My Lenten discipline this year is to watch as many films about Jesus as my spare time allows. Below is a ranked list with brief reviews of all the ones I’ve seen so far.
This has been a very productive exercise in meditating on and interpreting the meaning of Jesus, and I would recommend this practice to anyone willing to let their faith be spurred forward by art. I hope what follows can be a starting place.
All Jesus films are interpretations of the Biblical Jesus, but most draw from other sources in significant ways. All these films strive for different kinds of accuracy (historical, literary, cinematic, theological). Some fail and some succeed. All films also respond to their own cultural contexts, and some of these films are more concerned with commenting (sometimes satirically) on the present. For example, 1973 saw no fewer than three musical films about Jesus, each of which in its own way examines Jesus in relationship to hippies and the counter-culture. (None is a real success: skip the films and look for the soundtracks instead.)
Film, far more so than written narrative, is an incredibly realistic medium. Film conventions are also vastly different than Biblical literary conventions. Film is good for establishing historical context and setting and showing characters’ developments, but it has limitations. It is much harder to represent divinity and mystery on film. For example, cinematic representations of miracles often seem to be more the result of a special effects crew than of God. Few films succeed in this translation onto the screen.
Furthermore, since cinema itself has only existed after nearly two millennia of Jewish-Christian conflicts (and the bulk of these films are post-WWII), how Jesus as a Jew in a Jewish context is represented remains problematic. That is, while the New Testament’s attempts to articulate Christianity’s development of Judaism are not anti-Semitic as we understand it today, representing the New Testament cinematically often makes it appear so. All of these films attempt to avoid anti-Semitic representations, some more successfully than others.
Here are my general criteria for ranking the films that follow, which are divided into tiers.
- Devotion—how did the film help me contemplate the God whom I worship in Jesus?
- Defamiliarization—how did the film challenge conventional but misguided ways of seeing Jesus and wake me up to fresh ways?
- Faithfulness to the Bible and Christian orthodoxy—how was Jesus portrayed as Jewish Messiah, fully and sinlessly human, fully divine, a social teacher and movement initiator, savior of the world, and so on?
- Cinematic and literary quality—how did the film use its media and aesthetics to interpret Jesus’ story?
As far as cinematic interpretations of the meaning of Jesus go, I’m far more drawn to films that don’t attempt to depict Jesus directly. The Christ-figures in the films Ordet (Dreyer, 1955), The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer, 1928), Diary of a Country Priest (Bresson, 1950), Au hasard Balthazar (Bresson, 1966), and Babette’s Feast (Axel, 1987) witness to the truth of Christ more clearly to me than any Jesus biopic. I find the medieval Russian Passion reenactment in “The Andrei Passion” section of Andrei Rublev (Tarkovsky, 1966) as moving as any of the more “realistic” representations. One could make a strong case for any of these six films as the greatest Christian/religious film of all time, which is not something I’d say about any of the Jesus films on the following ranked list. Call the above films tier zero/infinity. Of course, for the ultimate Jesus film, we’ll have to wait until the year God only knows, when in the court of God that is the redeemed earth, all nations and languages, all art and media will finally declare incorruptibly the glory and worthiness of Jesus Christ.
Very Spiritually Significant & Highly Recommended (First Tier)
1. The Gospel According to Matthew (Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo) (1964, Italian)
This is arguably the most faithful (using only verbatim dialogue from Matthew), reverent, and cinematically interesting Jesus film. And it has the best music. Directed by Marxist atheist Pier Paolo Pasolini, the film nevertheless shows Jesus from a believer’s perspective. It uses neorealism and unconventional cinematic techniques to wake up the viewer to what the Bible actually says in a way that shows the gospel’s relevance and also honors the literary forms the Bible uses. Thus this Jesus is both familiar and defamiliarizing. I found myself asking productive questions like “Who does this guy think he is?” and “Why is Jesus so upset?” and “I kind of wish someone would get rid of this guy. Why don’t they…? Oh, wait, right, they do.” Some might be put off by this Jesus’ radical intensity and authority, but that is an aspect of Jesus that we today especially shouldn’t overlook. Overall, this was the film that most helped me see Jesus afresh and appreciate his glorious strangeness.
2. The Miracle Maker (2000)
This was my favorite of all the Jesus films, and arguably the most faithful representation of Jesus himself in a film. It was also the most emotionally involving of the films for me—I found myself tearing up multiple times!—but it never resorted to easy sentimentalism. It uses claymation beautifully with animation used for dreams, parables, flashbacks, and the like. It retells the Jesus story so straightforwardly that it is accessible to children viewers but also made fresh for theologically-literate adults. When it adds characterization it often draws on the best of what other Jesus films have added and always in ways that honor the original.
3. Jesus of Montreal (1989, French)
Denys Arcand’s satire follows a group of actors constructing a demythologized passion play for a Catholic Church. As the actors produce and perform the play, their (and others’) lives begin to allegorically parallel the characters of the Gospel narratives. This is particularly true of Daniel, the lead actor who plays Jesus in the passion play, who more and more transforms to embody the character of the Biblical Jesus and becomes a Christ-figure as a result. This film uses historicist methods seemingly to undermine the Gospel accounts even as it also points to the ultimate meaninglessness of such a secular, rationalist worldview. The allegory has its limits—Daniel is not Christ himself, after all—but I believe the film ultimately embraces the hope and meaningfulness of the story of Jesus in its gospel fullness, even if we ourselves can only model that incompletely here and now. The hypocrisy and corruption of institutional religion as well as commercialism are severely but fairly critiqued throughout. The ironies and ambiguities of this film don’t allow for easy interpretation but are challenging in the best way.
Excellent & Faithful (Second Tier)
4. The Messiah (Il Messia) (1975, Italian)
Roberto Rossellini’s The Messiah emphasizes more than other films Jesus as the Messiah, the fulfillment of the laws, prophecies, and history of Israel and savior of its people. Even more than that, it emphasizes Jesus as rabbi. His ministry involves gathering disciples, teaching them, and sending them to teach others (including the film’s viewers—I felt like I was learning from Jesus). I also liked how it doesn’t show miracles directly. Rather we see them or hear about them afterward, just like when we read about them in the Gospels. It also gives Mary Jesus’ mother and John the Baptist roles as important as in any other film and emphasizes Jesus as a worker, a man of the people. Overall, this film is very faithful both in form and content, and it is beautifully executed.
5. The Visual Bible: The Gospel of John (2003)
This film is the Gospel of John read in its entirety by Christopher Plummer with dialogue spoken by the actors. This unconventional method—a collision of the literary and the cinematic—worked very effectively. The film’s completeness and coherence are great strengths, but recounting John’s narrative verbatim also disallows spending longer on key passages and events. The film is already nearly three hours. And the stated goal of faithfulness to the text makes the occasional visual misstep more noticeable. The choice of the Good News paraphrase makes sense for being conversational and politically correct, but I would have preferred a more literary translation for such a literary film.
6. Jesus (1999)
This film (originally a miniseries) tells Jesus’ story as a coming-of-age narrative in which the goal isn’t integration into society (or marriage) but rather complete alignment with God’s will. It shows better than any other that Jesus is both human and divine. Where many films depict Jesus as aloof and speaking King James English, this Jesus is goofy and awkward and has very normal human relationships (including confusing romantic attractions). He changes his mind and learns about God’s will from others (such as in his interaction with the Syrophoenician woman, but especially from his mother). Yet this Jesus is portrayed as divine as well, and he is firmly contrasted to the Romans’ “divine” Caesars. Jesus struggles to discern God’s will, especially when it is difficult, but always does. This Jesus is tempted in ordinary ways but also with the knowledge of all the evil that will be done in his name by the Church and Christendom.
7. Jesus of Nazareth (1977)
Franco Zeffirelli’s pious and commercially successful miniseries does much well, and it is the most complete harmonization of the four Gospels. It does a great job with the things it adds: Jewish context; sympathy for Judas; details on Roman occupation; the zealots and the longing for the Messiah; incorporation of Hebrew Scripture; backstories of the disciples, Mary, Joseph, Nicodemus, and others. But I’m afraid that much of the helpful emphasis on Jesus’ Jewishness is undermined by the fact that this Jesus looks like Warner Sallman’s Head of Christ: tall, blue-eyed, fair, with a proper upper-class British accent and little desire to challenge his audience. This Jesus doesn’t seem human and divine: rather, like Goldilocks’ preferences, he lands somewhere in the middle. Furthermore, the amount of fictionalization as a whole distracts from the Gospel accounts themselves. The nearly six and half hours are paced in bite-sized episodes and rewarding for anyone looking for a cinematic representation of the life of Jesus, although it is front-heavy. I read somewhere that this is the standard by which all Jesus films are measured, and I agree, although I believe several others measure much higher.
8. The Face: Jesus in Art (2001)
This documentary asks so many important questions about representing Jesus (many relevant to Jesus films as well—someone should make that documentary!) but above all it asks, how have artists attempted to represent the divinity of Jesus aesthetically throughout history? It spans the entire history of Christian art from catacomb wall-paintings, holy icons, and medieval devotional depictions to European masters such as Giotto, Michelangelo, and Rembrandt to recent mass-produced images and art that adapts Jesus into multi-ethnic-and-religious contexts (by artists such as Chagall and Fred Carter).
Interesting & Worthwhile but Problematic (Third Tier)
9. The Passion of the Christ (2004, Aramaic & Latin)
Mel Gibson’s blockbuster gets a lot right. It’s compelling, beautifully filmed, and balances representation of Jesus’ humanity and divinity well. However, it’s hard not to view this as another addition to the Gibson corpus of overly-violent, revenge-oriented, triumphalist drama-thrillers. I respect it as a traditionalist Catholic meditation and an accurate portrayal of Roman brutality, but I believe the former to be an irresponsible form of Christian devotion and the latter an irresponsible use of film as a medium. Dehumanization is not the essence of Jesus’ human recapitulation and messianic glorification. For all the film gets right cinematically, visually, and historically, it (finally and most importantly) misses the theological significance of Christ’s Passion.
10. The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
I understand why people find this film controversial and offensive. Although I found some parts of it troubling, I thought it was an excellent psychological study; on the other hand, the characters and relationships are so different from the Biblical ones that they lose meaningful connection to them. The movie acknowledges that it’s based on a novel, but the novel is an interpretation of the Biblical events, in which Jesus is not the film’s neurotic, fragmented, shame-and-guilt-ridden, crazed, masochistic, self-hating Roman collaborator. Nevertheless, the film succeeds as well as any other at showing what a realistically-human Jesus’ world might have looked like to him. I want to be charitable and call this complex film an exposition of heresies rather than simply heretical itself. If anything, it doesn’t deny Christ’s divinity (or at least a kind of heretical adoptionist divinity). After all, Jesus overcomes the devil’s temptations, which are taken very seriously. The film’s main heresy is Gnostic dualism: like so many conventionally heretical Western Christians, the film presents the conflict of spirit and flesh as meaning that the physical (including here sex and women) is inferior to the immaterial. The film misses the truth that spirit and matter are integrated and both created good. Christologically, this Jesus isn’t fully human and fully divine rather but human versus divine, Jesus versus Christ. All in all, this film is a theological disaster, but it’s still worth the challenge to try to untie the well-crafted strands of orthodoxy, heterodoxy, and nonsense that make up this film. This is one of the better films on this list, but coming from the Scorsese/Schrader duo that gave us the brilliant Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, I expected more.
11. Son of Man: An African Jesus (2006, Xhosa & English)
This is the only film on this list that really imagines who Jesus would have been in an alternate context: a fictional nation in contemporary Africa governed by corrupt politicians, destabilized by freedom-fighting rebels, and currently occupied by the invading “democratic coalition forces.” The reimaginings of the events of the Gospels in the life of this African Jesus are very well done, but far too much gets lost when Jesus is taken out of his first-century Jewish context. In particular, Jesus’ message gets reduced from its cosmic, all-encompassing significance to a primarily political one, even if that political message of peace and compassion is true and desperately needed. On the other hand, I learned a lot from this film, even if what I learned wasn’t primarily about Jesus.
12. Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979)
I think that this comedy is hilarious, but Python humor isn’t for everyone. Like Jesus of Montreal, it cleverly satirizes middle-class religious culture and institutions (rather than Jesus himself). It’s a sad truth (humorously presented) that Christ’s followers so grossly misinterpret his message and meaning, just as the crowds of this film misunderstand the earnest Brian (by turning him into an unintentional anti-messiah) and live out a narrow-minded nihilism at odds with what they truly desire. Those of us who can most learn from this film’s critique are likely those who will be most offended.
13. Jesus (aka “The Jesus Film”) (1979)
Claiming to be the most-viewed film of all time, this movie is actually quite good as a cinematic exposition of the Gospel of Luke (with some inclusions and exclusions). But it is also very upfront about its purpose of proselytizing, and it even ends with the voiceover narrator inviting the audience to pray the “salvation” prayer. That doesn’t necessarily detract from the bulk of the film, but a two-hour infomercial such as this (even one selling something as valuable as Jesus) ends up reducing the full significance of the gospel and offering a film that is less than it could have been.
14. Godspell (1973)
I love the songs “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord,” “Day by Day,” and “All Good Gifts.” The creative retellings of Jesus’ parables and sayings usually worked for me, too. However, all the clowning around NYC got old quickly, especially without a narrative to contain it, and distracted from the content of Jesus’ words. Based on its faithfulness and defamiliarizing, this one should be ranked higher, but overall it just didn’t do it for me.
15. Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)
I grew up listening to the Broadway Superstar double LP album. The music rocks, and the lyrics are intriguing if also misguided and theologically a mess. But I’m afraid that’s most of what this film has to offer. Jesus here might be “cool,” but he’s also whiny and shallow—not the Jesus of Scripture. Judas is a far more compelling character here. This Holy Land staging of the rock opera is more interesting for its 70s trends than its interpretation of Holy Week events.
Silent Films (Fourth Tier)
Each of these films is faithful, reverent, and cinematically interesting. I might have placed each higher, but it takes extra for me to love a silent film, and none of these really measured up to the ones I do love.
16. The King of Kings (1927)
Cecil B. DeMille’s epic is a landmark that established Jesus film acting and directing conventions that would be influential through being both imitated and resisted. Some of the additions are ridiculous, but for the most part, it works well as a narrative, a film, and a representation of the gospel. It’s the one silent film to watch for a relatively complete picture of the history of Jesus films.
17. From the Manger to the Cross (1912)
18. The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ (1905)
It was interesting to watch these very different silent films that were made before the film techniques that we now take for granted were invented. From the Manger to the Cross comes off as relatively natural, particularly in its Holy Land setting, and has Scriptural intertitles. The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ consists of relatively static staged scenes. Watching them in complete silence helped make these films truly meditative experiences for me. I recommend them both.
Not Recommended (Fifth Tier)
19. The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)
Max von Sydow (Jesus) is a great actor, but that only barely shows in this colossal bore. Cinematically, this film is an interesting, often lovely, and by no means inferior to others in many ways, but it is far less than the sum of its parts. The random John Wayne cameo represents much of what I find wrong with it: annoying acting and distractions; empty conservatism masquerading as piety; and the fact that this film looks, sounds, and feels like a Hollywood western (except when it looks like a sentimental Christian greeting card). At least here, unlike in westerns, the European invaders are the villains, although the indigenous people are still far more Euro-American than Jewish. Still, even Hollywood can’t kill a story this great.
20. Son of God (2014)
This relaxed, chill Jesus seems to exist primarily to affirm the spiritual status quo of a Christian audience who already agrees with the films’ banally conventional orthodoxy. The overbearing music and effects practically disallow engaging intellectually or otherwise appreciating the many things this film does decently. If a cynical marketing corporation made a film targeting a lowest-common-denominator Christian audience, this would be it: propaganda for the already-“faithful.” This film has little to recommend it when compared to the riches of the other films on this list, but neither does it have any glaring problems as a representation of events in the life of Christ.
21. King of Kings (1961)
This Hollywood epic is an epic mess. The film is largely about a fictionalized struggle between the zealots and Romans, and the characters Barrabas and Lucius (the centurion who ends up at the crucifixion) are nearly even more important that Jesus. The film’s justly famous, cast-of-thousands Sermon on the Mount scene is really its only high point. There are far too many lows even to begin.
22. The Gospel Road: The Story of Jesus Told and Sung by Johnny Cash (1973)
The subtitle says it all: Johnny Cash narrates and sings, and actors perform the events in a passion play wordlessly (although June Cash as Mary Magdalene gets some lines). The only reason I watched this one is that I like Johnny Cash and his music a lot, and its low placement shouldn’t be seen as a dis to the man in black himself. The film just isn’t any good, the interpretation of Jesus is unsophisticated at best, and the music is far from Cash’s finest. Yet this film is a testament to the wonderful fact that Jesus Christ transformed Cash’s life indeed.
Note: Several film critics I respect have made similar lists in Christianity Today, Books & Culture, a Bible films blog that is the source of the cross image, and elsewhere. The books Imaging the Divine, Jesus of Hollywood, Jesus at the Movies, and especially Savior on the Silver Screen are also helpful guides for further viewing.