A friend of mine recommended some religious-themed movies for this Easter weekend. I have to second his choice of Jesus of Nazareth. Here is the review I wrote for it on Amazon.com: "Even though the mini-series runs for 6-hours, each moment is gripping and powerful. The cast is superb -- Peter Ustinov, Olivia Hussey, Sir Laurence Olivier, and especially Robert Powell who brilliantly captures both the humanity and the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth. This is Franco Zefferelli's masterpiece. From beginning to end, this production is full of dramatic moments that will forever stay in my mind. He truly brought the biblical story to life in a fresh yet respectful manner. I highly recommend it."
Now, I turn over the soapbox to my friend Robert for his Easter weekend movie rental picks.
"Hello all, Robert here. OK, let's get the basics out of the way. Here are the staple religious movies to see this weekend, take your pick:
The Ten Commandments
King of Kings
Jesus of Nazareth miniseries
However, what about if you want to see other, less-famous movies this weekend? Here are some of my recommendations:
Quo Vadis (1951)
Quo Vadis is an epic 1951 film made by MGM. It was directed by Mervyn LeRoy and produced by Sam Zimbalist, from a screenplay by John Lee Mahin, S. N. Behrman and Sonya Levien, adapted from Henryk Sienkiewicz classic 1896 novel Quo Vadis. The music score was by Miklós Rózsa and the cinematography by Robert Surtees and William V. Skall. The film stars Robert Taylor, Deborah Kerr, Leo Genn, Peter Ustinov, with Finlay Currie, Felix Aylmer and Abraham Sofaer. Sophia Loren was cast in the movie as an extra.
The Robe (1953)
The Robe is a 1953 American Biblical epic film that tells the story of a Roman military tribune who commands the unit that crucifies Jesus. The film was made by 20th Century Fox and is notable for being the first film released in CinemaScope. Although it was the first film with the CinemaScope logo, it did not use the famous Alfred Newman opening fanfare heard on all 20th Century-Fox films, but rather a mixed choir chanting a religious theme over the logo. The now famous fanfare and its musical extension, which was added by Alfred Newman (Fox's music director from 1940 to 1960) especially for CinemaScope, was introduced in the next Fox CinemaScope release, How To Marry A Millionaire and is used on all 20th Century Fox films today, including Fox Searchlight Pictures, despite the fact that CinemaScope technology itself has not been used since 1967. The Robe had one sequel, Demetrius and the Gladiators. The Robe stars Richard Burton, Jean Simmons, Victor Mature and Michael Rennie, with Dean Jagger, Jay Robinson, Richard Boone, and Jeff Morrow.
Barabbas is a 1961 film expanding on the career of Barabbas, from the Christian Passion narrative in the Gospel of Mark and other gospels. It starred Anthony Quinn as Barabbas, with Silvana Mangano, Katy Jurado, Arthur Kennedy, Harry Andrews, Ernest Borgnine, Vittorio Gassman, and Jack Palance, and was distributed by Columbia Pictures. The film, conceived as a grand Roman epic, was based on the Nobel-Prize winning novel Barabbas (1950) by Pär Lagerkvist.
The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)
The Greatest Story Ever Told is a 1965 American epic film produced and directed by George Stevens and distributed by United Artists. It is a retelling of the story of Jesus Christ, from the Nativity through the Resurrection. This film is notable for being the last film appearance of Claude Rains. Stevens cast Swedish actor Max von Sydow as Jesus. Von Sydow had never appeared in an English-language film and was best known for his performances in Ingmar Bergman’s dramatic films. Stevens wanted an unknown free of secular and unseemly associations in the mind of the public. The Greatest Story Ever Told featured an ensemble of well-known actors, many of whom in brief appearances. Some critics would later complain that the large cast distracted from the solemnity, notably in the appearance of John Wayne as the Roman centurion who comments on the Crucifixion by stating: “Truly this man was the son of God.” Beyond von Sydow, the film’s primary cast was Dorothy McGuire as the Virgin Mary, Charlton Heston as John the Baptist, Claude Rains as Herod the Great, Jose Ferrer as Herod Antipas, Telly Savalas as Pontius Pilate, Angela Lansbury as Claudia Procula, Martin Landau as Caiaphas, David McCallum as Judas Iscariot, Donald Pleasance as “The Dark Hermit” (a personification of Satan), Sidney Poitier as Simon of Cyrene, Roddy McDowall as Matthew, Joanna Dunham as Mary Magdalene, Joseph Schildkraut as Nicodemus, and John Wayne as The Centurion. Smaller roles (some only a few seconds) were played by Michael Anderson Jr., Michael Ansara, Ina Balin, Carroll Baker, Robert Blake, Pat Boone, Victor Buono, John Considine, Richard Conte, Frank DeKova, Jamie Farr, David Hedison, Van Heflin, Russell Johnson, Robert Loggia, Sal Mineo, Nehemiah Persoff, Gary Raymond, David Sheiner, Paul Stewart, Marian Seldes, Harry Wilson, Shelley Winters and Ed Wynn.
Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)
Jesus Christ Superstar is a 1973, Oscar-nominated film adaptation of the rock opera of the same name, based on the conflict between Judas and Jesus in the last weeks before the crucifixion of Jesus. The film was directed by Norman Jewison. Ted Neeley and Carl Anderson were nominated for two 1974 Golden Globe Award for their portrayals of Jesus and Judas, respectively.
[Nick's note - I would also recommend the vidoe version of the Broadway musical revival. Here's my review which I wrote on Amazon.com: "This is basically a filming of the most recent stage production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's most controversial (and in my opinion greatest) musical. But this definitely has a wonderful "feature film" quality to it due to the brilliant directing, editing, and production values. I really think this could have been an even more amazing film if the director was given a bigger budget and allowed to do some exterior location shots. As is, it's still a terrific accomplishment. This is heads and shoulders above the 1970s movie version which really didn't take as many creative chances as it could have based on the source material. Setting the Jesus story in modern times opens this up to wonderful "what if" interpretations and arguably makes it more relevant to today's youth. And despite the initial shock of seeing the present-day setting, the story remains relatively faithful to the traditional biblical tale, with the usual creative license that is a given when the epic story is condensed into a two-hour dramatic re-telling. This version was daring in many respects: the religious leaders (Pharisees and the Sanhedrin) are shown wearing costumes which look like Christian priestly garb -- with black collars instead of the familiar white. Jesus is shown as much more human than is usually depicted while still having some sense of the divine (such as his prediction of his betrayal and death.) I would have liked to have seen a more balanced depiction of the duality of Jesus' human/deity nature, but the original Tim Rice text leans the character on the "more human than God" side, which will obviously upset fundamentalists, but which makes the "Agony in the Garden" scene the powerful character highlight it is supposed to be. (I still think that scene hasn't been captured as effectively as it could -- one of the few moments when I questioned the director's staging choices.) The cast was fine, and despite the occasional over-acting it still played well for me. Carter was a fine Jesus, although if he'd grown a beard (even a goatee) the illusion would have been greater and made us picture him even more as Jesus. I though some of his high notes sounded a bit weak, but that's just me. Judas was terrific. Pilate's first scene was wonderful but towards the end he went too over-the-top for my tastes. I was disappointed in Herod, but I loved the subtle reaction shots of Jesus during that scene. Again, this is a stage production captured on video, not a tradional movie. With that in mind, this is still a top-notch experience. Check it out."
The Mission (1986)
The Mission is a 1986 British film about the experiences of a Jesuit missionary in 18th century South America. The film was written by Robert Bolt and directed by Roland Joffé. It stars Robert De Niro, Jeremy Irons, Ray McAnally, Aidan Quinn, Cherie Lunghi and Liam Neeson. It won the Palme d'Or and the Academy Award for Best Cinematography. In April 2007, it was elected number one on the Church Times Top 50 Religious Films list. The music, scored by Italian composer Ennio Morricone, was listed at #23 on AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores.
The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
The Last Temptation of Christ is a 1988 film directed by Martin Scorsese. It is a film adaptation of the controversial 1960 novel of the same name by Nikos Kazantzakis. It stars Willem Dafoe as Jesus Christ, Harvey Keitel as Judas Iscariot, Barbara Hershey as Mary Magdalene, David Bowie as Pontius Pilate, and Harry Dean Stanton as Paul. The film was shot entirely in Morocco. Like the novel, the film depicts the life of Jesus Christ, and its central thesis is that Jesus, while free from sin, was still subject to every form of temptation that humans face, including fear, doubt, depression, reluctance and lust. This results in the book and film depicting Christ being tempted by imagining himself engaged in sexual activities, a notion that has caused outrage from some Christians. The movie includes a disclaimer explaining that it departs from the commonly-accepted Biblical portrayal of Jesus' life, and that it is not intended to be an exact recreation of the events detailed in the Gospels. The film received an Academy Award nomination for Martin Scorsese as Best Director. Barbara Hershey's performance as Mary earned her a Golden Globe nod for Best Supporting Actress. However, Harvey Keitel's performance as Judas earned him a Razzie Award nomination for Worst Supporting Actor.
We're No Angels (1989)
A couple of 1930s convicts, jailed on never-specified charges, are dragged along when a vicious killer escapes the electric chair. The two end up in a town near the Canadian border, where they are mistaken for a pair of priests expected at the local monastery. They want to flee but cannot, since misunderstandings, and the arrival of their companion Bobby, makes the trip to Canada almost impossible. They continue to masquerade as priests while looking for an opportunity to cross the border into Canada. An opportunity presents itself in the form of a procession/pilgrimage to the church's sister church across the border. Each priest participating has to bring along someone who needs help, so they decide on the deaf daughter of local laundress and prostitute.
Sister Act (1992)
Sister Act is a 1992 American comedy film released by Touchstone Pictures. Directed by Emile Ardolino, it features musical arrangements by Marc Shaiman and stars Whoopi Goldberg as a Reno lounge singer who has been put under protective custody in a San Francisco convent and has to pretend to be a nun when a mob boss puts her on his hit list. Also in the cast are Maggie Smith, Kathy Najimy, Wendy Makkena, Mary Wickes, and Harvey Keitel. The film is #83 on Bravo's The 100 Funniest Movies list.
Left Behind: The Movie (2000)
This film stars Kirk Cameron, Brad Johnson, Gordon Currie and Clarence Gilyard. It was directed by Vic Sarin. Left Behind was proclaimed by its creators as the biggest and most ambitious Christian film ever made. It is based on the Left Behind series of books. It is the first in a three part trilogy, followed by Left Behind II: Tribulation Force and Left Behind: World at War. The film has been rated PG-13.
[Nick's note - I hated the books so I can't imagine the movies would be any better.]
The Passion of the Christ (2004)
The Passion of the Christ is a 2004 film directed, co-written and co-produced by Mel Gibson. It is based on the New Testament accounts of the arrest, trial, torture, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, events commonly known as The Passion. The film’s dialogue is in Aramaic, Latin, and Hebrew, with subtitles. It is the highest grossing non-English language and R-rated film ever to be released.
[Nick's note: To read my own review of Passion of the Christ when it first came out, click here.]
Doubt is a 2008 film adaptation of the John Patrick Shanley stage play Doubt: A Parable. Written and directed by Shanley and produced by Scott Rudin, the film stars Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, and Viola Davis, who were all nominated for Oscars at the 2009 ceremonies. It premiered on October 30, 2008 at the AFI Fest before being distributed by Miramax Films in limited release on December 12, 2008 and in a wide release on Christmas Day.