We’ve arrived at Holy Week 2021, which will culminate on Easter Sunday, April 4. Easter is one of the biggest religious holidays of the year and brings to an end the Lenten Season of reflection. Often believers will include films about Jesus Christ as part of this season. So, as we head into Easter Weekend, I decided to look at six different cinematic takes on the life, ministry, and death of Jesus Christ. If you’re looking to get into the Easter spirit, one of these may be the film for you.
The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)
About: There was a time when Biblical epics were some of the biggest films, made by the biggest filmmakers at the time. This rendition of Jesus’ story comes from director George Stevens, with pick up shots by David Lean, who goes uncredited. Max Von Sydow plays Jesus and the film runs about three and a half hours. It features a remarkable cast for the time, including Charleton Heston, and is considered a classic telling of the story. For those looking for a softer depiction the hews close to the Biblical account, this is for you.
The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
About: I’m going to say that, as a Christian, I thought this was the most unsettlingly blasphemous film I’ve ever seen. I’d not watched it before knowing it was denounced by Catholics and Christians at the time for its depiction of Jesus, played here by Willem Dafoe. The film makes clear at the outset it’s not based on the Gospel, but rather on the controversial novel from Nikos Kazantzakis. It does, indeed, stray quite far from the Biblical account. It’s nearly three hours and features a lot of adult content. If you’re looking for a religious celebration of Jesus, this isn’t it. I like director Martin Scorsese, but I did not care for this film.
The Passion of the Christ (2004)
About: This film from Mel Gibson, a Catholic, depicts the final 12 hours of Jesus’ life, leading up to his crucifixion. It was the highest-grossing R-rated film of All Time when it was released, and drew flocks of believers to theaters. The film is unflinching in its depiction of events from Scripture, including violence that is graphic and difficult to watch at times. I remember seeing it in the theater and being shaken. I hadn’t seen it since until revisiting the film for this piece. It’s still quite difficult to watch. The film also attempts to be faithful to the period, and is offered in Aramaic and Latin with occasional Hebrew. Jim Caviezel, who plays Jesus, is the only American actor in the cast. It isn’t for the faint of heart, but if you’re looking for a film that gets at the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, this is powerfully done.
About: This was a film that caught me off guard. It picks up with the discovery of Jesus’ empty tomb, and centers on a pair of Roman Centurions (Joseph Fiennes and Tom Felton) who are tasked with finding the body and proving it’s a hoax. They begin with a certain set of beliefs which are challenged for Calvius (Fiennes) the further he investigates. Jesus, played here by Cliff Curtis, is a minor player in most of the narrative, but it works powerfully. This film, from director Kevin Reynolds (The Count of Monte Cristo, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves), ended up being more moving and more engaging than I expected when I first went to see it. For those looking for a different kind of story, this is worth checking out.
The Young Messiah (2016)
About: Mere weeks after Risen was released came The Young Messiah, this one based on the Anne Rice novel Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt. Rice, who became famous for the The Vampire Chronicles novel series, turned to writing religious books after a return to Catholicism. Her novel, which serves as the basis for this film, explores a young Jesus (Adam Greaves-Neal) as He begins to realize who He is. It also looks at the struggles for Joseph (Vincent Walsh) and Mary (Sara Lazzaro), and shows their journey from exile in Egypt back to Jerusalem. This isn’t the greatest film I’ve seen, but it’s an interesting concept and thought experiment. For those looking to approach the story in a different context, this is worth checking out.
Mary Magdalene (2018)
About: Historically, Mary Magdalene (Rooney Mara) has been a figure who’s been depicted a number of ways. This film, from Garth Davis (Lion, Top of the Lake), sets the narrative of Jesus’ life and ministry through the eyes of Mary, a faithful follower and apostle. The cast includes Joaquin Phoenix as Jesus and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Peter, but it wasn’t a big release at the time. Mara does a nice job in the lead role, and the film attempts to be a faithful re-telling, meant to honor Mary Magdalene, who Pope Francis referred to as the “Apostle of Apostles” in 2016. This was an interesting film and a different take on the story, one that likely got lost in the shuffle for many.
Matthew Fox is a graduate of the Radio, Television and Film program at Biola University, and a giant nerd. He spends his free time watching movies, TV, and obsessing about football. You can find him @knighthawk7734 on Twitter and as co-host of the Fantasy Football Roundtable Podcast, a proud member of the Drive-In Podcast Network.