Of the making of movies about Jesus, there is no end. In the first three months of this year alone: Son of Man, which casts a black man as Christ and sets his life in modern South Africa, got positive reviews at Sundance; the makers of Color of the Cross, which also casts a black man as Christ, established a website with trailers for their work-in-progress; and New Line Cinema announced that Oscar nominees Keisha Castle-Hughes (Whale Rider) and Shohreh Aghdashloo (House of Sand and Fog) will star as the Virgin Mary and her cousin Elizabeth in a new movie about the Nativity, to be released in time for Christmas.
Some of this activity can be credited to The Passion of The Christ, which shattered box-office records and sparked interest in religious films when it came out in 2004. But movies about Jesus have always been popular, especially in times of heightened spiritual interest—the countercultural craze of the 1970s, the millennial anxiety of the late 1990s, etc.
No interpretation of the life of Christ can ever tell the full story. That is, indeed, one of the reasons we have four Gospels; each one paints a unique portrait of the Savior and emphasizes a different set of themes. Similarly, no mere movie about Jesus can capture the fullness of his divinity, or the fullness of his humanity, no matter how sincere its makers are; but the better films can help us to see a small part of the bigger picture.
This list is limited to those that focus mainly on Jesus' life story as told in the Gospels; thus, it does not include films about characters who are only peripherally connected to Jesus, such as Ben-Hur (1925, 1959). Also, because each film has its strengths and weaknesses, they are listed in simple chronological order; no ranking is implied.
The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ
Film was a new medium, only a few years old, when the Pathé company in France produced this series of short tableaux illustrating scenes from the Gospels. Like a series of icons brought to life, or a passion play enhanced by the odd special effect, The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ never pretends to be a drama; instead, it is a uniquely visual work of art which underscores the supernatural context within which Jesus' life and ministry took place. At times, the film borrows from later, post-biblical legends, but it also emphasizes Jesus' place within the Trinity, and it concludes with a fantastic (if a tad rickety by modern standards) shot of the Ascension and Jesus seated at God's right hand in the heavenly court.
The King of Kings
All of Cecil B. DeMille's best and worst instincts are on display in this, his last silent movie. Fortunately, he gets the tawdry stuff out of the way pretty fast. The ludicrous opening sequence features a scantily-clad Mary Magdalene hosting a banquet and asking what has happened to her lover Judas Iscariot; but once Jesus casts the seven demons out of her—one of several biblical details included here that most films omit—the film relies on the Gospels for most of its content. That said, DeMille also rearranges episodes from the Bible in ways that are startlingly original yet quite effective. Re-issued in the 1930s with a music and sound-effects track, The King of Kings was such a big hit that no Hollywood studio would make another life-of-Jesus movie until the 1960s, after DeMille had passed away.
The Gospel According to St. Matthew
Right from its very first frames—when a visibly upset Joseph beholds a very pregnant Mary—this film challenges the soft-focus piety that affects many adaptations of the Gospels. Director Pier Paolo Pasolini, a gay Marxist atheist who was famous for his poetry before he turned to filmmaking, certainly wanted to confront the conventional spirituality of his day, and his Jesus is more aggressive than most. But nearly every single line of dialogue comes from Matthew's Gospel (a pattern that would be followed decades later by Campus Crusade's adaptation of Luke and the Visual Bible's adaptations of Matthew and John), and the film's gritty, down-to-earth realism underscores the revolutionary nature of Christ's message; you can believe the authorities would want to crucify this guy. While the film is often hailed for stripping the story down to its basics, it also reflects Pasolini's belief in finding transcendence within the everyday—an effect that is especially achieved on the eclectic soundtrack, which includes Bach, Negro spirituals, and the Missa Luba.