Wednesday 7 December 2016

The best on-screen faces of Jesus

Published 02/04/2010 | 05:00

Robert Powell, Jesus of Nazareth
Robert Powell, Jesus of Nazareth

There's more to playing Jesus than cutting a divine dash in beard and sandals. You have to project heavenly grace, heroic stoicism and limitless patience, even when Judas is selling you out to the Romans or you're humping through Jerusalem on the back of an ass.

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Perhaps that's why on-screen depictions of the Son of God so often ring hollow.

Getting under the skin of the most famous 33-year-old in history requires a special kind of actor, one blessed with a rare blend of steeliness and charisma (plus a dash of the otherworldly).

With Good Friday upon us, here is our countdown of the best movie and TV renderings of the big 'J'.

The best

Robert Powell -- Jesus of Nazareth (1977)

Surely the finest Hollywood Jesus of all -- and certainly the one who has resonated most with audiences.

Though born to a community of Jews in the Middle East, most of us imagine Jesus as looking like a California hippy circa 1965, with long curly hair, a neatly trimmed beard and piercing blue eyes.

Ticking each of those boxes was Robert Powell, star of the 1977 mini-series Jesus of Nazareth.

Indeed, for anyone growing up in the '70s and '80s, Powell essentially WAS Jesus (repeated ad infinitum on RTE, the JoN movie became Easter's answer to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory).

Some movie messiahs come off as pompous and self-righteous, fatally weighed down with a, er, messiah complex.

Powell got the blend of humility and otherworldliness exactly right (director Franco Zeffirelli reportedly told him not to blink, the better to convey an air of eerie holiness).

Ironically, Powell was initially considered for the part of Judas, with Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino lined up to play JC.

The best of the rest.

Claude Heater -- Ben-Hur

(1959)

Although Jesus is on screen for only a few seconds and we see him only from the back, this remains one of the most iconic -- and strangely powerful -- renderings of the messiah on the big screen.

In cinema, as in so much else, less is often more.

Enrique Irazoqui -- The Gospel According to St Matthew

(1964)

Every film buff/snob's favourite Jesus, Irazoqui portrayed Christ as a proto-Che Guevara revolutionary more interested in overturning the social order than changing water to wine.

Director Pier Paolo Pasolini had apparently wanted to cast either Jack Kerouac or Allen Ginsberg. Instead, he opted for an unknown Spanish student.

A triumph of cinema vérité, The Gospel According To St Matthew presented Christ as a secular firebrand and set the spiritualism to one side.

A triumph of Italian neorealism, don't you know.

Max von Sydow -- The Greatest Story Ever Told

(1965)

Remembered today for John Wayne's cameo as a Roman legionnaire straight off the wagon trail (Aw, truly this was the son of God ... ") George Steven's 1965 gospel retelling was firmly in the tradition of the swords and sandals epics of the era, in so far that it was very long and very dull.

By the end, you didn't really care whether or not Jesus came back from the dead -- you just wanted the final credits to roll.

Amid so much virtuous tedium, however, von Sydow delivered one of the more convincing on-screen Christs, imagining the son of God as a modest carpenter with a very important message to share with the world.

Ted Neeley -- Jesus Christ Superstar

(1973)

The karaoke lover's Jesus of choice. Looked at through a filter of 21st century cynicism, Norman Jewison's adaptation of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical feels horribly cheesy.

Nonetheless, it conveyed the feel-good, let's all be nice to one another, essence of the gospels. Furthermore, Neeley must be credited for being able to sing and dance whilst still projecting 'walk on water' gravitas.

Willem Dafoe -- The Last Temptation of Christ

(1988)

While hardline Irish Catholics -- remember those? -- protested at Martin Scorsese's 'heretical' suggestion that perhaps Jesus might have had a sex life, the rest of the world was cracking up at Dafoe's American accent.

Still, The Last Temptation was that rarest of Christ biopics: one that actually posed deep theological questions and asked the viewer to take their brain out of neutral.

As Jesus, Dafoe was the blonde Aryan direct from Granny's mass booklet.

It was probably just as well that, the mid-Atlantic twang aside, he managed to be so convincing -- Harvey Keitel won a Razzie for his portrayal of Judas as a blue-collar New Yorker.

Lothaire Bluteau -- Jesus of Montreal

(1989)

This art-house classic concerns a group of French-Canadian actors putting on a radical re-interpretation of the gospels (getting up the nose of the local church in the process).

Along the way, Bluteau starts to identify more and more with Jesus -- so that in a sense he becomes Christ, albeit in a strictly secular sense.

Jim Caviezel -- The Passion of the Christ

(2004)

Not surprisingly, Bible movies tend to underplay the goriness of the crucifixion.

With the spatter-tastic Braveheart and The Patriot under his belt, Mel Gibson was no stranger to on-screen violence, however, and for his controversial retelling of Jesus' final hours he ratcheted up the 'eeugh' factor to frankly quite silly levels.

His commitment to realism extended to Aramaic dialogue, though it's the scenes in which the unflinching Caviezel has his skin flayed off so that you can see his rib-cage that linger longest.

If the directors of Saw were let loose on the gospels, here's what the results would look like.

Irish Independent

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