Just as Holy Week circled around this year, I couldn’t help remembering how, exactly 365 days ago, we were all in exactly the same place: everybody hunkered down at home, under ECQ, unable to travel or visit family members or do much else, besides watching Holy Week movies online or on DVD.
In fact, last year we set aside the usual Jesus epics — Jesus of Nazareth, The Greatest Story Ever Told, King of Kings — and focused on a few lesser-seen flicks leading up to Easter Sunday.
That meant suspending our disbelief enough to imagine Joaquin Phoenix in the role of the Messiah in Mary Magdalene, or stomaching the brutality of director Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ.
'The Last Temptation of Christ' is an inner monologue (dialogue?) between Jesus and his intended fate; like Jesus Christ Superstar, it dives deep into the thoughts and doubts of Christ in a way that few classic Biblical epics ever dared.
Then there’s Ted Neeley, dubbed by critics as “the Screamin’ Jesus” in the film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar. And if you want a controversial but no less passionate version of the Passion, there’s Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ.
(Caveat: This is by no means an exhaustive “best film” list for Holy Week. It merely reflects what we ended up watching together, night after night, one year ago. Now… what to watch this year, I wonder?)
Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)
This is that rare ‘70s relic that actually still plays pretty well, given its hippie trappings and somewhat dated soundtrack of vintage Webber rock. (He’d not yet gone overboard with the wretched excess of Phantom of the Opera or Evita.)
It’s bookended by an anachronistic device — a bus arriving in the dusty modern-day Holy Land to unload our players —then morphing into ancient times, when people apparently just broke into song randomly in the middle of deserts.
There’s a Vegas spectacle feel to the dance numbers (those fringes!), but you really can’t go wrong with the music, which includes the soaring Andre Previn-conducted Overture, Yvonne Elliman crooning I Don’t Know How to Love Him, the catchy soul of What’s the Buzz? (shades of our modern-day social media fixation), the cabaret-style King Herod’s Song (sung by Josh Mostel), and the “39 Lashes” segment of Trial Before Pilate, which more than one heavy metal band has stolen for its killer guitar riff.
Carl Anderson is effective as Judas, and Neeley lends quite a bit of reflection to the man/God duality of Christ, most notably in songs like Heaven in their Minds, or The Temple, where Jesus seems put off by the constant demand for miracles and healing.
And a shout-out to Neeley’s pipes: the Texas-born singer/actor could hit a G above a high C, which he does notably on Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say). (There are actually YouTube compilations of people trying to match Neeley’s piercing wail online; check it out if you’re looking for further viewing assignments this Holy Week.)
And the final “It is accomplished” shot, as the atonal jazz soundtrack cuts to silence and a blood-red sky before fading to black? Killer.
The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
Scorsese’s take was based on the Nikos Kazantzakis novel and generated cries of blasphemy because it depicted Christ (Willem Dafoe) briefly considering whether or not to climb down off the cross and marry up with Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey).
In truth, the entire film is an inner monologue (dialogue?) between Jesus and his intended fate; like Jesus Christ Superstar, it dives deep into the thoughts and doubts of Christ in a way that few classic Biblical epics ever dared.
Judas (Harvey Keitel, in full Brooklyn accent) plays up the bitter struggle against the Roman oppressors (“You’re a disgrace! You make crosses for the Romans! You’re woise than them!”), then comes to understand the Bigger Picture.
Despite its emphasis on the human side of Jesus, The Last Temptation of Christ is no less devout; Dafoe may not be anybody’s image of Jesus, but it’s a worthy exploration of the nature of sacrifice and faith.
The final act deals with a “guardian angel” apparition, coaxing the Messiah one last time to walk away from the Big Sacrifice. Tempted, ultimately, he is not.
While it ends in an It’s a Wonderful Life embrace of his chosen fate, it’s actually an intriguingly different take on the most often-told story in Western history.
The Passion of the Christ (2004)
When Mel Gibson announced plans to film his Jesus pic, few could have predicted the anti-Semitic eruptions that would later emanate from the Aussie’s mouth and threaten his career.
Gibson’s depiction casts Jim Caviezel (a blue-eyed Hollywood look, rather than an historically accurate one) as the Messiah, and he’s quite good in it. But Gibson’s insistence on lobbing unequal blame and guilt at Jews here is grating; also hard to take is the Blumhouse levels of torture and bloody violence inflicted on our hero.
In truth, Gibson has a history of torturing his heroes — whether it’s Mad Max getting dragged by marauders in The Road Warrior, William Wallace getting tortured and beheaded in Braveheart, or Officer Riggs getting hooked up for an electrical enema in Lethal Weapon 2.
Heroes are meant to suffer, as the Gibson canon proves, and Jesus is no exception. But the buckets of blood used in the finale of this Holy Week epic — shot in unsettling blues and grays — almost seem gratuitous.
Naturally, it made a ton of “Jesus dollars” at the box office, and the Hollywood heavies took note.
Mary Magdalene (2018)
Was there a glass ceiling among the disciples? Mary Magdalene casts Rooney Mara as a young woman who decides to get baptized and follow Jesus — a lifestyle choice that does not fit in with the plans of her parents from small town Magdala.
Mara shifts our focus to the faithful, showing how difficult it was to avoid being scorned for hooking up with a male crew. Mary adds a feminine, more human response to Jesus’ teachings — and naturally, the men feel threatened and grab all the credit.
Like The Da Vinci Code, this drama posits that Mary wrote down her own gospel, but the male power structure ensured it never saw the light of day. Meanwhile, Jesus (a solemn Phoenix) mostly exists at the sidelines of the film, even as his central role plays out.
The actor imbues his Messiah with a fair amount of Method brooding, but without a hint of the wild abandon he would take up in his Joker role two years later.