Top Ten Biblical Films

Claude Heater and Charlton Heston star in William Wyler’s “Ben-Hur.” Courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Claude Heater and Charlton Heston star in William Wyler’s “Ben-Hur.” Courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

What makes a great biblical film? Is it the accuracy of its script to the original text, the sheer magnitude of its spectacle or its popularity with churchgoing audiences? For me, it all comes down to its merit as a work of art. Some of the greatest artworks in the history of mankind were spawned by spiritual expression, and the medium of cinema is chockfull of them.

At least three major releases this year will portray stories from the Bible. Christopher Spencer’s “Son of God” (due out February 28th) edits together five episodes from last year’s phenomenally popular yet critically reviled TV miniseries, “The Bible,” and accompanies them with new footage to recount the story of Jesus. Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah” (March 28th) casts Russell Crowe in the title role of the ark-building family man, while Ridley Scott’s “Exodus” (December 12th) stars Christian Bale as Moses.

In anticipation of these big-screen blockbusters, Indie Outlook ranks the Top Ten Biblical Films of the last century, from silent landmarks to modern classics.

10. Barabbas (1961)

“The motion picture that begins where the other big ones leave off,” proclaims the tagline of Richard Fleischer’s biopic, and so it does. Based on Pär Lagerkvist’s novel exploring the release and subsequent conversion of the titular criminal, whose freedom was ordered by the populace in exchange for Christ’s sacrifice, this uncommonly thoughtful film boasts a beautiful lead performance by Anthony Quinn, whose haunted face speaks volumes about his character’s inner transformation. It’s especially moving to see a biblical film that illustrates how salvation is indeed attainable for even the most infamous of sinners, a la Tom Mula’s warmhearted book, “Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol.”

9. Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979)

Like “Barabbas,” this cheerfully absurdist comedy centers its irreverent gaze on a mortal bystander to Christ’s life, though in this case, the man happens to be entirely fictional. Played with deadpan bewilderment by Graham Chapman, Brian is a poor schmuck who has the misfortune of being born the same day as Jesus, and ends up inadvertently sparking a religious movement of sorts. The satirical target of Monty Python’s comic genius is not the Bible itself, but pompous biblical blockbusters as well as the hypocrisies and intolerance of the era that rarely make it onscreen. It is masterful satire topped off with one of the catchiest, most ironically uplifting finales in movie history…

8. The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964)

It’s rather unfortunate that this beautifully lensed, black-and-white Italian gem is less famous for its cinematic strengths and more for the notoriety of its director, Pier Paolo Pasolini, the controversial auteur whose identity as a gay socialist atheist made him an unlikely choice to helm a film on any biblical topic. Yet Pasolini was clearly moved by Christ’s story, and his film is visual poetry of the highest order. It may not be quite as gripping as other biblical films, but it rewards patient viewers with moments of exquisite beauty, such as when Christ miraculously heals a leper. Much of the film’s ancient locations, particularly Matera, were later revisited in “The Passion of the Christ.”

7. The Prince of Egypt (1998)

One notable exclusion from this list is Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 behemoth, “The Ten Commandments,” an Easter eve perennial fatally marred by static compositions, bloodless performances and an interminable length. Who could’ve imagined that a celebrity-saturated DreamWorks toon would leave DeMille in the Egyptian dust? Resisting the urge to trivialize the source material at every turn, while still managing to engage audiences young and old, the directorial trio of Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner and Simon Wells breathes life into the story of Moses with lovely songs, spirited vocal performances and a truly spectacular fusion of hand-drawn and digital animation.

6. Jesus of Nazareth (1977)

Considering that he directed the greatest “Romeo and Juliet” adaptation in the history of cinema, it’s perhaps no surprise that Franco Zeffirelli would be an ideal choice to make a sprawling period piece as formidable as this one. Clocking in over six hours, this consistently riveting miniseries is perhaps the most comprehensive filmic portrait of Jesus’s life, from his birth to his sacrifice. Unlike George Stevens’s dreadful “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” which upstaged every scene with distracting star cameos, Zeffirelli’s accomplished ensemble becomes fully immersed in their characters. In the title role, Robert Powell has a suitably commanding presence accentuated by his piercing stare.

5. Ben-Hur (1959)

Though I’m no fan of Charlton Heston’s “Ten Commandments,” I’ll admit that the actor is flat-out sensational in William Wyler’s thrilling epic detailing the betrayal and subsequent revenge of an enslaved Jewish prince. Best remembered for its jaw-dropping, nine-minute chariot race, this magnificent spectacle is equally compelling as an intricately textured character study. Like Joseph in the Book of Genesis, Judah Ben-Hur ultimately must learn to overcome his rage and forgive his transgressors. Two of the film’s finest sequences are wordless encounters between Ben-Hur and Christ, whose face remains offscreen, thus allowing Heston’s nuanced work to shine all the more.

4. The King of Kings (1927)

My favorite biblical film by DeMille also happens to be one of his first. Vastly superior to Nicholas Ray’s flat 1961 remake, DeMille’s silent film is both a technological marvel and a dramatic triumph, conjuring a genuine sense of awe. Cast in the lead role is H.B. Warner, best known as Mr. Gower in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” who was 51 at the time of filming, despite the fact that Jesus only lived to 33. Regardless of the eyebrow-raising age difference, Warner is absolutely captivating in the role, embodying Christ’s boundless love while accompanying it with humor and pathos. His introduction into the film is a masterstroke, as the audience shares in the recently restored vision of a young boy…

3. Inherit the Wind (1960)

Over half a century after it was written, Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s play about the Scopes monkey trial is as timely as ever. No film captures the essence of biblical debates between progressives and fundamentalists with as much eloquence, intelligence and fierce humanity as Stanley Kramer’s indelible screen adaptation. Brilliantly acted by Spencer Tracy and Frederic March, this explosive courtroom drama focuses on the trial of a teacher arrested for including Darwin’s theories of evolution in his curriculum. At the heart of this debate is differing interpretations of the Bible, though the film suggests that both views can be reconciled in its final, unforgettably affirming image.

2. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

The life of Roman Catholic saint Joan of Arc was not included in the Bible, seeing as she lived in the 1400’s, yet her martyrdom fueled by an undying faith is a story worthy of being ranked alongside the great biblical epics. Carl Theodor Dreyer’s devastating silent classic features a lead performance by Maria Falconetti of such transcendent power and unsparing realism that it feels as if it were filmed yesterday. Much of the picture is comprised of close-ups of Falconetti as she tearfully proclaims her faith when faced with imprisonment, torture and ultimately, her execution, which is depicted in wrenching detail. Today, the film stands as a rebuke to the sanitized biopics that too often pass for religious cinema.

1. The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

Whereas Mel Gibson’s mercilessly violent, viscerally agonizing “The Passion of the Christ” was enthusiastically embraced by religious institutions and their respective flocks, Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” was met with boycotts and outrage—primarily from those who refused to see it. That’s a profound shame, considering that Gibson’s film, for all of its considerable impact and authenticity, fails to adequately convey the character of Jesus, let alone his message. Scorsese’s film is as painstakingly personal as Gibson’s, grappling with the filmmaker’s own spiritual struggles, yet it’s a vastly more provocative journey into the conflicted soul of Christ, simultaneously blessed and cursed with being both human and divine.

The film makes no secret of the fact that it is a work of fiction speculating on the vulnerabilities that may have infiltrated Christ’s psyche during his holy crusade. Paul Schrader’s adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’s book provides audiences with the most complex portrayal of Christ ever put on film, and it’s that very complexity that makes his achievements all the more inspiring. Willem Dafoe’s breathtaking performance boldly subverts the serene archetype of Jesus witnessed in countless previous pictures. The most controversial section of the film, detailing Jesus’s hallucinations on the cross, is in fact an ingenious variation on “It’s a Wonderful Life,” enabling the Son of God to view what his life would’ve been like had he continued to live. This vital sequence is not at all the heretical abomination its detractors have claimed it to be, and it ultimately infuses Jesus’s final words on the cross with more glorious meaning than any film before or since. One wishes that more biblical films had a fraction of the passion contained in Scorsese’s timeless masterpiece.

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