Starting with a narrative by John (of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John fame), he recalls his days spent with Jesus (Diogo Morgado). John (Sebastian Knapp) tells the Biblical tale (although wildly altered) of Jesus and his three year ministry on Earth to save the people from themselves using his healing words and teaching of pure love and peace. This, however, does NOT go over well with some of the Jews. . . especially with Pharisee Simon (Marc Paul Davis) and the High Priests.
Meanwhile, the whole of Jerusalem is under Roman occupation and their new governor, Pontius Pilate (Greg Hicks), a savage brute and vicious dictator, who comes to town with one message to the Jews: behave or be killed! The Sanhedrin (the leaders in Jewish Synagogue) have an uneasy alliance with him and temple leader, Caiaphas (Adrian Schiller), wants nothing more than to keep the peace, whatever the cost.
Jesus is starting to gain followers and disciples with his teachings, not to mention his healing miracles that are. . .well. . .miraculous! His rock-star status is troubling Jesus’ best friend and most loyal companion, Simon Peter (Darwin Shaw) who warns his friend about the Romans and their possible threat. But there’s a bigger threat looming: the High Priests are after Jesus as well. His popularity is growing so much that they’re worried Jesus could stage a riot and lead a revolt and, using this as a false weapon, Caiaphas tells Pilate this.
However Jesus, during a moment of clarity, drops a dime on himself and claims he is the Son of God! That blasphemy costs him dearly as the Sanhedrin goes all medieval on Jesus and has him arrested and brought before Pilate calling for his death. But Pilate, knowing Jesus is innocent and just a pawn, has the Jewish people decide what to do with him. You know what happens next. The horrible flogging, the bloody crucifixion, and Jesus’ rebirth and ultimate resurrection.
All in all, this version (and there have been hundreds) of the life of Christ isn’t nearly as good or as bad as the others. Being a Christian/Catholic, I was bemused by the lackadaisical approach and blatant inconsistencies that abounded in this movie. Shot on video, it has a flat look and feels empty and dull. Not a good thing.
The principal actors are all white and nearly all are British, while all the background actors are all European and LOOKED the part! Jesus, as stated in the Bible, was an average looking Joe, born of ethic origin parents of that time, not a pale, handsome white guy that looked like Josh Holloway from TV’s “Intelligence“. Plus, this Jesus smirked. Jesus never smirked. I’m pretty sure he didn’t. Laughed, yes. Smirked, no.
Director Christopher Spencer does an adequate job, but OMG, does he LOVE his close-ups, slo-mo’s and tracking slo-mo’s, and indulges them every chance he gets. And let’s not overlook editor Robert Hall’s smash-cuts, which are everywhere and very distracting. The aerial shots depicting the towns are embarrassing and look like they came from a cheap 50’s movie with cardboard cut-outs. Seriously? No CGI, guys? This IS 2014!
And don’t get me started on the scripture liberties! Screenwriters Richard Bedser, Christopher Spencer, Colin Swash, and Nic Young must have decided that their dialogue and scenes were far better than the actual Biblical ones; the ones that have been around for thousands of years. Believe me, I know this stuff and some of the scenes shown were way, way off base. What, didn’t they think anybody would notice? On the positive side, it was in English and not Aramaic with subtitles and it did tone the nauseating and disturbing imagery of Jesus’ death, like Mel Gibson’s morbid “Passion of the Christ”.
Still, for a younger generation who’ll never read a Bible, never go into a church (except to attend a wedding or a funeral), and are just a little bit curious about who this guy “Jesus” was, I suppose they could do worse than this movie. But then again, they could do better.
JESUS OF NAZARETH (1977)
Back in the hey-day of television mini-series like “The Thornbirds“, “Roots“, and “Shogun“, a joint British-Italian miniseries directed by acclaimed film director Franco Zeffirelli (his “Romeo and Juliet” with Olivia Hussey is a classic) hit American TV sets and dramatized the birth, life, and ultimate death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Although shot on location in Europe, it hosted an array of well-known American and British actors including Rod Steiger, Anne Bancroft, Lawrence Olivier, Ernest Borgnine, Peter Ustinov, Anthony Quinn, and British import Robert Powell as the Son of God.
Cross-sectioning the Bible and taking in the accounts of all four writers (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), the whirlwind of events starts with the life of Jesus as a child growing up only briefly (as the Bible omits the missing years from age 10 to age 30), and so alot here is embellished. It would have to be to fill up a week’s worth of television.
But the main story of a simple Jewish carpenter named Jesus, his ministry, his collection of friends, and the political structure of the Sanhedrin vs the Romans and their take on this Nazarene who is causing a ruckus in town, is looked at with more depth of feeling. Jesus (Powell) is a tall, skinny, white-skinned, blue-eyed, English-speaking journeyman who takes up his cross (pardon the pun) and spreads the Word throughout the towns and villages, while his disciples follow him. And speaking of disciples, Peter (James Farantino), Jesus’ BFF, will soon have his faith put to the test after Jesus is arrested for heresy.
The pompous and weary Roman governor Pontius Pilate (Steiger) offers Barabbas (Stacy Keach) to the Jewish crowd as to who will be killed. The blood-thirsty crowd wants Jesus to be crucified, much to Mary Magdalene’s (Bancroft) dismay, and off he goes to be murdered. Jesus dies and is laid to rest, but is resurrected three days later and comes back to hang with his friends for about 40 days until he goes back home for good.
One you get past Jesus being British and the largely American cast (“Hey, look! It’s James Earl Jones!”), you have an intensely long, but very traditional and reverent “by the book” religious depiction of the Man as His preachings. So much so, that Pope Paul VI loved it and copies of this movie, split into “chapters”, are shown in Catholic schools everywhere.Okay, so some parts of Jesus’ life are missing: the wedding at Cana where he changes the water into wine and the famous calming of the storm are not shown, but in a trade-off, you do get some great moments: You get to see John the Baptist (Michael York) and his problems, and “moments” like Borgnine as a Roman Centurion asking Jesus to cure his servant and the curing of the blind man in the temple. And when Jesus gets pissed here he gets REALLY pissed, unlike the “Son of God’s” Jesus who gets merely annoyed. Powell inhabits his character and brings out the teacher, the man, the spiritual leader, and the son of the Most High more than Morgado ever could.
Plus, you get Zeffirelli. His masterful direction is all over the place along with wonderful cinematography by Armando Nannuzzi and David Watkin. Sure it’s 382 minutes, but with today’s “binge watching”, it’s a great opportunity to sit down and watch this heart-warming and soul-filling movie.