So, it’s Easter season, and it may come as a surprise to some people, but I love a good Jesus movie. But what makes a good Jesus movie? Well, as a philosopher, or perhaps as a human being, I find it necessary that a film provoke the questions that faith provokes. A good Bible film should not be a hammer with which to beat a message into the head of its viewers, but rather a prism through which the intricacy of faith’s story is made manifest and lingering questions and doubts are honored. As I said in my recent review of Noah, faithful adaptations of Biblical Stories make horrible films, because the Bible lacks so much detail. If you want to know what the Bible says, read the Bible. If you want to engage in an on-going discussion about what scripture reveals and what faith asks, then watching a movie is a good way to begin.
Now, with so many movies about Jesus, I figured I’d give a divided list, telling you which I think aren’t worth your time, and which are. I’ve loosely paired the films to highlight the stark differences between them.
Not Really Worth your Time:
Jesus of Nazareth (1977)
Directed by Franco Zefferelli
Starring as Robert Powell as Jesus and Anne Bancroft as Mary Magdalene.
This film was a two part miniseries aired back in 1979, and when I say it’s not worth your time, that’s because it takes a lot of time. Without commercials the film runs nearly 5 total hours. They aren’t fast hours either. Jesus isn’t even born until about the 38 minute mark. Of course if you want 10 minutes of the Magi discussing how they made they’re astrological calculations, this film could be for you. Of course if you don’t want that agonizing level of detail I would suggest…
WATCH THIS INSTEAD
King of Kings (1961)
Directed by Nicholas Ray
Starring Jeffrey Hunter as Jesus and Rip Torn as Judas
Of the more or less straight depictions of the Gospel story, this one is the most watchable. The musical score is quite good, and while Jesus is a bit too WASPy for my historical and critical tastes, the film does a good job portraying the key elements of Jesus’ life and ministry. Key among the film making decisions is to place the Sermon on the Mount at the literal center of the film, presumably to highlight its import. As someone more interested in the philosophical, rather than eschatological aspects of Christianity, I appreciate that. If you’re looking for a Gospel centered story that cuts to the heart of the matter, this is the film.
A film you should only watch if you are star struck:
The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)
Directed By George Stevens
Starring Max von Sydow as Jesus. And just about everyone else in Hollywood at the time.
Like I said, I love Bible epics. Growing up, every Easter I’d watch The Ten Commandments. I still love Ben Hur, even The Bible starring George C. Scott was worth my time. This film, The Greatest Story Ever Told, is generally credited as the film that killed Bible Epics. Incredibly ambitious, the film was the most expensive movie ever made at the time and still hasn’t earned the money back. The visuals are fairly stunning, lots of aerial shots filled with the beauty and desolation of the desert, but the casting is just too much. Charleton Heston plays John the Baptist, Telly Savalas plays Pilate, John Wayne plays a centurion. Let me say that again. John Wayne. Plays. A Centurion. It reminds so much of the film Scrooged where, in order to maximize ratings, Bill Murray has Mary Lou Retton cast as Tiny Tim in his A Christmas Carol. It’s not a miserable film to watch, but it’s difficult to get pulled in when Jesus is dying, but you’re saying, “Hey look, John Wayne’s a centurion!”If you don’t want to be overwhelmed by an otherwise notable cast, and prefer a bit more thoughtfulness and a little less glam, then try:
The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Starring Willem Dafoe as Jesus, Harvey Keitel as Judas
This is simply a beautiful film with incredible acting. The film and the book it is based on met with some controversy owing to its portrayal of Jesus as strongly reluctant in multiple ways to fulfill God’s plan and its overly sympathetic portrait of Judas. This film does two things extraordinarily well. First, it captures the difficulty in moving from Jesus as moral teacher to Jesus as incarnate divinity. Judas, who is portrayed as a deeply secular activist who recruits Jesus to preach against the Romans, undergoes that journey with all of its difficulties and triumphs. Secondly, the film demonstrates the humanity of Jesus, his longing for a normal life, his love interests, his materialism. These movements are too often ignored by Christians who simply focus on the end of the story where Christ is King and “seated at the right hand of the Father.” As the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard explains, what makes Christian faith profound is its acceptance of the carpenter as God. Jesus once raised is easy to identify. God as man, or what Kierkegaard terms, God as incognito, is a point of faith. So the movie is great at bringing people face to face with a very human Jesus. Plus David Bowie plays Pontius Pilate, and that’s pretty awesome.
DON ‘T WATCH
Of the musicals, definitely avoid:
Directed By David Greene
Starring: Victor Garber as Jesus and David Haskell as both John the Baptist and Judas
In the song “Tiny Dancer” Elton John sings of Hollywood Boulevard, “Jesus Freaks in the streets handing tickets out for God.” Whenever I hear that line, or any other line invoking “Jesus Freaks” this film is what comes to mind. Basically depicting Jesus and his disciples as hippy rejects wandering the desolate urban landscape of the 1970s, Godspell makes Jesus look more like a cult leader than a savior. As a whole, every scene comes off as a bad musical skit that creepy Christian Ed. Leaders would perform in order to entice unwitting kids to Bible camp. The only redeeming moment in the entire film is the song, “Turn Back O Man” but the rest is rubbish. Faith is not a kitsch performance and Jesus was not a clown. If you’d rather a Jesus musical that treats you like an adult, then you should:
WATCH THIS INSTEAD
Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)
Directed by Norman Jewison
Starring: Ted Neely as Jesus, Carl Anderson as Judas
As much as Godspell fills me with horror at the very idea that people follow such a thing as Christianity, Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice offer a gripping musical that captures the complexities of the demands of Christian faith. Much Like Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Julius Caesar in which the title character is not the most tragic figure, in JCS, Weber and Rice present us with a conflicted Judas who is torn between his love for his friend and the incomprehensible demands of faith. Unlike the spoon fed Pablum of Godspell, JCS demands a thoughtful audience capable of occupying multiple perspectives in relation to the Christian story. From the tortured fear and doubt of Judas, the confusion and helplessness of Peter and Mary Magdalene, to the mind numbing frustration of a Pilate who finally washes his hands of the entire affair, this musical takes its viewers through the throws of faith and doubt and back again. Or maybe it doesn’t lead back to faith. The musical leaves it to its individual viewers to decide, which is exactly where the decision should be.
Lastly, think twice about buying into:
The Passion of the Christ (2004)
Directed by Mel Gibson
Starring Jim Caviezel as Jesus
Having lost some of its luster after Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic, alcoholic rant a few years back, this film is far and away the most popular (financially) of the Gospel epics. Despite being called a “snuff film” by some, and despite others calling out its overt anti-Semitism, evangelical Christians flocked to this movie. Now, is it a good movie? I don’t know. I’ve never seen it. But why I’ve never seen it is important. At first I did worry about anti-Semitism, and reports that the film was one long torture scene turned me off. But why I didn’t go see it, why I still haven’t seen it, is that the Evangelical Right turned seeing this film into a faith statement. They told us that “Good” Christians would spend their money on Mel Gibson’s film. This sentiment is a genius marketing ploy, but it is a ridiculous and anger inducing approach to both film and faith. They’ve tried to do this with the ridiculous God Is Not Dead [update: for a brilliant review of God is Not Dead, check out Joseph Trullinger’s piece here]. But Mel Gibson, Darren Aronofsky, Cecil B. DeMille and anyone else who makes a film, is always making their vision of the story they adopt. If they stray from the text or remain faithful to it has little to do with whether the film is a good film, or what you might be able to learn from it. Saying you like the Passion of the Christ or King of Kings is more like saying you prefer Dali’s Crucifixion to Mengs’ Christ on the Cross. Art makes manifest the artist’s experience of an event, it is never a “documentary.” This means developing your own experience as a touchstone, and that means learning to think and feel for yourself. So instead of Passion of the Christ, I suggest you:
WATCH THIS INSTEAD
Monty Python’s The Life of Brian (1979)
Performed, Written, and Directed by: Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam, Michael Palin, and Eric Idle
Okay, technically this isn’t a film about Jesus, but a film about Brian who is constantly mistaken for a messianic figure. While the film has been accused of blasphemy for its satirical portrayal of a very Christ like life, really the sharpest barbs of the film are aimed at Christians and the often ridiculously eager and uncritical faith that they exhibit. From the petty sectarianism exhibited by the Judean People’s Front, to the proclamation of the miracle of the Juniper Berries brought forth from Juniper bushes, the gang at Monty Python seem hell bent on making anyone who watches the film question the underlying assumptions of their own faith. The goal, in other words, is to make your faith your own, in light of your own critical experience and not simply because you exist in a community of believers or because you are so eager to believe you shut down your own God-given critical capacity. As such, I take this film to be the cinematic equivalent of Kierkegaard’s philosophy, not undermining Christian faith, but pushing it to something more by forcing Christendom to come to terms with its own story. One must not be afraid of thinking, challenging, criticizing. Plus it’s always a good idea to be able to laugh at yourself. Happy Easter, and don’t forget to always look on the bright side of life.