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What Would Jesus Watch?

The history of Jesus on screen is marked by controversy, contradiction, and very little profit. The latest Jesus flick, from the director of Lethal Weapon, has the first two in the bag.
 
 
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Every ardent moviemaker gets the Jesus he deserves. To imitate Christ's life on celluloid takes hubris, and the image created often reflects the director, his audience, and the times more than the elusive subject. The latest case in point may be Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ . I haven't seen the film yet, but reports suggest it takes to heart Jesus's assertion that he came to bring not peace to the world but a sword (an appropriate sentiment for the star of Lethal Weapon ). Does this Passion foment anti-Semitism and preach intolerance? As someone once said, by their fruits you shall know them.

Most films about Jesus, though, offer reconciliation, not provocation. In contrast with Gibson's renunciation of Vatican II, Pier Paolo Pasolini dedicates his masterpiece Il Vangelo secondo Matteo/The Gospel According to Matthew (1964) to Pope John XXIII, who convoked that ecumenical council (which declared tolerance for all religions) in 1962. A Marxist, Pasolini gives us a Jesus who looks like a leftist Spanish economics student, which is indeed what Enrique Arazoqui, the non-professional actor who played him, was. Otherwise, the director intrudes little ideology into his version of the Gospel; it is perhaps the purest on film. His images are as austere as the stones that Jesus refuses to turn into bread when tempted by Satan in the desert. Pasolini is true to the letter of the text; the viewer provides the spirit.

The bread/word dichotomy for Pasolini, however, is crucial. Men do not live by bread alone, as Christ says in response to Satan's goading in the desert, but by the word of God. Material consumption doesn't satisfy the soul; despite his dialectical materialism, Pasolini reveals his own and the times' spiritual hunger. The film does include the infamous "Let his blood be on our children!" In this context, though, it's unlikely to spawn any hate crimes. Those who kill Jesus in Matthew are not "the Jews"; they're the entitled, the greedy, and the hypocritical, all those whose vanity and power he threatens.

Such is also the case in Franco Zeffirelli's mammoth 371-minute mini-series Jesus of Nazareth (1977), which he made in the aftermath of the 1973 Christ-as-hippie celebrations Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar . Robert Powell's Jesus possesses a porcelain British reserve. Sure, he has moments of doubt, but the audience never does, and overall He's as unflappable as Ian McKellen's Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings. Jesus of Nazareth, moreover, compares with Jackson's trilogy in theme and narrative structure as well as in length; it's The Lord of the Kings . Jesus gathers his motley fellowship of disciples -- comic and quarreling but good of heart -- and descends into Mordor, or Roman-occupied Jerusalem. There he must submit to authority and death -- his destruction of the Ring of Power -- to save the world.

The bad guys, once again, are political, not religious. They include the hypocrite establishment, of course (led by a scribe played by Ian Holm, who would later play Bilbo in The Lord of the Rings ), but also the rebellious Zealots. The conflict is not between revolution and reaction but between the purity of the spirit and the defilement of the world.

Zeffirelli and Powell present a Christ who is a model of detachment. Willem Dafoe's Jesus in Martin Scorsese's 1988 adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis's 1955 novel The Last Temptation of Christ is a mess. The film opens with a quote from Kazantzakis stating that in his book he wanted to explore the age-old conflict between the flesh and the spirit. Scorsese, no stranger to that theme, takes him at his word. Tormented by dreams of a demanding God, this Jesus tries to drive them away by flagellating himself and making crosses for the Romans. But at last he submits to his father's will, and shadowed by his doppelganger Judas (Harvey Keitel), who seeks peace by the sword of insurrection, Jesus stumbles his way to Calvary.

The Last Temptation of Christ is a conflict in style as well as philosophy: between exoticism and banality (Paul Schrader's dialogue and the American accents add little to King James), between sublimity and kitsch. I thought it sophomoric when I first saw it; seeing it again, to paraphrase Mark Twain, I'm astonished at how much the film has learned in 16 years. Despite the protests and marches and the bomb threats when it was released (this Jesus was not an anti-Semite, but he did dream about women), The Last Temptation didn't make a dime.

Gibson, though, is a lot savvier in the ways of the movie world. He's gotten endorsements (the pope! -- maybe) and spun the controversy to his advantage, and he plans a 2000-screen opening targeted at specific markets (the South, black neighborhoods) on Ash Wednesday. It should be the biggest-grossing movie about Christ ever made. But ask yourself this: Which movie would Jesus watch?