My dear people of St. Mary’s:
For two weeks now I have been spilling much ink in discussing the recent religious film, Son of God. Last week I promised you a column on a film version of the life of Our Lord that I do heartily recommend: Jesus of Nazareth, directed by Franco Zeffirelli, and shown as a television miniseries in 1977. It is available on DVD, and is often shown on cable television around this time of year. (It is also available for streaming on Netflix in a highly-edited version I do not recommend.) In my opinion, this work, running to 382 minutes, is the single best film depiction of the entire life of Our Lord that has ever been done.
It all began after Sir Lew Grade, the British film producer, made a television film with Burt Lancaster called Moses the Lawgiver in 1974. This led to Grade, who was Jewish, being granted an audience with Pope Paul VI, who very much admired that film. Apparently, during their meeting, the Pope remarked that he hoped Grade’s next project would be a life of Jesus. Grade was decided, and began work on the project almost immediately, securing the Italian film director (and Catholic) Franco Zeffirelli to head the project. Shortly thereafter, he hired the English novelist, Anthony Burgess, as screenwriter. Burgess, who is perhaps best known for his novel A Clockwork Orange, was a lapsed Catholic who nevertheless featured religious themes in many of his works. He was also the screenwriter for the Moses film.
Together they produced an extraordinary film. Many great actors and actresses took small parts: Laurence Olivier; Ralph Richardson; James Mason; Anthony Quinn; Ernest Borgnine; James Earl Jones; Christopher Plummer; Peter Ustinov; Rod Steiger; and Michael York. The actress Olivia Hussey turned in an absolutely unforgettable performance playing the Blessed Mother, as did James Farentino as Simon Peter. And a then fairly unknown English actor named Robert Powell powerfully depicted Jesus. But I must single out my favorite performance in the film: Anne Bancroft’s phenomenal portrayal of Mary Magdalene.
The reason, I believe, that this work has stood the test of time is because of its faithfulness to the Gospel storyline, its reverent portrayal of the historical figures of Scripture, and its willingness to use beloved and familiar quotations from the Bible as the basis for the script. As in any artistic depiction of a story from Scripture there is some artistic license. A fictional character, a scribe named Zerah, played by Ian Holm, is inserted to help explain some of the more complex plot points. This is done well, and quite effectively. I have, however, always had a problem with the overly-sympathetic portrayal of Judas Iscariot in the film. But that is a rather small point in a truly wonderful representation of our Lord’s life and ministry.
Well-written, beautifully acted, historically accurate, and reverently made, I would recommend this not merely as good family entertainment, but also as an excellent spiritual preparation as we approach Holy Week and Easter. A miniseries like Jesus of Nazareth shows us how powerful and valuable the medium of film can be when put in service to the truth of the Gospel.