Monday, April 17, 2017

Jesus of Nazareth

Jesus of Nazareth; drama series, Italy / UK, 1977; D: Franco Zeffirelli, S: Robert Powell, Ralph Richardson, James Farentino, Olivia Hussey, Ian McShane, Anne Bancroft, James Mason, Laurence Olivier, James Earl Jones, Cyril Cusack, Ian Holm, Michael York, Stacy Keach, Christopher Plummer, Anthony Quinn, Rod Steiger, Ernest Borgnine, Peter Ustinov, Claudia Cardinale

In Canaan of the 1st Century AD, Joseph is engaged to Mary who gives birth to Jesus Christ after she heard a dream of God who told her that her child is going to be the Messiah. The Three wise men visit her and give her presents. 33 years later, Jesus starts to gather disciples from fishermen around the Sea of Galilee, among them Peter and Matthew. Jesus is also baptized by John the Baptist in Jordan, but the latter is arrested and executed by the Roman guards. Jesus becomes a popular religious teacher and even starts healing the sick and disabled. He travels to Jerusalem where he raises Lazarus from the dead and attacks the merchants for defiling the temple with their money and goods. Zealot Barabbas approaches Jesus in order to try to create a unified Jewish front against the Roman occupation, but Jesus refuses any violence. Finally, Judas betrays Jesus to the Roman soldiers, hoping to force him to perform miracles in front of them. Pontius Pilate is reluctant to convict Jesus, but the crowd votes to free Barabbas instead, and thus Jesus is cruficied. However, three days later, his body is gone and he appears in front of his disciples again.

One of the most expensive and ambitious TV projects of the 70s, this 4-part miniseries was met with huge approval by the Christian audiences: unlike other standard Bible movies depicting the life and death of Jesus Christ, director Franco Zeffirelli attempts a slightly different approach here and there, trying also to "fill in the blanks" between some Gospels which were left underdeveloped or incomplete. One such example is found in the first episode, depicting Joseph as an elderly bachelor who gets engaged to the young Mary. Upon finding out she is pregnant, even though they never slept together, he asks a man for advice who informs him that stoning is the punishment for infidelity, and later Joseph has a dream where he imagines men chasing and stoning Mary, which  terrifies him. This episode serves its purpose, because it expands Joseph from a one-dimensional sketch into a character who has no heart to complain against Mary, which works really well, even later on (it basically rhymes with the sequence where Jesus saves an adulteress from stoning).

Another great example of expanding the story is when young boys throw a balloon with alcohol into fire, causing it to explode, in order to tease Mary Magdalene in her home, who is, it is implied, a prostitute. These two moments are welcomed and refreshing, but once Jesus shows up, the story basically goes back to "autopilot" and follows the Gospels rather conventionally, refusing to add any surprises or new, invented moments. This leaves "Jesus of Nazareth" a little bit dry and stale, yielding to predictable formula of other adaptations of the New Testament, especially in decision to have Robert Powell just stare into the camera at times, portraying more his holly, mythical feature than his human character. A small delight are great, exotic locations in Morocco and Tunisia, which give it an aesthetic touch, as well as an star ensemble in small roles, with two standing out the most: Ian McShane as Judas (!) and Rod Steiger as Pilate ("How do you govern these people?"). A few neat dialogues are also welcomed ("Men must change before kingdoms do.") and the emotional, yet also sober tone of the series gives it a certain charm that helped it hold up fairly well to this day.


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