The life and atonement of our Savior have inspired some of the all-time great works of art. Painters like Caravaggio and Bloch, composers such as Handel, literary masters like St. Augustine and Charles Dickens, and sculptors like Michelangelo have found in Jesus the inspiration for some of their most impressive and moving works. Film has as much potential to inspire and edify as any other art form, but while the Son of God was perfect, movies about Him are not. Sanctimonious melodrama and fake beards tend to distract from the “greatest story ever told.” Still, when artistry and faith are in harmonious balance, audiences feel their souls and minds drawn closer to God.
So how can you pick what to watch this Easter? Allow me to be your guide; in recent months I’ve taken it upon myself to take in every film about Christ that I could get my hands on. Every film, at least, that makes an attempt to portray the subject with respect; I avoided selections that intentionally approached the subject irreverently. For this purpose you’ll not see movies like Jesus Christ Superstar, Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, or The Last Temptation of Christ here. What’s left are 25 films, of varying artistic quality and scriptural accuracy, that attempt to do justice to the mission of the Son of God. How do they fare? Read on, and follow the links to purchase.
ANIMATED PASSION TRILOGY, THE (est. 1988, unrated, approximately 80 minutes)
From the Living Scriptures (or NEST in more broadly Christian markets) comes this trilogy of animated films, roughly 25 minutes each, depicting the suffering in Gethsemane, the trial, the crucifixion, the Resurrection and Ascension, and parables about the Second Coming. True to form for the company, these stick closely to the scriptures; embellishments are made to supplement the story, not take away from it. The animation, produced by ex-Disney director/producer Richard Rich, is simple but well-realized, and even if the dialogue and delivery are occasionally overwrought, it’s still uplifting and powerful. Perfect for families with children. Available from Amazon. GRADE: B
BEN HUR: A TALE OF THE CHRIST (1959, PG, 3 hours and 30 minutes)
Winner of a whopping eleven Academy Awards (including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor) Ben-Hur is often remembered as engrossing tale of betrayal, revenge, romance, and adventure, noteworthy for enjoyable Charlton Heston scenery-chewing and large-scale action scenes. However, modern audiences tend to forget that the actual title of the film, as it appears in the opening credits, is Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Based on the novel by the same name, it tells the story of a wealthy Jew, betrayed and sold into slavery, who rises into notoriety as a competitor in the Roman games. His lust for vengeance fails to bring him peace, but several encounters with the Jesus of Nazareth soften his heart, teaching him mercy and forgiveness. When Christ atones for the sins of the world, Judah Ben-Hur is there as an emerging disciple. For all of its epic trappings and grand Hollywood filmmaking, at its core the film is a wonderful conversion story. Available on instant download or purchase it from Amazon. GRADE: A
THE BIBLE (2013, NR, 10 hours)
I actually haven’t seen this yet (we watch all of our TV shows on Hulu), but it comes out on Bluray and DVD April 2nd. I will review it ASAP. Available on Amazon for purchase or instant download.
THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE (2005, PG, 2 hours and 20 minutes).
While other fantasy tales (Harry Potter, The Matrix, Superman) borrow themes from the story of Christ, this first Narnia story earns a spot here because, as created by Christian author C.S. Lewis, its very purpose is as an allegory to bring souls to the Savior. Credit Walden Media and Disney for not watering down the clear parallels to the story of the Messiah, His innocent suffering and death for the sins of another, His resurrection and deliverance of others from death, and His triumphant return at the battle of Armageddon. This adaptation has decent work from its child actors (young Lucy is adorable) and solid work from all of its supporting players. The design of Narnia and its creatures is wonderfully imaginative the effects work is generally good (though sometimes not great), and the music is terrific. Though it’s a notch or two below The Lord of Rings as a fantasy tale, as a spiritual allegory it’s very moving. Available on Amazon (with instant download) and from BYU Bookstore. GRADE: B+
COLOR OF THE CROSS (2006, PG-13, 1 hour and 45 minutes)
It’s not the portrayal of Jesus as a black man that I take issue with (if you think about it, His constant cinematic depiction as a blue-eyed European is even less likely); it’s the laughable acting, woeful dialogue, cheap sets (or total lack of sets), and sluggish pacing in this and its direct-to-video sequel. Also, the depiction of the Christ story as one of racial persecution distracts from the central message of His dying for all humanity. If you’re still curious, however, you can find it on Amazon. GRADE: D+
FINDING FAITH IN CHRIST (2003, not rated, 30 minutes)
This film does as fine a job of covering the life of the Savior in a half an hour as could ever be hoped. The cinematography is rich and vividly recreates the works of Carl Bloch, the portrayal of various miracles is stirring, and it moves at a steady clip. Many of the supporting performances seem forced, as if real actors were unavailable, and occasionally the dialogue threatens to drag it down. Still, the pros far outweigh the cons, and the sincerity and artistry of the production drive the central message of Christianity straight to the heart of the viewer. You can purchase it from LDS.org on DVD here or watch it for free on LDS.org here. GRADE: B
THE FOURTH WISE MAN (1985, PG, 1 hour 10 minutes)
This TV movie is a touching bit of historical fiction about a Magi who spends his entire life seeking the prophesied Messiah.
Although the wardrobe, makeup, and sets are hampered by the constraints of its budget, the film benefits greatly from an excellent performance by Martin Sheen (The West Wing) and a humorous turn by Alan Arkin (Get Smart, Gattaca) as well as a powerful and inspiring message.Available on Amazon. GRADE: B-.
THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ST. MATTHEW (1964, not rated, 2 hours 15 minutes)
Now this one’s an anomaly: a straightforward adaptation of the Book of Matthew, in Italian, directed by a gay atheist Marxist with a “nostalgia for belief” (Lang, The Bible on the Big Screen, p.180) that was endorsed by the Vatican and sits at a 94% at Rotten Tomatoes. The truth is, watching the film you would never know it was made by an unbeliever. Shot on a low budget in black and white, the film relies mostly on close-ups to tell its story, drawing viewers into the acting. More gritty and “realistic” than the Technicolor epics Hollywood made at the time, the film almost has a documentary feel. Though casual movie-watchers may find the film a bore, art-house types will find much to enjoy here. Also of note: the film uses Christian music from around the world, including African-American spirituals, in its unique soundtrack. For film buffs, this is a really interesting film. Available to rent or buy from Amazon. GRADE: B
THE GOSPEL OF JOHN (2003, PG-13, 3 hours)
Henry Ian Cusick, who so memorably played the button-pushing Desmond on TV’s Lost, inhabits the sandals of the Son of God in this word-for-word cinematic version of the Book of John. Using the modern-sounding Good News Bible for dialogue, this 3 hour film feels even longer, as filming a book instead of an adapted screenplay causes the pace to drag (even if it does allow for greater Biblical accuracy). Cusick plays Jesus as a wide-eyed, fiery revolutionary, but he doesn’t get lost in the role (pardon the pun) enough to really capture Jesus’ divinity or compassion. By sticking solely to the book of John, key moments like the suffering in Gethsemane are omitted. The acting is often overwrought (though some scenes, like the healing of a blind man, are handled exceptionally well). The film looks terrific, however, and the production values, as seen in the wardrobe and sets, are excellent. Sadly, however, The Gospel of John, as a whole, fails to summon much genuine emotion. If you’re still curious, you can purchase it here. GRADE: C
THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD (1965, not rated, 3 hours 15 minutes)
George Stevens was a devout Christian and one of Hollywood’s most prolific directors (he gave us Shane and The Diary of Anne Frank). Setting out to make an epic about the life of Jesus, Stevens opted to use Arizona, Utah, and Nevada to double for the Holy Land, giving the movie its own unique flavor. Though often accused of running too long and being too pious, believers will appreciate the reverent tone. Max Von Sydow’s Jesus is perhaps a bit too sanctimonious; he’s hard to relate to because he captures little of the Savior’s humanity. The film is full of distracting celebrity cameos (John Wayne shows up as the centurion, for example, taking viewers out of the moment). The story moves slowly and methodically. Still, the movie is gorgeous to look at, has nice music, and treats the subject with respect. Available from Amazon. GRADE: C+
JESUS (1999, not rated, 3 hours)
With some reservations I give Jesus my recommendation. As a film critic, I must concede that this miniseries is one of the most dramatically satisfying and accessible takes on the story, with an entertaining balance of epic scope, Biblical miracles, historical context, spiritual significance, and emotional realism. As a Latter-day Saint Christian, however, I found that this film took fairly extreme liberties with the source material (the Bible) that it didn’t need to take. Jeremy Sisto humanizes Christ in his portrayal; the Son of God here is very much a humble, but charismatic, carpenter whose mission is revealed to Him as He goes. The first half an hour is sketchy, as Jesus displays heavenward bitterness and doubt after the death of His earthly father Joseph. He knows that He is God’s son, but doesn’t know what that means for His life. After His baptism and death, however, He grows in certainty and faith, and the film sticks “more or less to script.” Jesus is more fully rounded as a character here, due to the screenplay’s “filling in or the blanks” with attributes that may or may not be accurate to His true character. Still, it’s worthwhile to consider the Savior as playful and human, as well as the embodiment of divine compassion and love.
Though it sometimes veers from film tradition (Pilate is more scheming and less hesitant, Judas betrays Christ to force Him to assume his role as military Messiah), Jesus offers a highly entertaining and moving imagination of Gospel events and, after its iffy first half an hour, never lags or bores. It is creative and takes some big chances; some pay off, others don’t. The film is well-acted, with solid supporting turns by Gary Oldman (The Dark Knight, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkabahn) and Debra Messing (Will and Grace). Like The Prince of Egypt, this is a film that earns points for artistry and storytelling, but must be docked for historical, doctrinal, and Biblical inaccuracies galore. Those who get hung up on those types of things should look elsewhere. Audiences who can take this version with a grain (bag) of salt can find moments of spiritual transcendence and significance, then should read The New Testament to get the real story,
free from dramatic license. Available on Amazon. GRADE: B
JESUS (1979, G, 2 hours)
Arguably the most-seen film on this list, Jesus was produced by the evangelical company The Genesis Project. The actors speak in Aramaic and Latin while the narrator tells the story in English (or any of the hundreds of languages it’s been translated into). Used heavily by churches (including my ow n) for decades, this is a faithful, straightforward adaptation of the New Testament gospels, without much embellishment. Though the excessive reliance on narration removes some dramatic edge and the film feels somewhat low-budget by today’s standards, this is well-produced, well-acted, and fairly comprehensive for a two-hour movie.
The tone is reverent but not lifeless, and the simple artistry allows the story of Christ itself to power the movie. You can purchase or view instantly on Amazon. GRADE: B+
JESUS (1979, G, 2 hours)
Arguably the most-seen film on this list, Jesus was produced by the evangelical company The Genesis Project. The actors speak in Aramaic and Latin while the narrator tells the story in English (or any of the hundreds of languages it’s been translated into). Used heavily by churches (including my ow n) for decades, this is a faithful, straightforward adaptation of the New Testament gospels, without much embellishment. Though the excessive reliance on narration removes some dramatic edge and the film feels somewhat low-budget by today’s standards, this is well-produced, well-acted, and fairly comprehensive for a two-hour movie. The tone is reverent but not lifeless, and the simple artistry allows the story of Christ itself to power the movie. You can purchase or view instantly on Amazon. GRADE: B+
JESUS OF NAZARETH (1979, not rated, 6 hours 20 minutes)
Director Franco Zeffirelli’s huge miniseries is often considered the quintessential film about the Savior.At nearly six and a half hours, it’s certainly the most thorough, meticulously recreating almost the entire story of Jesus Christ, taken from all four gospels. Amazing attention to detail in historical context (notably Jewish traditions and customs), wardrobe, and sets truly transports the viewer to the Holy Land at the meridian of time. Robert Powell gives a commanding, confident portrayal of the Lord; those who get distracted by his British accent should consider that an American accent, as in many other films, is equally off and just go with it. The cast is loaded with talented actors, such as Christopher Plummer (The Sound of Music, A Beautiful Mind), Olivia Hussey (Romeo and Juliet), Ernest Borgnine (The Dirty Dozen), Ian McShane (Kung Fu Panda), and Ian Holm (The Lord of the Rings, Chariots of Fire) who all lose themselves in terrific performances. Catholic tradition heavily influences this marvelous film that sheds light on the teachings and miracles of Jesus Christ as well as the sociopolitical context he found himself in. Available on Amazon. GRADE: A
THE KING OF KINGS (1927, not rated, 1 hour 50 minutes)
In Sheri Dew’s excellent biography of Gordon B. Hinckley, Go Forward With Faith, it is mentioned that this was President Hinckley’s favorite screen depiction of the Savior. Though it’s a silent film, it’s rich with artistry and emotion, directed as it is by Cecile B. Demille (who later gave us the immortal movie The Ten Commandments). As with most films on this list, some artistic license is taken, but Demille’s reverence for Jesus Christ as the Redeemer, as well as the director’s talent for telling powerfully human stories on an epic scale, are on full display here. Audiences unaccustomed to silent films may take issue with the “hammy” acting or the lack of spoken dialogue, but those who are able to take the film on its own terms, in the context of the era it was made, will have a profoundly moving experience. Available on Amazon. GRADE: A-
KING OF KINGS (1961, PG-13, 2 hours 45 minutes)
There are several big positives in this classic Hollywood production. The Sermon on the Mount is easily the best version of that event ever caught on film, with thousands of extras and almost the entire discourse in the script. The triumphal entry, Gethsemane, and the Last Supper are likewise captured wonderfully, backed up by a majestic musical score with accompaniment by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Seriously, the music for this film is fantastic. Jeffrey Hunter makes for a charismatic Jesus. Unfortunately, the movie drags, primarily because much of the three hour running time is made up of overdramatic and fictional filler material and unpolished performances by the supporting cast. Though it takes welcome pains to place Jesus in a historical context (complete with battles between Roman soldiers and Jewish rebels hoping for a Messiah), it overreaches and loses sight of its central subject. You can purchase it here. GRADE: C+.
THE LAMB OF GOD / TO THIS END WAS I BORN (1992, not rated, 25 minutes/28 minutes)
In my opinion this is the single best film ever produced by the LDS Church. There are two versions, both of which cover the last days of the life of the Savior. The Lamb of God sticks entirely to The New Testament. To This End Was I Born is a few minutes longer with some extra scenes taken from modern revelation. There is an incredible artistry to this, a perfect marriage of acting performance and creatively effective direction. Director Russell Holt uses the power of suggestion to move and shock with the violence without the use of graphic imagery. The musical score by Kurt Bestor is almost without peer. This film contains the most emotionally stirring portrayal of the Resurrection of any film on this list. This is, ultimately, a marvelously uplifting film. The dialogue is taken from the King James Bible. You can purchase The Lamb of God from lds.org and To This End Was I Born here. GRADE: A.
THE LIFE OF CHRIST (2012-present, not rated)
This series of short videos, produced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, portrays significant moments in the lives, miracles, and teachings of the Savior and His apostles, as found in the New Testament.Though taken as a whole (if they’re all watched back-to-back) they are perhaps too low-key to make for a compelling movie, in their intended format as individual segments there is a quiet power that permeates each short. These do a fine job inviting personal reflection and gratitude for the Lord and His life. These videos are well-produced, well-acted, and gorgeously shot. They can be viewed on lds.org. GRADE: A-
MARY, MOTHER OF JESUS (1999, PG-13, 1 hour 30 minutes)
The Dark Knight Rises’ Christian Bale portrays the Savior in this made-for-TV movie.
Strangely, the normally intense and brooding actor gives a wholly credible performance as the Messiah, displaying warmth, humility, and courage.The film is worth watching for his performance alone, because outside of Bale, this is a terrible, face-palming affair with pacing that’s all over the map, truly awful supporting performances, and a screenplay that gets far more wrong than it does right. Worst of all is the ham-fisted proselyting by the film-makers; at one point Mary breaks the 4th wall and speaks directly to the camera, inviting viewers to follow Jesus (the effect is unintentionally hilarious: “Whoa! She knew we were here watching the whole time!”). Pernilla August (Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace) is in the title role, and although she does a decent job, the decision to focus on a poorly fictionalized, melodramatic account of Mary’s life while marginalizing the rich story of Jesus himself does this film no favors. It’s painful to watch. If you’re still curious, you can purchase it here. GRADE: D+
THE MIRACLE MAKER (2000, not rated, 1 hour 30 minutes)
If you can embrace the stop-motion animation, this is actually one of the more enjoyable, family-friendly films on this list.While the animation isn’t as fluid as say, Frankenweenie, the design is immaculate and the film sticks almost religiously to the Bible text, without much embellishment other than using Jairus, his wife, and daughter as the eyes through which we witness the life of Christ.Ralph Fiennes (Voldemort in the Harry Potter films) does fine vocal work as the Savior, portraying him with passion, zeal, and dignity. You can purchase it or view instantly on Amazon. GRADE: B+
THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (2003, R, 2 hours)
“Every thing which inviteth to do good, and to persuade to believe in Christ, is sent forth by the power and gift of Christ; wherefore ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is from God“ (Moroni 7:16). Though I was raised in a family that avoided R-rated movies, it was this scripture that persuaded me to make an exception to that general rule when I decided to see The Passion. I’ve already written my thoughts on Mel Gibson. The short version is that I believe he’s both extremely disturbed and extremely gifted. Though some of his actions in recent years are deplorable, I have no doubt his heart was in the right place when he made this film, which chronicles the events from Gethsemane through the Resurrection. Widely criticized for being anti-Semitic (it isn’t) and graphically violent (it is), what opponents overlooked and millions of moviegoers embraced was the film’s reverent and moving depiction of the Savior. Jim Caviezal (The Count of Monte Cristo, TV’s Person of Interest) gives my all-time favorite portrayal of Jesus, capturing both His humanity and His godhood. He most nearly approximates how I imagine the Lord: full of love, warmth, meekness, boldness, and courage.
Jewish actress Maia Morgenstern knows the power of restraint, portraying Mary as both faithful disciple and anguished mother. Hristo Shopov makes for a marvelously conflicted Pilate. Caleb Deschanel’s stunning cinematography resembles a Renaissance painting. John Debney’s score is transcendent (even if you never see the film, download the tracks “Mary Goes to Jesus,” “Crucifixion,” and “Resurrection”). The sets and wardrobe are first-rate. The use of Hebrew and Latin gives the film a nice dramatic realism. Though some of the artistic choices miss the mark (child demons tormenting Judas?), others resonate with emotional power, such as a heartbreaking scene with Mary fighting the crowds to comfort her son, as well as the perfect use of flashbacks of the Last Supper and the Sermon in the Mount. That said, if you’re not prepared to see the Lord “bruised, broken [and] torn for us” (Hymns #181) with an appearance that is “marred more than any man” (Isaiah 52:14), you should skip this film and watch The Lamb of God instead. If you’re still on board, you can download, rent, or purchase it from Amazon. GRADE: B+
THE ROBE (1953, unrated, 2 hours 15 minutes)
The first film to be presented in CinemaScope widescreen, this tale of the Roman soldier who wins the robe of Jesus at the cross certainly has an epic feel to it, with lavish sets and eye-catching wardrobes, but the performances and screenwriting have not aged well. Hokey, melodramatic, and terribly treacle, this conversion story, unfortunately, rings hollow. The novel on which it’s based is still worth a read, however. If you’re still curious, you can purchase it here. GRADE: C-
SPECIAL WITNESSES OF CHRIST (2000, not rated, 65 minutes)
This terrific film, produced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, finds modern prophets and apostles bearing witness of the resurrected Savior from holy sites around the world, including Gethsemane, the Garden Tomb, the Sacred Grove, and the Kirtland Temple.Excellent for members of my faith as well as those looking for a primer on Mormon beliefs about Jesus Christ. You can find it here.
THE STORY OF JESUS (2011, not rated, 2 hours)
I haven’t yet seen this BBC-TV documentary/drama, which interviews top religious scholars from around the world (including BYU’s Dr. Andrew Skinner) while recreating scenes from Christ’s life in HD. I’ll review it once I do, but for now, I wanted you to be aware of its existence in case it interests you. You can find it on Deseret Book.
THE TESTAMENTS OF ONE FOLD AND ONE SHEPHERD (2000, unrated, 1 hour 5 minutes)
This majestic movie brilliantly depicts Latter-day Saint beliefs about Jesus Christ as the Son of God and the prophesied Messiah. It also clarifies the relationship between The Holy Bible and The Book of Mormon, as disciples in the Americas endure persecution while the Savior performs his ministry in the Holy Land. The film has it all: romance, intrigue, dramatic miracles, life-changing teachings, family drama, destruction, and redemption, culminating with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and His appearance to His followers in the New World.
Though the dialogue can be cheesy and some of the key characters are underdeveloped, the reverent tone, stunning visuals by director of photography T.C. Christensen, and earnest storytelling by director Kieth Merrill win out. You can purchase it from lds.org. GRADE: B+
WE BELIEVE IN CHRIST (1995, not rated, 30 minutes)
This overlooked gem finds latter-day apostle Jeffrey R. Holland bearing witness of the Savior, the power of His teachings to change our lives, and the ability of His atonement to comfort and sustain us. Marvelous music by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir underscores emotional dramatizations of the Lord’s mortal ministry in the Holy Land, His resurrected ministry in the Americas, and vignettes of modern individuals allowing Christ into their hearts. You can get it from lds.org.GRADE: A
Have you seen any of the films above? Are there any worthwhile films about Jesus that I overlooked? What is your favorite film portrayal of Christ? Let me know in the comments below!
Don’t miss my book, 250 Great Movies for Latter-day Families, coming Fall of 2013 from Cedar Fort Publishing.
For more of my articles, reviews, and fun videos, please visit www.mormonmoveiguy.com