What drives the appeal of ‘Passion of the Christ’ and other films on the life of Jesus

An advertisement for Olcott’s film, for example, stated how it was “destined to be more far-reaching than the Bible in telling the story of the Savior.” Indeed, as media scholars Terry Lindvall and Andrew Quicke have noted, many Christian leaders throughout the 20th century utilized the power of film for moral instruction and conversion.

A 1979 film, known as “The Jesus Film”, went on to become the most watched film in history. The film was a relatively straightforward depiction of the life of Jesus, taken mainly from the gospel of Luke.

The film was translated into 1,500 languages and shown in cities and remote villages around the world.

The global Jesus

But, as majority Christian population shifted from Europe and North America to Sub-Saharan Africa, South America, and South Asia, so did portrayals of Jesus: they came to reflect local cultures and ethnicities.

In the 2006 South African film “Son of Man”, for example, Jesus, his mother and disciples are all black, and the setting is a contemporary, though fictionalized, South Africa. The film employed traditional art forms of dance and music that retold the Jesus story in ways that would appeal to a South African audience.

It was the same with a Telugu film, “Karunamayudu” (Ocean of Mercy), released in 1978. The style resembles a long tradition of Hindu devotional and mythological films and Jesus could easily be seen as part of the pantheon of Hindu deities.

For the past four decades in southern India and beyond, villagers have gathered in front of makeshift outdoor theaters to watch this film. With over 100 million viewers, it has become a tool for Christian evangelism.

Other films have responded to and reflected local conditions in Latin America. The Cuban film “The Last Supper,” from 1976, offered a vision of a Jesus that is on the side of the enslaved and oppressed, mirroring Latin American movements in Liberation Theology. Growing out of the Cold War, and led by radical Latin American priests, Liberation Theology worked in local communities to promote socio-economic justice.

Meanwhile, the appeal of some of these films can also be gauged from how they continue to be watched year after year. The 1986 Mexican film, “La vida de nuestro señor Jesucristo,” for example, is broadcast on the Spanish-language television station Univision during Easter week every year.

The power of film

Throughout history, Jesus has taken on the appearance and behavior of one cultural group after another, some claiming him as their own, others rejecting certain versions of him.

As the scholar of religion Richard Wightman Fox puts it in his book “Jesus in America: Personal Savior, Cultural Hero, National Obsession:” “His incarnation guaranteed that each later culture would grasp him anew for each would have a different view of what it means to be human.”

Films about Jesus can move around the world quickly. Posters promoting ‘The Passion of the Christ’ in Bucharest, Romania. AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda
Cinema allows people in new places and times to grasp Jesus “anew,” and create what I have called a “georeligious aesthetic.” Films, especially those about Jesus, in their movement across the globe, can alter the religious practices and beliefs of people they come into contact with.

While the church and the Bible provide particular versions of Jesus, films provide even more – new images that can prompt controversy, but also devotion.