From the Manger to the Cross was made within a decade of Vatican film list honoree The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ (1902-05), yet the differences between these two very early silent Jesus films — bundled together on a single DVD — are striking.
The art of cinema had advanced dramatically in the few years between the two films, and From the Manger to the Cross is far more sophisticated — though I actually find the earlier, more primitive Life and Passion more effective. Even so, both are worthwhile, and they make a good double bill.
The 1905 Life and Passion, from French company Pathé, is largely a filmed stage pageant in the Catholic tradition. From the Manger, an American production with more Protestant sensibilities, shot on location in the Holy Land. Production values and acting are much more naturalistic than the earlier film, and camera and editing techniques are far more developed.
Where the Pathé Passion is entirely visual and assumes that the images will be understood or explained, From the Manger relies extensively on title cards for narration and dialogue from the King James Bible. Perhaps too extensively, reflecting a Protestant tendency, rooted in sola scriptura, to want the text to be self-explanatory, over against the Catholic expectation that sacred art exists and has meaning within a social and cultural context.
From the Manger’s strongest images transcend its time period; the minimalistic depictions of the Annunciation, in which Mary is addressed by an invisible angel, and the appearance to Joseph, in which Joseph is transfixed by an offscreen light source, may have directly influenced Zefferelli’s Annunciation scene in “Jesus of Nazareth”. Another image, Joseph and Mary resting on the road to Egypt in front of the actual Sphinx and pyramids (as opposed to the stage mockups used in the Pathé Passion) is so striking it’s hard to see why subsequent Jesus movies didn’t copy this device.
There are also some odd choices. When John the Baptist hails Jesus as "the Lamb of God," Jesus is so far away as to be a barely visible smudge on the horizon — and the baptism itself never takes place. At the wedding at Cana, too, Mary is deprived of her role in bringing the wine shortage to Jesus’ attention (it’s there in the Pathé Passion, though you really have to be paying attention).
Oddest of all, while the story doesn’t literally start at the manger, it does end at the cross, cutting from Jesus’ death to a title card bearing John 3:16, omitting the Resurrection entirely. Whenever I watch it with my kids, we always cut back to the last two chapters from the Pathé Passion for the Resurrection and Ascension!
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.