Ever since the story of Jesus began to be passed around, people have been fascinated by the man, his teachings and his crucifixion and resurrection. Here are ten films – in chronological order – starring the man himself.
The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)
This movie plays out the events told in the Bible as a straight-forward narrative, and it is easy to see why they did so: it begins with the traditional nativity story, leads onto to Mary and Joseph fleeing to Egypt to escape Herod’s mass infanticide and follows Jesus’s life – miracles, healing, water into wine and all – right up until after his resurrection and ascension into heaven. The original release lasted a staggering four hours twenty minutes, but was cut, cut, and cut again until the running time was reduced to just over two hours: a much more palatable movie length for US audiences. The cast was full of huge stars of the day, with some appearing in tiny cameos, both delighting and jarring audience members with recognition of the Hollywood quality hidden within the film.
Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)
Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice partnered up in 1965, and this fabulous rock-musical, penned and released in 1970, was one of their biggest successes. It is still performed on stages all over the world and was made into a hit movie in 73, with the three main stars, the actors who played Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Judas, respectively, all being nominated for Golden Globe Awards. It was the eighth highest grossing film of the year, and was remade in 1999, recreating the stage presence of musical theatre rather than copying the authentic locations used in the 73 version.
Jesus of Nazareth (1977)
This lengthy production, released as a mini-series, boasted a hugely star-studded cast, in which Robert Powell’s mystical blue eyes stole the show despite being ethnically incorrect. The production aimed for a realistic atmosphere, with miracles such as wine-into-water not being depicted, and only some small nods to unexplained healing being shown on the screen. However, some characters and incidents have no basis in the Bible, having been introduced to aid the action and drive the conflict necessary for good drama. The film aired and was immediately positively received.
The Life of Brian (1979)
Monty Python’s Flying Circus, a group of highly skilled comedians, each of whom has achieved fame in their own rights, were a collective group who wrote and performed sketches and skits and one or two full length movies, of which this is one. As Jesus is born and grows into his sacred position in history, Brian – his next door neighbour, coincidentally born on the same say – is often confused for the Messiah. The film is slapstick hilarious in places, but the writing skewers religious ambiguities ruthlessly – to the point that many churches protested the film’s release and many local authorities imposed either bans or such overly zealous age ratings on the film that they may as well have banned it! The film managed to score decent audiences despite the controversy (or perhaps because of it!) and it went on to be the fourth-highest grossing film of the UK in 1979 and the highest grossing British film in the USA of the same year. The film still attracts fierce debate with some theologists saying the film demonstrates how Jesus’s teaching are distorted to achieve the aims of others, while other, less good-humoured, claim that it is blasphemy. It is still one of the most popular British films with good viewing figures year on year.
The Jesus Film (1979)
Also simply called Jesus this film takes the books of Luke and enacts the story of Jesus as told by that disciple. It was shot on location in Israel and features a voice-over style narrator explaining the action as it unfolds. The narrative is documentary style, and it is clearly very effective as the film has been translated into more than 1,197 languages and dialects which is a record with the Guinness Book of World Records. It is also sometimes styled as the most-watched film of all time, with an estimated five billion viewings by three billion people.
The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
David Bowie as Pontius Pilate is incredible enough: now add Harvey Keitel as Judas, Willem Dafoe as Jesus, Barbara Hershey as Mary Magdalene, and even Michael Scorsese himself in a cameo as Isiah, and you have the A-list of A-listers that form the cast of this feature film. Following Jesus’s last days and hours, the film ponders the idea of temptation, not offering licentious sex, groaning banquet tables or riches galore – instead it offers the simple pleasures of a ‘normal’ family life and demonstrates how Jesus was willing to lay down his life for God, but was not necessary very happy about. An able demonstration, in short, between doing one’s duty and pleasing oneself… The film also makes the claim that Jesus and Mary Magdalene was married (this is probably the case: Jesus was a rabbi, and rabbis had to be married men in those days – it is only later editing, at the council of Nicea when Mary’s story was redacted and her name besmirched. She, in fact, is the author of one of the books of the Apocrypha, in which it is clear that she is a beloved and respected disciple). This, and some other non-Biblical insinuations saw the film garnering some protest from religious groups – but the movie has good ratings from the critics and remains an excellent viewing experience.
The Passion of the Christ (2004)
When word got out that Mel Gibson – at that time much loved and hailed as an action hero movie star, all brawn and not too much else – was making a film about Jesus, people were bemused. However, the film, co-written, produced and directed by Gibson, was hailed as being thoughtful and realistic, although anti-Semitic overtones were criticised – especially in the following years, when drunken outbursts revealed Gibson’s hitherto unknown issues with bigotry. This film leads through Jesus’s last few days before his death, with a brief glimpse of his resurrection. Gibson is planning a sequel, in which Jesus’s return to heaven will be examined.
The Gospel of Us (2012)
A quirky and very Welsh take on the story of Jesus’s persecution by the Romans, this film is most notable for its stellar cast: the Teacher/ Jesus figure is played by Michael Sheen, most notably recently seen in the Amazon Prime adaptation of Neil Gaiman and the late Sir Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens – in which he plays an angel… He certainly seems to attract heavenly roles!
The Story of Judas (2015)
Originally a French production (Histoire de Judas) this recasts the relationship between Judas and Jesus as more of a bromance than anything else. Judas is misunderstood, according to the narrative, Jesus’s best friend who is the victim of a malicious and probably envious scribe – having handed him over to the authorities on Jesus’s own wishes. Jesus is subtle, a half-hooded figure, quietly working to improve the world around him, until his actions draw the attention of the Romans, who are always quick to spot any threat to their power. This works effectively to create an authentic picture of what the real Jesus may have been like in his own time.
What happens when you are a humble Roman soldier, set to guard the tomb of a criminal recently crucified to death, only to find that things are not quite as your superiors claim? That is the premise of this film, starring Tom Felton, Joseph Fiennes and Cliff Curtis (who is almost unique in this list in being the correct ethnicity to play a realistic Jesus!) amongst others. The unique take on the tale and light but assured touch of the scriptwriting has seen the film receive positive reviews.
Mary Magdalene (2018)
Starring Rooney Mara as the eponymous protagonist and the versatile Joaquim Phoenix as Jesus, this film follows a 20-teen trend of reclaiming women’s stories and voices. Mary heard of a miracle worker, a teacher seeking disciples and she wants in. The film follows her meeting with Jesus and becoming a devoted follower and resoundingly eschews the long-discredited belief that Mary of Magdalene was a prostitute or woman of ill-repute.
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