So you’re probably thinking: “Well this is not a very good subject for a Top 5 List! Just how many movies about Jesus (aka Iesus, aka Yeshua, aka Josh) of Nazareth are there to choose from? Heck, there can’t be more than, like … a half a dozen Jesus flicks altogether, right? I’m afraid I shall have to set your house on fire.”
But after reading the following list of Top 5 Jesus Movies, you will be begging my forgiveness. But will I give it? Will I give my forgiveness? Maybe. Maybe not. What’s in it for me?
In no particular order:
Jesus Of Nazareth (1977) – Franco Zefferelli shoots right down the middle and scores big-time with this miniseries. This is the Peter Jackson’s “Lord Of The Rings” version of the Gospels – a big-budget attempt to illustrate as faithfully as possible the traditional conception of the Jesus story. Every first-rate actor in the Western World appears in “Jesus of Nazareth” and every one gives a fine perfomance. The casting choices themselves are superb – even down to Ernest Borgnine as The Centurion who, believe it or not, works perfectly. And the Maurice Jarre score is wonderful.
The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) – And on the other side of the coin … Martin Scorsese finally realized his dream project, based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis (writer of “Zorba The Greek”), on a shoestring budget, to popular outrage. Young Marty had wanted to be a priest when he was a pale asthmatic Brooklyn kid, and the inevitability of sin has been a theme in virtually every one of his films. Despite our best intentions, our personal power, wealth, prestige – and no matter how cozy our relationship with God – we will still always go astray. The experiment behind “The Last Temptation” is, in part, to put our traditional understanding of the Jesus story on the other side of the looking glass. Up is down, black is white. The film opens with the crucifixion of a familiar-looking, bearded prophet, for whom the carpenter Jesus has fashioned a cross. This Jesus even assists in the man’s execution. And we ask: “How can THIS chap be the Anointed One?” – which might lead us to another question, “How can anyone?” The Peter Gabriel score is superb.
Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) – People forget what a dynamite filmmaker Norman Jewison is (“Moonstruck”, “Fiddler On The Roof”, “Rollerball”, “In The Heat Of The Night”). For my money, “Jesus Christ Superstar” manages some of the most emotionally powerful interpretations of the Jesus story in cinema. A musical – not to mention a rock musical – a rock musical by Andrew Lloyd Weber – can go places forbidden to straight drama. The relationship between Jesus and Judas is nicely drawn in the film. In fact, the performance by Carl Anderson – outraged, self-important, and at his core lost and frightened – may be my favorite Judas performance in film. The concluding rendition of the title song, with Judas and a host of sexy angels singing down to Jesus from the audience seats of a Roman amphitheatre, is terrific.
Jesus of Montreal (1989) – Denys Arcand’s film is a passion play about a group of Montreal actors putting on a passion play. The home run of the movie is the French-Canadian Lothaire Bluteau, as an actor named Daniel who, in the passion-play-within-a-passion-play acts the part of Jesus. He mesmerizes as the compassionate Christ, whose heart seems ever on the verge of breaking at what he sees in the world around him.
Ben-Hur (1959) – It’s iffy putting William Wyler’s super-epic in the Top 5. Jesus appears as a secondary character throughout the film, but His face is never shown us. It’s a simple, effective device, that engages our imaginations and keeps the character slightly beyond our understanding and experience. The story is about the spiritual awakening of a wealthy Jewish nobleman, whose life loosely intersects that of Jesus. So the Gospels are merely the scaffold on which the bulk of the plot hangs, but the movie is so solidly executed, that it stands out as one of the best screen depictions. Stories of well-known figures are often best told through the point of view of complimentary or antagonistic characters, (i.e., the Mozart story presented as the story of Antonio Salieri in “Amadeus”). Examining the Jesus story through the eyes of one of his less renowned contemporaries is not a bad way to go about it.
Others: Of course, I bet Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “The Gospel According To St. Matthew” (1964) should be on the list. Black and white, no professional actors. Must be art. But I haven’t seen it yet.
Then there is Mel Gibson’s “The Passion Of The Christ” (2004), but it is too much a mixed bag to make the Top 5. When it is good, it is genuinely revelatory, when it is not good, it’s silly.
Avoid “The Greatest Story Ever Told” (1965) , except for the Herod scenes directed by David Lean.
Strange that you refer often to “the Jesus STORY.” You put truth on the same level as “Goldilocks” and “The Billy Goats Gruff.” Unfortunately, a wrong part of Hollywood and your liberal “friends” seem to have rubbed your good sense rather raw. By the way, Scosese’s take is trash.
“The Greatest Story Ever Told” has more to it than David Lean’s contribution. To appreciate it, it has to be seen in its original on screen in its original format and color. Perhaps not a great picture, but very worthwhile viewing. The key to enjoying it is to understand that it moves with a Greek tragedy pace, not gothic, not realism, and certainly not Scorsesean.
Let me get this straight: “So the Gospels are merely the scaffold on which the bulk of the plot hangs. . . .” If the Gospels are MERELY – MERELY – the scaffold, wouldn’t “the bulk” of the plot fall down and go BOOM?!
I like “The Billy Goats Gruff”.
Having recommended people put “The Greatest Story Ever Told” toward the bottom of their Jesus movies list, I have to say that if it was going to be screened in a big theater nearby, in an acceptable print, I’d really try to get out to see it.
“Ben-Hur” too is one that is hard to appreciate on a small screen. I was lucky enough to see it at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood some years ago in a 70mm print with the original magnetic stripe (deep, loud, rich, booming) sound track. The raging of the storm at the end was truly frightening. And the chariot race is, of course, one of the greatest actions sequences in movies. The rock-solid, sometimes deliberate “stagey” (“painterly” is a more accurate word) blocking in the movie is a little baffling on a video screen. “Why are they just standing there?” you keep asking yourself. But on a big screen – a very big screen, we hope – the mise en scene is revealed to be a series of tableux – as in a play, or opera – or painting – with actors and elements moving from position to position to position as in a dance. William Wyler has always favored these static kinds of blocking, but he really perfects it in “Ben-Hur”.