Around Easter time, folks looking for a Jesus film that’s less traumatizing than The Passion of the Christ, but more sophisticated than a Hallmark card, might be feeling a little hopeless. Considering it’s the founding story of the world’s largest religion, you’d think that there would be more good films about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But there aren’t.
There are a number of reasons for this: the first and most obvious is that it is expensive and difficult to do justice to the Roman period setting of the Jesus story. Unless the film is filtered through Hollywood spectacle (as was 1959’s Ben Hur) or backed by a producer/director with deep pockets of their own (as with Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ ), Jesus stories are often produced on a much lower budget. But secondly, it’s that the Jesus story is actually more complex and nuanced than the target audiences are often prepared to accept. It combines scenes of devotion with shocking violence. It flies in the face of standard adventure storytelling, climaxing not in its hero’s triumph but with his death. Jesus’s actions and sayings are often difficult to understand, as they were to his followers at the time let alone those of us living 2000 years later. What this means is that a film that isn’t able to deal with both the grand visual challenges and storytelling complexities of the Jesus story will often result in a film that looks cheap and/or is oversimplified, marring the material for believers looking for more than a Sunday school lesson and off-putting to non-adherents. It’s even more rare to find a version of the story that will work equally well for children and adults.
All that said, one of the best Jesus films is actually the stop-motion animated Welsh/Russian film, The Miracle Maker: The Story of Jesus, which features Ralph Fiennes as the voice of Jesus and was produced by Mel Gibson’s production company, Icon. The Miracle Maker is sophisticated enough for adults, but not so traumatizing that older children won’t be able to enjoy it. The animation is lovely, if a bit unsettling at times; the film uses hand drawn animation for parables and certain other sequences, such as the temptation in the desert, that lends these stories within the story a vivid and surreal tone, visualizing the parables in way that goes beyond recounting them in dialogue. Furthermore, portraying the bulk of the story with stop-motion puppets and intricately detailed sets and period costumes helps the film to acceptably recreate Roman Era Palestine without requiring the budget of a Hollywood mega-blockbuster.
One of the other ways that The Miracle Maker really shines is with its all-star cast of actors providing the voices, including (in addition to Fiennes) Julie Christie, William Hurt, David Thewlis, Ian Holm, Miranda Richardson, and Alfred Molina. It may seem strange to have an actor well-known for playing Voldemort and a Nazi officer in the vocal role of Jesus, but Fiennes manages to give Jesus an authority steeped in kindness. He can bring the pathos when he needs to without ever coming across as weak. It’s a great piece of voice casting, utilizing the versatility of a great actor. The Miracle Maker’s haunting and beautiful, flute-driven score adds substantially to the film’s aesthetic appeal, harkening back to the use of Middle-Eastern instrumentation in Peter Gabriel’s score, Passion, from The Last Temptation of Christ.
As for the film’s treatment of the Jesus story, The Miracle Maker begins near the start of Jesus ministry and baptism, includes a flashback to the Nativity, then moves through many of the key parables and events of his ministry from the calling of the disciples to the raising of Lazarus from the dead. But what is most interesting about the film’s narrative is the way it frames it from the perspective of a young girl Tamar, daughter of Jairus (voiced by William Hurt). The film portrays Jesus ministry through the eyes of a child and doesn’t downplay the significant role of women such as Mary Magdalene in the story, and manages all this without resorting to revisionism or historical anachronism.
Of course, like most Jesus films, a significant portion of the film deals with Holy Week and the Crucifixion, but interestingly and pleasantly, the film doesn’t end there as many Jesus movies do. Mary’s discovery of Christ’s resurrection and his appearance to Thomas and the disciples are given suitable dramatic weight, rather than being ignored or downplayed. One of the film’s more memorable sequences is Jesus appearance to two followers on the road to Emmaus, a sequence I can’t recall in any other Jesus film. The Miracle Maker’s synoptic treatment of the Gospels is surprisingly sophisticated yet accessible.
The kind of people who are going to be drawn to an animated Jesus movie however, might be surprised by the tone and style of the film. The sad truth is that outside of cinephile circles Western audiences are still getting used to the idea that animation doesn’t need to be strictly kids’ stuff. While in Japan, anime, by contrast to most N. American animation, covers every conceivable genre and subject, much of it definitely not for children, this film isn’t clearly a kids’ film or an adult tale. As a European co-production, produced by BBC Wales and directed by Derek Hayes and Russian animator Stansilav Sokolov, the film has an otherworldliness that might be offputting to some who are expecting a Disney version of the Jesus story, reminding me at times of Russian devotional art.
The Miracle Maker, while certainly family-friendly for the most part (its treatment of crucifixion is serious, but not graphic), is beautiful in form, serene in tone, and complex enough for adults yet still appealing to children. This just might be the Jesus film that people have been looking for.
The Miracle Maker: The Story of Jesus (2000, UK/Russia)
8 out of 10
Directed by Derek W. Hayes and Stanislav Sokolov; written by Murray Watts based on the Gospel accounts of Jesus; featuring the voices of Ralph Fiennes, William Hurt, Julie Christie, David Thewlis, Ian Holm, Miranda Richardson, Alfred Molina.