Jesus on the big screen: Cinematic portrayals of the Christian figure

Jesus Christ is undoubtedly one of the most-well known religious figures in the world, but it turns out he's also one of the most popular characters in Hollywood.
Actor Jim Caviezel as Jesus of Nazareth — one of the most filmed characters in movie history — in Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004). (YouTube/AMBI Distribution)
Jesus Christ is undoubtedly one of the most-well known religious figures in the world, but it turns out he's also one of the most popular characters in Hollywood.

Jesus is one of the most filmed characters in movie history, according to Bob Derrenbacker, who teaches a course on the Christian figure's portrayal in film at Thorneloe University in Sudbury, Ont.

"By my count I've got I think about 83 or 85 film titles where Jesus is the main character," Derrenbacker said, in an interview with CBC's Up North.

Jesus first appeared in some of the earliest silent films, such as the 1927 movie The King of Kings, directed and produced by Cecil B. Demille.

"And then there was a kind of waning of that, where Jesus wasn't in film, until you get to the early 1960s and just one right after another, right after another up to the present day," Derrenbacker explained.

"So it's very interesting that we're in the midst of kind of renaissance of portrayal of Jesus in film."

Bob Derrenbacker teaches a course on Jesus in film at Thorneloe University in Sudbury, Ont. (Jason Turnbull/CBC)

Derrenbacker attributes this popularity to his status as one of the most important historical and religious figures to this day.

"You can look at Jesus from a religious standpoint, from a philosophical standpoint, from a political standpoint and many filmmakers take one of those approaches when they're thinking about Jesus in film."

Jesus' life on the silver screen

In his course Derrenbacker explores some of the most popular and well-known depictions of Jesus, such as Mel Gibson's 2004 film Passion of the Christ.

While Gibson's portrayal focuses on Jesus' last days and crucifixion, others explore different aspects of his life, such as his birth in The Nativity Story (2006) and his childhood in The Young Messiah (2016).

The Young Messiah (2016) explores the childhood of Jesus, portrayed by Adam Greaves-Neal. (YouTube/Movieclips Trailers)

Derrenbacker also covers one of the more controversial movies Jesus played a role in: Monty Python's The Life of Brian.

The satirical 1979 comedy tells the story of Brian of Nazareth, who is mistaken for the Messiah after he is born in the stable next door to Jesus.

"It's also a movie that is critiquing culture. It's poking fun at this kind of bathrobe genre of ancient film, ancient stories in film and Jesus in film," Derrenbacker said. "I think it still holds sway, it still has relevance today, particularly in its social commentary."

Graham Chapman plays a reluctant Messiah in Monty Python's 1979 satire, The Life of Brian. (YouTube/Monty Python)

A wide variety of actors have also taken on the role of Jesus, including Willem Defoe, Max Von Sydow and even comedian Will Ferrell. Derrenbacker said many of these depictions have one critique in common.

"They often cast a caucasian to play Jesus and that's a problem, because the historical Jesus was a Middle Eastern person of colour," he said.

"I think often people imagine — particularly white Christians in North America imagine — Jesus to be a white person. But again, that's not historically accurate at all."

Derrenbacker said exploring these portrayals is a way for his students to learn more about the history of Jesus, develop a vocabulary for critiquing film, and discover how film and culture interact with one another.


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