Editorial Note: This post is a companion to Jesus in the Movies: Challenges of Cinematizing the Gospels, which describes the films below in greater detail and provides a theological analysis of the difficulties surrounding depictions of the life of Jesus Christ and the Gospel on film.
As Holy Week approaches, channels such as AMC and Turner Classic Movies regularly roll out classic Jesus epics just in time for Easter. Movies about Jesus or the Gospel have often been accused (in many cases rightly) of being saccharine or cheesy. In an attempt to treat their subject with reverence, film-makers sometimes sentimentalize the Gospel message and present a Jesus as a soft moral teacher with magic tricks up his sleeves. Sometimes, however, artists create films that depict the Christ figure and Christ event with the strangeness and immediacy approaching those of the Gospels, and interpret their source material with grace and imagination. Here are five.
1. Jésus of Montreal (1989)
A surprising and thought-provoking film, Jésus of Montreal blends together representing the Gospels and presenting the Jesus story through a post-figuration of Christ. Denys Arcand’s film presents the Gospels as Other, as historical events that call our own lives into question by their jarring difference, and their continued reality in our own lives. From a thespian John the Baptist introducing the Jesus-figure to a curious form of resurrection, Jésus of Montreal has a strong imaginative sacramentality, as the Gospels of the passion play unfold in the actors’ lives on the streets of twentieth century Montreal.
2. Godspell (1973)
A gaggle of hippie-clowns running through Manhattan might not be the default method of retelling the Gospel stories. But, David Greene’s film version of the musical Godspell presents the Gospel of Matthew with a freshness, sincerity, and simplicity thrown into high relief by its milieu of New York City, a city known more for its cynicism than sincerity. Unlike the other 1973 film musical of the Jesus story, Norman Jewison’s adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell presents its Gospel narrative from a stance of childlike joy and faith, helped along greatly by Victor Garber’s gentle rendering of a kind and tender Savior.
3. The Passion of the Christ (2004)
Although controversial for its alleged anti-Semitism (as are the Gospels themselves) and its (truly) excessive gore, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is a beautiful meditation upon the sacrifice of Christ our Passover lamb. Its flashbacks of Christ’s memories beautifully weave a broader vision of Jesus into a story tightly focused on his role as the Suffering Servant. As we have a privileged view into the divine protagonist’s memory, we are drawn more deeply into walking with Christ through the film, which becomes a meditative Via Dolorosa for the viewer.
4. Babette’s Feast (1987)
In a remote Danish village, a stranger appears. She appears in poverty, in desperation, not in triumph. What does this stranger have to offer the people of the town? Abundant love. Babette’s Feast celebrates the love of a woman who spends all she has to prepare for her neighbors a lavish feast, for no other reason than to bring joy and beauty to their lives. Gabriel Axel’s film is a gustatory imaging of Christ’s abundant love for us.
5. The Gospel According to Matthew (1964)
Pier Paolo Pasolini was fascinated by the strong, aggressive Jesus of Matthew’s Gospel; his movie’s thesis is: “I have not come to bring peace but a sword” (Mt 10:34). The Gospel According to Matthew is a reminder that Christ is not a “tame lion” of Judah, but a force with whom we ourselves each must reckon. He comes not to applaud us for how excellent we are, but to call all of us to repentance. Pasolini’s Jesus is a powerful preacher, mysterious, and on fire, here to rouse a lukewarm world into action.
 Baugh, Lloyd, Imaging the Divine (New York: Sheed and Ward. 1997), 95.