The Bible in Ancient and Modern Media section asked for papers on the use of the Bible in films that really don't have much to do with the Bible. (I suppose the frogs at the end of Magnolia are a good example of what they are looking for.) So I tossed together this:
"Jesus Beyond His Genre: The Non-Canonical Jesus Films."
There is an interesting sub-genre of "Jesus films" that relates well to the "treatment of biblical themes in films that are not expressly biblical." This genre is distinct both from films that attempt to directly adapt the canonical gospels to the screen, and from films that simply feature a discernable Christ figure as a central theme. The films that populate this sub-genre rest somewhere in between, being filmed narratives that have nothing else to do with Jesus other than the suggestion of a title, a set of visual themes, or an abstract yet fully intentional nod to the nature of Jesus. This paper will outline the contours of this interesting genre by looking at three of its most effective examples, and attempt to identify the hermeneutics at play in such profoundly inter-textual works of art. At first glimpse, Bruno Dumont's controversial realist masterpiece "La vie de Jesus" is only related to Jesus by title. But beneath the surface of the film lies commentary about mortality and materiality that expands to fill the Christological brackets set by Dumont in the title. Gus van Sant's recent film “Last Days” narrates the last few days of Kurt Cobain’s life in the context of a loosely fictional stand-in that becomes increasingly cloaked in Jesus imagery until a final resurrection scene. And finally, Bresson’s “Au hazard Balthazar” quite boldly turns a dilapidated donkey into a provocative metaphor for the odd presence of Christ in contemporary culture. All three of these films are intentional and provocative allusions to Jesus in decidedly non-biblical narrative worlds. This paper will track the reflective strategies of this "non-canonical" genre through these three close readings in their appropriate film theoretical context, and articulate the rich potential for re-narrating Jesus by means of the startling generic conflict embodied by these films.
I should have added in the abstract that Dumont's film reportedly takes its title from Ernst Renan's famous volume of the life of Jesus. But I look forward to (briefly) covering this overlooked section of Jesus films. I don't think I will exhaust the range of explanations for this anomaly in the above paper, but ever since being exposed to these films I have always wondered how they manage to catch aspects of Jesus' life as narrated in the Gospels and tradition far more incisively than their more "faithful" counterparts produced by Christians seeking to tell the story of Jesus visually.
We may be able to add The Last Temptation of Christ and Jesus of Montreal to this list, but the key feature of the above films is that while not providing a metanarrative of Jesus' life and purpose, they do focus in on specific elements that add an intertextual dimension to the primary narrative. I would want to argue that, as Kazantzakis poses it, The Last Temptation of Christ is less about Jesus than it is about the human experience of spirituality. But that is a different paper for a different time, each context deserves closer scrutiny. And to be honest, I have a hard time with Jesus of Montreal as it is my least favorite of Arcand's films and its mimicry of the Gospel narratives seems to lack grounding in a broader sense of redemption or social justice. I am more than open to correction on this point.