What to watch this Lent and Easter? Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, and here at CTS Catholic Compass, we wanted to point you in the direction of some great seasonal films and help you avoid some others, while taking a closer look at the history of Christ on celluloid.
A Little History
The life of Christ and Bible stories have been gracing our screens ever since the dawn of narrative cinema in the early 20th century, with D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) and even the British feature From the Manger to the Cross (1912). Cecil B. De Mille wrote the textbook on sword and sandal biblical epics with The King of Kings (1927) later to be remade, and the ’50s and ’60s brought us classics such as The Robe (1953), Ben Hur (1959) and The Greatest Story ever told (1965).
But there is a trio of films that perhaps go a little deeper than the Hollywood classics: we will take a closer look at each.
1. The Gospel according to St Matthew (1964)
If ever Christ was a rebel come to throw out the money lenders and preach to the poor, he is so in this masterpiece of stark black-and-white cinema. A film that may be troubling for some (I wouldn’t probe too much into the life of its director Pier Paolo Pasolini) but is nonetheless effective, beautiful and artistic in its execution. The Sermon on the Mount given by amateur actor Enrique Irazoqui is violent and moving in equal measure and is like hearing it for the first time. Marxist leanings aside, the close-ups of the apostles’ rugged and worn faces remind us that Christ came not for the shiny and clean cinemascope people of The King of Kings but for you and me.
2. Jesus of Nazareth (1977)
I don’t think I am overstating the importance this film has when Robert Powell still gets mistaken for Jesus Christ. The bright blue piercing eyes and the thin and worn cheeks of this Jesus are seared in many peoples’ memories as their abiding image of the celluloid Christ. This is the definitive version of the life of Christ on film for many, and more or less theologically sound throughout. The Italian director Zeffirelli paints a beautiful portrait of Jesus, and with a stellar cast and unforgettable soundtrack, this film, though looking sometimes dated (it sounds like the apostles all went to Oxbridge), is a beautiful meditation that can be watched throughout Lent (its full running time is 382 minutes).
3. The Passion of the Christ (2004)
Mel Gibson has been much maligned of late and continues to battle his demons, however it is important to remember what effect this film had. Putting all his own money to fund a film in Aramaic and Latin was doomed to failure by many. Not so. The most powerful and striking depiction of the Passion, certainly not for the faint-hearted, and thoroughly Catholic in all aspects from its Caravaggesque cinematography right through to its portrayal of Mary, this film is basically a live-action stations of the cross – I believe it has even been used as such in certain parishes. Worthwhile to meditate with, and a film that never fails to move the viewer, this takes “by his wounds we are healed” to a level many of us are afraid to go.
Give us your suggestions about what to watch this Lent.