Easter. For some, the coming holidays are the cumulation of 40-days of fasting and prayer. For others, they’re simply a four-day chocolate binge. However you plan to celebrate, though, there’s sure to be a wealth of Easter Epics on TV to enjoy as you munch hot cross buns and pass round the Simnel Cake. To mark the event, FilmJuice Features Editor Paula Hammond takes a look at five religious films that inspired, intrigued and shocked … in equal measure.
For some, the coming holidays are the cumulation of 40-days of fasting and
prayer. For others, they’re simply a four-day chocolate binge. However you plan
to celebrate, though, there’s sure to be a wealth of Easter Epics on TV to
enjoy as you munch hot cross buns and pass round the Simnel Cake. To mark the event, FilmJuice Features
Editor Paula Hammond takes a look at five religious films that inspired, intrigued
and shocked … in equal measure.
Wallace’s stunning novel “Ben Hur: A Tale Of Christ”, published in 1880, was the source and
inspiration but most of us are probably more familiar with the 1959 film,
starring Charlton Heston. The film –
which was the third attempt to bring Wallace’s masterpiece to the big screen –
is a sweeping tale of love, hate and revenge set against the backdrop of
Christ’s mission and crucifixion. During filming, a mind-boggling 300 sets, nine sound stages, 100,000
costumes and 1,000 suits of armour were used. Add to that Miklos Rozsa’s spectacular
score (the longest in movie history) and Robert Surtees’ magnificent cinematography and you have a film which set the standard of religious
epics for decades to come.
However, it’s the set pieces which grab your attention, from the nine-minute chariot race to the
monstrous sea battle which used extras with missing limbs for authenticity. Ben
Hur proved that a religious epic could be sensitive to the subject matter while
still spinning a thrilling tale.
Jesus Of Nazareth (1977)
It’s hard to
believe now that one of the biggest TV hits of the 1970s was the miniseries
Jesus Of Nazareth. Directed by Franco
Zeffirelli and starring an impossibly handsome Robert Powell as Jesus, the series was aired in two parts over the
Easter holidays and racked up 21 million viewers in the UK alone. If Ben Hur
gave us religion writ large, Jesus Of Nazareth was – for all its sumptuous
cinematography – an intimate tale of the ‘man’ who became the Messiah. Powell,
who was cast for his piercing blue eyes, mimicked HB Warner’s portrayal of Christ in The King of Kings (1927) by almost never blinking. The effect –
enhanced by the judicious use of eyeliner – was incredibly powerful. In effect,
Jesus stares directly at the audience throughout the 360-minute running time.
Before it was even broadcast, US fundamentalists damned Powell’s “too human”
portrayal as denying Christ’s divinity. However many – believers and
unbelievers – embraced the film’s ‘70s hippy re-casting of Jesus as the gentle
Monty Python’s The Life Of Brian (1979)
If you ever
needed proof that we shouldn’t take religion too seriously, then take a good
look at the world we live in. Monty Python’s Life Of Brian was, in many ways a
response to the over-sensitive, over-censored world of religious fundamentalism.
Although often seen as a spoof on the life of Jesus, the film’s title explains
it all. Brian is a young Jewish man, born on the same day as Christ and
subsequently mistaken for Him. What follows is a very clever – and stupidly
funny – satire on the politics of religion and how good ideas can be turned
into bad ideology. Not surprisingly the film was banned in 39 British counties
and resulted in some very Pythonesque scenes of nuns and rabbis picketing
cinemas. If only the PC brigade had watched more carefully. After all, Brian
isn’t the Messiah he’s just a very naughty boy.
The Last Temptation Of Christ (1988) (Main Picture)
If you want to
court controversy – and put bums of seats – then all any filmmaker needs to do
is to throw sex and religion into a big cinematic bag, stand back and wait for
the fireworks. Which is exactly what happened when Martin Scorsese decided to bring Nikos Kazantzakis’ controversial novel to the big screen. On the
face of it The Last Temptation Of Christ has much to recommend it including
some great performances from Willem
Defoe as Christ and Harvey Keitel
as Judus. In the film, Jesus is shown deciding not to die on the cross but
instead to live out an ordinary life and consummate his relationship with Mary
Magdalene. It’s an interesting idea but sadly one that Scorsese didn’t have the
cahoonas to follow thorough on. Ultimately the film fails because Scorsese
tries to have it both ways. He wants to shock his audience and flirt with
controversy but constantly tries to negate any religious backlash. So in the
end, the life of the ‘alternative’ Christ turns out to be nothing more a
tempting ‘dream’ from Satan.
The Passion Of Christ (2004)
Mel Gibson’s bloody and bruising vision of the last 12 hours of
Christ’s life was both hugely successful and massively controversial. While
almost every religious epic to date has focused on Christ’s life and ministry –
emphasizing His message and His resurrection – Gibson cuts straight to the core
of the tale. One man, betrayed, tortured and finally executed, slowly and
horrifically. It’s powerful and stomach-turning stuff. The question is: is The
Passion Of Christ anything more than 126 minutes of sadistic violence wrapped
up in archaic languages (the actors speak Aramaic and Latin) to give it more
gravitas? The jury is still out but one thing’s for sure. The concept of Christ
“dying for our sins” has never been so forcefully put.