Jesus Movies on the Big Screen

Life of Christ Energizes Box Office

On Tuesday of Holy Week, there were four — yes, four — Jesus movies on American movie screens at the same time, not to mention the new trailer for Paramount’s new adaptation of Ben-Hur, which will reportedly give more screen time to Jesus than previous adaptations.

Okay, technically one of those four movies isn’t really a Jesus film (more on this in a moment). But there’s more: In addition to those four films on U.S. screens, there were also special Holy Week screening events in the United Kingdom for the Lumo Project’s word-for-word adaptation of The Gospel of Mark

Would you believe there are two American indies this year about Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness? Last Days in the Desert, starring Ewan MacGregor as both Jesus and the devil, is coming in May. The other, 40 Nights, premiered last month in Michigan. And Ben-Hur is coming in August.

That might be it for films touching on Jesus’ earthly life — but a version of Jesus will make at least one more appearance on the big screen in November, in the movie adaptation of William B. Young’s pop-spirituality novel The Shack, in which he will be played by Israeli actor Haaz Sleiman.  

That’s at least eight films — a lot of Jesus on the big screen in one year.

Two of the four films now playing in the U.S. are well known. There’s Risen, starring Joseph Fiennes as a Roman tribune charged with tracking down the missing body of Jesus, and The Young Messiah, with Sean Bean as a Roman tribune charged with tracking down the Child of Bethlehem, reported to have escaped the slaughter of the innocents.

Each of those includes a dramatic scene in which the Roman soldier has a transforming encounter with Jesus. A very similar scene also features prominently in a third film, although it’s not really a Jesus film.

That would be the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar!, in which George Clooney plays a Roman soldier forever changed by his encounters with Jesus — in a fictional film-within-the-film, the similarly titled Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ.

Although Hail, Caesar! is an affectionate send-up of 1950s Hollywood rather than a Jesus film per se, the mystery of Jesus’ identity is the subject of a gently satiric but not disrespectful theological round-table discussion of clergy consulting on the making of the film within the film.

What about the fourth film? Fathom Events hosted special screenings at selected theaters of Easter Mysteries, a filmed stage musical about the events of the Triduum, Easter Sunday and the days that follow.

Written and scored by Tony Award-winning Broadway producer John O’Boyle, Easter Mysteries was filmed before a live audience and staged in minimalist fashion, with a multiracial cast, simple costumes, no scenery or props and a simple geometric set.

Each of these three Jesus films (not counting the Coen film) takes creative license of various kinds with the biblical text. Take the depiction of miracles: Risen depicts Jesus healing a leper shortly before his ascension, where the canonical Gospels report no healings or similar signs after Jesus’ arrest in Gethsemane. Conversely, The Young Messiah imagines 7-year-old Jesus performing several miracles in childhood, long before the start of his earthly mission.

Creative license emerges in each production in connection with the narrative point of view. Risen is told from the perspective of a Roman tribune who encounters Jesus in the Upper Room and goes on to follow the disciples to Galilee, encountering Christ again and even joining the disciples on the fishing trip with the miraculous catch of fish in John 21.

The Young Messiah relates the experiences of the Holy Family as they return from Egypt, inventing a great deal of material and dramatically extending the threat of Herod the Great’s slaughter of the innocents to the reign of his son Herod Archelaus (see Matthew 2:22). And Easter Mysteries, which tells the story of Jesus’ passion and resurrection from Peter’s point of view, imagines a rivalry on Peter’s part with Mary Magdalene, a picture perhaps inspired by various apocryphal gospels.

Finally, each of the three productions comes with theological or other caveats. The Young Messiah’s depiction of 7-year-old Jesus lacking human knowledge regarding his divine nature and Messianic mission conflicts with the picture of Jesus’ knowledge taught by Pope St. Gregory the Great and Pius XII, among others.

Risen’s picture of a pagan Roman witnessing Jesus’ resurrection appearances to the disciples, and even being invited by Peter to share in their apostolic work years before the vision in Acts 10 that would open the door for Gentiles like Cornelius, is at odds with the New Testament record.

Meanwhile, Easter Mysteries takes an opposite liberty: It suggests that the risen Christ could only be seen by eyes of faith and conflates the risen Jesus’ first appearance to Peter with Peter’s threefold affirmation of love and Jesus’ threefold commission to “feed my sheep,” only after which Peter is able to see the risen Lord.

All of that said, each of these three productions represents a serious, respectful effort to engage some aspect of the mystery of Christ from a perspective of faith, imagination and art.

That doesn’t mean these films are all equally worthwhile, or that what one viewer finds moving or off-putting must have the same effect on another. But it’s worth noting that inaccuracies or caveats aren’t necessarily a reason to condemn a work. The Christian world opted long ago, not least in the Iconoclast controversy, for the considerable benefits of bringing imagination to bear on matters of faith, even when it involves creative license.

Christian art — from early patristic images of Jesus as a shepherd to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes depicting a muscular Yahweh separating light from darkness on the first day of creation and blending Christian and mythological motifs (such as the figures of Charon and Minos in the Last Judgment) — has taken creative liberties with the Christian story. Dante did the same in The Divine Comedy.

Of course none of these movies is Dante or Michelangelo, and not all creative license is equal. Sometimes artistic imagination can open the door to blasphemy by turning Jesus into something else, as The Last Temptation of Christ effectively turned Jesus’ dual natures into a metaphor for the human experience of spirituality.

In RisenThe Young Messiah and Easter Mysteries, we see storytellers using different artistic forms to grapple with the mystery of Jesus’ nature and mission through the faculty of imagination. How worthwhile we find their efforts we can discuss and debate. In any case, it’s a fascinating time to be writing and thinking about faith and film.

Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic.


STARRING JESUS. A young Jesus is portrayed in The Young Messiah. Focus Features

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