(REVIEW) Jesus: A Deaf Missions Film is a history-making faith-based film about Jesus done entirely in American Sign Language that features one of the largest deaf film casts ever assembled — a movie made only more remarkable by the quality of the work itself.

It seems like everyone is making a Jesus movie these days. The Chosen, the multi-season TV series about the life of Jesus, is in its fourth season. Mel Gibson is still working on his Passion sequel. Martin Scorsese is making a Jesus movie. Terrence Malik is making a Jesus movie. Oscar Isaac is playing Jesus in an upcoming animated movie.

But within that lineup, one of the most interesting and innovative portrayals is a humble film made by a non-profit that depicts Jesus doing his ministry entirely through sign language. It’s something that, as a film critic who has reviewed a lot of faith-based films, definitely piqued my interest.

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Jesus: A Deaf Missions Film is the second feature film by the Deaf Missions, a Christian ministry founded in 1970 that seeks to spread the gospel. The film follows the story of Jesus as laid out in the Bible.

Joseph Josselyn, a producer at Deaf Missions and director of Jesus: A Deaf Missions Film, said making the movie was a passion project for him since he was a child.

“This Jesus movie being in American sign language was something that I wished my entire life for,” he said. “We knew that Jesus of Nazareth was an old film from the ‘70s or ‘80s, sometime back there that I remember watching, and it had captions in English. And so I was having to go back and forth all the time to catch what they were saying because I was deaf, so I could watch the action, but then I had to miss some of it to watch the words and read it. So I remember thinking, ‘Wow, if this was a sign, it'd be a lot easier.’ So, I always had that in my head as a kid, and growing up.”

This dream had the chance for a reality when Josselyn became a filmmaker and joined Deaf Missions.

“We started having some conversations about making a Jesus film,” he said. “And at that time, it was probably several 15 years ago, maybe, we weren't ready. Just the technology wasn't there, I don't think people were there, the resources, the knowledge, the know-how, the budget, all of those things just weren't really accessible.”

Josselyn said he was very clear what it was about Jesus he most wanted to communicate to audiences.

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“The most important was to demonstrate his love for people, his love that he died on the cross to forgive us of our sins, and to promise us eternal life, that his love and forgiveness and the gift that he gives us, that was the most important thing,” he said.

This film, like The Chosen series, largely focuses on Jesus performing miracles and helping people, and how the people who meet him respond to him in both good and bad ways. More than The Chosen, however, it does keep a lot more of the evangelistic aspects of Jesus in a more focused way, culminating with Him dying on the cross for our sins.

What’s truly wonderful about Jesus: A Deaf Missions Film is how often it works as a movie rather than just a mission. You feel intimate with the people in the story and the emotions even as the movie moves along at a pretty fast pace. The movie focuses on the characters' faces and feelings, making it surprisingly one of the most involved I’ve felt in a Jesus film outside of “The Passion of the Christ” or The Chosen, particularly in the movie’s first half.

Faith-based industry films have a long history of wanting to use the big screen in order to advance the gospel message. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Organization produced countless film materials to advance Jesus’ message. But far too often, the message trumps the actual quality of the production. There’s a clear love for faith, but not for film. Or movies that have a love for film water down the message of faith. This film clearly has a love for both.

Josselyn, who is deaf, said he grew up loving films and Jesus.

“I knew that I wanted to make movies as a kid,” he said. “I grew up loving movies and films. I became deaf at the age of two, and so the access to the world very visually. And when movies would be released at that time, I remember the original Star Wars when they would come out. I was so fascinated and drawn in with how they illustrated and made all of that behind-the-scenes work that was done to make the film and that process. I remember being a kid and already loving that just always being a part of me.”

Likewise, the deaf element of this film is not just a ministry gimmick but a different angle to artistically express a rarely portrayed side of the human experience. The movie uses the ASL language not simply as a way to communicate to deaf audiences, but to artistically express deaf experiences.

“Sign language is a beautiful language. And signing, we have to see that it is equivalent to spoken language, even though it's completely different in its structure, in the way that it's visually represented,” Josselyn said, “it's nonlinear. And so, one of the questions we had to ask was, ‘How would Jesus sign while he was on the cross?’ We have the account of Jesus and him speaking on the cross, and when your hands are physically nailed down, you couldn't do that. And that was a big part of our vision was how to do that.

“And we've seen people that really cried in the way that it was portrayed. It's an incredibly touching moment, and for people to see that, specifically him on the cross and for deaf people to know how that would feel to be restricted from that communication, it was a great team to be able to work through some of those challenges and to take those opportunities.”

Music was another element Josselyn took seriously.

“There are deaf people who do like music and can feel the beat and the bass or access at different ways, but we aren't going to depend on it like hearing people do,” he said. “And that's a very large part of hearing media and film. So, there were a lot of things we wanted to consider bringing in, for example, some deaf musicians and hearing musicians as well, to be part of this experience to make it really show the partnership with how to reach deaf people in their visual space and in their heart language and still make it successful.”

The film also has an entirely deaf cast — something Josselyn said they “were very intentional about.”

“Whether you're born in a deaf family or whether you learn sign language in school, in deaf social environments like that, whether you were mainstreamed and you were the only deaf person and learned to sign later, it's something about our heart that comes across in sign language,” he added. “And the challenge is it's hard to find that many actors because this film is the largest cast and production of deaf people that we know of, over 25 deaf cast members. We had the disciples, we had the Pharisees and all of the religious leaders, and all of the different people involved and all the analog, the auxiliary characters as well.”

This project also highlights another issue that Christian critics like me think a lot about: Inclusion. How does one do this well with movies and TV such that it isn’t forced or disrespectful? Churches think about this question, too.

Josselyn said at least one part of an answer to this is that inclusion must be a partnership done with, not something done for, those we are trying to include.

“I think it's really important for churches to understand that deaf people are the best people to reach deaf people because we understand each other's experiences, each other's culture, and then of course, the language. Now, it's kind of the idea of not being decided for,” Josselyn said. “We want hearing people to come alongside and support deaf ministries and deaf missionaries and deaf-led organizations that are reaching their community. We want hearing people and we need that partnership, but we need it partnered in how we are going to reach the community and not being done for us.”

The film is not perfect. The second half drags and the film is inconsistent in whether it feels like a high-quality movie with deaf actors or an amateur filmed production by your local church. While the first half of the film seems to have a narrative focus, the second part often feels content to just recount various events of the gospels without its own spin. Part of it often looks like shot-for-shot recreations of Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ. In addition, the camerawork is consistent and sometimes you can’t tell whether the actors are church volunteers. This is understandable, given the difficulty in finding deaf actors in general. However, it would be a lie to pretend that it’s not noticeable.

Despite such flaws, the incredible achievement of the film’s existence, coupled with the quality it was able to master, makes it impossible not to be impressed by it. “Jesus: A Deaf Missions Film” deserves to be seen by anyone who cares about deaf cinema and the spread of the gospel.

Jesus: A Deaf Missions Film is now in theatres.

Joseph Holmes is an award-nominated filmmaker and culture critic living in New York City. He is co-host of the podcast “The Overthinkers” and its companion website theoverthinkersjournal.world, where he discusses art, culture and faith with his fellow overthinkers. His other work and contact info can be found at his website josephholmesstudios.com.