Jesus Movies for Holy Week

Every year I teach a course on Jesus in film, focusing on the way film has depicted the Passion. We also read the Gospel accounts and find that a comparison of the accounts with the films provokes interesting discussions on religion and art, theology and historicity. These were this year’s films:

Triumphal entry / cleansing of the temple: The Last Temptation of Christ

“You think you’re special? God is not an Israelite!” spits Willem Defoe to Caiaphas after he loses his temper at the temple. This is a remarkable scene in an amazing film and does better than most to explain how Jesus came to be seen as a threat to the established order of things.

Teaching in the temple: The Gospel According to St. Matthew

“Woe to you scribes and Pharisees! Hypocrites!” I like the way that a film by a gay Italian Marxist can use the Matthew text in such controversial ways.

The Last Supper: The Greatest Story Ever Told

If you read Mark’s Passion, the Max von Sydow Jesus will seem very different. This is very much a Fourth Gospel Jesus and can begin a good discussion about the portrayal of Jesus in the synoptics vs. John.

Garden of Gethsemane: The Passion of the Christ

I have a love/hate view of Gibson’s Passion. I love the Aramaic, the cinematography, and the general verisimilitude. I hate the over-the-top sadism and the horror movie vibe. The Garden scene is on the love side of this.

Trial: Jesus Christ Superstar

Great song featuring a Herod in camp overdrive. Jesus as rock opera: what’s not to like?

Crucifixion: The Life and Passion of Christ

This clip is a coloured version of the 1903 French film and set to music.

Resurrection: The Passion (BBC/HBO)

My favourite. The way Jesus is revealed in the eucharist is why I am a sacramental Christian.


  1. Thanks for these reminders, Ronan; some fine films here.

    It is interesting, I think, to consider the degree to which these different approaches also sometimes capture broad interpretive traditions within Christianity as a whole. Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew is post-Vatican II Catholicism, with a hint of liberation theology, whereas Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is the spooky, weirdly compelling heart of pre-Vatican II, 19th-century Catholicism. The Greatest Story Ever Told is confident, ponderous, mid-20th-century American Protestantism. The Last Temptation of Christ is post-Nietzschean (or Kierkegaardian) Orthdox Christianity, where the hypostatic union of God and man cannot be complete unless Jesus was truly, fully, completely a man. And Jesus Christ Superstar? Post-Woodstock with-it hippie Christianity! Just go visit the folks at Jesus People USA in Chicago to see it in all its glory.

  2. That’s a great comment, Russ.

  3. I really liked the blow-by-blow depiction of Christ’s suffering in “The Passion of the Christ”. It’s uncomfortable to think about, and uncomfortable to watch it go on and on, which I think is what Gibson intended. We shouldn’t be okay with just saying “Jesus suffered for us”. My urge to look away while watching it on film is just a tiny taste of what actually happened to my elder brother.

    Last week, as I taught the GD class about the sermon on the mount, I referred to “The Life of Brian”, for the scene where characters interpret “blessed are the cheese-makers”. This was to prompt a discussion of how we hear what we want to hear. Since the swearing in the film was in English, not Aramaic, I decided not to actually show the clip.

    In a few weeks I’ll teach the class how to whistle “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”.

  4. Amen to the love/hate on The Passion.
    It came out around the time I was doing a lot of Aramaic in grad school, and I actually had an email exchange with William Fulco, S.J., who did the Aramaic for it. He was not permitted to share the actual Aramaic spoken script, so it was just whatever you could pick out. I do like the garden scene, la’ ‘ithai ‘enosh…

  5. This is a wonderful intro to Holy Week. Thanks for these great clips! I also liked the Emmaus depiction in the last one very much.

  6. I am partial to Ben Hur. The entire movie isn’t about Christ, but I love the depictions laced through out it. Those 3 or 4 scenes were my first seedlings of hope in Christ, and in the human ability to be like him.

    I love your selections as well, especially the Road to Emmaus.

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