By box office standards, JESUS was a bust when it released in 1979, earning a mere $4 million. But since then, it has gone on to become arguably the most watched film in movie history, with over 6 billion viewings (including repeated viewings) in less than three decades.
Further, from an eternal perspective, it's one of the most important films in history, having resulted in more than 221 million decisions for Christ, according to Campus Crusade, whose founder, the late Bill Bright, was behind the film's development, always intending for it to become a means of leading people to Jesus. The movie has been translated into more than 1,000 languages, and Rick Warren suggests that it is "the most effective evangelistic tool ever invented."
The JESUS Film Project has about 200 translations to go in order to reach the goal of dubbing the film into every language spoken by groups of more than 100,000 people, and staff members are working diligently to that end.
But in the meantime, a new version of the film was conceived that would offer not a new language, but a new perspective. The working title was JESUS for Women, and the idea was to combine select footage from the original movie with new scenes in order to emphasize Jesus' compassion for women. The resulting film, Magdalena: Released from Shame, was released in several countries in 2007 and became available in America on March 8, 2008 (International Women's Day).
The film, narrated by Mary Magdalene (Rebecca Ritz), opens in 40 A.D. with a conversation about Jesus between the title character and two skeptical friends. Mary Magdalene promises to explain who he was (and is) and what he means to her (and to them); she spends the rest of the film doing just that. Most of the movie consists of episodic flashbacks, comprised primarily of JESUS film footage with female characters added in.
Mary Magdalene begins by flashing way back in a six-minute segment that covers creation, the fall, and Abraham's almost-sacrifice of his son. She connects the ram that took Isaac's place with Isaiah's prophecies concerning a coming Messiah, and then shows the prophecies' fulfillment in the birth of Jesus. With the theological stage set, she begins to describe her own encounters with Jesus. Early on we are shown a scene in which Jesus casts seven demons out of Mary Magdalene; she immediately becomes a devoted disciple and follows him throughout his ministry, witnessing many of his miracles and his death and resurrection.
The screenplay for the original JESUS film came almost exclusively from a verbatim adaptation of the Gospel of Luke; Franklin Foer of the New York Times writes that the movie was noted for being both meticulously accurate and "painfully monotonous." Although Magdalena strives for the same uncompromising faithfulness to Scripture, screenwriter Nancy Sawyer-Schraeder wisely grants Mary Magdalene a bit more narrative freedom. Mary Magdalene's explanations connect scenes from Christ's life in a linear but sometimes selective fashion, allowing this film to move more fluidly than the original.
The makers of Magdalena were clear from the outset about their agenda, hiring a woman screenwriter (Sawyer-Schraeder), director (Charlie Jordan) and producer (Jill Schrag) to ensure the film would be crafted to appeal to a female audience. Incidents in which Jesus interacted with women are emphasized in the film, and wherever a female character could legitimately play a larger role in the story new footage was inserted. (An excellent website, magdalenatoday.com, offers free discussion and Bible study guides, downloadable event posters and postcards, and live discussion and prayer links.)
The filmmakers also appear to have been intentional in reaching out specifically to cultures in which women are abused, oppressed, or made to feel ashamed. An article on InterVaristy's International Student Ministries website notes "internationals from honor/shame cultures may especially be able to relate with [Magdalena's] message." Although Western understandings of the gospel tend to center around guilt and innocence paradigms, many Middle Eastern, Indian and Asian cultures relate more strongly to concepts of honor and shame. (For example, in his 1994 EMQ article "The Gospel for Shame Cultures," missionary Bruce Thomas details the breakthrough he had in evangelizing Muslim friends when he moved from legal-model understandings of the gospel to explaining that Christ dealt with the defilement and shame of human flesh by becoming flesh himself.)
After Mary Magdalene describes Jesus' healing of a woman who had been hemorrhaging for 12 years, a conversation she has with her friends illustrates the filmmakers' desire to reach out to women in honor/shame cultures:
Tamar [Mary's friend]: He called her "daughter?"
Mary Magdalene: Yes. Someone who had been unclean for 12 years according to our laws.
Rivka [Mary's other friend]: He saw her shame and restored her honor.
Mary Magdalene: I don't know what brings greater healing: Jesus' power or his compassion.
The film's desire to reach Middle Eastern peoples in particular is evidenced by careful sensitivity to Muslim mores in the early frames. Jesus is referred to frequently as "prophet" and "teacher" as well as "Messiah," and Abraham's son is never mentioned by name. (Muslims believe it was Ishmael, rather than Isaac, whom Abraham laid on the altar.) This approach is consistent with the JESUS Film Project's longstanding practice of building bridges to other cultures (for example, pointing out similarities between Christianity and local religions) before declaring the distinctiveness of the gospel.
Magdalena is more theologically sound and culturally sensitive than it is artistically or technically accomplished. The filmmakers faced many challenges trying to harmonize new scenes (captured at Blue Sky movie ranch in Southern California in 2006) with original footage shot thirty years ago in Israel.
Production Designer Dave Avanzino explains in a DVD special feature interview that the filmmakers digitally enhanced the JESUS film material as much as possible (to bring it closer to current film standards) and then did all they could to make the new footage match. But while the modern film quality was superior, the available locations were inferior. Although the movie ranch had a replication of a Middle Eastern town, the new sets look cramped and staged compared to the original material shot in the Israeli countryside. Critics never particularly lauded the original movie; the new film is even less dimensional.
Also challenging for the filmmakers was depicting the character of Jesus in the new scenes. Brian Deacon, the actor who played Jesus in the original film, is now 30 years older and obviously could not appear with any continuity in the new footage. Guy Birtwhistle is credited as "Additional Jesus" and has the unfortunate task of appearing at the edges of scenes with his hair combed forward to mask any deviation from the original actor's features. Often, we see only the back of his head. In an extended conversation with the Woman at the Well, for example, the camera focuses on the Samaritan woman's face for the entire scene (with one side of Jesus' hair in the foreground), leaving the viewer vaguely restless in the absence of the expected counter-shot that would show Jesus' reactions.
Although the script uses a fairly modern translation of the Bible (The Good News Bible), limiting most of the dialogue to only those words specifically recorded in Luke creates a stiffness that is difficult for the actors to overcome. Rebecca Ritz's Mary Magdalene is sincere and likeable, but she recounts the incredible drama of Jesus' life, death and resurrection in an earnest, instructional tone more evocative of Mary Poppins than one would expect for such an earthy and urgent story. In fairness, the Mary Poppins effect may be related to Ritz' and many of the other actors' "Julie Andrews accents"—the cultured English inflections of the dialogue seem out of place (although an American accent would be no less anachronistic.)
Of course, complaining about the particular dialect of English used in a film that is already available in eight languages—and likely to be dubbed in dozens (or hundreds) more—is kind of like complaining about the quality of paper a gospel tract is printed on. One could argue that the point is to tell the story of Jesus, as accurately as possible, in as many languages as possible. There is power in the gospel—be it depicted in flannelgraph, marble or celluloid—and the track record of the JESUS Film Project certainly speaks for itself.
Still, one hopes that filmmakers keep trying not only new languages but also new approaches. Many of the most enthusiastic responses to The JESUS Film were in villages where television or film was virtually unheard of. As the reach of technology extends to increasingly farther corners of the globe, the sheer novelty of the motion picture is likely wearing out. The next generation of Jesus films will have to reach out by reaching new artistic and technical levels. The Old, Old Story will never get old, and neither should our efforts in telling it.
Copyright © 2008 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.