I've come up with a short list of movies whose themes reflect the Easter and Passover seasons. Watching these films can be an entertaining and thought-provoking experience. In alphabetical order, here's my list:
Winner of 11 Academy Awards including Best Picture, this three-and-one-half-hour epic centers around a Jewish nobleman named Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston). Ben-Hur is enslaved by a Roman tribunal, but he eventually gets revenge during a spectacular chariot race in the Roman Circus. Later, Ben-Hur witnesses Jesus' crucifixion and comes to understand the importance of forgiveness. But for me the film's last scene is its most haunting: a shepherd driving his flock in front of a hill, atop which are three empty crosses.
'Easter Parade' (1948)
Irving Berlin wrote the songs for this MGM musical that stars Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, and Ann Miller. Set in 1912 New York, the story is about a song-and-dance man who loses one partner and finds another, but this is unimportant--it's the musical numbers that matter. Among the standouts are "Happy Easter," "I Love a Piano," "Snooky Ookums," "Steppin' Out With My Baby," and, of course, the title song. I particularly like Irving Berlin's lyrics: Popular songs no longer seem to have inspired rhymes like "And you'll find that you're/In the rotogravure."
'Jesus Christ Superstar' (1973)
This movie is an adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's popular stage musical. The tone is sometimes slightly irreverent, as in the hippie-dippie "Everything's Alright," performed by Mary Magdalene, Jesus, the Apostles, and the Apostles' women. There's also a sequence where Judas runs through the desert singing "Damned for All Time" while motorized combat vehicles roll and jets fly overhead. Yet the film achieves a certain poignance in the Last Supper sequence, and Mary Magdalene's song "I Don't Know How to Love Him" is etched in my memory forever.
'Jesus of Montreal' (1989)
In this highly theatrical French-language film set in 1980s Montreal, a motley crew of actors develop an updated version of a large church's annual Passion play. But during a performance of the crucifixion scene, the cross falls on the actor playing Jesus, resulting in brain injuries that prove fatal. However, the dead actor's heart and eyes are transplanted in people desperately in need of these organs. What I like best about this movie is how it portrays a series of contemporary events that parallel those in the traditional story of Jesus in unexpected ways.
'King of Kings' (1961)
Narrated by Orson Wells, this reverential version of the story of Jesus was given the full MGM treatment. The best sequences chronicle the turbulent events that take place when thousands of Jews gather in Jerusalem to celebrate Passover and Barabbas leads an unsuccessful armed rebellion against the occupying Romans. This prompts Judas (Rip Torn) to betray Jesus (Jeffrey Hunter) for political reasons, resulting in Jesus being tried for sedition and executed. One thing I like about this film is its depiction of the politicized atmosphere of Roman-occupied Judea.
'The Last Temptation of Christ' (1988)
Martin Scorsese directed this challenging, controversial movie starring Willem Dafoe as Jesus and Harvey Keitel as Judas. Somber and mystical in tone, the film is based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, and its story differs significantly from the traditional. The title comes from the idea that Jesus was tempted one last time as he hung dying on the cross, and he hallucinated that he could have chosen to live as an ordinary man: marrying, fathering children, growing old. I find this film thought-provoking because it dares to explore the human side of Jesus.
'The Prince of Egypt' (1998)
This is a good-looking animated version of the story of Moses (voice of Val Kilmer) that can be enjoyed by adults and children alike. In the film, Moses is raised as a member of the Egyptian royal family, alongside their biological son Rameses (voice of Ralph Fiennes). But Moses eventually discovers he is a Jew, and the movie shows how he leads the exodus of his enslaved people from Egypt. There are amazing action sequences, including a chariot race and the parting of the Red Sea. Also, the movie features 19 songs, including my favorite, "When You Believe."
'The Ten Commandments' (1956)
Cecil B. DeMille directed this epic version of the story of Moses (Charlton Heston) and how he led the exodus of the Jews from Egypt. Masterfully done sequences include God speaking to Moses from a burning bush, the Nile turning red during a series of plagues, the finger of God writing the Ten Commandments, the worship of the Golden Calf by the Jews, and the parting of the Red Sea. This film brilliantly integrates an important story, a charismatic cast, great sets and costumes, and spectacular special effects, and I think its status as a classic is well-deserved.