9 Actors Who Played Religious Figures in the Movies Best

9 Actors Who Played Religious Figures in the Movies Best December 6, 2023

Filmstrip graphic
Filmstrip graphic courtesy of Geralt on Pixaby.com

When I decided to write about 9 actors who played religious figures best, I immediately thought of two names, which I’ll share in a minute.  

Before I analyze all 9 performances, let me admit to a couple of prejudices. First, I don’t particularly enjoy biblical epics in which actors strut around in period costumes and make dramatic pronouncements like stone statues that have come to life. 

The other prejudice is my dislike of some of the newer faith-based, miracle-of-the-week movies. I’m talking about the ones that beat you over the head with their Christian message, have poor production values and need to send their actors to acting school. 

Which 9 Actors Did I Choose? 

9 Actors Who Played Religious Figures Best  

1. Robert Powell, “Jesus of Nazareth” (1977) 

Actor Rober Powell
Actor Robert Powell played the lead in Jesus of Nazareth. Image courtesy of Courtesy Smithsonian Channel.

The first actor who came to mind for my 9 actors article was Robert Powell, who played Christ in “Jesus of Nazareth,” a 4-part mini-series from 1977. The series begins with Christ’s birth and concludes with his resurrection. The Dove website said it “has become the standard which all other films on the life of Christ must be put up against…. Robert Powell gives what could be the defining performance of his acting career.” 

The role of Christ would be quite a challenge for any actor. How do you play God? Powell talked about preparing for the role. “(Director) Franco Zeffirelli and I originally thought that we could combine the divine Christ with the human one and that we would be able to show the human side of him, but we discovered that it was just not possible,” Powell said.  

He explained that when he tried to portray Christ as a real person, he lost the essence of Christ’s divinity. I have no idea how anyone would go about finding that essence, but Powell’s performance is as close as I’ve seen.  

His Christ feels real in terms of the power and gentleness he projects, and his voice is mesmerizing at times. There was no need for the brutal violence that was present in more recent movies about Christ. I know that crucifixion was a horrible way to die, but I don’t want to see it. I would rather focus on Christ’s message, and Powell does that beautifully.

2. Renee Jeanne Falconetti, “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (1928) 

Joan of Arc movie poster from 1927
Motion picture poster for The Passion of Joan of Arc directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, with Renée Jeanne Falconetti (pictured) and Antonin Artaud, produced in France in 1927 and first shown in Copenhagen in 1928. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The second name that came to mind was Jeanne Falconetti, who may have been featured on TCM a few years ago. What can I say except that Falconetti’s eyes tell you everything you need to know? The “Passion” was one of the last silent movies made before talkies became the rage, but you don’t need sound for this movie. I’ve never seen anyone who had a more expressive face than this actress did. 

Director Carl T. Dryer used her face to excellent advantage in “Passion.” Closeups, which are now a staple of movie productions, were quite new in 1928 – so new, in fact, that Dryer was one of the first directors in history to use them. And use them he did.  

“Falconetti’s face, lunar in its radiant complexity, holds multiple truths at once – there’s anguish in her eyes but peace in her soul,” according to “Time” magazine. “Impossible to watch casually.” In fact, it’s heartbreaking and an amazing performance. 

That’s why she’s on my list of 9 actors who played religious figures best. 

Joan of Arc, who became the patron saint of France, was burned at the stake because she believed she heard the voices of Saint Michael, Saint Catherine and Saint Margaret. They were telling her from an early age to help France’s crown prince defeat the English in the Hundred Year War, which she did. 

Unfortunately, she was captured, sold to the English and turned over to a court controlled by English sympathizers. She was put on trial and ultimately executed for insisting the voices she heard were divine. 

3. Jimmy Stewart, “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946) 

James Stewart It's a Wonderful Life Still
James Stewart in American Christmas fantasy drama film en:It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

It’s a wonderful story, a wonderful movie and a wonderful performance by Jimmy Stewart. It’s also a corny sentence, but I’m allowed now and then.  

“It’s a Wonderful Life” was never marketed as a religious movie, though it features a guardian angel in a nightgown named Clarence. Clarence is sent to earth to help George Bailey, Stewart’s character, through a life-altering crisis. 

George is at the point of suicide and wishes he had never been born when Clarence enters his life. The rather scruffy angel grants his wish. So, George was never born. Now what?

His hometown, Bedford Falls, is much worse for his absence. Everyone in this new reality has a darker personality, including his real-world wife Mary. In this alternate universe, she’s the epitome of an old maid. I really doubt that the vivacious Mary would have become a frightened and timid old maid without George, but that’s beside the point.  

Other characters are either dead, institutionalized or imprisoned because George was never born. Our hero finally decides he’s seen enough, and Clarence restores him to his real life. And George is grateful for it.

I’ve seen several movies based on “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and they don’t measure up to the original because they don’t have Jimmy Stewart and director Frank Capra to give them life. Stewart brightens up the screen whenever he appears. 

As I mentioned, “It’s a Wonderful Life” isn’t a traditional religious movie, but there’s a religious study guide associated with the movie, and my Sunday School plans to use it in a special class during the Christmas season. It has scripture references, character studies and related commentary. I look forward to it.

4. Ian McKellen, “Lord of the Rings” trilogy (2001)  

Actor Ian McKellen
Actor Ian McKellen /image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

“Lord of the Rings” is “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work,” according to its author J.R.R. Tolkien. The author’s Middle Earth is a place where good battles evil and characters are transformed. 

Ian McKellen plays a powerful wizard named Gandalf the Grey, who is killed and returns after being transformed into Gandalf the White, which is reminiscent of Christ’s resurrection according to some scholars. 

McKellen commands your attention when he whenever he appears on screen. He gives Gandalf great depth and is equally convincing whether the wizard is being the fierce warrior battling Christopher Lee’s evil Saruman or the gentle friend of the Hobbits.  

The battle scenes are spectacular, but the moments I most remember most are those in which Gandalf has a twinkle in his eyes. McKellen is considered one of the greatest actors in the world, and after seeing the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, I can understand why. 

5. Ben Kingsley, “Gandhi” (1982) 

Ben Kingsley
Ben Kingsley Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

There are rarely times in a movie when an actor blurs the line between fact and fiction. I forget I’m watching an actor’s representation of a real person and feel as if I’m seeing the real person. It happened when I saw “Patton” starring George C. Scott and again with Ben Kingsley as Gandhi.   

During the course of the movie, Kingsley ages 50 years, going from an ordinary young lawyer to the aging moral leader known around the world. And he’s believable from beginning to end. His performance has a quiet power that’s never overly theatrical. It seems real, and I like it. 

“Variety” called the movie “near perfect,” and the “Austin Chronicle” said it “captures the spirit of the man and his struggles.” I think it does. 

6 & 7.  Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner (tie), “The Ten Commandments” (1956) 

Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments film trailer
Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments film trailer. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Yul Brynner in The Ten Commandments film trailer
Yul Brynner in The Ten Commandments film trailer. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

“The Ten Commandments” is the epic of all epic movies, with huge sets and equally huge theatrical performances. In other words, it’s everything I said I don’t like in a movie. But I’m making an exception in this case because of Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner.  

I don’t particularly like Heston because of his ties to the National Rifle Association, but even I must admit his performance as Moses in “The Ten Commandments” is masterful. And Brynner’s pharaoh is equally commanding. That’s the reason I gave them a tie in my list of 9 actors who played religious figures best. 

Heston still comes to mind when I think about Moses, but I especially like Brynner because he gives pharaoh the presence, charisma and power that I imagine the real Rameses must have had.

8. Karen Abercrombie, “War Room” (2015)

“War Room” has been slammed by critics as one-dimensional, which is true, but one actress stands out – Karen Abercrombie as Aunt Clara. 

Abercrombie is several decades younger than the 80-something character she plays, but she delves into her role so well that you forget that fact. She puts the zip into Aunt Clara’s step, life into her soul and passion into her heart. The movie would have fallen flat without her. 

To be able to dive into a character that is different from you in respect with her age … I had to go deep, get deep, get out of God’s way and allow Him to use me as He wanted to,” Abercrombie told an interviewer. “And it was one of the most amazing experiences I have had in my life, and certainly as an actress.” 

Her performance stands out given the fact that her co-stars aren’t seasoned actors. Priscilla Shirer, who plays a woman in a troubled marriage, is the leader of a worldwide Christian ministry, tours the U.S. and abroad as a speaker, and writes. T.C. Stallings, who plays her husband, is an athlete turned actor who has appeared in several television shows and movies and advocates for wholesome entertainment.  

Abercrombie and her costars will never win any Oscars for “War Room,” but I’m thankful that someone is making movies that are suitable for the entire family. And she’s certainly the bright spot in “War Room.”

9. Liam Neeson, “Schindler’s List” (1993)

Liam Neeson at the Deauville film festival
Liam Neeson at the Deauville Film Festival. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

“Schindler’s List” isn’t about religion in the usual sense of the word, but religion is at its heart because religious hatred fueled the Holocaust. In the film, Liam Neeson brilliantly plays Oskar Schindler, who was a real person – a wealthy businessman and womanizing Nazi whose initial interest was making money when World War II ignited.  

But when he began to see the horrors inflicted on Jews and other “undesirable” people, he used his wealth, contacts and factory jobs to save more than 1,000 Jews from Hitler’s death camps. He wasn’t a religious character, but he was an important figure in saving lives during the attempted annihilation of an entire religious group. 

“Schindler’s List” should rank as one of the greatest movies in film history. There are no words to adequately describe the hell it depicts. Even Spielberg reportedly had difficulty watching some of the scenes. 

Neeson is unforgettable as a nominal Nazi going against the Nazi regime and saving lives. He makes the Holocaust real and personal. His Schindler shows us a dandy and sinner who rises to greatness despite himself, and he leaves you emotionally drained in the process. 

However, I cannot forget to mention the performances of Ben Kingsley as Schindler’s accountant and chief aide who helps him save lives, and in a chilling performance, Ralph Fiennes as the cold-blooded commandant of the Krakow-Plaszow concentration camp in Poland during World War II.  All three actors should be included in my list of actors who played religious figures best. 

If you don’t know much about World War II, you need to see this movie or watch films that Allied armies shot when they liberated the concentration camps. It’s reported that the tougher-than-tough American general George Patton vomited when he inspected one of the camps. 

People said “never again” when word of the Holocaust spread at the end of World War II. Those people aren’t here to ensure that such systemic evil never again becomes the norm, but we are. 

One reviewer of “Schindler’s List” said, “I think that everyone should see this film at some time. Then sit down and think about what is being done to people here in our own country.” That parallels between then and now are frightening.


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