Vol 11, Num 1 :: 2012.01.06 — 2012.01.19
I’ve been studying and writing about Jesus films for the past 20 years. In that time, I’ve discovered the depth and breadth of a genre almost as old as cinema itself and surprisingly more diverse and complex than most people imagine. Top ten lists of the genre are rather common, so I hope here to offer some uncommon examples of films about Jesus you’ve likely never seen or heard of.
In the coming weeks, I’ll be discussing each of these films in greater length on my blog at JesusFilms101.com. I hope you’ll join me.
Golgotha (Ecce Homo) (1933) This French film directed by Julien Duvivier, is a splendid, though rarely seen treatment of the life of Christ that may well be called ahead of its time. While few today are familiar with it, it does have the unique distinction of being the first film on the life of Christ with sound.
Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to St. Matthew — US Title) (Italy 1964/U.S. 1966) Shot on a very small budget in black and white, using mostly non-actors and scored with existing music from Bach, Mozart and Billie Holiday, this film is considered one of the best of the genre. Interestingly, its director, Pier Paolo Pasolini, was not only a Marxist and a homosexual, but also a self-professed atheist.
Son of Man (1969) Colin Blakely gives a stunningly unique performance as a Jesus who is deeply troubled by the task before him. In this episode of the BBC Television series The Wednesday Play, the challenge of Christ’s confrontational message is emphasized by a characterization that asks what might have caused some of Jesus’ own family to think he was insane.
The Gospel Road (1973) Filmed on location in Israel, The Gospel Road is the creation of America’s troubadour, Johnny Cash. Cash wrote original songs for the film, which has relatively little dialogue, and also provides onscreen narration. The film uniquely features its director, Robert Elfstrom as Jesus, his son Robert Elfstrom, Jr. as young Jesus and Cash’s wife, June Carter Cash as Mary Magdalene.
Il Messia/The Messiah (1974) The final non-documentary film from acclaimed Italian filmmaker Roberto Rossellini, Il Messia presents a decidedly human vision of Jesus that is at once refreshing and alienating. Rossellini’s cinema verité style echoes Pasolini’s, but with an entirely different take on Jesus that is less angry, but no less at odds with traditional portrayals.
Dayasgar (1978) T.S. Vijaychander portrays Christ in this surprisingly engaging musical from India. The film is primarily used today as an evangelistic tool, much like Campus Crusade for Christ’s Jesus has been. Its creative visual style and unique Indian cultural influences set it apart, though, as does the fact that it is the only Jesus film ever to have spawned a TV series.
The Day Christ Died (1980) This television movie stars Chris Sarandon as Jesus but uniquely chooses to focus less on the story of Christ himself and more on the political and social machinations that led to his execution. Though this is a fictionalized account, the story is quite believable and intriguing and features a wonderful performance by Son of Man’s Colin Blakely as Ciaphas.
The Cross (2001) One of the most unique offerings in several years comes in the form of an independent short focusing on the Passion of Jesus. It’s a small film with a big goal — to show the final hours of Christ’s life quite literally from his perspective. The majority of the film is shot in POV, or Point of View, photography, showing the audience moments ranging from the baptism to the resurrection through Jesus’ eyes.
Jezile/Son of Man (2006) This modern day African film retells the Gospel story in the context of contemporary African political and social malaise. A powerful and moving film, this visually stunning work deserves to be seen by more viewers in the West.
The Passion (BBC Miniseries) (2008) This ambitious project is well known in the UK, but slipped by many U.S. viewers, even though it was distributed by HBO Films. Though the title would seem to be a mere capitalization on the success of The Passion of the Christ, this film has a compelling vision all its own.