The challenge of making "Jesus" movies

By Tom Quiner

Good Christians have intensely personal relationships with Christ.
My evangelical Christian friends talk about the necessity of establishing this personal relationship, this friendship, with God’s only Son. Catholics pursue this relationship through the Church’s sacraments which are profoundly personal.
In other words, Christians see Christ  a little bit differently, even though they are friends with the same Man-God. You can see the challenge filmmakers face when creating movies about the life of Christ. For example, my all-time favorite Jesus movie is Franco Zefferilli’s mini-series , “Jesus of Nazareth.” I thought Robert Powell’s performance as Jesus was spot-on. A Quiner’s Diner reader disagreed:

“One thing that bothered me about “Jesus of Nazareth” is that Robert Powell NEVER smiled, NEVER had that warm, affectionate nature that Jesus MUST have had, or He would have never attracted so many followers! Jesus had to have had a sense of humor, and an outgoing, welcoming personality, which I think Robert Powell totally lacked in the movie. Powell always had that superior, somber look on his face. I remember the scene where he was stepping into Peter’s boat when they went fishing (before the big storm came up), and “Jesus” kind of stiffly stepped into the boat, never changing his stern, dour facial expression. In my humble opinion, I think Jesus actually jumped into the boat just like Peter and the other apostles did, with a lilt in his step, and interacting with His apostles in a warm, friendly, loving manner!”

Perception is everything. I thought Powell/Jesus was charismatic, strong, yet loving. Take the scene below. Zefferilli links Jesus’ telling of the Prodigal Son, his most famous parable, with the contentious relationship between Peter and the tax collector, Matthew:
Pure genius in my book!
There are several categories to Jesus movies. There is the epic Jesus movie, the type that tries to give the big picture of His mission on earth such as “The Greatest Story Ever Told.”
“The Son of God” in theaters right now aspires to be epic. But you just can’t do it in little over two hours. That’s one reason in my book that “Jesus of Nazareth” is so good. This five-and-a-half mini-series takes the time to tell most of the important stories about Jesus. The film was brilliantly cast, with stand out performances by James Farentino as Peter and Olivia Hussey as Mary, Mother of Jesus.
“Jesus of Nazareth” was directed by Franco Zefferilli, who cut his teeth directing operas. He knows how to make beautiful films that tell majestic, operatic stories.
Another category is the Jesus film with a tighter focus on just one aspect of His story.  Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ” is utterly brilliant, partially because it has such a tight focus on Christ’s Passion. The film didn’t try to tell the whole story. Rather, it tried to tell one story, and Gibson did it in a very compelling way.
Another reason the “Passion” was so good is that Mel Gibson is an amazing director who really knows how to tell a story.
Although I alway feel he overdoes the violence, he knows how get standout performances out of his actors. Jim Caviezel as Jesus truly turned in a riveting performance. In vintage Gibson form, he carried on the scourging scene waaay to long for me. Others disagree, claiming  that that’s the entire point of the film: to convey what Christ went through on our behalf.
As Catholic priest, Fr. John Riccardo puts it:  “if that’s the cure, imagine the disease.”
That’s why this film is so vitally important.  It gives us a gut-wrenching view of the brutality of the times, and the utter terror that Jesus, the Man-God, felt in the Garden of Gethsemane, when he sweated blood in anticipation of the horror that awaited Him.
He knew what He had to do, for us, even as Satan taunted Him.
This film feels totally authentic, right down to use of the Aramaic language spoken by Jesus.  Gibson depicts Satan as creepy, androgynous, and properly malevolent, without being overstated. The scene in Gethsemane captures the terror Jesus must have felt in a way no other filmmaker has ever touched:
Another category are films that are totally based on text from scripture. Two come to mind:  “The Gospel According to St. Matthew,” and “The Gospel of John.” Each of these films are pretty much based on the exact text from those respective gospels.
Frankly, I did not like the Gospel According to St. Matthew, and baled on it  thirty minutes in. On the other hand, the  Gospel of John is a beautiful film, based word-for-word on the gospel by the same name. Christopher Plummer provides narration with a mellifluous voice  that ties the narrative together.
“The Gospel of John” came out right around the same time “The Passion” came out, so it was largely ignored by the public. I highly recommend it. They have a short and long version. I like the long version that uses the entire text of the 4th gospel.
This Lent, take the opportunity to revisit some of these great films. Which ones do you like? Who is your favorite “Jesus?”