You love them. You hate them. You love to hate them. Yes, we are talking about Jesus movies, Hollywood’s generally muddled attempts at portraying the life and mission of our Lord Jesus Christ on screen. What does Hollywood do right when depicting our Lord? Where do they bomb? Who has done well, and who has totally botched it? In this article, we explore all this and more in looking at the good, the bad and the ugly depictions of our Lord. While we will not have the space to critique every film, I will cast my net wide enough to gather in the best—and the worst.
The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)
Our first review takes us back to 1965, the sunset of the golden age of epic historical drama. The Greatest Story Ever Told (TGSET) was once the go-to Jesus epic for Christmas. With almost four hours of run time, this film is sprawling. It was also distinguished among Bible movies for its star-studded cast, whether they are in major roles (Max von Sydow as Jesus) or pulling five minutes of screen time (Sidney Poitier as Simon of Cyrene).
Moreso than the cast, the thing which sets TGSET apart is the effort made to portray Christ with reverence. Von Sydow’s Jesus really isn’t troubled by anything. His divinity sets Him above the turbulence of the workaday world, endowing Him with a sturdy, unflappable demeanor. Even when He’s cleansing the Temple, his voice is level and steady. While I can appreciate the effort, it sometimes gets in the way. When Our Lord is suffering the Passion, for example, neither director George Stevens nor von Sydow tries to show it. It isn’t until you hear “I thirst” that you feel that the experience is anything out of the ordinary for Christ. This stoic, dare I say dull, portrayal of Jesus exacerbates the plodding style of the rest of the film. The bulk of the film consists of shots of Jesus and the Apostles walking, with voice-overs of von Sydow giving various sayings of Jesus. It gets old.
Which isn’t to say that the whole movie is a waste. There are some great moments; it’s just that most of them don’t involve an appearance by Jesus. Claude Rains and Jose Ferrer are great as Herods Agrippa and Antipas. I’ll even give kudos to Telly Savalas as Pilate. Then there’s Donald Pleasance as Satan, popping up at various critical events in order to advance the cause of evil. Charlton Heston as John the Baptist demonstrates disdain and spirited resistance to anyone who would try to silence him, probably a lot like the real Baptist. His exchanges with Herod are classic, as he simultaneously says he will pray for the king’s soul yet warns him of the fate awaiting him in Hell.
The film’s faithfulness to the Gospel accounts comes and goes. Most of Christ’s miracles are covered in some respect. However, the calling of the Apostles is pretty much fabricated. Lazarus is conflated with the Rich Young Man. There are many such moments, but nothing that detracts from the overall message. It is passable.
Jesus of Nazareth (1977, PG)
The 1977 Jesus of Nazareth, a 1977 British-Italian television miniseries co-written and directed by Franco Zeffirelli, has become the gold standard of Jesus films. I have seen this film dozens of times over the years and had many occasions to reflect upon it. Such was its fame that it was once aired on network television every Easter. Is it worth the accolades that have been heaped upon it over the decades? In my opinion, yes.
What makes Jesus of Nazareth the gold standard, such an icon that for many, Robert Powell is the face of Jesus Christ? The all-star cast certainly helps; Rod Steiger is the best Pontius Pilate ever, in my opinion, and I have always liked the portrayal of St. Joseph by Greek actor Yorgo Voyagis. Applause also for Michael York as John the Baptist. But the strength of this film is not in the cast but in the script. No other Jesus project has tried so hard to truly capture the mood of anticipation surrounding the coming of the Messiah, the religious atmosphere in first century Judea, or the ire of the Temple authorities at the preaching of Jesus (the series’ depiction of the conflict between the Pharisees and our Lord is unsurpassed). In short, Zeffirelli labored to put our Lord in a proper context. Thus, the film is not “shallow” like many Jesus movies, where the director is rushing to get a few important events of Jesus’s life crammed in. Rather, the depth is explored in all its richness, making the final experience more rewarding.
A word about Powell’s depiction of Christ. When I first became a Christian, I believed this depiction was a little too stiff. I have warmed up to the portrayal over the years, perhaps if only because I have seen so many other subpar portrayals to compare it to. Powell’s depiction has become the stereotypical Jesus, doing what Bela Lugosi did for Dracula and Errol Flynn for Robin Hood. I like Powell’s portrayal because, more than any other Christ film, he really tries to depict the other-worldliness of Jesus. While other Jesus movies bend over backward to show our Lord as pretty much “just like us,” Jesus of Nazareth reminds us that, while He lives among us and shares our human condition, our Lord is fundamentally not of this world. He comes from God. He is God. This is what gives Jesus of Nazareth its staying power.
It is easy to pick out things about Jesus of Nazareth to kvetch about. Nicodemus comes to Jesus by day despite John 3 specifically saying the meeting occurs at night. And due to the technological limitations of the time, only the less extravagant of our Lord’s miracles are portrayed: healings and exorcisms, yes; Transfiguration and walking on water, no. Liberty is taken with Judas’s betrayal, making Judas into an almost sympathetic character. These are annoyances rather than real faults. Thus, after forty-six years, I still think Jesus of Nazareth deserves its place as the gold standard of Jesus films.
Jesus (1979, PG)
Only two years after Jesus of Nazareth, another film about our Lord, simply titled Jesus, was released by Australian director Peter Sykes and funded by Campus Crusade for Christ. The backstory of this film is fascinating, dating to 1945 when a businessman wanted to finance a movie about our Lord that could be used in evangelism. How we got from 1945 to the 1979 film does not concern us, but it is an interesting tale, and it makes Jesus the first Christ film to be made for the express purpose of evangelization, presaging the later projects Gospel According to Matthew and, more famously, The Chosen. There is a lot of interesting minutiae surrounding the film; the actor who played Peter actually converted during the filming, and the man hired to play Jesus’s corpse later entered a seminary.
Despite maintaining fidelity to the Gospel, Jesus was a failure, largely because its budget was so low, and the strict adherence to the text gives it a dreary monotony. Plus, the Christ character (played by Brian Deacon, a Shakespearean actor) is terribly bland. The cinematography is embarrassing at times; during the beating of our Lord, we see his head getting struck but the baton clearly missing the actor by five inches, yet Jesus flinches as if he was getting punched.
Nevertheless, this film has had a tremendous record in Protestant evangelization. Still financed by Campus Crusade, which pays to have the film put into different languages, Jesus is not only the most watched Jesus movie of all time, but perhaps the most watched motion picture ever. Period. It is claimed that the film has been viewed over 4 billion times, although these numbers are hardly scientific. It has been released in 1,165 different versions.
While impressive from a missionary standpoint, Jesus as a movie qua movie fails.
The Gospel According to Matthew (1993, PG)
Though most Catholics will not be familiar with it, I must also include the 1993 film The Gospel According to Matthew, produced by the Visual Bible project as an evangelism tool. The Gospel According to Matthew stars Bruce Marchiano in the role of Jesus with a supporting cast of unknowns. The Gospel According to Matthew is an incredibly low-budget film comparatively speaking (the movie was filmed in Africa, not Israel, and the countryside appears to be a jungle rather than the typical Judean hills), but it boasts something unique out of all Jesus films: It endeavors to portray the Gospel of Matthew exactly as it is the Bible, word for word, scene for scene, with absolutely nothing added and not a single word left out. Literally. Even the genealogy of Jesus is included. It is also the only Christ movie I am aware of that includes the Transfiguration. This is ambitious and admirable. I know nothing about the Visual Bible production or their vision; my guess is they were sick of biblical movies that took liberties with the sacred history. Of course, this also means the whole movie is six hours long.
The Gospel According to Matthew’s low budget regrettably gets in the way of enjoying the film, and Bruce Marchiano’s portrayal of Jesus is very unconventional. For one thing, Marchiano is definitely the fattest Jesus ever depicted. But more importantly, Marchiano’s Jesus seems to be a reaction against Christ of Jesus of Nazareth. Instead of stoic and full of divine gravitas, Marchiano as Jesus is jovial, humorous, constantly laughing and acting as if he is always about to give the disciples a noogey. It is as if G.K. Chesterton were cast in the role of Christ. In anticipates Jonathan Roumie’s depiction in The Chosen but without Roumie’s emotional depth. This isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker, but it is unconventional. If you are sick of run-of-the mill Jesus movies and want to check out something unique, take a look at The Gospel According to Matthew. It’s not a terrible movie—if you know what to expect.
Jesus: The Mini-Series (1999, PG)
The first thing that’s jumps out at you in the 1999 TV mini-series Jesus is that Vidal Sassoon must have been the thirteenth apostle. Never before has Christ’s hair been so perfect! In many ways, this encapsulates the whole essence of the movie, a testimony to style and appearance over substance.
Jeremy Sisto’s Jesus is clearly written to show Our Lord’s humanity. There’s nothing wrong with that. It is an admirable goal. Sisto laughs, dances, plays with kids, and does all the things that are likely to have been part of the Savior’s life while He was among us. This is all fine, but it winds up ignoring one of the key aspects of Jesus’s character, namely, that when He spoke, He spoke with authority. You see none of that here. In fact, Jesus seems to be struggling with the right words to tell people. Director Roger Young is no stranger to Biblical epics with forceful personalities; he directed previous films on the lives of Moses and Joseph). When we’re talking about the God-Man, however, all of that is non-existent. This Jesus seems stuck in an identity crisis.
Even all this probably wouldn’t have been too big of a problem if the proper respect was shown to our Lord and His story in the rest of the narrative. But the movie insists on making things weird.
We see Jesus yelling at God the Father when St. Joseph dies. Then we find out that Mary, Martha’s sister, is infatuated with Christ, almost to the point of implying a temptation to abandon His mission. It’s all downhill from there, as we learn Christ is ignorant of His role to the Gentiles, explaining that, if He can learn such things, so can the Apostles.
Nor is it merely the deliberate flouting of the Gospels. Other things are just plain odd. Satan shows up as a slick, corporate type in an Armani suit. We get a glimpse of the “Mary Magdalene as the chief apostle but for her womanhood” thing. Where are the Pharisees and His other enemies? Drifting around in the background, I suppose, because they definitely aren’t part of the main plot. Is all this really necessary? Or is it just trying to be on the cutting edge of the latest Jesus-hipster theology?
If we were to mention TGSET as overboard on reverence, Jesus would be the pendulum swinging in the other direction. In its efforts to humanize the Messiah, Jesus ignores much of what made Him extraordinary. Yes, He performs miracles, but He’s more than that. After all, Moses performed miracles, too. In robbing Him of His gravitas, the film gives us a Jesus who wanders from indecision to outright confusion over what is going on. When the story turns in that direction, Christ’s humility means all the less since it’s tough to see why His humility was such a big deal.
I’m sure that Arians would love this movie. Not sure who else would.
The Miracle Maker (2000, G)
The year after the Jesus miniseries, we were treated to another made-for-television depiction of our Lord’s life, this time done in claymation. Director Derek Hayes’ Miracle Maker, starring Ralph Fiennes as the voice of Christ and an all-star cast of supporting actors, Miracle Maker attempts to follow the footsteps of Jesus: The Miniseries by emphasizing our Lord’s humanity. The emphasis is so strong that He seems shorn of much of His power, resulting in a very unimpressive Christ. This is common when our Lord’s divinity is downplayed or ignored; without His divine nature, what are we to make of His salvific mission? It makes little sense, and this comes through in the film, as Fiennes’ claymation Jesus drifts around from town to town performing various miracles with no real sense of mission. The crucifixion at the end is more of an afterthought than an integral part of His life.
The film is notable for being one of the first that I know of to attempt to depict Jesus as a darker skinned, Semitic character rather than a white Anglo-Saxon. It also takes a unique approach to plot, narrating the tale of Christ through the eyes of a sick little girl hoping for a miracle. This of course introduces made up characters and situations to the narrative. This is fine; many famous movies like Fourth Wise Man and Ben Hur have taken a similar approach, showing snippets of our Lord’s life as seen through the eyes of fictional characters who interact with Him.
The real issue with the film is the Jesus is just so dull and uninspiring. He comes across as this nice guy who could do some neat stuff but unfortunately got killed at the end, and His death has little relevance to the rest of His mission.
Passion of the Christ (2004, R)
It’s very difficult to grade The Passion of the Christ as a movie. The Passion isn’t a movie. It’s an icon on film. It isn’t meant to be watched. It’s meant to be meditated upon. The crowd who engendered most of the controversy about The Passion didn’t understand this, which is why they were comfortable classifying it as anti-Semitic or as a snuff film. For purposes of this review, I’m going to treat of the subject as best I can on both sides of this equation.
Mel Gibson hasn’t done much directing, but what he has done has been wildly unappreciated. Looking at The Passion, even his roughest critics have to concede the massive scope of what he was trying to do. Just consider the patience and steadiness that was required to film a story told entirely with sub-titles based on Latin and Aramaic translations. Throw in the period setting and one can immediately appreciate that this was a project far beyond what an average director could manage.
Caviezel’s portrayal of Christ is among best. Jesus movies tend to let the character of Christ lag a bit. He drifts off into breathy, hyper-serene quotes from the Gospels or overly deliberate, almost floating, movements across the screen. Or, conversely, He is overly banalized in attempts to dumb down His divinity. Not so with The Passion. Caviezel’s Jesus has an emotion and genuineness that runs uninterrupted through the whole production, but it never detracts from His nobility. He brings much needed balance to the character. It simply isn’t possible for me to praise his performance enough.
The remainder of the cast is also excellent, with most of the accolades tending to be directed at Maia Morganstern as the Blessed Mother. The minor characters also bring the power of the movie to the forefront. After all, it’s tough to tell a story about the salvation of the human race without those humans who so badly need saving. These are the individuals that make the story so powerful, whether it’s Mattia Sbragia as Caiaphas, Hristo Shopov as Pontius Pilate, or the truly magnificent work that Jarreth Merz did with Simon of Cyrene. When it comes to channeling power through an artistic medium, the scenes with Simon hit like a sledgehammer. Even characters only seen for a few seconds are ably handled so that they can demonstrate how Christ affects the people He meets.
Having discussed the more filmish part, let’s move on to the reason so many people didn’t “get” The Passion. “It’s just two hours of a guy being tortured to death!” When viewing it as simply a movie, this is an easy criticism to make. Make no mistake, it is very graphic. This is not a movie for the very young. Gibson was very blunt that he wanted the violence to be as rough as possible. He succeeded admirably. This is especially good for Catholics who find it oxymoronic that depictions of such cruelty could be in a Catholic film. It will hopefully shock them back to a number of pointed realities ranging from the true nature of their sins to the true nature of the Mass. Gibson’s masterful juxtaposition of flashbacks with the ongoing events of Christ’s torments provide teachable moments that help us understand the typology of the Passion.
These are all things that distinguish The Passion of the Christ from more epic presentations of the Gospels, such as Jesus of Nazareth and The Greatest Story Ever Told. While the latter works were certainly bigger in terms of their size, story, cast, and so forth, they are primarily there to provide a narrative of events in dramatic fashion. The Passion distills the essence of Our Lord’s mission into an icon, written as a motion picture, for our contemplation. While other films may have captured Our Lord’s life better, it is unlikely that Gibson’s depiction of the Crucifixion will ever be surpassed.
The Chosen (2017-Present)
Most Catholics today are at least aware of the crowdfunded project The Chosen by Angel Studios, starring Jonathan Roumie as Jesus. Given that The Chosen is a series comprised of (at the time of writing) three seasons with 24 episodes total and more in the works, I’m not going to give a comprehensive review, but I will share my general thoughts.
I think The Chosen is absolutely fantastic. I have watched all three seasons multiple times. Several episodes have made me break down in tears in the best kind of way. It touches my heart in a way very few religious movies have been capable of. I liked it enough that I gave money to the crowdfunding campaign.
I will say that at the outset I did not like it; the first time I watched Season 1 Episode 1, I was not impressed. I even sent the folks at The Chosen a message griping about camera angles and cinematography. I regret this now. It’s challenging making any professional video production, and any series takes a few episodes to get their feet under them. I wasn’t going to continue, but I heard so much praise for The Chosen that I thought I owed it to see what all the hubbub was about
I am so glad I persevered. The writers of The Chosen clearly understand the difference Jesus makes in a person’s life, and it is the only Jesus movie or series I’ve ever seen that successfully wields typology to show how the New Testament is hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is revealed in the New.
Are there little gripes I could make? Yes, of course. Every now and then there’s some cheesy lines. Some of the sets—especially in Season 1—are a little low budget (they make the miraculous catch of fish happen in about two feet of water). John the Baptist’s beard looks like its glued to his face. Now and then the characters talk like Protestants. But these things are all minutiae in my opinion. Afterall, the writers of The Chosen have also gone out of their way to incorporate Catholic elements into the storytelling as well. Season 2 Episode 6 has a beautiful scene that symbolically demonstrates the intercessory power of the Blessed Virgin Mary. And, as I mentioned, the typology is positively Catholic. And the operation of grace is depicted masterfully.
Some may take issue that the series really uses a lot of creative license to fill in the backstories behind certain biblical episodes. But the stuff they are improvising on is stuff that’s not mentioned in the Bible anyway, so it’s in no way a distortion of the Scriptures—and in most cases the fabricated backstories significantly buttress the biblical episodes. For example, remember the paralytic at the Pool of Siloam who had nobody to put him into the water? He just gets a few verses in the Gospel of John. In The Chosen, we get an entire episode centered on him with a very well developed backstory. Not just a backstory, but one that is deeply moving; both times I watched that episode I wept. And the way the show used all these little narratives to build up to the Beatitudes at the end of Season 2 was superlative. Is there extrabiblical material? Of course. But everything that matters is played straight, following the New Testament beat for beat.
The show might not be up everybody’s alley. But if you’re not positively predisposed against it, at least watch to the end of Season 1. You might find an unexpected gem.
We could go on with films that, while not being about our Lord directly, have Him in an ancillary role: Ben Hur, Nativity Story, The Fourth Wise Man, etc. But that would take us too far afield. In surveying the major Jesus films, we can see several trends: Most importantly, I think, the depiction of Christ must be balanced, just like the Hypostatic Union. Christ movies fail when they start to have an agenda of making Christ more human and downplaying His divinity, such as The Gospel of Matthew. When He is too stoic, the movie also suffers, like the 1979 Jesus. Balance is fundamental.
Second: There is no doing a good life of Christ film without really pouring some money into location, casting, and costume. The really good Jesus movies stand out because the casting is superlative; the director spent the time and the money needed to get the absolute right people for the parts, and the money to create a sense of depth. Which also brings up the question of length: some shorter films about Jesus work, namely Passion of the Christ, but this is only because they confine themselves to one aspect of our Lord’s life. If you are going to do a Jesus movie, you’d better plan on several installments to get it right, like Jesus of Nazareth or The Chosen, or else just focus on one particular thing, like the Passion did. These hour-and-thirty-minute attempts to capture our Lord’s entire life simply come across as shallow and insufficient.
Image: still from The Passion of the Christ, by Philippe Antonello/Icon Distribution Inc.