Jesus Christ Movie Star: Portrayals of the Messiah on Screen

Jesus Christ could be described as the most enduring figure in human historical records, but I suppose that is very Christian-centric of me. What about Siddhārtha Gautama, one may ask? Described as ‘a first-century Jewish preacher and religious leader’ and lampoon-ishly marked as being born ‘c. 4 BC’ (BC meaning Before Christ) on Wikipedia, Jesus has been the subject of much artistic depictions since time…um…began. Given that Hollywood and European countries with large film industries were/still are Christian enthusiasts, it was inevitable that the figure of Christ would be commonly portrayed in movies once the screen format became popularised after the 1910s. I don’t think Jesus appears in film as often as say God, the Devil or even Dracula, but this makes sense as his portrayal is not as straight-forward for directors and actors. In regard to the historical evidence presented in the canonical Gospels, there is a startling depth to this figure. One that is equally human as it is supernatural and mystical. This is why his portrayal on screen has always been of interest to me. For any meaningful depictions, it is probably best to steer clear of the Christian televangelist movies, of which there are many. And the parodies (of which there are also many, including the glorious Life of Brian) are really only brought out to stir up the extremists. But there are some big, serious Jesus films worth discussing here (and it is Easter after all). Some of these have done a fantastic job in exploring the supposed life and times of Jesus while others have confounded us with bluster and violence.

Il vangelo secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to St. Matthew) (1964 Pier Paolo Pasolini)

An Italian neorealist film adaptation of the life of Christ from an atheist’s perspective seems an unlikely thing, but in the mid-60s the controversial artist, Pier Paolo Pasolini, offered the world this very thing. Thankfully, he produced something profound and enduring, if a tad arthouse. It does not exude with the expense and grandeur of a Hollywood film, nor does it have a controversial stand-point on the adapted material. It actually is what it is – a very worthy and straight-forward imagining of Saint Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus is played with marvellous pathos by Enrique Irazoqui, who at the time was a 19 year old amateur actor. The dialogue is sparse but it comes directly and word-for-word from the Gospel – it is envisioned in accordance with the descriptions afforded by Matthew’s analogy-laden writings. The mood is carefully photographed in black and white by Tonino Delli Colli, and the Mediterranean setting (southern Italy) lends itself to an evocative feel throughout.  

When you consider Pasolini’s penchant for provoking the Italian Christian establishment before and after this, it is remarkable to not find any such provocation in this production. In fact Pope John XXIII is un-ironically credited at the beginning of the film having invited Pasolini and other non-religious artists to have a dialogue with the Vatican not long before the film was released. The film possesses hidden, contemplative depths that give great effect to the absorbed viewer. I don’t normally agree with the Vatican’s stance on things, but its newspaper’s declaration of this being the best movie ever made about Christ is something I am on board with.

The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965 George Stevens)

Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (i.e. his second attempt in 1956) is probably the greatest spectacle of Hollywood Biblical epics from the period, but The Greatest Story Ever Told was certainly the most ambitious. With JC as the focus, one could argue that it set its sights on a bigger Box Office draw than Moses. Unsurprisingly, the cast was made up of big-time stars, but the inclusion of the Swede Max Von Sydow as Jesus was a quite interesting choice. It certainly established the actor (who was a Bergman regular before this) and started a seemingly never-ending career in blockbuster movies (ending recently with Star Wars: The Force Awakens). Typically rich in Technicolor imagery and filmed in the US rather than anywhere near or resembling the Holy Land, George Stevens’ epic is overly romanticised and offensively long (the full version is 4 hours and 20 minutes). It has all the subtlety of a Christmas pantomime. But like all of these grand, expensive Hollywood productions from the time, there is a sense of dramatic excitement that makes for a rollicking show. It is quite exciting to pick out the A-list actors (whether big at the time, or soon-to-be big stars) in the line-up. Charlton Heston, Claude Rains, José Ferrer, Telly Savalas, Martin Landau, Donald Pleasence and Roddy McDowall all have lead roles, while Angela Lansbury, Sidney Poitier, Shelley Winters and even John Wayne have cameos. It really is ‘Jesus comes to Hollywood’ stuff.

In tandem with the location settings, the various trans-Atlantic accents helps to erode any notion of authenticity. This is marked hilariously when Wayne’s recognisable twang mouths at Jesus’s death that ‘truly this man was the Son of God’. Even though it was made for show, it was also an important Christian propaganda tool. Stevens liaised with the Vatican during its making, and it was marketed at churches and Sunday Schools throughout the US – the aim was always to popularise the ‘Jesus Story’ with Christian children and would-be heathens. Interestingly, it was a Box Office failure and actually led Hollywood to abandon the Biblical Epic format over subsequent years.

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988 Martin Scorsese)

Martin Scorsese’s ecstatic love of world cinema is well-known, and Pasolini’s films was one of many influences on his style. However, unlike Pasolini, he is a Catholic and a general believer in God. But he has grappled with his faith and has presented this often in his films (Kundun and Silence). Of course, there was always going to be controversy when he decided to adapt a novel on the life of Jesus as he did here with The Last Temptation of Christ. This was never meant to be an adaptation of the Gospels and is actually described as ‘a fictional exploration of the eternal spiritual conflict’ in a disclaimer at the top of the film, but the detractors decided to ignore that part. And anyway, the mere mention of religion in art will always attract some form of controversy.

I, for one, do not see any problem with the narrative in The Last Temptation of Christ. Scorsese excellently manages the novel’s subject matter and presents it in an epic, if alternative, format. It is slightly over-long, sometimes over-acted by its many big stars, and it can be confusing at times. But its deeply spiritual focus is rewarding and it gives a very plausible account of Jesus’s troubled adult life. There is an inescapable emotional connection to the man, as portrayed masterfully by Willem Defoe. The temptations he experiences is at the forefront of many scenes and even though this was controversial for many Christian critics at the time of its release, it is what grounds the film in realism. Indeed, the topic of Jesus ‘being human’ is a legitimate point of discussion when it comes to modern Catholic Church issues such as celibacy and its approach to sexuality. This is why The Last Temptation of Christ, although reviled and banned in many countries (it is really not that bad), has been critically revised as a hugely important and serious film about religion and faith.

The Passion of the Christ (2004 Mel Gibson)

In contrast to Pasolini and Scorsese’s adaptations on Christ’s life, Mel Gibson left all subtle ruminations on spirituality at the door, and instead decided to blend aspects of authenticity with Hollywood’s love of violence and torture. This is not surprising given the much-publicised alcohol-loving, anti-Semitic image of Gibson since his days as an action hero in Mad Max, Lethal Weapon and Braveheart. Given the money and the tools, he was always going to make a film like this. The Passion of the Christ has always mesmerised me since I first seen it on the Big Screen in 2004 – at only 19, I had recently left home and started to depart from my mainly Catholic-based upbringing where mass-attendance with my family (as well as being an altar boy) was a common Sunday event. On Good Friday, ‘The Passion’ was played out on the altar before us like a script reading for a film. It is an intriguing story with a sense of reverence that I could never fully grasp. The symbolic death of Jesus that came at the pinnacle of the story was massively harrowing, but the tragedy was always lifted with the resurrection and a plethora of Easter Eggs on Sunday morning!

Gibson’s direction in many ways must be commended. Totally in non-English dialogue (Hebrew, Latin, and reconstructed Aramaic), the tone of the spectacle is extremely dark and a complete departure of the old Hollywood epics. Caleb Deschanel’s stunning cinematography is impressive. Jim Caviezel’s devotional method-acting and brooding central performance as the messiah is nothing short of extraordinary. The film as a whole is deeply, deeply affecting. Like films such as The Revenant, Irreversible and Apocalypto, it is an endurance. Quite often, it is an unpleasant experience. The torturing of Jesus as he is led to his crucifixion is basically what the film focuses on, and Gibson gleefully suffocates the viewer in it without relent. The odd thing is that ‘The Passion’ as portrayed in our local church on Good Friday never really conjured up visuals like this for me…but if you wanted to go that far, you could easily end up with Gibson’s vision. A sickening violent vision that it is. But we cannot deny the authenticity that is presented here. I suppose it represents the conceit at the heart of Biblical teachings, particularly towards children. We shelter them from hatred and violence, and yet that is exactly what is spelled out in front of them. But whatever way we choose to look at these things, films about Jesus (or any influential religious figure for that matter) is important for our continued scrutiny on our existence.

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