This week (and weekend), more than 1 billion Christians around the world are preparing to celebrate Easter, many as part of Holy Week and, depending on the particular tradition, the Triduum, which refers to the time between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. It is a time of prayer and repentance, mourning the death of Christ, and rejoicing in His resurrection.
Beyond the Bible, there are many books, movies, and even television programs that can serve as a helpful aid in preparing one’s heart and mind for these holiest of days. My family tradition, inherited from my parents, is perhaps an unusual one: to watch the 1977 film “Jesus of Nazareth.”
It is unfortunate the film is less well-known today, particularly for those whose mental image of Jesus and the Apostles is more likely to come from Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” or more recently the surprise hit series “The Chosen.” Yet it is Italian director Franco Zeffirelli’s masterpiece that will always represent the pinnacle of cinematic depictions of both Christ and the Gospels. Here are just a few reasons to make time for “Jesus of Nazareth” this week.
An Amazing Story and Cast
There’s at least one thing about “Jesus of Nazareth” that sets it apart from all other film presentations of Christ: it was the realized proposal of a pope. Italian Pope Paul VI in 1973 suggested to British media proprietor Lew Grade (a Jew) that he consider a film about the life of Jesus. Grade in turn asked Zeffirelli, perhaps most famous for his 1968 version of “Romeo and Juliet,” to direct it. After some initial hesitation, the Italian Catholic agreed.
Zeffirelli was able to bring along some of the stars from “Romeo and Juliet,” including Olivia Hussey (Mary, mother of Jesus), Michael York (John the Baptist), and Laurence Olivier (Nicodemus). The cast ultimately included many accomplished actors and actresses: Peter Ustinov (Herod the Great), Christopher Plummer (Herod Antipas), Anne Bancroft (Mary Magdalene), James Earl Jones (one of the magi), Anthony Quinn (Caiaphas), James Farentino (Peter), Rod Steiger (Pontius Pilate), Stacy Keach (Barabbas), and James Mason (Joseph of Arimathea) among them.
Perhaps most remarkable of all, the actor chosen to play Jesus, Robert Powell, is one of the least recognizable actors in the entire film. This is itself a great blessing, because watching the film today, the comparative anonymity of Powell makes his portrayal of Jesus all the more interesting and other-worldly. And thank God Zeffirelli rejected early ideas to offer the role to Dustin Hoffman or Al Pacino — even the thought gives me shivers.
Faithfulness and Derivations
Another powerful quality of “Jesus of Nazareth” is how closely it stays to the New Testament narrative, and how earnestly its makers sought to maintain historical accuracy. The producers consulted experts from the Vatican and the Leo Baeck Rabbinical College of London to understand how various religious traditions understood both first-century Judea and the story of Jesus. Indeed, it’s striking how much of the New Testament Zeffirelli was able to incorporate into the plot over the film’s six hours.
That said, there are some contrived scenes, although Zeffirelli’s aim was not for controversy or theological nuance (pace Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ”). Rather, the director and his screenwriters took some liberties for the purposes of brevity and narrative continuity. The results are often surprising but also impressive.
For example, the film presents an ahistorical meeting between Jesus and Barabbas in the temple in Jerusalem during Holy Week, but this is done mainly to introduce the character of Barabbas to the audience, and to contrast his revolutionary, violent zeal with the transcendent, sacrificial message of Christ. Another example is the film’s use of an ahistorical conflict between Peter and Matthew the tax collector to tell the parable of the prodigal son. Generally the movie’s innovations, although unbiblical, in no way undermine orthodox Christian belief, and often help illuminate it in thoughtful and aesthetically pleasing ways.
Otherworldly Cinematography and Music
Given the cast of “Jesus of Nazareth,” it should be no surprise that the acting is superb. But especially haunting and even transcendent is Powell’s portrayal of Jesus, heightened by the fact that his captivating blue eyes rarely blink.
Zeffirelli also showcases the kind of cinematographic talent he employed in “Romeo and Juliet,” focusing on people’s faces and reactions in order to draw us into the story and the verbal exchanges. The movie is comfortable with dramatic pauses that give the viewer time to process and reflect. It is also a spectacular demonstration of the power of light and shadow to communicate all manner of human experiences and emotions.
The music of the film has much the same effect, especially in Zeffirelli’s consistent use of the same instrumental pieces during moments of heightened drama. This is especially true during the climactic sequence of Jesus’ carrying of the cross and subsequent crucifixion — I would imagine it difficult for all but a few to keep their eyes dry watching that scene.
“Jesus of Nazareth” excels because it is both a majestic, inspiring piece of art and because it tells the most important and captivating story ever told. It is presented as a carefully crafted work of faith that is timelessly relevant to the human experience, and oriented toward eternal truths. It is the kind of film that truly can change (or maybe begin) your relationship with God.
At least, that was the case for me. Starting in middle school, my parents began a tradition of watching “Jesus of Nazareth” before Easter. Although I had the attention span of a teenager, I was drawn into the story: Christopher Plummer’s fascinating portrayal of the lecherous Herod Antipas; Jesus’ tender healing of the little girl; the apostles’ confusion and cowardice after the death of Jesus, before He appeared to them as their resurrected Lord. My parents, my teachers, and my pastors all worked to catechize me in the Christian faith, and so did Zeffirelli’s film.
I know what I will be doing this week as I prepare to celebrate another beautiful Easter — drinking deep of the stories of the Christian faith as presented by a 45-year-old movie as evocative now as when it first aired. For those looking to reinvigorate their own faith, or perhaps see the stories for the first time, there is no better cinematic option than “Jesus of Nazareth.”