As one of the most prolific figures in all of religion, Jesus Christ is closely associated with various faiths of Christianity. His story was told in the Holy Bible and his image found its way into an endless array of paintings. Both his tale and likeness have been brought to the big and small screen in various forms.
Some of Jesus’s earliest depictions in films were for grand epics. 1961’s “King of Kings” took inspiration from the Bible – specifically the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – to stage some of the key events of the life of Jesus Christ. This includes his birth, crucifixion, and resurrection, dramatized by actor Jeffrey Hunter. The film was a major picture, costing $7 million to make and amassing a box office almost double the budget. Though the staging of such a grand portrayal of history could be tied to the success of “Ben-Hur” (another religious epic), such a film set the tone for how the Bible would be interpreted during such an era.
An even bigger version of Jesus would follow a few years later in 1965’s “The Greatest Story Ever Told”. This all-star epic told the story of Jesus with a bigger budget ($20 million), far longer running time (260 minutes), and a massive assortment of talents that included Max von Sydow, Dorothy McGuire, Charlton Heston, José Ferrer, Martin Landau, Donald Pleasence, Roddy McDowall, and Telly Savalas. George Stevens’s film told in two parts would be nominated for five Academy Awards due to its stunning and towering production design, treating the life of Jesus very much as though it were the greatest story ever told.
More films that would follow and repeat much of the same story, covering all the familiar and key events of the son of God. The 1977 miniseries “Jesus of Nazareth” proved to be an even larger picture for running 382 minutes total. Thankfully, there were some different takes on the character to freshen up the old Christian icon.
A different perspective was favored in 1964’s “The Gospel According to St. Matthew”, retelling the story of Jesus through the Gospel of Matthew in a manner that brings out a much different image of Jesus being more politically motivated than a voice of peace and love. Though controversial for some associations to Marxism, director Pier Paolo Pasolini gave a bold take on the character and it made for one of the more fascinating observations on Christ.
By the 1970s, however, Jesus had expanded into the genre of musicals. “Jesus Christ Superstar” had been rising as a popular stage musical and such a take came to the big screen in 1973. Directed by Norman Jewison with the lyrics coming from Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, the musical came about during a crucial time as the era of religious epics were seemingly over and a fresh coat of paint was needed for Christ.
Consider that the same year Superstar released, another Christ musical, “Godspell”, would also hit movie theaters. These films generally portrayed the story of Christ as more inspiring and peppy with musical numbers meant to entice young people with more than mere scripture. It’s been said that Pope Paul VI had actually seen Jesus Christ Superstar and was pleased with the film but also hopeful that such a spectacle would attract more to the faith.
Leading into the 1980s, there was starting to be more of a postmodern take on religion. This is best seen in the 1979 comedy Monty Python’s “The Life of Brian”. The film finds funny moments alongside the life of Jesus where a similar person is mistaken for being the messiah, blindly followed by those seeking faith and persecuted by those who view him as a threat.
What’s interesting about this film was that, according to the Monty Python troupe, the original idea was going to be about satirizing Jesus in a film that would’ve been titled Jesus Christ, Lust for Glory. However, as the group continued researching the figure, they realized there was a lot they liked about Jesus in terms of his philosophy and opted to use a different figure to focus more on zealotry than Jesus himself.
One of the more controversial pictures about Jesus Christ may be in 1988 with Martin Scorcese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ”. This film, unlike previous interpretations, tries to make Jesus feel more human as a man who is tempted with emotions we all feel. Based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, Willem Dafoe plays Jesus as a person who was conflicted with depression and tortured by visions of sex. The decision to take Jesus down this path led to many Christians protesting the films in anger, that Jesus would ever be seen as anything less than the pristine figure not bound by the problems of mankind.
This reluctance to view Jesus more critically, however, seemed to carry more acceptance over time. By the 21st century, depictions of Jesus had been sparse until the coming of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”, one of the biggest films of 2004. The blockbuster picture showcased Jesus Christ in his final moments before his crucifixion. The film became notable for being rated R with its highly graphic depictions of violence and gore with Jesus enduring vicious torture prior to being nailed to the cross. Though somewhat controversial for the content, most Christians seemed far more accepting of such a portrayal, considering the attention spirituality gained following the film’s success.
Jesus films continued onward but they are now mostly preaching to the choir. Such films as 2006’s “The Nativity Story” and 2014’s “Son of God” took another stab at bringing Jesus to the big screen but failed to attract a more extensive audience than the devout for these pictures. This is mostly due to Christian films becoming a bit more niche as studios like PureFlix have popped up to appeal exclusively to Christians, rarely crossing the aisle. Given that Jesus has been in and out of the movie theaters for so long, though, chances are good that he’ll once more make another debut and have his story told for another generation.
A film about the life of Jesus is now being made in Hungary. Roland Vranik, a young contemporary Hungarian director, is directing the film under the working title “Joseph’s Rebellion”. He is working on the story of Jesus by telling it from the point of view of Joseph, the father. It’s quite new and no one has approached his story from this aspect.
The work has already started, the locations are set, and the film will be shot mostly in Morocco and at ORIGO Studios in Budapest. The film is expected to be released next year and we are looking forward to seeing what Roland Vranik adds to the story.