Every year, I go through a list of films and miniseries about the life of Christ that I want to watch, or avoid, to prepare for Holy Week and Easter. There are many options.
After all, cinematic depictions of the life of Christ are as old as film itself. Some of the earliest were the silent films Jesus Christ (1905) and From the Manger to the Cross (1912). Later, big technicolor spectacles like King of Kings (1961) and The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) were one expression of the life of Christ, with Pasolini’s stark, Marxism-infused The Gospel According to Matthew (1964) representing another. A few years later, hippie Jesus stories became the norm, with Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell—both from 1973, and both lacking Jesus’s bodily Resurrection at the end—as the best-known examples. In subsequent years, Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) captured the conspiratorial spirit of post-orthodoxy, while Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004) pushed back hard in the opposite direction, striving for a total authenticity designed to cut viewers to the heart with the Gospel.
And then there is television, with the very best depiction of the life of Christ remaining Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth (1977), which I have watched every year during Lent since I was a child. Joining this tradition in recent years have been several offerings from producers Roma Downey and Mark Burnett, including The Bible (2013) for the History Channel, along with the subsequent film Son of God (2014), compiled with footage from the series.
On Easter Sunday in 2015, Downey and Burnett premiered the miniseries A.D. The Bible Continues for NBC, and from this larger work, they have created a new film, Resurrection, just in time for Easter this year. Resurrection will debut on the Discovery+ streaming service on March 27, and it is a worthy addition to the family-friendly stable of biblical movies that Catholics may be looking into for edification during Holy Week and beyond.
Directed by Ciaran Donnelly and written by Simon Block, Resurrection begins in medias res with Peter running away in fear, and then denying Jesus three times. We then move through a loose adaptation of John 18, with Jesus before Caiaphas, played by the recognizable British actor Richard Coyle, followed by Pontius Pilate, played by the veteran actor Vincent Regan. These two performers stand out among a large cast, along with Downton Abbey’s Kevin Doyle as Joseph of Arimathea.
The script progresses from the viewpoint of Christ’s confident accusers to the anxious disciples, and then the script flips. In one scene, Pilate’s wife tells her husband, “Killing him won’t be the end of them,” to which Pilate sneers, “It usually is, my darling.” In another scene, Caiaphas warns Joseph of Arimathea against doing anything to “create the appearance of fulfilling the prophecy of Isiah,” concluding “the Nazarene’s doctrine will decompose with his corpse.” Finally, Pilate is prophetic in his angry retort to Caiaphas, who begs for soldiers to guard the tomb and expose the lie of the Resurrection conspiracy theorists: “You underestimate the might of your Roman overlords.”
The film’s focus on the transformation of the disciples’ fear into faith is very well done, and the cast of the Apostles is quite rightly racially diverse. John, for example, is played by a black man, Babou Ceesay, and Mary Magdalene is played by the Zimbabwean actress, Chipo Chung. When the film later depicts the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, we can really see the amazement of the “devout Jews from every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5), each hearing in his own language.
The empty-tomb scene poses the most important question of all to the audience, as Peter asks John, “Do you dare to believe?” John replies in profound simplicity, “Jesus is risen.” He then tells the rest of the gathering, “We found nothing. And everything.” Juan Pablo di Pace plays Jesus, whose few lines and relatively brief on-screen appearances draw greater attention to what is to come: his return to heaven, and his followers’ mission to the world in the face of the ruling elites’ continued opposition. Caiaphas laments, “Why won’t this business just end? Why couldn’t this Jesus just stay dead?” Pilate hopes brute force may do the trick: “If you cannot control a story, kill it.”
Centuries after Caiaphas and Pilate went to their own tombs, Resurrection stands in a long cinematic tradition that proves that the story of Christ cannot be killed. Unlike typical films about the death and Resurrection of Jesus, this film follows the biblical narrative up through Acts 4, just before the story would transition to Stephen, and then Saul. The Ascension scene is very campy, but the Pentecost scene is very well done, with computer-generated tongues of flame that intensify rather than cheapen what one imagines the event might really have been like. The audience gets just enough of a taste of the apostolic endeavors of Peter and John to think more deeply about how Christ’s abiding presence with his people, along with the fulfillment of his Great Commission, has unfolded ever since.
This year, as every year, Jesus of Nazareth will remain my go-to inspiration as I approach the cross and the empty tomb for another Holy Week and Triduum; but I am glad to have another, easier option in Resurrection. And all Christians have Roma Downey and Mark Burnett to thank for their commitment to refreshing the greatest story ever told for new generations, and new media.