Father James Martin: Seven Jesus movies to watch this Easter

 Sara Bareilles portrays Mary Magdalene and John Legend is Christ in the NBC production of "Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert," airing April 1. (CNS photo/Virginia Sherwood, courtesy NBC)Sara Bareilles portrays Mary Magdalene and John Legend is Christ in the NBC production of "Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert," airing April 1. (CNS photo/Virginia Sherwood, courtesy NBC)

This article was published originally on May 3, 1997 under the title “The Gospel According to Blockbuster.” Blockbuster, of course, is long out of business, but these films are available to rent online. 

This year on Holy Thursday I found myself in a video store searching for “Jesus of Naza­reth,” a movie that my Jesuit communi­ty had decided would make good Easter-Triduum viewing. But I had been unable to locate it in any of a number of Blockbuster stores (“We have some nice cartoon Bible sto­ries, though,” I was told), so I wandered into a smaller, boutique video store nearby. At the counter stood a young man with lank brown hair who sported a row of silver rings in each ear and, for good measure, one in his nose. He was at the moment talking on the phone to a friend.

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“I’m looking for the video ‘Jesus of Nazareth. Do you have it?” I asked.

“Wow,” he said hanging up the phone. “You’re like the fifth person to ask me that today. Any idea why it’s so popular all of a sudden?” he said.

‘Jesus Christ Superstar,’ ‘Jesus of Montreal’ and other favorites from an evergreen genre

For a minute I thought he was joking. His earnest stare told me, however, that he was not.

“Well, um.” I said, “Easter’s in a few days, right?” “Oh yeah, right. Easter,” he said as he flicked the hair out of his eyes. Then he punched a few keys on his computer termi­nal.

While the City Video store did not have “Jesus of Nazareth,” my nose-ringed friend offered some other suggestions. “We also have ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ and ‘Jesus of Montreal,’ but they’re very contro­versial.” He glanced at me. “You probably wouldn’t like them,” he said.

I briefly wondered what, precisely, about my appearance had led him to conclude that those two movies would be beyond my toler­ance; but I decided to let it pass. In any event, those videos were also unavailable, so my community had to make do with “Jesus Christ, Superstar.”’

These films can aid us with what St. Ignatius Loyola calls “composition of place.”

I’m a firm believer that television and the movies can sometimes encourage us to see Scripture with new eyes. Film versions of Old and New Testament stones can, for example, successfully embellish Scripture by creatively tilling in confusing gaps in the narrative. More importantly, they can aid us with what St. Ignatius Loyola, in his Spiritu­al Exercises, calls “composition of place,” that is, the mental imaging of the Gospel stories. In other words, if done well, movies can help us to pray. Here then is a sort of exegesis of video versions of the greatest story ever told.

Jesus of Nazareth (1978). Franco Zeffir­elli’s magnificent film, despite an often distracting list of big-name stars (Ralph Rich­ardson is Simeon; Laurence Olivier is Nicodemus.), offers the following credentials: It was filmed in the Holy Land. It fol­lows the Gospels accurately (more or less). And Jesus actually looks like Jesus, albeit with greasy hair. Furthermore, the movie does an admirable job of showing the “two natures in one person,” successfully navigat­ing between the heretical shoals of Arianism and Docetism. Indeed, Jesus’ very human temptations are amply documented, as are his wondrous miracles. His casting out of demons is particularly effective. “Leave him!” says Jesus to a boy foaming at the mouth; and, as the silhouette of Jesus’ hand slowly falls across the boy’s face, he becomes calm. It shows the power of God working through his as well as the com­pelling personal power of Jesus the man.

It would be hard to imagine a more compelling cinematic retelling of this notoriously tricky topic. In case you’ve not seen the video for a while, you may have for­gotten how very well handled are some of the Gospel stories. The Annunciation, a diffi­cult scene lo portray on film, is depicted obliquely but sensitively. During the Visita­tion, Mr. Zeffirelli contrives to have Mary address Elizabeth as both are framed by two enormous arches, recalling a Fra Angelico tableau. And out of the mouth of Olivia Hussey the Magnificat sounds, amazingly, quite natural.

The guest stars here begin to remind one of an episode of “Love Boat.”

Any problems? Well, the surfeit of guest stars begins to remind one of an episode of “Love Boat,” but most of the stars do a won­derful job, with the possible exception of a scenery-chewing Peter Ustinov as King Herod. who overacts mightily as he orders the massacre of the Innocents: “Kill them. Kill them. Kill them!” It’s also rather long, though the abundance of cameos helps enliven what could possibly be tedious moments. You find yourself wondering if James Earl Jones (Balthazar) knows how difficult it is for viewers to forget that he provided the voice for Darth Vader. When the other Wise Men ask him how he came to know that the Messiah was to be born, I half expected him to rumble, “I felt a great distur­bance in the Force.” But these arc minor cav­ils. Overall, this moving film can be viewed profitably by everyone from catechumens to theologians.

King of Kings (1961). A bland movie with a blond Jesus, by way of Jeffrey Hunter. It moves through the Gospel stories rather briskly until we come upon a misguided pre­sentation of Jesus’ sayings and parables, which most directors intersperse (as do the Evangelists) with miracle stories. But not this director. His Jesus plants himself on a hill and for a good five minutes, in closeup, sim­ply recites saying after saying. He talks and talks and talks. The viewer is surprised to see any disciples following him after that.

Jesus of Montreal ( 1989). Like many line religious movies (think of “Therese”) this little gem came and went too quickly. However, like “Jesus of Nazareth,” it deserves another viewing. In case you missed it the first time around, the story revolves around a not especially religious acting troupe in Montreal who are commissioned to present a passion play at a local church. Last year, the pastor explains, the presentation was far too controversial, so could they make it a bit more mainstream?

The troupe begins to research the life of Jesus of Nazareth and develop their own passion play. The marvelously creative con­ceit of this movie is that the lives of the actors begin to mirror the stories of the characters they will portray. The actor portraying Jesus (Lothaire Bluteau) is tempted by a nefarious producer, as his play becomes a hit, to quit his little troupe for bigger things. As the two dine in a restaurant perched high in a skyscraper, the producer shows him Montreal. All of this, says Satan, could be yours. Likewise, the actress portraying Mary Magdalene is scorned for her somewhat licentious lifestyle. When she is urged by a director to remove her blouse and bare her breasts for a beer commercial, an enraged Mr. Bluteau enters the television studio, turns the tables over, fashions a whip from TV cables and chases the money changers away.

This movie makes no claim to be a direct retelling of the Gospels, and therefore annoyed some viewers with its liberal inter­pretation of a “resurrection.” But it is enjoy­able nonetheless, and, as with this year’s “Breaking the Waves,” you will have fun spotting the not-so-subtle Gospel parallels.

Jesus Christ, Superstar (1973). Many years ago on “All in the Family,” Archie Bunker was engaged in an argument with his son-in-law Mike Stivic (a k a Meathead) about the Broadway stage version of this musical. Archie was, as usual, apoplectic. Jesus was fine, he yelled, before your gener­ation turned him into a hippie rock-and-roll star!

The movie that stirred up controver­sy decades ago is still available on video. This retelling, compliments of com­poser (Lord) Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice, does an excellent job matching the music to the mood and exam­ining the emotions of the disciples. Clever of them, for example, to lead off with a very practical Judas scolding Jesus for leading his disciples astray. The rock-and-roll score still sounds fresh, and the lyrics pro­vide a surprisingly good explication of some Gospel passages. It is very evident, for example, in this version, why the high priests find it necessary to rid themselves of the wonderworker from Nazareth. (“For the sake of the nation, this Jesus must die,” sing the mean Pharisees.)

Speaking of the 70’s, there are enough bell bottoms, Afros, tube tops and hip huggers for the multitudes.

Jesus himself, played by Ted Neeley, is a suitable ’70s waif, wearing a long white robe and a wispy beard. It is Jesus as a flower child, which was the allure of the original stage production. And speaking of the ’70s, there are enough bell bottoms, Afros, tube tops and hip huggers for the multitudes. Director Norman Jewison also stuck with the cinematic fashions of the day and so, in addition to the clothes and hair, we’re treated to plenty of slow-motion and stop-action shots that were probably terribly arty in 1973 but now seem dated.

One lasting problem with this movie. as with the original play, is a fairly major omis­sion: the resurrection. (This, one suspects, would probably not be St. Paul’s favorite video.) After the crucifixion, the players in the film version merely pile into a Volkswa­gen van and drive away—another arty, ’70s touch, but one that ultimately ignores a rather important element of the story of Jesus Christ. It’s probably better just to buy the LP (oops, CD) of the stage version and listen for its vivid presentation of the Pas­sion.

The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1966). This one may be a challenge to find at any of the larger chains, but some special­ty video shops may carry this fascinating film by the Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini. He takes his script directly from a sin­gle Evangelist, which means that Joseph’s dream, for example, receives a more detailed treatment than, say, the Annuncia­tion as told by Luke. Pasolini, as in many of his other movies, used only local, untrained actors, which lends his movie a decidedly different feel from star-driven, big-budget Jesus movies. His Messiah is rather plain, as are the rest of the disciples and principles, but the crowds are terrific—just the way you imagine a crowd of poor people in first­-century Palestine would appear. Overall, the reliance on the Gospel of Matthew restricts this movie somewhat, but its stark simplici­ty lends this film a meditative, almost dreamy quality unique among the movies on this list.

The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). Similar in scope and intent to “Jesus of Nazareth,” this movie boasts a star lineup almost as impressive. Chief among the attractions of this movie is John Wayne as the Roman centurion, who says in his best John Wayne voice, “Truly this was the Son of God!” It is a good attempt at the Gospel stories, and until “Jesus of Nazareth” held claim to the title “the best of them.” On the other hand, Max Von Sydow as Jesus? Far too scary. He is better cast in those depressing Ingmar Bergman movies.

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). A few weeks ago National Public Radio ran an interview with the director Martin Scorsese. The interviewer, the ubiquitous film critic Roger Ebert, questioned Mr. Scorsese about his film “The Last Tempta­tion of Christ.” Mr. Scorsese said that at the time of the filming he had consulted with a number of religious leaders as well as some friends who were Catholic priests in order to portray, in his own words, the “right Christology.” If only those who had originally protested the movie were aware of how much thought went into his unfairly maligned work.

If only those who had originally protested the movie were aware of how much thought went into his unfairly maligned work.

With the intervening time, it is difficult to see what all the fuss was about. Purists objected that the movie showed Jesus on the cross imagining himself getting married to Mary Magdalene, settling down and finally dying in bed. Admittedly, this extended daydream takes up a good 40 minutes of the film. But it’s just that—a daydream, the eponymous temptation. Why, one wonders, were some incensed to think that Jesus was tempted? He was tempted in the desert, after all. Why not on the cross? The important thing was that he did not give in to his temptations and remained obedient to his Father’s will, a point made abundantly clear by Mr. Scorsese’s movie.

As you will recall, though, many missed the point and ended up demonstrating at theaters and heckling moviegoers. I saw it at a theater in New York City where I was accosted by five women brandishing rosary beads and telling me where I would end up at the end of my earthly life. This was about the same time that Mother Angelica displayed on her television network a large map of the United States. At the cities where the “The Last Temptation of Christ’’ was playing, she had positioned red tongues of fire.

All of this distracted from an innovative film about the life of Christ, based on the popular novel by Nikos Kazantzakis. Admittedly, Willem Dafoe makes for a strange Jesus (Mr. Scorsese’s first choice was even stranger: Robert DeNiro), and Harvey Keitel’s Judas is a bit much with his New Yawk accent. But it is an evocative look at the time and the man and well worth a $3.50 rental at Blockbuster.

Some final recommendations: Looking for something to provoke or goad you into considering the Gospels in a fresh light? Try “Jesus of Montreal” or “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Pining for the ’70s? Try “Jesus Christ, Superstar.” Searching for a solid retelling of the Gospels? Try “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” And the best of the lot? How about “Jesus of Nazareth,” a deeply moving film that could be recom­mended to almost anyone. And don’t feel guilty about finding spiritual consolation by watching something on television.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Mike Theman
1 month 3 weeks ago

There are quite a few additions to this list since 1997. Here's a list from 2015: http://www.imdb.com/list/ls079155350/ . Youtube has some of these for free, but if you can't find them there, try Fandango or Vudu, both of which are pay-per-view services that can be accessed on a computer or smart TV.

My wife and I are watching "Jesus of Nazareth" with our children, one or two hours at a time, since they learned almost nothing about Jesus in their Sunday School classes. It is as great now as it was when it was first released, though for today's youth it moves a little slowly. That movie has the real Jesus; the other movies all have actors, ha-ha.

Tim O'Leary
1 month 3 weeks ago

I think watching Montreal or the Last Temptation would just about undo my Holy Week. The Passion of the Christ is the only movie that can bring one deeply into the mystery of Salvific love. I watch it every Good Friday since it came out - into the second decade now. It never fails to reignite my love of our Lord and Savior.

Kevin Clarke
1 month 3 weeks ago

I haven’t seen Last Temptation but I think you are wrong about Jesus of Montreal. It was a wonderful film (the actor playing Jesus reappeared as a Jesuit in Black Robe). You should give it a chance.

Tim O'Leary
1 month 3 weeks ago

Fair enough, Kevin - I was going off the description. But, I was very impressed by Black Robe, so I will check out Montreal later in the year, a little temporal space from Holy Week, to be safe :).

Gregg Costanzo
1 month 3 weeks ago

Going to any video store in 2018 makes me smile. Several of the films mentioned here are available on YouTube and some paid streaming sites. My one criticism: Do you really think "Jesus actually looks like Jesus" - as in the Middle Eastern man of 2,000 years ago?

Tim O'Leary
1 month 3 weeks ago

Hard to know if ancient Palestinians looked much like moderns either, especially with the admixture of Greek blood (3 centuries of Greek Seleucid rule). I believe in the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin so that image of Jesus is the most reliable for me.

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