5 Great Cinematic Depictions of Jesus Christ

3. The Miracle Maker (1999) Ralph Fiennes

There are legitimate concerns and complaints that can be voiced when it comes to religious movies made for children. Either they are works of indoctrination or a means to trivialise and simplify deeply held beliefs. However, some seem to rise above such common pitfalls and become universally beloved works, such as Dreamworks Animation’s The Prince of Egypt. The Miracle Maker is such a film.

The Miracle Maker neatly breaks apart the confines that would have this movie labelled as “just for kids” – it is instead a powerful animation that brings a deepening to Christ’s story to both adults and children. Some children’s productions have previously tried to shield their audience from the darker aspects of the story of Jesus (such as ‘The Beginner’s Bible’), whilst the point of view from which The Miracle Maker is told is altogether morbid, mystical and wonderful.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is told from the perspective of a young girl called Tamar (Rebecca Callerton) who becomes enraptured with the storytelling by a local carpenter. Tamar seems to be afflicted by a mysterious illness, causing her to faint before hearing the end of any of his parables. To those familiar with biblical accounts, it becomes apparent that Tamar is the daughter of Jairus (William Hurt) who dies to then be raised by Jesus. Tamar continues to follow Jesus throughout his ministry, including his death and resurrection, which gives the unique opportunity to follow the Gospel closer than ever before. Through Tamar we are able to see Jesus through the eyes of the child: consequently Ralph Fiennes’ Jesus is the balm of our childhood trauma, the genial and kind adult always willing to give us the time of day and most importantly offer reassurance. Fitting really, that childhood regression is activated as Fiennes’ Jesus says that those who want to be the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven should humble themselves and become like little children.

It is not just the use of Tamar’s point of view that activates this nostalgic power. Fiennes’ Jesus is the warmest Jesus on this list.

The simplicity of The Miracle Maker‘s storytelling is the most effective in translating Jesus’ fully human and fully divine nature to an onscreen persona. As a child that would be familiar with the story of Christ, it would be obvious that Jesus can be the Son of God and a man; it is only in adolescence and adulthood that the theology and philosophy gets more complicated.

This direct approach to this significant aspect of the Christian faith is achieved by the grounding power of Fiennes’ voice in the part of Jesus: the smooth use of earthy vernacular during the miracle of fish sequence and his peasant-themed parables convinces us that Christ is the working man of the people. He audibly groans to almost comic effect at the continuous and feeble intellectual traps that the scribes and Pharisees set for him. His voice acting tugs at the heart as he cries over the news of the death of John the Baptist. He makes you want to hug and be hugged by Jesus. Then, just as easily Fiennes deftly switches into Jesus’ divine authority, sharply denouncing Satan who tempts him in the desert, he mixes it up with human despair as Jesus begs to escape his bloody fate in the Garden of Gethsemane, before humbly accepting his Father’s will.

Fiennes’ simplistic yet wholly masterful voice acting creates an impression of a Jesus of enormous charisma and love. The Miracle Maker proves that our initial, childish impression of Jesus Christ never leaves us, and that this is by no means wrong. He is indeed the caring friend that is willing to find a special place for us in his Father’s house.

4. The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) Willem Dafoe

It is probably more than a coincidence that Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ is the most controversial film on this list and is also the one film that strays the furthest from gospel canon.

The Last Temptation of Christ is based on the novel of the same name by Nikos Kazantzakis, which is considered just as controversial as its movie adaptation – it caused Kazantzakis to be excommunicated by the Greek Orthodox Church, preventing him from being buried in his homeland. For those who have seen or read Last Temptation, such punishment would be seen as too quick and unjust. Both book and film make the same disclaimer that they are not directly based on (but are strongly inspired by) the Gospels. Instead, the story is based on the eternal spiritual conflict experienced by us all. Thus, is there a better vessel to explore the inward struggle of divinity against humanity than in the person of Jesus?

Willem Dafoe’s Christ is initially unlikeable. He seems to be motivated to live a life that spites God, one in which he is pathetically weak and cowardly. What gradually dawns upon us is the shifting sands in Jesus’ dual nature. He is born a man and is therefore living a life filled with expected mortal plights: physical and emotional pain, derision from peers, and the burning agony of desire and temptation. Bit by bit, heavenly nature becomes evident within him – he is instinctively propelled towards a destiny but remains ignorant of the destination for much of his journey. Divine powers become apparent within him – seeing and speaking with the dead, reading people’s hearts – and it all comes as just as much of a surprise to Jesus himself as it does to any onlookers.

This is the genius and power of The Last Temptation of Christ – its near heretical approach creates a wholly unique image of Christ; one that is relatable, one that gives a greater power to the message of Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection. Part of Jesus’ nature will remain a mystery – the human mind cannot comprehend the divine, we only have the words of The Bible to rely on – but our understanding of human nature is instinctive and thus it is very easy to imagine how one would react if suddenly blessed with supernatural powers. As Dafoe portrays, you’d become dizzy with your own image and power if you realised you could control the natural world, and we would know the fear that would plague us wondering how this power might finally manifest.

One of the most powerful moments in the film is when Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. Although initially at one with his divine power and full of holy confidence, Dafoe plays this miracle as if having a nervous breakdown; but of course wouldn’t we all be filled with horror if we had just discovered that we could raise the dead? What terror knowing life and death are each laid within your dominion. We know the dread that would fill the soul as the path of slow bloody torture and death is slowly revealed to us. Despite only being able to understand the human nature of Jesus, Dafoe’s needy and unsure Christ creates an empathy for the human saviour with an insurmountable divine weight upon his shoulders.

Dafoe’s Christ even brings hope. As Jesus experiences his titular final temptation, with us now knowing his vulnerability to all the same human desires as us, his final decision of righteousness is that much more triumphant. It gives hope that there is something divine in all of us.

Recommended for you: Examining Controversial Depictions of Jesus Christ in Cinema

5. The Gospel According to St Matthew (1966) Enrique Irazoqui

Many biblical films have attempted and failed to solely use dialogue found within the scriptures, including the likes of The Greatest Story Ever Told (the failure of which led to a change in director). Therefore, when considering these bloated, lesser works, it is incredibly ironic that the only film to achieve this to an admirable standard was the work of self-proclaimed atheist Pier Paolo Pasolini.

This film’s inception is as fascinating as its production: Pasolini had received an invitation from Pope John XXIII to create a dialogue between the Church and non-Catholic artists, but when he visited Assisi to attend the relevant lecture, the town was mobbed with crowds excited over the papal visit. Consequently, Pasolini was stuck in his hotel room with only a Gideon’s Bible to entertain him. He was able to read through the four gospels and found that he liked St Matthew’s the best. He liked it so much that he decided than an adaptation of it would be his next project.

Pasolini was one of the masters of Italian Neorealism and The Gospel According to St Matthew received the same treatment as his other films. Black and white, without embellishment, without special effects, and with a focus on naturalistic acting using non-professional actors; all very in-keeping with Jesus’ preaching. Enrique Irazoqui, a 19-year-old economics student at the time, was one of the youngest actors to ever have been cast as Christ. The Gospel According to St Matthew was his first experience of film. With Pasolini’s talent for enhancing those rough around the edges performances, one of the most lasting impressions of Jesus Christ on film was created.

Christianity as a religion is full of contradictions: one that has split into countless denominations but united as one through core beliefs, most importantly that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. It has been used to legitimise political systems on different ends of the spectrum from neo-liberalism to staunch socialism. Jesus Christ was one man but, as this list illustrates, there are endless aspects of him to focus on; and with Pasolini’s personal Marxist background, Irazoqui is the revolutionary Christ.

He is comparable to the great revolutionaries of the 20th century, divisive as the likes of Vladimir Lenin and Che Guevara. Irazoqui plays a Christ not often seen. Too often has biblical media given The Gospels reductive treatment, reducing the Good News to fairy tales with the expectation that grown adults will consume. Yet, as important as it is to show the love and warmth of Christ, it is equally as important to understand why he had so many enemies; enemies that would gladly watch him be crucified.

In short, Irazoqui’s Christ is an angry young man, in a way that only a university student can be. It is part of canonical text in St Matthew’s Gospel that Christ declares that the axe lies at the root of the tree and is ready to chop down the plant that no longer bears good fruit. So why should Jesus not angrily declare the presence of the axe? His story is the millennia-long reconciliation of humanity with God. To have gone to the lengths of giving the Law of God to Moses in antiquity, to then come to Earth to see man’s obsession with the letter of the law is beyond frustration. He thus has no time for Earthly authority, again only in the way a surly young man can denounce the world order.

The Gospel According to St Matthew only uses dialogue from its titular source and succeeds where many other biblical films have failed. Even in the case of some of the other films featured on this list, when direct scripture has been quoted, actors have recited the words as if reading from the pulpit, failing to speak them in character. Irazoqui, with his lack of dramatic training, trumps every single one of those professionals. Pasolini mostly shoots in close-ups, and you can see the fierceness in Christ’s eyes as he faces his critics and enemies. Every muscle in his body shakes as he furiously calls out the actions of the self-proclaimed righteous and hypocrites. Modern day orators can only wish to speak with such authority.

This powerful performance, as a part of Pasolini’s vision, illuminates a context to Christ’s words that has not often been achieved: the fact that Christ’s words are truly revolutionary and continue to be an affront to the World Order. During the Beatitudes speech as part of The Sermon on the Mount, we are encouraged to realise how startling Christ’s words are. Blessed are the poor, the meek, the merciful. An affront to the harsh capitalist world in which the powerful, the bold and the cruel are the inheritors of the world. Jesus Christ achieves modernity without anachronism. Irazoqui isn’t just a one-trick pony: as much as his Christ denounces the powerful, his heart overflows for the plights of the innocent. His smile lights up the whole screen, most memorably when he is met with young children in the Temple who greet him with their Hosannas.

The Gospel According to St Matthew remains one of the most relevant films for anyone who wants to know the character of Christ better. An outspoken advocate for justice, one that understands the fallibility of human political systems and so demands the revolution to happen within our own hearts.

Recommended for you: 5 Terrible Cinematic Depictions of Jesus Christ

Cinema has been home to many a great depiction of Christ. Which do you consider to be the best? Let everyone know in the comments below, and be sure to follow @thefilmagazine on Facebook and X (Twitter), as well as across all other social platforms, for more insightful movie lists.

Pages: 1 2

Leave a Comment