The Passion (2003), Jesus of Nazareth (1977) and From the Manger to the Cross (1912)

Video/DVD Picks from Steven Greydanus of DecentFilms.com
by Steven Greydanus | Source:
The Passion (2003)

Not to be confused with Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, Doug Barry's Passion is a one-man stage production-not quite a one-man play, but a semi-improvised dramatic meditation on the passion. Barry, who calls his apostolate Radix, has been doing his live one-man passion play for a decade, accompanied for most of that time by his musical partner, Eric Genuis. This version was filmed live at the Orpheum Theatre in Memphis, TN.

For most of The Passion's 90-minute length, Barry adopts the perspective of St. John to reflect upon the theological meaning as well as the events of Jesus' passion. Barry's John isn't limited to a first-century understanding, but speaks the idiom of his modern-day audience, and his reflections are informed by developed Catholic doctrine, modern medical understanding regarding the physiology of crucifixion, and evils of the modern world.

An energetic, impassioned performer, Barry's charged performance and sweaty physicality bring an intensity and conviction to The Passion to rival Gibson's production. In fact, Barry's Passion in some ways ideally complements Gibson's film, providing the interpretive context in which the events in Gibson's film must be understood.

The Passion can be ordered from Ignatius Press at 800-651-1531 or www.ignatius.com. To book The Passion live, contact Barry at 402-794-2100 or. www.radixguys.com

Content advisory: Vivid description of the passion; references to various grave sins (e.g., abortion). Reasonable family viewing.

Jesus of Nazareth (1977)

Like the Bible itself, Franco Zefferelli's epic, ambitious made-for-television Jesus of Nazareth is often experienced in bits and pieces over the years, and is commonly better known in isolated parts than in its lengthy whole.

Viewed as a whole, Jesus of Nazareth may or may not be the greatest Jesus film ever made, but it remains in some ways the standard by which other Jesus films are judged. No other Jesus film, not even Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew or Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, offers an interpretation of the gospel story so comprehensive and definitive.

Its key assets, beyond its ample running time, are a scripturally and historically literate script, a reverently non-revisionist distillation of key gospel stories, a distinguished and generally apt ensemble cast, and matter-of-fact realism in its approach to the miraculous.

Robert Powell's portrayal of Jesus is reverent and authoritative, though too ethereal, more successfully evoking Christ's transcendence than his humanity. The film's most glaring weakness, though, is its resurrection episode, which feels rushed and anticlimactic. But Jesus of Nazareth's strengths more than outweigh its weaknesses; its achievement is unique. Nothing else like it has ever been made, and may never be.

Content advisory: Somewhat graphic passion narrative violence; a few scary scenes (e.g., the slaughter of the innocents, an exorcism, etc.); a bit of discreet sexual content. Reasonable family viewing.

From the Manger to the Cross (1912)

From the Manger to the Cross was made within a decade of Vatican film list honoree The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ (1902-05), yet the differences between these two very early silent Jesus films-bundled together on a single DVD-are striking.

The art of cinema had advanced dramatically in those few years, and Manger is far more sophisticated-though I find the earlier film more effective. Anyway, both are worthwhile, and they make a good double bill.

The 1905 Passion, from French company Pathé, is largely a filmed stage pageant in the Catholic tradition. Manger, an American production with more Protestant sensibilities, shot on location in the Holy Land. Production values and acting are much more naturalistic than the earlier film, and camera and editing techniques are far more developed. And where Passion is entirely visual and assumes that the images will be understood or explained, Manger relies extensively on title cards for narration and dialogue from the King James Bible.

Oddly, while the story doesn't literally start at the manger, it does end at the cross, cutting from Jesus' death to a title card bearing John 3:16, omitting the Resurrection entirely. Whenever I watch it with my kids, we always cut back to the last two chapters from Passion for the Resurrection and Ascension!

Steven Greydanus is a film critic for the National Catholic Register.

To read more of his movie reviews please visit his website at DecentFilms.com.

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