Like the Bible itself, Franco Zeffirelli’s epic, ambitious made-for-television “Jesus of Nazareth” is often experienced in bits and pieces over the years, and is commonly better known in isolated parts than in its lengthy whole.
Viewed as a whole, “Jesus of Nazareth” may or may not be the best life of Jesus film ever made, but it remains in some ways the standard by which other Jesus films are judged. Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew and Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ may be better films, but no other Jesus film offers an interpretation of the gospel story as comprehensive and definitive as “Jesus of Nazareth”.
Its key assets, aside from its leisurely running time, are a scripturally and historically literate script, a reverently non-revisionist distillation of key gospel stories, a distinguished and generally apt ensemble cast, and matter-of-fact realism in depicting the miraculous.
Robert Powell’s portrayal of Jesus is reverent and authoritative, though too ethereal, more successfully evoking Christ’s transcendence than his humanity. Olivia Hussey makes the best screen Mary after The Passion of the Christ’s Maia Morgenstern, and Rod Steiger is my favorite Pontius Pilate, bar none. Other roles, including Michael York as John the Baptist and Christopher Plummer as Herod Antipas, also work well. Star casting can easily work against a biblical film (cf. The Greatest Story Ever Told!), but it’s done well here.
Following a device first seen in the silent Jesus film From the Manger to the Cross, angels and heavenly voices are perceived by the characters but not by the audience, avoiding the pitfalls of attempting directly to depict transcendent reality. This device is most effective in Zeffirelli’s daring, vivid Annunciation scene.
Whenever the film departs from this convention, though, it stumbles: For no good reason, we hear the angel’s voice warn Joseph (after he awakens, oddly) to flee Herod. Later, at Jesus’ baptism, the film errs in the opposite direction: In an effort to avoid depicting a voice from heaven, it is John himself who acclaims Jesus God’s son.
The film’s most troubling feature may be its total exoneration of Judas, who is an innocent dupe rather than a traitor and never even asks for money (the thirty pieces of silver are handed to him as an afterthought, after Jesus is in custody). Even more disappointing, though, is the resurrection appearance, which is rushed and anticlimactic. How can a life of Christ film (as opposed to a Passion film) devote so much time to other parts of the story (an hour to Jesus’ birth, say) and not make a bigger deal out of the Resurrection?
Even so, Zeffirelli’s achievement is unique. Nothing like “Jesus of Nazareth” has been made before or since, and nothing may ever be again.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.