When the Bible Comes to the Screen

Authored By: ZENIT



Directors and Theologians Discuss the Pros and Cons of Filming Scripture

ROME, 20 NOV. 2000 (ZENIT.org).

The box-office loves a good Bible story, it seems. Cecil B. De Mille, the legendary director of two versions of "The Ten Commandments," once said that a "religious film never fails."

In order to understand the key to success or failure of biblical films—both financially and theologically—the Pontifical Salesian University this past weekend held a congress of film experts and theologians. Entitled "Visions of the Word," the congress was organized with the CatholicAssociation of Film Professionals, the Office of Social Communications of the Church in Italy, and other Catholic organizations.

"There are two essential veins in the incommensurable study of biblical films: the representative and the modern-symbolic," said Father Dario Vigano, a professor at the Catholic University of Rome and adviser of the Italian bishops' Office of Social Communications.

"The first includes the Hollywood epics that film scenes of the Old Testament," he said. "Beginning in the '50s, there has been a new way of approaching the Bible, mediated by the introspection that questions the interior of the director and the spectator. In this connection, [Pier Paolo] Pasolini's 'Gospel According to Matthew' [1964], remains the cornerstone, where there are no professional actors and we witness the extraordinary recourse to the darkening of the screen when Christ dies."

The study of films on the Gospel is another matter. Some conferees noted the fascination of directors with Christ. "Jesus is the greatest personage I know," said director Damiano Damiani, "the most intelligent man in history, who opens the mind as well as the heart."

Damiani's 1986 film, "L'inchiesta" ("The Inquiry"), is the story of a man commissioned by the Roman Empire to probe the death of the Nazareth "agitator." Little by little the investigator is fascinated by the Nazarene, until his view of the world is overturned.

"What was interesting was to represent the personal meeting with Jesus," Damiani said during the congress. "Every film director has represented it in his own way, just like in painting, Raphael's Christ is different from Mantegna's. I have never had the courage to make a film on his life: I would first have to understand the entire content of that extraordinary event."

Conferees also considered the influence that a film can have on knowledge of the Bible. "In the '70s, a whole generation knew the Gospel through Franco Zefirelli's 'Jesus of Nazareth,'" Father Vigano said.

And what can be said of these audiovisual "translations" that are destined to affect people's formation?

"A positive aesthetic judgment does not always coincide with fidelity, of extension or meaning, with the Biblical text," Father Vigano observed. "For example, in Zefirelli's film, there is great rigor in the reconstruction of history and in iconographic research. But the extreme realism impedes representing the Transfiguration, which causes an inevitable loss in expressing the Gospel's meaning."

"In Robert Young's [1999] television film 'Jesus,' the text is betrayed several times as, for example, in Jesus' public recognition, which appears with the baptism at the Jordan," Father Vigano said. Yet, "the updating of the temptations is interesting," he added.

Which book of the Bible is the most filmed? "Undoubtedly, the Apocalypse," claimed Carlo Tagliabue, a professor of the department of social communications of the Salesian University. "Paradoxically, this book is never represented or, rather, it is poorly interpreted with titles like 'Apocalypse Now,' linked to the destruction, rather than the revelation, of the mystery."

"The style of the Apocalypse employs specific film methods, with a series of 'flashbacks' and 'flashforwards,' pictures, visions, and 'end,'" Tagliabue added.

The limits of film prompted another view. Father Bruno Maggioni, a biblical expert, said: "More than the cinema, the theater is the ideal means to express the force of certain biblical scenes. Only the word can evoke, and speak with sobriety. If I were a director, I would take Jesus' trial before Pilate to the stage."

Archbishop John Foley, president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, gave the finishing touch to the congress when he summed up the relation between the Bible and the cinema.

"The cinema needs the Bible," he said, "as it would be impoverished without it, not only because it would miss some of the most dramatic moments of the documented history of the human race, but also because the Bible offers a key to the reading of human existence that is indispensable for the development of valuable cinema."

On the other hand the archbishop said, "Properly speaking, the Bible has no need of the cinema. After all, it did well for 4,000 years without it."

He acknowledged, however, that "the communication and understanding of the Bible's message have been helped by art, and the cinema is an art that combines image, movement and sound."

Moreover, he added, new film techniques, such as 3D, might "help to overcome growing biblical illiteracy," as they can make "the biblical narratives more accessible and encourage many people to reread the stories of sacred Scripture." ZE00112001

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
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