Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)

Screen Pilates: Barry Dennen

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Continuing a series on screen portrayals of Pilate that I began last year during Holy Week.  The figure of Pontius Pilate has always intrigued me. The fifth Prefect of Judaea, Pilate looms large in the Gospels. His name Pilate indicates that his family was of Samnite origin. Pilate is mentioned by the Roman historian Tacitus as having condemned Jesus. In 1961 a block of limestone was discoved at the site of Caesarea Maritima, the Roman capital of Judaea, bearing an inscription of Pilate dedicating a Roman theater there. That is almost all we know about Pilate outside of the Gospels, Josephus and Philo. Pilate today would be forgotten, instead of being the best known Roman who ever lived, but for his role in sentencing Jesus.

Last year we looked at Rod Steiger’s portrayal of Pilate in Jesus of Nazareth, here, and at Richard Boone’s in The Robe, here.  Next up is Barry Dennen in Jesus Christ Superstar (1973).

It would take many posts for me to detail how much I disliked Jesus Christ Superstar, which for me symbolized much of what was wrong in the world in the late sixties and the seventies.  Taking pride in being historically inaccurate and a mishmash of ancient and modern, the play and film was just as confused theologically and totally divorced from traditional Christianity.  Jesus is portrayed as petulant, weak and indecisive, a depiction which might be blasphemous if it had more thought behind it.  However, amidst all of the dross there are a very few high points, and Dennen’s performance  is the best of these.

The video at the beginning of this post depicts the sequence where Pilate has a dream about the upcoming trial of Jesus.  Historically, it was Pilate’s wife who had a dream about Jesus:  [19] And as he was sitting in the place of judgment, his wife sent to him, saying: Have thou nothing to do with that just man; for I have suffered many things this day in a dream because of him.   (Matthew 27:19)  Pilate in each of the Gospel narratives is portrayed as very reluctant to have Jesus executed, mystified as to why Caiaphas had Jesus brought to him, and wary that Caiaphas was seeking to shift the responsibility for the death of Jesus over to him.  The dream of his wife was just what Pilate needed to give him a foreboding that this was not merely a routine execution, but a matter of extreme importance that he could not fathom.  The song brings all of this out quite well. →']);" class="more-link">Continue reading

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