Part 1: Surprising choices in the first 3 of Top 10 Jesus Movies
Easter is looming on April 24 for more than 2 billion Christians around the world—so Hollywood is flooding stores with its annual wave of Jesus movies on DVD and Blu-ray. For decades after World War II, the word’s most popular image of Jesus was Warner Sallman’s Head of Christ, which looked like a face right out of Hollywood Central Casting. Just as a bearded Charleton Heston still defines Moses around the world, movie versions of Jesus are vividly fixed in our memories.
This week, ReadTheSpirit invites an expert in interpreting faith and film—author and film critic Edward McNulty—to list his Top 10 Jesus Movies of All Time. We welcome your comments and urge you to share this series with friends on Facebook via the “recommend” link below. Here is McNulty’s report …
Edward McNulty’s Top 10 Jesus Films of All Time, Part 1
Filmmakers have pulled film scripts from the Bible for more than a century. Before World War I, several Life of Christ films were released, often consisting of a dozen or more short segments. Today, movie technology has changed dramatically, but some things never change. Even in the silent era, movie publicists proved to be about as truthful as they are today. One American movie at that time claimed to be filmed on location in Oberammergau, home to the controversial 400-year-old Passion Play, but the movie actually was shot on a hotel roof in Manhattan!
I have written about faith and film for many years, I’ve taught classes and I’ve led workshops across the country. Usually, I focus on spiritual themes in major features, including Star Wars, Harry Potter and classics like It’s a Wonderful Life. You’ll find links to my three earlier faith-and-film books below. But I am often asked about film portrayals of biblical stories—and I have to tell people: I’m no fan of some of the best-known classics such as The Greatest Story Ever Told or King of Kings.
I like to surprise people, to spur discussion and today I’m starting my Top 10 Jesus Movies with a choice that most audiences tell me they’ve never seen: The Miracle Maker. Here is my list …
Number 1: The Miracle Maker
Not rated. Available in a DVD edition and a two-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo pack.
I place this animated film at the top because of its artistic merit and because it is so well suited for family viewing. It’s wonderful for adults and children to watch and discuss. There’s no danger of a child becoming bored, and even adults will marvel at the skillful use of stop-motion puppets. With marvelous backgrounds and intricately wrought buildings, some of the frames from the film could be displayed as wall paintings. The story is told through the eyes of a child, the daughter of Jairus whom Jesus cured. She and her father become friends of the wandering rabbi, and are present at many key moments in Jesus’ life. Ralph Fiennes as the voice of Jesus captures the warmth, humor, and agony of Christ. His reading of the words of Jesus’ Garden of Gethsemane prayer ranks among the most moving scenes in any Jesus film. An artistic plus is the shift from stop-motion animation to drawn animation whenever there is a flashback or a scene depicting an inward, spiritual part of the drama. An example of the latter are the two incidents when Satan comes to Jesus, during the wilderness temptation and in the Garden of Gethsemane. One of the best things about The Miracle Maker is its run time of less than 90 minutes—about the same length as the average animated feature that children love to watch over and over.
Number 2: Jesus of Nazareth
Not rated. Available on DVD from Amazon.
This mini-series was first broadcast on NBC amidst great controversy generated by a fundamentalist preacher. Jesus of Nazareth could be considered the most satisfying movie on this list because—at 382 minutes—filmmaker Franco Zeffirelli takes plenty of time to develop the characters and includes more of the gospel stories and teachings than other films. Despite the blue eyes of Robert Powell in the role of Jesus, the carpenter’s Jewish identity is highlighted by costumes and details of the ceremonies and everyday life of ancient Palestine. Powell’s Jesus comes across as a warm, compassionate man who loves to tell stories, and yet who sometimes seems apart as if seeing a kingdom visible only to himself. There is a stage-full of famous thespians in supporting parts, but they are so adept that this does not seem as distracting as in King of Kings. I especially enjoy the way that Zeffirelli rearranges the gospel material for dramatic effect, much as gospel writers Matthew and Luke did with their source material. Best example of this is Zeffirelli’s depicting Simon the fisherman and Levi the tax collector as neighbors hating each other, so that the fisherman becomes upset when Jesus accepts an invitation to dinner at Levi’s house. Jesus is welcomed at the party, and a guest asks him to tell a story. Jesus, aware that Simon has come up to the open doorway to peek in, tells the story of the Father and Two Sons. Both Levi and Simon see themselves in the story. As a result, two former enemies embrace.
Number 3: Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew
Not rated. This DVD edition of Pasolini’s Matthew, available via Amazon, contains both a 137-minute black-and-white Italian version and a 90-minute colorized English-dubbed version.
Here’s a surprise! This moving interpretation of the first gospel comes from director Pier Paolo Pasolini, a Marxist who saw the Church as an enemy of the working class. However, when he read the gospel, Pasolini was so taken with Matthew’s portrait of Jesus that he made a film far more literal and closer in spirit to the biblical account than the over-blown American epics of the 1960s. Pasolini’s Jesus is always on the move—at times the disciples almost have to run to keep up with him. His Jesus is sometimes angry, other times smiling as he holds a child, very much a rebel with a cause. The film was shot in a neo-realistic black and white, so that the Crucifixion scene unfolds like a newsreel. An aged Mary, supported by the other women, watches helplessly as her son dies in agony. The soundtrack is magnificent with music from Bach and a portion of the delightful African work Missa Luba. Many critics and filmmakers—from Roger Ebert to Martin Scorsese—rank Pasolini’s Matthew among the all-time great works in the history of cinema.
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.)