Easter at the Movies
Lay Education Officer Jonathan Sargeant looks at some of the ways in which Easter has been depicted on the silver screen. Got your popcorn and choc top? You’re’ ready!
Ever sat in church during the bible readings and felt pictures forming in your mind’s eye as you listen? I don’t mean daydreaming about what chores you need to do when you get home! No, I mean mental images of the goings-on in the bible readings themselves; imagining the events as they happened. If you’re like me that happens almost every week. And more often than not, these pictures come to me from cinematic depictions of the narratives.
With Easter upon us, it’s worth looking at a few of these depictions. There have been many over the years so we’ll just choose a few that stand out, focusing on Good Friday to Easter Sunday events. Are they helpful? Do they get in the way? Let’s dive in!
The Passion of the Christ – Mel Gibson’s depiction of the Easter events concentrated on the crucifixion itself and did so in graphic detail. That caused a great deal of controversy back in 2004. With hindsight, it’s easy to see how other cultural issues surrounded this film: Gibson’s conservative faith and alcohol problems, issues of violence in cinema etc. I’m not a fan of this film, but it does lead us to ask questions of ourselves: Is there a purpose to such violence? Does it help us to more fully grasp Jesus’ execution? The resurrection of Jesus closes out the film, just for a few seconds. From inside the tomb we see Jesus alive. Unfortunately, the camera then focusses on one hand and the gaping nail hole looks decidedly fake where previously a kind of bloody hyper-realism has ruled.
The Gospel According to St Matthew – Shot in black and white in 1964 using mostly local villagers as actors, Pasolini’s version of Easter is stark. The heartache of the women at the cross is palpable; in fact the camera lingers on them more than Jesus. Eventually we get a convincing earthquake, darkness and Jesus, dead, is taken from the cross. Soon a beatific androgynous young angel announces to the women at the tomb that Jesus is risen. The joy on their faces! Crowds of villagers are then seen racing across the countryside to see Jesus giving the Great Commission. The contrast from agony at the cross to exultation at the resurrection is seen through real people alongside Jesus. It’s quite beautiful and worth a look if you don’t mind subtitles. You can find a few versions of the film on youtube.
Monty Python’s Life of Brian – For a film that some wished to ban at the time, Life of Brian has aged well. It’s not really about Jesus at all; he only appears off in the distance in one of the opening scenes giving the Sermon on the Mount. Brian is more about people’s desire to believe and how that can lead us, if we proceed blindly, into absurdity. It’s fitting that the crucifixion here is a place for optimism. As the crowd of fellow crucifees lead us in a jaunty chorus of Always Look on the Bright Side of Life, (“Cheer up! Worse things happen at sea!”) there seems to be no need for resurrection, because there is no pain or death. However, the decidedly black humour of the situation reminds us “What have you got to lose, you come from nothing, you’re going back to nothing. What have you lost? Nothing!!”
What really fascinates me these days are those times where we see the events we know so well from scripture being retold, not in biblical dramas but metaphorically in more present-day films. Here are a few of those.
Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – The first Narnia film stuck fairly closely to C.S. Lewis’ novel, so it’s no surprise the Easter events receive good attention. Leonine God-figure Aslan’s death at the hands of the White Witch on the Stone Table seems to signify the victory of evil. Hope is at its lowest. Only the two girls stay with Aslan’s body. However the Stone Table breaks, reminding us of both earthquake and the curtain in the Temple being torn in two. Aslan is alive again, appearing to the two girls and explaining that "there is a magic deeper still the Witch does not know". Evil has been defeated.
Superman Returns – Bryan Singer’s superhero film was criticised at the time of release for heavy-handed symbolism. Unlike many others, I loved it, despite other faults. Superman has always been a definite Christ figure, sent to earth to save its inhabitants, living as one of us etc etc. Towards the end of this film, Brandon Routh’s Superman, weakened by kryptonite is severely beaten by thugs led by villain Lex Luthor. His side is pierced, yet he manages to save the world from an enormous threat. He falls into a death-like coma, awakening days later to rise above the world, gazing down and listening to every human voice. A voice-over reminds us, “The son becomes the father...and the father becomes the son”. In answer to a speech earlier in the film that the world doesn’t need a saviour, Lois Lane sits to write an article: Why the World Needs Superman. A saviour is necessary!
It’s not surprising that superhero films often feature biblical material. They are a mythology for a current generation whose exposure to the Bible may be minimal.
Spiderman 2 – Sam Raimi’s second Spider-man film features an astonishing Easter sequence. Trust me! Battling on the roof of a speeding train with villain Doctor Octopus, the brakes are destroyed! The train will plough into the end of the line and hurtle 75 metres down into the river from the elevated tracks. Spiderman leaps to the front of the train as the villain flees. After other methods fail and his mask is torn off, Spider-man stretches his arms out and shoots web to catch buildings on either side of the train. From this crucifix pose the train slows but the supreme effort reduces the hero to unconsciousness. Passengers lower him down gently inside the train, seeing his face. Through saving the passengers his true nature has been revealed (Hey! Just like Jesus!) and some remark that he is just a kid, nothing remarkable. He revives, staggering to his feet, resurrected. But the villain returns and demands the hero be handed over. Passengers, inspired by Spider-man, rise to stand in front of him saying, “If you want him, you gotta go through me”. Remarkable! As viewers, we’ve seen a sacrifice and a saving action (Good Friday), and then a resurrection (Easter Sunday). Now the film leads us into the next portion of the Bible: passengers have taken on Spider-man’s mission to stand against evil just as the first members of the Church did in The Acts of the Apostles.
I’m often asked why such metaphoric moments occur so often in films (and TV and so on!) Space doesn’t allow a full answer but suffice it to say that sometimes the filmmaker’s themselves are struggling with scriptural themes and include them in their work. Sometimes filmmakers are hoping to find some resonance with the wallets and purses of a large faith-based audience. Money talks! And some (like Joseph Campbell) would say that maybe these ideas are ones that bubble up in human consciousness simply because we ARE human. They are meta-stories, over-arching narratives that will always arise.
For whatever reason, I am happy to see such depictions. Even when they are negative they can serve to help us define where we stand, what we believe. And when they are positive, they can both point us back to scripture and remind us that God is with us always, not just on Sunday but for the rest of the week. And also in the cinema!
Other notable mentions: Jesus of Montreal, The Matrix trilogy, Tron Legacy, End of Days, The Last Temptation, The Green Mile, Babette’s Feast