Comparing screen saviours

25th February 2005 at 00:00
Jesus has always been big box office. Jerome Monahan examines some of the most popular depictions

What films work best when exploring the screen representations of the Ministry and Passion of Christ in class? The question cropped up recently at Longfield School in Darlington during planning for a key stage 4 AQA module 4 enrichment workshop designed for the unit "exploring the relationship between religion and media".

The first film to feature events from the Gospels was made in the late 1890s, and there are dozens more recent depictions of Christ to select from on video and DVD. In the end, I opted for three. The first was the trailer promoting Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004) - still available on the movie's official website. This was followed by the Sermon on the Mount, as dramatised in Ben Hur (1959), and the comic rendering of the same "Lilies of the Field" message in The Life of Brian (1979) and the immediate fragmentation of the unwilling hero's followers into various schismatic groups within seconds of having heard him speak.

It proved particularly helpful that the session began by inviting students to deconstruct The Passion's trailer. "Running alongside the RE emphasis for the day was the broader requirement on every faculty that they help develop pupil's critical thinking," explains Lyn Greenhow, head of RE. "So, as part of this initial exercise, students received a crash course in basics of film framing, camera movement and editing - essential tools with which they could succinctly evaluate this and the subsequent clips."

That the trailer employed all the techniques of sophisticated and compelling film construction was hardly surprising. But identifying these provided an intriguing counterbalance to the makers' claims in their publicity for the film's exceptional authority and intrinsic spiritual power. "The trailer also contains enough hints of the violence in the film and an overall sense of menace - slithering snakes, storm clouds, slow-motion confrontations in the Garden of Gesthsemane to mark it apart from other, more 'sober', depictions of the Passion," says Lyn. "It also helped raise such questions as to whether or not such violence was actually required or the need perhaps for a more relaxed kind of certificate geared to grim scenes featured in a religious context." Such debates are also central to the "religion and media" unit.

We turned next to the Christ of Ben Hur - always heralded by ethereal choirs but otherwise hidden, bar a discreet foot or rear view - his divinity etched in the expressions of those heeding his message or caught in his gaze. In this way, we pointed out, the film was very much of the time when filmmakers, in keeping with the prevailing production codes, preferred to steer clear of prolonged depictions of Jesus, reducing Him to an occasional walk-on role in otherwise entirely fictional narratives.

This provided another strong contrast with Gibson's unflinching depiction of His life, proof positive of the more relaxed approach to Christ's portrayal that has predominated since the 1960s. It also opened up a helpful discussion of the differences between Christianity and Islam concerning such representations.

Having established that modern filmmakers enjoy greater creative latitude, it was time to look at the Sermon on the Mount scene and its immediate aftermath from The Life of Brian. This afforded another opportunity to cultivate students' critical skills, asking them to explain what it was that made the sequence unconventional and funny. What followed then was a crucial discussion of blasphemy and to what extent directors have the right to add or subtract from the Gospels, or, as in this case, use a satiric version of a Biblical event to send up the potential absurdities of organised religion. "Our students found the clip hilarious and it gave them some purchase on these difficult concepts," says Lyn.

Blasphemy is currently still a part of UK common law though long repealed as statute. Right now, this is another burning issue deserving RE and citizenship class time with the Government poised to do away with blasphemy as an offence altogether, replacing it with new rules against "incitement to religious hatred".

"Film versions of the Gospels have always fascinated me," explains Lat Blaylock, of the Professional Council for Religious Education. "I seem to enjoy puzzling over questions of authenticity, cultural equivalence, theological validity and sheer cinematic excellence."

Authenticity is of special relevance to the discussion of Gibson's film, which as its principal source relies not on the Bible, but the visionary writings of 19th-century Catholic nun Catherine Emmerich. Keeping up with such issues clearly imposes special demands on RE teachers. "It's a salutary reminder," adds Lat Blaylock, "of how crucial it is having specialist staff in RE classrooms."

* Religious Education is the Subject Focus in next week's issue of TESTeacher


Trawl the web for still images of Christ as realised in movies.

Add these to the depictions of Christ in art that are conventionally used to discuss his life and Ministry.

Useful publications supporting this are: Margaret Cooling's Jesus Through Art, and the video and print Images of Jesus in Art, both available from the Stapleford Centre.

Watch an incident that is unknown to pupils for a couple of minutes, then halt the film and give them five minutes to write what they think will come next. Lesser-known parables and some of Jesus's miracles suit this activity.

* The Passion of the Christ (2004) website: www.thepassionofthechrist.comno_flash.html

Other films * The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) - George Stevens:

* The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) - Martin Scorsese:

* The Gospel According to St Matthew (1964) - Pier Paolo Pasolini:

* Jesus of Montreal (1989) - Denys Arcand: Other useful websites National Secular Society: Professional Council for The Stapleford Centre: www.stapleford-centre. org

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