This IS the best Jesus Movie I’ve ever seen, bar none. Keep in mind, as a professional story analyst with 25+ years of working for Hollywood Studio Executives, I am valued for my subjective opinion, experience with intellectual material, and ability to convey those things succinctly. High praise is rare.
My sister challenged me to do a review of Franco Zeffirelli’s NBC Movie Series Jesus of Nazareth (1977) a few days ago and, of course, I accepted. Silly me. It’s six plus hours of film: a 70s-era mini-series that was co-written and directed by the late, great Franco Zeffirelli. He is known for his operatic staging and adaptations of classic material.
My sister probably didn’t know what she was asking because she hadn’t seen the series herself. Anyway the challenge got me to watch the work during what Christians around the world call Holy Week. I had intended to post my review earlier this weekend but my new client kept me busy with not much time to myself so I’ll be brief.
Jesus of Nazareth was shot on location in Morocco and Tunisia. It was produced more than 46 years ago so it looks a bit dated and is slower paced than today’s movies. A plethora of long takes (few edits within a scene) and meticulous mise’-en-scene (staging within each frame) add up to an adaptation that feels more stage play than TV show. Anchoring scenes are often so beautifully composed they look like paintings. The costumes and sets are lavishly done in costume-drama style.
Zeffirelli covers the life of Christ from the betrothal of Jesus’ mother Mary to Joseph all the way through to his crucifixion and resurrection. It takes its cue as an epic from big studio films like Ben Hur: A Tale of Christ (1959) and The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) on a scaled down the budget. The cast is remarkably full of star cameos for the pivotal roles. So the lesser known English actors in the title roles are extremely well supported. This strategy elevates the whole mini-series.
The script pays great attention to historical and biblical detail. There are lots of direct quotes from the Christian Bible and The Torah and yet the story has a light, sophisticated touch bordering on the mystical. Since we already know the story, we are invited to consider it anew through thoughtful nuance. The Sanhedrin trial of Jesus and Judas’ betrayal are handled especially well, offering new insights.
Respect for the audience’s of knowledge of the tale is, to my mind, what makes Jesus of Nazareth an enduring and definitive work. Zeffirelli never talks down to us. Likewise noteworthy is the fact that spiritual forces at play are not anthropomorphized as beings. They’re instead conveyed as the interplay of light and shadow, pastels juxtaposed with primaries. Subtle yet powerful. I highly recommend it.
Jesus of Nazareth is on YouTube and streaming on Amazon Prime.
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