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What Makes an ‘Easter Movie’?

One thing they have in common: an inability to do justice to what is actually going on, coupled with flair in the attempt.
April 8, 2023
What Makes an ‘Easter Movie’?
Richard Burton and Jean Simmons in ‘The Robe’ (1953). (20th Century Fox)

Whenever I cannot go home for Easter, Holy Week has a somewhat limp and soggy feel to it. I know this is not right or rational. I know that Christ is risen whether or not I wolf down yellow Peeps in the company of my siblings or eat my aunt Felicia’s mouth-watering lamb.

But still, to miss early morning Tenebrae together, banging pots and pans after certain psalms to represent the earthquake shaking; to miss the smell of chrism at the cathedral downtown and soft pretzels afterwards on Holy Thursday; to miss the building, trembling, expectancy all through the week; to miss visiting the shrouded churches on Good Friday, the last-minute yard cleanup and shopping preparations; to miss the bonfire lit from the Paschal candle on Holy Saturday night—it is a loss.

When you’re away from your people on Christmas, the whole world can become your people: Christmas is in the air, and everyone, religious, secular, mercantile, is celebrating it in their own way. But by whatever perverse quirk of culture, Easter has no such universal tangibility. Cut off from the traditions of your own home, you may find yourself a bit at sea.

But there is one tradition I can always observe this time of year, no matter how far I might be from my home and my family: watching Easter movies.

There is no generally accepted cultural category labeled “Easter movies.” It’s one of the subtler ways that Easter gets short shrift compared to Christmas. People may debate whether a movie becomes a Christmas movie merely by taking place at Yuletide (the Die Hard school), or whether it needs to thematically involve Christmas in some way (the Muppet Christmas Carol school)—but everyone believes there are such things as Christmas movies, and that they are an important element of the profane side of Christmas observance.

But I maintain that there is such a thing, too, as an Easter movie, and that the lack of a broader cultural canon only leaves more room for the pioneers to define the genre.

So which movies are the Easter movies? What makes an Easter movie?

For me, the archetypal Easter movies are a type of spectacular ’50s melodrama, wherein a virile scion of mighty Rome is confronted with the mysterious power a slain Galilean carpenter has over a band of raggle-taggle fanatics. These movies (satirized in the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar! by George Clooney’s seedy centurion) are a subset of the larger sword-and-sandal epic genre that includes such classics as Spartacus and arguably, much later, Gladiator. They tend to include lines like “Ha! Lucius, these superstitious ‘Christians’ are merely dogs, soon brought to heel under the mighty lash of Rome!” or “Oh Marcus, Marcus, can’t you see that it is only love and mercy that can rule the world, not swords and steel? Can’t you let your heart be touched, as He touched mine?” They are shot in vivid color, and inevitably, someone gets martyred. I adore them.

The two I watched growing up, every Holy Week, were Quo Vadis and The Robe. Quo Vadis is the story of a stony-faced, libertine patrician, played by Robert Taylor, pursuing the virtuous, fiery, enslaved Christian, played by Deborah Kerr. They clash and fall in love and are almost gored by bulls under the malevolent eye of a magnificent Peter Ustinov as the persecutory, languishing, fiddle-playing Nero. It is more flamboyant than The Robe, thanks largely to Peter Ustinov’s scenery-chewing decadence.

But The Robe imprinted itself even more deeply on my young psyche. It is the story of two childhood sweethearts, played by Richard Burton (in a role that is surely the model for Clooney’s burlesque) and Jean Simmons, separated by the malevolent Caligula (an evil emperor strikes again!). While posted abroad in Jerusalem, Burton’s Roman tribune attends a provincial crucifixion, and wins, through a game of dice, a certain famous article of clothing. Things then unfold as you might expect—all the way up until the final scene, when, in bridal white, Jean Simmons’s character, having defied Caligula in a last-minute courtroom turn, goes off hand in hand with Burton’s to be martyred together.

These, for me, are the two non-negotiable Easter movies. But I can imagine others. The Prince of Egypt is obviously a Passover movie. It may also be an Easter movie, both by the principle that (for better or worse, depending on whom you ask) Easter builds on Passover, and also on its own merits: It is a high-production-value ancient epic devoted to the glorious, mysterious, unfolding of salvific providence.

There are also the other midcentury sword-and-sandals-and-Galilean-carpenters movies: Ben Hur, Demetrius and the Gladiators, Barrabas. There are the life-of-Christ movies: the beloved ones, like The Greatest Story Ever Told and Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew, or the weirder ones, like Godspell and The Passion of the Christ. (On the Die Hard principle, I suppose you could try to argue that any movie about, say, the 1916 Easter Rising is an Easter movie, but the 1972 Easter Offensive would probably be too much of a stretch.)

So you could make the case for a variety of movies as Easter movies. I would even venture that Hail, Caesar!, is, in its own way, an Easter movie. But to explain why, I will have to try to define, or at least gesture at, what an Easter movie entails—besides being the movie you always watched at Easter.

One thing I love about the overwrought sword-and-sandals subgenre is the coyness that characterizes the verbally described encounter with Christ: He is always “that Galilean” or “that crazy Jewish carpenter”; the plots have the main characters running into him accidentally, in random circumstances they at the time believe to be of no account. The unity of the mundane and trivial with the life-alteringly, earth-shakingly important shows up repeatedly at key moments. During their walk to martyrdom, Jean Simmons and Richard Burton give each other glances that suggest a newlywed couple on their way to shop for a new china cabinet. It was these glances that wormed their way into my skull, as a kid: If things so exciting as martyrdom could elicit china-cabinet glances, then perhaps everyday matters could also be as exciting and as important as martyrdom.

These movies are bombastic, overweening, with the cynical hand of the Hollywood bigwig who believes in nothing, not even his own art, always hovering just behind the curtain. Yet they manage to express real piety, a thrill, albeit a childish thrill, at the adventure of signing your life over to the God who is love.

This disjunction between subject and form, divine and humble, is what makes the quintessential Easter movie: an inability to do justice to what is actually going on, coupled with flair in the attempt. They are different from Christmas movies, where sentimentality and vulgarity can find their proper, jolly place. With Easter, anything we try to say is obviously, painfully, lacking. And yet saying something is what we must do.

Hail, Caesar! understands this bind. From the first moment showing the protagonist in the confessional to George Clooney’s last, maudlin, abortive speech at the foot of the cross, Hail, Caesar! is a movie that understands that just because the expression is artificial and tawdry doesn’t mean that the thing expressed isn’t real. It is, after all, a movie about Hollywood.

Hollywood is where I’ll find myself this Holy Week, in a last-ditch attempt to salvage some structure in the absence of familiar traditions. Nothing we could imagine will ever be proportional to what happened outside Jerusalem some two thousand years ago. But the inadequacy of our attempts comprise their own strange, beautiful, language of love.

Clare Coffey

Clare Coffey is a writer living in Idaho. Twitter: @ClareCoffey.