The Biblical epic appears to be back in a big way. Not only has Mary Magdalene hit UK cinemas just in time for Easter, 2018’s offerings also include the recently released Paul, Apostle of Christ (which rather confusingly features ex-Jesus Jim Caviezel as his pal Luke) and the upcoming Pontius Pilate, starring Eric Roberts.
Religion can make for contentious filmmaking: too earnest and the movie feels sanctimonious and dull, too irreverent and you risk making “a holocaust movie that has the power to destroy souls eternally” as a nun once told Martin Scorsese, who directed 1988’s The Last Temptation of Christ. Here are the top 25 movies about the man we can thank for the enormous amount of chocolate we eat at various intervals throughout the year:
25. Gospel Road: A Story Of Jesus (1973)
An enthusiastic convert to Christianity, Johnny Cash dug into his own pockets to make this film on location in Israel. He appears as narrator and his songs provide the soundtrack. The relatively low budget forced some creative solutions to certain scenes: Jesus is never surrounded by crowds, but instead sound effects are used along with the music to produce the right atmosphere. Cash’s wife, fellow singer June Carter, plays Mary Magdalene (and is the only actor with lines).
Director Robert Elfstrom also doubled up as the lead. While we now ridicule the image of a light-haired, blue-eyed Jesus, it was de rigueur in 1973, and Elfstrom is so Caucasian he’s positively Nordic. It’s not the greatest film on the life of Jesus, but the addition of jaunty country music makes it enjoyably original.
24. The Passover Plot (1976)
While The Da Vinci Code popularized the theory that Jesus was married, another conspiracy had emerged decades earlier: what if Jesus “came back to life” because he’d never really died? Based on a 1965 bestseller, the plot centers on a drug which can simulate the appearance of death. Despite his disciples’ warnings of “rusty nails and splintered bones,” Jesus is determined to fulfill the prophecy of a Messiah who rises from the dead. It seems a bit risky to me, but then I’ve always found the most haunting horror films are the ones where pranks go wrong.
There are some interesting re-interpretations (Jesus causing a ruckus in the temple as a pre-meditated strike rather than a genuine overflow of indignation, Judas being a friend of Barrabas and trying to combine all the rebels for maximum impact) but the film itself could have done with more polish. (And better casting – John the Baptist is weirdly elderly.) Jesus preaches in the screechy manner of an angry TV evangelist, his message of love at odds with his mean little face. (Sorry, Zalman King.)
23. The Messiah (2007)
Even Iranian Muslim Jesus can’t escape being blonde. Played by Ahmad Soleimani Nia, this is Jesus’ story told from the Islamic perspective. Using stories from the Qur’an and the non-Biblical Gospel of Barnabas, we still get the virgin birth and various miracles, but this time we have an alternative ending where Jesus isn’t crucified. Instead, he is saved from his fate by God, and the unfortunate Judas finds himself changing “amazingly in face and speech to be like Jesus” just in time for the Romans to arrest him. It may not have the highest production values, but it’s certainly a version of the story I haven’t seen on screen before.
Not to be confused with Il Messia (1975), the last film Roberto Rossellini directed and a more conventional take on Jesus (played by the lovely Pier Maria Rossi).
22. The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)
AKA the longest story ever told. This is your bona fide old school, all-star Biblical epic. The good news: while there are plenty of the kind of polystyrene studio sets you’ve come to know and love from 1960s movies, there are also some stunning sweeping shots of the (mostly Utah) landscape and beautiful lighting.
The bad news? Jesus is a bit awkward. Blessed with a spectacularly nerdy (or perhaps hipster?) haircut, he talks in the kind of slow, sonorous tones that suggest Max von Sydow is trying his best to be reverent. Unfortunately, the whole effect is rather monotone and lifeless. The rest of the cast has more spark. My favorite moment is Herod’s inadvertently modern response of “Get out!” when told of miracles. With a star-studded cast, including Charlton Heston, Sidney Poitier, and John Wayne, it’s a must for movie buffs with long attention spans.
21. The Gospel of Us (2012)
Michael Sheen returns to his motherland in this ambitious project: an updated passion play filmed in three days in the streets (and beaches) of Port Talbot over Easter 2011. He’s the “teacher” – a man who pops up on a beach, is baptized (read: dunked under the waves without preamble), and gathers quite a following, despite not being able to remember who he is. The area has been taken over by a company called ICU who become increasingly aggressive towards the man leading the town into rebellion and telling the authorities “I make you unnecessary.”
Surreal at times, slow-moving, and revelling in the atmosphere of a small town, it’s an avant-garde film that won’t be for everyone, but it has moments of great charm – not least Jesus with a strong Welsh accent referring to the weather as “bootiful.”
20. The Jesus Film (1979)
Early films about Jesus (such as 1935’s Golgotha) tended to show him from a respectful distance, with a serious poker face at all times. The Jesus Film was one of the first to break this mold. Brian Deacon (wearing a prosthetic nose) is a well-spoken Jesus with a jolly side, laughing heartily as his newly converted tax collector friend digs out his secret stash of cash to pay back all the people he’s cheated.
Visually, it’s bright and fresh. Despite being almost 40 years old it looks as if it could have been shot yesterday. It’s also one of the more culturally accurate films. For instance, the Last Supper takes place on the floor as nature intended rather than being staged like Leonardo’s painting. It’s been translated into over 1000 languages with hundreds more on the way, making it the most translated film in history.
19. The Greatest Story Overtold/The Divine Mr. J /The Thorn (1971/1974)
It’s generally not a great sign when a film has multiple names and release dates, but if you like (low-budget) irreverent comedies, this will be right up your street. Bette Midler is a stereotypical Jewish mother in her first major role – which she later tried to distance herself from, calling it “dreadful.” (Unfortunately for her, it was ingeniously re-named after her Divine Miss M album.)
The movie depicts John the Baptist as a flasher in a mac, Joseph as an unsuccessful inventor, and Mary as particularly keen for her son to turn more water into wine. The tone of the film can be summed up by Herod “Antipasto” suggesting that everyone should go to their hometown to be taxed so they’ll all be home “before Christmas.”
Religion-based satire was on the increase: 1980 saw the release of Wholly Moses with Dudley Moore, and Marty Feldman’s In God We Trust (or Gimme That Prime Time Religion). And who could forget the Catholic church’s new icon, “Buddy Christ” in Dogma (1999)?
18. The Visual Bible: The Gospel of John (2003)
Unrelated to The Visual Bible: Matthew/Acts production, this features narration by Christopher Plummer and Henry Ian Cusick as a boyish Jesus. (The casting of a handsome young dude as the messiah was also used in 2014’s rather wooden Son of God, which received some hilariously scathing reviews despite starring “Hot Jesus” Diogo Morgado.)
Basing the movie on the gospel of John means that we get to see some rarely filmed sequences, such as Jesus washing his disciples’ feet (often cut in favor of more bellydancing from Salome). Scripture which is sparse on detail can be interpreted imaginatively, but there is a downside to sticking closely to the source material: it’s difficult to film scenes with the narration “then he breathed on them” without slipping into farce.
17. Histoire de Judas / Story of Judas (2015)
French-Algerian filmmaker Rabah Ameur-Zaimeche stars as Judas as well as writing, producing, and directing this glossy French production. His Judas is portrayed not as a miserly backstabber, but as the best friend a chap could have. It’s a revelation that will surprise you if you’ve literally never seen a film about Jesus before, as Judas being a misunderstood good guy isn’t exactly a new trope.
In this slightly far-fetched take on the story, the maligned disciple is the victim of a vengeful scribe. However, the film is visually stunning, with ancient ruins and desert scenes galore – and Nabil Djedouani is a thoughtful, understated Jesus.
16. Jesus – The Film (1986)
German filmmaker Michael Brynntrup created the concept of the production as well as playing Jesus in this bonkers re-telling of his life, which promises, “Whoever sees this film will be saved!”
Shot in black and white, it’s made up of 35 parts, with contributions from 22 different filmmakers. Each director was given only the details of the shot immediately preceding his segment. In the manner of a silly party game, they could then allow their imaginations to go wild to create the next part of the story. It’s a fairly loose, quirky interpretation. For instance, we start by learning Jesus is a twin. (Joseph to the wise men: “You take the little one and we’ll keep the big one.”)
In a somewhat similar vein, satirical black comedy De Mantel Der Liefde (directed by Adriaan Ditvvorst in 1978) is also broken up into segments, each based on people failing to follow one of the ten commandments.
15. Pilate and Others (1972)
Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita has three interwoven stories: Satan, disguised as a smooth-talking magician in 1930s Moscow, infiltrates the world of rich cynics. Pontius Pilate struggles with his conscience during the trial of Jesus. In Russia, Margarita is determined to save her lover (a frustrated writer) from his own despair. With me so far?
Pilate and Others is focused only on the Biblical part of the story but adds an extra twist: the setting is now modern day Germany. Pilate believes Jesus is an innocent man (albeit a mad philosopher), but is that enough to save him?
The Biblical section is also retold in Incident in Judea (1992) while The Master and Margarita has been filmed several times, including shorts, animations and TV series.
14. The Passion of the Christ (2004)
Different films focus on different aspects of Jesus’ life, and this one sets itself squarely on his physical suffering. There are moments of lightness scattered throughout the film, but for most of the 127-minute duration, we simply watch Jim Caviezel getting beaten to a pulp and then crucified. The violence lets up occasionally for creepy visions of an androgynous Satan.
At the time, Mel Gibson was seen merely as a simple-minded action star rather than an anti-Semitic loon, and cynics ridiculed the idea of him making a biopic of Jesus in the original Aramaic, Latin, and Hebrew. Who wants to watch that? Er… lots of people, apparently. (To date, it’s the highest grossing R-rated film in the US.)
Caviezel has confirmed that he will be reprising his role as Jesus in a sequel. Mel Gibson has suggested that The Resurrection will explore what Jesus got up to while he was dead, featuring “another realm.” Gosh!
13. La Voie Lactée/The Milky Way (1969)
Director Luis Buñuel, known as the father of cinematic surrealism, was raised with a strict Jesuit education, resulting in a lifelong obsession with God and the means to create some memorably wacky movies. The Milky Way mixes the story of two traveling hobos with various characters who discuss religious philosophy.
Of course, Jesus and his mother both make frequent appearances, providing absurdly hilarious moments. She recommends he doesn’t shave (“You look much better with your beard”) and we also get to see that so rarely filmed moment in the scriptures when Jesus heals a blind man by spitting in his eyes.
If you fancy a less deep and meaningful but equally zany film, preferably one that looks like the effort of students, try Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter (2001) or Ultrachrist! (2003).
12. King of Kings (1961)
Not to be confused with Cecil B. DeMille’s silent classic The King of Kings (1927), this lavish production is perhaps the quintessential Biblical epic, full of amazing sets, costumes, and battle scenes. Jesus barely gets a look in for much of the film – approximately two minutes is devoted to his healing people (often by casting a shadow on them or fixing them with a piercing stare) and he preaches once or twice.
But what the film lacks in religious devotion it makes up for in entertainment: Herod’s wife and step-daughter, for instance, are so deliciously evil it’s not surprising they get quite an unnecessary amount of screen time. We also get a new theory for why Judas betrays Jesus – under pressure to produce a rebel leader who does more than pray in the temple, he decides to force Jesus’ hand and have him arrested in the hope that this will spark a Carrie-style rampage.
11. Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979)
Inspired by Eric Idle’s sarcastic suggestion of naming their next film Jesus Christ – Lust for Glory, the Monty Pythons saw the comic potential of first-century Judea. Brian (Graham Chapman) happens to be born at the same time as Jesus and accidentally acquires a sheep-like following.
The Pythons insisted they were lampooning organized religion, not Jesus himself. Idle explained, “What he’s saying isn’t mockable, it’s very decent stuff.” The sermon on the mount may be subject to mishearings (“Blessed are the cheesemakers?”) but Jesus is also credited with healing a leper (who’s now ungrateful because he’s lost his begging livelihood).
There’s some fairly dark humor around the practice of public executions, and the controversial religious satire was banned for decades in some parts of the world. However, it’s worth seeing just for John Cleese playing a Roman version of Basil Fawlty supervising a stoning (“Who threw that?!”) as well as forcing Brian to correct the Latin grammar in his graffiti.
10. Jesus of Nazareth (1977)
Providing the classic image of movie Jesus, Robert Powell was recommended for the role on the basis of those penetrating peepers, which were emphasized with a combination of white and dark-blue eyeliners. Director Franco Zeffirelli wanted a mystical stare, so Powell followed the non-blinking trend set by Max von Sydow. He was so convincing in the role that the crew allegedly stopped swearing when he wafted beatifically past in tea breaks.
Written by Anthony Burgess (of Clockwork Orange fame) and featuring an all-star cast (Anne Bancroft, Laurence Olivier, James Earl Jones, Peter Ustinov… you get the idea), the whole story is told in detail – as it was originally a six-hour mini-series, there’s plenty of time. As well as the usual sequences of patriarchal slut-shaming, it’s emphasized for once that Jesus’ male acquaintances would also have brought him into disrepute – being friends with a tax collector was NOT cool.
9. Risen (2016)
Risen has an enticing concept, seeing the crucifixion and its aftermath through the eyes of a Roman soldier. Clavius (Joseph Fiennes) is under strict orders from Pontius Pilate to make sure the Nazarene’s body is guarded so nobody can steal it and claim he has risen. Needless to say, it doesn’t go to plan.
It’s a fascinating insight into the reality of life and death in 33 AD, and there are some thriller-esque moments as Clavius hunts for the disciples and the missing body. The cinematography and Roman sets look amazing, and as one critic said, “It’s nice to finally see the Messiah portrayed by somebody who’d probably get extra attention at a U.S. airport by Homeland Security.”
Roman soldiers seeing the light has long been a theme in Hollywood movies such as The Robe (1953) and the 1987 film (and 2006 remake) The Inquiry.
8. Son of Man (2006)
Director Mark Dornford-May really ups the cuteness factor in this re-imagining of Jesus’ life, by casting children as the angels and shepherds and prolonging the scenes of Jesus as a toddler. The action has been transplanted to present-day South Africa, which works uncannily well. The immigration station which Mary and Joseph are summoned to is a bureaucratic nightmare, and there is a constant atmosphere of danger, against a backdrop of political unrest.
Grown-up Jesus preaches the importance of non-violent resistance, even when your country is occupied by a foreign government and, as he points out repeatedly, “you’re being lied to.” (When child labor laws are passed, medicine prices in the US and Europe are manipulated, and people just “disappear.”) This modern twist to his sermons doesn’t distract from the message of unity, but the community is put to the test by his death. It’s a unique film worth watching purely for the GLORIOUS soundtrack of traditional African singing.
7. Mary Magdalene (2018)
At long last, we have a film in which Mary Magdalene escapes the boring and predictable pitfalls of being mistaken for a prostitute, adulteress, or WAG. Refreshingly, she’s simply a follower of Jesus, just like the guys. Rooney Mara is luminous as a young woman whose kindness and strength is apparent from the start. Recoiling from the ordinariness of marriage and kids, she is instantly hooked when she meets the preacher all the locals are talking about and leaves her old life behind.
The film combines gorgeous cinematography with an earthy reality, from the costumes to the palpable sense of pressure on Judea’s most in-demand rabbi. Again, Judas is portrayed as a devoted disciple who just wants Jesus (Joaquin Phoenix) to stop wasting time and start leading their rebellion, and Peter and Mary’s famous rivalry comes to a head when they have very different views of Jesus’ legacy.
6. Godspell (1973)
John-Michael Tebelak wrote Godspell as his thesis in 1970. It was discovered by producers who hired Stephen Schwartz to compose a new score and the rest is history. With a Superman shirt and admirable afro, Victor Garber plays Jesus, who inspires various characters to leave behind their normal routines and re-discover a sparkly New York all of their own, in all manner of natty outfits.
With parables acted out with childlike enthusiasm by the players, and a catchy soundtrack, at first glance it looks like the kind of cheesy musical that you might enjoy as a child (but get embarrassed when you’re caught watching by your older brother and his friends and pretend you really weren’t that into it). It’s playful, silly, and goofy, but there’s something about the warmth and exuberance spilling out from the screen that makes this greater than the sum of its parts.
5. The Visual Bible: Matthew (1993)
Filming a book of the Bible word-for-word is a risky business, especially when it comes to those long lists of who fathered who. But this 1993 version of Matthew is MADE by the performance of Bruce Marchiano as Jesus. In contrast to the stern movie messiahs of yesteryear, he’s lovely and cuddly, and so determined to be smiley that he can barely wipe the grin off his face.
He beams while exorcising demons, he chuckles while preaching, he guffaws while standing under a waterfall. He and the disciples enjoy so much matey horseplay, I’m surprised they stop short of flicking each other with towels in the shower. However, Marchiano does bring the character to life in a way that few others have and makes the often-recited words sound natural and spontaneous.
The Gospel According to Matthew was also made by Pier Paolo Pasolini in 1964, proclaimed in the Vatican City newspaper as the “best film on Christ ever made.”
4. Jesus of Montreal (1989)
Biblical scholars will appreciate the sheer ingenuity of the way details (and jokes) from the gospels have been seamlessly squeezed into this moving, modern-day tale of an acting group in Quebec. Tasked with re-working a Passion play, Daniel (Lothaire Bluteau) gathers a group of actors, saving them from a life of seedy porn voiceovers and degrading commercials. His performance as Jesus is a hit, but the church is uncomfortable at some of the more unconventional slants they’ve given the story.
The theatre doubles as their place of worship. Daniel causes chaos when he’s outraged at the manipulation of young actors forced to strip off for a beer commercial, while his troupe is determined to start an idealistic new company. Growing in popularity, Daniel is told he could have the whole city at his feet if he would accept the opportunities offered to him… but with the authorities closing in, there’s danger his work could be brought to an abrupt end.
3. Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)
Beginning life as a rock opera concept album penned by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, the stage show hit Broadway in 1971. It’s been filmed several times: Rik Mayall featured as Herod in 2000, and the 2012 stage show starring Tim Minchin was also released on DVD. For my money, the original, with its striking desert location, is the best. Ted Neely makes a sympathetic Jesus, but it’s Carl Anderson as Judas who steals the show. While the dancing and costumes are so Pan’s People (a British all-female dance troupe from the ’60s and ’70s) it hurts (in a good way), the music has lost none of its dynamic power.
The post-crucifixion ending is intended to be ambiguous, but on viewing the footage, director Norman Jewison discovered the faint appearance of a shepherd walking near the empty cross and decided to use this serendipitous take for the closing shot.
It’s a show that never goes out of style, with John Legend appearing in a live US TV version for NBC this Easter along with Alice Cooper as Herod.
2. The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
“What would have happened if Jesus had bottled it?” is the basic premise of Nikos Kazantzakis’ 1955 novel, Hollywoodized by Catholic Martin Scorsese, fulfilling his lifelong ambition to make a movie about Jesus.
Despite a careful “this isn’t real” disclaimer at the beginning, the film’s infamy led to attacks on cinemas and many refused to show it, with several major video stores following suit. Apparently, depicting Jesus tempted by the thought of marriage was unforgivable. (Ironically.)
It’s a shame many people will avoid this film on principle because it’s fantastic, full of “I’d never thought of it like that” moments and a liveliness that makes well-worn Bible verses sound fresh. A thoughtful script and a wild-eyed performance from Willem Dafoe make it easy to imagine just how insane the Nazarene might have appeared.
Interestingly, it’s not the lure of sexual attraction that Dafoe’s Jesus is really focused on, but the simple pleasures of family life. Perhaps it’s the more insidious temptation. Who wouldn’t rather play with their kids than wrestle with the nature of their own divinity, fight the political system, and start a new religion? It’s an utterly compelling story of a man tortured by the conviction that God has a job for him that he doesn’t want.
1. The Miracle Maker (2000)
1990s TV shows Testament: The Bible in Animation and Shakespeare: The Animated Tales had already made stop-motion animation a popular choice for re-telling old stories. Here it was used to create a delightful film which achieves in 90 minutes what some rambling epics fail to do in several hours. The political atmosphere of the time is well-drawn and events are neatly summarized with a well-written screenplay packed full of parables and miracles.
We see events through the eyes of a young girl who has a miracle of her own at the hands of Jesus (voiced by Ralph Fiennes). She watches as the local carpenter becomes well-known for his spiritual teachings and the establishment grows wary of a potential political explosion.
For a children’s film, there’s an astonishing amount of intelligent insight into characters’ feelings and motivations. It’s also beautifully made, moving, and funny.
Book of Life (1999): It’s a bit rambly, but there are some great moments in Hal Hartley’s tale of Jesus having second thoughts about judgment day – and telling Satan “it’s not that you’re so despicable, it’s just that you’re so incredibly trite.”
Civilization (1915): One of the first times Jesus was portrayed on film, he appears to a submarine inventor to urge him to promote peace, not war.
The Young Messiah (2016): Unfortunately, showing Jesus as a child feels a tad Omen-ish, especially when he starts doing supernatural tricks. Based on Anne Rice’s novel Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, it does raise the interesting question of how much young Jesus understood of his place in the world.
Jesus (1999): Standard re-telling of the gospels, with Debra Messing as Mary Magdalene and Gary Oldman relishing his role as Pontius Pilate.
Last Days in the Desert (2015): Breathtakingly beautiful to look at, this is an alternative take on the 40 days Jesus (Ewan McGregor) spends in the wilderness. Unfortunately, it only sizzles when Satan (also McGregor) is on screen and picking fault with God’s methodology.