Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Movie Review: "The Passion" (1898)

La Passion (The Passion)

A.K.A.: La vie et la passion de Jésus-Christ (The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ)

Directors: Louis Lumière, George Hatot

Cinematography: Alexandre Premio

Starring: Bretteau as Jesus

Year: 1898

Duration: 11'

Jesus may be the most filmed figure in history. I can't think of any other character portrayed more in movies than Jesus. Ever since the dawn of film making, biblical stories came to life on the silver screen. At least 16 films in the silent era were based on Christ's Passion alone. The earliest of these was simply titled The Passion (La Passion), which was released by the Lumière brothers in 1898, two years after they opened the first movie theater, in Paris. For over a hundred years now, Jesus has remained a popular subject, the most filmed subject in history.

Though The Passion released by Auguste and Louis Lumière in 1898 is the earliest surviving movie about Jesus, it was not the first film about Jesus ever made. The first film was by Léar (a.k.a. Albert Kirchner) in 1897, simply called La Passion du Christ, which was shot in Paris and lasted around 12 minutes which included 12 scenes. It along with the other Jesus film from that year, The Horitz Passion Play, which included thirty scenes and lasted around half an hour, are now both presumed lost. The Horitz Passion Play was very successful in the United States and the rights for the film were eventually bought by Edison, who according to some sources, eventually re-released it under the title The Passion Play of Oberammergau. In the United States, having seen the success of the The Horitz Passion Play, Richard Hollaman filmed in New York in 1898 his own version on the roof of the Eden Musée, using costumes and props from an 1880 New York stage production, closely followed by another version, also filmed in New York, by Siegmund Lubin. All these versions are believed to be lost. The Lumière production seems to be the only one of those shot in 1897-98 to have survived.

I found the 1898 version of The Passion on YouTube, all 10 minutes and 41 seconds of it. It is a very short film, as all films were in the beginning of cinema. In fact, before this film there was hardly any film that lasted more than a minute, so for its time it is actually a very long film. It moved very quickly from scene to scene. There are thirteen scenes all together, less than a minute given to each.

The first scene very quickly shows a shepherd and the Three Magi adoring the Christ Child in the manger with Mary and Joseph present. Then a quick scene of the flight into Egypt is shown and Mary resting with the Child on the Sphinx. This is followed by Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, the beginning of the betrayal of Judas, the Last Supper where apparently Jesus says that surely one of his disciples would betray him, which is followed by two disciples kissing him on the cheek. We next see Jesus anxious and in agony while praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, where he is comforted by three disciples, then delivered over to the soldiers after being pointed out by Judas. Jesus is then seen being mocked and flogged and a crown of thorns is placed on his head. He is then given a cross to carry to Golgotha. When he arrives at Goglotha, he falls down exhausted, his garment is removed, then he is crucified to the cross. As two soldiers are graphically nailing his hands to the cross, the scene immediately cuts to Jesus hanging on the cross between two thieves. After saying something to the two thieves, two women come to weep at his feet. He is given vinegar to drink, says something else, and dies. His body is then removed from the cross and placed by soldiers in a tomb on the ground. The tomb is then sealed. As the soldiers are sleeping around the tomb, Jesus rolls away the seal and emerges from the tomb, and the film abruptly cuts off.

As far as the production is concerned, the images are often not centered but focused towards the bottom of the screen or to the side, but the sets for each scene are pretty well done for the time, though it looks like a show being done on the stage. The outdoor scenes look like they are half indoor and half outdoor. All together there are eight different sets. There are absolutely no title cards in this film. It assumes you already know the story. All scenes are composed of one wide shot with a fixed camera wide. Acting is very demonstrative with attitudes inspired by nineteenth century religious images.

Being the first film about the life and passion of Christ, this must have been seen as monumental and stirring for the time. It hasn't aged well, but it is historic and fascinating to see. The actor who plays Jesus does a good job, but the scenes are done so quick you can barely connect with what is going on. I found the kiss of Judas being done in the Upper Room as the wrong choice, as it should have been done in Gethsemane, and the second disciple kissing him after is confusing. Furthermore, the Resurrection scene, where Jesus pushes open his gravestone and emerges from the ground, had an involuntary comical effect, looking more like a zombie scene than a miracle. The raising of Lazarus is similar, showing the difficulty of the time in distinguishing a miracle on screen.

If I were to score this film from 1 to 10, I would give it an 8.1 mainly for its historical value and reverence for the subject.