100th Film Review: Jesus Movies

You love them. You hate them. You love to hate them. Yes, we are talking about Jesus movies, Hollywood's often confusing attempt to portray the life and mission of our Lord Jesus Christ on screen. What does Hollywood do right when depicting our Lord? Where do they bomb? Who has done well, and who has totally botched it? In this post, we explore all this and more in looking at the good, the bad and the ugly depictions of our Lord. In honor of our this, Unam Sanctam Catholicam's 100th movie review, we bring you "Jesus Movies: Half a Century of our Lord on the Big Screen." Boniface and Throwback have collaborated on this review.

Passion of the Christ (2004, R)

Before starting off, I would like to remind our readership that we already have a very full review of the most recent Jesus movie, Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ, which we rate at 3 tiaras. Please see our review of the film here, reviewed by Throwback.

Now let's go back a few decades and work our way forward.

The Greatest Story Every Told
(1965, Throwback)

The Greatest Story Ever Told 
(TGSET) is sort of the go-to Jesus epic for Christmas, with Easter usually being the time slotted for Jesus of Nazareth. With almost four hours of run time, the film is sprawling in every sense of the word. It also has the distinction of being the It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World of Bible movies due to the all-star cast, whether they are in major roles (the obvious one being Max von Sydow as Jesus) or five minutes of screen time (eg- Sidney Poitier as Simon of Cyrene).

Moreso than the cast, the thing which sets TGSET apart from other such movies is the efforts made to portray Christ in a reverent fashion. Jesus really doesn’t get troubled by anything. Even when He’s cleansing the Temple, his voice is pretty much level and steady. This is one of those cases where I can appreciate the efforts, but it actually gets in the way. When Our Lord is suffering The Passion, for example, neither director George Stevens nor von Sydow really makes an effort to show it. It isn’t until you hear “I thirst” that you feel that the experience is anything out of the ordinary for Christ. This stoic, dare I say “dull,” portrayal of Jesus exacerbates the plodding style of the rest of the film. The bulk of the show consists of shots of Jesus and the Apostles walking, with voice-overs of von Sydow giving various sayings of Jesus. After the third or fourth time of this, it gets old.

Which isn’t to say that the whole movie is a waste. To the contrary, there are some great moments. It’s just that most of them don’t involve an appearance by Jesus. Claude Rains and Jose Ferrer are great as Herods Agrippa and Antipas. I’ll even give kudos to Telly Savalas as Pilate. Then there’s Donald Pleasance as Satan, popping up at various critical events in order to advance the cause of evil. My favorite parts of the film, though, and this places me in the distinct minority, are the scenes with Charlton Heston as John the Baptist. His open disdain and even violent resistance to anyone who would try to silence him seems (to me, at least) probably a lot like what the real Baptist was like. His exchanges with Herod are classic, as he simultaneously says he will pray for the king’s soul yet warns him of the fate awaiting him in hell.

The film’s faithfulness to the Gospel accounts comes and goes. Most of Christ’s miracles are covered in some respect. However, the calling of the Apostles is pretty much fabricated. Lazarus is conflated with with Rich Young Man. There are lots of things like that, but it’s nothing that detracts from the overall message and meets for acceptable license, I think. One tiara.

Jesus of Nazareth (1977, PG, Boniface)

The 1977 Jesus of Nazareth, a 1977 British-Italian television miniseries co-written and directed by Franco Zeffirelli, has become the gold standard of Jesus films. I have seen this film dozens of times over the years and had many occasions to reflect upon it. Is it worth the accolades that have been heaped upon it over the decades? In my opinion, yes.

What makes Jesus of Nazareth this gold standard, such an icon that for many, Robert Powell is the face of Jesus Christ? The all-star cast certainly helps; Rod Steiger is the best Pontius Pilate ever, in my opinion, and I have always liked the portrayal of St. Joseph by Greek actor Yorgo Voyagis. Applause also for Michael York as John the Baptist. But the strength of this film is not in the cast but in the script. No other Jesus film has tried so hard to really capture the mood of anticipation surrounding the coming of the Messiah, the religious atmosphere in 1st century Judea, or the ire of the Temple authorities at the preaching of Jesus - the film's depiction of the conflict between the Pharisees and our Lord is unsurpassed. In short, Franco Zeffirelli really took his time to put our Lord in a proper context. Thus, the film is not "shallow" like many Jesus films, where the director is rushing to get a few important events of Jesus' life crammed in. Rather, the depth is explored in all its richness, making the final experience more rewarding.

A word about Powell's depiction of Christ. When I first came to the Lord, I believed this depiction was a little too stiff. While I can sympathize with that argument, I have warmed up to the portrayal over the years - perhaps if only because I have seen so many other crappy portrayals to compare it to. Yet the fact that Powell's depiction has become the stereotypical Jesus does mean something, just like Bela Lugosi did for Dracula and Errol Flynn for Robin Hood. I think I like Powell's portrayal because, more than any other Christ film, he really tries to depict the other-worldliness of Jesus. While other Jesus movies bend over backward to show our Lord as pretty much "just like us", Jesus of Nazareth seeks to remind us that, while He lives among us and shares our human condition, our Lord is fundamentally not of this world. He comes from God. This is what gives Jesus of Nazareth its staying power. 

It is easy to pick out things about Jesus of Nazareth. Nicodemus comes to Jesus by day despite John 3 specifically saying the meeting occurs at night. Due to the technological limitations of the time, only the more non-extravagant of our Lord's miracles are portrayed; healings and exorcisms, yes - Transfiguration and walking on water, no. Some have criticized Powell's portrayal of Jesus as too stoic, and while the script sticks closer to the Gospels than a lot of the other Jesus films, the manner in which Judas' betrayal is portrayed takes a bit of liberty and makes Judas into an almost sympathetic character. The film invents some dialogue for our Lord that never happened. Who knows why they did these things; they are annoyances rather than real faults. Thus, after twenty-five years, I still think Jesus of Nazareth deserves its place as the gold standard of Jesus films. I give it 3 tiaras.

Jesus (1979, PG, Boniface)

Only two years after Jesus of Nazareth, another film about our Lord, simply titled Jesus, was released by Australian director Peter Sykes and funded by Campus Crusade for Christ. The story of this film is fascinating and dates back to 1945 when a businessman wanted to finance a movie about our Lord that could be used in evangelism. How we got from 1945 to the 1979 film does not concern us, but it is an interesting tale, and it makes Jesus one of the only Christ films to be made for the express purpose of evangelization - perhaps with the exception of the Gospel According to Matthew. There is a lot of interesting minutiae surrounding the film; the actor who played Peter actually converted during the filming, and the man hired to play Jesus' corpse later entered a seminary. Contrast this with Powell in Jesus of Nazareth, who said that playing our Lord has no effect on him and he even went on to play a sodomite immediately after filming Jesus of Nazareth. Go figure.

Despite maintaining fidelity to the Gospel, Jesus was a failure, largely because its budget was so low, and because the strict adherence to the text gives it a dull monotony. Plus, the Christ character (played by Brian Deacon, a Shakespearean actor) is terribly dull. During the beating of our Lord, we see his head getting struck but the baton clearly missing the actor by five inches, yet Jesus flinching as if he was getting punched. This is what I mean by low budget.

Nevertheless, this film has had a tremendous record in Protestant evangelization. Still financed by Campus Crusade, which pays to have the film put into different languages, Jesus is not only the most watched Jesus movie of all time, but perhaps the most watched motion picture ever. Period. It is claimed that the film has been viewed over 4 billion times, although these numbers are hardly scientific. It has been released in 1,165 different versions.

While impressive from a missionary standpoint, Jesus as a movie qua movie fails. It is too dull, unconvincing, and low budget. Half tiara.


Jesus: The Mini-Series (1999, PG, Throwback)

The first thing that’s jumps out at you in the 1999 TV mini-series Jesus is that Vidal Sassoon must have been the thirteenth apostle. Never before has Christ’s hair been so perfect, regardless of circumstances. In a lot of ways, this encapsulates the whole essence of the movie, a testimony to style and appearance over substance.

It’s pretty clear that Jeremy Sisto’s Jesus is supposed to be an attempt to show Our Lord’s humanity. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s an admirable goal. Sisto laughs, dances, plays with kids, and does all the sorts of things that are very likely to have been part of the Savior’s life while He was among us on Earth. This is all fine, but it winds up ignoring one of the key aspects of Jesus’s character, namely, that when He spoke, He spoke with authority. You see none of that here. In fact, Jesus seems to be struggling with the right words to tell people. Director Roger Young is no stranger to Biblical epics with forceful personalities (Moses, Joseph, eg). When we’re talking about the God-Man, all of that is non-existent. Even all this probably wouldn’t have been too big of a problem if the proper respect was shown to Our Lord and His story in the rest of the narrative.

But then the movie insists on making things weird.

First, there’s Jesus yelling at the Father when St. Joseph dies. Then we find out that Mary, Martha’s sister, is infatuated with Christ, almost to the point of implying a temptation to abandon His mission. It’s all downhill from there, as we see Christ as ignorant of His role to the Gentiles, explaining that, if He can learn such things, so can the Apostles.

It’s not just the deliberate flouting of the Gospels. Other things are just plain odd. Satan shows up as a slick, corporate type in an Armani suit. We get a glimpse of the “Mary Magdalene as the chief apostle but for her womanhood” thing. Where are the Pharisees and His other enemies? Drifting around in the background, I suppose, because they definitely aren't part of the main plot.

Is all this really necessary? Or is it just trying to be on the cutting edge of the latest Jesus Seminar-hipster theology?

If we were to mention TGSET as overboard on reverence, Jesus would be the pendulum swinging in the other direction. In its efforts to humanize the Messiah, Jesus ignores much of what made Him extraordinary. Yes, He performs miracles, but He’s more than that. After all, Moses performed miracles, too. Taking away His clout (for lack of a better word), the film gives us a Jesus who wanders from indecision to outright confusion over what is going on. When the story turns in that direction, Christ’s humility means all the less since it’s tough to see why His humility was such a big deal.

I’m sure that Arians would love this movie. Not sure who else would. Zero tiaras, which means a flaming cow fart.

The Miracle Maker (2000, G, Boniface)

The year after the Jesus miniseries, we were treated to another made-for-television depiction of our Lord's life, this time done in claymation. Director Derek Hayes' Miracle Maker, starring Ralph Fiennes as the voice of Christ and an all-star cast of supporting actors,  Miracle Maker attempts to follow the footsteps of Jesus: The Miniseries by emphasizing our Lord's humanity. The emphasis is so strong that He seems shorn of much of His power and we are left with a very unimpressive Christ. This is common when our Lord's divinity is downplayed or ignored; without His divine nature, what are we to make of His salvific mission? It makes little sense, and this comes through in the film, as Fienne's claymation Jesus drifts around from town to town performing various miracles with no real sense of mission. The crucifixion at the end is more of an afterthought than an integral part of His life.

The film is notable for being one of the first that I know of to attempt to depict Jesus as a darker skinned, Semitic character rather than a white Anglo-Saxon. It also takes a unique approach to plot, narrating the tale of Christ through the eyes of a sick little girl hoping for a miracle. This of course introduces made up characters and situations to the narrative. This is alright; many famous movies like Fourth Wise Man and Ben Hur have taken a similar approach, showing snippets of our Lord's life as seen through the eyes of fictional characters who interact with Him. 

The real issue with the film is the Jesus is just so dull and uninspiring. He comes across as this nice guy who could do some neat stuff but unfortunately got killed at the end, and His death has little relevance to the rest of His mission. One tiara.


The Gospel According to Matthew (1993, PG, Boniface)

Though most Catholics will not be familiar with it, I must mention the 1993 film The Gosepl According to Matthew, which was produced by the Visual Bible project. Matthew stars Bruce Marchiano in the role of Jesus with a supporting cast of unknowns.Matthew is an incredibly low-budget film comparatively speaking (the movie was filmed in Africa, not Israel, which explains why the countryside appears to be a jungle rather than the typical Judean hills), but it boasts something unique out of all Jesus films: It endeavors to portray the Gospel of Matthew exactly as it is the Bible, word for word, scene for scene, with absolutely nothing added and not a single word left out. Literally. Even the genealogy of Jesus is included. This is admirable, and while I do not know much about the Visual Bible production, my guess is they were sick of biblical movies that took liberties with the sacred history. Of course, this also means the whole movie is six hours long. 

Matthew's low-budget regrettably gets in the way of enjoying the film, and Bruce Marchiano's portrayal of Jesus is very unconventional. For one thing, Marchiano is definitely the fattest Jesus ever depicted. But more importantly, Marchiano's Jesus seems to be a reaction against Christ of Jesus of Nazareth. Instead of stoic and full of divine gravitas, Marchiano as Jesus is jovial, humorous, constantly laughing and acting as if he is always about to give the disciples a noogey. It is as if G.K. Chesterton were cast in the role of Christ. I am not saying this is a bad thing; Jesus certainly did have a comical side. All I am saying is that it is unconventional, and that you should be prepared for it. If you are sick of run-of-the mill Jesus movies and want to check out something unique, take a look at Matthew. It's not a terrible movie, if you know what to expect. Available on Amazon here. I also want to mention that because this movie follows the Gospel word for word, it is the only modern Jesus-film that actually depicts the Transfiguration, an event which is usually omitted. I give Matthew 1.5 tiaras.





We could go on with films that, while not being about our Lord directly, have Him in an ancillary role: Ben Hur, Nativity Story, The Fourth Wise Man, etc. But that would take us too far afield. In surveying the major Jesus films, we can see several trends: Most importantly, I think, the depiction of Christ must be balanced, just like the Hypostatic Union. Christ movies fail when they start to have an agenda of making Christ more human and downplaying His divinity, such as Matthew. When He is too stoic, the movie also suffers, like the 1979 Jesus. Balance is needed. 

Second: There is no doing a good life of Christ film without really pouring some money into location, casting and costume. The really good Jesus movies stand out because the casting is so good - the director spent the time and the money needed to get the absolute right people for the parts, and the money to create a sense of depth. Which also brings up the question of length - some shorter films about Jesus work, namely Passion of the Christ, but this is only because they confine themselves to one aspect of our Lord's life. If you are going to do a Jesus movie, you'd better plan on several installments to get it right, like Jesus of Nazareth, or else just focus on one particular thing, like the Passion did. These hour and thirty minute attempts to capture our Lord's entire life simply come across as shallow and insufficient.

Here are our final ratings, out of 3:

The Greatest Story Ever Told: 1
Jesus of Nazareth: 3
Jesus: .5
Jesus: The Miniseries: 0 (Flaming Cow Fart)
Miracle Maker: 1
Gospel According to Matthew: 1.5