Journeying through Film

by Alan Perry

I always await the start of Journey Groups with great anticipation. There are a couple of reasons for this; I know I will learn, but the best reason is the interaction with the St. John’s community.   

This winter and spring, I was in a Journey Group that looked at Jesus and Mary Magdalene in film. I didn’t know much about the topic and I still know only a little. Even so, watching the movies and reading some scholarly thoughts on lesser-known texts such as the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Judas along with the other Gospels, gave me insight to Jesus and Mary’s relationship in a culture 2,000 years ago.   

We started with the original silent version of King of Kings made in 1927.  The second film we watched was a 1964 Italian film named The Gospel According to St. Matthew, written and directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini.  He described his film as a portrayal of the life of Christ after 2,000 years of stories about him. The next film was the 1973 rock opera film Jesus Christ Superstar.  The fourth film was the 1979 film The Life of Brian, a satire written by the British comedy team Monty Python.  Brian was a man mistakenly identified as the Messiah.  It was somewhat over the top, especially with its British accents.   

In King of Kings, Jesus was very Hollywood. Pasolini, a Marxist, portrayed Jesus as a revolutionary in his film.  I thought the 1988 film The Temptation of Christ, directed by Martin Scorsese, had to be the most controversial, and the most interesting film.  It portrayed Jesus as a human with all the emotional upheaval of a man who was learning why he was born—to be God’s message of salvation. 

Mary Magdalene’s roles were small but noteworthy in the films.  In the beginning of King of Kings, she was a Cleopatra look-alike, complete with pet tigers. Soon after, she was repenting in front of Jesus. In The Last Temptation of Christ, we see her in a larger role as a prostitute and later as a confidant of Jesus.    Except for in King of Kings, Judas plays roles that differ from what we are used to seeing.  He plays a much more central role as confidant to Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar and The Last Temptation of Christ.   

Meeting with members of our community and talking through the movies and the Gospels that inspired them gave me a feeling of kinship.  When it comes to the history of our faith, I am a neophyte.  This Journey Group gave me an avenue to look at how others have seen the life of Jesus. I didn’t always see eye to eye with their views, but it was interesting to look at their viewpoints and then discuss them. Sometimes our views differed, but that was what made this Journey Group enjoyable as well as a learning experience.  

Photo credit: https://www.filmcomment.com/article/interview-martin-scorsese-the-last-temptation-of-christ/

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