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In the Middle Ages, theatre was largely conducted in the context of religious festivals.  The most popular of these plays were the emotionally engaging ones, and the scenes of Hell played well. You would have stunning "Hell Mouths" with demons dragging the wicked down into hell, while brimstone and smoke and the longest cycle, known now as the York cycle included 50 plays.

Our modern equivalent of these plays is the movie.  Tonight I wanted to talk about Passion Plays on film.  These are the story of the last part of Jesus' life.

Tonight's diary is by annetteboardman.  Her tip jar will be off the automatic tip jar. Feel free to be generous.

The earliest film I want to bring to your attention (thank you, You Tube!) is a 1916 rerelease ("Jesus of Nazareth") of a film originally released in 1912 ("From the Manger to the Cross").  The You Tube link says it was completely filmed in Palestine.  You have to admit that doing this in 1911-1912 would have been quite the undertaking.  It is not a particularly riveting film, but let's start with it because of its age, and its place in film history.  When you hear about people filming on location in early films, I would suggest that a film done in Palestine tops them all!  This is the land of Lawrence of Arabia.  The wild west of the Middle East!  (this is really cool to me)

As you can tell, this is one of those respectful movies, with swelling music, and so forth.  In the You Tube cut-up version, the Passion itself is in parts 8-10.  

Another film that was shot on location is 1973's "Jesus Christ Superstar" which was a fantastic version of what I would still argue is the best thing Andrew Lloyd Weber (and Tim Rice, of course) ever did.  It is difficult to pick a particular scene that is my favourite, but I thought we could review the events of the passion, here is his confrontation with Herod, played by the great (and under-appreciated) Josh Mostel:

When I was in high school drama, we would spend our time during rehearsals figuring out how to stage the play in our theatre or at least at our school.  Ideas ranged from the over-the-top type of presentation you would find in the Broadway-style productions to outside, no sets, and minimal costuming.  My conception was very much shaped by a production of Anhouil's "Antigone" that was staged at the University of Kansas on the outside steps of Wescoe Hall, an event that still to me represents the epitome of creative and minimalistic sets.  There was nothing as attractive as Wescoe Hall at my high school, but I was willing to try to figure it out.  

Another 1973 film is filmed at a very different location.  The entry into Jerusalem in Godspell is a happy procession through the streets of New York, rather than a more conventional middle easten setting.  I didn't realize until today that the Jesus figure here was played by Victor Garber (perhaps best known as the father in the tv series "Alias" but also Thomas Andrews in James Cameron's "Titanic" (are you out there, GOTV? Here is your Titanic reference!)).  

The Crucifixion is also represented in a variety of ways.  You have the very respectful we-cannot-really-show-his-face version of the procession to Golgotha in "Ben Hur" (more than one version, but best known with Charlton Heston -- the best parts of that film are the naval battle and the chariot race, not the religion part, which is very much influenced by the tone of the 1880 century book that inspired it).  Another book inspired a film in the Sword and Sandals genre was Lloyd C. Douglas's 1942 The Robe, made into a film with Richard Burton (1953) as a very sour Roman legionary, the one who won the robe of Christ by throwing dice on the day of the crucifixion.  Burton was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for the film, one of seven nominations (he never won). Charlton Heston, of course, won for "Ben Hur."

The wandering Jewa minor extra-Biblical character (known from medieval Christian lore, is the subject of film as well.  My favourite in this group is the Jurgen Prochnow and Demi Moore film "The Seventh Sign."

Of course, there are the films that present a very different view of the passion.  These can be very interesting, and in their non-traditonality, they can be very controversial.  The stunningly beautiful and very moving "The Last Temptation of Christ" starred Willem Dafoe as Christ (1988, based on a book from 1960).

I never really understood why this was considered so offensive.  The idea that Christ could be tempted by human things is embedded in the Gospels, and the thing that was so powerful about the movie (I have not read the book, I must admit) is that the strong temptation his offered is presented as very very very attractive.  But he still makes the decision to give it all up for his higher purpose.  If the temptation was not strong, if the choice was not hard, then what would be the point of admiring the choice that was made?  Oh well.  I must admit I don't understand a lot of things these days.  It has a spectacular peformance by Dafoe, who was nominated for an Oscar, and the music was by Peter Gabriel.  I own a cassette tape of the music; I should probably update that with a CD.  

I will leave you with another, very different view of the crucifixion, from Monty Python (you didn't think I would leave this out, did you?):

Originally posted to Friday Night at the Movies on Fri Apr 02, 2010 at 08:05 PM PDT.

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