Ever since a group of men started to write down what’s now known as the New Testament, Jesus Christ has been a popular figure in the modern western canon. Whether he’s the Son of God, an average man just trying to do his best, or even some random bloke who’s actually named Brian, the Christ-like figure has been fodder for religious texts, harrowing Passion plays, contemplative dramas, and sinfully amusing comedies in every medium imaginable.
With the latest cinematic Jesus currently gracing wide-release theater screens thanks to The Young Messiah, Cyrus Nowrasteh’s exploration of the titular character’s childhood in Egypt and Nazareth, the figure’s omnipresence hovering over this month’s Miracles from Heaven, and a general resurrected interest in cinematic Christs, Consequence of Sound took a look back through cinematic history to determine our favorite takes on the savior. These are our chosen 10 depictions of the Chosen One.
10. Hamlet 2 (2008)
Sexy Jesus (played by Dana Marschz, aka Steve Coogan)
Jesus Christ has played so many different roles in our culture over the past 2016-odd years, from religious figure to pop culture fodder to Northrop Frye-style archetype for almost every hero figure in modern western storytelling. But he has rarely served quite so many functions in so little time as he does in this 2008 comedy about a deluded but well-meaning drama teacher (Coogan) trying to redeem himself and a group of ostensibly troubled teens who don’t need his help nearly as much as he thinks they do — all through the magic of a Hamlet sequel. Over the rapturously ridiculous course of the film, Dana’s Jesus is the following.
— An inspired high-concept gag (A hot Jesus commandeering a time machine to fix the final scenes of Hamlet! It’s already funny before you even begin to add any context or depth to it!)
— The prism through which the film can explore Dana’s bizarre savior complex
— The basis for some whimsical throwaway commentaries on religion and celebrity culture
— The subject of a truly rockin’ musical theater number
And to top it all off, he’s got a hot swimmer’s bod. –Sarah Kurchak
09. Johnny Got His Gun (1971)
Christ (played by Donald Sutherland)
A whole new generation was traumatized by Dalton Trumbo’s 1971 anti-war film (based on his 1938 anti-war novel) about a young soldier who loses his limbs, sight, hearing, and voice in battle when Metallica used clips from Johnny Got His Gun for “One”. But some of the scenes that weren’t featured in that music video might actually be even more claustrophobic and disheartening. Chief among those are a series of dream conversations that the injured soldier, Joe (Timothy Bottoms), has with a sweet but increasingly useless Christ (Sutherland).
There’s an almost Bergman-esque level of existential despair that emerges in Joe’s interactions with the savior-like figure, who knows and openly admits that’s he’s merely a figment of the soldier’s imagination. Joe tries to explain his fate and the extent of his suffering to Christ while they play cards together – or while he watches the carpenter build a collection of crosses – but Christ can do little more than offer a sympathetic, if confused ear. He is as unknowing as Death from The Seventh Seal and as broken in the face of the impotence of faith as the priest in Cries and Whispers. Played with subtle fragility by Sutherland, Christ becomes the most unsettling part of a film that’s not short on moments capable of haunting viewers for years to come. –Sarah Kurchak
08. Ben-Hur (1959)
Jesus – The Christ (played by Claude Heater, uncredited)
Ben-Hur is essentially Gladiator with Christian overtones, which means it isn’t like Gladiator at all. Nor is it a sluggish epic solely focused on worship. Instead, it deftly walks the line between both worlds, taking a note from the 1880 novel that inspired it and portraying Jesus Christ not as the central hero, but as a fringe character who silently influences the protagonist. He never speaks, and we never see his face, a filmmaking decision made all the more effective when Christ gives water to Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), the hero. It’s this simple act, along with his eventual sacrifice, that moves Judah to abandon his quest for vengeance against the Romans who destroyed his family. And because of the sparse use of JC, this decision feels tasteful and universally relatable – not fanatical or over the top. –Dan Caffrey
07. The Passion of The Christ (2004)
Jesus Christ (played by Jim Caviezel)
I love The Passion of the Christ not as a Christian, but as a fan of horror movies. Mel Gibson’s crazed depiction of the last 12 hours of Jesus’ life (on Earth, anyway), the film is visually decadent in its grotesqueries: Satan looks like Voldemort and, in a mockery of the Virgin Mary, carries a man-faced baby covered in hair. Shortly afterwards, Judas is chased by demonic children and hangs himself above the maggot-infested corpse of a donkey. And of course, there’s the torture-porn centerpiece in which Gibson heaps gore by the bucketful onto the Scourging and Crucifixion of Christ. Blood splatters on cobblestone, plasma leaks out in yellow blobs, and the Messiah’s eyes turn red in his final moments. Lest The Passion become a full-on exploitation flick, Jim Caviezel foreshadows Leonardo DiCaprio’s role in The Revenant by soldiering through the ordeal, realistic in his pain and steadfast in his mission, convinced that this is all for some sort of greater good.
Like any great horror movie, The Passion of the Christ makes you feel for its protagonist. –Dan Caffrey
06. Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)
Jesus Christ (played by Ted Neeley)
Jesus Christ Superstar lyricist Tim Rice has explicitly stated that the Jesus in he and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock opera isn’t supposed to be the actual son of God, but “simply the right man at the right place.” Granted, that secularism can vary depending on the production (plenty of churches see the show differently), as proven by the 1973 film version, which features touches of JC’s healing powers and many surreal anachronisms. But even if Ted Neeley’s Jesus is the real deal, he plays him with a grounded power that makes him similar to many effective – if flawed – modern-day leaders.
In the film’s biggest gut punch, that strength gives way to despair and then rebellion when, while walking through the garden of Gethsemane, he asks God why he wants him to die after all he’s tried to do for the world. He finally agrees to sacrifice himself, not so much out of generosity, but out of defiance. How rock and roll is that? –Dan Caffrey
05. Bad Lieutenant (1992)
Jesus (played by Paul Hipp)
In which Harvey Keitel calls Jesus Christ a “rat fuck.” In all seriousness, though, JC’s brief appearance in Bad Lieutenant is one of the hardest-hitting and most realistic Jesus cameos in modern cinema, framed more from the sinner’s perspective as opposed to the Messiah’s. As the gambling, alcoholic, drug-addicted, philandering, corrupted, all-around horrible (yet still Catholic!) police officer of the title, Keitel starts to think about salvation when a nun is raped by two gang members in The Bronx. But where he believes that redemption lies in vengeance, the Sister explains that it lies in forgiveness. Conflicted, Keitel collapses in the church where the crime was committed, when Jesus appears before him – ghostly, bloodied, and broken, the spear wound in his side a shining emblem of his struggle.
Keitel screams at him at first, then begs forgiveness for his many, many sins and asks his Lord to show him the righteous path. I’m not a religious man myself, but I’m guessing this is similar to the experiences of many with prayer. Sometimes you talk to Jesus and he just stares at you, not telling you exactly what to do, but moving you to forge your own path toward forgiveness. –Dan Caffrey
04. Godspell (1973)
Victor/Jesus (played by Victor Garber)
Godspell, in both its theatrical and cinematic forms, exists in the middle of a Venn diagram of mostly well-meaning art forms that are often misinterpreted and exploited for evil: bible stories and musical theater. Which makes any production of the source material incredibly hard to execute. One wrong move and you’re suddenly stuck with an overly preachy and plucky sermon delivered with excessive jazz hands.
But the 1973 film adaptation of the off-Broadway sensation avoided any such pitfalls. As Roger Ebert put it in his review: “The thing about Godspell that caught my heart was its simplicity, its refusal to pretend to be anything more than it is. It’s not a message for our times, or a movie to cash in on the Jesus movement, or even quite a youth movie. It’s a series of stories and songs, like the Bible is, and it’s told with the directness that simple stories need: with no tricks, no intellectual gadgets, and a lot of openness.”
To pull that off, you need a Jesus every bit as eagerly earnest as the material. Which is exactly what young Victor Garber was. The folk singer and stage and screen actor, who later rose to fame as Thomas Andrews in Titanic and “Spy Daddy” Jack Bristow in Alias, sings so sweetly and wears his suspenders, goofy face paint, and guileless enthusiasm so well in the film that it’s easy to see both why he was plucked from the Canadian theatrical cast for the role. And why a bunch of similarly-minded hippies would want to follow him around an empty New York City and sing about love for a hundred minutes. –Sarah Kurchak
03. Monty Python’s The Life of Brian (1979)
Jesus (played by Kenneth Colley)
We’re cheating a bit with this one, as Jesus Christ barely shows up in The Life of Brian. Instead, the film focuses on the more ordinary – yet still inspiring – title character, who’s mistaken for the Messiah when the two are born next door to each other. In that sense The Life of Brian, like several entries on this list, shows the struggles a mortal man would experience if saddled with the heady title of Our Lord and Savior, albeit with an absurd Monty Python twist. As Brian, Graham Chapman makes well-timed exasperation an art form – panicked, beaten, and hen-pecked as he encounters Roman soldiers, angry mobs, his own mother, and, at one point, space aliens. Although Brian’s leadership status is accidental, the real Jesus may have felt the same way about his burden, even though he’s depicted as decidedly calm and holy during his brief appearance in the film. –Dan Caffrey
02. Jesus of Montreal (1989)
Daniel (played by Lothaire Bluteau)
If Godspell is about the purest, most idealistic messages of love found in the heart of Bible stories, then Jesus of Montreal is about the agony and ecstasy of trying to apply and live those principles in the modern-day Catholic Church and the world at large. Handpicked by a local priest to star in and direct a new take on a dated Passion play, a thoughtful and gently Christ-like actor named Daniel assembles a group of misfit performers (with less than perfectly Christian CVs) to reinterpret the life and death of Jesus through a mix of theology, history, and experimental theater. Audiences respond to the new production, but the church is less enthusiastic about the liberal interpretation of their savior’s life, pitting art against religion and the spirit of Christ’s teaching against the dogma with which it is now delivered as the actors’ lives increasingly begin to resemble their their biblical counterparts’.
Denys Arcand’s beautiful, sharply funny, and ultimately devastating film remains as perceptive today as it was when premiered at Cannes in 1989, but there’s at least one promising way in which life failed to imitate art: unlike its characters, Jesus of Montreal was not denounced by more liberal and artistic-minded Christians. It even landed the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury, a forward-thinking award that celebrates “works of quality which touch the spiritual dimension of our existence,” at Cannes that year. Fellow prize winners include The Sweet Hereafter (1997), Babel (2006), and The Hunt (2012). –Sarah Kurchak
01 . The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
Jesus (played by Willem Dafoe)
From originally optioning the rights to the novel The Last Temptation to the film’s premiere in the summer of 1988, it took Martin Scorsese almost a decade, on and off, of struggling with studios, budgetary concerns, locations, shifting cast members, and, of course, vehement protests from various religious groups to make and release The Last Temptation of Christ. The latter continued to be an issue – and a genuine danger – throughout the film’s theatrical and home video release. According to the IMDB, it remains banned in Singapore and Philippines to this day.
This kind of resistance is hardly shocking. Scorsese and Dafoe’s vision of Christ as a fallible and all-too-human, Roman cross-building man whose convictions waver when he’s offered the chance to marry, procreate, and grow old isn’t exactly a faithful interpretation of scripture. But it is still disappointing, because Last Temptation is the perfect example of how a thoughtful secular interpretation doesn’t just offer aesthetic possibilities far beyond what’s available to the most by-the-good-book adaptation; it can actually come much closer to the ostensible ideals of Christianity. Scorsese’s portrait of a Jesus who struggles with the titular temptation of a normal human life is a powerful meditation on fallibility, duty, conviction, and sacrifice, all themes that are supposed to matter as much to religion as they do to art. –Sarah Kurchak