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Robert Powell as Jesus of Nazareth
Robert Powell as Jesus of Nazareth
James Earl Jones as Wise Man
James Earl Jones as Wise Man
Ernest Borgnine as the Centurion
Ernest Borgnine as the Centurion

Sir Laurence Olivier as Nicodemus
Sir Laurence Olivier as Nicodemus
Ian McShane as Judas Iscariot
Ian McShane as Judas Iscariot
Robert Powell as Jesus of Nazareth
Robert Powell as Jesus of Nazareth

JESUS OF NAZARETH

Best Christian Film, 1977 - 5-Star Masterpiece

Powerfully Intelligent, Sublimely Moving

Franco Zeffirelli is primarily known for his exquisite filming of Shakespeare's plays - Romeo And Juliet, Hamlet, Taming Of The Shrew, etc. - and this. There are numerous versions of the life of Christ out there, but this is by far the finest. What Zeffirelli does best - capturing the people, period and essence of a literary masterpiece - he does here, but he takes it one step further: he also captures the faith, and he does it with intelligence and emotion.

One example will illustrate this. When Christ is calling his disciples, he first approaches Peter, a hard-working fisherman; and then, Matthew, a tax-collector. There is a natural animosity between Peter and Matthew because Peter has to give him part of the meager profits from his fishing business in taxes. When Christ tells Matthew he would like to visit him for dinner, Peter resents this, and follows him there. At the dinner party, Christ tells the guests the story of "The Prodigal Son." Everyone is moved; but no one more than Peter, who enters the room and asks Matthew to forgive him for the way he has treated him. It is a compelling scene.

That scene also illustrates some other things: 1) Christ is a wonderful storyteller. His rendition of the story of "The Prodigal Son" is riveting. 2) The scribes, Pharisees and zealots aren't the only ones Christ has trouble with. His religious followers are animately against his going to Matthew's house, and do everything they can to talk him out of it. 3) Peter's stubbornness is as sinful as Matthew's avarice, which makes Christ's telling of this particular story so apropos.

Zeffirelli is a stickler for detail, and a master of visual imagery. His vision of Palestine in Christ's day is as rich as any Old Master painting. Every inch of every character and set helps to tell that particular person or place's story. Take John the Baptist, for example: Michael York looks and sounds every inch like the rustic prophet. Or the Temple: it has all the overwhelming beauty, along with all the noise and smoke, the real one must have had. Or Simeon, who prophesies over Jesus when he is circumcised, played by Ralph Richardson: he is as wonderful as you would expect him to have been. Or Joseph, played by Yorgo Voyagis, who looks very Jewish: what a godly husband, father and example of manhood he made for Jesus. Mary, played by Olivia Hussey (Romeo And Juliet) is beautifully submissive. The astronomer-kings (including one played by a young James Earl Jones) are impressively wise. The Romans are threatening, but no more so than Herod's men, whose killing of the infants in Bethlehem is incredible and heart-wrenching, even though it is handled tastefully. Everything is far more effective - dramatically, biblically, historically, artistically and in every other way - than any other life of Christ film ever made.

The main thing that makes this film stand out from the rest is the attitude and understanding of the filmmakers. They are not telling the story of a religious icon, nor is it about an historical figure. They truly believe - and you can see it in every aspect of the production - they are telling the story of the Son of God. Zeffirelli and writer Anthony Burgess (with the help of several others) don't give us a literal, word-for-word rendition of Scripture, except when someone is quoting Old Testament prophesy, which happens often. Rather, it is a dramatization, and therefore takes liberty with the text in order to illuminate the spirit and give the essence of who Christ was. Christ's explanation of what the Word of God is could apply to this film. He says that the Word of God is not stone tablets or dusty scrolls, but a living, breathing thing that God wants to write on the tablets of His people's hearts. That is why this is far more successful than any other version: because it is not a literal translation from text to film; but a spiritual transformation of the text to the film. We are left, therefore, with the overwhelming realization that what we are witnessing is not a stuffy, religious version of the literal Christ; but a living, breathing vision of the spirit of Christ.

Waitsel

Waitsel Smith, April 1, 2007

Text © 2005 Waitsel Smith. Image © 2002 Lions Gate. All Rights Reserved.

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