Christ is risen! Cinema’s greatest Jesus films.



The central figure of the Christian religion. Jesus conducted a mission of preaching and healing (with reported miracles) in Palestine in about ad 28–30, which is described in the Gospels. His followers considered him to be the Christ or Messiah and the Son of God, and belief in his resurrection from the dead is the central tenet of Christianity.

It’s Easter, the time when Christians the world over get fierce excited about our Lord kicking the can, then, like any good man who gets knocked down, he got back up again.

Being brought up in Ireland, religion played a big part for both of us growing up, Páraic on one side of the Reformation fence and Nigel on the other – the fact one of us has a fada in his name and the other gets the quintessentially British name probably reveals our parents’ allegiances.

Anyway, no matter where you go on Sunday mornings, it’s hard not to be even a little bit interested in the story of Jesus Christ. Cinema is no different with countless adaptations down through the years. For the weekend that’s in it, we present our seven favourite Jesus films – in no particular order…

(P denotes a Páraic pick, N is Nigel’s)

The Life of Brian (1979)

(P) – Not only is this the best film ever made on the subject of religion it’s also probably the best comedy ever made. Made by the loons from Monty Python it tells the story of Brian (played by Graham Chapman) whose life parallels Jesus’s in many ways as he keeps getting himself in terrible scrapes with hilarious consequences. The film is wall to wall with jokes and biting satire on religion, politics and the human desire to follow a leader. I could quote from this film ad-nauseum.

“Are you the People’s Front of Judea? Fuck off we’re the Judean People’s Front”

A lovely little cameo by Spike Milligan who happened to be on holidays at the time the lads were filming provides one of the most striking commentaries on Christianity. While the crowd is deciding whether the sandal or the gourd is the relic of choice, Spike asks how about we say a prayer, only to be ridiculed and left laying in the dirt. Another cameo is by none other than George Harrison, the former Beatle who pretty much funded the entire film because no studio would touch it. As I type this so many memorable lines and scenes are coming back to me so just go watch it (again), it’ll make your soul smile.

Key Scene: How should we fuck off O Lord?

Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)

(N) – We don’t seem to talk about musicals very often on Spooool. Their heyday is from a very different era and the concept of just bursting into song mid-dialogue is something that doesn’t really sit well with me. But I’m more than happy to put this one forward. The 1973 film adaptation of the Andrew Lloyd-Webber show that was first performed on Broadway two years earlier was revolutionary at the time as it featured big cheesy rock songs and a black Judas. Instead of telling the story verbatim from the Bible, it focuses on the weeks leading up to Easter weekend and hones in on the complex relationship between Jesus (Ted Neeley) and the people around him, in particular Judas Iscariot (Carl Anderson) and Mary Magdalene (Yvonne Elliman). It’s over-the-top, camp and sensationalist but pretty damn enjoyable. And just try to finish the film without humming along to “I don’t know how to love him”.

Key Scene: Black Judas freaks out! And dies!

Dogma (1999)

(P) – Kevin Smith’s 4th film was probably his most grown up but still retained all the hallmarks of the work that made him a fan-boy favourite. The film got its fair share of controversy when it was released, this was probably something to do with saying that an abortion clinic worker is the last descendant of Jesus Christ, God is Alanis Morissette and the fact there was a black 13th Apostle (Chris Rock). It’s a great story about how two fallen angels want to re-enter heaven but doing so would mean God wasn’t infallible, thus destroying the universe. Said angels are Matt Damon and Ben Affleck and the film has many a star – George Carlin, Salma Hayek and the fantastic Alan Rickman as the voice of God.

The film doesn’t actually feature Jesus but is probably one of the best films since Life of Brian to so openly challenge Christianity, mainly Catholicism (Smith being a card-carrying member), and question its very foundations. It’s one of Smith’s best as the story is so strong and the dialogue pitch-perfect, but this makes sense if you listen to any of Smith’s many views on religion. Directing a film about something so close to his heart makes it one of his strongest and most original.

Key Scene: Battling a golgothan (hit demon) who was formed from all the people who were present at Golgotha, the place of Christ’s Crucifixion.

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

(N) – We spoke about Martin Scorsese’s early links with Catholicism before (here), but it’s worth looking back to the late eighties and seeing how his first foray into dealing with religion managed to cause such a storm of controversy with the church. The problem, from the Christian point of view, is really rooted in the fact that Marty’s film is based on a controversial 1953 novel of the same name. The main gripe seeming to be the alternative ending where Jesus (Willem Dafoe) ends up marrying Barbara Hershey’s Mary Magdalene. This, and a number of other “non-gospel” elements, factored into relentless protests from religious groups meaning the film was banned or cut in countless countries across the world.

Key scene: Mary getting stoned and Jesus getting involved.

The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)

(P) – A good old-fashioned “they don’t make them like that anymore” epic – it’s over 3 hours long for Jesus’s Daddy’s sake! Our Lord is played by Max von Sydow who would later been seen battling demons in a much more visible way in The Exorcist. It conforms to the usual stereotype of Jesus as a 6ft tall white guy with blue eyes and good looks. The film is full of stars, Chuck Heston plays John the Baptist, David McCallum as Judas, Angela Landsbury and Sidney Poitier. We get some idea of the many stars present when the only job going for John Wayne is as “Centurion at Crucifixion”. Although he does get the last line in the film which is hilarious as he delivers the line like only John Wayne can – as the cowboy fresh from the ranch. Enjoy.

Key Scene: Truly this man was the son of Gawd, pilgrim

The Passion of the Christ (2004)

(P) – So Mel Gibson pretty much hates Jews as recent drunken rants and run ins with the law have shown. His film about the final weeks in Jesus’ life did get calls of being anti-Semitic before these revelations had come out, however as the Irish comedian Tommy Tiernan says about the Crucifixion, “well we all know it wasn’t the Mexicans”. Anyway Gibson took it upon himself to make a two hour film about the Passion, oh and shoot it all in Aramaic and Latin. I’m pretty sure every Irish person saw this film upon its release and believe it or not it’s an incredibly well put together piece of film.

The best parts are those that give a new way of looking at already well established elements of the Passion. The portrayal of Mary is brilliant, actually portraying her as a mother and not some saintly being walking around with a halo above her head. This makes her much more accessible to an audience and gives more weight to the story. The Devil is not some pointy red-horned demon but mainly an androgynous creature seen lurking in the back of certain scenes while Judas is not some one-dimensional character who simply ratted Jesus out. We see the turmoil he goes through having realised what he has done and Gibson gives him proper attention as being arguably the most important figure in the Gospels. The gruesome act of whipping and adorning someone with a crown of thorns is shown in bloody unflinching detail leaving you in no doubt of the suffering Jesus endured, whether you believe in that sort of thing or not.

Key Scene: Mary running to Jesus the child after he falls, showing a mother’s love for her child.

South Park Jesus

OK, so the inclusion of South Park’s Jesus Christ is kind of cheating, especially considering he only had a brief cameo in 1999′s South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut. BUT the self-aware and hilarious character manages to give modern pop culture’s most relevant and knowing depictions of JC. So yeah, suck it.

Key scene: Kyle Kills Jesus (Season 11, Episode 5)