In celebration of Easter weekend, I thought I would give you my favorite religious movies, and believe me, they are more than wide-ranging. Even though I have come to be weary of all religion, my own included, how can we not love a good religious epic from the 50’s and 60’s, the decades that spawned some of the best? If only for some good action scenes and maybe some inspiration, religious movies have a place in cinematic history, and below are my favorites, in no particular order.
The cast of Monty Python in "The Life of Brian".
Life of Brian
(1979; Directed by Terry Jones) Some call it blasphemous, I call it absolute genius. A true man of religion should be able to step back and make fun of himself every now and then, and this Monty Python spectacle, to which they actually received death threats, does an excellent job at that. Paralleling the life of Jesus Christ with a man named Brian, who is mistakenly thought of to be the messiah, and actually crucified in his stead, this film mocks anything and everything to do with religion. Okay, so the final “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” scene may have overdone it, but this is still a great film that should be enjoyed by all, fanatics aside. The only movie this team of British comedians did better was Holy Grail, but somehow, that does not leave a lasting impression like this one does. And of course, do not forget, “Blessed are the cheese-makers!”. 7/10 stars.
The Ten Commandments
(1956; Directed by Cecil B. DeMille) In a world where television does not accommodate religious themed movies, this epic film finds a way to be screened annually on ABC every Easter Saturday. Not many films from that time period age well, but this is an exception. Aside from Charlton Heston being one of my favorite actors, and Yul Brynner nailing the role of Ramses, the supporting cast of this film is even better. Vincent Price, who I always thought of as typecast, was able to morph his horror/science fiction personality into the role of Baka, while Edward G. Robinson is absolutely superb in the role of Dathan, the slave overseer. And one still cannot watch the parting of the Red Sea scene without wide eyes, even more than fifty years later. 8/10 stars.
(1959; Directed by William Wyler) This film is not one of my favorite religious movies of all time. It is one of my favorite any movies of all time. Period. In the dictionary, next to the term “epic”, you would expect to see this film’s poster. Winning 11 Oscars, this film has everything you could ever want—outstanding performances, breathtaking scenery, and of course, first-class action by way of a naval battle and one of the most exciting scenes ever filmed, the famous chariot race. This film also indirectly follows the life of Jesus through the life of Ben-Hur, as they cross paths several times, including at the crucifixion. The one thing about this movie that always stood out is the fact that the audience never sees Jesus’ face. It is either a shot from the back or from the front at a distance. This was done by the director intentionally, so that the audience could have in their own minds what Jesus looks like, and Wyler felt that he could not do it justice by personifying him. The same thing went for when this was a play, before the film was made—the character of Jesus was represented by a beam of light, that shone down on the stage. 9/10 stars.
John Wayne (right) as a centurion, watches over Jesus played by Max Von Sydow.
The Greatest Story Ever Told
(1965; Directed by George Stevens) I always loved this movie, despite what most of the critics said, who ripped it apart when it first came out. I do understand their concerns, because one is pretty much spot on, and that is the director taking every big name actor he could find, and stuffing them into this movie in some way. That includes John Wayne, whose Midwestern drawl nearly ruins the climactic scene in the film, when Jesus dies on the cross. Nevertheless, if you can get past that, you can see what a beautiful movie this is. Max Von Sydow does an excellent job as Jesus, and gets plenty of supporting help from the likes of Charlton Heston (again!) as John the Baptist, Claude Rains as King Herod, Telly Savalas as Pilate, Sidney Poitier as Symon, and Donald Pleasance as Satan—you could make a who’s who guessing game out of a viewing of this movie. The music is also very good, and for years, I wondered what music was playing as Jesus was carrying his cross through the streets. I searched all over the place, even for the soundtrack of this film, and found nothing. Then one night, I was listening to Verdi’s Requiem, and sure enough, that was it (the opening Kyrie movement)—a truly haunting and appropriate piece 0f music. Every year, I try to watch this film on Good Friday, or at least the ending. That’s my tradition. 8/10 stars.
The Passion of the Christ
(2004; Directed by Mel Gibson) Say what you want about Gibson’s politics and his overuse of violence in this film, but it is still one of the most accurate movies ever made having to do with Jesus. Though I must admit, when I first saw this when I was 13, I was sick to my stomach and never wanted to watch it again. But then I rented it a few years later, and developed an appreciation for it. James Caviezel breathes a breath of fresh air into the Jesus character, as finally we have someone who comes close to looking like him. He is very tan, has long, dark brown hair, and digitized brown eyes—a far cry from the blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus that early Hollywood liked to show off. What gets my attention in this movie is not the endless scourging scene, one that makes you want to get up and leave the room, but the opening scene of the agony in the garden. There is such an intensity to this quiet, unassuming scene that gets the film started on the right foot. There is also one more, a little bit later on in the film, where Jesus flashbacks to himself building a table and talking with his mother, who he splashes water on as a joke. This is probably the most humanized Jesus has ever been shown. I only wish we could have seen more of that instead of the violence. 8/10 stars.
Having never acted before, Enrique Irazoqui gives one of the best Jesus performances ever.
The Gospel According to St. Matthew
(1964; Directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini) Out of all the films on this list, this is probably the only one where you are going, “I never heard of it.” Filmed in Italian by the legendary and controversial Pasolini, who gave us shocking and depraved films such as Salo, this is probably the most down-to-earth film about Jesus that you will ever see. Filmed using a massive cast of locals and people who had never acted a day in their lives, Pasolini is able to accomplish sheer brilliance. Jesus, played by Enrique Irazoqui, for the first time, is seen as a simple man and not an all-knowing robot. The dialogue is taken directly out of the King James version of the bible, which can lead to some boring lapses over the stretch of this two-hour plus film, but if you can get past the sermon on the mount scene, you are in for a treat. Pasolini even cast his own mother as Mary, because he loved her so much that he equated her to such a high level of standing. Over the years, the Vatican has gone out of their way to support this movie, citing how spiritual it is. At the end, you will sit in amazement at how beautiful a film this is. Then you can amaze yourself further when you learn that Pasolini was actually an atheist. 8/10 stars.
Kingdom of Heaven
(2005; Directed by Ridley Scott) The only film to crack this list where Jesus is not a character, though he is the focal point of the story. Set more than a thousand years after his death, in the middle of the Crusades, we have a fantastic film that examines the life of Templar knights and their allegiance to their religion…and their own conscience. The reason why this film does make the list is because it aligns with my ever-changing view-point of religion. Throughout the film, we are showed these God-fearing knights doing un-Godly things, such as murder, and how those around them react. Balian, played by Orlando Bloom, struggles with his inner longing of wanting to be the perfect knight. In a world where we are surrounded by religious fanaticism, both Christian and Muslim, this is an important film to see. My favorite quotes comes from Hospitaler, played by David Thewlis, when he says, “I put no stock in religion. By the word religion I have seen the lunacy of fanatics of every denomination be called the will of god. I have seen too much religion in the eyes of too many murderers. Holiness is in right action, and courage on behalf of those who cannot defend themselves, and goodness.” Sound familiar? We also have a star-studded cast that includes Liam Neeson, Jeremy Irons, and Ed Norton. The cinematography and battle scenes are some of the best, and along with the theme of Bloom’s character just wanting to do good for God, even if it means going against his own religion, will really hit home with many viewers. It also tries very hard to show how Christians and Muslims can coexist in peace after all. Perhaps someday, that will be more than just wishful thinking. 10/10 stars.
As an honorable mention, I will throw in the Franco Zeffirelli mini-series “Jesus of Nazareth” as well. I remember the days when the History Channel used to play it every Saturday before Easter, but those days are long-gone. I hope everyone here has a very Happy Easter!