Bringing the Gospels Back to the Big Screen

January-February 2014

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It’s been ten years since The Passion of the Christ defied conventional movie wisdom and grossed $612 million worldwide. In the ensuing decade, no Bible-based movie has come close to matching the box-office receipts generated by Mel Gibson’s blockbuster. But now, according to The Hollywood Reporter, “after several false starts, competing producers are attempting a natural follow-up about Christ’s resurrection” (Mar. 15, 2013).

Given moviemakers’ penchant for seeking to capitalize further on any successful outing — few are the popular films that don’t generate sequels or spinoffs — the only real surprise is that it’s taken so long. But, as most moviegoers know, save for rare occasions, follow-ups are subject to the laws of diminishing returns. The buzz about the “race to resurrect Jesus onscreen,” as The Hollywood Reporter calls it, suggests that this will be no exception.

The “inside track” reportedly belongs to Tim LaHaye Productions, the cinematic wing of the man responsible for the “rapture fiction” Left Behind book and film series. In 2006 LaHaye — a noted anti-Semite and anti-Catholic (he once called Catholicism “a false religion”) — agreed to a deal with Sony’s Screen Gems to produce The Resurrection, a deal that was shelved when Sony’s president was ousted later that year. In the interim, LaHaye Productions has reportedly raised $20 million toward completion of the film, which has a tentative release date planned to coincide with Easter 2015.

But LaHaye has some serious competition. According to The Reporter, American Trademark Pictures “says it has $30 million to produce and $45 million from FilmCrest” — the company that provided the initial film prints and advertising funding for The Passion (and for Snakes on a Plane, among others) — “to release The Resurrection of the Christ.” Perhaps because the working title is only one word removed from that of Gibson’s film and infringement is likely a concern, an alternative title, Golgotha, is being considered. Whatever it ends up being called, the story, says producer Bill McKay, will be “told from the perspective of the Romans.” Predictably, his team is toying with the idea of making this the first of a trilogy.

Not to be left behind, a Virginia-based evangelical group called In Jesus’ Name Productions is working on The Messiah, a movie that explores “the events surrounding Jesus’ death, resurrection and Pentecost.” It also has an anticipated 2015 release date. What will set this version apart, says executive producer David Wood, is that it “will rely more on special effects. We’ll even show heaven and hell and see what’s going on there.” Sounds like a CGI nightmare. We only hope they’ve read their Dante.

But first out of the gate will be Twentieth Century Fox’s Son of God, the cinematic version of The History Channel’s 2013 miniseries The Bible. The movie, scheduled for release this February, chronicles Jesus’ birth through His death and Resurrection, and stars Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado as an impossibly gorgeous Jesus. In another casting foible, the miniseries got into a bit of hot water when conservative TV “personality” Glenn Beck pointed out that Satan, played by Moroccan actor Mohamen Mehdi Ouazanni, bears a striking resemblance to Barack Obama. Cheeky!

What all the fundraising, planning, and studio jockeying tell us is that there’s a lucrative market for Christian movies — well-made Christian movies, that is — as demonstrated by The Passion, the modern-day gold standard for biblical screen portrayals. And here’s where any screen version of Gospel events invariably runs into trouble: All else suffers in comparison to Gibson’s masterpiece. The Nativity Story, for example, released by New Line Cinema in time for Christmas 2006, was the most high-profile biblically based movie since The Passion. Despite the superior craft and production value on display throughout the film, it made “only $46 million worldwide on a $35 million production budget,” according to The Hollywood Reporter. An $11 million profit doesn’t sound too shabby from where we’re sitting, but expectations in Hollywood are through the roof. The production budget for The Passion, by comparison, was $5 million less, yet it grossed over thirteen times more.

One notable difference between The Passion and The Nativity Story — though there’s no substantial hard evidence that it affected either film’s bottom line — is that the latter played to mixed reviews among Catholic audiences. Yes, The Passion was not without controversy: Its graphic violence (a trademark of Gibson’s films) was considered in many corners to have been overdone. Yet the movie’s brutality — its shock value — was integral to its effectiveness: The violence done by man to God is horrendous and horrifying, and each of us shares in the guilt. Well that it should not have been glossed over and the viewer spared the suffering inflicted upon Christ.

But the objections to The Nativity Story were of a different nature: It was a question of substance rather than style. Fr. Angelo Mary Geiger of the Franciscans of the Immaculate in the United States blasted the movie, calling it “a virtual coup against Catholic Mariology” (LifeSiteNews.com, Dec. 4, 2006). In portraying Mary as a pouty and somewhat petulant girl — she stalks off when she learns of her arranged betrothal to Joseph, and later complains about being “forced to marry a man I do not love” — her character, Fr. Geiger wrote, becomes “the subject of a treatment on teenage psychology.” But this was evidently in line with the filmmakers’ vision: Director Catherine Hardwicke explained that, in trying to make Mary “accessible to a young teenager,” she wanted to show Mary as “not perfectly pious from the very first moment.” As if piety were inaccessible! Are we really just a race of slouches with no moral imagination? Indeed, in this film Mary comes off as an “average” girl, nothing special, reflecting the Protestant conception of Our Lady as un-immaculate. She is changed by God’s grace only after she “makes her decision for Christ” when visited by the Archangel Gabriel.

Such a presentation of Mary clashes hard with Catholic theology: One of the Church’s Marian dogmas, after all, teaches that she was immaculately conceived — i.e., perfectly pious from the first moment — and remained perfectly sinless throughout her earthly life. Yet in The Nativity Story Mary is shown consenting to having her palm read — a crime punishable by death in the Mosaic law, and an absurd impossibility for one who never committed a mortal sin. The coup de grace, however, comes in the climactic scene in the stable. In depicting a painful delivery, complete with writhing and grimacing, the movie effectively denies the virginal birth of Christ.

With these deplorable theological errors in mind, one shudders to think of how the Blessed Virgin will be portrayed in the upcoming film Mary, Mother of Christ, which will be executive-produced by Joel Osteen, the prosperity-gospel-purveying megapastor, and distributed by Lionsgate. How will Osteen’s postmodern “power of positive thinking” shtick influence this retelling? Co-producer Mary Aloe may have given us a hint when she said Mary, Mother of Christ will be “truly a story of real female empowerment.” Uh oh.

Questionable theology aside, this flick has already been tainted by scandal (one that doesn’t involve Osteen): According to the San Antonio Express-News (May 10, 2012), the script, completed in 2006 by Passion co-writer Benedict Fitzgerald, was acquired by Mexican businessman Arturo Madrigal after Fitzgerald defaulted on a $340,000 loan. But Madrigal’s business partner, Mauricio Sanchez Garza, in concert with Jorge Vasquez Sanchez, a known Mexican drug trafficker, extorted the script by kidnapping Madrigal’s brother and threatening Madrigal himself. Vasquez then sold the script to Aloe's Hollywood-based Proud Mary Entertainment in 2008 for $1 million plus ten percent of the film’s profit. Vasquez was subsequently arrested for, and pled guilty to, money laundering and extortion. In a bizarre twist, as part of his plea deal, Vasquez agreed to turn over his percentage of the film’s profits to the U.S. federal government. But Madrigal has sued Vasquez, attempting to negate the sale of the script and declare himself its sole owner.

How Fitzgerald figures in this mess is unclear, but it should be noted that in 2008 he sued Gibson for “fraud, breach of contract, and unjust enrichment.” Fitzgerald alleges that he “accepted a salary substantially less than what he would have taken had he known the true budget” for The Passion, agreeing to a “relatively small salary,” plus a $75,000 production bonus, another $75,000 if the movie broke even, and five percent of revenues. Fitzgerald and Gibson settled out of court.

One glimmer of hope exists regarding Osteen’s Mary, Mother of Christ: It was co-written by Barbara Nicolosi, a Catholic author who was a “theological consultant” to The Passion.

Controversy. Scandal. Lawsuits. Extortion. Greed. Drug dealers. Feminism. Anti-Catholicism. All abound in the latest round of Gospel-themed productions.

What’s a faithful Catholic to do?

Thankfully, there’s another, albeit lower-profile, option out there: In the recently released Mary of Nazareth, a thoroughly Catholic screen adaptation of the life of Mary, veteran European filmmakers Giacomo Campiotti (director) and Francesco Arlanch (screenwriter) have delivered a lavishly shot two-and-a-half-hour mini-epic. While faithful to the biblical narrative, it takes, as do all screen adaptations of written works, a few “cinematic liberties” in fleshing out the story. Like The Passion of the Christ, however, its extra-biblical scenes are based on the writings of Bl. Anne Catherine Emmerich, specifically her Life of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The viewer is treated, for example, to scenes from Mary’s early life: as a baby during a Roman raid on her village, as a child ascending the steps of the Temple, as a shepherd girl pursued by a nervous Joseph (a scene charming in its awkwardness), and as a pregnant virgin convincing her skeptical parents to let her visit her cousin Elizabeth. If you ever wanted to see Mary dancing at her wedding, now’s your chance.

The film isn’t, however, without limitations. European filmmakers have a different sense of pacing than what American moviegoers are accustomed to. And while the film admirably dispenses with the somewhat sullen portrayal of Mary in The Nativity Story, it unfortunately errs on the opposite end of the scale. As a result, Mary is bereft of human emotion — she has the same distant, bemused smile affixed to her face at all times. Whether this was a directorial decision intended to underscore the joy and beatitude of the woman who was graced by God to give birth to and deliver our most blessed Savior, or was due simply to German actress Alissa Jung’s lack of range, the technique falls short at crucial times. One notable moment is at the Annunciation, when Mary, as it is written, was “greatly troubled” by the Angel’s greeting (Lk. 1:28). In the film, she seems on the verge of bursting into a fit of the giggles.

In contrast, Luca Marinelli, the Italian actor cast as Joseph, steals the scenes in which he appears. He is afforded more depth and range than the other principal characters. His emotional turmoil, for example, at the news of his bride’s “surprise pregnancy” is touching and poignant, as is his realization of his role in salvation history. But as the story (and the Gospels themselves) develops, Joseph must assume a subordinate role to the other members of the Holy Family. We are, however, treated to a death-bed scene, visually filling in a “plot gap” where the Gospels fall silent.

Every movie, of course, requires an arch-villain. With so many to pick from in the Gospels, Mary of Nazareth puzzlingly selects Queen Herodias. Perhaps it was felt that a female antagonist would better offset the principal protagonist, Mary. Be that as it may, the role of Herodias is blown out of proportion. Moreover, she never seems to age: She looks the same at the beginning of the film (inexplicably directing the raid on Mary’s childhood village) as she does at King Herod the Great’s court and as wife of King Herod of Galilee, some three decades later. The same lack of aging is apparent in Mary as well, who looks more or less the same as a teenager as she does at the foot of the cross, where she appears to be fifteen years Jesus’ junior. (Joseph, by contrast, ages notably in the film.)

Mary Magdalene seems to serve as several biblical characters or types rolled into one. At first one thinks she might be Salome, though in a later scene we learn that she’s actually a prostitute. But wait! In the next scene she’s revealed to be not only a prostitute but an adulteress, the one whom Jesus saves from stoning. Only later does it become clear that she’s the Mary Magdalene of the Gospels.

But these are minor quibbles. One thing the film does nicely is emphasize — though not in a blunt or heavy-handed fashion — the Jesus-through-Mary theme. This comes across delightfully in the scene in which the shepherds dare to enter the manger (which is, accurately and appropriately, a cave and not a barn) and Mary presents them with the Christ Child, whom they pass among themselves as a bewildered Joseph stands by.

The scene of the Magnificat is one of the early highlights of the movie: Mary speaks not ethereally, as if in a trance, but to the entire household of Elizabeth and Zachariah, with an abounding sense of joy at the impending redemption of her people. This is Jung’s crowning moment in her role as Mary, a role to which she is suited simply by virtue of her angelic face. As Fr. Daniel Calloway, M.I.C., a noted Mariologist, has said, “In light of the reality that the Virgin Mary is God’s created masterpiece and the pinnacle of the feminine mystery, there is no harder person to portray in a movie than her and, yet, Mary of Nazareth offers the best presentation of Our Lady I have ever seen.”

In essence, the second half of the film is a gentler version of The Passion of the Christ. Here, as is appropriate, Mary gives way to Jesus, who dominates the rest of the film. Mary returns in earnest at the crucifixion, but not in a way that detracts from our Savior’s supreme sacrifice. Rather, her presence serves to highlight the closeness of the two principal characters of the Gospels, and the indispensable role Mary plays in drawing mankind to her Son. In the doubt and turmoil that follows between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, she is there to give succor and hope to the Apostles, who are on the brink of disarray. As such, her role in sustaining the Church through the dark stages in her history comes across loud and clear.

Mary of Nazareth, which lacks the backing of a major studio, is currently on a run of sponsored screenings in theaters across the U.S. and Canada. Ignatius Press, which owns the North American rights to the film, is offering Catholics (and others) the opportunity to sponsor screenings in theaters in their own areas. Movie houses are often willing to rent out theaters for private screenings, and Ignatius suggests selling tickets for market value, which would make screenings feasible fundraising events for Catholic charities and organizations. Visit the movie’s website, www.MaryFilm.com, or call Carmel Communications at 770-591-0045 for details.

Pope John Paul II, in his final apostolic letter (“The Rapid Development: To Those Responsible for Communications,” Jan. 24, 2005), noted that “the communications media have acquired such importance as to be the principal means of guidance and inspiration for many people in their personal, familial, and social behavior.” The communications media, he continued, provide the Church with precious pathways for “spreading the Gospel and religious values…. The Church willingly employs these media to furnish information about itself and to expand the boundaries of evangelization, of catechesis and of formation, considering their use as a response to the command of the Lord: ‘Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature’ (Mk. 16:15).”

The Holy Father urged Catholics to exercise “co-responsible participation” in making such media accessible to the masses. Over the years a lot has been written about “the new evangelization” — what it is, and how to go about doing it. Now you can take part directly in this mandate by helping to bring Mary of Nazareth to your town. Who knows what seeds might be planted? Or you can take your chances on the slew of other Gospel-themed movies soon to be found at a theater near you.



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“Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary is the ordinary way to heaven, and the absence of it is at least a bad symptom of the state of our faith.” — Bl. John Henry Newman



New Oxford Notes: January-February 2014

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