Biblical films span a century of Italian cinema

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Giulio Antamoro’s 1916 “Christus”

The Lenten season is the perfect time to catch up on biblical epics and we have a comprehensive list to help get you started.

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1964 “Il Vangolo Secondo Matteo” (The Gospel According to St. Matthew) is considered by the Vatican to be among the best film adaptations of the Gospels. Pasolini shot the film in the regions of Basilicata and Calabria, casting his mother as Mary and many locals as extras. Spanish actor Enrique Irazoqui was cast in the role of Jesus. He was just 18-years-old when he landed the part. He had been in Rome at the time of casting. Acquaintances arranged a meeting between him and Pasolini. When Pasolini saw Irazoqui, he knew right away that he had found his Jesus.

Pier Paolo Pasolini on the set of “Il Vangolo Secondo Matteo”

I contacted Irazoqui around this time last year to ask him about his experience making the film. He suggested that we have a conversation via Skype. Although the connection wasn’t very good, it was thrilling to talk directly with this actor whose film I had been watching for at least 20 years. He was very friendly and nostalgic in his recollections especially about Elsa Morante with whom he shared a lifelong friendship. In fact, he said that meeting her was one of his best memories of working on the film. Irazoqui passed away a few months later and I believe that ours was his last interview. I will cherish it. To view, click here.

Liliana Cavani’s “Francesco” is another very good biblical film. Starring Mickey Rourke and Helena Bonham Carter, Cavani’s 1989 film tells the story of St. Francis of Assisi from the point-of-view of his followers. Tapping into her early years at RAI, the film takes a documentary approach as it reveals key aspects of the saint’s personality, including his humility, generosity, love of animals and his early inner conflict about abandoning his father’s wealth to immerse himself in the world of the desperately poor. To view, click here.

The following version of Giulio Antamoro’s 1916 “Christus” is a spectacular restoration. The film follows the life of Jesus Christ from the Annunciation of Our Lady to his birth and through his early life and betrayal by Judas, concluding with the crucifixion and his resurrection and ascension to Heaven. To view, click here.

Franco Zeffirelli’s 1977 British television series “Jesus of Nazareth” features an all-star cast that includes Anne Bancroft, Ernest Borgnine, Claudia Cardinale, Valentina Cortese, Laurence Olivier, Christopher Plummer and Anthony Quinn. “Extra-Biblical traditions were used in the writing of the screenplay, and some characters (such as Zerah) and situations were invented for the film for brevity or dramatic purposes. [The film] depicts Judas Iscariot as a well-intentioned man initially, but later as a dupe of Zerah’s who betrays Jesus largely as a result of Zerah’s false platitudes and pretexts. However, in accordance with the Gospels, the film depicts Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea as sympathetic members of the Sanhedrin. Many of the miracles of Jesus, such as the changing of water into wine at the wedding at Cana, the transfiguration, and the calming of the storm, are not depicted.”  To view, click here.

Franco Zeffirelli on the set of “Jesus of Nazareth”

Carlo Carlei’s 2000 “Padre Pio Miracle Man” was originally made for Italian television. The film follows the boy, Francesco Forgione before he joined the Capuchin order of friars and was given the name Pio. The film documents Padre Pio’s deep faith and spirituality as well as the persecution that he received by those in and outside of the Catholic Church.  It also gives us rare insight to Padre Pio’s sharp sense of humor amid the pain that he endured during his lifetime, in particular with the stigmata he is known for. Sergio Castellitto eerily transforms himself into the man and the saint, making this an emotionally moving dramatic film that will entertain and educate you at the same time. To view, click here.

Mel Gibson’s 2004 controversial “The Passion of the Christ” was shot at Rome’s Cinecittà and on location in Basilicata’s Sassi of Matera. Starring Jim Caviezel as Jesus, Maia Morgenstern as the Virgin Mary, and Monica Bellucci as Mary Magdalene, the film covers the final 12 hours before Christ’s death, which is reflected in the title. The film gives a gruesome and heartbreaking account of the suffering that Jesus was forced to endure at the end of his life. To view, click here.

Giulio Base’s 2006 “L’inchiesta” (The Inquiry) is a remake of Damiano Damiani’s 1986 film of the same name and features a diverse international cast that includes Daniele Liotti, Dolph Lundgren, Mónica Cruz, Hristo Shopov and Ornella Muti. The film follows a fictional Roman tribune sent to Judaea to investigate the possible divinity of the recently crucified Jesus Christ. To view, click here.

Garth Davis’ 2018 “Mary Magdalene” was filmed mostly on location in the Sassi of Matera utilizing many local actors. The film features Rooney Mara in the role of Mary Magdalene and Joaquin Phoenix in the part of Jesus. The real-life couple is said to have fallen in love during the making of the film. To view, click here or click here.

Dave Hansen’s 2016 “Jesus VR – The Story of Christ” was executive produced by Enzo Sisti, a film veteran whose credits include “The English Patient” and Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” “Jesus VR – The Story of Christ” was shot entirely in 360° 4K video on location in Matera. The 90-minute film covers the life and death of Jesus from his baptism to the Last Supper to his crucifixion.

Dave Hansen’s 2016 “Jesus VR – The Story of Christ”

The 80-minute film will be available on iOS, Android and premium VR platforms including Google Cardboard, and Oculus Go. In the meantime, click here to purchase the Jesus VR App, which includes Chapters 3, 8 & 12 along with a pair of VR Glasses.

Buona visione! I wish you a safe and peaceful Lenten season.


About Jeannine Guilyard

Jeannine Guilyard is a longtime correspondent for Fra Noi and the Italian-American community newspaper in Rochester, N.Y. She has also contributed to the Italian Tribune of New Jersey, Italian Tribune of Michigan and L'Italo Americano of Southern California. Jeannine wrote and directed the short film "Gelsomina," which was selected for the Screenings Program of the 59th Venice Film Festival, and she won Emmy and Peabody awards as an editor of ABC's "Special Report" following the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Jeannine is also a writer and editor for Italian Cinema Today, a publication and blog she founded in 2005 to bridge culture between New York and Italy. Follow her on Instagram at Italianartcinema and on Twitter at @ItaloCinema2day.

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