Via Religion Unplugged

With Easter fast approaching and many of us stuck at home during the coronavirus pandemic, there is no better time than now to both watch movies about the life and death of Jesus.

Christ has been depicted in a variety of ways on film over the last six decades. Some depictions have been better than others. The debate over which portrayal of Jesus was most realistic, authentic or powerful has raged on for years.

In 1997, James Martin came up with his own list, republished two years ago in America magazine. In it, he made some controversial picks, ones that keep this debate going every Easter. For many, movies about Jesus allowed many people who would otherwise not have an interest in Christianity or faith to awaken some religious curiosity.

Jesus’ crucifixion is the most significant event of the Bible - one that changed the course of history. There are a number of movies that have captured that moment in both a touching and stirring manner. At the same time, several actors have portrayed Jesus to great public acclaim. The movies, appealing to Christians of all denominations, are a wonderful way to celebrate Easter and educate younger people to the life and times of Jesus.

This list doesn’t consider pop religious phenomena such as Jesus Christ Superstar or sacrilegious ones like The Last Temptation of Christ. Instead, it focuses on serious interpretations of Jesus through the years. As Christians prepare for Easter, here are five movies about Jesus, both in theatres and on TV, that rise above the rest:

THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ST MATTHEW (1964)
Directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini, the film (it’s Italian title is Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo) is a 1964 drama of the story of Jesus based on Saint Matthew’s account. The film starts at the Nativity and runs through the Resurrection.

Why did the Italian director choose Matthew? For Pasolini, Matthew was best because “John was too mystical, Mark too vulgar and Luke too sentimental.” Jesus is played by little-known Spanish actor Enrique Irazoqu and depicted largely as a barefoot peasant. In 2015, the Vatican’s newspaper L’Osservatore Romano called the neo-realist film the best ever made about Jesus.

 

THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD (1965)
A year after Pasolini’s film, The Greatest Story Ever Told is one of those epic movies popular in the 1960s. While Pasolini’s film was simple and low-budget, The Greatest Story Ever Told retells the Biblical account of Jesus life in grandiose style and cost $20 million at the time.

The ensemble cast featured the recently-deceased Max von Sydow, famous also for playing a priest who takes on the devil in The Exorcist, as Jesus. The movie, directed by George Stevens, also features Charlton Heston in the role of John the Baptist. It remains the only Hollywood-made film that tackled the life of Jesus in a sober and serious way.

 

JESUS OF NAZARETH (1977)
A TV mini-series about the life of Jesus featuring some of the biggest names in movie history wasn’t just a dream, but it was actually made into one of the best representations regarding the life of Jesus. The stellar cast included Anne Bancroft as Mary Magdalene, Laurence Olivier as Nicodemus, Anthony Quinn as Caiaphas, Rod Steiger as Pontius Pilate, Michael York as John the Baptist, James Earl Jones as Balthazar and Robert Powell in the film’s main role playing Jesus.

The film, directed by Franco Zeffirelli, became the gold standard for a production about the life of Jesus until the release of The Passion of the Christ. The film captured the essence of Jesus’ life and the suffering and sacrifice he ultimately had to endure during his final days. Powell’s Jesus, tall and blue-eyed, has been criticised by some as an unrealistic version of the Christ. Nonetheless, Zeffirelli’s film is beautiful in so many ways in the way it presents Jesus as both gentle and forceful.

The masterpiece movie, which aired on TV in two parts around the world, is so famous that, four decades later, it continues to be shown on TV during Easter season. Zeffirelli, who died last summer at the age of 96, is famous for another religious-themed film released five years earlier that focused on the life of St Francis of Assisi. The movie, Brother Sun, Sister Moon, starred British actor Graham Faulkner as Francis and recounted the saint’s humble life.  

 

THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (2004)
The Mel Gibson film takes all four Gospels and recounts the final 12 hours of Jesus’ life, highlighted by the Passion. It begins with Jesus in Gethsemane, includes the betrayal of Judas Iscariot and the ultimate crucifixion and death of Jesus. Christ was played by actor Jim Caviezel. Gibson, a traditional Catholic, has said he adheres to the Roman Catholic faith before the Second Vatican Council of 1962-1965.

The film, shot mostly in Italy and entirely in Aramaic, Latin and Hebrew (it features subtitles), was a box office hit at the time. The movie, however, was deemed controversial by some for its excessive violence and anti-Semitism for the way the members of the Sanhedrin are presented in their zeal to get Jesus. It remains the highest-grossing Christian film ever made. Despite that, it won no Oscars.

 

THE CHOSEN (2017) 
Featuring actor Jonathan Roumie as Jesus, The Chosen is the first-ever multi-season TV series about the life of Jesus. It also features Jonathan Roumie as Jesus and the disciples played by men who are distinctively Middle Eastern rather than Europeans.  

As critic Joseph Holmes wrote recently at Religion Unplugged: “The Chosen is refreshingly creative and dramatic in fleshing out the people in Jesus’ life. Nichodemus is imagined as a Pharisee who goes through a crisis of faith when he finds out Jesus can perform miracles. Matthew is a possibly autistic tax collector who struggles with his status as a Jew working for the occupying Romans. Simon Peter is in debt to the Romans and will be taken to prison if he doesn’t get any fish by morning. These additions give the characters dramatic arcs that can pay off in deeply satisfying ways. For Simon, this allows the stakes of the story to be raised so that when Jesus performs his miracle of the fish it is an act of salvation for him rather than just a miracle. Yes these creative licenses never leap so far out as to feel unfaithful to the letter or spirit of the people and narrative.”

 

Clemente Lisi is a senior editor and regular contributor to Religion Unplugged. He is the former deputy head of news at the New York Daily News and teaches journalism at The King’s College in New York City. Follow him on Twitter @ClementeLisi.