Wednesday 27 March 2013

Holy Week and Movies

By John D. O’Brien, S.J.

The Christian world enters into its most intense experience of meditation this week. This is the week of lengthy readings and long liturgies. It is our most solemn time of year, the week in which we come face to face with the mystery of mysteries, the climax of the whole redemptive act: the Paschal Mystery of Christ.

For many of us today, living in the age of cyber-stimulus and multitasking, the act of “entering” into the mystery may have become more difficult. How do we calm our minds and join Christ in the garden of Gethsemane or along the via crucis? How do we accompany Christ in his passion and then rejoice in his resurrection? Often we settle for the platitudinous imagery of yesteryear’s holy cards, or are limited in our mind’s eye to scenes we’ve seen from Christian movies. It is the latter that I want to consider right now, for I sometimes have the suspicion that Zeffirelli has had more to do with my image of Christ than the living Gospels themselves – with no offense to Zeffirelli.
Movies on the life of Christ might be a good introduction to the Gospels, and if a picture speaks a thousand words, a film, we might say, speaks 24,000 words per second. But what if those moving images become too firmly lodged in one’s imagination, creating a dominant image of Christ to the exclusion of all others? The Gospels are meant to be dynamic, as anyone who has prayed lectio divina or Ignatian meditation will attest. There are innumerable dimensions or aspects to Christ – which is precisely why monks and nuns will spend a lifetime contemplating the scriptures, or even just the vultus Christi, or face of Christ. My question is this: if we can meditate on a word or an image, and derive ever-expanding spiritual knowledge, does the motion picture depiction help us or restrict us in the same?

I don’t have an easy answer to this, nor do I claim to speak for everyone. But I can say that I have been led into prayer by the text of the Gospel, and that certain fixed images that capture a particular aspect of Christ have also served as fruitful starting points. Christian movies, on the other hand, have had limited value for me in this regard. Why is this so? I suspect it is similar to how reading The Lord of the Rings is so much more powerful than watching the Peter Jackson films. In entering a text we are permitted an intimate sharing that has elements of participation, even of “subcreation”, to use Tolkien’s own term for writing; we labour alongside the author in layering and composing the story. Reading, then, involves the most deeply human and divine of our faculties: our imagination, reason and will – and so the act becomes constitutive of who we are.

Memories of the Jesus movies, in my experience, come more often as distractions: is that Robert Powell (of Jesus of Nazareth) or Jim Caviezel (of The Passion of the Christ) who I am contemplating, or is the Christ of the Gospels? Does the vivid particularity of cinematic portrayals inadvertently block potential entry into a Gospel scene?

The nature of the icon, perhaps, helps shed light on this point. It is always a specific, particular depiction of Christ or a Gospel event, but by its very nature – highly symbolic, theological, spiritual – it resists a literalism that forces our visual prayer. Rather, it points and opens us to deeper truths; they are “windows into heaven”, as they say in the Christian East. In a similar way, the painting, sculpture, hymn or poem may assist in being a window into truth about Christ, precisely because it has limited itself to depicting an aspect. These aspects are living facets, in which the whole may be somehow still contained – like a well that drills into the aquifer beneath.

I wonder, then, if movies that attempt literal, realistic depictions of the life of Christ, while perhaps somewhat inspiring in the moment – and I don’t doubt that such films have been inspirational for many – are always somewhat limited, both as films and as sources for meditation, because they are more or less trying to show everything. I suspect the earlier filmmakers who refrained from showing the face of Christ may have been following a sound artistic instinct.

But I don’t want to be down on religious films altogether. There is at least one “Gospel film” I have found to be quite powerful: Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1964 Gospel According to Saint Matthew  (or Il vangelo secondo san matteo). Pasolini was, from all accounts a very disturbed man, but out of his many troubled works arose an elegant film about Christ. Disregard the critics that saw only Marxist revolutionary rhetoric in this portrayal – there is nothing that doesn’t resonate with the authentic simplicity of the Gospel. The style is minimalistic, shot in black and white with an emphasis on the faces, rather than a multitude of words or interpretive acting. Perhaps its very restraint helps makes it iconographic, and therefore conducive to prayer. The understatement permits us our part in turning it over in our minds, participating, and letting the “word” break through.

Also, the Christ-figure of many films has moved me countless times, from the title characters of Andre Rublev and Babette’s Feast, to The Shawshank Redemption and even Christopher Nolan's Batman. This Lent, I was struck by the lowly protagonist of Robert Bresson’s celebrated 1966 movie Au Hasard Balthazar. He is nothing more than a donkey, but is both a silent witness to a variety of human folly, and a victim who sometimes bears its effects. An artist of a higher order, Bresson knew how metaphor and archetype can be more emotionally arresting than literal depictions. It is not an easy film to watch, but for the persevering, it will have a deep and lasting effect.

May I suggest that this week we simply be with Christ, and remain with him wherever he will go. Images from art and film may help begin this journey, but let us resist being limited by them, and find a way to go into a world where we are neither controlling nor spoon-fed the picture. Rather, let us participate in a journey to Calvary by just “being there”. This is all Jesus asks of us at this time.


  1. What an interesting reflection! It may be because my faith is yet immature, but I have had a very different experience from you. For me, Zeffirelli's and Gibson's depictions have truly been icons. Having trouble meditating yesterday, I pulled out Jesus of Nazareth, and found myself getting lost in thought at certain lines and my own subsequent questions about Who Christ is, not to mention being moved to desire to love Him more. I might compare such literal films to Biblical commentaries, which stimulate the imagination but do not necessarily define it. And certainly, the Jesus of my heart is much handsomer and kinglier than either actor! ;) Just as the portrait of Divine Mercy is terribly insufficient, but a starting point. All that said, one must always remember that they are a springboard, and certainly not the Gospels themselves. Perhaps one day I might not need these crutches, but till then I am grateful for their assistance. Happy Easter, John!

    1. One of my Jesuit colleagues commented (by email) that they had watched Jesus of Nazareth just before making the long retreat (spiritual exercises), and that the images from the film were an intrusion in his prayer for a while. Your contrary experience, however, sheds light on something for me: that maybe this is particularly an ignatian prayer issue. Ignatius would have us both a) meditate imaginatively and b) be "disposable" to the movement of the spirit through the imago. Vivid imagery that's precomposed (film) then becomes too static if it inhibits (b). But absent this intensive prayer environment, I bet films, like sacred art and music, can only nourish and enhance the prayer experience -- precisely as you said, as a "stimulus". Merci!

  2. Putting into words those things I have always thought...thank you John. Happy Easter - He is risen indeed! (-:

    1. Hey Regina! He is risen! Would love to know more of your thoughts on this (absent FB though you may now be). Happy Easter!