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Cinematic Messiah 

Christ films better than The Passion

It's perhaps the most unexpected box office smash since My Big Fat Greek Wedding walked down the aisle to the tune of $240 million. While commercial prospects were strong for The Passion of the Christ, no one could have predicted that it would cross the $200 million threshold in a mere 12 days (the third fastest film to do so), or that its eventual gross might top $300 million, giving it a shot at placing among the all-time top 10 moneymakers. Still, as Jesus Himself reminded us, material wealth counts for little in the grand scheme of things, and Passion's earnings hardly mean it's the best movie on the subject of Christ. Here, then, are several holier-than-Mel rental suggestions.

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). Forget the unwarranted criticism that greeted Martin Scorsese's adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis' novel: This is the most faith-inspiring religious epic ever made, as Scorsese (like Gibson, a Catholic) gives us a fictionalized account of the trials and tribulations suffered by Christ (Willem Dafoe) in His final days. Jesus was both fully God and fully man, and this is the first movie to understand that, as such, He must have possessed such mortal qualities as a thirst for answers and an appreciation for the pleasures and agonies of life itself. Thus, by presenting Him as an immediate figure rather than an untouchable icon, we're allowed to feel closer to Him than ever before.

Jesus of Nazareth (1977). For those preferring something more traditional than Temptation, the best bet is Franco Zeffirelli's six-hour TV miniseries (released theatrically overseas), available on DVD and video in its entirety. Robert Powell is one of the best Christs the screen has seen, effectively mixing a divine countenance with recognizably human emotions. The length allows each segment of Christ's life to be properly developed, and Zeffirelli shows tremendous reverence without ever adopting a sanctimonious tone. Many major stars are aptly cast (Anne Bancroft as Mary Magdalene, Michael York as John the Baptist, Rod Steiger as Pontius Pilate), with the most notable turn coming from James Farentino as Simon Peter. 1/2

King of Kings (1965). Because the makers of this film (including director Nicholas Ray, of Rebel Without a Cause fame) took a chance by casting heartthrob Jeffrey Hunter as Christ, this was quickly labeled I Was a Teenage Jesus. Hunter is admittedly bland in the role, but the movie surrounding him isn't bad. Treading off the beaten path of most religious epics of its era, this one foregoes many of the traditional scenes (e.g., the moneychangers in the temple) to focus more on the politics of the Roman court, as well as to offer a running contrast between the efforts of Christ to free Jewish souls and the attempts of Harry Guardino's Barabbas (a semi-heroic depiction sure to raise eyebrows) to liberate the Jewish flesh.

Jesus Christ Superstar (1973). Introduced to the original London album at an early age, I can immerse myself in that magnificent soundtrack anytime, anyplace, anywhere -- but my enthusiasm doesn't completely carry over to Norman Jewison's screen adaptation. Jewison's minimalist approach (scaffoldings in the middle of the desert) and modern touches (jets flying overhead) neither enhance nor detract, but many of the singers simply don't compare to their original counterparts, and even Barry Dennen, who does reprise his role as Pontius Pilate (my favorite part, having played it in my high school's version of JCS), is far less subtle in his film portrayal. Still, the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice score and the complex interpretations of Christ and Judas win out over any shortcomings.

The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). Director George Stevens (Giant) knows his way around an awe-inspiring shot, and well-staged sequences are primarily what this ambitious biography has going for it. But the film is ultimately done in by the poor spot-the-star casting: Max Von Sydow is too pious as the Messiah -- his lack of animation is better suited to a fresco than a movie -- while equally glaring performances are delivered by (among others) Charlton Heston as John the Baptist and Telly Savalas as Pontius Pilate. And in a notorious bit of casting, there's poor John Wayne as a Roman centurion present at the execution. "Truly this is the Son of God," he drawls, evoking his Western persona so strongly that you half-expect Walter Brennan to pop up alongside him as his sidekick, Gimpus Maximus.

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