The movie-making machine of Hollywood has, over the years, produced a number of films that depict the life of Christ, some of which include Christ’s resurrection. Today (although we are a handful of Disney blockbusters away from it), the sequel to the 2004 film The Passion of the Christ is reported to be in pre-production. Viewers can even now estimate how this film may stylistically tackle the subject matter (i.e., how it will look and feel to us). After all, it is a sequel (more on that later), but as both a Christian and a filmmaker/instructor, the development of this upcoming film has me reflecting a bit on the existing cinematic treatment of the resurrection in films already released over the past decades.
Any discussion of Hollywood’s depiction of the resurrection must acknowledge early on that there are a number of ways to evaluate a film. While it is easy to simply ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down’ a film, it is more fair to examine the elements that make up the film, to consider the context in which it was made, and what priorities and agendas influenced its production. Appreciation can flourish over some areas of a film while criticism levied at other areas, and we as a culture can grow from each new depiction of Christ’s story.
In my current Film Studies course, I use particular categories (or “Frameworks”, as author Thomas E. Valasek calls them) to help guide my students through their examination of film as an art / entertainment form. Holding up Valasek’s Frameworks lenses to films that depict the resurrection may be a helpful filter by which we can grow past a simplistic “like” or “loathe” reaction.
How Films Tell Stories
The first of these Frameworks consists of consideration for the tools and techniques used to effectively tell the story: camera, lighting, mis én scene (the staging and placement of sets, costumes, hair, and makeup), as well as the final editing. Evaluating a film on its technical merits alone is one lens to use for examination. At their most basic level, these tools can be used with great precision and effectiveness or they can take a back seat to other agendas in the making of a film. Films that depict Christ’s resurrection vary in their levels of quality, whether because of the technology used, the budget, the film’s agenda, and the ability/experience of the filmmakers. Son of God (2014) and the lengthier 6-hour predecessor Jesus of Nazareth (1977) come to mind as two offerings from Hollywood that attempt a sweeping, large-scale blockbuster epic approach. In both films, the resurrection is treated respectfully and with cinematic confidence; the disciples are visited by the risen Jesus and Jesus of Nazareth boldly ends with a camera push to Jesus’ face as he assures us (assures you) that he is with us until the end of the age, followed (as if to bolster that assurance) by a visual reminder of the empty tomb and discarded linens.
Alternately, a film like the Jesus Film Project—with its didactic narrator tracking the story for us—has an agenda to instruct and evangelize which may be prioritized over stylistic creativity in its use of lighting or camera. This is demonstrated in the closing of the film, which consists of a summary of the Scriptures in a montage that follows the depiction of the Gospel story proper. This is done to elicit a direct response from the viewers, specifically to spur them to consider their relationship with Christ. Pointing out the film’s agenda of instruction above cinematic aesthetic is not a criticism, but to illustrate the point that a film with instruction and education as its priority will have a different end result from a film aiming for stylistic cinematic innovations.
In Valasek’s propaganda Frameworks, he says that films such as the Jesus Film Project are created from the outset to indoctrinate or influence the viewer—there is a call to social action or an explicit call to faith. On their worst days, films that take this approach in their depiction of the resurrection disregard excellence in craft or attention to poetic detail, sacrificing the audience they’re trying to influence by remaining precisely and inflexibly true to the gospel narrative with less psychological development or artistic consideration.
Realism vs. Expressionism
In another of Valasek’s Frameworks, he discusses how films can be divided into two very broad categories: those characterized by Realism and those categorized as Expressionism.
Films in the Realism category are films that have a very natural or believable feel to them. These are usually shot in actual locations than on constructed sets (or ‘green-screen’ virtual sets). The lighting in these films seems very natural (either via daylight or the believable simulation of daylight) or sourced by actual / simulated lights within that environment. Acting performances in the Realism category could be described as natural and authentic. Extreme cases of Realism have a documentary feel to them (think: Boyhood or United 93), evoking the sense of actual events transpiring right before the viewer’s eyes. We will find an extreme Realism version of the Christ story in Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964) with its black and white, often-handheld, documentary-like account of the story from Matthew. In this film the resurrection is not directly depicted but suggested by an earthquake, the stone falling away, linens piled in the doorway of the tomb, and the close up of an angel whose arrival is not seen. Much of the film feels authentic, but shortcuts are still taken, and the final scenes leap to the enthusiasm of the revitalized followers of Christ.
Our second category, Expressionism, is defined by opposing characteristics. The images in these films seem more rooted in fantasy and illusion. The setting can be highly stylized, exaggerated and dreamlike (think: Edward Scissorhands’ castle above and pastel neighborhood community below). Lighting may be hyper-real, creative, and evocative, and acting performances can take on a metaphorical or symbolic nature. Expressionistic films evolved with a sense of fantasy, magic, dreamlike, highly controlled and orchestrated events being staged and stitched together for our viewing pleasure. No story of Christ—or, more accurately stated—no story inspired by Christ’s story, does a better job of demonstrating Expressionism to us than The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). Although sans a resurrection scene, the film ends with its version of Jesus successfully overcoming the dreamlike, decades-long scenario he is tempted with, and following through with the crucifixion. Although a challenging experience for a follower of Christ to view, Last Temptation utilizes the Expressionistic techniques more fully than most other films about Gospel stories.
Although Realism and Expressionism hold to some opposing elements, it is also true that a film may at times be a blended amalgam of the two. Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ does just that—it upholds a feeling of highly-stylized, classically dramatic Hollywood lighting (particularly depicted in its opening scenes in the Garden of Gethsemane), in moments of slow motion as the coins thrown to Judas strike him and scatter, in the vertical crane shot rising up from a close up of Satan’s face screaming in agony in reaction to the successful Crucifixion, and the way in which Mary dramatically raises her head to look us in the eye(!) as she holds Jesus when he’s taken down from the cross. These last two scenes particularly are poetic liberties taken by Gibson, but they ring true to our understanding of the power, significance, and effect of Christ’s death.
When we arrive at the resurrection moment, Gibson embraces it. Using a single shot of a sweeping camera move tracking the movement of light across the tomb, the lens lands on the profile of the seated, just-resurrected Jesus. He pauses, takes a breath, stands, and exits the tomb. We’re left not only excited and hopeful for this new world that Christ is ushering in, but also assured that it is true. We doubting Thomases get a brief glimpse of the hole in Jesus’ hand, in the final shot of this film. Gibson takes a stand as a filmmaker on this biggest of stages, declaring that this resurrection did indeed take place.
It seems worth noting that the choice to include a cinematic depiction of the resurrection moment itself is built by the filmmaker on inference and imagination. Even though it is the greatest moment in the history of the world, and the crucial foundation of our faith, it is not a moment described in detail in the Scriptures itself. By including it, a movie holding the Realism line through much of its duration crosses into Expressionism territory when the fantastical happens: the God-man defeats death and returns to a physical, corporeal, interactive life on this planet, obliging the viewer to confront the reality of the unreal.
Direct vs. “Witness-A-Witness”
There are two other approaches to telling the story of Christ. The first recounts the gospel narrative explicitly (some including, some excluding the resurrection). The second tells the story of a protagonist who is a Christ-contemporary and takes historical liberties to enmesh these characters with the Biblical story (e.g., Ben-Hur or Risen). The former, while perhaps a more strictly straight-forward (some would argue “accurate”) telling of the events, sometimes lacks the potential power of a character-observer who represents each of us. There are films where the audience witness the events of the Gospel from the outside, much as we do in our reading of the text itself. There are other films designed so the viewer “witnesses a witness” of the story, and identifies with the witness as we observe his or her reactions to the power of Christ. American cinema, at its core, utilizes an action and reaction alternation, where Action X produces consequence Y: one character’s statements are followed by a character’s reaction to those statements; one character’s action elicits another’s response, and in turn another reaction. The power of the cinematic storytelling of the resurrection of Christ is that we benefit not only from seeing a visual reminder that this indeed happened, but from sharing the experience of a character’s reaction to the resurrection. We viewers are pulled in to “consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that [we] may not grow weary or fainthearted.” (Hebrews 12:3)
The resurrection may be presented to the audience in two different ways. The “direct and explicit approach” includes it in the film, presenting it as an historical fact. Other films utilize a second approach, depicting the resurrection with imagery that requires greater inference on the part of the viewer. Using the first method, we are forced to confront the event head-on in all its power and glory despite the fantastical nature of it. The second method seems to be offered as a sort of shoulder-shrug from the filmmakers, as if to say, “I don’t know that this happened, but my film leaves room for the possibility. Maybe he rose. Maybe not. What do you think?”
There seems to be a growing number of contemporary American audiences that embrace such ambiguity. There is an increasing appreciation for “gray areas” that leave some questions unanswered (the enthusiastic response to the end of Christopher Nolan’s Inception comes to mind). Audiences warm up to an artist who is humble enough to admit that there are too many variables surrounding an event like the resurrection to tie off in a neat little conclusion. A film that purports to have all of life’s answers resonates with targeted niche groups, not humanity as a whole.
This is one of the greatest challenges faced by filmmakers of faith—which of these two approaches should he or she employ when portraying the resurrection? Should she go with the ‘direct and explicit’ approach and display in Technicolor glory the most seminal event in human history? Or should she suggest it through cinematic technique; flashes of light, discarded linens on a table, a stone rolled away, leaving the viewer with the responsibility to infer through the absence of the body the resurrection of Christ? Her hope is that regardless of the technique, her method will convincingly illustrate the space-time reality of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and audiences will draw the same conclusion as the Roman centurion in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965): “Truly this man was the Son of God.”
Which brings us to the forthcoming sequel, The Passion of the Christ: Resurrection, currently expected for an early 2021 release. Despite the first film ending with its own resurrection scene, this sequel is reported to track the three days between Christ’s death and resurrection. It seems reasonable to expect a continuation of the blended Realism/Expressionism approach that was baked into the first film, which should both challenge unbelievers with a firm statement that this well-documented, eye-witnessed event did happen (Realism), and inspire believers by reminding them of the reality of the intrusion of heaven on earth with use of cinematic tools and aesthetic to emphasize the resurrection’s mind-blowing, life-changing, other-worldly, fantastical nature (Expressionism). Of all the aspects of Christ’s story here on earth, it is this—the resurrection—that must be confronted, for its implications are like no other: “And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14). For those who are both believers and cinema-enthusiasts, we can approach each of Hollywood’s handling of the resurrection with wisdom and discernment by utilizing tools that help us understand what the director is trying to tell us by looking at how he’s said it, why he’s said it, and what he hasn’t said.
Alan Armes is a film & television editor and adjunct faculty instructor of media courses at Providence Christian College. He and his wife are raising four children in Los Angeles, CA.