Up until the 1960s, the cinema depiction of Jesus followed a consistent standard in terms of how He was depicted – the long-haired, bearded, white-robed Jesus of Renaissance paintings – as well as in the manner of how He conducted himself. The big screen Jesus was a symbol of piety and respect, with filmmakers and actors working with a clearly defined parameter.
But when the 1960s came along, things began to change. In many films, the on-screen Jesus began to take on appearances, clothing and a personality that was strikingly different from what came before. Some of this tinkering worked remarkably, while in many films the attempts at irreverence or edginess lapsed into vulgarity or puerility.
This notion of a different cinematic Jesus began with a short film that made relatively little impact in its day and is mostly unknown at this late date: the 1961 production “The Sin of Jesus,” directed by the Swiss-born Robert Frank and made on a farm in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
Based on the short story by the Russian writer Isaac Babel, “The Sin of Jesus” focused on a pregnant worker at an isolated poultry farm. Her work is dreary and monotonous, and she goes through her days with a robotic indifference to her duties. When here indifferent boyfriend decides to leave her, she kneels in prayer and is visited by Jesus. And while the woman recognizes Jesus, the audience may not: he is presented with short hair and a clean-shaven face, and he wears a contemporary-style tunic and dark pants.
Jesus offers the woman an angel named Alfred as a mate – Alfred is unhappy being an angel and wants to return to Earth. Jesus tells the woman that she must remove Alfred’s wings at night before he goes to sleep, otherwise he will die. On their wedding night, the woman and her angelic new husband indulge in a private celebration with cake and champagne. Alas, she neglects to follow instructions and awakes in the morning to find only Alfred’s wings. She carries them across the bleak rural landscape, moaning in remorse. Jesus appears and is not sympathetic to her plight. But when she continues mourning her loss, Jesus appears again to admit He was in error regarding His attitude to her and kneels to gain her forgiveness, which she withholds.
On its own terms, “The Sin of Jesus” is a poorly made film. Frank, who created the lively 1959 short romp “Pull My Daisy” with Jack Kerouac, did not have a good grasp of filmmaking, and the result includes a number of badly shot scenes and inadequate sound usage. The mannered, unsubtle acting by Julie Bavasso as the severely unlucky woman and a young Telly Savalas as the bum who leaves her feel like Lee Strasberg 101.
But where “The Sin of Jesus” resonates is Roberts Blossom’s Jesus. There is nothing holy about his demeanor – he is pensive and a bit annoyed at having to answer the woman’s prayer. He speaks to the woman like an indifferent teacher rather than as a source of healing inspiration, and he presides over the wedding ceremony (populated by actors wearing cheap angel costumes and tossing feather instead of rice or confetti) with no degree of emotional connection. His change of mind at the end and the genuflection before the woman is startling – this is the first time in film history that Jesus behaves like a humble man.
However, few people back in 1961 knew this film existed. Outside of a few screenings at film societies and venues specializing in underground short films, “The Sin of Jesus” was unknown to the wider world. Today, it is only called up as part of Frank’s idiosyncratic film output, which includes the 1969 feature “Me and My Brother” plus a 1972 documentary on the Rolling Stones with a scatological title that is not appropriate for repeating.
While it is ultimately a curio blip in the greater course of Jesus-centric filmmaking, “The Sin of Jesus” was, for better or worse, the first to change the rules of the genre.