The recent death of Swedish actor Max Von Sydow, famous for playing Jesus in the 1965 film The Greatest Story Ever Told, and the approach of Holy Week occasion a handful of recommendations for film to view on the passion and death of Christ.
There are numerous movie portrayals of the life and passion of Christ, from the insipid and blasphemous to the moving and reverent, but here are a few worth considering for home viewing this Lent. Check your streaming services and local broadcast schedules for availability.
King of Kings (1961)
King of Kings opened to mixed reviews but became a staple of Lenten television viewing for a number of years. It’s visually glossy and tells the story of Christ effectively, even if stoically. Sure, the acting is a bit wooden in the tradition of the “swords and sandals” epics of its time, and the critics might be right to say that Jeffrey Hunter is just a bit too handsome to play Jesus, but it was also the first major motion picture to show the full face of Jesus. If you can track it down, it’s worth revisiting.
The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)
Von Sydow portrayal Jesus in the 1965 film The Greatest Story Ever Told, which still ranks among the all-time classics on the life of Christ. For many he remains the definitive cinematic “face of Jesus,” but others have since undertaken memorable performances in that role as well.
A lavish film, The Greatest Story Ever Told arguably became the definitive cinematic life of Jesus for a dozen years, and some would say it still is. It boasts an all-star cast, including Bible-film veteran Charlton Heston as John the Baptist. Remarkably, it also features Telly Savalas, who shaved his head for the role of Pontius Pilate and liked it so much he kept it that way the rest of his life. It takes a few liberties with the Gospels, as these films tend to do for the sake of economy, but by the time of the Ascension scene you’ll find yourself humming Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.”
It’s far from a traditional depiction of the Gospel story, and might be off-putting for some. The cast speaks and dresses like late 1960s hippies, and the Jesus character fits right in. But stick with it, and you’ll find some excellent musical numbers and the essentials of the Sermon on the Mount communicated in a clever and entertaining manner. The crucifixion scene is stylized but still packs a wallop. On the downside, the film lacks a resurrection scene — something many performances of the stage version tack on in one form or another.
Jesus of Nazareth (1977)
Weeks before the original Star Wars had its theatrical debut, Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth premiered as a television miniseries in Italy, Britain, and then worldwide. The film and William Powell’s portrayal of Jesus quickly became iconic in their own right. It’s an excellent film, borrowing elements from all four Gospels, although it leaves out a few important scenes such as the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. Checking in at 382 minutes (or its edited version at 270 minutes), it also requires some serious commitment — so make it a miniseries of your own over the course of two or three evenings.
Gospel of John (2003)
This three-hour movie takes the gospel verbatim from the Good News Bible and is rather well done given those limitations. It does take some visual liberties, as it has Mary Magdalene seated among the apostles at the Last Supper, which is not mentioned in Scripture (let’s leave Da Vinci Code conspiracy theorists out of this). It gets the job done, and fans of the old TV series Lost might enjoy seeing Henry Ian Cusick in the role of Jesus.
The Passion of the Christ (2004)
Now comes Mel Gibson with a Passion blockbuster, despite having its dialogue in Aramaic with subtitles. It’s gritty and it’s violent, and all by design, as it seems to show the suffering of Christ without flinching. For some viewers, it may be too much; for others, it may help unite our own meager suffering with his redemptive act. Decide for yourself whether you or your kids should see it. And get ready for the sequel: Gibson reportedly is working on The Passion of the Christ: the Resurrection with an eye toward a 2021 release and Jim Caviezel reprising his role as the Christ.
Whatever Passion film you choose, may it enhance your prayerful preparation for your observance of the Triduum and Easter.
Gerald Korson, a veteran Catholic editor, is a Knights of Columbus member in Indiana.
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