'Life and Passion’: An extraordinary artifact from the dawn of the cinematic age

‘Life and Passion’: An extraordinary artifact from the dawn of the cinematic age

“The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ” is one of the 15 films named on the 1995 Vatican film list in the category of “religion.” It is available on DVD; the entire movie can also be watched on YouTube. Forty days after Easter Sunday, and nine days before Pentecost Sunday,

“The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ” is one of the 15 films named on the 1995 Vatican film list in the category of “religion.” It is available on DVD; the entire movie can also be watched on YouTube.

Forty days after Easter Sunday, and nine days before Pentecost Sunday, Christians celebrate the solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord. The solemnity always falls on a Thursday, but in the Western Church some countries have permission from the Vatican to move the observation of the Ascension to the following Sunday. This includes most dioceses in the United States (a few American dioceses continue to observe Ascension Thursday, yesterday, as a holy day of obligation; these include Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Hartford, Omaha, and my own archdiocese of Newark).

My favorite cinematic depiction of the Ascension of Jesus is one of the first, from a very early silent film released 110 years ago, “The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ” (1905), directed by Ferdinand Zecca and Lucien Nonguet for the French film company Pathé. (“Life and Passion” (For an analysis of depictions of the Ascension in film, see my friend Peter Chattaway’s excellent 2014 Ascension Thursday blog post.)

An extraordinary artifact from the dawn of the cinematic age, “Life and Passion” is a movie made by people who hadn’t yet figured out what movies were — how this art form differs from older forms such as stage theater and painting. As a result, it works as a sort of blending of traditional sacred art and stage theater.

The story of Jesus is told in a series of 30 or so vignettes, identified in intertitles: “The Annunciation,” “The Wedding at Cana,” “Peter’s denial,” etc. There are no other title cards, no dialogue; the Gospel scenes are depicted visually. At a time when most films were only a few minutes long, “Life and Passion” runs a remarkably lengthy 44 minutes.

Vignettes are staged like a theatrical pageant, with painted backdrops and theatrical props, filmed from the center of the front row by a fixed camera that seldom moves or cuts within a scene. (A few limited camera movements and intercut close-ups are among the film’s innovative touches.)

Compositions are inspired by sacred art, notably the popular works of the 19th-century artist Gustave Doré, whose well-known biblical wood engravings for an 1866 edition of the King James Bible are among the most familiar images of biblical scenes. The effect is thus of sacred art brought to flickering life.

The film’s use of color is worth noting. Like many films of the period, “Life and Passion” uses tinting, for example, to suggest night by dying an entire scene blue — but Pathé had also developed a special stencil process for coloring individual objects in a shot: gold for an angel’s wings or for the holy star, reds, and greens for robes, etc.

Stencils approximately matched the shape of each object, but the dyes had to be painstakingly applied by hand to each frame in a shot — hundreds of frames for each minute of film — and each print of the film had to be individually colored! For obvious reasons, this technique was used sparingly, but when it is used — as it is in the Ascension — the effect is glorious.

What I love about the Ascension shot is the way it blends the film’s two principal influences of Christian sacred art and theater. As in other scenes in the film, the depiction of the Ascension imagines a medieval three-story cosmos with heaven above and hell below, visualized through the exigencies of stagecraft. (The Resurrection scene works the same way; Christ does not emerge horizontally from the sepulcher, but literally rises up from Sheol on a stage elevator, like a ghost or demon appearing from the underworld in a play.)

In the film’s final shot, Jesus (a rather hefty Monsieur Moreau in a stage wig and beard) blesses his disciples one last time; then, as the disciples kneel in homage, Jesus is surrounded by a golden nimbus and halo-like cloud which rises slowly and recedes from the camera.

Then, just when you wonder where Jesus can possibly go, the heavens are opened in the sky above the disciples, with Jesus sitting down on the right hand of a white-bearded God the Father with a dove over their heads, surrounded by angels playing musical instruments. It’s a transcendent finale to a remarkable early film that is equally accessible to the very youngest and very oldest viewers.

For more on “The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ,” see my review.

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