Holy Week Viewing: 7 Films About Jesus

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We’re about to enter the most important week of the Christian faith. As we commemorate Palm Sunday this weekend, our attention will then turn from the Triumphal Entry to the road to Gethsemane in preparation for Good Friday and Easter. And as such, I find it might be an interesting time to revisit films about Jesus.

Over the years, I’ve come to love movies about Jesus. Cinema gives us the great opportunity to view this beloved story from different angles and through a variety of viewpoints, tackling different themes and allowing us to engage our theological imagination. As we get in to Holy Week, I thought I’d link back to some pieces I wrote for this blog and some other outlets about movies tackling the life of Christ. The majority of them were written for a Lent project last year. And if you follow at my Facebook page, I’ll also post these reviews each day, starting Sunday. But this should give a good starting point for those looking to do a Holy Week movie marathon.

1.) The Gospel According to St. Matthew

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1964 film is possibly the most faithful depiction of the Gospel story put to film, using only dialogue from Matthew’s Gospel. While I tend to be most intrigued by films that don’t adhere slavishly to the biblical narrative, Pasolini’s film is one of my favorite cinematic adaptations of the Christ story, with a sparseness and immediacy that makes it feel vivid and human.

2.) The Young Messiah

This is a film that was overlooked last year, which is quite a shame. Based on Anne Rice’s novel “Christ Our Lord: Out of Egypt,” it imagines Jesus’ childhood as he begins to understand his identity. It’s obviously not a story that sticks to strict biblical fidelity, but it has a theological imagination that I quite appreciate. Most strikingly is its depiction of Mary and Joseph, and their struggle to understand what it means to parent the savior of the world. Definitely worth a look.

3.) Jesus Christ Superstar

Possibly my favorite cinematic telling of the Christ story. If you’re going to put the Gospel to music, you’re probably not going to do better than Andrew Lloyd Weber’s rock opera. Sure, the film feels like a product of the 1970s, but it still thrums with energy. Gethsemane, Judas’ betrayal, Herod’s song…it’s a lot of fun. But more than that, I feel like Norman Jewison’s adaptation gets beyond a staid look at the gospel and instead of telling the story, focuses on the reaction of those surrounding Jesus. Whatever you think about him, it’s impossible to remain neutral, something this movie really gets right.

4.) Godspell

I’ll be honest that I haven’t quite made up my mind what I think about “Godspell.” To be frank: it’s annoying. It’s set in modern-day New York (well, the “modern day” New York of the 1970s) and it portrays Christ and his disciples as rainbow-dressed clowns who launch into over-dramatic theatrics as they tell the gospel story. It’s like spending two hours with a shrill glee club. And yet, there’s something about it that appeals to me. It doesn’t really work as a retelling of the story, but I like viewing it as watching the world’s most energetic group of missionaries. There’s a joy to their telling that we seldom see in Christ movies, which is a shame. If the gospel means “Good News,” then shouldn’t joy be a characteristic of it? It coasts on that energy. For the curious, it’s worth a look. But it’s also, as I say in my writeup, the Greatest Story Ever Mime’d.

5.) Easter Mysteries

It’s a bit of a shame that Fathom isn’t going to make this a yearly tradition (although you can pick up a DVD on Amazon). This beautiful oratorio tells the disciples’ stories, particularly Peter’s, something that’s usually relegated to the background in favort of the juicier Judas betrayal. It’s staged sparsely and could be looked at as an elaborate Easter cantata. But the music is beautiful and the focus on Peter’s denial and Mary Magdelene’s love for Christ is stirring. It’s definitely worth hunting down.

6.) The Last Temptation of Christ

I don’t know if there’s a film I wrestled with more than Martin Scorsese’s Jesus movie. It’s a movie that I was warned about as a child and that I had to struggle through several times before even finishing. It’s problematic. There are areas where it tiptoes into heresy and then areas where it deals with Christ’s humanity and deity more deeply than any other cinematic interpretation. It’s messy and beautiful. It frustrates me and moves me to tears. And it’s a movie I still haven’t made up my mind on.

In addition to the linked article for Christ and Pop Culture, I also discussed this movie almost two years back with Jason Wiedel on his Film Matters podcast, embedded here:

7. The Passion of the Christ 

I don’t know that you can have a discussion of Jesus movies without bringing up Mel Gibson’s 2004 hit. It’s beloved by many, reviled by many more — and with good reason on both sides. It’s a grotesque, ugly, brutal film that rubs your face in gore and violence. And yet, for those of us who choose to focus on Christ’s sufferings, especially on Good Friday, it can be meaningful and even a meditative piece. It’s not my favorite Jesus movie and it’s far from the best, but it is the one you can’t ignore.

What did I miss? Feel free to share your picks in the comments!

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