Culture As Virtue: 5 Movies for Easter

Despite the mixed critical reviews, the latest dramatic interpretation of the life of Christ, Killing Jesus, is receiving notice for achieving the highest ratings to date for a National Geographic production—its Palm Sunday prime time broadcast reached 3.7 million viewers, the largest audience of a NatGeo Channel broadcast. The recent uptick of faith-based films—either skeptical or affirming—from Noah and Exodus to the contemporary Christian tales of God’s Not Dead and Do You Believe? to “specials” such as CNN’s Finding Jesus, among others, has been widely reported, yet the cinematic quality and cultural power of most, if not all of these productions, have been inconsequential.

Up to fifty years ago, the premiere Hollywood movie events were the magisterial Biblical epics, featuring the who’s who stars of the day, replete with eye-popping sets, stirring musical scores, and thousands of extras. Not that all of them were masterpieces, but producers knew the stories deserved the great Hollywood resources to bring them to vast modern audiences, like former MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer, who as film historian Neal Gabler said, viewed the Catholic “culture as virtue.” But by the early 2000s, times had changed so much that when Mel Gibson was shopping his idea of a film on the Passion of Jesus, no studio in town would listen. So, he made it himself—and for eleven years the film held the box office record for top movie for the month of February, until it was unseated by this year’s Fifty Shades of Grey.

How can a viewer interested in exploring quality films depicting the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ and the rise of the early Church on celluloid find recommendations beyond the mounds of forgettable Christian fare cluttering Netflix and DVD libraries? Until we are graced with an epic treatment of Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth trilogy, a suitable adaptation of the Acts of the Apostles, and worthy versions of the lives of Sts. Peter and Paul, here are five recommendations to consider viewing this Easter Season:

Jesus of Nazareth (1977)

If modern viewers were to tune into a segment of the 1977 made-for-television miniseries Jesus of Nazareth—what was once a Holy Week primetime staple on a major network—they more likely would notice the casting of the Englishman Robert Powell as Jesus than the sublime intelligence and nuance of the film itself. Authenticity in casting (consider the debate that ensued over the casting of last year’s Exodus: Gods and Kings) is a prescient topic in our multicultural era. Still, director Franco Zeffirelli knew from the moment he saw Powell in a screen test that he found the right person regardless of his skin color—and almost forty years later his performance remains one of the best of the hundreds to portray Jesus Christ on screen.

Because of the film’s extended running time and the superb quality of actors in key roles, Zeffirelli masterfully immerses viewers into the world of Jesus, creating fully-realized characters particularly the apostles (the late James Farentino as Peter is the standout), while combining detail and authenticity with a sweeping, epic feel (Maurice Jarre of Lawrence of Arabia fame did the score). The script is written by some of the best writers on faith and culture at the time—Anthony Burgess, surprisingly, and Suso Cecchi D’Amico, co-wrote with Zeffirelli.

And while generally evoking a Catholic tone, mainly with Olivia Hussey’s role as Mary, emphasis on Joseph in the beginning scenes and an extended Last Supper sequence, the film falters a bit in the portrayal of the Resurrection, with a perfunctory, hasty ending that, despite containing beautiful dialogue (“Stay with us, Lord, for the night is falling and the day is almost over”), completely ignores the Resurrection accounts, scenes of mystery and wonder. It also takes a risk in creating a non-Gospel character, Zehra (Ian Holm), a leading member of the Sanhedrin, as the chief architect behind the arrest of Jesus.

In the years following, two made-for-TV movies followed attempting to emulate the success of Nazareth: Peter and Paul (1981) remains of interest today largely due to the presence of Anthony Hopkins as St. Paul. The 1985 mini-series, A.D., dubbed a sequel to Jesus of Nazareth, chronicles the events of the Acts of the Apostles. Thought a valiant effort, it is sorely in need of someone with the talent of Franco Zeffirelli.

The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964)

Any astute student of film would know the name Pier Paolo Pasolini and his 1964 film The Gospel According to St. Matthew as a major international film of the era—but it should be seen by anyone seeking refuge from redundant police procedurals or Kevin Sorbo B-grade yarns. Low budget, black-and-white, shot in rural Italy with non-actors (Enrique Irazoqui, as Jesus, was an economics student), the style is completely opposite Zeffirelli’s adaptation, but no less impactful.

Seen in light of Pope Francis’s desire for priests to be “shepherds living with the smell of sheep,” a viewer can almost sense the odor of the sets while listening to a soundtrack ranging from gospel music to Mozart and Prokofiev. If Pasolini’s approach might strike some as too remote and rigid—today’s slick cinematography and effects have raised our expectations of style over substance—think of The Gospel According to St. Matthew less as an Italian neorealist art film and more of a pseudo-1st century documentary.

That Pasolini (1922-1975) as a Marxist and atheist would dedicate The Gospel According to St. Matthew to Pope St. John XXIII, who at the time of the film’s release was recently deceased, and that the film would land on the Vatican Film List in 1995, are some of the film’s interesting trivia bits. And for the stunningly choreographed Crucifixion, Pasolini cast his own mother as a grieving Mary.

Barabbas (1961)

Sometimes the best way to interpret the power of the Gospels is through the perspective of other characters. Spurred by the successes of the splashy Cinemascope pictures The Robe and Demetrius and the Gladiators from the 1950s, Barabbas fits into the category of original storytelling inspired by the Gospel accounts—but it far outweighs its competitors and has stood the test of time for over fifty years. Directed by Hollywood veteran Richard Fleischer and adapted from the 1950 Swedish novel of the same name by Pär Lagerkvist, Barabbas imagines what might have happened to the prisoner who was released in exchange for the death of Jesus.

Anthony Quinn carries the weight of the journey of Barabbas, using his great range to convey the complexity of his character as he slowly turns through a remarkable process of redemption. Anyone who has undergone a major life-changing conversion will relate to Barabbas’s odyssey, connected to his coming to understand the true meaning of the Cross. Barabbas is one of the great, underrated stories of metanoia that can still resonate with audiences today, and says more about Easter joy even if it seems concerned with the weight of guilt and sin.

That film historians often dismiss Barabbas as just another Biblical epic of the time is a tragedy. In 2012, ReelzChannel released a remake with Billy Zane in the title role; there is no comparison.

The Final Inquiry (2006)

Suso Cecchi D’Amico, one of the co-writers of Jesus of Nazareth, concocted a story originally filmed in 1986 (The Inquiry, starring Harvey Keitel as Pontius Pilate), that concerned a Roman military officer commissioned by Emperor Tiberius to investigate unsettling claims of a prophet called Jesus said to have risen from the dead. The fascinating premise deserves better production values than what The Final Inquiry offers, yet the story is so compelling that the film manages to succeed, despite its budgetary limitations.

Filmed in Italy, The Final Inquiry stands out among the plethora of internationally but mediocrely produced period, faith-based films precisely because of this great story. Similar to Barabbas, the audience is invited to participate in the officer’s slow journey of conversion. And, like Barabbas, it shows the potential for fully realized human stories with big themes centered around peripheral characters either found in the New Testament or originally conceived. Its attempt at a realistic portrayal of early followers of Christ—members of the Way—meeting Roman skepticism and hostility is particularly effective.

Its unique casting is also worth giving it a glance: alongside the venerable Max Von Sydow as Tiberius (who himself played Christ in The Greatest Story Ever Told in 1965) The Final Inquiry stars the lesser-known younger sister of Penelope Cruz, Mónica Cruz, as well as proverbial action star Dolph Lundgren, F. Murray Abraham, and perhaps most interesting, Hristo Shopov reprising his role as Pontius Pilate from Mel Gibson’s earlier The Passion of the Christ.

Ben-Hur (1959)

Winner of 11 Academy Awards, Ben-Hur remains one of the most well known epics of the Hollywood Golden Age, but as a recommendation on this list? For as famous at the film is, its subtitle—from the Lew Wallace novel—is little known: A Tale of the Christ. And like Barabbas and characters in The Final Inquiry, Judah Ben-Hur’s transformation is not without seeing the loving light of the face of Christ.

For all the attention given to the central action sequence of the film, the chariot race, as well as the other sprawling set pieces and Charlton Heston’s larger than life persona, it is late in the film where the most moving scenes occur: Ben-Hur’s witnessing the Way of the Cross, in which a Jesus whose face we never see endures a suffering so devastating it breaks Ben-Hur’s heart—but not without imparting miracles in the face of death.

Like so many classics, Ben-Hur is currently undergoing a remake that will be released in 2016. With the producing team behind The Bible, Son of God the new Ben-Hur is directed by Timur Bekmambetov, who previously helmed Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Clearly, there is no sign of Bible-based productions running dry, even if the quality of most is dubious at best—a testament to the few who got it right.

There are dozens left off this list that could have been cited, such as the respectable The Gospel of John from 2003 narrated by Christopher Plummer or the peculiar King of Kings by Nicholas Ray from 1961. But for every decent biblical film, there are hordes of well-intentioned but poorly-executed productions, from John Shea as Joseph in The Nativity to the verse-for-verse The Visual Bible: Acts starring a pensive James Brolin as Simon Peter that loses all credibility in the first few minutes during an utterly laughable Ascension sequence when a floating, smiling Bruce Marchiano as Jesus waves goodbye to his disciples. Such crude depictions weaken the gravitas of both the story and the effect of modern Christian storytelling on a willing audience.

Franco Zeffirelli wrote in his reflections on making his film of the life of Christ, Jesus—A Spiritual Diary, “A priest friend who is dear to me warned that when you begin to involve yourself in godly matters it is terribly difficult to return to mundane trivialities.” Zeffirelli felt in his heart and bones what he was attempting to tell. Such passion only comes through in the great ones every so often. To those wading through the current slew of stories arriving on the silver screen, hold on to the handful of films that have been detailed here. Future works that truly reach into the meaning of the Logos will come. “First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles for burning; but gather the wheat in my barn” (Mt. 13:30).

Great art reaches towards the divine, not in spite of it. We hope for a future renaissance of Catholic-inspired visual art that will again echo Louis B. Mayer: “culture as virtue.”

image: Andreas Tille / Wikimedia Commons

James Day

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James Day's work has appeared in Crisis, Catholic World Report, and Catholic Exchange. He is the author of Father Benedict: The Spiritual and Intellectual Legacy of Pope Benedict XVI (November 2016, Sophia Institute Press).

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  • roger s.

    The ironic thing I remember about the film “The Gospel According to St. Matthew” is that I was there when it played at the Egyyptian Theatre on Hollywood Blvd. in Hollywood, Calif., along with a small group of protestors of the movie, having been made by a Marxist Socialist pornographer director, Pier Paolo Pasolino, in 1966. We had been alerted to the subversive screed by “The Wanderer” newspaper because the movie had been without spiritual dimensions, very naturalistic, very without the miracles, just bare bones plodding storytelling, making The Christ out as just a well-intentioned itinerant rabbi. Voila, forty-odd years later, its now among the Five Best Religious movies of all time. Wha? Just saying.

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