Jesus of Nazareth
out of ****
for one moment, the boldness that Franco Zeffirelli had to have
in order to make a film of this magnitude. Imagine the painstaking
research that must have gone into the script, the hours and hours
that it must have taken the actors to learn their lines, the work
that must have gone into the set design and costumes. Zeffirelli
went out to make the most comprehensive, detailed film version
of the life and ministry of Christ, pulling stories out of every
gospel and fitting them into a coherent, chronological order in
a movie that runs over six hours in length. He more or less succeeds
in his task: With a cast of thousands, cameos by some of the biggest
actors of all time, and most of the dialogue lifted straight out
of the gospels, Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nathareth manages
to be both a story of epic proportions and a thoughtful, personal
examination of the people who Jesus touched with his ministry.
The only place where the movie fails is in the person of Jesus
himself. Zeffirelli is never able to break away from the traditional
Christ of European art--the blond haired, blue-eyed Savior with
either too little depth or so much that it makes him untouchable.
Zeffirelli is so focused with getting the details right, he forgets
to connect us to Christ!
this major flaw, Jesus of Nazareth is a labor of love
for Zeffirelli, and I cannot help but recommend it. Christ's representation
aside, how the director managed to assemble this all-star cast
without their faces growing distracting is a miracle unto itself.
Greatest Story Ever Told, where, when we recognized one
of the famous guest stars, we were yanked out of the film and
sometimes reduced to laughter ("Truly this man....was the
son...of Gawd," John Wayne remarks, playing a centurion watching
the crucifixion). This is because in that film, the actors were
more or less playing themselves dressed up in period costumes.
In Jesus of Nazareth, they are able to slip into their
roles, and Zeffirelli casts the stars carefully to make sure that
they fit into their parts. While some are distracting (Anthony
Quinn and Ciaphas, James Earl Jones as one of the wise men), most--such
as Christopher Plummer as King Herod, Laurence Olivier as Nicodemus,
and Olivia Hussey as Virgin Mary--offer compelling interpretations
of famous Biblical faces.
film is long--it was originally aired in three parts on television--but
it certainly never drags. Zeffirelli gives an hour to the details
surrounding Christ's birth, and it is even longer before we see
him as an adult (where he is played by Robert Powell), and even
then, countless scenes are devoted to other characters and their
many subplots. Through these characters, Jesus is clearly represented
as a threat to the established Jewish religion and the Roman Empire,
who fear another insurrection from a self-proclaimed king. Zeffirelli
does not misuse a single moment, and every bit of screen time
is brought back to the ministry and miracles of Christ, and his
inevitable trial, death, and resurrection.
that note, many of these miracles are some of the best ever put
to screen: Jesus' raising of Lazarus is the stuff that cinema
was made for, as Christ raises one hand into the air and points
the other to the ground, as he commands with complete authority
over the earth, "Come forth." Power from heaven seems
to shoot into his raised hand and into Lazarus' grave, and even
though those of us who are familiar with the story know what will
happen, we still find ourselves waiting with baited breath.
also admired Zeffirelli's attention to the physical details of
the small towns in Israel where Jesus developed his ministry.
For the most part, Zeffirelli spares us of any complicated camera
tricks, and he simply follows Jesus as he moves from location
to location, performing miracles and preaching his sermons. Much
research was done to make the costumes and the sets as realistic
as possible, and frankly, I am sold. These people are not the
pretty faces of old Hollywood epics (again, see The Greatest
Story Ever Told). They are stinky, dirty, not manicured,
and often pretty rotten sinners. As Jesus walks towards a house
of drunkards in order to recruit some followers, his disciples
try to convince him that the place is full of people that no prophet
should be caught dead with. Jesus informs them that it is the
sick that need a doctor, not the healthy. Point taken, but Zeffirelli
makes clear why the disciples are cautious.
most of the dialogue is lifted straight out of the Bible, Zeffirelli
has to add a few modifications here and there to close in the
gaps of story and character details left out of the gospel. Thus,
Judas Iscariot (Ian McShane) is given a very clear motive as to
why he betrays Jesus, and extra scenes are added that speculate
how some of the other apostles met Jesus. Matthew (Keith Washington)
and Simon Peter (James Farentino) have a particularly interesting
relationship in the film, and though Peter was certainly headstrong
in the Bible, his characteristics are greatly exaggerated here
to create a rounder character. In one of the film's best scenes,
Jesus uses the parable of the prodigal son to ask a reluctant
Peter to become his follower, and Peter's reaction is one of shock
and guilt. "I'm just a stupid fisherman," Peter pleads,
not understanding why Christ would choose him. Jesus only looks
at him and smiles, as if he can see all of Peter's faults and
simply looks past them and into the good in the crusty old fisherman's
that brings us to the biggest problem in Jesus of Nazareth.
Zeffirelli does not attempt to glimpse into the person or the
humanity of Jesus. The director seems comfortable presenting the
iconic figure of traditional Christian depictions, and all that's
lacking is the halo. Actor Robert Powell is effective when he
is allowed to present the humanity in Christ, but for the most
part, he remains the only cast member who seems to be giving a
performance instead of seamlessly transitioning into his character.
Jesus' sermons seem scripted and rehearsed, and Powell treats
them more like Shakespeare soliloquies than heartfelt messages
of hope to a humanity that he loves dearly. For the most part,
Jesus watches from a distance and never attempts to relate to
his followers. Thus, Powell interprets Jesus as a man isolated
from the rest of the world, instead of a man who dives heart-first
into his mission to save the soul of man. I'm not saying that
Zeffirelli should have strayed from the Gospels' depiction of
Christ by presenting a more human side, but the Jesus in the Bible
demonstrates wit, compassion, and confirmations of his identity.
Powell's Christ lacks these qualities, and he plays his performance
too safe by creating a Jesus too impersonal.
to say that there aren't moments when Powell doesn't shine as
Christ: In the Garden of Gethsemane, Christ weeps like a child
to his Father, and the acting is stirring. The crucifixion is
also poignant, and Powell finally allows the love and passion
that Jesus has for humanity to shine through. Had Powell connected
to the audience throughout the entire film the way that he does
in these isolated moments, Jesus of Nazareth would have
been the great film about the life of Christ. As it stands, it
is simply a very good one, and even though Zeffirelli botches
with Christ, every other aspect of the film soars, and there is
indeed much material here to notice soar.
here to to learn about the many cinematic faces of Christ.
Robert Powell: Jesus
Olivia Hussey: Mary, Mother of Christ
Peter Ustinov: King Herod
Iam Holm: Zerah
Christopher Plummer: Herod Antipus
James Mason: Joseph of Arimathea
Laurence Olivier: Nicodemus
Michael York: John the Baptist
A film by NBC Broadcasting.
Directed by Franco Zeffirelli. Written by Zeffirelli, Anthony
Burgess, and Suso Cecchi d'Amico. No M.P.A.A. rating (fine for
older children/adults). Running time: 371 minutes. Original United
States release date: April 3, 1977.