The Journal
of Religion and Film

Jesus of Hollywood

by Adele Reinhartz
New York et al.: Oxford University Press 2007

Reviewed by Freek L. Bakker
Utrecht University, The Netherland

Vol. 13, No.1, April 2009  

Jesus of Hollywood

by Adele Reinhartz
New York et al.: Oxford University Press 2007

Reviewed by Freek L. Bakker
Utrecht University, The Netherlands

[1] Adele Reinhartz’s book, Jesus of Hollywood, is a comprehensive and important contribution to the analysis of Jesus films. It covers not only the films produced in Hollywood (as the title suggests) but also includes the prominent Jesus films produced in Europe, such as the German Der Galiläer (The Galilean – Dimitri Buchowetski 1921), the Italian Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo ( The Gospel of St. Matthew – Pier Paolo Pasolini 1964) and Jesus of Nazareth, the 1977 British-Italian co-production of Franco Zeffirelli. While two highly qualified books about Western Jesus films have already been published, Jesus at the Movies by W. Barnes Tatum and Imaging the Divine by Lloyd Baugh, Reinhartz’s contribution is valuable as she has developed a different and somewhat innovative approach to the analysis of these films.

[2] What is special in this approach is that Adele Reinhartz moves away from the conventional presentation of portraying and analyzing the different Jesus films separately, followed by overall conclusions of the presentations. Instead she provides in-depth analysis of the portrayals of the most important personalities in the gospel stories in the various Jesus films. She compares what is written about these individuals in the gospels with what is presented in the films, elucidating and emphasizing, at the same time, the similarities and the differences.

[3] In the Introduction (Part I) the author examines some of the difficulties experienced by the different film producers in the making of the Jesus films. She highlights three problems. The first is the variation in the stories of the four gospels. The second concerns the data suggesting that Jesus is not only an ordinary human being. And the third deals with the nature of the texts of the gospels, which differ with respect to the details and sequence of Jesus’ life including the many gaps in the narrations. Subsequently Reinhartz presents a short history of the Jesus films followed by a chapter on the relationship between the gospel stories and history. She shows that the filmmakers were always compelled to make selections and had to reckon with the expectations of the audience and the position of the church towards the Jesus films.

[4] Part 2 of her book is devoted to Jesus. She reflects on the influence that certain painted portraits of Jesus had on the appearance of Jesus, mentioning in this respect the significance of Warner Salman’s Head of Christ made in 1940. While the Jewish traits of Caiaphas and the Pharisees are often emphasized, the Jesus portrayals seem to overlook that he was a Jew as well. Reinhartz also argues that the Roman oppression is often emphasized as it gave a rationale for the intervention of God on behalf of his people. It also explained the receptiveness of the oppressed people to Jesus and his message, as well as the alarm on the part of the Romans and the Jews at Jesus’ activities which they viewed as a threat to their hegemonic position in society.

[5] Part 3 of the book, entitled ‘The Family’, analyses the film portrayals of Mary, Joseph and God. While the inclusion of God among Jesus’ family members may cause concern to some readers, this is not warranted, as Jesus, in the gospels often refers to God as his Father. Part 4 of the book is devoted to ‘The Story: Jesus’ Friends’ and discusses the portraits of Mary Magdalene and Judas. It is particularly noteworthy that the author considers Judas as a friend of Jesus. Reinhartz points out that in some films, such as Martin Scorcese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, homoerotic undertones are evident in the body language between Jesus and Judas. These films also reflect a close bond between Jesus and Judas, and there is also a certain intensity and tenderness in the way they relate to each other. In addition, both Jesus and Judas are bound together in the service of God and Israel. However, as Judas was also Jesus’ traitor, the discussion on Judas could have been undertaken in Part 5 which is entitled ‘The Story: Jesus’ Foes’ and deals with Satan, the Pharisees, Caiaphas and Pilate.

[6] Sometimes Reinhartz provides information about the context in which the picture was made and how this has influenced the representations in the film. She shows, for example, that until the 1980s Mary Magdalena had been portrayed as a promiscuous woman. And while the later films did not discard this aspect, they no longer emphasized it, nor passed moral judgment upon her to the same extent as in the earlier films. Such a representation of Mary clearly reflects the more liberal attitude towards sex since the 1970s. Another example is the influence of the experiences the Americans acquired with the dictatorships in World War Two on the representation on the American portrayal of Caiaphas. Prior to the war, he was depicted as a Jewish ‘bad guy’ intent solely on Jesus’ destruction. After the war, he was presented in a more subtle manner as a person caught between the sentiments and pressures of the people and the Romans and trying to make the best of the situation – reminiscent of the moral dilemma faced by the Judenräte (Jewish councils) in the Jewish ghettos of the Nazi period.

[7] The book concludes with a short section entitled ‘Jesus of Hollywood’ where the author examines the similarities between the portrayals of Jesus in the scriptures with those associated with ‘Jesus of Hollywood’ – the latter including Jesus films produced not only in Hollywood but also elsewhere. Both personages, the Jesus of the scriptures and the Jesus of the films, are preoccupied with the interests, concerns and anxieties of Jesus’ own time. Both are admirable individuals with messages of universal love and committed to justice for all human beings. However, according to Reinhartz, the Jesus of the films is a loner whom others try to but fail to understand. In addition, he also reinforces the dominant values of the era in which the film is produced, thus sustaining the status quo. She adopts this line of reasoning from George F. Custen who in his book Bio/Pics: How Hollywood Constructed Public History has argued that by portraying life as it should be and eliminating realities that create discomfort or uneasiness Hollywood supports the existing state of affairs. While this opinion may be true for the films actually produced in Hollywood, it is questionable as to whether one can agree with this viewpoint with regard to Pasolini’s Jesus film and Denys Arcand’s Jesus of Montreal, two films produced outside Hollywood.

[8] There are several sharp observations by the author that make the book unique. A beautiful example is her analysis of the beginning of Pasolini’s picture where nothing is said but nevertheless the message of deep love between Joseph and Mary is revealed. Later on in the film this same sentiment is reflected between Joseph and Jesus when the boy Jesus runs to Joseph who holds out his hands to the child and picks him up tenderly. She also reflects incisively on how, in many films, the problem of the representation of the human and the divine in Jesus is often solved chronologically: in his youth Jesus’ human side predominates, while in his adulthood the divine prevails, often at the moment Joseph fades into the background.

[9] In spite of existing reputable books on Jesus films mentioned at the beginning of this review, Adele Reinhartz’ book is unique in many ways. Whereas the other books give excellent representations and analyses of the various separate films, this book contains sharp observations and analyses of the representation of the personalities in the various films. This approach provides more detailed and sophisticated analysis of the differences between the portrayals of the various personalities in the films, as well as of the diversity in the styles adopted by the various filmmakers. In doing so the book provides new insights into the representations the films offer of the gospel stories. Overall, ‘Jesus of Hollywood’ is an important contribution to the study of Jesus films and is highly recommended in this regard.

Der Galiläer (The Galilean)

Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo
(The Gospel of St. Matthew)

Jesus of Montreal

Jesus of Nazarath
The Last Temptation of Christ

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