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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.