2016 was a big year for Jesus in the movies, with several films depicting him in one way or another. The result was a mixed bag, both commercially and artistically, but “The Young Messiah” is a better and more interesting film than many viewers seem to have noticed.
Each January, looking back at the movies of the year that was, I take stock, among other things, of how filmmakers variously interacted with or ignored religious themes, particularly things Christian and Catholic.
Some years it’s pretty dry. (Take 2010, a year that had “Secretariat,” the Coen brothers’ “True Grit,” the third Narnia film, “The Secret of Kells,” a troubling indie called “Lourdes,” and not much else.)
The last few years have been more interesting. 2014 gave us a pair of provocative Old Testament films (“Noah” and “Exodus: Gods and Kings”), the pious Jesus movie “Son of God,” and some good roles for movie priests (notably “Calvary” and “Deliver Us From Evil”).
Still, I can’t think of another year quite like 2016.
To begin with, Jesus himself was on the big screen in an extraordinary number of screen incarnations.
It began in February with the Coen brothers’ “Hail, Caesar!”, a semi-musical comedy about 1950s Hollywood that lends its name to a film-within-a-film, a biblical epic in the tradition of “The Robe” or “Ben-Hur.” (The imaginary film is called “Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ,” the subtitle borrowed from “Ben-Hur.”)
In keeping with that tradition, Christ himself (or the actor playing Christ, or the actor playing the actor playing Christ) is only briefly seen in the imaginary film, and his face is never shown.
Instead, the imaginary film focuses on the impact of Christ’s life and crucifixion on a Roman soldier played by George Clooney’s character, highlighted by a scene that has some real power despite being comically undercut by the actor’s lack of spiritual understanding.
More Christologically noteworthy is a theological round table of clerical consultants – a Catholic priest, a Protestant minister, an Orthodox bishop (actually a patriarch) and a rabbi – debate Jesus’ divine and human natures and the significance of portraying him onscreen. Josh Brolin plays the devoutly Catholic protagonist, a studio “fixer” who earnestly facilitates the discussion.
Strikingly, “Hail, Caesar!” was followed by a pair of Jesus films that each relied on a Roman soldier character in just the same way as the Coens’ film-within-a-film (and its 1950s inspirations) – a genre that critic Stephen Whitty dubbed “Good Pagan movies.”
Both focused on a period of Jesus’ non-public life, one before and one after his public ministry. Sean Bean played a centurion hunting for a possible survivor of Herod’s slaughter of the innocents in “The Young Messiah,” directed by Cyrus Nowrasteh (“The Stoning of Soraya M”) and based on the Anne Rice novel “Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt.”
“Risen” starred Joseph Fiennes as a tribune searching for the body of Jesus (or Yeshua, the Hebrew form of the name used here) after the resurrection.
The 1950s-style Jesus movies culminated in Paramount’s remake of “Ben-Hur,” directed by Timur Bekmambetov – not a “Good Pagan movie,” of course, because Judah Ben-Hur is Jewish, but still a film that uses the conversion of a non-Christian character to tell the story of Jesus.
More daringly, Rodrigo García’s art-house film “Last Days in the Desert,” starred Ewan McGregor as both Jesus (again called Yeshua) and Satan (or “the Demon”) in an dramatically defamiliarized gloss on Jesus’ trials in the wilderness.
Even further off the beaten path, a faith-based 2016 indie, Jesse Low’s microbudgeted “40 Nights,” took a more scripturally inspired approach to the same event in Jesus’ life, fleshing out the traditional temptations with flashbacks and flash-forwards as well as invented drama and dialogue (including a significant role for Gabriel, who confronts Satan and ministers to Jesus).
Another faith-based production, Daniel Goldstein’s “Easter Mysteries,” depicted Jesus’ passion and resurrection as a stage musical filmed written and scored by Tony Award-winning Broadway producer John O’Boyle and filmed before a live audience.
Not to be confused with the similarly multiracial 2016 small-screen musical “The Passion” narrated by Tyler Perry, “Easter Mysteries” was staged in minimalist style, with no scenery or props and a simple geometrical set.
(Full disclosure: I co-moderated a panel discussion of diverse religious commentators – not entirely unlike the round table in “Hail, Caesar!”, with two Catholic clerics, including a bishop, two Protestant leaders, a rabbi and a Muslim chaplain – that played with the film.)
Which, if any, of these films are actually worth seeing?
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