Hollywood misses Jesus' humanity, divinity

By  Eugene Mccarthy, Catholic Register Special
  • February 12, 2007
jesushollywoodWATERLOO, Ont. - Hollywood has portrayed Jesus in various ways over the years in film but none has managed to adequately illustrate both His humanity and His divinity.
That’s the view of Adele Reinhartz of the University of Ottawa, author of the newly published book Jesus of Hollywood and recent speaker on that subject at a St. Jerome’s Centre for Catholic Experience lecture. Her Jan. 24 talk was sponsored by three area Catholic school boards and will be broadcast later this year on CBC Radio’s Ideas series.

Reinhartz, associate vice-president for research, used examples from a number of films — showing excerpts from each — to illustrate her contention that so far, the cinema has not satisfactorily answered Jesus’ question posed to His disciples, “Who do people say I am?”

She said while there were “between 100 and 200” films dating from the turn of the century in which Jesus is referred to, she selected only the ones in which He is the principle character and not just the subject of a passing reference.

{sa 0195146964}Many of the films, she said, fit into the “biopic” genre.

The author, who is Jewish, noted as well that other than the Monty Python film, Life of Brian, films have generally not explored in any depth the fact that Jesus was Jewish.

Her favourite film? Jesus of Montreal, a 1989 Canadian production.

She said perhaps the film which caused the most controversy was Martin Scorsese’s 1988 epic, The Last Temptation of Christ. Despite Scorsese’s insistence at the time that the film, which portrays a “dreamlike” set of events in which Jesus and Mary Magdalene have an affair which results in a child, was not historically correct, its screening evoked widespread protests, said Reinhartz.

But, she noted, what protesters seemed to overlook was the filmmaker’s innuendo that there was a “homoerotic” relationship between Jesus and Judas, something she viewed as much more controversial.

Reinhartz, answering a question about the 1961 epic film The Robe, said she didn’t include it in her survey because it only really allocated Jesus to a background role. However, she told the audience that her research turned up an interesting fact in that between 1927 and 1961, there were no Hollywood films made in which Jesus is portrayed in either a minor or major role. This was because during those years, “a very strict censorship code” existed in Hollywood “and filmmakers stayed away from Jesus and other controversial subjects.”

Asked why she obviously didn't consider Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ a memorable film about Jesus, Reinhartz said the film, in which Jesus is “reduced to a hunk of raw meat,” not only “erased His divine identity but His human one as well.” She acknowledged that many people found the film an uplifting and moving experience.

“It is viewed in many different ways by many different people... depending on the beliefs and attitudes you brought into the the theatre with you.

“However, it didn’t personally move me. I wanted an experience but I was bored,” she said. She added she had refrained from commenting on the film until she actually viewed it and then she found that “Jesus was portrayed as a hunk of flesh and not much more than that.”

Reinhartz noted that in her opinion, the scene where Jesus is about to be scourged in Scorsese’s film is far more expressive than in Gibson’s because its portrayal of the horror is left to the viewer’s imagination creating a “much more powerful image.”

(McCarthy is a freelance writer in Waterloo, Ont.)

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.