What is the Best Movie Made About Jesus?

22
Gospel of St. Matthew

I just finished watching Mary Magdalene, a high-wattage, low-Scripture take on the life of Christ as seen through the eyes of one of his most prominent followers. My full review will be published later this week, but let me offer one thought now: I was struck by how true it felt in places and how wrong it was in others, with those moments sometimes separated by mere seconds of screen time. And despite a parade of A-list actors—Rooney Mara as Mary, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Peter and Joaquin Phoenix as Jesus—I was also struck by how the film was, both theologically and narratively, upended by its own agenda.

‘Course, everyone who makes a Jesus movie has an agenda. And as our hearts and minds turn to Calvary this time of year, there are no lack of Jesus movies—and no lack of points of view—to engage with.

Given that the Gospels have enthralled readers for millennia, perhaps it’s not too surprising that the very first movie about Jesus was, also, one of the very first movies ever. The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ was first released in France in 1902, but its makers played around with it for another three years and unveiled it again in 1905. It obviously looks a bit crude now, but the special effects were gobsmackingly great for an age when most folks didn’t even have electricity.

Since then, dozens upon dozens of films have brought Jesus to the screen. Those seeking to inspire the faithful tend to stick close to the script and Scripture. The Gospel of John, for instance, was a word-for-word retelling taken straight from the book itself. Last year, a collection of four gospel movies—rigorously faithful video renderings of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—was released. (It was titled The Gospel Collection, of course, and you can still buy it if you’d like. )

But that’s not always the case. Risen, one of my favorite movies about Jesus, was a wholly fictional story framing the Easter narrative as a whodunit.  Mel Gibson’s wildly successful The Passion of the Christ contained plenty of Scripture, but it also brought in extra-scriptural elements and stories—as well as perhaps the most graphic depiction of Christ’s crucifixion ever committed to celluloid. The faithful who made The Passion the most successful R-rated movie in history didn’t seem to mind.

But Jesus’ story has attracted many a secular filmmaker, too—artists who wanted to put their own spin on Jesus’ life and death and (if they were so inclined) resurrection. The results have been mixed.

Perhaps the most notorious of all was The Last Temptation of Christ. Though director Martin Scorsese has always considered himself a man of deep, inquisitive faith—a faith that often filters into his movies—his take on Nikos Kazantzakis’ controversial 1955 book of the same name was deeply despised by many Christians. I was in high school when the film was released, but I still remember the picketers outside the only theater in town that deigned to show it.

In 2016, a film called The Last Days in the Desert showed up in a handful of art houses. Featuring Ewan McGregor in the dual roles of Jesus and Satan and filmed by multi-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, Last Days gave us a very human Jesus that I thought had some interesting things to say. But few people besides me actually saw it.

And then occasionally, a hybrid of Scriptural rigor and artistic vision comes together to give us a surprising film. Perhaps no movie is more surprising than Italy’s 1964 The Gospel According to St. Matthew. The film was directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini, an avowed atheist and admitted Marxist. But in 1962, he read through the Gospels “from beginning to end, like a novel,” and declared it “the most exalting thing one can read.” His film—which leaned so heavily on the book that almost every word of dialogue is pulled straight from the Bible—is considered something of a spiritual cinematic masterpiece. While some have seen some of Pasolini’s Marxist leanings in his very radical Jesus (and lest we forget, Jesus was indeed the ultimate game-changer), faithful moviegoers of all stripes have embraced this version without reservation. L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s own newspaper, called it “the best film about Jesus ever made.”

I have to admit that I’ve not seen The Gospel According to St. Matthew. Perhaps this is the year. If I had to name my own favorite movie about Jesus, I might point to Ben-Hur (a 1959 epic that holds up really well today and was, in its original book form, called “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ”). I really found Risen engaging. And for all its bloody excesses, I was moved by The Passon of the Christ, too.

But now I want to hear from you. What do you think is the best movie about Jesus ever made? Do you have a go-to film to watch around Easter? Let me know down below, or chime in on Facebook and Twitter. I’d love to hear what you think.

Who wrote this?

Paul Asay has been writing for Plugged In since 2007 and loves superheroes and finding God in unexpected places. In addition, Paul has also written several books, with his newest—Burning Bush 2.0—recently published by Abingdon Press. When Paul’s not reviewing movies, he hikes with his wife, Wendy, runs marathons with his grown kids, Colin and Emily, and beats back unruly houseplants. Follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.

Have something to say? Leave a comment.

Jenny Walter 3 days ago
I chose to trust in Jesus after a viewing of the Jesus Film, so that telling of the gospel will always hold a special place in my heart.  But my favorite portrayal to watch around Easter time is a one-man play by Dean Jones where he plays the Apostle John exiled in Patmos who recounts the story of his experiences with Jesus.  It is full of humor, truth, passion, agony, and jubilation.  Check out St. John in Exile (1986) if you are looking for some variety among your Easter favorites.
Anonymous 2 days ago
That's pretty cool! I guess if you became a Christian after watching the Jesus film that would definately hold a special place in your heart forever, because it'll be part of your testimony. 

Posted By A-Non-Mouse
Anonymous 6 days ago
There is a very good movie called "The Robe".  It is a movie from 1953. In the Roman province of Judea during the 1st century, Roman tribune Marcellus Gallio is ordered to crucify Jesus of Nazareth but is tormented by his guilty conscience afterwards.
Anonymous 6 days ago
We love to watch Jesus of Nazareth.  Originally a mini-series, we sometimes break it up...watch the first part at Christmas (James Earl Jones as a wise man!), then the rest at Easter.  It is very believable and true to Scripture, I believe.  Jesus' calling forth of Lazarus is especially moving.
Cathy Haubie 7 days ago
A non-Christian movie with the theme of sacrifice; my vote is with Gran Torino. The ending was powerful as (Spoiler Alert!!) Clint Eastwood lays on the ground - arms outstretched - illustrating John 15:13
Anonymous 6 days ago
I feel like non-christian films that have subtle references to scripture and Christ's death and resurrection are better than the Christian films.

Posted By A-Non-Mouse
Philip Sasser 7 days ago
Probably the best is Passion of the Christ, but the Gospel of John is very nicely done. And Henry Ian Cusick plays Jesus beautifully, covering the gamut from his divinity to his humanity.
jim lucas 7 days ago
Tim Keller said that every good story is effectively a Jesus story (Beauty & the Beast, Shawshank Redemption, Sampson, David vs/ Goliath, Star Wars, etc)...  I can't remember all the key elements- but that would open up the possible answers Asay's question quite a bit.  Given that- I'd say my favorite was Jesus movie is Pan's Labyrinth. 
Karl The Klown 7 days ago
Hahaha. Yes, Pan's Labyrinth was a fantastic film
Anonymous 7 days ago
Never Seen or Heard of it.

Posted By A-Non-Mouse
Anonymous 7 days ago
I know this will be contriversial, but I'm gonna say it anyway. Harry Potter is a good story that reflects the gospel. 

SPOILERS IN FOLLOWING COMMENTS! IT WILL COMPLETELY SPOIL EVERYTHING! BE WARNED!

In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry dies. He does it completely sacrificially to destroy the Horcrux that is inside him. But he comes back to defeat Voldemort, saving all the good wizards that are left. Does it sound filmiliar to anybody? I know a lot of people on here will probably disagree with this, but I think that plot twist is what makes that series (both books and films) so great! 

And to those who think Harry Potter is bad: I can sort of understand your reasons for not letting your kids be involved with Harry Potter at all, but how is it any worse than Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, or even some of the Marvel films? J.K. Rowling was not encouraging magic to be practiced, it is a fictional thing to be enjoyed! For fun! She wasn't encouraging you to go out a practice whitchcraft!

Posted By A-Non-Mouse
charitysplace 7 days ago
I think my favorite Jesus is the one depicted in The Bible miniseries from a few years ago. He had a firm but gentle presence.

As a historical nerd, I enjoyed the new Ben Hur but the anachronisms bugged me. Namely, Lucius Pilate with a beard. No Romans wore beards. Beards were for barbarians. ;)
Karl The Klown 7 days ago
I've had a beard since I was 15. Guess it's the Scottish in me
Anonymous 7 days ago
I think what  @charitysplace is trying to prove is you're a barbarian as we all suspected! Lol.

Have you really had a beard since you were fifteen? This is the most important question on the internet right now!

Posted By The Non-Mouse
Karl The Klown 7 days ago
Yes, yes I have. I've been shaving since I was 12, and I could grow a pretty decent beard by the time I was 15. I'm turning 18 in July.
Chuck Anziulewicz 9 days ago
I saw "The Last Temptation of Christ" when it screened in Charleston, West Virginia, where I live. And I remember the people picketing in front of the theater. In fact, when I was leaving the theater after the movie was over, I was accosted by one protester, who was asking me how I felt about things in the movie .... THAT WERE NOT IN THE MOVIE. I said to him, "What a minute, that didn't happen in the movie!" And he said, "Well that's what I HEARD."

Actually it's a pretty good film, certain well made as only Martin Scorcese can make a movie. And there is a disclaimer in the film stating, "This film is not based on the Gospels, but upon the fictional exploration of the eternal spiritual conflict."

From the Wikipedia entry on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis: "The central thesis of the book is that Jesus, while free from sin, was still subject to fear, doubt, depression, reluctance, and lust. Kazantzakis argues in the novel's preface that by facing and conquering all of man's weaknesses, Jesus struggled to do God's will without ever giving in to the temptations of the flesh. The novel advances the argument that, had Jesus succumbed to any such temptation, especially the opportunity to save himself from the cross, his life would have held no more significance than that of any other philosopher."

Ultimately in the film he does NOT succumb to temptation, instead fulfilling his true destiny.

The film does not cast doubt of any kind on the divinity of Christ. But a central tenet of Christian doctrine is that Jesus was both wholly man and wholly God. And IF Jesus was wholly man, how could he not be subject to the same temptations all of us face?
Anonymous 9 days ago
You're right about The Last Temptation of Christ. It's much more deeply felt, well-made, intelligent and profound than your standard Christian movie. 

Scorsese is an artist concerned with complex themes of temptation, sin and guilt. That's the difference between him and a filmmaker whose goal is to proselytize or reinforce people's beliefs. He wanted to challenge viewers -- and he certainly succeeded.

-- The Kenosha Kid
Christis Joy Pinson 9 days ago
I am with you: the 1959 Ben-Hur has to be my favorite (and, truly, the best movie ever made in my opinion). Did you know that Fathom events and TCM are bringing it to theaters next week? Sunday the 14th and Wednesday the 17th; I am beyond excited to finally see it on the big screen! :)

Beyond that, I would probably have to go with The Passion of The Christ for a couple of reasons. One, Jim Caviezel's portrayal of Jesus is so similar to how I have always imagined Him, and, two, it actually brings in satan as the arch-nemesis and enemy (instead of just the pharisees or Roman Empire, like so many Biblical movies do), which really gives the epic scope of what was actually going on with Jesus' death defeating the power of sin and His resurrection defeating the dominion of darkness.
Nathan Prindler 9 days ago
One of my all-time favorites is "Miracle Maker." I know... the play-doh animation kinda sucks, but I just love so much how the extra-scriptural elements they add enhance the story, and the way they incorporate comical stuff is just amazing! You have to see it to appreciate it.
Philip Sasser 7 days ago
It really was well-acted and beautifully made. The depiction of Satan during his temptation of Jesus I felt was profound. No hissing snakes or silly characters. It fit more the Satan we all know too well.
Anonymous 9 days ago
We really enjoyed the new Ben-Hur movie that came out several years ago. It was very well made, with suspense, action, love and adventure, and I felt it conveyed the heart of the gospel to a secular audience without feeling preachy. That being said, it is not deeply rooted in scripture as many of these other films, so you can't quite fit it into the same category in my opinion.
Doris Acker 9 days ago
I agree with your three choices there at the end of your blog. However, my go to Easter movie about Christ has always been the King of Kings with Jeffrey Hunter playing Jesus. My Aunt took me when I was nine years old to see it and it made a strong impression on me.