"KING OF KINGS" 3 1/2 stars (Cecil B. DeMille: 1927; Nicholas Ray: 1961). DeMille's glossy but reverent life of Christ, with H.B. Warner in the title role, was his personal favorite of his movies. But the 1961 remake by Ray ("Rebel Without a Cause") was a sometimes incandescent '60s variant, starring Jeffrey Hunter as Jesus, Robert Ryan as John the Baptist and Rip Torn as Judas. Ridiculed in its day as "I Was a Teenage Jesus," Ray's film now looks more exciting and serious. (on video)
"DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST" 4 stars (Robert Bresson: 1950). Based on Georges Bernanos' novel, and a Grand Prize-winner at Venice, this is one of the cinema's greatest religious dramas. Set in the provincial town of Ambricourt, the film pits a devout but physically frail priest (Claude Laydu) against the village's hypocrisies and secrets. (at DOC Films; also on video)
"THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD" 3 stars (George Stevens: 1965). Somewhat overblown, Stevens' labor-of-love life of Christ has beautiful visuals and an interesting cast: Max Von Sydow as Jesus, Charlton Heston as John the Baptist, Sidney Poitier as Simon of Cyrene and John Wayne as the Roman centurion. The sequence with Claude Rains as Herod was directed, without credit, by David Lean, as a favor to Stevens. (newly released DVD is the full 260-minute version; also on video)
"THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ST. MATTHEW" 4 stars (Pier Paolo Pasolini: 1965). One of the most unique and creative of all films on the life of Christ, a wonderful antidote to the grandiose absurdities of most Hollywood epics. Based with rigorous fidelity on the Book of Matthew, the film is shot Italian neo-realist style with a soundtrack that includes the Congolese mass, the Missa Luba. (video)
"THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST" 4 stars (Martin Scorsese: 1988). Unjustly damned by some religious pressure groups (most of whom never saw the film), Scorsese's controversial, passionate and reverent film is a modern religious epic, based on Nikos Kazantzakis' poetic retelling of the life, death and resurrection of Christ. With Willem Dafoe in the title role, Barbara Hershey as Mary Magdalene and Harvey Keitel as a wiseguy Judas. (DVD/video)
Michael Wilmington is the Tribune movie critic.
Originally published on April 13, 2001.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times