The many faces of Jesus at the movies in 2016

In a remarkable year for religious themes on the big screen, Jesus himself was featured in an extraordinary number of films — though the results were a mixed bag

SDG Original source: Crux

Each January, looking back at the movies of the year that was, I take stock, among other things, of how filmmakers variously interacted with or ignored religious themes, particularly things Christian and Catholic.

Some years it’s pretty dry. (Take 2010, a year that had Secretariat, the Coen brothers’ True Grit, the third Narnia film, The Secret of Kells, a troubling indie called Lourdes, and not much else.)

The last few years have been more interesting. 2014 gave us a pair of provocative Old Testament films (Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings), the pious Jesus movie Son of God, and some good roles for movie priests (notably Calvary and Deliver Us From Evil). 2015 included the sublime Brooklyn, the difficult but essential Spotlight, and the Will Smith biopic Concussion, among others.

Still, I can’t think of another year quite like 2016.

To begin with, Jesus himself was on the big screen in an extraordinary number of screen incarnations.

It began in February with the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar!, a semi-musical comedy about 1950s Hollywood that lends its name to a film-within-a-film, a biblical epic in the tradition of The Robe or Ben-Hur. (The imaginary film is called Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ, the subtitle borrowed from Ben-Hur.)

Strikingly, Hail, Caesar! was followed by a pair of Jesus films that each relied on a Roman soldier character in just the same way as the Coens’ film-within-a-film (and its 1950s inspirations) — a genre that critic Stephen Whitty dubbed “Good Pagan movies.”

In keeping with that tradition, Christ himself (or the actor playing Christ, or the actor playing the actor playing Christ) is only briefly seen in the imaginary film, and his face is never shown. Instead, the imaginary film focuses on the impact of Christ’s life and crucifixion on a Roman soldier played by George Clooney’s character, highlighted by a scene that has some real power despite being comically undercut by the actor’s lack of spiritual understanding.

More Christologically noteworthy is a theological round table of clerical consultants — a Catholic priest, a Protestant minister, an Orthodox bishop (actually a patriarch) and a rabbi — debate Jesus’ divine and human natures and the significance of portraying him onscreen. Josh Brolin plays the devoutly Catholic protagonist, a studio “fixer” who earnestly facilitates the discussion.

Bible Films, Life of Christ & Jesus Movies, Religious Themes

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Religion and rootlessness in 2016 movies

The many faces of Jesus at the movies in 2016 were perhaps the most notable trend in a larger pattern of notable religious themes in the year’s films. There were, though, other trends last year worth noting.