- Top 13 Best Representations of Jesus Christ in Film
- Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)
- Jesus Of Nazareth (1977)
- The Last Temptation Of Christ (1987)
- The Passion Of The Christ (2004)
- The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)
- The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964)
- King Of Kings (1961)
- Mary Magdalene (2018)
- Risen (2016)
- Life Of Brian (1979)
- The Miracle Maker (2000)
- Son Of God (2014)
- A Role With A Level Of Commitment
Playing the iconic role of Jesus Christ has been a monumental undertaking for actors throughout film and television history. Taking on the mantle of Christianity’s figurehead has always come with a unique set of challenges, both for the actor and for the audience.
To accurately portray a living legend is no simple feat—one must be able to capture the essence of Jesus while at the same time respecting the powerful legacy that he embodies. To do this, many actors have had to confront their own trials to understand and bring truth to the character they are playing.
In this post, we will explore the performances of Jesus Christ that have received the most attention from audiences around the world, and how these actors were able to rise above their own fears and doubts to give life to a timeless religious figure.
Top 13 Best Representations of Jesus Christ in Film
Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)
Directed by Norman Jewison
In 1973, Director Norman Jewison (The Hurricane) helmed a feature film adaptation of the long-running Broadway show created by Andrew Llyod Webber entitled Jesus Christ Superstar. Although classified as a musical, the film behaves as more of a ‘rock opera’ interpretation of the last six days of Jesus’ life, covering his betrayal by Judas, the Last Supper, and his Crucifixion in a modern, artistic form.
For example, Judas is portrayed by an African-American actor named Carl Anderson, and some sequences involve motor vehicles like tanks and a school bus. In the title role is a young Ted Neely – an actor and performer who has continued to make a career playing the role live on stage decades afterward. The on-location desert shoot often required the talent to hydrate every twenty minutes, with blocks of ice transported to the site from Tel Aviv.
Neely encountered his own scary instances with the part. While filming the Crucifixion scene, an Israeli actor who spoke limited English almost nailed down Neely’s hands and was stopped quickly by the director. Neely also dealt with his distraught mother who was present during the ’39 Lashes’ sequence and had to walk away from the shoot.
Jesus Of Nazareth (1977)
Directed by Franco Zeffirelli
The 1977 television mini-series Jesus Of Nazareth depicts the entire life of Christ through the Gospel accounts. Playing the part was British actor Robert Powell, who was known for starring roles in the original The Italian Job from 1969, and the 1975 version of Tommy.
Powell received much praise and accolades for their performance as the religious icon – receiving best-acting awards from TV Times, the Fiuggi Film Festival, and the Saint-Vincent Film Festival. But a comment he would deliver after the film’s broadcast would suggest the role was not all wine and roses for the actor:
“I hope Jesus Christ will be the last in my line of sensitive young men for quite a while.” Robert Powell, IMDb.
The Last Temptation Of Christ (1987)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
The Last Temptation Of Christ is another highly divisive religious drama that provoked criticism from Christian groups upon its release. Based on a novel by prominent Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis, this movie explores Jesus’ doubts and temptations both before and during his crucifixion. Willem Dafoe gives a mesmerizing performance as Christ that will stay with viewers long after the credits roll.
In 1987, critically renowned Director Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver) brought forth his own unique vision of Jesus Christ with The Last Temptation of Christ, starring Willem Dafoe (Platoon) as Jesus. Scorsese’s approach to this film was not to follow the Gospels faithfully, but rather rely on the book written by Niko Kazantzakis.
Representing a film more deeply rooted in Jesus’ mindset heading into his final days, he deals with the internal struggle of what he wants in life for himself as opposed to what he is decreed to do by God. This approaches him through a number of temptations – offered by demons, the men of the world, and the call of God. But as his mission draws to a close, he comes face-to-face with the ultimate temptation – the chance at life as a normal man.
Dafoe was highly effective at portraying Christ as full of inner tribulation but went through his own behind-the-scenes as well. During shooting, Dafoe went temporarily blind for three days after using an eye-drop solution for an optical effect and also found himself running a high fever during some of the most intense sequences – including a scene where Christ’s tent is infiltrated by snakes.
The Passion Of The Christ (2004)
Directed by Mel Gibson
No film about Jesus Christ has received more press and focus than Director Mel Gibson’s (Braveheart) a controversial film about the last 24 hours in his life, beginning with the betrayal of Judas and ending with Christ`s resurrection. Released in February 2004, Gibson’s film went under extreme heat in terms of viewer opinion for its visceral graphic nature of displaying Christ utterly abused and tortured over long sequences all the way up to his Crucifixion.
Putting the intense nature of the film aside, Christ is embodied with almost sheer physical and mental perfection by actor Jim Caviezel (Person Of Interest). Caviezel gives an eye-opening portrayal of Christ in all facets – human, leader, internal doubt, sacrifice, and steadfast belief. While Christ is battered and beaten on-screen in front of his mother and Mary Magdelene (Monica Bellucci), Caviezel has no shortage of painful situations off-camera, as well.
Caviezel received accidental whippings during the scourging scene, resulting in a severe scrape of his hand and a permanent 14-inch scar on his back. Along with also experiencing hypothermia from shooting in Italy during the dead of winter and separating his shoulder while carrying a 150lb cross (that shot remains in the film), Caviezel was also extraordinarily struck by lightning while filming the Sermon on the Mount.
The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)
Directed by George Stevens
The Greatest Story Ever Told brings the Gospels to life through stunning visuals and a star-studded cast. Max von Sydow plays Jesus with grace and dignity, conveying his spiritual power and inner strength without words. Throughout the film, he is supported by an all-star line-up including Charlton Heston, Sidney Poitier, and John Wayne – which speaks both to its popularity and its cultural impact. With sumptuous cinematography, a sweeping score, and a reverent tone, this classic retelling still resonates today.
The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964)
Directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini
The Gospel according to St. Matthew offers a radical reinterpretation of Jesus’ life that focuses on the tumult and chaos of the era instead of conventional hagiography. Starring Enrique Irazoqui as Jesus, the movie takes great pains to remain faithful to biblical accounts while also exploring deeper spiritual themes and ideas. While some may find aspects of the film uncomfortable, there’s no denying its power or relevance to modern audiences.
King Of Kings (1961)
Directed by Nicholas Ray
King Of Kings is one of Hollywood’s earliest depictions of Jesus’ life and times. Jeffrey Hunter stars as Jesus in this lavish epic that emphasizes Christ’s divinity over any possible humanity he may have possessed. Despite its dated production values and sometimes-stilted dialogue, King Of Kings succeeds in capturing the grandeur of Jesus’ story and its impact on subsequent centuries.
Mary Magdalene (2018)
Directed by Garth Davis
Mary Magdalene stars Rooney Mara as Mary and Joaquin Phoenix as Jesus in a humanized version of the biblical story. The movie paints an intimate portrait of Mary’s devotion to Jesus and her struggle for self-fulfillment, which makes her more than just a secondary character in the gospels. While it may not be universally accepted by all religious denominations, Mary Magdalene is an inspiring tale about faith and triumph in the face of oppressive forces.
Directed by Kevin Reynolds
Risen follows Roman tribune Clavius (Joseph Fiennes) as he attempts to investigate the mysterious disappearance of Jesus’ body after the Crucifixion. Along the way, Clavius meets several disciples who show him a different side of Jesus’ teachings – a side that had been spared by Rome’s political machinations. Risen provides an intriguing look at how early Christianity was established in a hostile environment, and it’s also one of the first major Jesus movies to feature mostly non-white actors in key roles.
Life Of Brian (1979)
Directed by Terry Jones
Life Of Brian is one of the most controversial religious films ever made. A satirical comedy set during the time of Christ’s birth, Life Of Brian features Monty Python’s signature wit mixed with irreverent religious satire. And while some have labeled it blasphemous, Life Of Brian ultimately serves as a thought-provoking deconstruction of religion as seen through a modern lens.
The Miracle Maker (2000)
Directed by Derek Wainwright
The Miracle Maker is a family-friendly rendition of the life of Jesus that isn’t afraid to confront thorny topics such as religious hypocrisy and persecution. Instead of relying solely on big-budget action set pieces, The Miracle Maker examines Jesus’ mission through a deeply personal lens that closely follows various characters as their lives intersect with God’s plan. Ralph Fiennes lends his distinctive voice to the titular Messiah role, further enhancing this wonderfully moving experience.
Son Of God (2014)
Directed by Christopher Spencer
Son Of God is a television mini-series that compiles scenes from 2013’s History Channel series The Bible into a 90-minute feature-length format. Although much of its content veers away from strictly biblical interpretations, Son Of God nevertheless offers viewers an entertaining overview of key events in Jesus’ life while managing to retain its core spiritual message about redemption and salvation. Diogo Morgado stars in the title role, delivering an appropriately soulful performance as Christ.
A Role With A Level Of Commitment
If history is any indication, portraying Jesus Christ is an open invitation for physical and mental challenges in tackling the role, and often requires a dedicated commitment on the part of the actor. Neely, Powell, Dafoe, and Caviezel have endured their own pains during their time inhabiting the Christian icon, and there will no doubt be many more.
- Jesus Christ Superstar. Dir. Norman Jewison. Perf. Ted Neely, Carl Anderson, Yvonne Elliman. Universal Pictures. 1975. Running Time: 108 mins.
- Jesus Of Nazareth. Dir. Franco Zeffirelli. Perf. Robert Powell, Anne Bancroft, Ernest Borgnine, Ian McShane, Christopher Plummer. Incorporated Television Company. 1977. Running Time: 382 mins.
- The Last Temptation Of Christ. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Perf. Willem Dafoe, Harvey Keitel, Barbara Hershey. Universal Pictures. 1988. Running Time: 164 mins.
- The Passion Of The Christ. Dir. Mel Gibson. Perf. Jim Caviezel, Monica Bellucci, Maia Morgenstern. Icon Entertainment. 2004. Running Time: 127 mins.