Jesus On Film – Three Of The Best

Holy Movies

What to watch this Lent and Easter? Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, and here at CTS Catholic Compass, we wanted to point you in the direction of some great seasonal films and help you avoid some others, while taking a closer look at the history of Christ on celluloid.

A Little History

The life of Christ and Bible stories have been gracing our screens ever since the dawn of narrative cinema in the early 20th century, with D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) and even the British feature From the Manger to the Cross (1912). Cecil B. De Mille wrote the textbook on sword and sandal biblical epics with The King of Kings (1927) later to be remade, and the ’50s and ’60s brought us classics such as The Robe (1953), Ben Hur (1959) and The Greatest Story ever told (1965).

But there is a trio of films that perhaps go a little deeper than the Hollywood classics: we will take a closer look at each.

1. The Gospel according to St Matthew (1964)

If ever Christ was a rebel come to throw out the money lenders and preach to the poor, he is so in this masterpiece of stark black-and-white cinema. A film that may be troubling for some (I wouldn’t probe too much into the life of its director Pier Paolo Pasolini) but is nonetheless effective, beautiful and artistic in its execution. The Sermon on the Mount given by amateur actor Enrique Irazoqui is violent and moving in equal measure and is like hearing it for the first time. Marxist leanings aside, the close-ups of the apostles’ rugged and worn faces remind us that Christ came not for the shiny and clean cinemascope people of The King of Kings but for you and me.

2. Jesus of Nazareth (1977)

I don’t think I am overstating the importance this film has when Robert Powell still gets mistaken for Jesus Christ. The bright blue piercing eyes and the thin and worn cheeks of this Jesus are seared in many peoples’ memories as their abiding image of the celluloid Christ. This is the definitive version of the life of Christ on film for many, and more or less theologically sound throughout. The Italian director Zeffirelli paints a beautiful portrait of Jesus, and with a stellar cast and unforgettable soundtrack, this film, though looking sometimes dated (it sounds like the apostles all went to Oxbridge), is a beautiful meditation that can be watched throughout Lent (its full running time is 382 minutes).

3. The Passion of the Christ (2004)

Mel Gibson has been much maligned of late and continues to battle his demons, however it is important to remember what effect this film had. Putting all his own money to fund a film in Aramaic and Latin was doomed to failure by many. Not so. The most powerful and striking depiction of the Passion, certainly not for the faint-hearted, and thoroughly Catholic in all aspects from its Caravaggesque cinematography right through to its portrayal of Mary, this film is basically a live-action  stations of the cross – I believe it has even been used as such in certain parishes. Worthwhile to meditate with, and a film that never fails to move the viewer, this takes “by his wounds we are healed” to a level many of us are afraid to go.

Give us your suggestions about what to watch this Lent.


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3 comments on “Jesus On Film – Three Of The Best

  1. There are two movies with almost identical names: The Gospel According to Matthew (actor Bruce Marchiano), and The Gospel According to Saint Matthew (directed by Paolo Pasolini). The latter is praised in different circles, there is very little commentary on the former.

  2. The visuals of the Passion of the Christ stay with me. It is certainly an agony of a film, but that surely is as it should be. Some of the beautiful parts narrated in flashback suggest that Gibson could very well have made a complete life of Christ, and done it well. However, for theological and personal reasons, he chose to focus on the bloody winning of our redemption. It is too tempting to see this film as continuing the violent thread of his action films; I would see it rather as a cinematic attempt to redeem his art, to turn it to something higher. The same is true of Apocalypto. Gibson seeks to look into the darkest hours of human experience and show that redemption can be found. It is only to be hoped that he can find this in his personal life also.

  3. In my opinion the best ever film version of a Gospel is The Gospel of John (2003) starring Henry Ian Cusick who plays Desmond in the hit cult series, Lost. There is a joyous exuberance and calm authority in Henry Ian Cusick’s portrayal of Jesus that conveys something of the awesome mystery of the Word made flesh. The other strength of the movie is that it sticks strictly to the text of John’s Gospel, with Christopher Plummer’s rich voice providing the narrative, again straight from John’s Gospel. If I had to choose one film out of all the good Gospel movies to take to a desert island it would be The Gospel of John directed by Philip Saville.

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