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Jim McDermottJune 01, 2023
Pope Francis greets director Martin Scorsese and his wife, Helen, at the Vatican May 27, 2023, at the end of an audience for participants in a conference sponsored by the Italian Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica and by Georgetown University in Washington. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

Over the weekend, Martin Scorsese announced that he is about to begin filming a new movie about Jesus. At a conference at the Vatican, Mr. Scorsese described the project as a response “to the pope’s appeal to artists,” which he said he answered “in the only way I know how: by imagining and writing a screenplay for a film about Jesus.”

His film is not the only high-profile film or TV show about Jesus in process. Mel Gibson’s sequel to his controversial “The Passion of the Christ,” subtitled “The Resurrection,” is also due to come out in 2024, as is Season 4 of “The Chosen,” the popular streaming show detailing the whole of Jesus’ ministry. This Christmas we will also see a live-action musical version of the story of Mary and Joseph calledJourney to Bethlehem,” with Antonio Banderas as King Herod.

But while the path to creating a great story about Jesus is filled with good intentions, there are also a lot of landmines. Here are a couple of thoughts about where those landmines sit and how to avoid them.

1. Go Easy on the Reverence

Hagiography has a lot of value, particularly as a means of inspiration. But it can also end up feeling not terribly relatable. We get it, Jesus was Lord. But if you keep saying that over and over, there is not a lot of room for us watching to feel it ourselves. That is not a movie, really; it is a sermon—and not a great one.

Mr. Scorsese is one of the world’s greatest filmmakers. His films are filled with characters both incandescent and earthy, struggling mightily with big Catholic ideas like sin, greed and sacrifice. And yet his prior explicitly Catholic films, “The Last Temptation of Christ” and “Silence,” had trouble at times overcoming what seems like a tremendous (and moving) desire on Mr. Scorsese’s part to present Jesus and those who follow him in reverential terms. When “The Last Temptation” came out, it was considered controversial because it imagined Jesus being tempted to walk away from his call to settle down and have a family. But even so, the way that Jesus and his disciples are presented and performed feels caught somehow in the amber of devotion and sacrifice.

While the path to creating a great story about Jesus is filled with good intentions, there are also a lot of landmines.

The world doesn’t need a foul-mouthed Jesus who guns down bad guys or throws parties in the Hollywood Hills. But it would be thrilling, and potentially very meaningful, to see a filmmaker as gifted as Martin Scorsese consider Jesus with the kind of edginess he has brought to so many other subjects. As Pope Francis said last weekend to Scorsese and other gathered artists, Jesus should not be domesticated.

2. Do Something New

Almost every Jesus film seems intent on telling the whole story of his years in ministry, culminating in his crucifixion and death. That’s understandable. But at this point, we have plenty of versions of that story to choose from. And there are so many other possibilities to consider.

For instance, rather than feeling like you have to tell the whole story, why not focus on a single moment or period of Jesus’ life? It would be fascinating to follow Jesus in the first few months of his time in ministry, watching him learn by trial and error who exactly he is and what he is meant to do. He is a human being like us, trying to figure things out.

I would love a spooky film about Jesus and the Gerasene demoniac, who wanders among tombs outside of town, rejected, frightening and afraid.

Or a film could investigate some aspect of his life about which we know nothing (which is most of it). Give me a story about Jesus in middle school, just being a normal kid and having an adventure with his friends. Think “The Goonies” or “Stand by Me” but in the Ancient Middle East.

We might even try working in a different genre. I would love a spooky film about Jesus and the Gerasene demoniac, who wanders among tombs outside of town, rejected, frightening and afraid. It is one thing for a man to say he wants to leave home and help people. But dealing with a person who says he has an entire legion of demons inside of him? How did Jesus comprehend that, let alone deal with it?

3. Don’t be Afraid of Delight

Not long ago Adam Sandler won the Mark Twain Prize for his comedy. In considering his body of work, I noticed that Mr. Sandler has often told Messiah-type stories. Time and again, his heroes end up sacrificing themselves to save their communities.

Mr. Sandler and many others like him manage to tell those kinds of stories while also providing a steady stream of delight. Their films make us laugh and feel good, but their heroes themselves also take pleasure in life. The world can be hard on them, but it is still also a place of wonder with endless new experiences to savor.

Martin Scorsese making another film about Jesus is a cause for excitement. I cannot wait to see what he does with it. I just hope it’s a surprise.

Jesus had to have been someone who loved life, because people do not leave their homes and families to follow eccentric loners, preachers who threaten them or even miracle workers for very long. (Once you get your miracle, eventually you go home.) No, we follow people who have a take on life that makes our own lives seem more meaningful, which includes being more enjoyable, more pleasurable, more entertaining.

If Jesus was someone people believed so deeply in, he has to be someone who had a sense of delight about him and was a regular source of it for others as well. Put more simply: At least some of the time, Jesus should be fun.

4. Have Good Consultants

This reads like a bit of shameless self-promotion, so take it with a huge grain of salt, but I think the main problem with many Jesus stories is that the people making them are operating without a lot of knowledge or experience of Jesus or faith themselves. I do not think you need to be a believer in order to have a compelling story about Jesus; if anything, I suspect a nonbeliever might have a more interesting story to tell.

But if you are going to tell a story about Jesus, you should have some professionals on hand to offer feedback, a sense of context and suggestions. It is like most things; you don’t even know what you don’t know until you bring in someone with more experience.

Don’t be afraid to look beyond the usual suspects, either: The fact that a guy is a priest does not mean he has special access to Jesus. In my experience, some of the most spiritually deep Catholics today are to be found among orders of religious women fighting and preaching for justice. And if you are writing a movie about the life of Jesus, a Middle Eastern Jew, why not consult with a Jewish theologian? Or someone who is actually from the Middle East?

Martin Scorsese making another film about Jesus is a cause for excitement. I cannot wait to see what he does with it. I just hope it’s a surprise.

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