Decent telling of the story of Jesus from his birth up to the resurrection. This early French feature is full of wonderful imagination and the use of color is a real added bonus. The visual are all very nice and the set decoration is among the best I've seen in any silent film of its era. The biggest problem is that the feature runs just over 40-minutes and it seems like a bunch of short films edited together. There's really no consistent storytelling but instead just various segments from the Bible.
This is an interesting film in a few respects, if not necessarily a very good or entertaining one. It's an early filmed passion play and chronicle of the life of Jesus Christ and is of both religious and film history interest. It becomes more of curio because of its length and extravagance for a film made in the early 1900s. It seems to be the longest story film made to that date. There had been some actuality, or documentary, films already made that were longer, including some boxing matches and a series called 'Army Life' (1900) by R.W. Paul. Nevertheless, film subjects lasting near or longer than 40 minutes were rare until the 1910s.
Jesus has been a popular subject throughout film history, perhaps nevermore so than in the beginning of its history. Before this film, quite a few passion plays had already been filmed. Moreover, these films were generally longer and more elaborate than were other subjects. In 1897, when the cinema was barely more than a year old and when nearly every film was one shot-scene and under a minute in length, a Frenchman named Léar filmed a passion play of 12 scenes, which received popular distribution in Britain and the US, as well as in France. George Hatot's 'La Vie et la Passion de Jésus-Christ' (1897/1898), produced by the Lumiére Company, had 13 tableaux. An American passion play, featuring Horitz villagers, was supposedly even grander and longer. Shortly thereafter, 'The Passion Play of Oberammergau' (1898), which probably didn't have much of anything to do with the plays performed in the village of Oberammergau, contained over 20 scenes. Sigmund Lubin also made a passion play claiming, but lacking, authenticity to the Oberammergau performances. With a lecturer and magic lantern slides, these films would provide as long an entertainment as does the modern feature-length film. In 1899, Alice Guy made 'La Vie de Christ' in 11 tableaux for Gaumont, and again, in 1906, made a passion play of, reportedly, 25 scenes. Pathé, in fact, had made a film on Christ before this picture; their 1900 release consisted of 16 scenes. They, too, would go on to make another one after this, in 1907.
According to film historian Richard Abel ("The Ciné Goes to Town"), there were a few versions of this film sold to exhibitors, and exhibitors may have had the option to purchase individual scenes and may have further edited various passion plays together (these were common practices back then, when exhibitors retained much editorial control over films). Abel says Pathé filmed this over three different periods; others say this production lasted from 1902 to 1905. Actors and styles changed during shootings. The version available from Image Entertainment seems to be complete, if not more than (with the title of 'Passion and Death of Christ'). Abel says the longest version was 32 tableaux. Yet, I counted 35 tableaux separated by title cards and 46 total shots in the version from Image Entertainment.
In the beginning of the history of cinema as an international business, Georges Méliès was the most popular and innovative filmmaker, and, consequently, his films were the most often imitated. Supposedly, this film avoided any reference to prior theatrical productions, says Abel. Upon a second viewing of this film, however, I noticed that this Pathé production, like so many other Pathé films, significantly copies the féeries/fairy films of Méliès. This is especially evident in the soft, fanciful set designs, and the device of female angels guiding characters and events being a variation of the female fairies in Méliès’ fantasy pictures. Additionally, the use of stop-substitutions and superimpositions for trick effects, moving props, and dissolves between scenes and trick effects were trademarks of Méliès adopted religiously by Pathé. The use in this film of many actors or extras to fill and decorate some scenes, which often serve no narrative purpose or biblical fidelity, was also done in Méliès' féeries. This imitation of Méliès' films makes this passion play stand out from the drab, realist set designs that seemed to have been used in other such early passion plays and the location shooting used in later films such as 'From the Manger to the Cross' (1912) and the Christus films made in Italy. They're also in stark contrast to the more realist painted sets used by Ferdinand Zecca, the co-director of 'The Life and Passion of Christ' and Pathé's studio manager for a time, in 'Historie d’une crime' (1901).
Most of the technique and style in 'The Life and Passion of Christ' is common of film-making in the beginning, but there are some notable exceptions. Not many prints from this period exist with tinting, which doesn't seem to have been a prevalent practice yet ('Scrooge; or Marley's Ghost' (1901) is another early example). It's also an early example of Pathé's patented stencil colouring, and their use of bold, red lettering and the rooster logo in the title cards. Pans are used often, including in the Nativity scene, where a pan and tinting changes move the scene between the indoor action of the nativity and the outdoor action of the approaching wise men and gang. Another example of three scenes in one via panning is the Mount of Olives/Kiss of Judas tableaux, where the camera follows Jesus into and out of the woodlands. I haven't seen this kind of extensive panning anywhere else in story films this early in film history (extensive panning was widely done by actuality filmmakers). The use of a window to show outside action is another example of early alternatives to scene dissection (of which there is very little here or in most early films). There's also a match-on-action shot in The Holy Family at Nazareth tableaux, and two medium insert shots later in the film, which are rather unexpected departures from the film's mostly fixed camera, head-on long shot framing tableaux style. I certainly recommend this for those interested in the history of Christianity and cinema.