The Old and New Testaments have inspired filmmakers since the genesis of the silver screen. Design by Lucy Barco.

Biblical films back in style

  • March 30, 2014

A decade after The Passion of the Christ, Hollywood has seen the light — again — and it’s the colour of money.

A wave of Bible-inspired films will grace the big screen this year. Son of God, about the life and crucifixion of Jesus Christ, is already playing across North America. Noah, released Mar. 28, presents Hollywood’s version of the great flood as told in Genesis. Exodus, coming in December, portrays the Israelites flight to freedom. Hollywood has been born again.

That is a striking change from when director Mel Gibson first proposed making The Passion of the Christ, an Aramaic-language film about the final hours of the life of Christ. Hollywood shut its doors in his face, forcing Gibson to fund the movie from his own pocket. He laughed all the way to the bank after moviegoers packed cinemas to view The Passion of the Christ in 2004. On opening weekend alone the film grossed $83.8 million in the U.S. By the end of its run, the film took in more than $610 million worldwide.

Despite this windfall, there was no immediate follow-up wave of Biblical dramas from Hollywood. The Passion had been steeped in controversy for its portrayal of Jews — Gibson faced allegations of anti Semitism — and for its graphic recreation of the torture and crucifixion of Christ. But the controversy made the film “front and centre” with the media, which discussed it for a long time even before it was released, said Adele Reinhartz.

“It got the reputation of being a film you had to see,” she said.

Reinhartz is a professor at the University of Ottawa’s Department of Classics and Religious Studies. The author of two books on religious films — Jesus of Hollywood and Bible and Cinema: An Introduction — she offers a simple explanation for why it’s taken Hollywood 10 years to rediscover Biblical filmmaking. Even after the right people recognize a film’s profitability, it takes a long time for them to develop a similar concept, write a screenplay, find funding and finally produce a film, she said.

“People picked up on the fact that there’s a large conservative Christian community, whether Catholic or Protestant, in the Unites States that will go to these movies,” she said. “It’s a sizeable audience. You can make a lot of money from them. People did the analysis of the box office (and) it seemed like a lucrative thing to do.”

Son of God was released at the end of February. Based in part on the successful, small-screen 2013 miniseries The Bible, it recounts the life, crucifixion and resur-rection of Jesus. Produced by a Christian Hollywood power couple — actress Roma Downey (Touched by an Angel) and reality show producer Mark Burnett (Survivor) — the film raked in $25.6 million on its opening weekend in the U.S., even though parts of the film had already aired on televi-sion as part of the miniseries.

The big-screen version still felt like a made-for-TV movie at times, but it was much less violent than The Passion and it side-stepped controversy by relying on consultations with several religious authori-ties and casting out the character of Satan after acusations that the miniseries actor looked like U.S. President Barrack Obama. Christians across denominations flocked to cinemas. In California, the Knights of Columbus arranged multiple one-time Span-ish-language screenings, in part because the Spanish dubbing of the voice of Jesus is done by Eduardo Verástegui, a Knight.

The second Biblical flick of the year is Noah, inspired by the famous Old Testament tale. This end-of-the-world-as-we-know it film, roughly based on the Book of Genesis, stars Oscar winners Russell Crowe (Gladiator) as Noah and Anthony Hopkins (The Silence of the Lambs), along with Emma Watson from the uber-popular Harry Potter film series.

Noah will be followed in December by another big-budget film, Exodus. It stars Christian Bale (The Dark Knight) as Moses in a retelling of the Old Testament story of the enslaved Israelites’ flight across the Red Sea and out of Egypt.

Hollywood typically gravitates more towards the Old Testament for screenplay material, says Reinhartz. Films based on the New Testament are more rare and are most likely about Jesus.

Between the late 1940s and early 1960s, the silver screen was lit with Old Testament classics like Samson and Delilah (1949), David and Bathsheba (1951), The Ten Commandments (1956) and Solomon and Sheba (1959). There were also New Testament movies on Jesus, but they were fewer, such as The Robe (1953), King of Kings (1961) and The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965).

With the Old Testament, “there’s just a bit more scope for drama,” said Reinhartz. Not only are the stories familiar, but there’s less of an ideological issue surrounding the ways in which the characters can be altered, she said.

“Most viewers expect Jesus to be presented in a particular way and they get upset if you don’t present Jesus that way, and so that puts a lot of constraint on filmmak-ers. It really limits what they can do. That’s not true with let’s say Noah or Moses even. Moses is a revered figure, but he’s not the son of God or anything like that for anybody,” she said.

Reinhartz cites Martin Scoreses’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) as an example of a film in which Jesus was portrayed in a way audiences rejected.

“You have to be really audacious to do that with Jesus. Expect a lot of flack,” she said. “Even though he (Scorsese) emphasized that he wasn’t doing a historical movie, people still got really upset about his presentation of Jesus. So it’s easier to do a more palatable Old Testament film.”

Hollywood occasionally releases a film as a lone drop in the Biblical genre instead of as a larger wave of movies. For example, Jesus Christ Superstar was released in 1973, far from other significant films. Also independent companies continue to produce non mainstream New Testament films, such as Mary of Nazareth (2012), which focussed on Mary’s life as intertwined with that of Jesus. And there are non-biblical religious films coming out of the U.S. that target conservative Christian audiences, such as Heaven Is for Real, to be released April 12. This story is based on a book and the real-life testimony of a four-year-old boy who recounts visions of heaven he had during and after a near death experience.

What remains steady in filmmaking is that Hollywood is cyclical in its themes and it adapts many screenplays from best selling novels. So if the tide is truly turning once again towards stories from Scripture, Hollywood better dust of its Bible, the best selling book of all time.

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