Most viewers will take a biopic at face value, not knowing enough about the subject’s life to know whether it’s an historically accurate portrayal or not. But if you make a film about Jesus you know you’re going to have 1.2 billion Catholics and 800 million Protestants picking it apart frame by frame. That’s because Christians aren’t just fans of Jesus. They adore him.
This might explain why nearly every screen portrayal of Christ has to make trade offs like artistry versus accuracy, and accessibility versus reverence. To appease Christian audiences, most filmmakers go for the latter (accuracy and reverence), which turns their Jesuses into vapid, unremarkable messiahs, who often seem either confused or downright smug, or too small for the epic drama they’re part of.
But when a filmmaker like Pasolini or Scorsese tries to play with the narrative to make Jesus more accessible or to bring out a particular element of the story, they are pilloried by Christian audiences, and their films are condemned.
Here’s eleven depictions of Jesus, most of which prove that while Jesus could write a brilliant script, his movies can be real stinkaroos.
King of Kings (1927)
We might as well start at the beginning. This was the first film to portray Jesus using an actor (H. B. Warner). The director Cecil B DeMille tried to keep both Catholic and Protestant audiences happy and what results is a huge film, featuring zebra races, dancing girls and a cast of thousands, but a pretty anaemic portrayal of Jesus, who comes off as a virtuous and mild man, completely lacking in fire and spiritual vigor. The crucifixion scene is epic, but most audiences won’t get past the opening sequence featuring a scantily-clad Mary Magdalene hosting a banquet and asking what has happened to her lover Judas Iscariot. In response Jesus casts seven demons out of her. Overblown and kitschy.
The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964)
Director Pier Paolo Pasolini was a gay Marxist atheist whose previous films portrayed both the masochistic and scatological (mostly attributed to his Fascist allegory Salò, and 120 Days of Sodom), so he seemed like an unlikely candidate to film the Gospel of Matthew. But Pasolini he wanted to confront and reconnect with his Catholic upbringing. What results is a more aggressive Jesus than most. There are some Marxist overtones to Enrique Irazoqui’s portrayal of an outcast savior, and his unadorned presence reinforces the proletariat undercurrent especially when he cleanses the temple in Jerusalem. Nonetheless, nearly every single line of dialogue comes from Matthew. The gritty, down-to-earth realism underscores the revolutionary nature of Christ’s message and reflects Pasolini’s belief in finding transcendence within the everyday—an effect that is especially achieved on the eclectic soundtrack, which includes Bach & African-American spirituals. It’s good, but the sparse black-and-white production, and Italian subtitles won’t be everyone’s cup of tea.
The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)
Directed by the devoutly Christian George Stevens, it’s too pretty, too stilted, too American, too lavish to be an authentic depiction of 1st century Galilean peasant society (and it’s got John Wayne as the centurion at the crucifixion). The cinematography is gorgeous, and Max von Sydow is strangely engaging as Jesus, revealing Christ’s austerity and moments of deeply felt emotion. But overall, it’s a star-spotting mess.
A musical set in modern New York (one sequence even takes place on the roof of the then-brand-new World Trade Centre), it is less concerned with the life of Jesus (played by Victor Garber) than with his sayings, especially the parables and the Sermon on the Mount, and how they resonated with the counter-culture mood of that time. With its comical approach, it’s goofy, heightened and upbeat. Actually, it feels like it’s meant for kids. That said, since it’s aiming at accessibility and fun, it doesn’t have to be reverent or accurate, so it’s not.
Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)
Based on the play by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, this tells the story of the final week of Jesus’ life through the eyes of the troubled Judas Iscariot. Too often wrongly labeled a musical, this film is actually a “rock opera.” There are no spoken lines, everything is sung. Judas is the star; Mary Magdalene is in love with Jesus; Herod gets to sing a showstopping number; and, as Jesus, Ted Neeley looks beautiful (maybe that’s why Mary doesn’t know how to love him). However, Jesus just comes across as passive and confused. Lame.
The Messiah (1976)
Roberto Rossellini did not believe in seducing the audience with dramatic effects, so he downplays the miracles and the violence—all the stuff that other filmmakers revel in—even while he acknowledges that they occur. Pier Maria Rossi portrays Christ as the only psychologically healthy person in a world of militant super-human pretensions (the Pharisees and the Romans). His crucifixion reveals the destiny of modesty and disinterest in a world obsessed with a feverish fight for power, wealth and social influence. In the end, The Messiah emphasises the brotherhood of men more than real Christian faith. Worthy, but ineffectual.
Jesus of Nazareth (1977)
Robert Powell portrays Christ in Franco Zeffirelli’s 6.5 hour long extravaganza, and his British accent, blue eyes, and John Lennon hair have become something of a cliché for every subsequent depiction. With that much footage Zeffirelli is able to flesh out the supporting characters in ways that convey the breadth and depth of the impact Jesus had on them. But it alternates, somewhat awkwardly, between everyday naturalism and pious theatricality. It comes across as a really long Sunday School flannelboard lesson with better production values.
The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
Pasolini, Rossellini, Zeffirelli, now Martin Scorsese. Are you getting the impression that Italian filmmakers are kinda obsessed with Jesus? The Last Temptation of Christ depicts the life of Jesus (Willem Dafoe) and his struggle with various forms of temptation including fear, doubt, depression, reluctance and lust. Judas (Harvey Keitel), originally sent to kill Jesus for collaboration, comes to suspect he is the Messiah and asks him to lead a revolution against the Romans. In the end, Judas gets mighty disappointed with the conflicted Jesus. While on the cross Jesus imagines falling in love, having sex and growing old, but resists these temptations and dies in agony. Though widely decried at the time, Scorsese film plays like an earnest attempt to engage with Christianity. Not historically or biblically accurate, but provocative.
The Passion of the Christ (2004)
Mel Gibson’s highly personal meditation on the death of Christ is a work of profound Catholic devotion. Inspired by the Stations of the Cross, the imagery of Caravaggio, and the visions of Sister Anne Catherine Emmerich, The Passion is a gut-wrenching orgy of violence and suffering. Jim Caviezel does command attention better than the lot of bland, blond Jesuses before him, and the Latin and Aramaic dialogue contributes to the film’s otherworldly and at times shockingly surreal tone. And unlike other films, it attempts to capture the grand supernatural conflict which gives the death of Christ its meaning. But the relentless focus on Jesus’ suffering doesn’t allow viewers to escape Jesus’ embodiment. Brutal.
Son of God (2014)
This film was made from episodes of the Mark Burnett mini-series The Bible (2013), and tells the whole story of Jesus – his birth, life, teaching, miracles, death and resurrection. Son Of God has a measure of dramatic impact, particularly when it illustrates the radicalism of Jesus’ message and the threat it posed to the establishment, but Diogo Morgado plays Jesus with such a smugness it really makes it hard to like him. And the hole in the hand in the post-resurrection scene is chee-eesy.
Mary Magdalene (2018)
Despite the title, Joaquin Phoenix’s depiction of Jesus remains the center of this film. Mary Magdalene is all about the quasi-maniacal dedication of his followers and the anguish of the messiah, as presented through a woman’s experience (Rooney Mara). Mary is portrayed as a fiercely intelligent, resourceful woman who rejected the male norms of marriage and children laid down for her, and insisted on following Jesus. Phoenix’s messiah is a cross between a maniac and a kind eccentric, a tormented man of few words who launches a radical Jewish cult. In the end, it’s a bit too solemn to be a convincing reinvention of either character.
Maybe the best way to put Jesus on film is to avoid the pitfalls of a direct portrayal and focus on Christlike characters instead. In my next article I’ll look at movies that aren’t about Christ himself, but use blatant Christ imagery for effect. And I mean more than just the standard crucifixion pose to underline the nobility of some sacrifice a character makes (I’m looking at you, Keanu Reeves).