Left, Adam Greaves-Neal is a seven-year-old Jesus in The Young Messiah. Right, Enrique Irazoqui, top, is Jesus in The Gospel of Matthew; below, Willem Dafoe stars in The Last Temptation of Christ.
  • April 20, 2019

Christ films are a staple in many households during Easter weekend.

As adults fuss over the lamb roasting in the oven and children bicker about paint colours for their Easter eggs, biblical dramas often play on the television.

Countless films have depicted the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Catholic Register compiled a list films that could be called the good, the bad and the unexpected.

The Good

Pauline Sr. Helena Burns said The Young Messiah is her new favourite Jesus movie. The 2016 film was based on Anne Rice’s historical fiction novel, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt. The story follows a year in the life of sevenyear- old Jesus and His family. With news of King Herod’s death, Joseph decides that it is finally time to return home from Egypt. However, Herod’s son has taken up his father’s search for the child Saviour.

“(The film) shows lots of homework was done,” Burns wrote on her film and television review blog, Hell Burns. “The text of the Scriptures is faithfully adhered to (without really taking liberties) and then sundry plausible plot points — that totally work — are skillfully woven in to bring life to the text.”

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel of Matthew (1964) is a great feat of biblical storytelling, according to Rev. Kevin Flynn, Anglican priest and associate professor of theology at Saint Paul University in Ottawa. The 1964 classic is considered a “cinematic rendition” of the Gospel of Matthew from Nativity to Resurrection.

“It’s just Matthew’s Gospel. That’s the dialogue,” said Flynn. “You’ve heard it before but it comes to life on the lips of the actors.”

Because Paolini was known as an atheist, homosexual and Marxist, many were surprised by a film which respected but did not embellish the biblical account. It won the grand prize at the International Film Office during the 1964 Venice International Film Festival and was named in the Vatican’s list of 45 great films in 1995.

In more recent history, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ became a watershed moment for the Christian film genre. Released in 2014, the film grossed almost $612 million at the end of its boxoffice run.

“Lots and lots of Church people went to see this film,” said Flynn. “People suddenly realized that there is a big market out there of believers who would like something more than this kind of beards and bathrobes kind of story.”

Flynn said that he has mixed feelings about the film. Although he credits the film for its historical portrayal and good storytelling, Flynn said that the gratuitous nature of the scourging at the pillar was hard to stomach.

“The violence is just really pornographic,” he said.

With a sequel on its way called The Resurrection of the Christ (scheduled to release on Easter 2020), there is still lots more to learn about the impact of Gibson’s Jesus films.

The Bad

Flynn categorized “beards and bathrobes” films as those biblical dramas which took no care in the historical depiction of the time period, let alone Jesus Christ. The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), The Ten Commandments (1956) and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) were a few of these films, he said.

William Dafoe portrayed Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ , directed by Martin Scorsese. The film included a dream sequence in which Jesus comes down from the cross, marries Mary Magdalene, consummates their marriage and lives out his life as a mortal man.

Protestors picketed at Universal Studios’ parent company office, MCA. Mother Angelica, founder of Eternal World Television Network (EWTN), called the film “the most blasphemous ridicule of the Eucharist that’s ever been perpetrated in this world.”

“The reason I thought The Last Temptation of Christ was blasphemous didn’t have anything to do with a dream sequence where Jesus was having sex with Mary Magdalene. It was because He was boring,” said Flynn. “However else you evaluate Him, He is never boring. … It’s hard to think of anybody else who has so influenced human history as this guy who never went more than 100 kilometres from the place He was born.”

Killing Jesus is a National Geographic film from 2015 and it is also one of Burns’ least favourite Jesus movies. Based on a book of the same title by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard, the film is part of a mini-series including Killing Lincoln and Killing Kennedy .

Burns said there was nothing attractive about how Jesus was portrayed in the film.

“He seems like a dangerous man to be around, provoking everyone with His fearless going against the grain, although His way of life is beautiful and transformative,” she wrote. “Perhaps He makes sense ... somehow not convincing enough in this film that I would leave all and follow Him. Something is lacking to make me go all in. Something doesn’t resonate.”

The Unexpected

Now considered a cult classic, this list would be incomplete without mention of the phenomenon that is Jesus Christ Superstar (1973).

“This came out when I was a teenager. The music was largely very catchy,” said Flynn. “The biggest omission was any reference to or hint of the Resurrection. That left it unsatisfying to me. The movie version was rather flat.”

Alternatively, Flynn offered an interesting recommendation in the 1989 French-Canadian film, Jesus of Montreal. Filmed on the grounds of St. Joseph’s Oratory on Mount Royal, the story is centred around an actor named Daniel who is hired to present a modernized Passion play in the gardens of a Catholic pilgrimage site. As Daniel delves deeper into his portrayal of Jesus, his life begins to mirror that of whom he portrays.

“There are some things about it that point to what might it look like to be living the Jesus life here and now,” said Flynn. “I liked it because it’s so rooted in Canada and Montreal, in particular. And it does say that this Jesus will have His way in you if you let Him near you.”

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