Top Ten Jesus Movies

They’ve been making films about the Son of God for over a century. Here’s one man’s list of those that ascend to the top of the cinematic pack.

Of the making of movies about Jesus, there is no end. In the first three months of this year alone: Son of Man, which casts a black man as Christ and sets his life in modern South Africa, got positive reviews at Sundance; the makers of Color of the Cross, which also casts a black man as Christ, established a website with trailers for their work-in-progress; and New Line Cinema announced that Oscar nominees Keisha Castle-Hughes (Whale Rider) and Shohreh Aghdashloo (House of Sand and Fog) will star as the Virgin Mary and her cousin Elizabeth in a new movie about the Nativity, to be released in time for Christmas.

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Review: Paul the Apostle (dir. Roger Young, 2000)

Numerous films have been based on the Gospels, but few have been based on the Book of Acts. Even when filmmakers make a point of depicting stories from across the Scriptures, the early church tends to get left out; a typical example is the otherwise excellent series of British-Russian animated films that began with Testament, a collection of nine half-hour episodes from the Old Testament, and ended with The Miracle Maker, a feature film about Jesus. As finales go, the death and resurrection of Jesus are pretty hard to beat.

Thankfully, some filmmakers do explore the work of the apostles once in a while. The best examples to date are probably the 1985 mini-series A.D., which does a marvelous job of depicting the joy that animated the Jerusalem church but gets increasingly sidetracked by secular history and fictitious love stories between soldiers, slaves and gladiators the further it moves into Gentile territory; and the 1981 TV movie Peter and Paul, starring Anthony Hopkins, which takes superb advantage of the autobiographical information in Paul’s epistles.

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Review: The Apocalypse (dir. Raffaele Mertes, 2002)

There have been many films about the end times, but few have had all that much to do with the actual Book of Revelation. Most apocalyptic movies have been more interested in giving the ancient prophecies a modern spin than in bringing the Scriptures themselves to life — and they have usually accomplished this by spinning a web of hokey political conspiracies and horror-movie shock effects out of thin air. Thus, these films have tended to reflect the social and cultural preoccupations of their makers much more than anything particularly biblical.

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Review: The Bible Collection (dir. various, 1994-1999)

MANY FILMMAKERS have turned to the Good Book for story ideas, but they haven’t always turned those ideas into good movies. The genre’s highs and lows are both on full display in The Bible Collection, an ambitious series of TV-movies that has been produced over the past eight years, and isn’t quite finished yet.

The first four films covered the Book of Genesis in warts-and-all detail, and dealt matter-of-factly with some of the racier episodes that Sunday School classes tend to ignore. Three of these films, focusing on Abraham and his descendants, starred well-known British, American and Australian actors and were broadcast on the Turner network in the United States. One, Joseph, won the Emmy for outstanding mini-series in 1995.

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Review: Jesus (dir. Roger Young, 1999)

By now, it’s become standard practice for filmmakers tackling the gospels to say that they will show Jesus in a more ‘human’ light. What this usually means is that the Jesus in their films will smile more often than the Jesuses in other films. He will laugh, he will cry, he will help the fishermen with their nets, he may even get up and dance at parties.

But this definition of humanity, with its implicit assumption that God, in his divinity, is somehow above all that stuff, does a disservice to both sides of the equation. The God of the Old Testament definitely has feelings, so emotion itself is no big sign of humanity. If Jesus is fully human, as the creeds insist, then there has to be more to it than that.

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Jesus at the Movies

In Jesus of Montreal, Denys Arcand’s witty satire about a group of actors who put on a revisionist Passion play, the church sponsoring the play sends in some security guards to call off the production in mid-performance. The actors have tinkered with the Gospels too much; their reconstruction of the historical Jesus challenges church tradition at nearly every point, so out it must go. But the audience objects; one woman says she wants to see the end, and the head of security replies, impatiently, “Look, he dies on the cross and is resurrected. No big deal. Talk about slow!

The scene neatly sums up one of the main challenges faced by films about the life of Jesus: namely, overfamiliarity. Jesus has been represented in paintings, sculptures, and stained-glass windows for centuries; since the invention of moving pictures in the 1890s, he has also been a perennial subject in films and television. All these portrayals tend to fuse together in the popular imagination; audiences think they’ve seen it all before, and they can remain blind to the unique perspective each film sheds on the life of Jesus and his relationship to modern moviegoers.

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