Revisiting Jesus of Nazareth (1977)

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To view Jesus of Nazareth Part 1 click here and for Part 2 click here.

Being raised protestant, specifically Methodist, I wasn’t fully immersed into the culture of the Passion of Christ. Although we recognized Lent and all the holy days leading up to Easter, we didn’t emphasize the suffering, but rather the resurrection part of the story. It wasn’t until I attended a Lutheran elementary and middle school, and later a Catholic high school, that I became familiar with the Passion and the legendary pageantry (and guilt) that accompanies it. My lack of exposure to this particular religious account might seem weird, but Catholicism isn’t as prevalent in the South. And in many protestant faiths Catholicism is often regarded as problematic, particularly with the church’s view of the Virgin Mary (the celebration of her “Immaculate Conception” for instance). I still remember the shock and bewilderment of attending my first Catholic Mass: the constant kneeling, lack of good old fashioned hymns, the copious amounts of incense and funny hats. But after a few weeks, mass became second nature. I felt like an honorary Catholic, but without all the obligations.

Our high school was relatively progressive and for years had a reputation for being a wild party school. The rumors were true, I’m afraid, and while I wouldn’t want my daughter going to a school like that, I had a blast. For parties, parents bought kegs and took away keys with the seemingly rational thinking that “well, they’re going to drink anyway, might as well make it safe for them.” We didn’t have nuns (although I’ve heard they’re back), and the two or three priests we had were very liberal, including one who rode a motorcycle and told us stories about his experiences at Woodstock. While it was a fairly laid-back environment, at least compared to many of my friends’ experiences with Catholic school, holy days were recognized with utmost reverence by participating in certain traditions and rituals. Every year we were “treated” to a live performance of the “Stations of the Cross.” (I say “treated” because it offered us the rare three-hour nap…that is, until one of the teachers popped you on the back of the head.) Another one of the traditions at the school was the mandatory viewing of Franco Zeffirelli’s 1977 television miniseries Jesus of Nazareth. (A six-hour nap for the teachers.) I can clearly remember Father G. rolling in that very small television and blowing the dust off the VHS tapes. If another class had checked out the set from the library he would bring in his homemade copy of one of the NBC airings. We always loved that because Father G. would spend the majority of the time struggling to fast forward through the commercials, and nothing is more entertaining to a teenager than a frustrated adult.

In all seriousness, most of us loved to watch Jesus of Nazareth because it felt like we were getting away with something. Religion classes were always incredibly boring and serious, so experiencing this story, the very backbone of Christianity, in such an epic, cinematic way seemed modern and relatable. It also helped that Olivia Hussey, the subject of many teenager’s sexual fantasies (thanks to the requisite viewing of Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet [1968] in ninth-grade English class), played the Virgin Mary, as well as a very young, extremely attractive Ian McShane as Judas Iscariot. Now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure my classmates and I enjoyed watching Jesus of Nazareth for all the wrong reasons. A bit awkward, yes, but teenagers don’t usually concern themselves with such details when sex is involved.

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With Filmstruck adding Jesus of Nazareth to its catalog and it being at least twenty years since my last viewing, I decided to revisit the film, if only for the nostalgia factor. From the first notes of the musical score and the Love Boat-esque opening credits, I was immediately taken back to the cinder block, Cold War aesthetic of Father G’s classroom. Except this time, I watched the film for its artistic merit, accuracy in the retelling of the story and the performances, something I definitely didn’t care about or even noticed as a teen. Oh, and what performances they were. When I told a friend of mine about the cast of Jesus of Nazareth, which includes Anne Bancroft, Ernest Borgnine, Christopher Plummer, James Earl Jones, Donald Pleasence, Michael York, Claudia Cardinale, James Mason, Laurence Olivier, Rod Steiger, Anthony Quinn, among others, he joked that they must’ve spilled over from the equally star-studded Airport ’77 (1977).

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While Jesus of Nazareth is plodding and laborious at times, Zeffirelli, a devout Roman Catholic, is quite faithful to the story of Christ. At the film’s release, there was some controversy, as there often is with any religious-themed content. Many of the objections, though, came from ultra-conservative figures within the protestant church, who didn’t even bother to watch the film for themselves before making their criticisms known. Revisiting this epic as an adult was an entirely different viewing experience than it was when I was a teen. For starters, I noticed that Zeffirelli calls upon the sweeping biblical epics of the 1950s and 1960s for inspiration, but instead of larger-than-life sets and costumes designed more for technicolor than historical accuracy, he attempted a stripped down, more realistic tone. The all-star cast acts as support to the lesser known main players, so we are treated to a seemingly endless cavalcade of cameos. That’s not to say the film is without its problems. For example, a vast majority of the actors are of European descent, including Robert Powell as Jesus. And while his portrayal has been held up as the most “accurate” according to many American Christians, we know this is simply not true. Also, while Zeffirelli strives for authenticity, many of the actors in the film are sporting hairstyles of the 1970s, a common problem in historical films. Ultimately, these are minuscule issues when considering the length and breadth of this film, and Zeffirelli made it so that not only Christians can enjoy, but also made it accessible to viewers who are of different belief systems and cultural backgrounds. That said, for me, the nostalgia attached to this film is of more importance than the film itself. I watched the film with renewed appreciation, but it is forever linked to this thoroughly less-than-epic teenage experience. I’m sure that’s not what Zeffirelli was shooting for, but it was a fun couple of nights for me nonetheless.

Jill Blake

9 Responses Revisiting Jesus of Nazareth (1977)
Posted By kingrat : April 16, 2017 1:12 am

Jill, that comment about AIRPORT ’77 is hilarious! I also grew up as a Protestant in the South, so I completely get everything you say about the Protestant view of the Catholic Church.

Robert Powell was in an excellent BBC production of Shaw’s MRS. WARREN’S PROFESSION with Coral Browne as Mrs. Warren and Penelope Wilton as her daughter. Both women were superb. Gosh, I’d like to see that again. I believe this was made soon after JESUS OF NAZARETH. Robert Powell fell off the radar screen after that, however.

Posted By Doug : April 16, 2017 10:02 am

Another one I’ve never seen-I was busy graduating high school when it was shown, so my mind was on other things.
Whether a filmmaker approaches the Bible from faith (Zeffirelli/Gibson) or lack thereof (John Huston)…nails on a chalkboard for me.
This film DOES have quite a line-up of talent with a capital T; Steiger and Mason are worth watching in anything.

Posted By La Otra : April 16, 2017 1:50 pm

I too survived Catholic school. During my time, the go to religious film was “Song of Bernadette” We still used film projectors then, so the films were few and infrequent.
I really appreciate Zeffirelli’s production on many levels. I agree it can be plodding at times, but the acting was powerful and affecting. Some scenes look as though they were painted by the masters.
My all time favorite religious film is Pasolini’s Gospel According to Saint Matthew. This film is worth viewing for its simplicity and for the interesting performances, mostly non professional actors.

Posted By EricJ : April 16, 2017 2:17 pm

At the risk of getting into taboo religious discussions on the blog, here’s another fellow Lutheran who’s glad to see a little criticism of Catholic “guilt” regarding the Crucifixion. Guilt is a weapon wielded by dictators and monarchs, to convince the peasants it’s their “own fault” things are so bad, and that they should just work that much harder, since the important hierarchically privileged mucky-mucks knew best for them all along.
More specifically, the Catholic view seems to treat the Crucifixion as if it was some crime that could have been prevented (which wasn’t the case, as Jesus repeatedly told His apostles of how it was meant to happen), which has unfortunately led them to try and find responsible “culprits” for it. And bad things have happened ever since.
Movies and TV have to take a generic view in between–making sure not to blame You Know Who for it, and establish that the Romans were breathing down their necks–and have to appeal to all three denominations by just safely traveling the road of the book events. (As the Coens’ “Hail Caesar” dopily parodied regarding 50′s epics.) Mel Gibson, of course, had no such concerns.

Think JoN and 1961′s King of Kings are the last classic Gospel epics I still haven’t seen–
1979′s “The Jesus Film” is still the high mark, with a more relaxed portrayal, natural period setting and just a straight filmed transcript of the text, and the ’03 version of “The Gospel of John” did a better underrated job of following in its footsteps. “Greatest Story Ever Told” gets a lot of giggling and kitsch-bashing for its length and star cameos, but think that was largely an overreaction from theater audiences who’d had enough of the 50′s craze after “King of Kings”–Greatest is probably better when not seen at an entire stretch, but otherwise a thoughtful attempt to put the Gospel events and characters into more contemporary-context Hollywood dialogue, rather than the “side stories” of The Robe or Barabbas.

Posted By George : April 16, 2017 10:05 pm

I’m leery of commenting on religious movies — or, as they’re called now, “faith-based movies” — after the PASSION OF THE CHRIST ugliness in 2004. Critics who panned that movie got hate mail calling them “Jew bitch” or “Jew bastard,” whether they were Jewish or not.

Posted By EricJ : April 17, 2017 12:05 am

@ George – Have to remember that supporting Passion in ’04 was like supporting Trump: Bush was up for re-election in the middle of his war scandals, Michael Moore had his “evil” Fahrenheit 9/11, and the Southern Baptists were fighting for headlines with “Hollywood is destroying values!” (Which hatchet they buried a year later in ’05, when they thought they could get a faith-based piece of Disney’s Narnia attention.)
Conservatives politicized the movie’s existence out of all possible proportion, and the word heard most often (and parodied on South Park) was “School bussing”, as church groups would buy group-sales tickets to take their entire church to see it in bus trips…And, not coincidentally, try to beef up the opening box-office numbers, to show that Evil Anal-Raping Hollywood a thing or three.
In a word, pretty much what DC Comics fans tried to do with “Batman v. Superman”, only not quite as angrily.

And, just like BvS, Passion was just as much of a psychotically overwrought sturm-und-drang stinker from a certified lunatic.
BUT, the headlines had browbeaten a second week of average normal folk into thinking they “had” to go see the movie to debate the controversy, or because it might show up at next year’s Oscars. (Which it didn’t.)
And needless to say, those who were hoping the movie would “fight their battles for them” very likely agreed with Gibson’s, er, views on the Jews.

The big problem, though, is that most people don’t like to smorgasbord sample Biblical epics; they pick the first one they ever saw, and stick with it. (Which is why people remember seeing Ten Commandments on TV every Easter, even though it’s a Passover movie.) And if they were led in by the hype to see Mel’s Folly, the siren lure of “Oo, it’s more HISTORICALLY ACCURATE, because they’re speaking another language!” tends to woo them out of seeing other, saner, less gratuitously blood-soaked or more text-accurate Biblical films.
Hopefully, most of us open-minded adults have learned how to be more cinematically or theologically curious, and/or can drive to theaters in our own cars.

Posted By swac44 : April 17, 2017 11:06 am

My PotC criticism hit even closer to home, seriously damaging my relationship with my then-partner, who was deeply Catholic, and became moreso after we split. I wrote a piece criticizing the film (and by extension, the Church) for this unhealthy obsession with suffering and pain over Christ’s actual philosophy of love, forgiveness and restraint, none of which seem to be in evidence in Gibson’s film. That didn’t sit well at home (I was raised United Baptist, which is small-c conservative, but far from fire and brimstone), and it went a long way towards souring things between us.

Thankfully, I’m in a much better place now, romantically, and I’ll also take Pasolini over Mel’s bloodbath any day.

Posted By George : April 17, 2017 9:08 pm

The other night I watched LETHAL WEAPON (1987) for the first time in many years. Gibson’s obsession with sadomasochism and ecstacy-through-suffering was present in his work long before PASSION.

Posted By Jill Blake : May 6, 2017 11:19 pm

Kingrat–

When my friend made that comment about AIRPORT ’77, I fell out! So hilarious and so true. The seventies really loved those star-studded disaster flicks.

A friend of mine told me last week that Robert Powell narrated/hosted a documentary that recently aired. So I guess he’s still out there doing his thing!

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