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The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ
(La Vie et la Passion de Jésus Christ) (1902-5)

I have intended for some time to post short reviews of the major Jesus biopics, so here goes. There are many more films in this class than you or I would have access to, so I am limiting myself to those that are available on Netflix. You may be able to find more if you seek out DVDs for sale. Many more are discussed at Matt Page’s Bible Films Blog.

It seems superfluous to comment on a movie for you, when you can sample it or view it in its entirety for yourself by clicking your mouse. Nevertheless, I have a few thoughts.

The Life and Passion
is an early and primitive movie, but one made by the best producers in the world at that time, Pathé Frères of Paris. It was originally made in 1902, then scenes were added until it took its final form in 1905. You can now find an amazingly well preserved print of this 44-minute feature superbly transferred to DVD. On the same disc they’ve included 1912′s From the Manger to the Cross, which I will review shortly.

This was a popular film, lively, colorful and Catholic in its point of view. It used elaborate if not convincing sets and costumes, and employed the best of special effects at the time, including the pain-staking process of hand-tinting: adding colors to the picture by painting them directly onto the black and white print, frame by frame. The film deserves some respect for the care, creativity and energy the cast and crew put into it.

Hardly anyone watches silent films anymore. As it would be hard to find anyone younger than myself (born 1963) who grew up with easy access to them (even though they are even easier to find now, on DVD), mine may be the last generation that watched and enjoyed them. I started with Chaplin around age nine, then Lon Chaney and Buster Keaton, and as I got older, added Griffith, Murnau and Lang. To appreciate them calls for a suspension of current standards in acting and film-making technique. You need to see them for what they were at the time, given the limitations they worked under. Do that, and you will marvel at the genius, artistry, innovation, unbridled creativity and sheer insanity some of these brilliant pioneers gave to the world. To this day, people are still watching and enjoying Murnau’s Sunrise and Nosferatu, Lang’s Metropolis and Chaplin’s City Lights.

At the same time, I don’t expect the average viewer today is going to enjoy most of early cinema’s lesser achievements. The Life and the Passion would probably fall into this category: it is technically marvelous for its time, but undeveloped in its story-telling and old-fashioned in its performances. When you see what was being produced in the mid-to-late 1920s, the turn of the century films are rightly deemed primitive. The camera might pan, but it doesn’t move (see the Nazareth scene). There are no close-ups. There is no montage, not even simple cross-cutting. In fact, there are no separate shots, only one master shot. (The year 1903 saw most of those innovations for the first time in Edwin Porter’s Life of an American Fireman and The Great Train Robbery.)

With that in mind, I offer some comments for the modern viewer.

The Baptism of Jesus

Even with the kinetic energy and technical flourishes, it’s a little hard to look past the essential goofiness of this film. Through 21st century eyes it most resembles a Nativity pageant at the corner church, albeit with spectacular stagecraft. Shot in a series of tableaux scenes, there is no real narrative thread to connect them, so it it doesn’t flow or connect. “Scenes from the Life of Christ” might have been a better title. The intertitles identify each scene, but there are none that explain the action or provide dialogue. If you are not familiar with any of the stories portrayed, you are unlikely to have any idea what is happening in them. Possibly for the original, more biblically-literate audience, this was not much of a problem, since at that time the entertainment value was inherent any moving image. Add the spectacle, the miracles, real babies for the Slaughter of the Innocents, the appearance of Jesus, and well, you’ve got a happy audience.

In this early effort some of the challenges, solutions and failings of later Jesus movies are already presenting themselves. Here the legend of Veronica is used, found in Catholic tradition but not in the gospel narratives. Also, we find the conflation of stories, presumably for economy’s sake – an acceptable but potentially confusing adaptation (see this at 21:23 in the video below). Good Friday is bloodless, until  Jesus is “pierced” (actually tapped with a stick dipped in fake blood) by the centurion: the scourging (at 32:05) consists of Jesus being lashed with silk scarves for 11 seconds.

"That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown."

Let’s talk about Jesus. One of my keenest interests in Jesus movies is the portrayal each offers of Jesus himself, a role that poses serious challenges for the best of actors. I will have more to say about this in later reviews. For now, let me speculate that this actor (I haven’t been able to discover his name) was given a free hand in developing a physical presence in this film. In fact, the performances of both the 12 year old  Jesus and the adult Jesus  suggest the actors were having a lot of fun playing him. A little too much fun, perhaps. Not that he is merry. No, he is grand. Instead of being humble and unassuming, he sweeps through the scenes, with big, “Hey, look at me” gestures, waving his arms, lecturing everyone with his index finger, and making a big deal whenever his attention is turned heavenward. At least once it appears that he points at the ground as if he were telling the Samaritan woman to kneel before him (at 18:42; Jesus allowed people to worship him, but he never told them to.). This Jesus looks like the aging proprietor of a head shop or a roadie for the Grateful Dead, but he acts like a low-level bureaucrat that just got made king of the world.

So even with the stagey acting and frenetic pace that quickens to almost farcical speed as it winds up to its climax (The Ascension: It’s spectacular, but it ill-advisedly shows God the Father as a grey-haired old man, ala Gary Larson’s The Far Side);  its flat, fake scenery; its lack of continuity; even with all that, I must choose the portrayal of a show-boating Jesus (“Everybody watch me turn this water into wine!”) as the most serious flaw in this movie. Their first task was to tell a good story, but 110 years ago the conventions of doing that on film were not yet established, so I won’t hold them to that standard. But I will fault them for a hammy, grandiose Jesus who gesticulates but never connects with another person. How could you read any of the gospels and not at least observe the deeply personal connection he makes with everyone who approaches him? There’s nothing even remotely like that here. He is an eccentrically animated icon, nothing more.

This points to one of the supreme challenges for the makers of a Jesus movie: how to bring him to life. Knowing him would seem to be absolutely necessary for the attempt, or at least a genuine sense that one knows him – as a writer, as a director, and as an actor must know their subject. Some actors have been honest enough to say that they struggled with how to play him. Other filmmakers have brought something running the spectrum from admiration to love for him. But it is almost a sure bet that the cultural perspectives of the time will have a lot to do with the image of Jesus. In this case a traditional, French Catholic image, as presented by a studio rather fixed on the business of entertainment and on technological innovation, peopled by creative entrepreneurs and artists. “Let’s make a Jesus movie! Oui! Angels! Stars! Miracles!”

But enough of my opinion (or had that already crossed your mind?) – Watch it for yourself. And just for fun, see if you can find the completely weird placement of the Pathé rooster in almost every scene.