EpXACITY A HUNDRED YEARS ago, an unknown actor layed Jesus in Passion Play, the first time the newly invented cinema had portrayed Christ as the hero of a motion picture. His first appearance was brief just 19 minutes from crib to crucifixion and, ironically, the story of Iscariot's betrayal cost just £30 to make. Ever since, despite all reports of declining interest in religion, moviemakers have quarried both the Old and New Testaments for new versions of the sacred dramas. About 250 major features have appeared so far.
"The film industry doesn't pour millions into religious movies because it expects to make a loss," says Philip Poole, chief executive of the Bible Society. "The market moves to satisfy a hunger for the holy which will always be there." This has rarely been so obvious as it is now, in the run-up to the Millenium. At least half-a-dozen major movies on Christological themes are currently in production, and more are expected.
The sons of Mammon are interested in profits rather than prophets, and their products may differ from those offered free to churchgoers, but they know a good story when they see one. The Trial, an account of the greatest of all courtroom dramas Christ's arrest, interrogation and condemnation will go into production "with a cast of thousands and a raft of names", in Turkey next October.
Executive producer John Daly, a Londoner whose Oscar-winning productions have included Platoon, The Last Emperor and Salvador, says teasingly that he's planning "to give Judas a break". Daly hopes to recruit Apollo 13 actor Ed Harris to play Iscariot, rehabilitated in writer Gordon Thomas's script as a political activist who arranged Christ's arrest in the belief that the Messiah would easily escape and lead a Jewish insurrection against Rome.
The German director Martin Lettmayer, 35, whose awardwinning work on Bosnia and Rwanda has won him high praise, said: "I am looking forward to the start of filming very much. We will be telling the Gospel story in a quite different and controversial new way, not as a story for kids and old women but as a difficult and challenging truth for the new millennium." Producer-director John Brierley, whose screenplay for Ghandi won worldwide acclaim and a clutch of Oscars, has Son of Man, a more conventional biopic in the tradition of The Robe (1953), King of Kings (1961) and Jesus of Nazereth (1977) already in pre-production.
Brieriey's Jesus will walk the sands of Morocco. Like Daly's, he will never see the Holy Land, since
nervous insurers have declared Galilee and Jerusalem to be no-go zones for movie-makers. Even Egypt is thought to be too risky.
Despite the senistivity attached to religious scripts, producers are becoming increasingly confident that Jesus doesn't just save be sells. "People don't go to church the way they used to," says Clive Manning, media advisor to the Bible Society and script consultant on The Thal. "For many, the Bible has become a closed book. But this post-Christian generation is visually highly literate, and it has discovered rather to its surprise that it can't do without the Man of Nazareth.
"The Gospels present him as a universal character a brilliant, multifaceted man who made the authorities look stupid. "The film industry will market him as a man for our times and show us that his times were remarkably like our own, so far as the great questions of politics, power, personal relationships and human destiny were concerned. "Jesus is making a comeback as the great role-model for our living culture. We've tried to turn our backs on him, but we cannot walk away from our own history, and Christ is at the heart of that. Some people have presented the millenium as being a purely secular celebration, but what the moviemakers are saying and they are right to say it is "Excuse me, don't you know whose party this is?"
Stephen Spielberg, who knows a good story when he sees one, was among the first to spot the developing trend. His DreamWorks production Prince of Egypt Tinseltown is already calling it The Zion King will be a full-length cartoon for all the family. It will retell the story of Moses and the Exodus as a gripping yarn of political feuding between two brothers, "one born a king, the other a slave". But British filmmakers are hot on Spie1berg's heels with Jesus Story, coming to a cinema near you next year.
Like Spielberg's film, this £16 million Channel Four Wales-BBCRussian co-production will be a fulllength animation but any resemblance between the two ends there. "Russia has always had some of the greatest artistic talent in the world," said executive producer Chris Grace of Channel 4 Wales. "It could never be expressed properly under Communism because the arts always had to serve the state.
"Religion was considered politically incorrect but now that the weight of Marxist Leninism has lifted, a great religious revival is taking place. The animators at Christmas Films in Moscow, who are making jesus Story with us, had their studio blessed before they started work. They're working both with two-dimensional cartoons and three-dimensional models and the results are quite remarkable.
"When you watch this film, you will feel you are actually in firstcentury Galilee. The Russians bring an iconic style to the characters which is quite ditterent from anything the Americans can do." Grace stressed the ecumenical nature of his venture: "It is work which will bind Orthodox and Latin Christianity closer together."
Scriptwriter Gordon Thomas cherishes a note signed by the former president of the Supreme Court of Israel latter-day successor of the Sanhedrin which tried Jesus in which Mr Justice Haim Cohn described The Trial as "a great bridge-builder between the faiths."
One ingenious script gets around the difficulty of locating Jesus in the third Millenium with a plotline which suggests that Christ might be cloned from DNA fragments taken from the Turin Shroud.
David Rolfe, who made a noted documentary, The Silent Witness, about the Shroud, disclosed plans for a full-length feature this month: "Obviously the Church itself would not sanction cloning from the shroud but it can't rule out the possibility that someone may try."
The retooling of the Man of Galilee's image, says Phillip Poole, is bound to create controversy. "Some won't like it. It's a testimony to the power of Christ's story that it still muses strong passions two thousand years after its hero was born."
Pilate and the wise men of the Sanhedrin thought the crucifiction of the troublemaker from Nazareth marked the beginning of a more politically correct post-Christian age. The movie-makers are determined not to fall into the same error. II Kevin Dowling