They Know Not What They Do: The Passion of the Christ in Franco Zeffirelli’s ‘Jesus of Nazareth’

Jesus of Nazareth Movie essay - 1977 Franco Zeffirelli Film

In the build up to the 1977 epic Jesus of Nazareth — Franco Zeffirelli’s adaptation of Jesus Christ’s birth, ministry and death — there was controversy and public lament regarding how the director proposed to make the four-part TV film. Bob Jones III, a protestant fundamentalist, lambasted Zeffirelli for claiming his Jesus would be “an ordinary man” who is “gentle, fragile, [and] simple.” He would go on to denounce the project as “blasphemy” despite not having seen a single frame of Jesus of Nazareth and knowing nothing more than what the filmmaker had said in interviews. This was an ambitious project — co-written by Anthony Burgess, who was famous at the time for his controversial novel A Clockwork Orange — that caused for wild responses. Ultimately, Jones III’s issues with the project were premature, as Zeffirelli perfectly straddles a gentle humaneness between the wonderful rendition of the Parable of the Prodigal Son and a forceful mysticism (which is beautifully depicted in an orchestral fashion when Christ raises Lazarus of Bethany from the dead). The director and the production team would also have to contend with thousands of angry letters that joined Jones III’s outcry, which would eventually lead to Zeffirelli adding a post-mortem scene after the revelation of the empty tomb, a moment that at first seems rushed but would ultimately become so poignant that it leaves a lasting effect; a major reason this adaptation stands the test of time where others of that period failed.

Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth is a comprehensive account of the Gospel narratives, which can be viewed either in its original four parts as a 382-minute miniseries or in two parts as it is more often broadcast. From the onset, there is an understanding that the grandeur of the story can only be accomplished with the grandest of players, each of whom has a key part to play at different points in Jesus’ life and ministry. Jesus of Nazareth opens with a majestic list of its stars, as if Zeffirelli is purporting a kind of cinematic divinity, the closest a film can get to a sanctified status. Their images are shown in placards over a dusty and dry Galilee while the camera cranes from one side of the landscape to the other. Here, Zeffirelli assembles Anne Bancroft as Mary Magdalene, James Earl Jones as Balthazar, James Mason as Joseph of Arimathea, a young Ian McShane as Judas, an experienced Laurence Olivier as Nicodemus, Christopher Plummer as Herod Antipas, Anthony Quinn as Caiaphas, Ralph Richardson as Simeon, Rod Steiger as Pontius Pilate, Olivia Hussey as the Virgin Mary and Ian Holm as the fictitious Zerah (amongst others like Claudia Cardinale, whose cameo as the Adulteress goes relatively unnoticed). Zeffirelli immediately sets everything up in Jesus of Nazareth — the story, the location and the main players. This is a gauntlet that has been hurled to the floor. Zeffirelli is up to the challenge.

In the middle of this plethora of celebrity is a then relatively unknown Robert Powell, at least in comparison to the list of supporting actors. It takes just over one and a half hours to first see Powell’s Jesus after he appears in the crowd before being baptized by John the Baptist (played by Michael York), who proclaims “Behold the Lamb of God […] it is him you must follow now, not me.” Powell’s gaunt face, ragged tunic, long brown hair and accompanying beard is more than a passing resemblance to the popularized Western image of Jesus and was apparently based upon Warner Sallman’s 1940 painting “Head of Christ.” Jesus of Nazareth also takes advantage of Powell’s light blue eyes, enhancing them via dark blue eyeliner, and his ability to not blink throughout the film — which also oddly resembles David Bowie’s alien in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), augmenting that perfect blend of the human and the Other. Powell may not have had the acting majesty of those around him but manages to imbue his Jesus with a dignity that brilliantly makes for the most unlikely of Messiahs.

The placards that open Jesus of Nazareth not only suggest that the audience will have a presupposed knowledge of the story but also foreshadow the moments that are to come; McShane’s image of Judas has a sinister air about it, giving the audience something to look out for — it’s almost prophetic. In the structure of the Gospel narratives — which are broken and uneven, assorted into quoted parables and stories of witnessed miracles — Jesus of Nazareth acknowledges that, at the very least, it’s a story of notable moments in the subject’s life. Zeffirelli hits both the miraculous and the mundane — some moments are superbly depicted, some fall flat and other big events are excluded altogether. Jesus’ baptism is a prime example of Zeffirelli’s cinematic flair, as he introduces the subject by utilizing visual allusions (like a lone dove flying above) and hastier editing techniques to portray a catalytic moment, rather taking an overly religious approach. These moments are alluded to during the open, and there is perhaps no historical moment that’s more controversial than Jesus’ death by crucifixion and subsequent resurrection. The question then comes: how does Zeffirelli possibly portray that?

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Jesus of Nazareth Movie essay - 1977 Franco Zeffirelli Film

Despite Jesus of Nazareth’s long and meticulous runtime, Zeffirelli spends much of the film establishing the subject’s birth and childhood, his ministry and journey to Jerusalem (which makes up the bulk of the story), and then his trial before the Sanhedrin and Pontius Pilate. The filmmaker provides a swift depiction, especially when considering Mel Gibson’s more laborious and bloody adaptation, The Passion of the Christ (2004). This is a testament to Zeffirelli, who clearly wanted to fill in gaps that other adaptations of the period — like King of Kings (1961) and The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) — failed to even mention. Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin makes for brilliant Biblical cinema and paints the perfect picture of the tumult between the Jewish population in the 1st Century and during Jesus’ lifetime. As Stephen D. Greydanus states in National Catholic Register, “Jesus of Nazareth strives […] 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.” Powell’s shifts between human gentleness and moments of the divine also bring into question Jesus’ true identity, as if the very idea of faith is festering beneath every scene. This also attests for Zeffirelli’s patience, which acknowledges that severe groundwork is needed in order to fully set up the zeitgeist before revealing the New Testament’s climactic and finest story.

After Zeffirelli’s grand set up in Jesus of Nazareth, the subject carries his cross through the streets of Jerusalem. His face is blooded by the crown of thorns; he is worn but steadfast and never falls while. Simon of Cyrene, who helps Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels, is completely excluded from the story, with Zeffirelli perhaps trying to purport Jesus’ divinity. At this point, the director’s breaks from his slow, meditative approach. He uses a handheld camera. The crowd shouts at the passing Jesus. Some people cry. Roman Centurions wave Jesus forward; they push civilians to the floor and cause havoc. The camera zooms in and then out again. Extreme close ups cut to wide shots and back to close ups. The camera jitters as if the earth is shaking beneath it — complete pandemonium. Things are done quickly, things are blurred. A hammer strikes a nail into Jesus’ hand without pause. The Romans know what they are doing. Everything feels real. Allegedly inspired by traumatic memories of war and seeing his friends suspended by barbed wire, Zeffirelli paints a horrifying picture of anguish and pain through visual techniques and fast editing. Jesus’ cross looks like an enmeshed web; he is like a fly about to be eaten by a spider. This is peak filmmaking, and it’s hard to discuss the franticness of religion-themed films like Son of Saul (2015) without first considering Jesus of Nazareth as an influence.

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Jesus of Nazareth Movie essay - 1977 Franco Zeffirelli Film

Once Jesus is placed on the cross, the pace of the editing slows back down. Powell’s weak and meager frame slumps from the nails punctured in his hands; it makes for hard viewing. The actor apparently starved himself on a diet of cheese for 12 days to ensure that his Jesus looked battered and undernourished. In doing so, Powell’s body is left almost skeletal, vapidly twisted and disjointed on the cross. It would have been easy for Zeffirelli to turn to the religiose and the sentimental at this moment in Jesus of Nazareth, but he instead leans more on the style of his Neorealist forefathers, blending beautiful imagery with handheld cinematography, and jumping from intimate close ups to distanced long shots that capture the perspective of a crowd observer; a brilliant nod to Pier Paolo Pasolini’s masterful The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964).

Powell apparently almost broke his back when filming Jesus of Nazareth’s cross sequence, and he lacerated his arms during one of the falling takes. The actor’s pain is abundantly visible, and this anecdote brilliantly encapsulates what is so mesmerizing about this section of Jesus of Nazareth, in that it manages to wed the divine and the human in ways that other Biblical art has found difficult. There is no religious grandstanding, and the cross image itself is sometimes hard to find amongst the wooden structure of Zeffirelli’s set design. As Jesus speaks — “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani” — people in the crowd start to disagree on the meaning of his words, as if Zeffirelli is laying the seed for history’s greatest debate. This is then beautifully juxtaposed by a slumped Simon Peter (played by James Farentino) who is crying out “My God! My Lord! Help me” — a moment of selfishness considering the circumstances, one that subtly foreshadows the following scenes.

Jesus of Nazareth’s amazing crucifixion sequence lays the groundwork for the film’s final and finest moment. Interestingly, Zeffirelli’s post-mortem resurrection was, perhaps, only an afterthought that he and the team rushed to make during the end of production to appease the many angry fundamentalists who feared his adaptation would portray Jesus’ name in vain. At first sight, this feels abundantly clear. The scene plays hurriedly and without the time, space and visual flair the other miracles throughout the film are given. It’s a short, oddly muted sequence made up of only a few shots, a single set of theatrical-looking blocking and a single, indistinct location. It’s hard to see why, after six and a half hours, Zeffirelli would end his epic project with such a whimper. But it’s the very nature of this whimper that is Jesus of Nazareth’s concluding triumph.

After a few, indecisive off-screen scenes of the risen Jesus, Zeffirelli finally provides an image of him amongst his disciples. There is no build up to this sequence — no clean transition, no visual foreshadowing — but rather a harsh cut to Jesus sat with his disciples circled and poised around him; the blocking looks incredibly staged. The camera slowly zooms to Jesus’ face, intercutting between the visages of some disciples. Jesus of Nazareth’s subject talks of spreading the Gospel, though there is an air of confusion surrounding the scene. There is something inconclusive and almost dreamlike. Is this the risen Jesus or a perfect, imagined image of Jesus? Perhaps this is a flashback? Overly zealous music plays unedited throughout the scene, almost outdoing the dialogue. In this swift and uncertain moment, Zeffirelli achieves his greatest triumph by bringing all the complexities of faith right to the center. What had been bubbling under the surface –– Powell’s masterful harmonizing of the humane and the divine, the director’s inconclusive stance on Jesus’ divinity, the calculated exclusion of certain Gospel narratives — all come to fruition through one simple and rushed image of Jesus amongst his disciples. Zeffirelli’s ending image in Jesus of Nazareth becomes a crucial examination of Christian theology by providing visual evidence yet leaving things uncertain and open ended. The sequence ends with Jesus breaking the fourth wall as he consciously looks down the barrel of the camera directly at the audience. After six and half hours, Zeffirelli has brilliantly managed to turn the film from a meticulous adaptation into a theological examination. Crucially, he turns Jesus of Nazareth over to the audience, and does so in a matter of seconds.

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Jesus of Nazareth Movie essay - 1977 Franco Zeffirelli Film

Jesus of Nazareth ends on an empty tomb image, augmenting the inconclusive nature of the post-mortem moment and forcing the audience to question the authenticity of the event. No other Biblical adaptation does this in such a way: Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ uses the visceral as a means of purporting its actuality; Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew ends as quickly as Zeffirelli’s film but includes Angel Gabriel as a kind of spiritual narrator who explains with authority the events that have taken place; King of Kings includes Jesus speaking to Mary and eschews the disciples’ doubt; The Greatest Story Ever Told has Max von Sydow’s Jesus appear from the clouds, therefore leaning its take on the overly religiose. While all these films have their good moments, with some being exceptional, Zeffirelli’s post-mortem revelation in Jesus of Nazareth is more poignant and subtler,; a unique theological examination.

Despite Jesus of Nazareth’s ending, Zeffirelli’s faith is indisputable, as he was a devout Catholic throughout his life despite his homosexuality. He made another religious adaptation five years prior with Brother Sun, Sister Moon, a 1972 film about Saint Francis of Assisi which sadly got horrendous reviews at the time. The rash judgement of Jesus of Nazareth was harsh, especially considering Zeffirelli’s religious leanings and the fact that it was the Pope of all people who recommended that he direct the adaptation. Looking for some kind of cinematic redemption, Zeffirelli thankfully got the plaudits he deserved and proved his skeptics wrong. While Jesus of Nazareth is not without some faults — it would have been good to see how Zeffirelli would have treated Jesus’ time in the desert or see how he depicted him walking on water, especially given the greatness of the sequence in Pasolini’s film — numerous moments land with aplomb. Jesus of Nazareth is precisely a film of moments, and Zeffirelli depicts them with expert technique. This is what great cinema is truly about. Like with the Gospel narratives themselves, Zeffirelli beautifully builds things up to a zenith moment, reducing six and a half hours of film down to an examination of religion and faith in one magical and film-ending image.

Edwin Miles (@eaj_miles) is a filmmaker, screenwriter and documentarian from the West Midlands, United Kingdom. Now based in London, Edwin’s experimental work reflects on ideas of family and memory, home and displacement. His favourite filmmakers include Derek Jarman, David Lynch and Kazuhiro Sôda.