Best Easter Movies

FOUR FOR EASTER

Four Movies to Help Celebrate the Season

Usually, when people think of Easter films, they think of Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments. I reviewed Ben-Hur last Spring - both the book and the two main movie versions - and I'd like to save The Ten Commandments for another day. The film that I believe best represents Easter, after Ben-Hur, is Jesus Of Nazareth. It is a masterpiece of filmmaking and the best movie ever made on the life of Christ. I reviewed the first half of it two years ago, and would like to hit the second half this time.

Another great film that shows God's grace and love is Babette's Feast, which is concerned with Easter and Passover allegorically - but what an allegory, and what a feast! On a lighter note, Miss Potter is a wonderful family film that involves Peter Rabbit and other creatures that are the friends of remarkable children's author and illustrator, Beatrix Potter. And finally, Frank Capra's Meet John Doe is the story of a modern-day Christ figure caught up in graft, and is incredibly relevant and very compelling.

Jesus Of Nazareth (1977)
Robert Powell as Jesus of Nazareth
Robert Powell as Jesus of Nazareth
Ernest Borgnine as the Centurion
Ernest Borgnine as the Centurion
Sir Laurence Olivier as Nicodemus
Sir Laurence Olivier as Nicodemus
Ian McShane as Judas Iscariot
Ian McShane as Judas Iscariot
Robert Powell as Jesus of Nazareth
Robert Powell as Jesus of Nazareth

Franco Zeffirelli is the consumate filmmaker and literary storyteller, and Jesus Of Nazareth (1977) is his masterpiece. Whereas most life-of-Christ films depict either a religious icon or simply a very good man, Zeffirelli's work shows the full-blown Son of God. And, whereas most others of this genre show simplified, westernized versions of the architecture, costumes and customs of the time, Zeffirelli is a stickler for authenticity and recreates breathtaking, artistic images of the Land of the Bible. And, whereas most others give a rather lame, Hollywood version of the events in Christ's life, Zeffirelli weaves a dramatic tapestry whose plot is bedrock solid and whose characters are brought to life by some of the finest actors who have ever lived.

Robert Powell is perhaps the best Jesus Christ ever, though not perfect by any means; Anne Bancroft is compelling as Mary Magdalene; Ernest Borgnine runs circles around John Wayne as the Centurion (though, of course, he had a much, much larger role); James Mason is excellent as Joseph of Arimathea; and Sir Laurence Olivier is outstanding as Nicodemus. Three characters rise to the top: Ian McShane's Judas Iscariot, Stacy Keach's Barabbas, and Ian Holm's Zerah, the scribe who orchestrates the arrest, trial and crucifixion of Jesus. How writers Anthony Burgess, Suso Cecchi d'Amico and Franco Zeffirelli wove the politics and intrigue of the day into the plot is masterful. Because of the influence of the Zelots, you can see how Judas could have become deluded into thinking he could force Jesus' hand, and how Barabbas could be looked upon as a national hero, worthy of being released instead of Jesus.

The scourging and crucifixion are heart-wrenching, but by no means as violent as The Passion Of The Christ, and in far better taste. I would like to see a version that is somewhere between these two films. Or, perhaps the answer would be to watch them back-to-back. My favorite scene is when the thief on the cross asks Jesus to remember him when he comes into His kingdom. That is I hanging there, guilty as charged. But God's mercy and grace show through when Jesus answers, "I tell you, this day you will be with me in Paradise." What a day that must have been! An extremely powerful moment is when the camera is centered on Jesus and zooms slowly in to a medium close-up, as He, looking into the camera, utters the words, "It is complete."

Originally made for television and meant to be viewed in parts, Jesus Of Nazareth is 382 minutes (6.5 hours) long, so you will probably not want to watch it in one sitting. You might consider watching one hour per night with your family during Holy Week, and then discussing it, saving the last hour-and-a-half for the Saturday before Easter. Mel Gibson's Passion may be realistic, but to me this is far more meaningful as Zeffirelli piles image upon image and wraps it all in scripture. If you've never seen this outstanding film, you will never forget it. Not rated. 5-star Masterpiece.

Babette's Feast (1987)
Babette's Feast
Babette
Stephane Audran as Babette

Babette's Feast is by Danish director Gabriel Axel, and tells the story of a French woman named Babette (played by Stephane Audran) who shows up one night on the doorstep of two spinster sisters living in far away Jutland toward the end of the 19th century. Since the passing of their revered pastor father, it is all the two women can do to keep his bickering flock together. They agree to take in Babette and make her their housekeeper, and for twenty years she serves them faithfully. Then one day she surprises the sisters by announcing that she has won the French national lottery: 10,000 francs. To show her gratitude to them, and to celebrate the upcoming anniversary of their father's passing, Babette asks to be allowed to prepare a real French meal for the sisters and their guests. They agree, and she sends away to France for the ingredients.

When Babette's nephew returns with all the preparations for the meal, the plain people of the town, who have never seen such things as sea turtles and quails, suspect that she's a witch, and decide they will make no comments about the food during the meal, lest they enjoy it and become bewitched. The night of the feast is spectacular. Never have any of them tasted such divinity. One of the guests, a General who once courted one of the sisters and is still in love with her, comments about how the food tastes just like the delicacies he once enjoyed at a very famous Parisian restaurant which boasted a lady chef. Miraculously, Babette's feast heals all wounds among the pastor's congregation, and confirms the love the General has always harbored for the sister, and she for him. A very beautiful scene is the congregation outside after the feast with hands joined in a circle, singing under the stars.

Afterwards, the two sisters comment that they suppose Babette will now return to France. "I have no one there anymore," she tells them. "Besides, I have no money to return." "But the 10,000 francs you won!" they contend. Then Babette confesses that she was the famous female chef to which the General eluded, and that a meal at her restaurant for that number of people would have cost exactly 10,000 francs. This is a wonderful, beautiful film that is an allegory of the Lord's Supper, and an example of God's grace and love. If you like food, you will love every delicious detail of the feast. The film is subtitled for English, but also includes a dubbed version which I would not recommend because I think the film loses much through it. Endure the subtitles - it will be worth it. Babette's Feast, which is based on a novel by Karen Blixen, won a well-deserved Oscar for Best Foreign Film, plus ten other awards. Rated G. 5 Stars

Miss Potter (2006)
Renee Zellweger as Beatrix Potter
Renee Zellweger as Beatrix Potter
Ewan McGregor as Norman Warne, Miss Potter's publisher
Ewan McGregor as Norman Warne, Miss Potter's publisher
The Lake District, where Beatrix spent her later years
The Lake District, where Beatrix spent her later years

Miss Potter is a delightful film about children's author and illustrator Beatrix Potter, played by Renee Zellweger. Beatrix decides she will not marry, and instead will pursue a career as an author and illustrator of children's books - a very bold and unusual thing in Victorian England in the late 1800's. She receives scant encouragement in her pursuit until the Warne brothers agree to publish her first book, The Tale Of Peter Rabbit, and assign it to their youngest brother, Norman, in the hope he will fail and thereby give up the idea of joining them in the family business. Played by Ewan McGregor (Star Wars, Moulin Rouge, Down With Love, Big Fish), Norman becomes enchanted with Miss Potter and her book, as does his sister, Millie, played by Emily Watson (Gosford Park, The Waterhorse). The three become great friends, and eventually Norman and Beatrix fall in love.

Meanwhile, Miss Potter's books are selling like hot cakes, and she eventually finds herself a very wealthy woman - much to the surprise of her mother, who has never understood her - and can now make her own way in the world - again, highly unusual for the time. She begins buying up estates in the Lake District of England, at first to settle there, but later to preserve the area as a farming district. Eventually, she donates 4,000 acres of the most prime real estate to the British people as a national trust. This is one of the most gorgeous films you will ever see, and a wonderful story about a wonderful lady. It is full of imagination, cleverness and childhood magic. Director Chris Noonan, writer Richard Maltby, Jr., and the entire production crew should be commended for creating a cinematic gem. Rated PG. 5 Stars

Meet John Doe (1941)
Barbara Stanwyk as Ann Mitchell, with Gary Cooper as alias John Doe
Barbara Stanwyk as Ann Mitchell, with Gary Cooper as alias John Doe
Barbara Stanwyk as Ann Mitchell, with Gary Cooper as alias John Doe
Walter Brennan as The Colonel, with Gary Cooper as Long John Willoughby
Barbara Stanwyk as Ann Mitchell, with Gary Cooper as alias John Doe
Stanwyk and Cooper in the fantastic final scene

Meet John Doe, Frank Capra's eulogy to Everyman, is full of corn and relevance for today. Set during the Great Depression, it is the story of a newspaper gag that turns out not to be a gag. A failing newspaper tries to boost circulation by publicizing they have received a letter from a John Doe claiming that on Christmas Eve, he will jump off the top of City Hall in protest to the injustices of society. When the editor is accused of a publicity stunt, he hires down-and-outter Long John Willoughby (Gary Cooper) to play John Doe, and star columnist Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) to coach him and write his speeches. Everything is going along smoothly, and John Doe Clubs founded on the principle of "Love thy neighbor" are springing up everywhere, until the owner of the paper and political aspirant, D. B. Norton (Edward Arnold), decides to use the clubs to put himself in the White House.

Long John's sidekick, The Colonel (Walter Brennan), told him something like this would happen. It's all because of the "he-lots," or people with bank accounts. It's the open road for him, and he wants Long John to give up all these aspirations of fortune and return to the simple life of a hobo. But Long John has fallen in love with Ann. It's not until the evidence of Norton's plan, and Ann's involvement, are laid out before him that Long John wakes up. He decides to expose Norton at a big rally being held that night. But Norton is one step ahead of him and exposes John Doe as a fraud first. The John Doe Clubs fall apart after that, and Long John is back on the road, disgraced and humiliated. But he cannot rest until he carries through on what he said he would do: jump off City Hall on Christmas Eve. The final scene, where we find out if he's going to jump or not, is fantastic. Also impressive is the rally, which takes place in the rain. What that must have cost to shoot!

John Doe is a clear allegory for Christ. When John Doe is exposed, one of the characters states, "Well, boys, you can chalk up another one to the Pontius Pilates." And when she tries to save Long John from his fate, Ann talks about "the first John Doe" - meaning Christ. It is a beautiful allegory, and a plea to society to "love thy neighbor" by looking out for the other guy. It is also a condemnation of big government and big business and the "machines" they run, whose only desire is to have more power in order to control more people - something that should speak loudly to our present threat. Yes, only a John Doe by the name of Jesus of Nazareth can solve our problems, which He did when He died on the cross and rose from the dead. Now He has preparing a feast for us that is better than anything the world can offer; and He has made a way for us that is difficult yet wonderful, and ends together with Him in Paradise. We only have to follow in His footsteps. Happy Easter!

Waitsel


Waitsel Smith, March 31, 2009

Text © 2009 Waitsel Smith. Photos © the respective movie studios. All Rights Reserved.

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