How do filmmakers go about depicting God on screen? How does one present a non-anthropomorphic god in the visual medium while still maintaining his lack of physicality? Although Christianity does allow for an element of anthropomorphism in the figure of Jesus, the issue is not without complication, for it necessitates making visually clear the idea that this is a divinity made flesh. A range of techniques has been used to show both God and Jesus over the years, with some fascinating changes in the portrayal of these figures on screen in recent depictions.
See Also: Screening Divinity (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2019).
By Lisa Maurice
Department of Classical Studies
Presenting a god on screen is not an easy thing to do. The issue is, of course, complicated by the thorny issue of faith. Any depiction of God must deal with the question of who the intended audience is and how it will react to the representation. In particular, the Hays Code of 1930 specified that movies were forbidden to “throw ridicule on any religious faith,” but the expected and perceived reactions of the audience also played a large part in the decision-making process. The series God, the Devil and Bob, for example, was canceled by NBC due to complaints and protests by conservative Christian groups. Even without these issues of control and pressure, however, any portrayal of God will inevitably be influenced in some way by how those making the film relate to the question of divinity and religion. Nor is there only one interpretation or view on the subject of the nature of God or how he can or should be portrayed. Christians, Jews, and Muslims of all denominations may have strong views on this issue, and movies conveying religious themes or depicting holy figures invariably provoke fierce reactions, even when done reverently.
Beyond the theological questions, there is the practical issue of how to portray a non-corporeal God at all, let alone in a manner that conveys divinity. Although Christianity does allow for an element of anthropomorphism in the figure of Jesus, complications remain in how to relate visually the idea that this is a God made flesh. Nevertheless, the temptation to attempt this feat is great (Rheinhartz 2010: 519), and multiple screen depictions have tried to show Jesus in a manner that conveys both his divinity and his humanity. Either or both of these elements may be proposed or challenged according to the approach and agenda of the individual production, for not all depictions are by any means supportive of religions or the Church. No matter the intention or ideology behind the movie, the question of how to portray Jesus on screen must be dealt with by the filmmaker.
One answer to this dilemma in productions that approached the subject reverently was not to portray the face of Christ at all, and in fact, up until the 1930s, this was a policy insisted upon by British Film Censors. In Ben-Hur (1959), for example, this decision was famously taken so that Jesus’ features were never seen; The Redeemer, a film produced in the same year by Father Patrick J. Peyton, a priest and head of the Family Rosary Crusade, went the same route. Others approach the issue by deliberately choosing an unknown actor to play the role, thereby avoiding any connotations or impressions caused by perceptions of the star or roles he might have played. Thus, George Stevens chose Max von Sydow to play the lead in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) despite sprinkling famous movie stars among the rest of the cast.
Nevertheless, the human element of Jesus is easier to portray than his divine aspect, and what Rheinhartz calls “high Christology” is more often shown through his effect on others, “in the rapt responses of those around Jesus, both their facial expressions and their words.” Other techniques such as lighting and camera angles along with grand backdrops and settings (“big sky”) and stirring epic music also help convey the divine aspect of Jesus’ identity (Rheinhartz 2010: 523). Similarly, the performance of miracles contributes to the effect of supernatural power and creates powerful dramatic episodes on screen if they take place before the eyes of the audience. In some instances, however, they are merely described or treated as allegories for spiritual abilities. Still, the very fact of their inclusion contributes to the depiction of Jesus as divine (Rheinhartz 2007: 104-108).
What of the biblical God, God the Father, as he appears on screen? This is a rather trickier question, for how does one depict corporeally a non-corporeal being? In contrast to portrayals of Zeus, who is generally depicted as a variant of the paternalistic God of the Old Testament (Maurice 2019: 40-50), this God is himself rarely represented in such a way on screen: beard, white robes, and gray hair, as in Charlton Heston’s role in Almost an Angel (1990). Rather, in many biblical epics and similar movies of the second half of the twentieth century, God’s presence is indicated by phenomena such as the burning bush, and his voice is heard in tones that provide a sense of authority. According to Wikipedia, this voice is “deep, resonant, and masculine, and usually the American English of Southern California (sometimes with a touch of British English).” Thus, for example, director John Huston provided the voice of God in his 1966 epic The Bible: In the Beginning. Charlton Heston took a similar role in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956), and in Paul Schrader’s commentary to the film, God, who gives the stone tablets to Moses, is “off-screen to the right.” It should be noted that, in keeping with the reverent tone of these movies, there is no indication whatsoever that this God is anything other than a great and powerful, merciful savior of his people, who are clearly the “good guys.” At the same time, those who opposed him are the “bad guys.” As late as 1997, in Prince of Egypt, where God is heard as a voice (Val Kilmer) and a blue flame on the burning bush, this method has been adopted by filmmakers trying to avoid showing God as anthropomorphic in any way.
Another common method filmmakers used to solve the problem was by having a substitute for God, such as the heavenly administrator Mr. Jordan in Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) and its remake, Heaven Can Wait (1978), or Gabriel in A Life Less Ordinary (1997). Alternatively, some films use a figure who, although named differently, represents the role of God, such as the Judge in A Matter of Life and Death/Stairway to Heaven (1946) or the Supreme Being in Terry Gilliam’s fantasy, Time Bandits (1981), where the God character is an English civil servant struggling to run the universe efficiently.
However, not all choose this route, and those who do choose to show him in human form use a range of approaches. George Burns famously took on the role in three movies in the 1970s and 80s: Oh, God (1977), Oh, God, Book II (1980), and Oh, God! You Devil (1984). These feel-good movies are a gentle but comic speculation on what might happen if God attempted to appear once more to mankind and in human form. Burns, as a gray-haired, clean-shaven bespectacled God in clothes typical of those over seventy, has a gentle authority and amusingly sardonic take on the world in explaining his appearance: “because if I showed myself to you as I am, you wouldn’t be able to comprehend me.” Included among his reminiscences are both unexpected miracles – he cites the 1969 Mets – and mistakes, including tobacco, giraffes, and avocados: “I made the seeds too big.” On release, these films provoked much debate among religious cinema-goers. In one such discussion, still available online, two Christian ministers nervously examined the moral and religious message of the film [<http://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/films/reviews/view/5922> (accessed 22 July 2022)], although strikingly did not query the casting or portrayal of God by the Jewish actor, George Burns, whose depiction is close enough to the paternalistic, elderly, and benign figure of tradition for this not even to be questioned by religious leaders (Maurice 2019: 52).
A similar approach to God is evident in Bruce Almighty (2003) and its sequel, Evan Almighty (2007). Morgan Freeman, dressed in a white suit, plays God as he hands over the reins of control to a mortal for a week to try his hand at running the world in a better way. Freeman imbues God with warmth toward mankind; this deity is loving, powerful, and firmly in control. He wants to pass on to humans his messages of the importance of family, loving-kindness, and faith to make the world a better place. At first, Bruce Almighty seems radical in its portrayal of God by Morgan Freeman since it depicts the deity as black. However, this was not so ground-breaking since the deity had been played by Rex Ingram in the 1936 film adaptation of the 1930 Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Green Pastures. Freeman’s skin color was not regarded as controversial, and some indeed felt that the casting reflected modern audiences’ ease with African-American spirituality. This is perhaps an over-optimistic reading, for the casting has more to do with Freeman’s long-standing pedigree playing authority figures combined with his comic abilities rather than anything to do with his race.
Despite the traditional paternalistic ideas about the Judeo-Christian God, the deity is not played on every occasion by a man. Rather unusually, in Dogma (1999), the role is played by Alanis Morissette, a young woman with long wavy dark hair, dressed first in a long tunic style sleeveless dress and carrying a flower and then in a metallic silver laced bodice, fitted jacket, flip flops, and white ruffled chiffon tutu-esque mini skirt. She does not speak because her voice is too powerful for human ears to bear. Instead, her words are heard through the figure of Metatron (Alan Rickman). Another female (and non-Caucasian) depiction from the twenty-first century was that of Whoopi Goldberg in A Little Bit of Heaven (2011). Goldberg sported a white flower in her hair and wore a gold-trimmed, white flowing robe-style dress, reminiscent of the traditional godly garb, perhaps more suited in style in the modern world to a female than a man.
A more comic and satirical portrayal of God appears in the movie Religion, Inc. (1989) in which George Plimpton played God as a self-satisfied, middle-aged figure with an unexpected penchant for tax loopholes and a liking for tennis. A similarly sardonic depiction was featured in the controversial animated series, God, the Devil and Bob (2000), mentioned above, a sitcom based upon the idea of God (voice of James Garner) and the Devil (voice of Alan Cumming) challenging each other over the fate of the world. This God wants to destroy mankind and start again but feels unable to take such drastic action because he’s “not that kind of God.” He makes a bet with the Devil, whereby the Devil selects one person who must prove they have improved the world in some way; if not, God will indeed wipe out the world. Despite the Devil’s choice of Bob, a beer-drinking, porn-watching auto plant worker from Detroit, he does save humanity in the pilot episode. Afterward, the series focuses on God’s involving Bob in various plans to help improve the world. This God has a potbelly, white hair, and a thick white beard, wears sunglasses and a Hawaiian shirt, and is visually styled like Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead, who had died the previous year. He is, in the words of one reviewer, “an ageing, genial hippie,” who has a benign attitude toward the world and mankind as a whole.
In recent years, there has been a move to portray God in more negative ways. Both physically and ideologically, there has been a radical alteration in how the deity is represented. As early as 1994, Irvine Welsh’s God in The Granton Star Cause (1994) is portrayed as a foul-mouthed Scottish drunk, worn out by humanity’s insistence on blaming him for everything that goes wrong in their lives. Maurice Roeves’ Acid House (1998) depicted a similar figure. Such representations are often explicit rejections of earlier cinematic depictions. In the 1999 movie Dogma, the character Metatron, the Recording Angel who acts as God’s mouthpiece, says ironically, “Tell a person that you’re the Metatron and they stare at you blankly. Mention something out of a Charlton Heston movie and suddenly everybody is a theology scholar.” The female, hippie-style God in this film is an overt deviation from the traditional interpretation as represented in the public mind by Charlton Heston.
Negative perceptions of God are echoed repeatedly in films in the post-modern world. A Belgian movie titled The Brand New Testament (2015) has God as an abusive father who lives in a shabby flat in Brussels and takes sadistic pleasure in making people miserable through the rules he invents and puts in place via an outdated DOS computer. This white-trash slob in a t-shirt, long shorts, and checkered dressing gown beats his wife and daughter and has graying hair and stubble in place of the flowing white beard of traditional representations.
Equally striking are the two great Biblical epics of 2014, Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings. Although in Noah, God himself, addressed throughout as “The Creator,” is never seen or heard; his message is conveyed through the character of Noah, who is, in the words of director Aronofsky, “a dark, complicated character” who experiences “real survivor’s guilt” after the flood. He is also a religious fanatic who continually judges others harshly, leaving a young woman to die in a trap and comes very close in his misguided beliefs to murdering his newborn granddaughters.
Although Aronofsky, a self-proclaimed atheist, and Ari Handel, the producer, are both Jewish by birth and upbringing, they were very keen to locate the film in the tradition of midrash, biblical exegesis. The depiction of God in this movie is distinctive and sends a message that is distinctly at odds with traditional Jewish and Christian ideas. In place of the opening words of Genesis, “In the beginning God created…,” the film tells us on two occasions, “In the beginning there was nothing,” and it furthermore states that “the breath of The Creator fluttered against the face of the void, whispering “Let there be light.” This is a rather abstract depiction, and from that point on, there is no further mention of God in the creation story until we are told that he made man and woman. Nor is this very minimal role in creation even necessarily the truth because it is stated by Noah. The running text at the beginning of the movie does not mention God at all, leaving open the possibility that this is merely human belief as opposed to truth.
This, in fact, is the case throughout the movie. No “voice of God” is ever heard; instead, we see Noah’s dreams and hear the words of Methuselah and Noah that explain their beliefs. It even seems that Noah may have hallucinated God’s will after drinking a potion given to him by Methuselah. Indeed, Noah is a religious fanatic. At least some of his beliefs are mistaken and lead him to commit evil, even to the point, as I mentioned, of determining to kill his newborn granddaughters, a viewpoint and decision the audience is clearly not meant to endorse. If Noah is wrong about this, then is there not a good chance that he is wrong about everything else, too? He believes in “The Creator” and thinks he understands what that deity wants – but that does not necessarily imply that The Creator actually exists. In fact, Noah is a tortured soul, who sees his misguided ideas disintegrate and leave him with nothing – surely an interpretation inspired by Aronofsky’s atheism. The movie goes further than this, however, for if God is real, he is cruel and unreasonable, repeatedly demanding terrible sacrifices from Noah and implacably decreeing the deaths of millions, including presumably innocent children, without even answering Noah’s pleas. So, we are left with the idea that if God does not exist, Noah’s beliefs are empty and false, while if God does exist, he is cruel and implacable. A final option is presented by Emma Watson’s Ila at the end of the film: God gave man, in the form of Noah, the choice to elect for mercy or destruction. However, this case leaves man in a more powerful position than God and does not sit any more comfortably with believers.
The film Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014) depicts the deity even more harshly. In this version, God is depicted as an eleven-year-old boy who appears to Moses as a theophany and is capricious and cruel, uttering lines like “sometimes children have to die.” This version of the tale of Moses leading the Children of Israel out of Egyptian servitude is a far cry from DeMille’s classic epic of 1956. In place of the authoritative voice of God in Exodus: Gods and Kings (the plurals in the title are surely no coincidence), we have a figure who is, in fact, a less merciful and compassionate character than Pharaoh. Moses himself, a warrior with a sword rather than a leader with a staff, is a tortured and anguished soul as played by Christian Bale, who said of the character, “I think the man was likely schizophrenic and was one of the most barbaric individuals that I ever read about in my life.” It is, in fact, entirely possible, that this “God” is merely the hallucination of a crazed man, keeping with the general trend to provide rational explanations for the biblical events in this movie.
In recent years, filmmakers have clearly moved from reverence and awe to a far more pejorative representation of God. The ultimate deity is now regarded as capricious and cruel, at odds with modern liberal ideology. Obviously, such an alteration reflects changes in a society in which religion – at least in the form of mainstream Christianity – plays a far smaller role than in the past and is even ridiculed. Religion is, it seems, now regarded by many as, at best, futile, and at worst, dangerously harmful, in a world in which religion is often cited more as the justification for extremist ideas than as a revered system of belief.
Maurice, Lisa. 2019. Screening Divinity. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Rheinhartz, Adele. 2010. “Jesus in Film.” Pages 519-31 in The Blackwell Companion to Jesus. Edited by Delbert Burkett. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell.
Rheinhartz, Adele. 2007. Jesus of Hollywood. Oxford: Oxford University Press.