored, or only dealt with briefly.

    The first major American Jesus film to cover this material was Cecil B. DeMille's The King of Kings (1927). Occurring right at the end of the silent era, DeMille's film started well after Jesus's baptism and temptation, but inserted a temptation into the clearing of the temple scene. Satan takes human form, but his dark attire makes it clear to the audience who he is. He troubles Jesus with a single temptation – to gain the kingdoms of the world by bowing to him. Jesus refuses, and shortly afterwards is able to resist a similar offer from Judas and the mob that accompanies him.

    The portrayal of the devil as a human is actually the standard approach for the Jesus biopics. One film that deviated from this norm was Nicholas Ray's King of Kings (1961), here there is no external figure, we simply hear Satan's voice and see Jesus's reaction. Satan's voice, however, is different from that of Jesus. So whilst this film depicts Satan as internal rather than external , he is still distinct from Jesus as such.

    In a similar manner to DeMille, Pasolini uses a darkly dressed human figure to tempt Jesus in the wilderness. As this film is portrayal of The Gospel According to St. Matthew the conflict between Jesus and the devil uses first evangelist's dialogu almost word for word. Jesus's time in the desert is brief, dealt with matter of factly before Jesus goes about starting his movement. Jesus's rejection of the devil's temptation to gain power aligns well with Pasolini's marxist agenda.

    Arguably the most interesting and thorough portrayal of Satan comes in George Steven's Greatest Story Ever Told. Here Satan is credited as "The Drak Hermit" and played by perennial evil actor Donald Pleasance. As Jesus climbs the crags of the wilderness he encounters the hermit in a cave. The two talk for a while before Satan begins to tempt Jesus. This non-confrontational approach is more beguiling as opposed to the confrontational methods used in other films. Unlike other Jesus films, The Dark Hermit appears later in the film also. At a later stage he tries to encourage the crowd to make Jesus the messiah by giving him a messianic title in their presence. As the story draws to it's climax, the hermit makes two final appearances, near Judas as he contemplates suicide, and stirring up the crowd that condemns Jesus to death.

    The seventies films largely ignored the temptation scene and the corresponding mentions of the devil. This was understandable for Jesus Christ Superstar which was essentially a passion play, but it is strange that such a long, detailed look at the life of Jesus such as Jesus of Nazareth should omit this episode as well. Ironically, this was the time when Satan's popularity in the horror genre was really beginning to come into its own.

    Away from the increasingly materialist west, the 1978 Indian Jesus film Dayasagar developed the tradition in a new direction. Its Jesus was not a human figure, but a far more mythical looking beast, albeit one of a similar height and shape to an adult man. Aside from his appearance, the encounter with Jesus is fairly standard, but whereas film's such as Ray's could be read as denying the reality of Stan, Dayasagar depicts the spiritual realm as equally real as the physical world, and as fully able to interact with it.

    Perhaps the most extensive treatment of the temptation of Jesus is of course Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ. Obviously the film's climax is where the devil (portrayed here as a young, innocent looking girl) tempts Jesus to come off the cross and settle for a normal life. But the film also contains a more standard temptation sequence, and part of Jesus's susceptibility to his final temptation arises because the devil appears differently every time Jesus encounters him/her.

    The temptation scene itself commences as Jesus draws a circle in the dirt and sits in it waiting for God. The devil appears to tempt him in a number of different forms; as a snake with Magdalene's voice, as a lion who sounds like Judah, and finally as a burst of flame with vocals by Martin Scorsese himself. Later on, Jesus is tempted in the Garden of Gethsemane where he appears as John the disciple. The temptations in this film are markedly different from the gospels, focussing more on Jesus's internal dilemma concerning his identity - the movie's major theme.

    A number of more recent films have also examined the temptation Jesus faced in new ways. The animated film The Miracle Maker switched from its standard 3D animation to its more psychological 2D drawing style for this segment of the film. This makes this section more subjective, it also allows for a smooth transition from the desert to the top of the temple, something the gospels never really explain.

    The Jesus mini series (1999) combines most of these elements into its version of the temptation. Satan is actually represented by two different human figures. Initially, we see a attractive woman dressed seductively in red. Then she changes into a man who, like Pasolini / DeMille is dressed in black. In contrast to the sexual seduction suggested (although not voiced) of the female Satan, the male Satan tests Jesus in a more intellectual manner. For example, the temptation to turn stones to bread is in order not just to feed himself, but all the starving of the world.

    Like Last Temptation Satan also appears in the Garden of Gethsemane, again trying to tempt him away from his destiny, but in the process handing Jesus a convenient opportunity to provide an apologetic for modern day faith. Interestingly neither temptation appears to be as challenging as the one that faces him at the start of the film - to marry Mary of Bethany and settle down with her.

    Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ also tries to avoid portraying Satan as one particular gender. Whilst Satan is played by an actress, her feminine characteristics are minimised, her hair and eyebrows are shaved off, and she wears a heavy dark robe. The story only concerns the events of the last 24 hours of Jesus's life, so the temptation in the desert story is not a part of the narrative. Nevertheless, Gibson, like Scorsese and Young before him, allows Satan the chance to tempt Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. This androgynous Satan figure is also the only film by this point that does not try to befriend Jesus and cajole him into sin. Furthermore, as Jesus suffers his fate, Satan mocks him by parodying the Madonna and child.

    The 2006 South African modernised Jesus film Jezile (Son of Man) brings a new twist to the film. Not only does this film feature the first black Jesus, but also the first black devil. The film portrays a defiant political Jesus promoting for non-violence resistance to the forces which oppress his people. Jesus's defeat of Satan early in the film captures his saying about binding the strong man in order to plunder his goods. As a beaten Satan roles down the hill, Jesus has struck a decisive blow in the spiritual realm which will impact the physical world he seeks to change.

    Filmmakers have chosen a variety of ways, then, to portray Satan, but despite this a number of alternative approaches suggest themselves. No film, as far as I am aware has sought to use the voice of the actor playing Jesus to also speak Satan's lines. This move would suggest the reality of the way temptation tends to affect most humans. Additionally, with the exception of Dayasagar, none of these films really explored what Satan, a fallen angel, might actually look like. This suggests there is plenty of scope for creativity in future Jesus films.

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    • At 3:47 pm, March 17, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said…

      Regarding 'Jesus of Nazareth,' Zeffirelli did shoot scenes depicting Christ's temptation in the wilderness. His approach was similar to Ray's (and in keeping with the rest of the film) in that Satan did not appear on screen; but was unique in having him voiced by Robert Powell, as though he were being heard internally. To me, this would seem, theologically, to be quite realistic and most plausible. Nevertheless, Franco was dissatisfied with the results, and shelved it. A couple still shots from this scene, showing a parched and weary Jesus, can be seen on the 'Jesucrucifix' fansite for the film (along with stills from other edited scenes). My guess is that these images are derived from a slide collection I know of, which was availible in the late '70s. I do wish a proper DVD of JON, containing commentary or edited footage and television trailers would be forthcoming, but I suppose the chances of that happening are slim (as are those of acquiring a complete version of 'A.D. Anno Domini' on DVD).

      On a sidenote, I find Steven's rendering of the wilderness temptation to be the most contemplative, and artistically pleasing.

    • At 11:50 am, February 27, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said…

      Satan is really one of the most intriguing characters in this whole story.

    • At 2:23 pm, August 24, 2010, Anonymous Jake said…

      The ''Satan'' of the Jesus (Jeremy Sisto) film reminds me of Mel Gibson (''Passion'' movie director) because I think he almost looks like him.

      The ''Satan'' of ''The Greatest Story Ever Told'' I'd say is not right, because I think Jesus is probably OLDER than Satan, of which Satan would have has a younger image in that film.

      I have never seen ''Godspell'', but the ''Satan'' of that movie looks perfect for an animated movie of Christ's life.

      The ''Satan'' of ''The Last Temptation of Christ'' is pretty much as Kazantzakis' novel is like, but in that film, Satan is a Girl, an Archangel (Fire explosion), and the last scene of him of what he really looks like: A Death Figure.

      But the ''Satan'' of ''The Passion of The Christ'' I'd say IS NOT RIGHT because the Devil himself was a MAN and not a WOMAN!

      So, any way, not much films of Christ have Satan, but some animated films show him of who he probably looks like.


    • At 9:51 am, April 05, 2024, Blogger Carlo said…

      The child in Gibson's "The Passion of The Christ" is the italian actor Davide Marotta

    • At 8:16 am, April 08, 2024, Blogger Matt Page said…

      Thanks Carlo,
      He's in Matteo Garrone's PINOCCHIO as well isn't he?

    • At 10:19 am, April 08, 2024, Blogger Carlo said…

      Yes, Matt!


    • At 10:30 am, April 08, 2024, Blogger Carlo said…

      Here is in the Kodak advertising for whom he became famous in Italy!


    • At 7:44 am, April 11, 2024, Blogger Matt Page said…

      Thanks Carlo


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