The Best Jesus Movies Ever Made

April 20, 2011

There isn’t one best Jesus movie ever made.

Jesus is alive in our minds and hearts and prayers. Someone else’s images and interpretation can never live up to our own images and ideas of how he lived and died.

But some inspire us. Here are five Jesus movies that you may have seen but may wish to see again this Holy Week.

  1. Jesus of Nazareth (1977), with Robert Powell as Jesus, directed by Franco Zeffirelli. The blue-eyed Powell looks like a holy card Jesus but does a good job revealing the son of God’s love, compassion, and humor. This mini-series has been a favorite for decades, but at six and a half hours, you need to view it over a few days.
  2. The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini, follows the Gospel and emphasizes the prophetic mission of Jesus. Pasolini was a Marxist and calls attention to the social gospel. The soundtrack includes spirituals, Bach, and the soaring Missa Luba. Pasolini’s Jesus is too serious for my taste, but cineastes consider this movie one of the best.
  3. Godspell (1973), a delightful musical directed by David Greene, and one repeated on high school stages throughout the country, is the one I’d show to my family. It’s not realistic but an imaginative romp through an empty Manhattan as Jesus and his disciples sing and dance and express joy. The movie emphasizes the teachings and parables of Jesus. We showed it to our kids when they were in middle school, and they loved it.
  4. The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), with Max von Sydow as Jesus, directed by George Stevens. I saw this movie in my early 20s on a great big Cinemascope screen, and some of its moments moved me (Jesus crying outside Lazarus’ tomb) while others made me wince (John Wayne as a centurion at the cross proclaiming to the skies, “This truly was the son of God,” while thunder claps). But I liked it. It’s big.
  5. The Passion of the Christ (2004), with Jim Caviezel as Jesus, directed by Mel Gibson, is a work of art. It is flawed, but no one can deny that Gibson was sincere and devoted in bringing to life his vision of Jesus. I saw it in a packed theater and it brought people to tears. Yes, the scourging of Jesus did go on way too long, but a new DVD has edited it down. The theme of the movie is Jesus’ saying to his disciples and to us, “You are my friends. And there is no greater love than for a man to lay down his life for his friends.” That is what I felt watching it.

If any of these movies are on TV this weekend I will surely visit them again, at least for a little while. None of them are the movie I would have made, but I didn’t make one (so there!), and each has scenes and moments that if put together might add up to the best Jesus movie ever made.


Bob April 21, 2011 at 2:50 pm

Another big screen move would be “Ben Hur” from the late ’50′s. While it focused on one Jewish man, Charleton Heston, his salvation came when he met Jesus on the road and was given a cup of water.

Mike April 21, 2011 at 2:53 pm

Yes, that was a great one. I had forgotten that beautiful scene with a cup of water, one of the best ever, and it would have to be in any composite. I also now remember the scene after Jesus dies and his blood flows and mixes into many streams of water with the rain washing them down Mt. Calvary into Jersusalem and EVERYWHERE! Yup, Ben Hur. Thanks, Bob.

Cherry O’Neill April 21, 2011 at 2:58 pm

I know it was not a regular feature in theaters, but I watched an incredibly powerful documentary on the History Channel last Easter that absolutely blew me away! It was a production called The Real Face of Jesus, and it followed experts who have analyzed the image on the Shroud of Turin and have continued to believe that it was the true representation of what Jesus looked like while he walked among us. They not only go about the process of scientifically building the case for its very likely authenticity, but they go another step further. Using modern technology, they create a mold based on the dimensions of the image on the Shroud and, from that mold, build an animated image of what the three dimensional face of Jesus must have looked like. The scientific basis for everything they do is a strong foundation for the product they are able to reveal at the end, and I have to tell you…when they showed the final digitally-produced 3-D image of the face that is built according to the image on the Shroud, I got goosebumps—BIG TIME! It is a fascinating process of creation that is based on the convictions and devotion of professional scientists and artists who are working from a place of faith, but with the tools of modern science and technology. It impressed me so much that I bought copies of the DVD to give to my entire family! It’s not like going to see Jesus of Nazareth, the full feature film—it is more like seeing Him face to face!

Marybeth Redmond April 21, 2011 at 2:59 pm

My faves in the “Jesus of Nazareth” series are Lazarus rising from the tomb and the healing of blind Bartimaeus. Christ’s compassion for others (both friends and strangers) moves him to act quickly and deliberately. His sense of authority is compelling, especially for engaged progressive women Catholics, many of whom feel unable to fully express/be themselves the current milieu.

Mike April 21, 2011 at 3:01 pm

Thanks, MB. I’m glad you’re not mad at me for not making it Numero Uno Primo! It does deserve it, of course…

Mike April 21, 2011 at 3:01 pm

Thanks, Cherry. You, too, know about good things I never heard of! I thought I was almighty Film Man! I am learning here. But I do remember having fun talking movies with you when we were doing your book 30 years ago. You are the Roger Ebert of the Northwest, at very least!

claire April 21, 2011 at 3:08 pm

I notice you did not mention Jesus Christ Superstar. Of the movies you mention, I have seen #2 (I agree it is too serious) and #5, with which I had a problem in the way evil is portrayed, particularly at the end.

You are right, none of these movies is the movie I would have made. Like you, I have not made one either. I guess I would like to see one from the point of view of the women who followed him… It could be interesting.

Mike April 21, 2011 at 8:18 pm

That’s a great idea, Claire. I’d put in music by Sr. Miriam Therese Winter as part of the soundtrack.

chris April 24, 2011 at 4:54 am

… and how about the new Jesus movie for our younger folks in anime “My Last Day”…

Mike April 25, 2011 at 3:30 pm

Thanks, Chris, for expanding the vineyard!

Gene Barrette July 28, 2011 at 12:45 am

A film I thought captured the humanitly of Jesus very effectively was one shown on CBS TV and made by TRIMARK. Jeremy Sisto is Jesus. The title is simply “Jesus.”
Many may question its scriptural accuracy. Nevertheless, much of it left me moved and joyed. They powerfully recreated the feelings and imaginative settings that I have experience when following the directives of Ignatius of Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises. He suggests we imagine the Gospel scene as fully as possible, and beome one or several of the characters. This movie often gave me a sensed “frisson” in strongly feeing, “I’ve been there.”
Because of providing me with such powerful, visceral experiences,
experiences, this has become one of my favorite “Jesus Movies.”

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