His name is known around the globe, often in different incarnations, his story is timeless, surviving more than two thousand years. There is little doubt he walked the earth but was he the son of God or an extraordinary man spreading love and peace? Did he perform miracles, heal, raise the dead, and himself come back from the dead after being crucified? I do not know, no one does. I do not believe in God, but do believe in the teachings of Christ. I do not believe in heaven but something happens after we die. I held my beautiful wife in my arms as she slipped out of this life, felt her last breath, and experienced something in that room incredible, a transfer of energy I cannot explain, as though she was leaving the shell of her body behind. Something happened in that room at the moment of her death, but I cannot explain what.
It is rather astounding there are so few films made about Jesus Christ, and even more shocking, so few good ones. Hollywood has made many films from the Bible, some great, some not, but surprisingly few about Christ. Those great are each unique, exploring life and death in their own special way, while the lesser films are paint by numbers stories of Jesus, Sunday school lessons, and that is being kind.
The first important film about Jesus was Cecil B. DeMille’s ‘The King of Kings’ (1927) made at the beginning of the sound era, but silent. DeMille cast fifty year old H. B. Warner as Jesus, and though too old, the actor was a fine Christ. The director set the template by which all future Jesus would be built, white robes, beautiful, peaceful face bathed in serene light, a man we believe could walk on water, but not a man, a being. It was unfortunate
As Martin Scorsese wisely observed, so many films about Christ portray him as Demille did, that is the gentle, beautific man, a glow about him, serene, other worldly, with a halo and light surrounding his face. He speaks gently, moves purposefully, at peace with who he is. Well, not likely. The history of the time confirms he existed, but he was just a man, a remarkable man, but flesh and blood like you and I. The best films about Christ are the ones in which he is portrayed as as a man. However extraordinary.
5. Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)
Huh? I am serious. This rock opera, directed with bold originality by Norman Jewison, is based on the stage play that took North America by storm after opening on Broadway. An electrifying experience, the film thrusts us into a play being staged in the desert of the Middle East, the play being the story of Christ set to the rock music of the play. Ted Neely is excellent as Jesus, his best moments coming in the garden the night of his betrayal. “God thy will is hard, but you hold every card, I will drink your cup of poison, nail me to your cross” and he sings it with such anger, fear, even regret, it is remarkably powerful. Jewison allows the lyrics to carry the film, filling it with modern images that show how relevant the story still might be.
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4. The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964)
This Pasolini film has long been declared a masterpiece, and its edgy, spiky, new realism continues to make it one of the finest films made about Jesus. Neo-realistic, meaning every attempt was made for authenticity, the film feels spiky, as real as the unforgiving landscape surrounding the characters, and most of the screenplay was derived directly from the Bible. That is not always a good thing, but it does allow the film to feel real. The cast of unknowns lends to the authenticity as we are not watching established actors in the roles.
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3. Jesus of Nazareth (1978)
A mini-series for network television, directed by Franco Zefferelli, this handsome film unfolded over three nights, beautifully shot with an all star cast. At its center is relatively unknown British actor Robert Powell as Jesus. Best known as the father in the rock opera ‘Tommy’ (1975), Powell soared as Jesus, both gentle and powerful, an intensely remarkable presence. The film is startling in its beauty, resembling the great paintings of the masters, and superbly acted by the entire cast, though Powell and Michael York as John the Baptist are stand outs. It might be too reverential for some, it is for me, but its beauty and the sheer ambition cannot be denied.
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2. The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
Imagine you are young Jesus, late twenties and you begin to hear voices telling you that you are the son of a God, the Messiah and your destiny is to spread God’s word and be crucified by the Romans. You would be afraid, don’t you think? Jesus, beautifully portrayed by William Dafoe, is at the beginning of this film, questioning and terrified, growing into a leader over the course of the film. When offered the chance to come off the cross and finish his life as a man, he does, and he marries and fathers children, but then realizes he is being tempted by Satan, and returns to fulfill his destiny. Martin Scorsese directed this superb film, that for the first time presents Jesus as flesh and blood, a man before anything else. It was a Christ we could understand, and accept, his crucifixion becoming all the more horrific. It was one of the most intensely personal moments of faith I have ever had and among the boldest depictions of Christ ever created.
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1. The Passion of the Christ (2004)
Mel Gibson’s raging, furious study of the last twelve hours of Christ is a staggering film of overwhelming force and power. The film sears its way into your mind, never to be forgotten, never to be thought of in quite the same way again. We can read about what Christ went through on his way to be crucified, but we cannot imagine it, not really. Gibson plunges us into this nightmare with startling accuracy and often gruesome authenticity. The scourging is truly horrific, we witness chunks of bloody flesh being ripped from his body, we see the blood pool on the ground, we see the intense suffering. Yet we also see a man hell bent on fulfilling his destiny, somehow finding the strength to carry that cross through the streets up to the hill where they pound nails into his hands and feet and hang up to die. It is utterly heartbreaking. Gibson created a masterpiece that was a leviathan at the box office, defying the odds for a religious film told in dead languages, subtitled and with intense violence. Jim Cavaziel portrays Christ, and is seen in flashbacks as a happy trickster, struggling with who he is. The punishment this man takes on his way to death is shattering. It is a dark work of art. It is a work for the ages.
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5. Jesus (1979)
Brian Deacon. Remember that name as he was the worst actor to ever portray Jesus on film, and I include every single made for TV film ever made, this guy was the worst. He plays Christ as an it, an other worldly being which is the fastest way to distance an audience from the film. They succeed. Forgive me, but it is just God awful in every way.
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4. The King of Kings (1961)
A remake of the well received though too reverential silent film from Cecil B. DeMille, this remake came to be known as a Teenage Jesus. Jefffrey Hunter, he of the blazing blue eyes, was cast as Christ, and though game, he just lacked the intensity to portray Christ. Like those before him, and many after, he played Jesus as an “it”, a being rather than a man. Made because remakes of ‘Ben Hur’ (1959) and ‘The Ten Commandments’ (1956) had been huge hits when remade, this one was not. Great score, terrible movie.
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3. The Nativity Story (2006)
What if a film that was to be filled with awe and wonder is instead just hopeless and silly, with way too much time spent on convincing Joseph of his new bride’s pregnancy. The opening moments of Ben Hur (1959) handle the entire story better than this film in all its, um, glory? Dull, uninteresting when it should be filled with questions, a leap of faith for so many, but it is not for me.
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2. The Young Messiah (2016)
Jesus as a child should make an interesting movie…it does not. At all. What should have been fascinating, listening to him debate with the elders of the church, comes across as a cheap parlor room trick. Kind of a shame because the subject matter might have produced something extraordinary instead of just very ordinary.
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1. The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)
Look! There’s Sidney Poitier! Look! It’s Charlton Heston! Hey, it’s John Wayne! George Steven’s massive epic about Christ was expected to be a masterpiece, the finest film the two time Oscar winner would ever make, but there were so many fumbles along the way. It began with the casting of Swedish actor Max Von Sydow as Jesus, a towering, imposing figure, speaking with a distinct Swedish accent that set him apart from the cast but in all the wrong ways. Second was the decision for an all star cast, making the film a spot the star film, taking away the chance to make the definitive film about Christ. Finally was the decision to shoot in Monument Valley rather than on location in the Holy Land. All the locations were so iconic and recognizable from the great American westerns, as the apostles moved through the range we expected cowboys and stagecoaches to appear at any moment.
The film was impossibly long, one could read the entire Bible in the time it takes to see it and frankly, it is a bore. A snore fest, dull and uninteresting. The only charge of energy comes from Charlton Heston’s ferocious performance as John the Baptist. Just awful, and as it turned out a career killer for George Stevens
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