When I decided to write about 9 actors who played religious figures best, I immediately thought of two names, which I’ll share in a minute.
Before I analyze all 9 performances, let me admit to a couple of prejudices. First, I don’t particularly enjoy biblical epics in which actors strut around in period costumes and make dramatic pronouncements like stone statues that have come to life.
The other prejudice is my dislike of some of the newer faith-based, miracle-of-the-week movies. I’m talking about the ones that beat you over the head with their Christian message, have poor production values and need to send their actors to acting school.
Which 9 Actors Did I Choose?
9 Actors Who Played Religious Figures Best
1. Robert Powell, “Jesus of Nazareth” (1977)
“Jesus of Nazareth” starring Robert Powell is a 4-part mini-series from 1977. It begins with Christ’s birth and concludes with his resurrection. The Dove website said it “has become the standard which all other films on the life of Christ must be put up against…. Robert Powell gives what could be the defining performance of his acting career.”
The role of Christ would be quite a challenge for any actor. How do you play God? Powell talked about preparing for the role. “(Director) Franco Zeffirelli and I originally thought that we could combine the divine Christ with the human one and that we would be able to show the human side of him, but we discovered that it was just not possible,” Powell said.
He explained that when he tried to portray Christ as a real person, he lost the essence of Christ’s divinity. I have no idea how anyone would go about finding that essence, but Powell’s performance is as close as I’ve seen.
His Christ feels real in terms of the power and gentleness he projects, and his voice is mesmerizing at times. There was no need for the excessive violence that was present in more recent movies about Christ.
Powell tells us what we need to know.
2. Renee Jeanne Falconetti, “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (1928)
What can I say except that Falconetti’s eyes tell you everything you need to know? The “Passion” was one of the last silent movies made before talkies became the rage, but you don’t need sound for this movie. I’ve never seen anyone who had a more expressive face than this actress did.
Director Carl T. Dryer used her face to excellent advantage in “Passion.” Closeups, which are now a staple of movie productions, were quite new in 1928 – so new, in fact, that he was one of the first directors in history to use them. And use them he did.
“Falconetti’s face, lunar in its radiant complexity, holds multiple truths at once – there’s anguish in her eyes but peace in her soul,” according to “Time” magazine. “Impossible to watch casually.” In fact, it’s heartbreaking and an amazing performance.
That’s why she’s on my list of 9 actors who played religious figures best.
Joan of Arc, who became the patron saint of France, was burned at the stake because she believed she heard the voices of Saint Michael, Saint Catherine and Saint Margaret. They were telling her from an early age to help France’s crown prince defeat the English in the Hundred Year War, which she did.
Unfortunately, she was captured, sold to the English and turned over to a court controlled by English sympathizers. She was put on trial and ultimately executed for insisting the voices she heard were divine.
3. Jimmy Stewart, “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946)
It’s a wonderful story, a wonderful movie and a wonderful performance by Jimmy Stewart. It’s also a corny sentence, but I’m allowed now and then.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” isn’t an overtly religious movie, though it features a guardian angel in a nightgown named Clarence. Clarence is sent to earth to help George Bailey, Stewart’s character, through a life-altering crisis.
George is at the point of suicide and wishes he had never been born when Clarence enters his life. The rather scruffy angel grants his wish.
So, George was never born. Now what? Bedford Falls is much worse for it. Everyone in this new reality has a darker personality, including Mary. In this alternate universe, she’s the epitome of an old maid. I really doubt that the vivacious Mary would have become an old maid without George, but that’s beside the point.
Other characters are either dead, institutionalized or imprisoned because George was never born. Our hero finally decides he’s seen enough, and Clarence restores him to his real life.
I’ve seen several movies based on “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and they don’t measure up to the original because they don’t have Jimmy Stewart and director Frank Capra to give them life. Stewart brightens up the screen whenever he appears.
As I mentioned, “It’s a Wonderful Life” isn’t a traditional religious movie, but there’s a religious study guide associated with the movie, and my Sunday School plans to use it in a special class during the Christmas season. It has scripture references, character studies and related commentary.
4. Ian McKellen, “Lord of the Rings” trilogy (2001)
“Lord of the Rings” is “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work,” according to its author J.R.R. Tolkien. The author’s Middle Earth is a place where good battles evil and characters are transformed.
Ian McKellen plays a powerful wizard named Gandalf the Grey, who is killed and returns after being transformed into Gandalf the White, which is reminiscent of Christ’s resurrection according to some scholars.
McKellen commands your attention when he appears on screen. He gives Gandalf great depth and is equally convincing whether Gandalf is being the fierce wizard-warrior battling Christopher Lee’s evil Saruman or the gentle friend of the Hobbits.
The battle scenes are spectacular, but the moments I most remember are those in which Gandalf has a twinkle in his eyes. McKellen is considered one of the greatest actors in the world, and after seeing the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, I can understand why.
5. Ben Kingsley, “Gandhi” (1982)
There are rarely times in a movie when an actor blurs the line between fact and fiction. I forget I’m watching an actor’s representation of a real person and feel as if I’m seeing the real person. It happened when I saw “Patton” starring George C. Scott and again with Ben Kingsley as Gandhi.
During the course of the movie, Kingsley ages 50 years, going from an ordinary young lawyer to the aging moral leader known around the world. And he’s believable from beginning to end. His performance has a quiet power that’s never overly theatrical. It seems real, and I like it.
“Variety” called the movie “near perfect,” and the “Austin Chronicle” said it “captures the spirit of the man and his struggles.” I think it does.
6 & 7. Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner (tie), “The Ten Commandments” (1956)
“The Ten Commandments” is the epic of all epic movies, with huge sets and equally huge theatrical performances. In other words, it’s everything I said I don’t like in a movie. But I’m making an exception in this case because of Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner.
I don’t particularly like Heston because of his ties to the National Rifle Association, but even I must admit his performance as Moses in “The Ten Commandments” is masterful. And Brynner’s pharaoh is equally commanding. That’s the reason I gave them a tie in my list of 9 actors who played religious figures best.
Heston still comes to mind when I think about Moses, but I especially like Brynner because he gives pharaoh the presence, charisma and power that I imagine the real Rameses must have had.
8. Karen Abercrombie for “War Room” (2015)
“War Room” has been slammed by critics as one-dimensional, which is true, but one actress stands out – Karen Abercrombie as Aunt Clara.
Abercrombie is several decades younger than the 80-something character she plays, but you would never know it. She puts the zip into Aunt Clara’s step, life into her soul and passion into her heart. The movie would have fallen flat without her.
“To be able to dive into a character that is different from you in respect with her age … I had to go deep, get deep, get out of God’s way and allow Him to use me as He wanted to,” Abercrombie told an interviewer. “And it was one of the most amazing experiences I have had in my life, and certainly as an actress.”
Her performance stands out given the fact that her co-stars aren’t seasoned actors. Priscilla Shirer, who plays a woman in a troubled marriage, is the leader of a worldwide Christian ministry, tours the U.S. and abroad as a speaker, and writes. T.C. Stallings, who plays her husband, is an athlete turned actor who has appeared in several television shows and movies and advocates for wholesome entertainment.
Abercrombie and her costars will never win any Oscars for “War Room,” but I’m thankful that someone is making movies that are suitable for the entire family. And she’s certainly the bright spot in “War Room.”
9. Liam Neeson, “Schindler’s List” (1993)
“Schindler’s List” isn’t a religious movie in the traditional sense, but religion was the basis for Hitler’s Holocaust. In the film, Liam Neeson brilliantly plays Oskar Schindler, who was a real person – a wealthy businessman and womanizing Nazi whose initial interest was making money when World War II ignited.
But when he began to see the horrors inflicted on Jews and other “undesirable” people, he used his wealth, contacts and factory jobs to save more than 1,000 Jews from Hitler’s death camps. He wasn’t a religious character in the traditional sense of the word, but he was an important figure in saving lives during the attempted annihilation of an entire religious group.
“Schindler’s List” should rank as one of the greatest movies in film history. There are no words to adequately describe the hell it depicts. Even Spielberg reportedly had difficulty watching some of the scenes.
Neeson is unforgettable as a Nazi going against the Nazi regime and saving lives. He makes the Holocaust real and personal. His Schindler shows us a dandy and sinner who rises to greatness despite himself, and he leaves you emotionally drained in the process.
However, I cannot forget to mention the performances of Ben Kingsley as Schindler’s accountant and chief aide who helps him save lives, and in a chilling performance, Ralph Fiennes as the cold-blooded commandant of the Krakow-Plaszow concentration camp in Poland during World War II.
All three actors should be included in my list of actors who played religious figures best.
If you don’t know much about World War II, you need to see this movie or watch films that Allied armies shot when they liberated the concentration camps. It’s reported that the tougher-than-tough American general George Patton vomited when he inspected one of the camps.
People said “never again” when word of the Holocaust spread at the end of World War II. They aren’t here to ensure that such systemic evil never again becomes the norm, but we are.
One reviewer of “Schindler’s List” said, “I think that everyone should see this film at some time. Then sit down and think about what is being done to people here in our own country.”