Ranking the Jesus Films

Pasolini (seated) on the set of THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO SAINT MATTHEW, prior to filming John's baptizing of Jesus.
Pasolini (seated) on the set of THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO SAINT MATTHEW, prior to filming John’s baptizing of Jesus.

It bothers me that Jesus has never once been portrayed actually looking like the real Jesus would have looked like two-thousand years ago. In every major Hollywood and otherwise film, we see a white man with white disciples preaching to white crowds. He would not have had light skin and flowing light-brown hair, and certainly would not have had blue eyes, Jeffrey. Jesus would have been dark-skinned—or very tan, to say the least—with dark hair, and would have been short, probably barely five-feet tall. His followers would have looked the same. Just take a look at what Arabic and Middle Eastern people look like today, and you would find what the majority of characters in the Jesus story looked like. It is also irksome that Jesus has never been performed by a Jewish actor, and from a storytelling point of view, not once have we seen a secular characterization of him as strictly a social and political revolutionary, not a religious figure. In this daring and politically correct world we live in, we can surmise that one or all three of these gripes will inevitably be fulfilled. That said, there certainly have been enough biblical films over the years to find some good ones, and for this essay, I chose to stay strictly to the ones about Jesus. Forgive me if there are any not on the list, and I did choose to go with films only in the sound era:

6. The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965; Dir. George Stevens)

It contains some of the worst casting decisions and acting performances ever put to film. Mother Mary and Jesus (Max Von Sydow) himself walk around pronouncing his name as “Jee-zus”. Every marquee actor under the sun was thrown into this movie, in any role that was left, and it shows profoundly. Any movie that contains Rooster Cogburn, Dr. Loomis, Kojak, Jessica Fletcher, The Invisible Man, Cornelius, and Illya Kuryakin might consider its production troubled. The only actor not out of place is Charlton Heston for, well, obvious reasons. Yet, there is something still worth watching about this film. The Who’s Who of terrible famous actors makes this a fun one to watch. Also, coupled with John Huston’s The Bible: In the Beginning, this is one of the last true, big-budget biblical epics to come out of Hollywood’s Golden Age. The story is told with a sense of grandeur, and there are indeed some decent performances. The sets are magnificent, and although Jesus seems robotic at times, Von Sydow does deliver a sincere performance.

5. The Passion of the Christ (2004; Dir. Mel Gibson)

This is a film that should be higher on the list, but it is not for a few very simple reasons. While it is certainly the most well-crafted of the bunch, filled with fine acting performances, authentic language, wonderful sets, and stunning cinematography, that does not come without the obvious and apparent controversy. The Passion of the Christ is indeed a good movie, but my feelings on it are mixed. What started out as Mel Gibson’s project to attempt to show the world how much Jesus suffered in his final hours quickly became one of who inflicted the suffering. The flogging scene midway through the film drags on forever, and is so overly violent that one wonders why no one in the editing room said, “Hey Mel, you think we can cut a few shots here and there?” It might be the most violent scene in movie history, in one of the most graphically violent films ever made not calling horror its genre. The fetish-like sadomasochism present during this scene, and at every turn where Jesus (James Caviezel) is repeatedly beaten, punched, kicked, lashed, and smacked, before finally being crucified is unnerving and begs one to ask the motivations of including such violence. The problem becomes exacerbated, when, every step of the way, the Jewish high priests look on; portrayed as a horde of demonic, subhuman animals, who take a vampiric reveling at each spilled drop of Jesus’ blood. This is a film where Jesus is singled out, and the Jews take such a specific pleasure in seeing him tortured and beaten to within an inch of his life again and again. Whether you want to call it antisemitism or just bad history, it is a common mistake among people today who believed such focus was given to Jesus, and such a widespread demand for his death was called. At the time, Jesus would have been the latest in a string of troublemakers and revolutionaries who drew the ire from the Roman Empire. He was just another prophet, messiah, or deliverer. Just another criminal in the eyes of the Roman government in Judea and the Jewish high priests who had dealt with such people many times before. Oh yes, Jesus would have been mocked and beaten by very cruel and senseless Roman soldiers who wanted to be stationed anywhere else except where they were, but to think they would have went out of their way to flog him in the way they did in this movie, and that the high priests would have not rested until such a man was so gruesomely dealt with is, quite frankly, very asinine.

4. King of Kings (1961; Dir. Nicholas Ray)

Putting aside all the “I Wish I Was a Teenage Jesus” jokes, and how exactly did someone such as Jeffrey Hunter land the role he did, King of Kings is no joke of a movie. It actually does something that nearly every one of these movies fails to do, and that is provide ample back-story behind some of the characters who enter the Jesus story in only minor ways. The very violent beginning of this film depicts the slaughter of innocents after the nativity, but also goes into detail about a rebellious man attempting to start a revolution against the Roman Army, named Barrabas, and the commander attempting to crush it, Pontius Pilate. It is a very clever and interesting subplot that intertwines throughout the entire movie. The main characters, perhaps unintentionally, become Barabbas, Pilate and his assistant Lucius, and even Judas. The political undertones to the inquiry, arrest, and execution of Jesus are strongly noted. He is almost a supporting character in his own film. He does not give endless sermons that become redundant like in other depictions. Aside from the Sermon on the Mount, his acting and dialogue are quite succinct. This movie manages to also feel a bit more personal than the other ones which usually gloss over the story without getting too close to the people in it, an example being the scene where Jesus visits John the Baptist in prison. The characters are human, and although license is taken many times, this becomes highly enjoyable for that reason. Hunter plays Jesus with strength and sincerity, even though you can tell he looks a bit out of place. The obvious and most direct comparison for this film would be the one above, and this one is so much better.

3. The Gospel According to Saint Matthew (1964; Dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini)

This is, without a doubt, the most honest and no-frills production ever made about the life of Jesus (Enrique Irazoqui). It is one so sincere that the same Vatican who had Pasolini imprisoned just years before for making an offensive film about Jesus was quick to hail this film as one of the greatest, and publicly thank him for his efforts. Pasolini was an atheist, so perhaps he approached the story with impartiality, wanting Jesus and his disciples to be as real as possible. To further advance this notion of impartiality, the dialogue in this film is entirely straight out of the bible. Every word out of the mouth of Jesus, every direction the film takes, is guided by the book, and not the director’s creative vision. However, there is an underlying creativity here, as this is the most politically and socially rebellious Jesus that we see, in the way he is depicted. The ardently socialist director chose the Book of Matthew because he felt it was the most Marxist of all the gospels. While the portrayal is very spiritual, it is also a political one, where we see a more dejected Jesus who holds bitter feelings towards his capitalist and imperialist Roman colonizers. The entire cast, including the lead role, contains no professional actors with previous experience. Mary was portrayed by Pasolini’s own mother, out of his sheer love and affection for her. The sets and costumes are simplistic, yet the natural beauty of rural Italy where it was filmed provides a surprisingly well-executed setting for Judea. The film can drag on at times, due to the straight recitation of dialogue coming from the bible, but this project is a true masterpiece in every sense of the word.

2. The Last Temptation of Christ (1988; Dir. Martin Scorcese)

More controversial than The Passion of the Christ? Oh, most definitely. This was a film that dared to portray the human side of Jesus (Willem DaFoe), by having him presented with one last temptation before dying on the cross: the chance for him to turn away from his God-given mission, and live a normal life with Mary Magdalene, who would eventually become his wife. He would live a long life with many children and friends, before realizing the errors of his ways, and suffer psychologically because of that. The people who attacked this film for including such a shocking subplot are ones who probably never even watched it, because if they did, they would realize that such scenes are not presented as fact within the film, but as an alternate reality, where Jesus contemplates what could happen if he changes his mind. Not once does he turn his back on God. Not once is this film ever close to blasphemy. The Last Temptation of Christ tapped into the human side of Jesus, a side which filmmakers rarely attempt. Movie theaters were bombed, threats were made, and for what? Because simple minds did not want to think critically about an excellent project and story idea. In the end, Jesus dies on the cross, with contentment on his face that he has fulfilled his mission from God. But I am sure that no one who ever attacked this film made it that far. If you can get past Harvey Keitel as a red-haired Judas and David Bowie as Pontius Pilate, you will recognize this to be one of the strongest Jesus films ever made.

1. Ben-Hur (1959; Dir. William Wyler)

How can a 212-minute film where Jesus is on-screen for less than 10 of those minutes be the best film about him ever made? That is because Ben-Hur manages to craft such an incredible story about two friends-turned-enemies with the life and times of Jesus set as the backdrop, not the forefront. It manages to become the Jesus story without him even being a central character. The plot is well known: a Jewish prince named Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) who was once best friends with a Roman soldier (Stephen Boyd) become hated rivals of each other, where Ben-Hur is sentenced to work in the galleys never to return by his one-time best friend. The story is his trials and tribulations as he makes his way back home. Before we get to that story, we are presented with a very dramatic nativity scene where Jesus is born, and after Ben-Hur’s journey unfolds, we intimately meet Jesus in glimpses only three times. The first is when Ben-Hur is near death, deprived of water by his cruel Roman captor. Jesus ignores the soldier and gives water to him, quickly helping to nurse him back to life. His presence is a gentle one, almost angelic, and the most unique aspect of it is that we never see his face. Not once is the face of Jesus in this film ever visible. We see him either from a distance or from behind. The reason for this is that rather than get it wrong, or rather than try to put a face to such a figure, Wyler chose to let it be mysterious. To let the deeds and actions speak for themselves. In the original play from the early 1900’s, Jesus was portrayed on-stage by a beam of light, never being fully characterized. The next two times we encounter him is after his Sermon on the Mount, when Ben-Hur’s friend tells him that is the man they have all been waiting for. The final time he graces the screen, is his march with the cross towards his crucifixion, when it is Ben-Hur’s turn to help Jesus. He gives him water when Jesus has fallen down on the ground with the cross. The feelings at this moment are ironic, sad, and motivating, but are also so subtle that it is hard to describe. Wyler accomplished so much with so little. He turns a film seemingly not even remotely close to being about Jesus into one that tells his story better than any other.

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