Tomorrow is Easter, a celebration of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Not surprisingly for a figure so iconic, studied, worshipped and debated, Jesus has been depicted in plenty of movies, and in plenty of different ways. Depending on who you are, and how you feel about him, there’s probably a particular Jesus that speaks to you more than others.
I always go back to Willem Dafoe’s portrayal in The Last Temptation of Christ. I still remember being raised Catholic and discovering that the movie was condemned by lots of churchgoers and religious elders. As a boy, that seemed odd to me. The director, Martin Scorsese, is a devout Catholic. How could a movie he made about Jesus be blasphemous?
Based on the Nikos Kazantzakis novel, which dared to explore Jesus’ human urges, The Last Temptation of Christ gave us a Jesus who was soft-spoken, decent and sensitive. Dafoe plays him not like a glowing deity but, rather, a young man preaching love and sometimes struggling to deliver the message his father wants him to impart to all the world. Dafoe is perhaps best known for playing deranged, outlandish characters. (Think of how demonic he is in Wild at Heart.) But as Jesus, he strips away the affectations so that we understand how overwhelming this man’s burden is.
Of course, the reason why The Last Temptation of Christ was so controversial was because it shows Jesus being tempted to walk away from his self-sacrifice, choosing to live a long, happy domestic life with Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey) instead of dying on the cross. The idea that Jesus could have thought about having sex angered many of the faithful, although the movie actually shows Jesus rejecting that temptation, leading to Last Temptation’s emotional ending.
Scorsese and Dafoe didn’t want to give us one more perfect Jesus. They hoped to portray him as susceptible to the same weaknesses as the rest of us, but powerful enough not to give in to them. That’s what makes their Jesus so heroic.
Below, other members of the MEL team offer their picks for the best movie Christ. Because, seriously, nobody fucks with the Jesus.
Buddy Christ from Dogma
The best movie Jesus is Buddy Christ — the winking, pointing, thumbs-upping, dashboard-style Jesus rebrand unveiled at the beginning of Kevin Smith’s theological comedy Dogma. As a snarky 1990s Jersey kid raised resentfully Catholic, Dogma was necessarily formative; it’s also, upon adult rewatch, like reading a tedious, thousand-comment thread on the atheism subreddit. The true bright spots are Alanis Morissette as God, Jason Lee (as a demon) praising the “exquisite sin” of central air-conditioning and the legendary George Carlin as Cardinal Glick, a sellout elder of the church who hopes to convert modern heathens with a “Catholicism WOW” campaign, for which Buddy Christ is the mascot. “Now that’s not the sanctioned term we’re using for the symbol,” Glick says in a press conference, “just something we’ve been kicking around the office. But look at it. Doesn’t it… pop?”
And you know something? He’s not wrong! Buddy Christ is a vast improvement over the bloody, tortured images of Jesus on the cross that dominate the old-school branch of Christianity I was born into — and in those rare, fleeting moments when I want the Messiah at my side, he’s the version I pray to. He’s the visual manifestation of “God is my co-pilot,” ready to back me up (and forgive my wickedness) every step of the way. He’s a Jesus who knows I’m a bit of a dirtbag and doesn’t seem to mind. Overall, he’s an icon that speaks to my roots as a little shit who survived on blasphemy. Amen. — Miles Klee, Staff Writer
Jesus from The Big Lebowski
There is but one true movie Jesus, and he wears a purple jumpsuit. John Turturro’s character in The Big Lebowski is everything I could ever hope for in God’s offspring. If for no other reason than he confidently moves with a swagger that is a Gipsy Kings album personified. Also, let’s face the facts: The long-haired, sandal-wearing man the Catholic Church sold as Jesus Christ is smoke and mirrors. After all, what’s more Catholic than a perverted sex offender who exposes himself to an eight-year-old? But I digress. Really, I just love Turturro’s accent, and the fact that he refers to himself as “the Jesus.” What more do you need to be a faithful believer? — Andrew Fiouzi, Staff Writer
Brian Cohen from Life of Brian
It’s not a film about Jesus per se — Jesus only shows up for a brief moment, in fact, while delivering his sermon on the mount, before we quickly pan to the back of the crowd to see a fight breaking out — but Life of Brian is perhaps the most important comedy film on the topic of faith itself, and easily the most coherent and pointed work of Monty Python’s entire oeuvre.
It’s well worth watching today simply to be entertained, of course: There are several scenes, particularly the Latin conjugation lesson, that are the equal of any of the more quoted skits from their classic TV show. But the film’s gladius-sharp skewering of both blind faith and humanity’s endless need for easy answers holds up as well today as it ever has — perhaps, in a world of increasingly fundamental Christian nutjobs, even better.
If you want to be both amused and irritated in equal measure, take an hour to enjoy the legendary 1979 televised confrontation between Python stalwarts John Cleese and Michael Palin, converted Christian conservative Malcolm Muggeridge and former Bishop of Southgate, Mervyn Stockwood (as Cleese rightly points out at the start, the whole thing sounds absurd enough to be a Python sketch).
It’s depressingly familiar to see two wizened white dudes endlessly, willfully missing the point of the film (which, let’s not forget, is not even about Jesus, but rather a regular bloke named Brian who accidentally has a cult of fanatical believers sprout up around him). The film is brutal in its mockery of those who unquestioningly follow religious dogma — this, for my money, might still be the most perfect joke ever written — but it is utterly disingenuous to suggest that the film actually attacks either Jesus or the religion of Christianity itself. Instead, it begs people to approach things a little more critically: to perhaps ask why somebody would be telling you to kiss their ring; or give up a tenth of your wages; or needlessly torture someone until, madenned by pain and terror, they confess to heresy. (Nobody expects that last link!) (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)
Palin discussed the debate just this week in The Guardian, funnily enough, describing it thusly:
“We wanted to explain why it wasn’t a film denigrating Jesus in any shape or form. So to get there and find that they were the ones who were behaving like little children, playing to the crowd and saying, ‘You’re going to get your 30 pieces of silver’ was unbelievably irritating. That interview was a huge turning point: it helped break the assumption that religion was something the establishment told people how to talk about. They’d embarrassed themselves by making a pathetic case.”
Or as Cleese put it during the debate itself, drawing an enormous round of applause in the process: “Four hundred years ago, we would have been burnt for this film. I’m suggesting we’ve made an advance.” — Nick Leftley, Senior Editor
Baby Jesus from Talladega Nights
I’ll see your “HEY MOM, THE MEATLOAF,” “FUCKING CATALINA WINE MIXER” and any other highly quotable Will Ferrell and/or John C. Reilly movie moment (this goes double for anything Ferrell uttered as Ron Burgundy — don’t @ me) and raise you pretty much any line from Ricky Bobby’s pre-fast-food dinner grace to “8-pound, 6-ounce, newborn infant Jesus, don’t even know a word yet, just a little infant and so cuddly, but still omnipotent.” Though I think special consideration should be given to Reilly’s favorite version of Jesus here: “I like to picture Jesus in a tuxedo T-shirt cause it says, ‘I want to be formal, but I’m here to party, too.’ Cause I like to party, so I like my Jesus to party.”
And that doesn’t even take into account the aftermath of the grace, where Bobby’s two sons, Walker and Texas Ranger (or TR), begin verbally assaulting their elderly grandfather — during which they famously threaten to come at him “like a spider monkey.” Leslie Bibb as Carley Bobby, however, might have the best insult of the bunch: “If we wanted us some wussies, we would have named them ‘Dr. Quinn’ and ‘Medicine Woman.’” Needless to say, this is the altar — covered in “golden-fleece diapers” and sponsored by Powerade’s new Mystic Mountain Blueberry flavor — I worship at. — Josh Schollmeyer, Co-founder / Editor-in-Chief