The Feast of the Epiphany, recalling the journey of the Magi to adore the Christ child, ultimately celebrates the “showing” of Christ to the world. It seems the perfect day to post my list of the “ten best” Jesus movies, a genre which has fascinated me ever since I was a child extra in my father’s production of “Day of Triumph.” Surprisingly, that independent film by an Episcopal priest was the only Jesus film produced in the 1950’s, a decade packed with every other kind of biblical film.
For the last twenty-five years, I have taught “Jesus and the Movies” in seminaries, churches and retreat centers. I use clips from 19 feature films made between 1912 and 2014. The films always provoke rich conversations about biblical studies, Christology, religious art and film studies. Perennial issues of representation and interpretation are both repeated and transformed by the film medium, and the Jesus films, for all their limitations and imperfections, ask each viewer: “Who do you say that I am?” Even you don’t like a particular movie Jesus, you are compelled to think about the Jesus movie in your own head, your own heart. How does it differ from (or resonate with) what is on the screen?
As I noted in a prior post on the ten best religious films, top ten lists are subjective, revisable and always questionable, which is what makes them fun. And the Jesus film genre, burdened by religious expectations, commercial considerations, artistic pretensions and cultural controversies, has not produced any completely great films (each has its flaws, and the gospels themselves resist translation into perfect narratives), but it has given us many great scenes. I’ll list my favorite scenes in another post, but for now, in chronological order, here are my ten recommendations for your Epiphany binge-watching.
King of Kings (1961) Nicholas Ray’s uneven, studio-butchered epic was savaged by reviewers (“Incontestably the corniest, phoniest, ickiest and most monstrously vulgar of all the big Bible stories,” thundered Time Magazine). Blue-eyed fan-mag cover boy Jeffrey Hunter, although 33 years old, was dismissed as the “teenage Jesus,” though other saw echoes of JFK, inspiring and youthful, or “James Dean without the delinquency” (Ray had also made Rebel Without a Cause). And religious critics found too much humanity, not enough divinity. So what’s it doing on my list? Well, Ray was a terrific director, and the film is very watchable. It is also a prime example of cultural context shaping both the making and the reception of a Jesus film. Released at a time when both the biblical epic and the dominant Protestant metanarrative were on the wane in America, it failed for interesting reasons. At the same time, a Jesus constantly preaching “peace and love” reflected the ongoing anxieties of the Cold War era. And where else can you get narration by Orson Welles, a marvelous epic score by Miklos Rozsa (of Ben Hur fame), and the longest traveling shot in film history (160 feet of track on a steep Spanish hillside)?
The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1965) Pasolini’s black & white, hand-held, documentary “you are there” style, the rough-hewn faces of Italian non-actors, and the first dark-eyed Jewish Jesus all created an illusion of realism that instantly overthrew the conventions of biblical cinema. It is the first Jesus movie not to blend all four gospels or invent new dialogue and narration, though it significantly edits Matthew’s text (apocalyptic sayings, the Transfiguration, and some miracles are omitted). The director treats Jesus as a “revolutionary whirlwind” sweeping through Palestine. For some the protagonist is too strident, humorless and emotionally remote, but his relentless otherness nicely resists our domestication.
Jesus Christ Superstar/Godspell (1973) Permit me to link the Jesus musicals together: they came out in the same year, each is dated in its own way (singing and dancing on top of the World Trade Center, for example), and both remain strangely affecting, at least for persons of a certain age. In breaking the conventions of literal treatments, they not only opened new options for the genre, but influenced a rising generation of liturgists who brought street theater, comic play and contemporary music into the churches. Some critics glowered from the other side of a generational divide (“Jesus is just a teeny-bopper stoned on himself”), but there were more substantial controversies as well (in Superstar, a black Judas, an erotic Magdalene, Jewish villains caricatured as vultures, and a doubting Jesus). But each film provides a lively retelling with some very moving scenes.
Jesus of Nazareth (1977) Franco Zefferelli’s beautiful 6-hour miniseries on NBC, while shunning the artificial grandeur of Hollywood sets for a humbler, dustier Palestine, is suffused with its own pictorial conventions: Catholic iconography and Italian painting. Robert Powell’s engaging and self-assured Jesus, whose divine nature is clearly on display in key scenes, gives one of the most popular portrayals, though the film has been criticized for an overly interior spirituality that leaves the sociopolitical world untouched. Rather than trying to make Powell carry the entire burden of his character’s significance, Jesus of Nazareth focuses on the faces, reactions and emotions of his followers. Peter and Mary Magdalene, standing in for all of us who hear and follow, are unforgettable.
The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) The most controversial film of the genre prior to Mel Gibson’s Passion, Scorcese’s energetic, visceral take on the Kazanzakis novel is really a mashup of three bible characters: Jonah (the reluctant prophet resisting his inevitable vocation), Jesus of the gospels (creatively retold with a few quirky additions), and the Prodigal Son (who leaves the cross for the “far country” of a long, ordinary life, only to return “home” to Calvary at the end). This flawed but fascinating film has many firsts: the interior thoughts of Jesus, New York accents, sexuality, a restless camera always on the move, Peter Gabriel’s world music soundtrack, women at the Last Supper, and a novelistic source that exacerbates the confusions of fact and fiction.
Jesus of Montreal (1989) Denys Arcand’s postmodern play within a play furthered the transformation of a genre freeing itself from the restrictive conventions of piety and/or box-office caution. A group of contemporary actors, invited to reinvigorate a staid annual Passion Play, do so in wonderfully imaginative ways. At the same time, they find their personal lives starting to embody the characters they play. Earnest, clever and compelling, the film asks us to consider what it might mean to “play” Jesus in our own place and time.
Jesus (1999) This 4-hour television special offers a Jesus who seems quite modern in manner, speech and outlook. Jeremy Sisto is a “California slacker” type whose identity quest seems very American. This is often effective in putting us in the story, as if it’s something that could happen to us. But does it also reflect our own cultural selves so much that we can no longer believe we are seeing anything resembling history? An unprecedented use of special effects for the miraculous and mythic elements of the gospels is visually interesting, but it does create significant questions about what we are being asked to believe, since a special effect is transparently fictional, undermining the real but unseen content of faith.
The Miracle Maker (2000) Fresh, creative and often moving, this film uses claymation figures by Russian orthodox artists. Parables, dreams and inner experience are contrastingly rendered in two-dimensional animation. The engaging script, written by an Anglican, tells the Jesus story through the eyes of a child. The clay Jesus, resembling an eastern Christian icon (but with a ready smile) is more charismatic than many of his live-action brethren. The voice of Ralph Fiennes is part of the reason, but the animation itself engages us directly with the story in a way that real human faces do not. A dramatic film is always both a scripted fiction and also a kind of documentary about what the actors themselves are doing while the camera is rolling. With animation, you see only the story, not the actors, and that works beautifully here.
The Gospel of John (2003) This film gave itself a uniquely challenging task. Most Jesus movies invent dialogue to fill gaps in the narrative or articulate meanings left unsaid in gospel texts, but such a strategy is renounced here. The script uses only the words of the Fourth Gospel (in modern translation), forcing ingenious, if occasionally labored, strategies to keep the story moving and the viewer involved. The long speeches of the “Farewell Discourses” (John 13-17) are the supreme example. Ian Cusick’s Jesus is warm and passionate. You may never again hear “I am the bread of life” without seeing his smile.
Son of Man (2006) Produced in South Africa, it sets the Jesus story within a fictional 21st century African country beset by the horrendous legacy of colonialism, corporate exploitation, and factionalism. The first black movie Jesus is deeply embedded in contemporary times, teaching nonviolence to his disciples while speaking out against corrupt and evil powers. But we never lose sight of the original gospel story. The stunning depictions of Annunciation, Pieta and Resurrection will knock you flat. And the singing! So exhilarating. Here is a film where you really “meet Jesus again for the first time.”