Two new films on Jesus raise questions, curiosity, hope

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It’s not very often that two movies come out around the same time about the same person — real, legendary or fictitious.

In 1993, Hollywood released “Tombstone,” about Wyatt Earp’s tenure as marshal of Tombstone, Arizona. The next year audiences saw “Wyatt Earp,” the Kevin Costner biopic.

There were two versions of Robin Hood, in 1991, one with Patrick Bergin and one with Kevin Costner. The year 1983 saw two James Bond movies.

Now we’re seeing the release of two movies about Jesus Christ: “Risen” and “The Young Messiah.”

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Considering that in the past century perhaps a dozen or so major motion pictures have been made about Jesus — the most important figure in Western civilization — two movies in two months is notable.

It’s tempting to blame “Hollywood’s hostility to religion” for how few films are made about Jesus, but I think it’s more complicated. Adapting any successful story into a movie is challenging, but we’re talking about the story of Jesus.

For about a century, Hollywood profited from biblical epics — two versions of “The Ten Commandments” and “Ben Hur.” Yet there were few movies about Jesus. “King of Kings,” a 1961 remake of a 1927 silent film, did well with the critics and at the box office, but “The Greatest Story Ever Told” in 1965 didn’t fare well with either. Soon, biblical epics began to lose steam. The 1973 “Godspell” and “Jesus Christ Superstar,” though popular among young people, didn’t do much to encourage films about Christ.

In 1979, Campus Crusade for Christ financed the $6-million “Jesus,” an extremely faithful adaptation of the Gospel of Luke, which has given it a long life and wide viewing in educational and evangelistic programs. It actually had a theatrical run but got little encouragement from critics and didn’t make any money.

The problem with movies about Jesus is complicated with the issue of casting. Charlton Heston made a memorable Moses, but who do you get to play the Son of God? “Ben Hur” and “Quo Vadis” depict encounters with Jesus but do not show Jesus’ face.

Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” in 1988 got good reviews but created controversy and protest — probably overblown. Whether the protests and controversy helped or hurt the film, “Last Temptation” garnered a meager box office response, which probably made Hollywood reluctant to try a film about Christ again.

Mel Gibson’s 2004 “The Passion of the Christ” also sparked controversy and protest, but again much of them seemed overblown. The reviews were mixed, though there was speculation that the critics were influenced by the protests. Regardless, the movie grossed $611.9 million, 20 times more than it cost to make it, making it the largest grossing film in history.

Still, it wasn’t until a decade later that “Son of God” hit movie theaters. A spin-off of “The Bible,” the surprise hit series on the History Channel, “Son of God” did not do well with the critics, but grossed $67.8 million, about three times the $22 million spent to produce it.

That same year, 2014, Hollywood saw two other biblically based movies, “Noah,” which got generally favorable reviews and was a box office hit, and “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” which got only mixed to negative reviews and a more modest box office response. Yet, it indicated that Hollywood might be open to films based on Scripture.

In mid-February, “Risen,” about a Roman tribune investigating the disappearance of Christ’s body, opened to mixed reviews but was graded high by movie audiences, finishing third at the U.S. box office in its opening weekend.

“The Young Messiah” tells of a 7-year-old Jesus returning with his parents to Nazareth from Egypt and discovering the truth of his life. It was scheduled to open March 11.

Regardless of how these two films fare commercially or critically, the fact that Scripture-themed movies, particularly those about Jesus, are getting out to movie audiences is a positive. Anything that might prompt people to think and reflect on faith is healthy. I know people who found that even flawed films like “Jesus Christ Superstar” or “Last Temptation” prompted them to think about Jesus anew. Though “Noah” was criticized by some Christian groups for deviating from Scripture, there were reports of a rise on Internet hits about the biblical story of Noah’s ark’s following its release.

In light of this modest degree of Hollywood interest, we as a church need to be aware of these movies and try to find ways to reach the world and grow in our own faith through them.

By Pete Sheehan, editor and general manager of The Catholic Exponent, newspaper of the Diocese of Youngstown, Ohio. Originally ran in the Feb. 26 issue. The views or positions presented in this or any guest editorial are those of the individual publication and do not necessarily represent the views of Catholic News Service or of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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