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The Passion: Film, faith and fury

Channel 4 website
April 2006

‘It is without question the most blasphemous, the most disrespectful and the most satanic movie that's ever been filmed!’ So said a nun on the release of Martin Scorsese's film, The Last Temptation of Christ. The movie, which showed Jesus fantasising on the cross about living an ordinary life as a married man, and having children with Mary Magdalene, sparked widespread protest from the religious right in the United States when it was first screened in 1988.

Willem Dafoe, who played Christ, commented: ‘I remember the studio wanted to give me bodyguards at the beginning, because they received so many threats.’

Jesus and the movies is the subject of a new programme on Channel 4 this week, The Passion: Film, Faith and Fury. Robert Beckford, who presents the programme, comments that the films which have commanded the biggest budgets and stirred up the most vitriol in the history of Hollywood have been based on one book - the Bible. The programme is a fascinating exploration of the uneasy and often hostile relationship between the church and Hollywood.

Alongside The Last Temptation of Christ, two movies in recent times have caused huge controversy, but for different reasons. Monty Python's The Life of Brian caused outrage among Christians when it was released in 1979, especially when it showed Brian singing a comical song on the cross. Christians took this and other scenes to be blasphemous, even though the Pythons maintained the story was not a parody of Jesus.

Says Terry Gilliam, one of the Pythons: ‘We didn't want to satirise Jesus, because he's a good guy and said some wonderful things.’ Instead, The Life of Brian is about the people who were desperate to follow any Messiah who came along, and who helped create, as he says, ‘a world dominated by religion.’

Meanwhile, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ also stirred up anger, but this time it wasn't the Christians who were complaining. On the contrary, millions of them were thrilled with Gibson's production and ensured that it took some $600 million at the box office, making it one of the highest grossing films of all time. This time it was the Jewish community who were incensed, because the film repeated the ancient accusation that it was the Jews who killed Christ. ‘Mel's movie is a blood libel!’ said one protester's placard.

Jesus has been depicted over 50 times in mainstream cinema, and it's probably true to say that each ‘Jesus’ has reflected the times in which it was produced. In the 1950s, for example, Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments reflected the hopes and fears of Cold War America. Later, in the 1970s, Jesus Christ Superstar had the afro hairstyles and funky dance moves of disco.

The controversy surrounding biblical films almost always boils down to the question of how Jesus is depicted - and this is a uniquely Christian problem. Other religions, such as Islam and Judaism, forbid visual depictions of God, because it is forbidden in the second of the ten commandments: ‘Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image... thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them...’

In Islam, it is forbidden to portray Allah or the Prophet Muhammad - although pictures of the Prophet can be found in some Muslim countries. This is partly why there was such an uproar when Muhammad appeared in the infamous cartoons published in a Danish newspaper last year.

But for the Christian faith, the situation is theologically different. Christians believe Jesus was both God and man, and lived as a human being on earth 2,000 years ago. It is therefore legitimate to picture Jesus, even though he is divine, as he could actually be seen during his lifetime. In this sense, Jesus updates the ten commandments. One large branch of Christianity, the Orthodox Church, says that Jesus positively has to be shown in pictures; refusing to picture him, they say, is the same as saying that he never appeared on earth.

Today, the whole issue of blasphemy and film is more alive than ever. After a century of filmmaking, when Hollywood and the church frequently clashed on what could be shown in biblical epics, the difficult questions are as sharp as ever.

Should religion be given special protection against cartoonists or filmmakers who want to criticise or attack deeply-held beliefs? Or should directors be free to do what they want, regardless of the social consequences? Should there be a limit on how much religious believers are offended?

Terry Gilliam is dismayed by the way society is responding to these questions. ‘I'm shocked by how timid we have become. People are afraid to say things that might cause offence. Offence is very important. Offence makes people think; it makes people argue. That's very important - and we're losing it.’

Religious believers might usefully reflect on the widespread belief that the best-ever depiction of Jesus is in the 1960s film The Gospel According to St Matthew, by Pier Paolo Pasolini. Pasolini was a Marxist and atheist, and he was gay. Not a safe pair of hands, you might think, to be entrusted with putting Jesus on the silver screen. But maybe it takes an outsider to understand one of history's greatest outsiders - Jesus himself.

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