This Week's Review: "Jesus of Nazareth"

To paraphrase the Book of Ecclesiastes, “Of the making of biblical epics, there is no end.” Some curmudgeons would go so far as to describe “biblical epic” as a supreme oxymoron, but such films have had, and continue to have, an impact on the way we visualize parts of the Bible.

Last week, I nattered about “Quo Vadis” and threatened to fuss about “Jesus of Nazareth.” That version of the life of Christ was actually a television miniseries rather than a theatrical film, but it is marketed as a six-hour movie. To the best of my knowledge, the complete version is not available. I still remember seeing a few scenes in the original network showing that I have never seen again; the footage may be lost.

The late Franco Zeffirelli entered my awareness with his popular adaptations of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” and “The Taming of the Shrew.” I still remember a 60 Minutes interview in which Zeffirelli stated that Pope Paul VI had asked him to make a film about the life of Christ. The resulting film bears little resemblance to such epics as “Quo Vadis,” “King of Kings,” “Ben-Hur,” or “The Greatest Story Ever Told,”  but it is more effective.

Several important passages were not included in the film; e.g., the Mount of Transfiguration, the temptation in the wilderness, and the trial before Herod Antipas. Some scenes have no basis in Scripture; e.g., a supposed reconciliation between Matthew and Simon Peter.

Robert Powell was effective as Christ and the massive supporting cast was also good. (Powell’s version of Thomas Hardy’s “Jude the Obscure” is also memorable.) Among the more memorable performances are Michael York as John the Baptist and Peter Ustinov who continues the tradition of “out-Heroding Herod.” The film also brought such actors as Ian Holm and Ian McShane into the public eye.

If the theaters remain closed much longer, I may be reduced to reviewing such low-budget clinkers as “Sins of Jezebel” and “Slaves of Babylon.”