As per the title, I’m wondering what everyone’s top five Jesus films are. If possible please give a mention of why you like it, why you think that that film is a good one. There is no set order here - order them as you wish. Also, I’m not limiting everyone to their top fives: if you want, you can add a list of honorable mentions afterward.
Without further ado:
1.) Il Vangelo secondo Matteo, aka The Gospel according to St. Matthew (1964): Widely considered to be one of the best films in the genre, poet-turned-film director Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film about Jesus is all the more remarkable considering that Pasolini was a nonbeliever, indeed a homosexual and a Marxist. Its cast of non-actors (all in the tradition of Italian neorealism), its black-and-white photography, and somewhat deliberate minimalistic, low-budget, dare I even say anachronistic, feel - worlds away from the grandiose epics - ironically gives out a sense of realism more than Hollywood could ever produce. Pasolini’s Jesus is far removed from the ‘meek and mild’ Christ of holy cards: here, He is on fire, always on the move while delivering His words in the strongest terms possible with revolutionary zeal and urgency. Take for example the film’s version of the the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) and the seven Woes to the Scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 23:1-39).
2.) The Miracle Maker (1999-2000): Despite the fact that the film is actually claymation with bits of animation, it is also, IMHO, one of the best of breed. Despite being a simple, modest and quite short (running about an hour and a half) retelling of the life of Christ, it does little more than present the bare events of the gospel narratives, without major adornments or inventions or editorial spins to make the story more ‘amusing’. As Steven Greydanus said in his review: “It’s so straightforward, it’s practically revolutionary.” Ralph Fiennes manages to portray a convincing, human Jesus.
3.) The Passion (2008): I kind of feel it a shame that this BBC/HBO miniseries about Jesus’ last week which did not have much of a public presence (aside from the minor controversy which raged over its portrayal of crucifixions), and which might admittedly even make a few folks feel queasy with a few elements, is not so widely known. It’s one of those films which often tries to break away with popular, conventional ideas to present a new way of looking at a time-honored story, which is a plus point in my opinion. I really liked how the traditional villains of the Passion story, such as Caiaphas and Pilate, are given more depth of character here instead of rendering them like stock two-dimensional baddies with no apparent hope of redemption. The same holds true for other characters as well - for instance, the apostle John is given a sharper personality, more befitting the name Boanerges than the emotional, almost teary-eyed wet blanket of traditional portrayals. Credits go to the late Frank Deasy for writing such a strong, historically-literate script. For the record, need I mention that as of now, this is the only Jesus film I know of where Pilate speaks in an Irish accent?
4.) From the Manger to the Cross: (1912) One of the earliest films about Jesus Christ, filmed in the silent era on location in Palestine and Egypt. Despite its age, the film, with its calm, simple spirituality, actually holds up pretty well, and Robert Henderson-Bland (Jesus)’ performance captures both the humanity and the divinity of Christ well. It is also one of the most controversial films when it came out: some at the time objected to the idea of portraying Jesus in film at all, while others picked bones with the fact that the film literally just ends with Jesus’ death, omitting the Resurrection entirely. But reception has been mostly positive that it achieved a number of subsequent re-releases in the silent era.
5.) The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965): This one’s actually a guilty pleasure of mine. The film was a victim of misfortune since its inception: critics throughout the years have reviled it for its nigh-endless distracting cameos of Hollywood stars, the most infamous one being by John Wayne (ironic how they chose Max von Sydow, then an unknown who had never yet appeared in an English-language film, to play Jesus but chose well-known actors and actresses in the minor roles! ;)) Not to mention that it was released at a time when the public have already grown tired of the longwinded, grand epics of the last decades - in fact, the divided reception the film had received among critics had successfully killed off the Biblical film genre for years. However, in seeing the flaws it is quite easy to neglect the high points of the film. Despite the fact that Sydow’s Jesus was the quintessential Hollywood Jesus: an austere, almost-emotionless Son of God, in my opinion he manages to take the template and fashion it into a credible one. The Jesus of this film is quite reminiscent of the one in John’s Gospel: an overtly divine and authoritative figure. In fact, the film as a whole is evocative of John.