TV film—Not rated. Running time: 6 hours 22 mins.
Our Content ratings (0-10): Violence 5; Language 0; Sex/Nudity 2.
Our star rating (0-5): 5
Controversy arose in 1977 over NBC’s showing of Jesus of Nazareth because it’s maker Franco Zefirelli made an unguarded comment during an interview that he wanted to emphasize the humanity of Jesus in his film. Without seeing the film (is not this always the case?) Bob Jones, the head of a college so conservative that students would be in trouble if caught dancing or holding hands with a member of the opposite sex in public, mounted a campaign to force the network to cancel the mini-series. The major sponsor was so intimidated that it withdrew, but to their credit NBC officials stood by the program. As a result millions of viewers followed the film from night to night, probably more than had watched all of the other Jesus films combined. What they saw was a well-produced and acted drama that drew on all four gospels for its script. Thus we have the Nativity stories, the encounters with John the Baptist and Temptation in the Wilderness, through his public ministry, journey to Jerusalem and selected events of Holy Week and post Easter. I should add that if it favors one gospel in terms of its theology, then it would be John’s.
A director of operas and film (his 1968 film of Romeo and Juliet was a big hit), Zefirelli shows his familiarity with the great masters who painted Christ. The architectural framing of the characters, the careful symmetry in the way he stages his figures—all show the influence of the Renaissance artists. He also was careful to make unmistakable the Jewish origins of Jesus. Even though actor Robert Powell and others are plainly British, their costumes, the scenes set in the synagogues, the dancing at the wedding in Cana, and the Passover meal that became the Last Supper–all are authentically Jewish.
The authorities in Jerusalem are led by the fictional character Zera to plot the death of Jesus, but without the acquiescence of politician Pontius Pilate, their plotting could not have resulted in Jesus’ death.
Actor Robert Powell’s Jesus is a great storyteller, but often seems distant from his companions, as if his mind were set on his Father’s kingdom. However, not so in the episode in which Simon Peter and Matthew the tax collector express their hatred for each other. Peter, upset that Jesus has accepted Matthew’s dinner invitation, refuses to go with his master. However, while Jesus is being welcomed by Matthew and his guests, Peter does go up to the house and watch the proceedings from outside. Jesus, apparently aware of Peter’s presence, tells the story of the Father and his two sons. He tells it so dramatically that Peter realizes he is more the target of the story’s message than any of the guests. He knows that by his past conduct toward Matthew he has been playing the role of the elder brother who will not go into the father’s dinner and join in the welcoming back of his younger brother. He slowly walks in and asks Jesus to forgive him. Matthew comes forward, and he and Peter embrace warmly. We have the conclusion of the Prodigal Sons Story intended by Jesus.
The above is a good example of how director Franco Zefirelli and scriptwriter Anthony Burgess have taken the parable from Luke 15 in which it is Pharisees who are complaining about Jesus dining with “tax collectors and sinner.” They place Peter in the role of the Pharisees and make the parable advance the story of Peter overcoming his hostility and accepting Matthew as a fellow disciple. The filmmakers are doing what Matthew and Luke did when they borrowed most of the contents of Mark’s Gospel, often setting the teachings and miracles in a different setting to make their point.
The cast of the film is truly extraordinary. In addition to Robert Powell as Jesus, there also are: Olivia Hussey, as Christ’s mother Mary, James Earl Jones as Balthazar, Michael York, as John the Baptist, James Farentino, as Simon Peter, Ann Bancroft as Mary Magdalene, Ian McShane, as Judas Iscariot, James Mason, as Joseph of Arimathea, Laurence Olivier, as Nicodemus, Peter Ustinov, as Herod the Great, Anthony Quinn, as Caiaphas, Rod Steiger, as Pontius Pilate, Christopher Plummer as Herod Antipas, Stacey Keach as Barabbas, and Ian Holm as Zera. There are even other major name actors, but the above are enough to show that the filmmakers went to great lengths to secure major talent—and unlike the clunky two films shot in the Sixties, The Greatest Story Ever Told and King of Kings, these were not just to sell tickets to fans of the stars.
Contrary to the fears of conservatives, the depiction of Jesus showed both his divine and human natures. As mentioned above, the filmmakers’ theology is closer to the Gospel of John than to the three synoptic gospels. This Jesus is the Word made flesh, living among his people while healing and telling his challenging stories and teachings. The Resurrection sequence with Christ appearing to Mary Magdalene and the other disciples concludes with the priests visiting the empty tomb. Zera, believing that the disciples have stolen the body, expresses his fear that they will spread Jesus’ fame, “Now it begins.” Indeed it does!
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