‘Jesus of Nazareth’ Turns 40

Franco Zeffirelli’s religious epic remains an essential, if imperfect, landmark.

Robert Powell in 1977’s Jesus of Nazareth.
Robert Powell in 1977’s Jesus of Nazareth. (photo: NBC)

In the four decades since it made its debut on Palm Sunday and Easter of 1977, I’ve watched Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth in bits and pieces far more often than I’ve watched the whole thing.

That’s not just because it’s nearly six and a half hours long and often broadcast in two parts. It’s also because the first and last acts particularly lend themselves to seasonal viewing at, respectively, Christmas and Easter time.

It’s also because of the work’s unevenness. Jesus of Nazareth’s best sequences are brilliant, but they alternate with middling or indifferent material. Key moments like Peter’s great confession of Jesus and the Last Supper are reverentially staged, while other moments like the Parable of the Prodigal Son and Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin are dramatically reimagined — and not infrequently the latter are far more interesting and valuable than the former. Some of the best moments are fictional episodes, while some crucial Gospel stories have inexplicably been omitted.

By the 1970s the big-screen Bible epic was dead, killed by the box-office failure of George Stevens’ earnest, ultra-serious Gospel film The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) and John Huston’s Genesis epic The Bible: In the Beginning… (1966).

On the small screen, producer Lew Grade’s Moses the Lawgiver (1973), forgotten now, was well received at the time, paving the way for Jesus of Nazareth — at the suggestion of Pope Paul VI, according to Grade. (Zeffirelli has also claimed that Paul VI separately suggested to him that he make a Jesus movie, and even that the Pope lobbied for him with Grade’s team.)

For Zeffirelli, Jesus of Nazareth was an important project for a number of reasons. A wayward but loyal and even conservative son of the Church, Zeffirelli reportedly put his theatrical design and staging talents at the Church’s service for a number of papal ceremonies and has more than once expressed concern for the Church’s image in the modern media era.

If Jesus of Nazareth was an opportunity for Zeffirelli to serve his Church and his faith with his talents, it was also an opportunity for professional redemption after the critical and box-office failure of his prior religious project, the St. Francis movie Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1972). The youthful zeitgeist-oriented approach that had served him well with Romeo and Juliet (1968) failed with Brother Sun, and a chastened Zeffirelli approached Jesus of Nazareth determined to make a film, not of the moment, but for the ages.

His success in this regard was considerable, if less than complete. As Jesus of Nazareth enters its fifth decade, there remains nothing like it: a comprehensive if not exhaustive look at the entire sweep of the Gospel story from the Nativity to the Resurrection, drawing from all four Gospels but significantly influenced by the Old Testament and Jewish tradition as well as Catholic art and imagination. Robert Powell’s face, bearing more than a passing resemblance to traditional representations of Jesus, has been transfigured into a meme of the face of Christ in pop-culture images and in many people’s imaginations. The same is true to an extent of Olivia Hussey and the Virgin Mary.

After the four Gospels, if one text is more influential than any other in the tone of Jesus of Nazareth, it might be the Vatican II declaration on the Church in relation to non-Christian religions, Nostra Aetate, a watershed document in Jewish-Catholic relations. Officially calling out centuries of anti-Semitic influence in Catholic imagination and culture — tied particularly to the charge of Jewish deicide and linked to Good Friday, Passion plays, and works like Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich’s The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus ChristNostra Aetate emphasized the common heritage of Judaism and Christianity and rejected the notion of a collective Jewish culpability in Jesus’ death.

More than any prior Jesus film, Jesus of Nazareth strives not only to emphasize the Jewishness of Jesus, Mary, Joseph and Jesus’ disciples, but to depict first-century Judaism as a complex, living cultural fabric capable of a range of nuanced responses to Jesus beyond full discipleship and sheer rejection. (Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, though not devoid of nuance here, was a step backward in this regard.)

“Extraordinary,” muses an impressed rabbi in response to Jesus’ preaching about the lilies of the field and not worrying about tomorrow. “But isn’t that taking it too far? Surely our religion isn’t opposed to honest, hard work.”

“We respect your achievements,” Simon the Pharisee (Francis de Wolff) tells Jesus in another scene. Responding to Jesus’ teaching about the Sabbath being made for man and not vice versa, he adds, “We understand what you’re trying to say. But is it not confusing to the other people?”

Jesus of Nazareth lays the best of foundations with its leisurely opening act, which takes its time establishing the cultural situation into which Jesus was born, along with various perspectives of who or what the Messiah would be. The kindly rabbi Yehuda (Cyril Cusack) in the opening sequence in the synagogue at Nazareth offers a simple summary; angry young would-be zealots debate revolutionary hopes with wise Joseph (Yorgo Voyagis); and, in a hilariously witty scene, an expansive, urbane Herod the Great (Peter Ustinov) holds forth on the Messiah as a “bad dream” while feasting with curious Romans.

Mixed Jewish responses to Jesus include those of Nicodemus (Laurence Olivier) and Joseph of Arimathea (James Mason), proto-disciples whose faith is genuine but inchoate, and of unidentified supporters in the crowd before Pontius Pilate on Good Friday, who recognize Jesus as a prophet or holy man, but not necessarily as Messiah or Son of God.

These are paralleled by the range of responses to Michael York’s fiery John the Baptist, not least including Christopher Plummer’s weak, compromised Herod Antipas. Fascinated by John’s preaching and guiltily aware of his own sin, Herod’s semi-mocking repetition of “Repent” as he tries to mollify his angry wife Herodias (Valentina Cortese) with kisses is typical of the psychological complexity and persuasiveness of Zeffirelli’s morally challenged characters.

Among these are Ustinov’s Herod; Rod Steiger’s harried, distracted Pilate, possibly the most persuasive interpretation of the character I’ve ever seen; Simon Peter (James Farentino), a passionate, almost tragic bear of a man deeply convinced of his unworthiness of God; Matthew the tax collector (Keith Washington), whose sophisticated indifference to his pariah status masks a longing for acceptance; and the revolutionary Barabbas (Stacy Keach), whose fictional dialogue with Jesus is one of the Savior’s more heartfelt moments.

Alas, the most daring flourish in this direction is also perhaps the most troubling departure from the canonical story: the near-total exoneration of Ian McShane’s Judas Iscariot, here conceived not so much as a traitor as a dupe manipulated by Ian Holm’s fictional Zerah, a Sanhedrin member who masterminds Jesus’ arrest, trial and condemnation by Pilate, along with the guarding of the tomb after the Crucifixion.

Here, as elsewhere, Judas is imagined as a Zealot and a subtle intellectual who hopes that Jesus will deliver God’s people from the Romans, but begins to lose faith in Jesus’ non-revolutionary messianic vision. That’s fine as far as it goes, and good drama.

In the end, though, instead of betraying Jesus for money, Judas imagines he is only helping to arrange a meeting with Caiaphas at which Jesus will, if he really is the Messiah, prove his bona fides. (Money isn’t even discussed; when Zerah gives Judas a small bag of silver coins after Jesus’ arrest, it’s an insulting afterthought.) This isn’t so much rethinking or humanizing the traditional figure of Judas as replacing him with another figure altogether.

Then there’s Anne Bancroft’s Mary Magdalene, somewhat unfortunately portrayed — in keeping with Western medieval tradition going back to Pope Gregory the Great — as a reformed prostitute.

As problematic as this portrayal appears today, it does comport with the key theme of Jesus’ social acceptance of outcasts and sinners. One of the more telling moments comes in a dialogue between Mary and a male customer who lightheartedly tells her about the prophet who thinks nothing of eating and drinking with thieves and whores. “A man will always forgive a man,” Mary says bitterly, “but a woman’s sin — that’s another story.”

“For most people,” the man replies equably, “but not for him!”

Pre-release concerns, stoked by the likes of fundamentalist scion Bob Jones III, that Jesus of Nazareth would blasphemously dramatize Jesus’ humanity to the exclusion of his divinity turned out to be groundless, even the reverse of the truth.

On the movie-Jesus spectrum of traditional and reverential to relatable and revisionistic, with their characteristic tendencies to err in the direction either of stiffness and ethereality or of pedestrianness and triviality, Powell’s Christ — with his Shakespearean bearing and diction, long, dramatic pauses, and penchant for what Mike Hertenstein aptly called “Jedi-like histrionics” during miracle scenes — is firmly in the first camp, more akin to austere Max von Sydow in The Greatest Story Ever Told than to unassuming Jeremy Sisto in Jesus (1999).

The concern for Jesus’ divine dignity is evinced by telling omissions. Despite more than six hours of screen time, Zeffirelli manages to skip Jesus’ temptation by Satan in the wilderness, though it’s in all three Synoptic Gospels and closely tied to his baptism by John. We see the raising of Lazarus, but not Jesus weeping (one of the more human moments in John’s Gospel, and famous for being the shortest verse in the Bible). And as agonized as Jesus appears during his passion and crucifixion, he never falls carrying his cross, and no Simon of Cyrene is called upon to help him carry it.

Still, Powell’s Jesus is capable of emotional expressiveness, for example, when relating the parables. In a standout sequence set in Matthew’s house, where a rowdy party is underway when Jesus arrives — much to the chagrin of Peter, who regards Matthew as his enemy — Jesus regales a rapt audience of revelers with a heartfelt telling of the Parable of the Prodigal son, ultimately reconciling Peter and Matthew, implicitly cast as the parable’s older and younger sons.

The first incursion of the supernatural, the Annunciation to Mary, is among Zeffirelli’s masterstrokes: He evokes the numinous by suggesting rather than directly portraying it. With Mary’s mother, St. Anne (Regina Bianchi), wakened from sleep at night, we witness Mary’s half of the dialogue with an angelic presence that only she sees and hears; all we see is a moonbeam shining in a high window past a wind-blown shutter, and in the silences between Mary’s lines we hear only a dog barking in the distance.

It is Mary’s fear and awe, her initial disorientation (conveyed through a pair of point-of-view shots as she wakens and then rises from sleep) and ultimate beatific submission that make her religious experience real. It’s my favorite portrayal of the Annunciation, not only in all of cinema, but in any artistic form in the modern era.

Minutes later, oddly, Zeffirelli botches the annunciation to Joseph, which fails in every way the Annunciation to Mary works. This brief, lazy scene depicts Joseph sleeping in broad daylight, then tossing and turning until he falls off his bed — at which point we hear an angelic voice-over, uttered to Joseph while he is awake, not asleep! Later, at Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, Zeffirelli splits the difference, having Michael York’s fiery John the Baptist attest the Father’s acclamation of his beloved Son, yet without attempting to evoke a religious experience or sense of revelation.

Zeffirelli’s dramatic instincts serve him well with Jesus’ miracles, which he dresses up with effective naturalistic touches: the small, stiff movements of the paralyzed man as his limbs slowly begin to unlock; the hazy imagery of light reflecting on water as the eyes of the blind man (Renato Rascel) start to open; and, most subtly, the back-and-forth eye movements under closed lids of the daughter of Jairus (Renato Montalbano), whom Jesus raises from the dead.

The director seems less often sure how to effectively end these scenes; perhaps partly because of mandatory commercial breaks, too many miracle scenes end abruptly, with no sense of closure. Poor Lazarus, raised from the dead, is left standing in his burial wraps, and doesn’t even get to hear the line “Loose him and let him go.”

One of the more interesting narrative choices is the film’s approach to harmonizing the Synoptic Gospels with the Gospel of John. Taking Peter’s confession of Jesus as the turning point from the more secretive approach to Jesus’ identity and mission characteristic in the Synoptics and the more open approach characteristic of John, Jesus of Nazareth puts the Synoptic material first and the Johannine material afterward.

Though the Gospel tradition is generally sensitively handled, there are some inexplicable howlers. Among the many frustrating mysteries is why Zeffirelli not only omits the visit of the Magi (including James Earl Jones’ Balthasar) to Herod’s court, but draws attention to this fact by repeatedly depicting Herod raging and fretting about their failure to appear before him! And why on earth is the Prince of the Apostles introduced as “Simon Peter” from the outset, undercutting the moment in his confession when Jesus ought to be giving him the surname Peter (“Rock”)?

Opening with a well-crafted, rolling dramatic crescendo, Jesus of Nazareth ends with a feeble whimper: a hasty post-Resurrection sequence in which Jesus’ empty tomb is discovered by Mary Magdalene, who goes on, in a downbeat sequence, to relate to his doubting apostles an off-screen encounter with the Risen Christ, indignantly upbraiding them for their lack of faith. Jesus himself is barely glimpsed in a weirdly muted post-Resurrection appearance that seems to have been assembled from scraps after time or money ran out.

Despite its shortcomings, Jesus of Nazareth’s strengths remain unique and essential. The first hour and a half is by far the best screen telling of the Christmas story to date. There are vignettes seldom portrayed in other films, such as the finding of Jesus in the Temple and the rich young ruler.

Above all, the depth and sympathy of its presentation of Jesus’ Jewish milieu is groundbreaking, and rivaled by few if any subsequent portrayals. While not necessarily the best Jesus movie ever, Jesus of Nazareth will continue to be, for some time to come, the standard by which other Jesus films are judged.

Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of Decent Films.
He is a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.

Follow him on Twitter.

Caveat Spectator: Somewhat graphic Passion violence; a few scary scenes (e.g., the slaughter of the innocents, an exorcism, etc.); a bit of discreet sexual content. Mostly fine for older children.