Baker Academic

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Must Every Bible Film Be Offensive? - Le Donne

Over at the Wall Street Journal, Erica Orden informs us that Hollywood has turned again toward screenplays that develop stories inspired by biblical narratives. Yes, I did use the plural "screenplays" because there are a number of such projects in the works. Russell Crowe will play Noah.  Will Smith will make his directorial debut with a film about Cain. And yes, for those of you who are salivating for controversy, they are making a "prequel" to Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" called "Mary, Mother of Christ" (Odeya Rush plays Mary). This time, Gibson is nowhere near the production. But, no joke, Joel Osteen is one of the producers. I wonder if the baby Jesus will have excessively white teeth.

As is often the case, these producers reach out to religious and historical experts to give their stamps of approval. Producers tend to be concerned about the film's representation of a particular time period. One of the most notoriously flawed films in this regard is Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ." While the general public was scandalized by the notion of Jesus' sexuality, most scholars were laughing at the film's anachronisms, poor acting, and odd costume choices. Harvey Keitel, it seems, borrowed his costume from the set of Little Orphan Annie, the musical.

I enjoyed "Last Temptation" (despite its many unintentionally funny parts) because it explored themes, developed characters, and put forth something original. And, conversely, I hated Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" because it resisted themes, gave only nominal efforts toward characterization, and put forth something flat and unoriginal. While many were crying "but that's not how it really happened!", I was thinking "why does that man-baby need to be so hairy?" Which is to say that I never entered the film as a participant; I was never drawn into the narrative.

When I go to the movies, I am ready to suspend disbelief. Not every historian is. "Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter" was just fine with me. I'm looking for creativity and I don't really care about a one to one ratio between fact and story. In general, this is an absurd way to think about history and art both. The scenes I liked most in Gibson's debacle were the scenes that departed from the Gospels.  In short, I am not offended by new depictions of classic narratives.  I am offended by poor story-telling.  I truly hope that next year's Bible flicks will be better than previous attempts.


  1. Completely agree about TLToC: so many film-and-theology buffs described it as Scorsese's masterpiece (mainly, I think, pour épater la bourgeoisie) that they overlooked what a clunking piece of film-making it actually is. Look at the risible materialist Last Supper (real blood!), and the funniest ever line in all Jesus-bios: "So Lazarus… how you feeling today?"

  2. I'm quite a fan of this piece of classic Jesus filmmaking.

    Somehow Superbook always gets overloooked!

  3. Gibson, however, has a tentative film about the Maccabees in the works.

    1. I'm told by Hollywood "insiders" (sounds fancy, doesn't it?) that this Maccabees film is dead in the water.


  4. No matter how clunky The Last Temptation may have been as a film - the soundtrack is absolutely great. Peter Gabriel's masterpiece...

  5. I agree that when I go to the movies, I am ready to suspend disbelief and enjoy a plot that does not necessarily adhere strictly to history or reality. I think that any movie that tackles the Bible or contains a religious plot is bound to draw criticisms from at least some subset of the population. To me,this is just the nature of religion. It can be interpreted in so many different ways, and it is impossible to create a portrayal that will appeal to every member of the audience. I think it's up to people to choose whether or not they want to watch something that could potentially be controversial.

  6. If people go into a theater expecting to receive a real account of how Jesus' life was or how any biblical characters life was then they are doomed for disappointment. It is a well known fact that some movies, or most movies do not retell historical stories accurately. Movies are meant to be entertaining more than historically accurate.