WINDOWS ON THE SOUL by Timothy Elphick
WATCH out on Easter Monday for Channel 4's documentary presentation of the life of Christ in the movies tracing the story of Jesus' life as told by filmmakers over almost a century of cinema history.
The documentary. Jesus Christ Movie Star (Channel 4, April 20. 7pm). includes some of the earliest footage ever shot on camera showing for the first time on television a 20-second long film made in 1898 of Pope Leo XIII blessing the photographer as he rides past the crowds in the Vatican bestowing church approval on I he nascent film industry.
Ray Bruce, the documentary's producer, says the footage was found secreted away in the United States Congress Library. He points out that the Vatican, which only last week urged church members to "make their voices heard in all the media", quickly recognised the power of the big screen for transmitting its message, leaving others far behind.
He stresses that the very first films telling the story of Jesus, mostly made in the first decade of the twentieth century by American and French producers, were dramatisations of his life based on the passion play performed by the villagers of Oberammergau in Bavaria, Germany.
As clips included in the documentary reveal, costumes were modelled on the Renaissance dress used by artists such as Raphael and James Tissot, the nineteenth century illustrator of Christ's life, to clad figures in their paintings of biblical scenes.
But the attempts of the cinematic pioneers to capture the atmosphere of the biblical world sometimes fell short of the standards for special effects set by present day moguls of the industry, Mr Bruce says.
Walking on Water, a film made in 1905 and set supposedly on the Sea of Galilee, shows Christ emerging from the water, unaware that to his left what appears to be an oil tanker is passing slowly by.
Some of the passion plays, which were sold scene by scene and yard by yard as they came out of the studio to be joined together by the clergymen who brought them for use as aids in their ministries, changed actors half way through the story so that in one case Jesus appears as three different people in the course of the film, a feat not unknown to the characters of modern-day American soap operas.
The documentary argues that there is a common thread running through films telling the Jesus story from the early films to the epics of our time, including, Mr Bruce says, Martin Scorsese's controversial Last Temptation of Christ, in which the son of God as a sensual messiah is shown having sex with Mary Magdalene in a dream sequence.
"All the people bar none who have made these films over the years have held tremendously strong Christian convictions and believed that they have a religious message." Mr Bruce says.
From the naive exoticism of Cecil B de Mille's King of Kings (1927), with its belly dancing scenes and zebra-drawn chariots, to the psychedelic musicals of the 1970s hippy-rock era, Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar, the documentary explores the motives and the memories of the actors, script-writers and makers of the films.
There are interviews with Robert Powell, who played Christ in Franco Zefferelli's television epic Jesus of Nazareth, the moving and realistic portrayal of Christ's life and passion, and the 19-year-old Spanish student (now in his late 40s) who was picked as an unknown without any previous acting experience to play the "revolutionary" Jesus in the 1964 Pasolini film The Gospel According To Matthew.
Tracked down by the makers of the documentary, the former student tells how he was pursued by Franco's secret police and conscripted into the army as a punishment for participating in what the Spanish authorities took to be a "marxist blasphemy".
Arts al Easter The 250th anniversary of the first performance of Handel's Messiah, in Dublin in 1742, will be marked by a special celebration concert at London's Barbican Hall, April 13 at 7pm, performed by the Sixteen Choir and conducted by Harry Christophers (Tel: 071 638 8891. The oratorio can also be heard in Blackpool's Grand Theatre on April 12 at 7pm (Tel: 0253 28309) and on April 15 at 7.30pm in Birmingham's Symphony Hall (Tel: 021 212 3333).
Paintings of the Holy Mass by Elizabeth Wang will be on show in London '.s Westminster Cathedral until April 21.