Easter pick: Jesus of Nazareth

Note: I watched the version available on Netflix for this analysis. Some purists call this 4 1/2 hour version, cut from the original six, a travesty. And yet, I’ve read other reviews that claim the full version contains mostly extraneous and extra-biblical material (some of it quite boring). I don’t know enough about the original to stake a claim, but the version I am discussing here is the edited one.

At the beginning of Jesus of Nazareth, the question “What is a Messiah?” is posed to King Herod. It’s a question most of us have asked at some point in our lives. The next logical question, when discussing Easter, is “Is Jesus one?” More directly, is he the one? It’s a question and discussion that has been going on in every artistic medium ever since the life and death of Christ. Certainly, film is no different. Few Easters go by without some new twist or interpretation on The Greatest Story Ever Told (itself the title of a film about Jesus). This year’s addition is the televised Killing Jesus.

There are so many films about the life of Christ, many of them quite good, that it would be difficult for any movie fan to pick a definitive favorite. Franco Zeffirelli’s passionate and deeply reverent Jesus of Nazareth, which first aired on television in 1977, is one of the most highly regarded. It’s iconic for several reasons, but how does it hold up to today’s viewing, both as an interpretation of the Gospels and as art?

To call Jesus of Nazareth ambitious would be an understatement. The scale and scope is mighty impressive, as is the caliber of actors Zeffirelli pulled together (more on that later). The film distinguishes itself from the start in Mary’s (Olivia Hussey) conversation with the angel Gabriel. We see her through the eyes of Anna, talking to, it appears, no one in particular. We do not hear anything Gabriel says, only Mary’s response. It’ a remarkably sparse and realistic approach, in a scene which is often telegraphed and comes off more than a bit cheesy in many adaptations.

Following Christ’s birth, the movie, like the Bible itself, quickly skips past Jesus’ childhood and onto his years of ministry. We are treated to one of the better John the Baptist sequences I’ve seen, as the prophet baptizes people from near and far before baptizing Jesus himself. It helps that John is played by the fantastic Michael York, whose piercing green eyes help each word of his ecstatic preaching hit home. But John’s character arc is underused, perhaps a fault of the edited version. We get one scene of his warning to Herod Antipas (Christopher Plummer) and then we hear from another character, almost offhand, that John has been killed. Even if edited, the decision to only leave the great Plummer in one quick scene, and to give John so much screen time before almost dropping him entirely, is a poor one.

Thankfully, the film moves quickly to Christ’s (Robert Powell) miracles and most complaints fall away. The movie highlights a few major miracles, rather than show them all. In part one, we get a harrowing scene of Christ casting out a demon from a boy, as well as the feeding of the 5,000. These scenes rely more on naturalistic acting than flashy special effects, and the results are beyond powerful. The introducing to Christ’s 12 apostles is also done in a very subtle and effective way. All of the actors playing the apostles are great, but in particular, James Farentino as Simon Peter, playing the cynical everyman who refuses to be drawn in by this preacher, yet finds himself following him anyway.

Jesus of Nazareth is a powerfully acted and beautifully shot account of Jesus' life.

Jesus of Nazareth is a powerfully acted and beautifully shot account of Jesus’ life.

We are also introduced to one of the best performances in the film, the always incredible Anne Bancroft as Mary Magdalene. This is slam-dunk of a casting, like if, say, Julianne Moore played her in a more modern version. Her portrayal of Magdalene’s transformation, from skeptical prostitute to passionate Christ follower, is really something to behold.

Thankfully, part two of Jesus of Nazareth is even better, as all of the character build-up pays off. Here we see Christ’s demanding ministry grow, even as he struggles with the task he must ultimately accomplish. I love how Zeffirelli managed to convey how radical and dangerous Christ’s words were, and how they remain so today. It’s easy to convey Christ’s meekness and humility, but so many adaptations fail to show his ability to speak powerfully to a crowd and even get angry (not to mention royally piss off the Sanhedrin).

This is probably a good time to talk about Robert Powell, who, as Jesus, is too good to even describe. Yes, he is whitewashed, and his brighter hair and piercing blue eyes influenced a generation’s view of Christ’s physicality, for good or ill. But the performance itself…man, it’s good. In the scene where Christ heals a blind man by rubbing mud and spit into his eyes, Powell plays it almost surprised, as if Jesus was a bit taken aback at his own power. I like the idea that Jesus wasn’t always sure his miracles would actually work in a physical sense, but his faith in his Father God was strong enough to get the job done. There’s also the scene where Christ overturns the money changers in the temple, and the righteous anger Powell conveys is almost scary.

It’s nice to see the Sanhedrin portrayed sensitively here. Zeffirelli actually criticized Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ for demonizing the Jews that put Jesus to death, and I can see where he’s coming from. These guys don’t get off the hook at all, but there is much discussion as to whether they could really believe this man Jesus and what to do about him. That is partly thanks to the objections of Nicodeums (Laurence Olivier), who asks the council to consider whether Christ’s words may be true. Even Caiaphas (Anthony Quinn) and Zerah (a fantastic Ian Holm) seem to at least mull on it a little bit before deciding to try and put Christ to death. Judas (Ian McShane) is also not overly vilified, as we get to see the torment of his decision to betray Jesus. His conversations with Zerah are particularly strong.

This all converges on the most powerful scene in the film, the Last Supper. As Christ’s speaks he begins to visibly shake, as the reality of his words to his disciples sinks in. It’s a gripping scene, and there isn’t a hint of comfort in it. Nor should there be; telling someone you have to die is not a pleasant experience, I imagine, let alone telling a roomful of your best friends. If you can only see one Last Supper reenactment, this is the one.

We get some interesting omissions leading to Christ’s torture and eventual crucifixion. The Garden of Gethsemane seems like a bit of a missed opportunity; we miss out on the ear-cutting of the Roman guard, and the whole thing is over rather quickly. The Passion of the Christ’s Gethsemane sequence is much better. Rod Steiger was a great casting choice as Pontius Pilate, a man who sort of sympathizes with Jesus but is too busy to ultimately be bothered with true justice. Steiger gets that balance of annoyance and true attempt at understanding just right. His conversations with Jesus are riveting, but the script doesn’t give a full picture of his character in the way that The Passion did.

Michael York as John the Baptist is one of Jesus of Nazareth's many casting triumphs.

Michael York as John the Baptist is one of Jesus of Nazareth’s many casting triumphs.

Christ’s walk to the cross is, as always, undeniably powerful here, but what surprised me was how sparse it seemed. The walk seemed fairly short, and even when Christ is raised on the cross, he doesn’t seem to go up very far. It’s a bit off-putting at first, but I think this was closer to the way it actually happened than the overly dramatic, epic portrayals in many other films. One the cross, we don’t get any conversation with the thief, but we do get some powerful acting from Powell, Bancroft and Hussey as that ugly, beautiful moment comes and Christ calls out “It is accomplished!” before giving up his spirit. We don’t see the temple splitting, only a heavy rainfall, as if God himself is weeping.

Jesus’ resurrection and subsequent visit to his disciples is powerful stuff. How could it not be? We see most of it, as the gospel writers did, through the eyes of the women, particularly Mary Magdalene. The scene where she chews out the unbelieving apostles on disbelieving her sighting of the resurrected Christ is amazing.

A good Jesus movie will ultimately leave its audience reflecting on the power and potency of the gospel story and how it relates to their own lives. I think Jesus of Nazareth accomplishes this and then some, despite some flaws. This is a beautifully shot and brilliantly acted masterwork, even if you’re not seeing the full version. If you want a reminder of what the story of Easter is all about, this is as good a movie as any. It’s available now on Netflix instant.