Putting the Gospels on screen is a daunting task, since the 4 Evangelists didn't give us much narrative detail. Also, there's a lot to live up to. How can an actor portray the Son of God, who is all things to all men? Does the man on screen match our own imaginings of Christ? Yet filmmakers and audiences return again and again to the well known story. It's probably because we wish we had been there, and film is the closest we'll ever get to time travel.
So here are some of my favorite imaginings of the past, in semi-chronological order.
1.The Robe (1953)
Pros: The people Richard Burton’s Marcellus meets on his quest for Demetrius are an excellent representation of Christian community. In the second act, the film deals with martyrdom as Burton returns to Rome to hang out in the catacombs and challenge Emperor Caligula. Redemption, miracles, courage. Also Richard Burton being Richard Burton.
Cons: Richard Burton being Richard Burton – it can get distracting. His swooning girlfriend is annoying too.
Notable performances: Victor Mature gives Demetrius an air of quiet dignity, while Caligula gives Richard Burton a run for his money in the dramatics department.
Favorite Scenes: Marcellus meets St. Peter, who shares about betraying Jesus and then basically hears his confession. I also really like the crippled girl who teaches Marcellus about the redemptive value of suffering.
Jesus rating: 4 out of 5 He’s never really visible, but still very present. You can see why the other characters find him so compelling.
The original all-star cast Jesus epic, based on a book by Fulton Ousler.
Cons: The desert landscape is pretty obviously Arizona. There’s a surprising amount of artistic liberty in the plot, like the random Temple massacre that leaves you saying “Huh?” The carefully arranged set pieces can feel like the set of a school play.
Notable performances: Charlton Heston is a no-brainer to play firey John the Baptist. There’s also John Wayne’s infamous “Truly this man was the son of Gawd.”
Favorite scenes: Jesus heals the man born blind, who remembers knowing Him as a child. In the temptation scene Satan is a wiley old guy hanging out in a cave. Mary Magdalene travels with the disciples after her conversion.
Jesus rating: 3 out of 5. Max von Sydow is nice enough, but seems too calm and unrumpled.
3. Jesus of Nazareth (1977)
Pros: The miniseries format allows Zefferelli to expand the Nativity story and really flesh out characters, especially the Apostles and the Sanhedrin. Miracles and preaching get extended sequences too.
Cons: It is reallllly long. The plot loses steam in the final hour, relying on fictional scribe Zerah (Ian Holm) to explain Jesus’ arrest. The final resurrection is anti-climactic.
Notable performances: It’s really hard to pick from such a killer cast, but Peter Ustinov and Christopher Plummer are very entertaining Herods. James Farentino and Michael York and the reasons I love St. Peter and St. John the Baptist. You also won’t forget Anne Bancroft’s Mary Magdalene, who chews up the scenery on Easter morning.
Favorite scenes: Jesus tells the story of the Prodigal Son at a party thrown by tax-collector Matthew; it inspires Matthew to abandon his decadence and reconcile with Peter. The last episode has extended scenes in the Temple, where Jesus argues with Pharisees, preaches to children, and even meets Barabbas.
Jesus rating: 3 out of 5. Amidst such a stellar crowd, it’s hard for Robert Powell to stand out. His Jesus has Shakespearean gravitas, but also detached otherworldliness. As my middle-school math teacher quipped “Half the time he looks like he’s stoned.”
4. Jesus of Montreal (1989)
Pros: I learned about this film when a professor showed it for extra credit, and was amazed at what it said about compassion and how God can work through sinful humanity. It addresses modern life with critical eyes. Also, it’s fun to try to catch all the Biblical allusions in the plot.
Cons: Just a general disclaimer that adult maturity is needed. There’s some iffy 1980’s theology and biblical criticism in the play’s script. Also, the film is honest about the characters scandalous pasts, but that raunchy film dubbing scene was pretty gratuitous. In true European cinema fashion, there are some very brief flashes of non-erotic nudity. Basically, you might not show this to your Sunday school class, but your young adult Bible study could get a lot out of it. FYI there are subtitles.
Notable performances: Gilles Pelletier as Fr. Leclerc, the jaded priest who needs ministering to himself.
Favorite scenes: “Money changers in the Temple” – when one of the actresses is mistreated while auditioning for a skeezy beer commercial, Daniel/Jesus takes matters into his own hands. It’s a powerful testament to human dignity. The final scenes in a train station are also incredibly moving.
Jesus rating: 4 out of 5. Daniel’s performance really makes you think about Christ’s suffering and selfless love.
5. The Passion of the Christ (2004)
Pros: The intense scenes are ripe for theological discussions about the ugliness of sin and the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist. The film’s steady, even pace invites a meditative mindset. The dialogue is only in Aramaic and Latin, forcing viewers to concentrate more closely. (Plus it lets you practice your high school Latin, or maybe that’s just me.)The soundtrack is exquisite.
Cons: There was hope that this would be a great evangelical tool, but without any contextual understanding non-believers are just turned off by the gore. Even for devout Christians it can be excessive, and some of the most horrific parts come from private revelations, not scripture. I think I can have a meaningful Good Friday without Gibson’s signature spurting blood for shock value.
Notable performances: Maia Morganstern is hands down the best virgin Mary I have ever seen on film. Her heartfelt yet understated performance actually made me want to pray the rosary.
Favorite scenes: There are many great vignettes: Mary watching Jesus fall, flashbacks of their life in Nazareth, the final Pieta shot. A defeated Satan and a triumphant resurrection give the story the dramatic conclusion it deserves.
Jesus rating: 5 out of 5. It’s clear that Jim Caviziel put his heart and soul into this role. In the flashbacks especially, his Jesus is joyful, loving, and sincere.
Pros: This animated film is approachable for kids, but still interesting for adults. Tamar's central role gives the narrative a family focus, and shows how Jesus inspired his followers. Claymation gives the film a great physicality, while flashback and parables in regular animation allow for some creative storytelling.
Cons: Stop motion animation isn't for everyone (even though it should be.) Mary Magdalene being freed from 7 demons might be too scary for very young children.
Notable performances: Really great all around. The all-star British cast was actually in the same room when they recorded dialogue, so there is a real conversational tone. I liked how John the Baptist had a Scottish accent, showing his nonconformity.
Favorite scenes: When Tamar falls very ill, Jairus has to decide if going to Jesus is worth the wrath of his synagogue colleagues. I won't spoil the road to Emmaus scene, but it's wonderful.
Jesus rating: 5 out of 5. He's confident, compassionate, and friendly. We even get to see Him doing carpentry work and weeping at the death of John the Baptist. Tamar has a real relationship with Him; she's not just a prop in the "suffer the little children" scene. Ironic fun fact: Ralph Finnes previously did biblical voice acting as pharaoh in The Prince of Egypt.
7. The ultimate Jesus film has yet to be made, and probably never will. Movies will never completely replicate the real thing. What really matters is how each of us individually relates to the Gospel story. The Church has a long tradition of live theater to help us mentally place ourselves within the Passion drama. This Holy Week, go to Stations of the Cross or the Liturgy of the Lord's Passion, and connect with the real Jesus, who lives beyond the movie screen.
(Update: This afternoon The Pulp.It featured this post in their daily digest of Catholic blogs. If you've come here from them, thanks for visiting!)
(Another update: holy schlamoley, New Advent featured this too! This has pretty much made my week. If I've left out a favorite film of yours, please leave a comment about it. I'd love to review a new set of films next Lent.)
All images are from Amazon.com