It’s as though the Biblical epic is on the verge of a resurrection. Exodus: Gods and Kings was a major movie star vehicle based on an Old Testament story that didn’t work out, but we still had Joaquin Phoenix and Rooney Mara trying to make Mary Magdalene an indie film.
The Last Temptation of Christ, Martin Scorsese’s 1988 film about Jesus, was originally described by a nun to Scorsese as “a holocaust movie that has the capacity to ruin lives eternally” if the picture is too earnest or too irreverent. Here are the top 25 films on the man who is responsible for the colossal amounts of chocolate we consume on a year-round basis:
10. Jesus of Nazareth (1977)
Because of his piercing eyes and the white and dark-blue eyeliners he wore, Robert Powell was a natural choice for the role of Jesus in the movies. Franco Zeffirelli requested a mystical look, so Powell followed the non-blinking trend created by Max von Sydow. Crew members stopped cussing when they saw him wafting through during tea breaks because of his convincing performance in the part.
There is plenty time to tell the entire narrative, as it was originally a six-hour miniseries written by Anthony Burgess (of Clockwork Orange fame) and starring an all-star cast (Anne Bancroft, Laurence Olivier, James Earl Jones, Peter Ustinov… you get the idea). Additionally, it is stressed that Jesus’ male associates would have thrown him into dishonor – being pals with a tax collector was NOT cool – in addition to the normal patriarchal slut-shaming scenes.
9. Risen (2016)
Seeing the crucifixion and its aftermath through the eyes of a Roman soldier is a fascinating concept in Risen. Joseph Fiennes plays Clavius, the man tasked by Pontius Pilate with seeing that the body of Jesus is properly secured so that no one may steal it and say he has risen. Obviously, things don’t go as to plan.
There are some thrilling scenes as Clavius searches for the disciples and the body that has gone missing. It’s an eye-opening look at life and death in 33 AD. One critic commented, “It’s good to finally see the Messiah played by somebody who would garner extra attention at a U.S. airport by Homeland Security.”
Hollywood movies like The Robe (1953) and The Inquiry (1987 and 2006) have long featured Roman soldiers who glimpse the light of day.
8. Son of Man (2006)
Because she uses young actors to play the angels and shepherds and keeps scenes with Jesus as a toddler, May’s retelling of Jesus’ life has a higher than average attractiveness quotient. Taking place in modern-day South Africa, the action has been relocated, and it does it flawlessly. As Mary and Joseph arrive at the immigration station, they are greeted by a bureaucratic nightmare and an ominous backdrop of political instability.
Grown-up Even if your country is seized by a foreign authority and “you’re being lied to,” Jesus stresses the value of non-violent resistance. Medicine prices in the US and Europe are manipulated, and people “disappear” when child labor regulations are enacted. The message of oneness isn’t diminished by this new twist on his sermons, but his death puts the community to the test. Even if you don’t care about the story, you should see this film for the gorgeous soundtrack, which features traditional African music.
7. Mary Magdalene (2018)
Mary Magdalene finally avoids the dreary and typical traps of being misidentified for a prostitute, adulteress, or WAG in a film for the first time in decades. She’s just like the guys in that she’s a disciple of Jesus. It’s clear from the start that Rooney Mara shines as a nice and strong young woman. When she meets the preacher everyone in town is talking about, she is instantly swayed and decides to leave her previous life behind.
From the clothing to the unmistakable sense of pressure on Judea’s most in-demand rabbi, the film combines stunning photography with an earthy truth. When Peter and Mary’s famed battle over Jesus’ legacy comes to a head, we see Judas again as a dedicated follower who only wants Jesus (Joaquin Phoenix) to stop wasting time and start leading their uprising.
6. Godspell (1973)
Godspell was John-Michael Tebelak’s 1970 thesis. A new music from Stephen Schwartz was commissioned by the producers, and the rest is history. It is Victor Garber’s Jesus in this film, who inspires a variety of folks to abandon their daily routines and rediscover a glimmering New York of their own, complete with all manner of natty garb.
At first glance, it looks like a silly musical that you could like as a child (but get embarrassed when you’re discovered watching by your older brother and his pals and pretend you actually weren’t that into it). Although it’s a little stupid, it’s also a lot more than the sum of its parts because of the warmth and energy it radiates.
5. The Visual Bible: Matthew (1993)
An exceptionally perilous proposition is to film the Bible word-for-word because of the lengthy lists of ancestors. But Bruce Marchiano’s portrayal of Jesus in the 1993 adaptation of Matthew is the star of the show. The austere movie messiahs of yesteryear have nothing on him; he’s adorable and cuddley while trying so hard to keep a smile on his face.
In the midst of a demon exorcism, a sermon, or even when standing under a waterfall, he glows with joy. I’m surprised he and the other disciples don’t towel fight in the shower because they have so much fun being chums. There are many other actors who have done this, but Marchiano stands out for his ability to bring the character to life in an authentic way.
The Message of Jesus Christ Pasolini’s 1964 film, According to Matthew, was also hailed as the “greatest picture on Christ ever made” by the Vatican newspaper.
4. Jesus of Montreal (1989)
Scholars of the Bible will be impressed by how neatly this modern-day account of an acting troupe in Quebec is interspersed with references to the gospels. Actors are saved from a life of filthy porn voiceovers and demeaning ads when Daniel (Lothaire Bluteau) rallies a group to rework a Passion play. It’s a hit, but the church isn’t happy with some of the more out-there takes they’ve offered on Jesus.
The theater serves as a place of worship for them. Angry with the exploitation of teenage actors compelled to strip off in order to appear in a beer commercial, Daniel destabilizes the plans of his troupe, which is trying to launch a new, more idealistic production firm. A rising star, Daniel is being offered possibilities that might put him at the center of the city’s attention… but the authorities are closing in, and his job could come to an abrupt stop.
3. Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)
Originally conceived as a Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber rock opera concept album, the theatrical production premiered on Broadway in 1971. In 2000, Rik Mayall played Herod, and the 2012 stage version with Tim Minchin was also released on DVD. The original, in its stunning desert setting, is the best, in my opinion. Carl Anderson’s performance as Judas takes the show from Ted Neely’s Jesus. Pans People (a British all-female dance troupe from the ’60 and ’70s) may be a reference point for the costumes and dancing, but the music hasn’t lost its dynamic impact.
Director Norman Jewison spotted the slight appearance of a shepherd strolling towards the empty cross and decided to use this unexpected take for the closing picture in the film.
It’s a show that will never go out of style, and this Easter, John Legend and Alice Cooper will star in a live US TV rendition for NBC.
2. The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
It is the central question of Nikos Kazantzakis’ 1955 novel, Hollywoodized by Catholic Martin Scorsese in order to satisfy his lifelong dream to make a film about Jesus. “What would have happened?”
It was attacked by cinemagoers and many big video stores refused to show it despite a “this isn’t real” disclaimer at the opening of the film, despite the film’s infamy. It was apparently unacceptable to represent Jesus being tempted by the idea of marriage. (Ironically.)
This is a pity, because it’s a terrific film, full of “I’d never thought of it that way” moments and a vibrancy that makes well-worn Bible verses sound new. To fathom how nuts the Nazarene could have seemed, Willem Dafoe’s wild-eyed portrayal and clever storyline make it simple.
Dafoe’s Jesus isn’t really interested in sex, but rather in the simple pleasures of family life. Perhaps the most pernicious temptation is lurking in the shadows. Why not spend time with your children instead of debating the nature of your own divinity, waging war on the political structure of the country, and founding a new religion? It’s a gripping tale of a guy tormented by the belief that God has a job in store for him that he doesn’t wish to accept.
1. The Miracle Maker (2000)
Shows from the ’90s After Shakespeare’s Animated Tales and Testament: The Bible in Animation, stop-motion animation had become a popular method for retelling old tales. Creatively, it was harnessed to produce an enjoyable 90-minute film that does what some lengthy epics fail to accomplish in several hours of screen time. It’s a well-drawn depiction of political climate and events, with a well-written script packed with parables and miracles.
Jesus performs a miracle on the young girl, and we view the events through her eyes (voiced by Ralph Fiennes). With increasing concern about political unrest, the local establishment turns to a charismatic carpenter for spiritual guidance.
For a kid’s movie, there’s a surprising amount of insight into the emotions and motivations of the characters. It’s also exceptionally well-made, heartfelt, and amusing.