Duncan Macleod is Vision for Mission Advocate with the Uniting Church in Australia, Queensland Synod.
Updated : Wednesday, 22 April 2009 4:15pm
Movies portraying the crucifixion of Jesus provide us with useful conversation starters as we explore the depth of meaning in the events of Easter.
Try suggesting an Easter movie and you'll get different reactions.
Some people are concerned about historical accuracy. Did Jesus have nails driven through his hands, as in The Passion of the Christ, through his wrists, as in Ben Hur, or through his arms, as in the BBC television drama The Passion?
Some are concerned about theological purity, while others are anxious about hints of irreverence.
Hopefully all of us are interested in seeing films as works of art.
What I'll be exploring here is more about potential for conversation within and outside Christian circles.
Jesus of Montreal
This 1989 movie, directed by Denys Arcand, retells the Jesus story in the context of a Canadian city. A group of actors puts on a Passion play for a local Catholic church. Daniel, the lead actor played by Lothaire Bluteau, challenges the exploitation of women in the church and film industry.
He is mortally wounded when the cross falls over and crushes him during the play, dying in an over crowded under-staffed hospital. Daniel's eyes and his heart are given to medicine to be used for organ transplants.
Questions to explore after watching this movie might include consideration of how total newcomers to the Christian story might interpret the life and death of Jesus, how we as part of the Christian community may have lost sight of the radical nature of Jesus' life and message and may even have become part of the problem.
If we were to take the Easter story into our context what would it look like?
Last Temptation of Christ
Martin Scorsese's 1988 movie, based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis has Willem Dafoe as Jesus hanging on the cross, fantasizing about an alternative reality in which he survives to live to old age with Mary Magdalene. Finally he recognises the temptation for what it is and submits himself to death.
The movie as a whole explores the dynamic unfolding of Jesus' sense of call, showing him in conversation with Judas moving from indifference through to radical activism, the way of love and finally self sacrifice, all the time struggling with self doubt, fear and desire.
Questions to explore after watching the Last Temptation of Christ might include identifying our why we feel uncomfortable with the suggestion that Jesus was tempted to walk away from the cross.
Is it the graphic nature of the imagery or the suggestion that Jesus struggled with impure thoughts?
Are there clues here for the ways in which we discern and follow God's call in our lives?
What do we believe about Jesus that is accentuated in the movie?
What do we believe that has been challenged?
Spiderman saves a train load of New Yorkers as he is "crucified" on the front of the
The passengers then carry his weakened body overhead down the train, perhaps paralleling the removal of Jesus' body from the cross.
Ordinary people, inspired by Spiderman's sacrifice, stand up to the villain Doc Octopus.
Questions to explore might include ways in which Jesus' sacrificial death has transformed those who follow in his path, ways in which Jesus is like and unlike a 'superhero'.
This 1959 movie, directed by William Wyler, may have been the first movie to depict the nails being driven through Jesus' wrists, rather than his palms.
The crucifixion scene is supplemented with a number of supernatural events.
Jesus was played by Claude Heater though his face is never shown.
King of Kings
Released in 1961, and directed by Nicholas Ray. Jeffrey Hunter plays Jesus, the first Hollywood actor to have his face shown in the role.
The Gospel According to St Matthew
The Gospel According to St Matthew (Italian: Il Vangelo secondo Matteo) is a 1964 Italian film directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini. Jesus, played by Spanish economics student Enrique Irazoqui, is associated in the movie with Marxist economics. His death is portrayed in a matter-of-fact style, without the emotional atmosphere of many other depictions.
The Greatest Story Ever Told
Max von Sydow plays Jesus in this 1965 movie directed by George Stevens, exploring the agonizing experience of betrayal and abandonment.
A Musical based on the Gospel According to St. Matthew, was directed by David Greene and released in 1973. Victor Garber as Jesus.
Jesus Christ Superstar
Jesus Christ Superstar, the 1973 movie directed by Norman Jewison, sped up the process of the death of Jesus, played by Ted Neeley, with anachronistic costumes worn by onlookers.
Jesus of Nazareth
Franco Zeffirelli's 1979 mini-series, based on the Gospel of John, has blue-eyed Robert Powell playing an almost stoic Jesus on the cross.
The 1979 film directed by John Krish and Peter Sykes, and sponsored by Campus Crusade for Christ, has Brian Deacon as Jesus. The narrative is based on the Gospel of Luke. Scenes for The Story of Jesus for Children, which removed much of Jesus' more violent scenes and added more appropriate ones for younger viewers, were filmed concurrently with those of Jesus.
Life of Brian
Crucifixion was irreverently featured in the comedy film Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979). At the end of the film, Eric Idle and his crucified Monty Python crew sing, "Always look on the bright side of life".
Last Temptation of Christ
Martin Scorsese's 1988 movie based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis has Willem Dafoe as Jesus hanging on the cross, fantasizing about an alternative reality in which he survives to live to old age with Mary Magadalene.
Jesus of Montreal
This 1989 movie directed by Denys Arcand shows a group of actors put on an unorthodox, but acclaimed Passion Play which incites the opposition of the Catholic Church while the actors' lives themselves begin to mirror the Passion itself.
Matthew: The Visual Bible
Bruce Marchiano plays as passionate Jesus in this 1993 movie directed by Regardt van den Bergh.
The Miracle Maker
A 2000 movie providing an animated Jesus, directed by Derek W. Hayes and Stanislav Sokolov, with Ralph Fiennes providing the voice for Jesus. The crucifixion scene is brief, for the sake of the kids.
The Passion of the Christ
Mel Gibson's controversial The Passion of the Christ (2004) depicted an extreme level of violence, but showed the nails being driven into Jesus' palms, as is traditional, with ropes supporting the wrists. The crucifixion is played out for as long as possible, exploring the pain and shame of the experience.
Gospel of John: The Visual Bible
Henry Ian Cusick plays Jesus in this 2004 movie directed by Philip Saville. The crucifixion scenes provide a safe and tidy version of events, without the gore found in The Passion of the Christ.
Colour of the Cross
Co-writer and director Jean-Claude La Marre plays Jesus in this 2006 re-telling of the final hours and days of the Messiah, suggesting that Jesus was crucified because of racism.
BBC's 2008 drama The Passion stirred critics with a portrayal of Jesus being crucified in a foetal position, arms above his head, nails through his arms and his knees bent.