British actress Emily Watson shot to fame in her debut film, 'Breaking Waves' in 1996, for which she was nominated for an Oscar. Photograph from IMDB
Culture Movies

Forget ‘Jesus of Nazareth’: An alternative list of Holy Week movies

It may have been my father who first suggested we yank Lenten cinema from the clutches of middling conservatism by replacing those stodgy religious sagas with secular films that tap into the themes of the season more relevantly.
Dodo Dayao | Apr 17 2019

Holy Week used to feed my bomb shelter fetish:  world disappears, time collapses, I seal myself off in desert island isolation, go crazy packrat on consumable culture, magically divining perpetual voltage to power my bunker of choice with—because by consumable culture I mean mostly movies. Holy Week was like a dress rehearsal for this makeshift (post)apocalypse. The ghost town it turns the city into. The noise reduction. The wraparound calm. The hoarding of supplies. And, most of all, the amassing of supplemental entertainment.

Pre-cable, and pre-home video, at least in our lower middle class household, Holy Week was something of a hostage situation. Free TV curated my programming, and between Seven Last Words and American gladiator movies, the pickings were slim.  There were staples, sure. Few hold up. The chariot race in Ben Hur loses its charges after the third time. The Robe and its sequel, Demetrius And The Gladiators, about the magical properties of Jesus Christ’s robe,  tapped into something potentially psychedelic but refused to give over to it. At least The Ten Commandments had all the ridiculous bombast and overheated acting and prog-rock energy you expect from Cecil B. De Mille. Then there were the eternal pair of star-bloated Hollywood Christ biopics, George Stevens’ cloying and reverent The Greatest Story Ever Told and Franco Zeffirelli’s slightly less so Jesus of Nazareth.


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Given how convenience stores stay open and cable beams the secular world into households not to mention wi-fi, it’s difficult to imagine that, until recently, the Old Normal of Lent was this quasi-silence of church bells and devotional chanting hovering over a contained world cut off from the rest of the real one that itself felt like it was in lockdown. With only these bygone films as respite, Holy Week was for me a season tinged with both end-time melancholia and sobering purity. I never did much pausing to reflect, of course—not even back in the day when it was a lot more conducive. But the spiritual devices did hold sway occasionally, partly by dint of my own religious inculcation but mostly smuggled in by the movies I binge-watched, few of which were “religious” in the strict sense but somehow more so than actual religious ones.

It may have been my father who first suggested we yank Lenten cinema from the clutches of middling conservatism by replacing those stodgy religious sagas with secular films that tap into the themes of the season more relevantly. I agree enough to put my father’s controversial suggestion at the tail-end of the list below, an alternative Lenten Viewing list I thoroughly believe in the propriety of. If I had more space and time, I’d have thrown more left-field choices like Ishmael Bernal’s Himala, Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, Andrei Takovsky’s The Sacrifice, Martin Scorsese’s Silence, Carlos Reygadas’ Silent Light, Michael Tolkin’s The Rapture, the Dardenne Brothers’ The Son,  Jean Luc Godard’s Hail Mary and Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant into the mix.  I’d still urge you to look these up. But I’d start with these five, to ease you in.


Pier Paolo Pasolini's Biblical drama follows the life of Jesus Christ (Enrique Irazoqui) as depicted in the Gospel of Matthew from the New Testament. 

The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Pier Paolo Pasolini)

Blighted and hyperreal Christ biopic shot like a documentary with non-actors and shakycam and blues on the soundtrack and zero revisionism—which is to say that it’s closer to the spirit of the source material than any Christ biopic before and after and also the only one to tap into its spiritual charge. Pasolini’s an atheist and this Vatican-ratified masterpiece is kindling to my argument that devout directors are the worst choices to make films about their faith.


"Jesus Christ Superstar" recounts the last days of Jesus Christ (Ted Neeley) from the perspective of Judas Iscariot (Carl Anderson), his betrayer. 

Jesus Christ Superstar (Norman Jewison)

An obvious choice and one that turns out to be not as transgressive as I remember but Andrew Lloyd Webber’s version of “rock music” does sound fresher weirdly enough 50 years later and the Israel locations retain its splendor and veracity.  Double bill this with David Greene’s Godspell, an awful film by any measure but Stephen Schwartz’s version of “pop” can be sprightly and occasionally joyous in a Brill Building sort of way.


As he is put to death on the cross, Jesus is tempted by visions of an ordinary life married to Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey) in The Last Temptation of Christ.

The Last Tempation of Christ (Martin Scorsese)

To say it ages well is to understate its longevity given how being misunderstood may well be its only failing as a movie, the way it has shaped up over the years to be something of a cumulative work that marshals nearly all of Scorsese’s issues as an artist. The intervening years have not diminished any of its emotional gravities: the Lazarus scene, the last thirty minutes, Willem Dafoe’s earthy performance.


Jan Nyman's (Stellan Skarsgard) relationship with wife Bess McNeill (Emily Watson) grows strained when Nyman breaks his neck in a horrific work accident and becomes paralyzed.

Breaking the Waves (Lars Von Trier)

Church-on-Sundays-beach-during-Lent Catholic prudes may balk at the intertwining of spirituality and sexuality. But has there been a more incisive articulation of the spiritual struggle we all undergo than Bess, a woman of faith whose atheist husband asks her to have sex with other men when he becomes unable to? And what better film to watch during Lent than one that unabashedly dramatizes and interrogates the very thing we’re supposed to be reflecting on? Also, its Lars at the height of his powers.


Linda Blair plays the possesed child in The Exorcist

The Exorcist (William Friedkin)

Yes. The Exorcist.  Stay away from the Directors Cut. It is the work of the devil. Go find a copy of the original theatrical cut if you can. Watch it on Good Friday. The power of Christ compels you.