Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Movie Review: "The Birth, the Life and the Death of Christ" (1906)

The Birth, the Life and the Death of Christ

a.k.a. La vie du Christ

Director: Alice Guy-Blaché

Screenplay: Alice Guy-Blaché

Cinematographer: Anatole Thiberville

Costume Design and Production Design: Victorin-Hippolyte Jasset

Starring: Unknown

Production company: Gaumont

Initial release: 1906

Run Time: 33 Min

Alice Guy-Blaché, the first female film director, wrote and directed this 1906 French film about Jesus from his birth to resurrection in 25 scenes. This early extravaganza film had over 100 extras and in 1906 was the biggest hit that French filmmaking had ever seen. It was Gaumont Film Company's big blockbuster. At the time this film was made, it's director/producer, Alice Guy, was also the head of Gaumont film production. She used the illustrated Tissot Bible as reference material for the film. Most scenes in this early film have all the action taking place in front of a still camera. However, one scene "Climbing Golgotha", includes an early innovative sweeping pan shot. It is also one of the first films to have actors walking in and out of screen.

The 25 scenes of this film have no dialogue in title cards, but are only introduced by the name of each scene. It begins with Mary and Joseph's arrival in Bethlehem, then immediately proceeds to the Nativity of Christ and veneration by the Magi, which is followed by a very unique scene called "The Sleep of Jesus". While Mary and Joseph go inside the house for a brief moment as baby Jesus sleeps outside, he is suddenly surrounded by angels which offer their devotion, and they leave before Mary and Joseph come back out. It is a fascinating scene of devotion. From this the film skips right to the Samaritan Woman at the Well, then the raising of Jairus' daughter, and the anointing of the feet of Jesus by Mary Magdalene. From here we jump to Palm Sunday and the Passion and Resurrection of Christ.

This film, made and written by a woman, clearly focuses on the female characters in the life of Jesus. As historian Richard Abel ("The Cine Goes to Town") has pointed out, Christ's miracles are whittled down to three here, and the chosen all involve women. Furthermore, women help Jesus with the cross when he stumbles, rather than Simon, and women also play an atypically prominent role in other scenes. There is also a strong Catholic tone, with angelic devotion depicted throughout, and the only scene not directly from the Gospels is the encounter of Jesus on the way to Golgotha with Saint Veronica, with the miracle of the veil prominently displayed. Everything comes together at the Resurrection scene, which depicts the actual moment of the Resurrection, when angels and the myrrhbearing women gather together and offer their devotion to Jesus. As for the twelve disciples of Jesus, from this film you wouldn't even think he had any. This is about Jesus' female followers.

Guy's direction is stunningly ahead of its time in its naturalism, subtlety, and human nuance, with moving depictions of grief, though nothing is overdramatic. It is known that she would surround her sets with signs that read "Be Natural", and this is clearly evident in the film here, though it also looks ahead to what an epic film will soon be. I personally liked how Jesus is far enough from the camera that you can hardly see his face, but enough is seen to understand his reactions. The Passion scenes are typical "Passion Play" scenes, though well done for the time.

As an interesting sidenote, I read that during a screening of this film in the 1940's in Argentina, an old man, for whom this was his first experience with 'moving pictures', was so taken in and enraged from seeing Judas betray Jesus that he pulled out a gun and started firing at the screen, intent on stopping him from betraying Jesus again.

Out of rating of 1 through 10, I would give this film a 7.8.