The lack of Easter-themed movies at the cinema has been exacerbated by Hollywood’s freeze on big-budget movies in the time of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The central event of the Christian religion has been sidelined since the epics thrived in the 1950s and 1960s. These biblical classics are still available through online rentals from You Tube and other sources.
More recent examples have either been lacking in spectacle or too controversial – Risen (2016), Ben-Hur (2016 version), Son of God (2014), The Passion of the Christ (2004) and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988).
Subscriber-based streaming services offer an alternative, with their expansive libraries and occasional original productions.
I have chosen 10 titles from Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, as these provide the biggest choice in home entertainment for reflection over Easter.
Messiah (2020) is a 10-episode series that falls into its own category. It is not Easter-specific, but places the three great Abrahamic religions in the context of a modern-day events, such as the Israel-Palestine issue, and the possibility of a Second Coming. It treats religious ideas seriously, negotiates the obvious pitfalls with skill, and poses questions of how a Jesus-like figure would be treated today.
Mary Magdalene (2018) is a positive rewriting of Christ’s most devoted female disciple. It has emotional depth, as you would expect from Rooney Mara and Joaquin Phoenix in the lead roles. This is the best movie in ages to depict what life must have been like in the earliest days of the Church.
The Blind Christ/El Christo ciego (2016) is an obscure Chilean story about a spiritually inspired young man from a remote desert town who acts much as Christ did in his missionary work and meets a similar reaction.
Hop (2011) features the voice of Russell Brand as E.B., a bunny who has kept the Easter tradition alive, and James Marsden as his human sidekick. It’s animated for the large part and is a rare holiday entertainment for youngsters at this time the year.
Angels & Demons (2009) is a Dan Brown thriller, included here for its locations in and around the Vatican, shot at a frenetic pace, but giving a taste of Rome’s eternal attractions.
The Life of Brian (1979) upset some as a Monty Python parody, but its comedic appeal is irresistible.
Amazon Prime Video
Jesus: The Desire of Ages (2014) was made by the Seventh Day Adventist churches and reflects a version of the New Testament created by its founder, known as Sister White (Ellen Gould Harmon-White).
Easter in Art (2013) depicts the period from Judas’s betrayal to the crucifixion and Resurrection, as interpreted by Romans of the sixth century, through to contemporary artists.
The Jesus Diaries (2010) presents a Jewish-Israeli perspective of the life of Yeshua, as if told by an unnamed apostle. Filmed in the Holy Land and narrated by Jonathan Settel.
Barabbas (1961) is the odd one out among Hollywood’s biblical epics and is widely considered its best for its realistic portrayals. Anthony Quinn gives a superb performance, while the story puts the crucifixion in a different light.
Michelle Pfeiffer has joined the elite of 60-ish actresses who can carry a whole movie on their own – if given a chance. Here, she moves into Kristin Scott Thomas territory with an arty, talkie story of a widow using the last of her inherited wealth. She moves from New York to Paris, requiring some bilingual ability, if not the exuberance of Emily in Paris. She also takes her emotionally-distant adult son (Lucas Hedges) and a black cat. The cat is critical to the slim plot, as it embodies the spirit of the deceased husband and father. This supernatural element may have been the thread that made Patrick deWitt’s novel intelligible and interesting. But like many literary adaptations, too much is missing (or assumed) from his screenplay. However, Pfeiffer’s performance provides an anchor for the roster of whacky characters who crowd into her Parisian apartment. The period setting is unsettling, as it moves from the transatlantic cruise ship era of the 1950s to modern-day Paris while maintaining anachronisms such as dial-up phones. Director Azazel Jacobs earlier adapted deWitt’s novel Terri (2011), about a bullied teen, and The Lovers (2017, now on Netflix).
Rating: Mature audiences. 113 minutes.
The Pinkies Are Back
Dragon-boat racing has become a sport of choice for corporate team building, and for women who have been treated for breast cancer. It requires the many working as one, and the kind of levelling that allows for wide participation. Documentary producer-director Lisa Purd, looking for an opportunity to display these qualities, chanced on an Auckland group, the Pink Dragons, who had attracted enough newcomers to re-enter competitive racing. Intensive training and boot camps soon boost their paddling skills at various regattas. The motives and benefits are repeatedly emphasised for these ordinary women, although Christian life coach Yvonne Godfrey will be familiar from her books and media appearances. When the action moves to the water, Purd’s team of photographers and a skilled editor produce a superior result to that seen in most televised sport. Initial financial backing came from some 100,000 crowd-funders and sponsorship by insurer Partners Life. They will not be disappointed by the result on a cinema screen.
Rating: Parental guidance. 95 minutes.
The Wolf’s Call (Le chant du loup)
An action-packed 23-minute pre-title sequence demonstrates why submarine-set dramas (Crimson Tide, 1994; The Hunt for Red October, 1994; Das Boot, 1981, 1986/87 and 2918); K-19: The Widowmaker, 2002) are compelling. A French navy sonar expert (François Civil) has such acute hearing that he can detect the propellers of unseen enemy craft. But he is furloughed for a disciplinary offence, and is left behind when the French government orders two nuclear-armed subs on a mission to resolve a world crisis. A previously discontinued Russian sub launches a rocket attack, one of the French subs goes incommunicado to destroy it, forcing the other to recall the sonar expert in an attempt to forestall a further escalation.
Netflix rating: 13+. 114 minutes.