Vie et Passion du Christ (1903) Director: Ferdinand Zecca
Predating the religious imagery of both The Ten Commandments as well as Ben-Hur, “The Life and Passion of Christ” is a French silent film by Ferdinand Zecca which succinctly conveys the familiar Biblical story of the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ. It lasts slightly longer than 40 minutes and has been called one of the first feature-length films ever made. The aesthetic for the film was clearly inspired by Gustave Doré’s drawings and it offers a surprising feast of visual delights. Vie et Passion du Christ is a truly impressive film on many accounts, I was perhaps most struck by the ornate set designs –many scenes feature a well-orchestrated tableaux vivant akin to a Renaissance painting. Additionally, I took note of several scenes in which the camera moves from left to right, which at the time was still a novelty technique. Each scene is divided by an inter-title briefly explaining the action of the scene. The surviving footage contains scenes which are stenciled over to appear in color, it almost looks like an early technicolor film.
Who is this director? Ferdinand Zecca (1864-1947) was a noted early French film pioneer. He developed new ways of capturing cinematic tricks, particularly with regard to short films showcasing fictionalized versions of the Wright Brothers. He worked for Pathé, the most celebrated early French film company. Zecca had previously worked as an editor for many of George Melies’s films, but Vie et Passion du Christ remains his most notable work.