In my last post, I listed my “ten best Jesus movies.” Here now are my ten favorite moments, scenes which not only succeed cinematically but also provide fresh and resonant images of the Christ who, as the Jesuit poet said, “plays in ten thousand places.” But my ultimate criterion is that each of these scenes, after countless viewings, never fails to engage and move me.
No single image can capture the mystery of the Word made flesh. No actor will make you think he has become the perfect movie Jesus. But whenever the gospel story is retold and re-experienced, we may yet see something we had previously missed. We may even partake of a new revelation that has been waiting all these years to be received.
1927: The little blind girl (The King of Kings)
Most of the Jesus films invent dialogue to fill the gaps, but the incidents involving Jesus remain mostly Scriptural. But this scene, performed with silent cinema’s eloquent language of faces and gestures, is entirely invented. And it’s marvelous. A boy just healed by Jesus wants to share his blessing with a blind girl. “Take my hand – let me lead thee to him.” He guides her to a window and gives her a boost. Inside, the mother of Jesus gently receives the girl, who feels Mary’s face with her hands. “Please, I have come to find Jesus.” In the original score, the string section plays “Fairest Lord Jesus” here, imploring every sentiment. Mary takes the girl to stand before her son, who has not yet appeared on screen. “Lord, I have never seen the flowers nor the light. Wilt thou open my eyes?” The pleadingly expressive girl (played unforgettably by Muriel McCormack) stands in for all of us who long to see the Light of the world. The air around her grows luminous, and then, through her own eyes, we see a blurry glow gradually become the loving face of Christ, whom we, like her, now see for the first time. It perhaps the grandest entrance in the genre, and the perfect metaphor for a medium trying to bring the reality of Christ to light.
1954: The Lost Sheep (Day of Triumph)
I admit special affection for this film because my father produced it and I got out of school for a week to play an extra (who ended up on the cutting room floor). And this sequence, employing the traditional (though unbiblical) conflation of Mary Magdalene with repentant female sinners, has moved me ever since I first saw it as a child. Magdalene, a wealthy courtesan (played by the beautiful Joanne Dru), happens to hear Jesus teaching in Jerusalem. When he tells the parable of the Lost Sheep, he looks pointedly at her. Back in her house, she asks her servant – an early follower – what she knows about Jesus, masking her spiritual longing as idle curiosity. As the conversation unfolds, something in Magdalene breaks, and we cut to a Pharisee’s house, where Jesus has been invited to dine. A repentant Magdalene, now in humble attire, arrives to wash Jesus’ feet with her tears. The Pharisee is shocked, the disciples bewildered. When Jesus speaks the words of forgiveness over her, we get the first close-up of Mary Magdalene’s tear-stained face. Every close-up in effect isolates the face from the external particularities of body, environment and social context, conveying something both universal and purely inward. For me, this intimate view of Mary’s magnified face as she raises her downcast eyes toward Jesus evokes salvation history in a single glance.
1965: The Annunciation to Joseph (The Gospel According to St. Matthew)
How do you tell the story of Joseph coming to terms with Mary’s pregnancy when you are restricted to Matthew’s actual text, which provides neither dialogue nor psychological description? Pasolini begins his film with a close-up of Mary, then of Joseph, each face suggesting an unresolved tension between them. After two more awkward close-ups, we finally see a full shot of a pregnant Mary (full of dis-grace) and the problem becomes clear. The scene moves toward resolution through entirely visual means, like silent cinema, omitting even Matthew’s sparse narration. When speech (the angel’s “annunciation” to Joseph) finally does intrude into this silent world, it feels like the shock of the transcendent. In the beginning was the Word.
1969: Jesus the teacher (Son of Man)
The Jesus in this rarely seen British television production is neither meek nor mild. In his Sermon on the Mount, he moves energetically among the crowd, prodding and challenging them to think in new and uncomfortable ways. First he invites them to embrace the kinfolk around them as a sign of love. “That’s nice, isn’t it?” he says, noting how easy it is to love those who love you. It’s nothing extraordinary. “Do you want me to congratulate you for that?” Then he delivers the kicker: “Love your enemy!” As he lists specific examples of the enemies they should love, the crowd begins to murmur its dissent, to which Jesus responds emphatically: “Did I come to tell you easy things? Do you want me to tell you easy things?”
1973: Resurrection? (Godspell)
The dead Jesus is taken down from the chain link fence where he hangs suspended. As his followers carry his body through the strangely empty streets of New York, their song turns from sorrow to joy. Some begin to dance while they process, as if Jesus has risen anew in the bodies of his disciples. As for the body which had once called “Jesus,” it is taken around a corner, out of our sight. When the camera itself finally rounds that corner, the disciples and the body they carried are gone. Instead, we see hundreds of people walking toward us – the people you would see any day on a busy city street. The body we knew has “ascended” out of our sight, and Jesus returns in the form of everyone.
1977: The Prodigal Son (Jesus of Nazareth)
Jesus invites himself to a party at Matthew’s house. The disciples are shocked that he would dine with sinners. Peter, who really hates the “blood-sucking” tax collector, tries to stay away entirely, but curiosity finally brings him to stand just outside the door. When Jesus spots him peering in, he decides to tell a parable about two sons. Not only is this scene cinema’s best example of Jesus as storyteller, it makes the parable contextual, aimed directly at Peter (the “elder brother”) and Matthew (the “prodigal”). Both get the point; both are changed by it. The whole scene is perhaps the most moving “resurrection story” in the entire genre.
1988: Christ before Pilate (The Last Temptation of Christ)
David Bowie plays a blasé, sardonic Pilate in his interrogation of Jesus, whom he dismisses as just another Jewish troublemaker. This is not a conflicted, timorous official afraid of the crowd or hesitant to condemn an innocent man, but a cold-eyed realist who knows how the world works. When Jesus explains that he wants to bring change through love, not violence, Pilate recites the creed of the status quo: “Killing or loving, it doesn’t matter how you want to change things. We don’t want them changed.”
1998: Jesus returns (The Book of Life)
The only Jesus movie about the Second Coming begins with a shabbily dressed man outside a New York airport terminal, speaking in a loud voice to no one in particular: “Forgive me, Jesus, for I have sinned. Have mercy on us now and at the hour of our death.” Over and over he cries out in the flat, mechanical tone of a mind in disarray. Passersby give him a wide berth. Suddenly a man in a nice suit enters the frame to put a hand on the vagrant’s shoulder, silencing his repetitive plea with a touch and a look. This healing stranger turns out to be Jesus, who has just flown in – on New Year’s Eve, 1999 – to judge the living and the dead (though it later turns out he just wants to forgive everyone). Then Jesus moves on to catch a taxi, followed by Mary Magdalene, who in passing reassures the stunned vagrant. “It’s OK,” she says, before hurrying on to the apocalypse.
2004: The Agony in the Garden (The Passion of the Christ)
While many find this film unwatchable for its excessive violence and uncritical use of Passion Play caricatures, it begins with a memorably haunting Gethsemane sequence. Dimly lit in the olive grove, Jesus shows real agony. “I’ve never seen him like this,” whispers a worried disciple. The horror movie tropes – full moon, deep shadows, the anxious expectancy of a camera in motion – contribute to the sense of something beyond the ordinary taking place, as though we are in a supernatural thriller. And when Jesus falls to the ground to beg the cup of suffering to pass him by, we see Satan watching him closely. Together they enact a mythic prologue to the Passion narrative: Gethsemane becomes the Garden of Eden, but this time the human will not fall to the demonic. The snake will be crushed beneath the Savior’s foot. When Satan leans down over the anguished Jesus praying to his Father, he asks him, “Who is your Father?” This seems less like a taunt than a perfect expression of evil’s blindness. Not only is it unable to see the good; it is unable even to conceive it.
2006: The Annunciation (Son of Man)
This South African film’s prologue is a Temptation scene where Jesus rebukes Satan by saying, “This is my world.” “No!” Satan replies, “This is my world.” As if to prove Satan’s point, the film cuts to a 21st-century African country torn by violent civil strife. In a small town, armed guerillas are killing everyone in sight. A young woman, fleeing the violence, hides in a schoolroom, where she is horrified to find a pile of murdered students. She lies down among them to play dead until the killers pass by. When she finally opens her eyes, there is the angel Gabriel (a shirtless boy adorned with white feathers), announcing the birth of the Savior. Mary responds with the Magnificat, sung in a powerful South African idiom. Here is the gospel absolutely in the present tense.