I don’t know about you but I find a lot of biblical movies lack a certain something. It’s hard to put a finger on it, but like a lot of book adaptations they often fall flat. And for a lot of us this is the MOST loved, formative, influential, challenging book we’ve ever read (it might be better to say it’s a library of books, but there you are).
But a lot of us are at home right now. We won’t be going to our church buildings for Holy Week, so here’s a list of movies that might help provoke our observation of this holy season. You might even gather a couple of friends to watch it at the same time and text each other or have an online chat afterward. If nothing else, I hope they help us to reengage in conversation with one another and with the scripture they are inspired by.
For the whole household
- Prince of Egypt
One of the best adaptations of a biblical story and it just happens to be animated. Released in 1998, it features great voicework by Val Kilmer, Ralph Fiennes, Sandra Bullock, and Jeff Goldblum among many others. The story offers convincing emotional dynamics between Moses and Pharoah, some well crafted songs, and sensitive depictions of the plagues and oppression in Egypt. The passing through the waters is a beautiful wall of blue with the flashing, haunting outline of marine creatures. The Exodus story is an Old Testament story which must be read during the Easter vigil. This story of God’s rescue and deliverance enriches and prepares us for the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Available on Google Play, Youtube, Netflix.
These films weren’t box office successes but neither are they inaccessible high culture. They were driven by directors who sought idiosyncratic, but also fresh and authentic ways to tell the gospel story.
- The Gospel according to St. Matthew
An unforgettable film by the intense Italian director Piers Paolo Pasolini. This is the year of the gospel of Matthew, so this is an apt choice as the movie follows the gospel very closely. Pasolini cast locals in many of the roles and the parched landscape of southern Italy is an evocative setting. The striking imagery and tone, the naturalistic filming overlaid with surprising musical and visual choices will stick with you. Pasolini, said he wanted to “consecrate things again, because that is possible, I want to re-mythologize them…My film is the life of Christ after two thousands years of stories on the life of Christ.” Available on Google Play, Youtube.
- Jesus of Montreal
A contemporary retelling of the Passion story, it was nominated at the Oscars for best foreign film in 1989 and it is Canadian. The movie was “meta” before that term even became a thing. Denys Arcand directs this movie which follows an actor hired to put on a Passion play for a church in Montreal. He assembles a ragtag bunch and incorporates some creative interpretation of the historical Jesus to the dismay of the priest who hired him. The film is funny, sad, moving, and thoughtful. The film is regularly on critics’ list of the top ten Canadian films of all time. Available on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hiBBl4bNINM
These two films were made within the last four years. They highlight some current themes in biblical studies and attempt to bring them to our understanding of Jesus. I wouldn’t call them unqualified successes but they have a number of fine moments.
Taking cues from detective procedurals, a Roman soldier is tasked with finding out what happened at the empty tomb of the crucified Yeshua. Joseph Fiennes plays the lead and his character encounters the apostles, including Mary Magdalene and Peter, as he tries to find out what happened and prevent an embarrassing failure of Pilate’s rule to come to light. Bringing the action/mystery genre to the story of the resurrection is an entertaining concept. The production values are high and it maintains a lighter tone than biblical epics which can get bogged down in self seriousness. Available on Netflix, Youtube, Google Play
- Mary Magdalene
A welcome attempt to offer a representation of Mary Magdalene as “Apostle to the Apostles” rather than the centuries of inaccurate portrayals as a prostitute and/or mad woman. The beautifully shot film evokes a strong sense of the loneliness and itinerancy of Jesus’ ministry. As Joaquin Phoenix portrays him, he is a bit too wild-eyed but the sense of the man of sorrows is strong. The film quotes very little from scripture and veers into gnostic/New Agey language but there is a contemplative, compassionate wisdom to Mary’s character that is refreshing. Available on Amazon Prime, Google Play, Youtube
An off kilter choice
These are off kilter times and this Cohen brothers movie allows lots of movie genres to jostle up against each other. It’s set in Hollywood’s Golden Age and the time of biblical epic filmaker himself, Cecil B. deMille. Plus, it’s got quite a few laughs.
- Hail, Caesar!
The story follows the hapless producer of a major biblical epic who sincerely wants to make a good movie but who meets obstacles at every turn. These include an abducted leading man (George Clooney), a devilishly tempting alternative job offer, and an uproarious attempt to get input on the movie from a Protestant clergyman, a Roman Catholic priest, an Orthodox patriarch, and a rabbi (for this scene alone the movie is worth watching). There is a genuinely moving scene from the movie they’re trying to make which then gets swiftly undercut. It’s quite a ride, and maybe it’ll help a little with the tonal changes and odd juxtapositions that Holy Week, and especially this Holy Week could bring. Available on Google Play, Youtube.