Knowing Christ through Cinema

Films on topics of religion have always raised controversy. It is hard for a human to play Christ plausibly and genuinely. It is only possible to depict His image to a limited extent. Many have tried, with various degrees of success. Some failed, others were unconvincing. But when an actor has at least some faith, his play can have an impact on his own life and touch the hearts of millions of viewers. Here are some examples.

Robert Powell in “Jesus of Nazareth”

Initially, Robert Powell essayed for the role of Judah. But the producers liked his face. To them, it bore a lot of similarity with the image of Christ that was common in the West at that time. They were impressed so much that they offered Powell the role of Christ.

Powell recalls that when he received the offer in a London office in 1977, he felt as if he had met Christ face to face right there. He was filled with awe, but he was also confused and uncertain. He had doubts if one could ever play Christ genuinely, as the film was very much an expression of the directors’ vision of Him.

Powell prepared for his role diligently and responsibly. Before the filming began, he married his partner. Powell believed that it was not possible for him to play Jesus and to live in an unmarried union at the same time. He also adopted a more modest lifestyle. He went on a diet of hazelnuts and water and dropped five kilogrammes in a month.

Powell was 33 at the time the film was complete. Its release changed the actor’s life. It was extremely successful, and Robert won the acclaim for being the best performer of the role of Jesus on the screen. The Vatican even offered him money for agreeing not to play in films any more. Powell turned down the offer tactfully. He built a successful film career, despite the initial shortage of offers, as many directors who were reluctant to hire someone so famous for the role of Jesus.

He was most impressed by the reaction to the film from his brother, and atheist. After a long silence, he said quietly: “Now here is something to think about”.

Some reactions were somewhat embarrassing. For many years after the film’s screening, the actor was asking people not to confuse his photos with the icons of the real Saviour. 

He said: I never cease to say and I repeat it to the world since 1977. I am not Jesus Christ. I am just an actor and British comedian. I am tired of seeing my photos displayed in places of worship. I just make films for a living. Burn my picture and worship the only God in truth! I am just an actor…  Jesus is Lord!

Interviewed in 2016, Robert Powell, already a kindly old man, admitted that before he played Jesus, he had a poor understanding of Christianity and that he was even put off by religion. At the time he was approved for the role, his knowledge of God was meagre and limited to what he could remember from Sunday school. In preparation for the acting, Powell read through the Bible carefully. He explored and analysed every detail and studied the commentaries. “Now I truly believe in Christ and His Divinity, even though I do not necessarily go to church. An actor should be honest in his acting. After having played Jesus for so long, it is hard not to believe in Him in truth,” says Powell.

After Jesus of Nazareth, Powell acted in several more films on religion. In 2013 he played God as the narrator of the TV series “The Bible”. Later, he appeared in the four-part documentary “Robert Powell: The Real Jesus of Nazareth”. In it, he travels around the Holy Land and presents the records, history and events related to Jesus Christ as a historical figure.

Jim Caviezel in “The Passion of the Christ”

James (Jim) Caviezel grew up in a Christian family. He had heard many times that God may act through people who trust and are loyal to Him. He waited for God to show him his calling. At the age of 19, as he was watching a film in a theatre of his native town, he had a sensation in his heart that he was supposed to be an actor. He recognised that he did not have enough talent and that he needed to learn a lot. Still, he followed the calling of his heart, and he was not mistaken.

The offer to play the Saviour came unexpectedly. He received a call from Mel Gibson who said he was looking for a man with the of initials JC who was 33 years of age. Gibson also warned him that the film was likely to raise criticism. This did not stop the actor, a devout Catholic, from accepting the offer. The film became the most prominent work in his career as an actor.

It was criticised, mainly because for the long and naturalistic scenes of the flagellation of the Saviour.

James Caviezel spoke in detail about his acting in the film in front of the American Catholic students’ fellowship in 2018. He said: 

“When I was up there on a cross, I learned that in his suffering was our redemption. I have been literally scourged, hit by the whips, crucified, struck by lightning. One day, during the shoot, my arm was wedged under that heavy beam, when someone yanked it in the other direction. My muscles wrenched, my shoulder separated. I fell to the ground, dropped my head into the sand. This take now remains in the movie. In the later part, Jesus experienced a shoulder separation. Well, I now know what that felt like. Every day I had to pick up that beam, it was like a penance. It ripped into my shoulder tearing up my flesh. With each passing hour, it got heavier. Had this been shot in a studio, you never would have seen that performance. The suffering made my performance. Just as it makes our lives. Guys, it was a lot of pain and suffering – before the Resurrection. Your path will be no different. So embrace your cross and race towards your goal.” 

What the actor did not mention were the blisters all over his body because of the thick layers of make-up, feeling bitterly cold many times during the filming, and the weight of cross the that the cross that he was asked to carry uphill – around 70 kilogrammes.

The film opened for the actor the door to mainstream cinema. He has been very selective, and never accepted the roles that ran against his moral and religious convictions. He returned to acting in religious films. In 2018, he starred in the film “Paul, Apostle of Christ”. He has also agreed to play in the film “The Passions of the Christ: Resurrection”, scheduled for release in 2022.

The stories of the two actors are similar in many respects, but they are also examples of their different paths towards knowing God. Robert Powell played Jesus and became a genuine believer in Him. To Jim Caviezel, it was a chance to experience at least in part the passions that Christ that he had suffered for us. Indeed, the paths of God are beyond tracing out (Romans 11:33). He brings people to know Him in many ways, including through cinema.

About the author

Anastasia Parkhomchik,
Literary editor and Orthodox journalist, member of The Catalog of Good Deeds team.

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