Jesus of Nazareth

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Jesus in Hollywood (Fire meets Ice): The Zifferelli Version

Oct 24, 2001 (Updated Oct 24, 2001)
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Pros:The best film about the life of Jesus of Nazareth ever made.

Cons:It runs against the grain of 95% of the stuff made by Hollywood.

The Bottom Line: If you ever see one movie about Christianity, make this the One.

Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie's plot.

Way back when I was a youngster in Louisiana, before I moved to West Texas, most of the people there in Louisiana were devout Roman Catholics and I really admired their faith. Being a Methodist (Protestant) I was different, you see, but all my friends were Catholics and so like the fox and the hound we really liked each other even if there were some differences. I've had the same experience with Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and Native Americans; skin color and cultural differences just don't mean anything…it's the minds and spirits within that matter. But back to the Catholics. One thing I always thought was really interesting was that a number of my Catholic friends had parents whose cars would have this little white plastic statue of Jesus Christ glued right up there above the speedometer on the dashboard. It usually had something written on the base like "Lord Jesus Protect Us". One of my friends named Jimmy said, "My daddy said it won't protect you if you drive over eighty miles an hour," and we got a laugh out of that. But the funniest thing I ever heard about the plastic statues of the Lord was a little song that went: "I don't care if it rains or freezes/ 'Long as I've got my plastic Jesus/ Glued to the dashboard of my car..." , etc. I forgot all about that song until a few years later when I heard Paul Newman singing it in "Cool Hand Luke."

Now the only reason I mention the whole thing about a "Plastic Jesus" is that most Hollywood movies about Jesus usually turn him into a "Plastic" human being. I mean, what do you do when it comes to depicting, if you take the secular slant, the most influential man in the history of Earth (Sorry about that, John Lennon, wherever you are…you don't get that title…you and the Beatles will only be a dim historical footnote in some encyclopedia in a century or two) or, if you are a Christian, you see Jesus as God incarnate. Hollywood is much more capable of creating death-dealing human beings than life-giving human beings. Look at who Hollywood does the best job of all in creating. Its best work is creating Mafia bosses who are responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people directly and thousands of people indirectly, like Don Coreleone, the "Godfather." It also does its finest work in creating the cold-blooded killers portrayed by Clint Eastwood, Sly Stallone, and others. And no one should forget that a Walt-less Disney company was behind "Scream", whose opening scene shows a beautiful young girl stabbed in the stomach and disemboweled by a teenaged boy who leaves the girl's bloody and "hollowed-out" body hanging on a clothesline for her mother to discover. "Scream" is just one example of a whole bloody plethora of soul-less slasher "horror" movies which are influencing a generation of kids. The Columbine Massacre kids no doubt saw "Scream," and I also strongly suspect that its devaluation of human life resonated with their sense of apparently empty values in that department. Think what these movies do to all the other millions of kids that see them.

Given its taste for coldness, death, and darkness, it is no wonder that Hollywood doesn't have a clue as to how to give an honest portrayal of truly good people who give LIFE like "Jesus Christ" does. I suppose there are some cinematic exceptions to this rule of glorifying the death-dealers, but they are so few and far between that they are rather like the stopped clock which is right twice a day. By and large, Hollywood's claim-to-fame is in depicting cold and heartless death-givers, not life-givers. But then most of its practitioners probably have no shred of real understanding of the affirmation of life intrinsic within Christianity, Judaism, or any other truly life-affirming Faith which might lead them to creating life-affirming pictures. They say it is because that is what the box-office public "wants", but I suspect it is really a reflection of a collective lack of imagination and the ability to do hard work. When Hollywood does bring "religion" into a motion picture, it is to focus on and magnify those historically minor aberrations of Christianity and other religions (yes, we know, the crusades and the Spanish inquisition were terrible, but they represent less than 1% of the history and "works" of these religions, and were often the work of heretic weirdos, not the historical mainstream of these religions) The few exceptional people in the movie industry who have made life-affirming movies such as "It's A Wonderful Life" and "Chariots of Fire" have proven my point: with imagination and hard work a film can be excellent, can be popular, and can make a whole lot of money too. But it's easier to pander to death rather than life for these people. These movies, ultimately, are as life-fulfilling as ice.

Which is why it's so hard for the denizens of Hollywood to make a good movie about Jesus. Most of the movies that have come from Hollywood, whether they were made by secular interests or by religious-based groups, have really been disappointing and "plastic."

A notable exception to this general trend among movie-makers is a truly wonderful story about Jesus called Jesus of Nazareth. Here we find not ice, but fire.

Jesus of Nazareth (1977) by Franco Zifferelli presents anything except a "plastic" Jesus.

The cast includes:
Robert Powell.... Jesus Christ
Olivia Hussey…Mary
Anne Bancroft....Mary Magdalen
Ernest Borgnine.... The Centurion
Claudia Cardinale.... The Adulteress
Valentina Cortese…Herodias
James Farentino…Simon Peter
James Earl Jones…Balthazar
Stacy Keach…Barabbas
Tiny Lo Bianco…Quintilius
James Mason… Joseph of Arimathea
Ian McShane…Judas Iscariot
Laurence Olivier…Nicodemus
Donald Pleasance…Melchior
Christopher Plummer…Herod Antipas
Anthony Quinn…Caiaphas

In short, the actors and actresses in the film represent many of the most talented, awarded, and distinguished thespians of the last quarter of the 20th century. And they do outstanding work in this film which was directed very soulfully by Zifferelli.

This truly is undoubtedly the best re-enactment we have of the story of Jesus Christ to date. It is indeed an outstanding re-telling of the gospel story. Zifferelli deliberately made no effort to put his own 'interpretation' on the holy scriptures, but instead sticks to the written text word for word in which it appears he has adhered to faithfully. You get the whole story here: from Joseph & Mary's appearance in Bethlehem for the census and the early years of the boy Jesus growing up doing his 'Fathers' work, those early Faith-revealing miracles, the calling of the disciples, and ultimately to the betrayal of his followers and then the victory of the Resurrection and the scene that still sends chills down my spine- the last words to the disciples before he departs to Heaven.

Zeffirelli makes good use of his magnificent stars in this movie, giving the benevolent Sanhedrin characters, Nicodemus and Joseph of Aramathea to Olivier and James Mason. James Farentino makes a strong impression as Simon Peter and Anne Bancroft is stunning as an unforgettable Mary Magdalene, whose eyes burn with seemingly holy fire as she calls the disciples to account. Robert Powell, an auburn-haired actor, received well-deserved praise as the Messiah. While not exactly representative of the Jewish-Semetic man that Jesus was in reality, still the blue-eyed Powell does a fine job in what is probably the world's most difficult role.

The beautiful and authentic filming locations on the shores of the Sea of Gallilee and the kingdom of Jordan gave an added realism to the Holy Story. If you have ever been to this part of the Middle East, you know how important that real scenery is to this particular story.

All in all it is an outstanding creation. I just wonder if, on a lazy Saturday afternoon, God ever goes to the movies. And if he does, what does he think of this one? Maybe some day we'll find out. As for me, I like it a lot. It not only is entertaining, but it has also introduced millions of people to the reality that Jesus was a man who went about giving Life and Love to people. And it has made a lot of people want to go and give Life and Love to others. To return to an earlier word, I wish more films would do the same; not to preach a partisan religion, but simply to choose life, not death. Five stars.


Recommend this product? Yes

Viewing Format: VHS
Video Occasion: Good for Groups
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 13 and Older

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