47 Great Movie Moments #25 – Jesus Christ Superstar

Continuing with this series of 47 moments in film that I love (Why 47?), today, for #25, we come to the single most 1970’s thing I’ve ever seen.

Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)

Directed by:  Norm Jewison

A group of modern-day players arrive in Jersusalem and act out the story of the last few days of Jesus’ life, up until his crucifixion.

The Set-up

To the rocking melodies and lyrics of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, Jesus of Nazareth is arrested, tried in a bit of a mock-court, and sentenced to be crucified.  His sentence is carried out, alongside two other prisoners.  After several hours of agony, suffered in innocence, he dies.

The Moment

In silhouette, Jesus hangs limply upon the cross, as the camera pulls out.  In a wide, static shot, we can see all three crosses, three dead convicts hanging from them, with Jesus, in the middle, still framed against the sun.

Then we go back to the bus, where the story began, and watch the cast of the film (and the play within it) begin to regroup.  We see pretty much everyone, including the actors who played Pilate, Caiaphas, Herod, Simon the Zealot and others, board the bus.  The mood is generally somber and subdued, as if everyone is a bit traumatized by what they have been through.  Behind all of this is the melancholy sounds of the show’s closing number, an instrumental piece called John 19:41 (which in the New Living Translation of the Bible actually says, “The place of crucifixion was near a garden, where there was a new tomb, never used before.”)

Toward the end of the group is the woman who played Mary Magdalene, who looks out in the distance sadly.  And last of all is the man who has played Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus and eventually took his own life.  He stands in the door of the bus, also looking beyond the camera, and then lurches as the bus starts to drive away.

Notably absent from all of this is the actor who played Jesus, who was last seen hanging  on the cross.  “Where is Jesus?” we might ask.  Possibly the characters in the movie are asking the same thing.  Certainly my religiously-themed eyes imagine that’s the question that the movie itself is asking, and leaving the audience to answer.  Indeed, according to Ted Neely (the actor who plays Jesus) during the DVD commentary, the film never confirms that Jesus is the son of God, but it does not contradict this idea either.

After the bus starts moving we get the movie’s final shot, which is the sunset over a nearly empty landscape.  The only figure that can be seen is a shepherd, crossing the open space, just below the horizon.  He’s barely visible, so faint that you might miss him, but he’s there.  Again according  to the DVD commentary, his presence was a happy accident:  it was meant to be just a sunset shot.  But having the shepherd on screen adds  a surprising visual interest to the shot, and brings up another layer of reflection for the audience about the film’s events – Jesus called himself the good shepherd, and the obscurity of the figure brings to mind the deep wrestling that people have with the idea of a divine creator, and with Jesus as his son and anointed messiah.

 

The Payoff

The movie ends, and if there’s any answer to that question it’s up to the audience to find it for themselves.

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