Part 2 of Top 10 Jesus Movies—adds a bit of show biz!
READ PART 1 for the introduction to this list. Here are Edward McNulty’s Top 4 to 7 Jesus movies …
Number 4: THE GOSPEL OF JOHN
PG-13. Available on DVD from Amazon.
Director Philip Saville’s gloriously photographed film is a visual interpretation of the actual text of the fourth Gospel. This is the third film in the Visual Bible series. The company previously filmed the text of The Gospel of Matthew and the Book of Acts in the exact order of the printed texts. This time, the NIV translation used in the earlier two films is replaced by the American Bible Society’s Good News Bible—a good choice because of that version’s colloquial dialogue. As in the other two films, there is a narrator: John is telling this story, so he speaks or occasionally is shown writing the narrative, while a cast acts out the dialogue. Initially, I was skeptical that Saville could make Jesus’ long Upper Room monologue visually interesting, but my doubts dissolved as the sequence unfolded on screen. The director meets the visual challenge by deftly cutting back and forth between Jesus addressing the Twelve and earlier scenes of his teaching and miracles. This film was overlooked when showing in theaters because of the hullabaloo over Mel Gibson’s Passion. Saville’s John deserves a larger audience.
Number 5: JESUS OF MONTREAL
Rated R. Available on DVD from Amazon.
Viewers might argue that Jesus of Montreal is not a “Jesus Film” in the strictest sense. The story shows us a Jesus-transfigured character in our modern era. Canadian filmmaker Denys Arcand re-imagines the story of Christ as taking place in Montreal. Daniel, an obscure actor, is hired by a priest who runs a shrine with dwindling attendance. The priest asks Daniel to rewrite a clichéd Passion Play so that it will appeal to a younger audience. The actor researches the works of modern scholars and comes up with an iconoclastic Jesus who proves very upsetting to the priest. Daniel takes on the role of Jesus and gathers actors to portray the disciples from some very unconventional places. As a result, the play becomes as much of a hit with the public as it is displeasing to the priest and his superiors. This is a delightful answer to the question, “What might happen were Christ to appear among us today?”
Number 6: GODSPELL
Rated G. Available on DVD from Amazon.
Here’s another Jesus-transfigured film that sprawls across streets, rooftops and a junkyard in Manhattan. This tuneful rendition focuses as much on the teachings of Christ as on his life. Drawing on vaudeville and mime, Jesus takes on the guise of a clown and joins with the disciples in cleverly dramatizing his parables and teachings in memorable ways. The musical-comedy mood changes after an encounter with a threatening machine that represents the enemies of Jesus—with the last portion a dramatic enactment of the Last Supper and Crucifixion. The farewell is touching, with Jesus wordlessly embracing each disciple in a unique way appropriate to his/her personality. No credit is given, but the major songs are those of beloved Christian hymns set to new music and a lively beat. A wonderful film for sharing the story with youth! No matter how many times I watch this, I am always glad to watch again.
Number 7: JESUS CHRIST: SUPERSTAR
Rated G. Available on DVD from Amazon.
One more Jesus-transfigured film, based on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s and Tim Rice’s counter-cultural rock opera, this film came out the same year as Godspell. Very much reflecting the era’s views by depicting Jesus as a celebrity rather than as the Messiah, director Norman Jewison’s version places Jesus as the head of a troupe of actors who get off a bus in modern-day Palestine. Amid some ancient ruins they run through the rock opera, beginning at a point when Jesus has become so popular that, in the words of Judas, he is beginning to believe all the talk of God centering on him. Indeed, this story of Jesus is told from the standpoint of a disillusioned Judas, who, after his death, accuses Jesus of “murdering me.” Created by two agnostic Brits, the film stands in contrast to Godspell in that it does not include the Resurrection. Despite the aging of its musical soundtrack, Jesus Christ: Superstar is still fun to watch and full of insight.
Care to read more from Edward McNulty?
Consider these books, collecting dozens of his reflections on movies that you can read for fun and inspiration—or use to spark spirited small-group discussion.
- Praying the Movies, available via Amazon, includes McNulty’s look at Star Wars, Schindler’s List, the Deer Hunter and Pulp Fiction.
- Praying the Movies II: More Daily Meditations from Classic Films, also at Amazon, includes McNulty’s reflections on Gandhi, It’s a Wonderful Life, Harry Potter and O Brother, Whereart Thou?
- Faith and Film: A Guidebook for Leaders, includes Amistad, Erin Brockovich, the Matrix and Shawshank Redemption.
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(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.)