The Birth, the Life, and the Death of Christ (1906)
This rather ambitious film from Alice Guy probably qualifies as a “feature,” although it is only just over half an hour long. Certainly it is the longest connected series of scenes I’ve seen from Guy, and as such may represent her “masterpiece” so far as cinema history is concerned.
The movie is a chronological series of single-set scenes from the life of Jesus, as described in the Bible and also in popular Catholic myth. It begins with Mary and Joseph being turned away at the inn (we actually see others refused by the same innkeeper, which suggests that the inn was genuinely full), and then chased off the streets by a Centurion on horseback. Then we see the traditional Catholic nativity scene, with Magi and gifts and what appear to be their entourages coming and paying homage to the newborn child. The next scenes concern Jesus’s activities as an adult. We see the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus healing a sick woman, and a couple of other minor stories, but not the ones I tend to think of as the most important. There’s no loaves and fishes, for example, nor do we see Lazarus raised from the dead, nor the money changers expelled from the Temple.
The bulk of the film, however, concerns Jesus’s betrayal and Crucifixion. There is a very good reproduction of the Last Supper, followed by the kiss and capture of Jesus by roman soldiers. There is then a fairly elaborate trial scene and the scene of Pontius Pilate asking the people to forgive Jesus (this scene always makes me think of “The Life of Brian”). Finally, we see Jesus hauling his cross through the streets, and each of the Stations of the Cross is portrayed. Christ reaches Golgotha, and is nailed to the cross (alone; there are two empty crosses nearby). Eventually, a roman soldier sticks a spear in his side, and he is taken down and his body is laid to rest in a cave. We then see the inside of the cave, and some angels appear, and eventually his image rises from the coffin and appears to ascend toward heaven. Now we cut back to the outside and see some believers come to investigate, they enter and see the empty tomb (this is the only use of intercutting in the film).
The first thing I have to comment on about this film is the sets. Most of Guy’s short films have been lacking in this area, especially when compared to the artistic and whimsical sets used by Georges Méliès at the same time. In this case, she hired two production designers (Victorin-Hippolyte Jasset and Henri Ménessier), who obviously put real time into the sets, especially for Pilate’s throne room and the Last Supper scene. Ménessier also did the costumes, which are quite good. Wikipedia claims that “300 extras” were used for this movie, but the size of the sets makes this appear unlikely: I saw no more than thirty on the screen at any one time, and that was only for the most elaborate scenes. The only way it could add up to 300 is if every single scene used an entirely different set of actors. For most scenes, the camera is stationary, although there are cases in which the camera pans, often to track Jesus as he crosses an especially large set. The editing is generally quite pedestrian, except in the case of the Ascension. That is the only real special effect as well.
Given that this movie came out three years after “The Great Train Robbery” and four after “A Trip to the Moon,” it can hardly be considered a major cinematic event, but it is a good example of an early feature film. It also falls into the category of the “Passion Play,” which has had an interesting history in film, especially in the United States. Passion plays are often objected to by Protestant church groups, seen as “trivializing” or secularizing a sacred event. However, in the late 1890s, several Passion Play films were successfully released, without significant protest, because they portrayed European traditions and were accompanied by lectures about “foreign” cultures. Guy may have been counting on that to make this movie a success in the US, which as I’ve noted before was an important market for Gaumont by this time. This may have informed her choices about which parts of Christ’s life to show, or it’s possible that these represent the scenes considered most important in Catholic France at the time. Certainly the focus on his death, rather than his deeds, seems very Catholic to me.
Camera: Anatole Thiberville
Run Time: 33 Min
You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music).