Sunday, March 25, 2012

Jesus of Nazareth

Easter approaches, the focus of Christian life.  Many Christians watch Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" at this time of year, but at Casa Silverfiddle, we watch the late 1970's classic, Jesus of Nazareth.

It is an incredible move, if you can accept a blue-eyed Jesus.  Franco Zeffirelli did it to subtly make Jesus stand out, since the director controversially chose to emphasize the humanness of Our Lord.  The network almost refused to run it, despite the impressive cast of big name actors.

Michael York provides the performance of the movie as a very scary John the Baptist, preaching fire and brimstone like a raving mad man, and tenderly baptizing the repentant.  He should have won an Oscar, the way he so brought this most important man to life.

When he spies Jesus approaching as he is baptizing people, you see him express first an unselfish sadness that he must soon leave this world, followed immediately by a redemptive and inexpressible joy that the Messiah has arrived.  Beautiful.

I don't praise his performance lightly, because the cast is a star-studded who's who of all the big actors of that era.  Robert Powell's portrayal of Jesus is almost hypnotic as he tells parables and befriends those around him, including prostitutes and tax collectors.  James Farrentino is a burly, blustery Simon Peter, gruffly cursing his crew as they get the boats in.  In a crucial and tender moment at Matthew the tax collector's house, he drops his skepticism by tearfully confessing to Jesus, "I'm a stupid man."

Anthony Quinn as a tormented Caiaphas discussing Jesus with the Sanhedrin brings you right there, 2000 dusty years ago as they ponder and debate what it all means. Peter Ustinov is a deliciously decadent Herod, whose imperious and courtly mien descends into a purple murderous rage at the realization that the baby Messiah has escaped his grasp. These scenes bring the Bible stories to life in a way reading cannot, and I love reading and I love the Bible.

The masterpiece is a little over 6 hours long, but because it was originally a mini-series, it is easily broken up into smaller episodes. It is a great way to focus yourself and your children on the life of Jesus as you prepare for Easter. Watching it will also bring home just how controversial Our Lord's life on earth was, from the virgin birth, which caused quite a scandal, to the the zealots and ordinary Jews who saw in him an earthly savior who would lead them in driving the Romans from Jewish lands.

It is a reverent and beautiful treatment of the life of Jesus. I highly recommend it to you and your family.

For more information, I stumbled upon this website that links Bible passages to scenes of the movie.


Teresa said...

I have seen Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ and I think he did a superb job with the whole movie but especially with his depiction of Jesus' suffering at the hands of Herod and at the cross.

I am pretty sure that I have seen Jesus of Nazareth but I believe it was a long while ago. I hope to rent both in this last couple of weeks of Lent.
Here is the trailer to Jesus of Nazareth

Always On Watch said...

When I taught in a Christian school all those years ago (1978-1996), every year we had just-before-Easter-break assemblies so that students could watch Jesus of Nazareth. It's an excellent film. The movie is quite long, so we broke the movie up into sections -- easy to do with those VCR tapes.

Ducky's here said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ducky's here said...

I frankly think that homoerotic sadomasochism is not appropriate to tell the Easter story so Gibson is out.

I prefer Pasolini's Gospel According to St. Matthew though I'm skeptical of the stories that he tried to cast Jack Kerouac as Christ and had to settle for an unemployed communist truck driver.

Jersey McJones said...

Ducky, you have got a warped sense of humor!

One would think the Bible would make for some great films, but sadly, most attempts, regardless of budget, cast, or directors, just wash out. There's something about the stories of the Bible that Hollywood, and the rest of the film world, just doesn't get. Surprised?

I remember the late-70's miniseries in your post Silver, and as I recall it was family friendly, as much of the Bible is really not, from a film-making standpoint. But of course, given the cast, the characters all felt more like projections of the actors bigger-than-life personalities than Middle Easterners of 2000 years ago.

Gibson's take was infamously and pointlessly gruesome (making essentially an entire film out of something the Bible treats very quickly). But Gibson had a popular political angle - that Christians are somehow "victims" in an anti-Christian, "secular" world, a nonsensical premise on the face of it. Christianity may be under assault of our culture, but Christians are most certainly not under any assault from the politics they mainly control.

The big box office Bible tickets of the 50's and 60's, and all the way back to the beginning of film, were just terrible. Over-acted, over-produced vehicles driven right off a cliff.

That said, there have been some Bible-based movies that I thought were very good and everyone should see them.

First: The Life of Brian. Yes, it's a comedy, but then isn't it all? Just ask Dante! The variety of issues tackled by the brilliant Monty Python team just go on an on, from sectarianism to terrorism to empire to morality to the boundless possibilities of reality, Monty Python covers it all in one film. Brian in a way is Jesus, and the late great Graham Chapman makes us all feel like we have a little of Jesus in all of us.

(By the way, Silver, if you watch the Life of Brian you might feel a little deja vu - they used the same sets Zefirelli left behind)

Next: Genesis. This African film just draws you in and really creates an Old Testament-times feeling. If the stories of the OT seem a little hard to swallow, this film puts them in a believably human light. Everyone should see this film.

Now, as for Jesus, Himself, He may be just too iconic to play. That's why The Last Temptation is the closest to tolerable portrayals of Jesus I've ever seen. The film was very controversial, though I doubt any of it's detractors have ever seen it, and yes, Scorsese, as usual, oozes all over it, but it is worth seeing.



Anonymous said...

I had to watch the Gospel According to St. Matthew in a humanities class in college. Interesting . . . that's the only word I can use to describe it, lol.

I think it's important to emphasize Jesus' humanity because I think that is something that is lost on a lot of Christians.

If you are Christian, you have to ask yourself "why did God choose for the 'savior' to be human?"

Christopher - Conservative Perspective said...


While I highly appreciate the production of 'Jesus of Nazareth' and watch it to this day, I find 'The Passion of Christ' more powerful in explaining why we as Christians mark and celebrate Easter.

If one is prone to watching movies based on our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ at this time of year, or any time for that matter, I would suggest they view both of those films for a well rounded audio/visual immersion into this event and the on-going mutual commitment.

Anonymous said...

I think SF's recommendation is perfect. What else would you want to sit down together with your kids to reflect on the message and values?

It is not about who did the most realistic production but rather who gets that message across to you as individuals. I also agree that the portrayal of John the Baptist was worthy of a nomination.

The Passion is a great job of sending a particular view, but not for family.

Mind you The Life of Brian (release 'Bwian'!) at other times probably tells us more about our society's own hypocrisy more than most intsructual films....

Damien Charles

Ducky's here said...

Neorealism doesn't do it for you, Jack? He's an acquired taste.

Worth a rental is Cecil B. DeMille's silent film King of Kings . He perfected a formula for those epics that didn't change. The art direction looks very similar to The Ten Commandments despite being separated by 40 years. The actor playing Peter gives "chew the scenery" new meaning.

Z said...

Jack, is that a rhetorical question on your part?

SF, thanks...I might just get this thru Netflix... I appreciate the recommendation; what an excellent way to celebrate the next two weeks.

MathewK said...

Gibson's Passion of the Christ was moving for me. Really hit home that one.

Silverfiddle said...

Jersey: Ducky is not a wit. He got the "homo-erotic" line from Christopher Hitchens.

Damien: I agree with your comments viz Gibson's movie. It was artfully done, overdone in some places, but I prefer Jesus of Nazareth for the whole family.

Ducky's here said...

Sorry bubba, I never read Hitchens' revue.

It's pretty obvious that Gibson is a sick puppy (and a crappy film maker) who has a real perverse idea that man can only be redeemed by physical pain. The theme runs through his films.

Passion of the Christ is for the mentally ill.

Jersey McJones said...

Silver, I doubt Ducky gets his stuff from Hitchens. Heck, I always hoped John Waters would make a Jesus movie! I think it could be funny a hell. There's plenty of homo-erotic fun to be had with the Bible. It's all just for laughs.

Of course, I come once again to the Life of Brian. Remember "Loretta?"



dmarks said...

JMJ: Go for it. Make this movie. As long as you don't go as far as drawing a cartoon of the founder of Islam, things will be all fine and peaceful.

Silverfiddle said...

JMJ and Ducky: I'll take Ducky's word that he didn't directly filch the phrase from Hitchens. More likely, he picked it up at one of the multifarious lefty founts of idiocy that latched onto it and made it go viral.

It it witty and makes sense coming from Hitchens; but sound like stupid and brainless parroting coming from anyone else.

So JMJ and Ducky, how about DMark's idea? You'd enjoy an homo-erotic Mohammad movie as well, right? Maybe with some historically-accurate pedophilia thrown in?

The Hollyweed who trash and lampoon Christianity don't have to balls to go after the religion of pieces in a similar manner.

jez said...

I agree, I think an Islamic "life of Brian" would be profoundly helpful. All we need is someone funny enough and knowledgeable enough.

Speaking of which, have you seen Chris Morris' "four lions"?

Jersey McJones said...

Well, gee, Silver, do you think Christians should be more like reactionary conservative Muslims???

It just goes to prove that culture trumps religion. Christianity could certainly be understood, and has in the not-so-distant past, to be just as defensive as Islam. But here in the West, we enjoy a more secular, laizzez faire culture, so we can have fun with Christianity without too much trouble.

Remember though - when the Life of Brian came out, it was boycotted by many movie theaters, in relatively more religious communities, throughout the country because of the nature of the humor. It's not like you Christians are all that secure in your faith either.


Rob said...

I found Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" to be at the same time grotesque and dull. It was needlessly graphic in its depiction of the cruelty that Jesus suffered. There are ways to make a viewer understand His plight without actual leading them by the nose and explicitly showing torturous details.

And why is it that we all seem so eager to forget that Jesus is quite unlikely to have looked anything like a Doobie Brother? Isn't it more realistic to predict that He would have had olive-toned skin, a broad nose, and coarse, black hair? If that sort of physical image for Jesus is tough for us white-bread Christians to stomach, then perhaps that's something worth examining...

Ducky's here said...

So JMJ and Ducky, how about DMark's idea? You'd enjoy an homo-erotic Mohammad movie as well, right?


No, just as I didn't enjoy the posturing of Gibson's film.

... or if it were Buddha, Lao-tse, Shiva or others.

Has Hollywood trashed Christianity? I don't think so but why not kick the Total Hollywood diet?

Starter films:

1: The Passion of Joan of Arc - Carl Dreyer

Notable for the finest female performance on film.

2. Diary of a Country Priest - Robert Bresson

"In the end there is only grace"

3. Ordet - Carl Dreyer

How deep are our differences?

4. The Gospel According to St. Matthew - Pier Paolo Pasolini

From an atheist ,Marxist, homosexual but if you had not known me you would not seek me.

5. The Burmese Harp - Kon Ichikawa

"The soil of Burma is red, and so are its rocks." Similar to Job but after the Japanese withdrawal.

6. Wings of Desire - Wim Wenders

Can God physically intervene? What is the nature of the divine become man.

7. The Rapture - Michael Tolkin

Outstanding intelligent Hollywood treatment of the topic.

8. The Spirit of the Beehive - Victor Erice

“If you’re his friend, you can talk to him whenever you like. Close your eyes and call to him.”

Very incomplete list and there are some very good, if unchallenging, Hollywood epics. And if your thing is homoerotic sadomasochism, that's also covered.

98ZJUSMC said...

I'm Catholic.

Never seen it. Probably won't. No reason to.

Silverfiddle said...

Jersey: Don't you think the very real specter of getting your head cut off keeps the Hollyweeds from doing a Muslim movie that is less than bow down reverent. Salman Rushdie is an excellent writer, but his book has never been made into a movie. Wonder why...

jez said...

Well, Hollywood didn't make Life of Brian either.

Please consider my earlier mention of Chris Morris' "four lions" a hearty recommendation.