Cecil B. DeMille’s sentimentalized silent epic delays the entrance of Jesus, first seen by a little girl whose sight he has newly restored. The idealized haloed figure who appears before her was played by the 51-year-old English actor H.B. Warner, whose beneficent fatherly look might seem a little disconcerting to 21st-century audiences expecting a handsome 33-year-old messiah. Warner is best known these days for playing the grieving druggist Mr. Gower in It’s a Wonderful Life. Among the extras in the crowd scenes were the future fan-dancer Sally Rand and the future novelist Ayn Rand (no relation).
After a 25-year moratorium on Hollywood Jesus films, the floodgates were opened by 1953’s The Robe. MGM then gambled on the success of Paramount’s The Ten Commandments (1956) by making Ben-Hur (1959) and rescued the studio’s fortunes. It next embarked on the first Hollywood-made Jesus biopic of modern times, hiring Nicolas Ray to direct Jeffrey Hunter in the title role. Whereas DeMille’s King of Kings starts when Jesus is fully grown and performing miracles, Ray’s historically contextualized version, narrated by Orson Welles, begins with Pompey’s conquest of Jerusalem in 63 BC before moving to Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem. Ray’s strategy was to contrast Jesus’s story with that of the Jewish anti-Roman rebel Barabbas (Harry Guardino). The 15-minute Sermon on the Mount is spectacular, though critics considered the film too didactic. Hunter is a thoughtful but, alas, too “gorgeous” Nazarene. Sceptics nicknamed the film “I Was a Teenage Jesus.”
The half-Basque, half-Jewish non-professional actor Enrique Irazoqui played a no-nonsense Marxist revolutionary Jesus—a touch of Ché—in Pier-Paolo Pasolini’s masterpiece, which adheres so closely to Matthew’s gospel it’s like a sacred text in its own right. Filmed in black and white on the harsh terrains of Catania, Calaabria, Basilicata, and Apulia in southern Italy, the film has the quality of a Renaissance masterpiece (Giotto and Piero della Francesca were influences), though the use of anachronistic music by Bach, Mozart, Prokofiev, Leadbelly, and Odetta emphasized the timelessness of Jesus’s Eight Beatitudes, the blessings recounted in the Sermon on the Mount. Pasolini’s film celebrates Jesus less as an avatar of divinity than of the artisanal, peasant life.
George Stevens’s epic, his penultimate film, starred the Swedish actor Max von Sydow as a grave, slow-speaking Jesus whose utterances err on portentous. The Gethsemane scenes are among the strongest. Handsomely shot in 70mm, Greatest Story too often resembles a Western, while the casting of stars in small parts was distracting. “Truly this man was the son of God,” John Wayne’s Roman centurion intones at the Crucifixon—an absurd moment that promotes “the Duke” rather than the Messiah.
Steeped in biblical realpolitik, Dennis Potter’s BBC play secularizes the life of Christ. Played without sanctity by the Northern Irish actor Colin Blakeley, Jesus is a burly, tough-talking (though self-doubting) street prophet who remonstrates with ordinary people to embrace love, but he doesn’t perform miracles or welcome messiah-dom. He perplexes Pontius Pilate (Robert Hardy) when he says he doesn’t fear “the nails,” then cows the Judaea prefect by telling him, “Don’t be afraid—there’s no need to be frightened.”
Robert Powell’s Jesus drew on Warner Sallman’s 1940 painting “The Head of Christ”—non-Jewish and strictly Northern European. His blue eyes, as unblinking as the eyes H.B. Warner in the 1927 King of Kings and Max Von Sydow in The Greatest Story Ever Told, are the eyes of a Jesus serenely certain of his destiny. Among the best scenes are those in which he meets John the Baptist (Michael York) and stays the men about to stone the Adulteress (Claudia Cardinale). Powell made him the holiest of the holies.
Willem Dafoe’s Jesus—like Colin Blakely’s in Son of Man—is an earthy, sensual, angry self-doubter plagued by guilt and tormented by the burden of reconciling his divinity with his humanity. Martin Scorsese’s film of Nikos Kazantzakis 1955 novel was vilified by religious right leaders inflamed by the idea that Jesus steps from the cross to live with Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey) and then with Lazarus’s sisters after Mary dies. This, though, is the temptation that presents itself to him during the crucifixion and which he renounces to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. As the late critic Roger Ebert pointed out, this Jesus is like Scorsese himself, the ex-seminarian and self-confessed sinner who cannot live easily with faith nor relinquish it—the same battle essentially fought in last year’s Silence.
Always a soulful actor, and a great screen “sufferer,” Lothaire Bluteau outdoes himself in Denys Arcand’s masterful New Testament-influenced allegory of tensions in Québéc’s cultural life. He plays Daniel, a performer-playwright commissioned to mount a modern update of the Passion at a Roman Catholic sanctuary. Though the priest who commissioned it asked for an updated version, Daniel’s critically acclaimed revisionist take causes a fracas that lands him in a Jewish hospital. Arcand subverts reactionary views on the cause of Jesus’s death. Watch this one alongside Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (below) and see which sticks in the craw.
In Hal Hartley’s wry impressionistic comedy about the second coming, a suave, suited Jesus (Martin Donovan), accompanied by his assistant Mary Magdalene (rock musician P.J. Harvey), arrives at JFK and heads into Manhattan for a theosophical debate with Satan (Thomas Jay Ryan) in a hotel bar. Should Jesus break the Seven Seals contained in his laptop and bring on the Apocalypse, or does humanity deserve a second chance? “We’re supposed to change the world with love, compassion, and forgiveness,” he grumbles. “This divine vengeance crap is all wrong. Who do these Christians think they are anyway?” Way to go, Jesus!
No screen Jesus has suffered as much as Jim Caviezel’s in Mel Gibson’s horrific version of the Passion, which indulges the director’s bloodlust more in the name of hate and anti-Semitism than love. The protracted scourging of Jesus by the leering Roman guards, while the Pharisees look calmly on, is one of the most loathsome sequences in recent movie history—there’s no “God in the details” here. Caviezel is fine, but the film’s rampant sadism denies Jesus’s message that we should love our enemies.
The National Geographic Channel’s three-hour film, which was adapted from Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard’s breathless non-fiction book, is one of the most turgid accounts of Jesus’s life. Focusing more on his journey as an anti-establishment rebel than as a spiritual leader, it strives for realism but comes across as dull and dumbed-down. The Lebanese-born actor Haaz Sleiman makes for a rote Jesus, one without a spark of divinity.