Sunday, November 2, 2014

Movies About Jesus

For the past several months, I've been working on a book report on the Bible.  Today, I arrived at the New Testament, particularly the gospels, which are like little biographies of Jesus' life.  To complement my reading of the gospels, I've been checking out movies about the life of Jesus, and there have been several, stretching all the way back to the beginning of cinema, and continuing today.  Here are some of the most important movies made about Jesus (in chronological order):

1.) "Intolerance" (1916) directed by D.W. Griffith.  As the poster advertises, this silent movie spectacle was made after D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation," a controversial and disturbing film based on a novel called The Klansman.  The hero of "The Birth of a Nation" was a member of the KKK.  Ironically, Griffith followed this up with a film dealing with historical instances of intolerance.  One of the four stories in this film centers on the life of Jesus.

2.) "The King of Kings" (1927) directed by Cecil B. DeMille.  This film was the second in Hollywood legend DeMille's biblical trilogy, preceded by "The Ten Commandments" (1923), and followed by "The Sign of the Cross" (1932).  This was the first movie to premiere at the Grauman's Chinese Theater in Los Angeles.  Atheist philosopher Ayn Rand was, ironically, an extra in this film.  

3.) "King of Kings" (1961) directed by Nicholas Ray.  Ray is best known for directing the classic "Rebel Without a Cause" starring James Dean.  His filmmaking style had a big influence on the French New Wave.  Jean-Luc Godard once wrote in a review of Ray's film "Bitter Victory" that "cinema is Nicholas Ray."

4.) "The Gospel According to St. Matthew" (1964) directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini.  I was somewhat shocked to learn that Pasolini, an openly gay Italian poet and filmmaker, made a movie based on the gospel of Matthew.   Yes, the same guy who directed "120 Days of Sodom" based on the highly sexual novel by the Marquis de Sade, also made a movie about Jesus.

5.) "The Greatest Story Ever Told" (1965) directed by George Stevens.  Movies about Jesus seem to be full of historical ironies.  The guy who plays Jesus in this film is Max Von Sydow, who also happened to star in many of the atheist/existentialist films of Swedish master Ingmar Bergman.  In Bergman's "The Seventh Seal," Von Sydow's character angrily questions, and ultimately denounces God and Christianity.  Then he played Jesus.  This big-budget film had a star-studded cast, including Charlton Heston as John the Baptist, Martin Landau as Caiaphas, and Donald Pleasance as Satan.

6.) "Godspell" (1973) directed by David Greene.  This film is adapted from the wildly popular Broadway musical by Stephen Schwartz,  based on the parables of Christ.  Schwartz went on to write many popular Disney songs and film soundtracks like Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  He also wrote the musical Wicked.  Godspell is definitely a product of the "hippie" generation.

7.) "The Gospel Road" (1973) featuring Johnny Cash.  This is a lesser-known film about Jesus, but one of my favorites.  Johnny Cash, the "Man in Black" and godfather of outlaw country was also a sincere Christian, and he made this film in the holy land.  He also wrote and performed the awesome country gospel soundtrack.

8.) "Jesus Christ Superstar" (1973) directed by Norman Jewison.  This film was based on the wildly popular musical/rock opera by Andrew Lloyd Webber, who is probably the most well-known composer of musicals in modern history.  He wrote Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.  This musical has an awesome soundtrack.

9.) "Jesus of Nazareth" (1977) directed by Franco Zeffirelli.  At just over six hours, this is definitely the longest film about Jesus.  It was originally a TV miniseries, but it looks and feels quite cinematic. The Italian director Franco Zeffirelli was well-known for his adaptations of Romeo and Juliet and The Taming of the Shrew (Starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton).  "Jesus of Nazareth" had an all-star cast including Anne Bancroft (as Mary Magdalen), Ernest Borgnine (as a Roman Centurion), James Earl Jones (as a Wise Man), Laurence Olivier (as Nicodemus), Christopher Plummer (as Herod Antipas), Michael York (as John the Baptist), and a young Ian McShane (as Judas).

10.) "The Last Temptation of Christ" (1988) directed by Martin Scorsese. The film was based on Nikos Kazantzakis 1955 novel which was banned  by the Catholic Church. The Greek Orthodox Church excommunicated him for this book. The film was a five-year labor of love for critically acclaimed director Scorsese, known for such masterpieces as Raging Bull and Taxi Driver.  I remember, as a child, how many Christians were against this film, which emphasized Jesus' humanity.  The film, according to its prologue, "is not based on the Gospels, but upon this fictional exploration of the eternal spiritual conflict."  But this did not stop Christian groups across America from picketing and attacking the film.  For example, Bill Bright's Campus Crusade for Christ (now called CRU) offered to reimburse Universal for its investment in The Last Temptation of Christ in exchange for all existing prints, which he vowed to destroy. The day before its premiere, Citizens for a Universal Appeal, a coalition of religious groups from Orange County, staged a protest in front of Universal's L.A. headquarters that attracted some 25,000 participants.  In 1997, the American Film Institute bestowed upon Martin Scorsese the Life Achievement Award, considered the highest career honor in Hollywood.  My friend Steve Elkins, an award-winning filmmaker, has called the novel "The Last Temptation of Christ" "one of the most reverent books on Jesus I've ever read."

11.) "The Passion of the Christ" (2004) directed by Mel Gibson.  Unlike The Last Temptation of Christ, Mel Gibson’s brutal The Passion of the Christ (which focused less on Jesus’ message and ministry than on his brutal beatings and execution) received enthusiastic support from the American evangelical community.  In June 2003, Gibson screened the film for 800 pastors attending a leadership conference at New Life Church, pastored by Ted Haggard, then president of the National Association of Evangelicals. Gibson gave similar showings at Greg Laurie’s Harvest Christian Fellowship, and to 3,600 pastors at a conference at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in Orange County.  Gibson received numerous public endorsements from evangelical leaders, including Billy Graham, Robert Schuller, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Chuck Colson, and James Dobson, the founder and chairman of Focus on the Family.  Film critics, however, were less enthusiastic.  Slate reviewer David Edelstein called it "a two-hour-and-six-minute snuff movie,” while Jami Bernard of the New York Daily News called it "the most virulently anti-Semitic movie made since the German propaganda films of World War II.” Time magazine listed it as one of the most violent films of all time.  Many scholars, religious leaders, and organizations like the Anti-Defamation League denounced the film as anti-semitic.

12.) "The Nativity Story" (2006) directed by Catherine Hardwicke.  The main character of this story is actually Mary, the mother of Jesus, whose social and spiritual struggles are emphasized.  Mary is portrayed by Keisha Castle-Hughes, a Maori actress who made a name for herself in the excellent film Whale Rider.  Director Catherine Hardwicke has had a fascinatingly diverse career so far.  She directed the controversial coming-of-age drama Thirteen, as well as Lords of Dogtown, and the first Twilight movie.

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