Artful Musing

THE ARTFUL BLOGGER: The National Gallery acquires Casting Jesus, a “brilliant and hilarious” film-within-a-film

By Paul Gessell

Christian Jankowski, "Casting Jesus," 2011. Performance at Santo Spirito, Rome. © Luise Müller-Hofstede, courtesy the artist and Lisson Gallery.

What did Jesus really look like?

This is a question that has bedevilled artists for the past 2,000 years. Generally, he is depicted as a man of average height, with a beard and a bearing varying from gaunt to beatific. But maybe he was short. Or chubby. Or preferred a close shave. And just how big was his nose?

Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and other apostles tell us, in the Bible, what Jesus said and did. But they don’t really provide a physical description. So, artists have had to use their imagination.

This brings us to the brilliant and hilarious film, Casting Jesus, by German artist Christian Jankowski that has recently been acquired by the National Gallery of Canada and is currently on exhibition until the new year.

In the 60-minute, two-channel, digital video that was shot in Rome and screened in Italian with English sub-titles, three real officials from the Vatican serve as judges in a contest — not unlike American Idol — to pick one of 13 actors auditioning for the role of Jesus in a pretend film.

The judges ask the 13 would-be Messiahs in flowing robes to assume a variety of looks, from joyful to distressed. They must break bread and hold out their hands, as if transmitting healing powers to a sick person in front of them. They do everything but turn water into wine.

Christian Jankowski, "Casting Jesus," 2011. Performance at Santo Spirito, Rome. © Luise Müller-Hofstede, courtesy the artist and Lisson Gallery.

The 13 are reduced to six and then to three. That’s when the fun really begins as these three are each forced to carry a cross around the room, and later pretend to be hanging on the cross and then to die.

Throughout the process, the judges whisper snarky comments to each other about the contestants.

“His nose is too big,” a judge says of one would-be Jesus.

“This one seems pretty melodramatic,” a judge says dismissing another contestant who was told to look anguished and quickly assumed the look of an overacting silent film star.

One actor is nixed, largely because he wears a robe “that makes him look like a fat woman.”

On and on it goes.

Finally a winner is chosen. I won’t spoil the ending for you. But it is safe to say none of the 13 looked particularly Middle Eastern. Throughout the ages, European artists have tended to depict Jesus as European, despite the face he was a Middle Eastern Jew.

The film wonderfully highlights the absurdity of trying to humanize the Divine. It also sheds light on the process artists have used for hundreds of years in trying to depict Jesus.

This film is not laughing at Jesus, nor at Christianity. Instead, it laughs at all the people during the last 2,000 years who have tried to make Christ look like themselves.

And unlike that horrible, depraved film Innocence of Muslims, this film will not cause Christians to go rampaging in the streets. It has a sort of Vatican seal of approval. Who knew the Pope had such a great sense of humour?

Casting Jesus is screened in a loop in the contemporary section of the gallery and is included with regular gallery admission.