The Best Movie About Jesus Christ Ever Made
My Christian faith is something I rarely talk about, especially here. I’ve mentioned it a few times in my posts but for the most part I focus on movies, comics, television shows, etc. Obviously this is a site devoted to geek culture. You don’t come here to hear me preach. Plenty of other websites for that. Suffice it to say that I am Christian and it’s a big part of what defines me.
Since the invention of film, Bible stories have been an integral feature in the cinematic lexicon. The Ten Commandments, The Robe, Ben-Hur, The Passion of the Christ, even Jesus Christ Superstar and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat–the Bible is rife with incidents tailor-made for cinema. Whether you’re Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Christian, agnostic, or flat-out atheist; if you are a fan of cinema there’s plenty of value to be found in Biblical movies. It’s also arguably the genre where people find it hardest to be objective.* Everyone brings their own personal beliefs to films of this nature, and it is virtually impossible to suspend those beliefs when you’re critiquing a film. Don’t believe me? Google some of the reviews for The Passion of the Christ or The Last Temptation of Christ. Bottom line, how Jesse Jackson views a religious based movie is going to be vastly different from how Michael Moore views it.
However, I firmly believe you can appreciate and critique any religious film and judge it on its own merits or faults, regardless of your faith or lack thereof.
I’ve seen dozens of religious films over the years both good and bad. But the best depiction of the Jesus story I’ve ever seen wasn’t even a movie, it was a mini-series. (Sorry for the misleading post title.)
Director Franco Zeffirelli’s 1977 NBC mini-series Jesus of Nazareth is nothing less than a masterpiece. I knew that from the first time I saw it when I was ten years old and my parents let me stay up late to watch it. (Incidentally it was on network television every year around Easter for most of the 80s and 90s and if you look you can usually find it around this time of year as well.)
Zeffirelli (still kicking at 93 and known mostly for his Shakespeare adaptations.) used a Gospel Harmony approach to the story in that it blends the elements of all four New Testament accounts. While there are some narrative deviations from the Gospels such as taking liberties with Judas Iscariot’s (Ian McShane of Deadwood fame who is brilliant here) motivations, the introduction of a few fictional characters, and Jesus’ initial meeting with Barabbas (Stacy Keach), it in no way takes away from the brilliance of the miniseries. The miracles are also very understated, avoiding spectacle evident in films like The Ten Commandments and Exodus: Gods and Kings. Zeffirelli’s direction is flawless here, as he manages to breathe life into an ancient tale and generates an engaging but non-didactic work of art.
I’ll admit that Part I of the miniseries is somewhat slow, however the talent involved makes it compelling. During the birth of Jesus, James Earl Jones, albeit in a small role, makes for a great Balthazar, one of the three Wise Kings. Peter Ustinov also does well as a slightly unhinged Herod the Great who fears being overthrown. Even Ralph Richardson (Dragonslayer) makes a cameo as Simeon, a man told by God that he would live to see the Messiah before he died.
As solid as the parts are that depict Jesus’s younger years, Jesus of Nazareth really takes off when Jesus first begins his ministry. I can’t think of a single solitary scene from Jesus’ adult life that isn’t anything less than remarkable. From Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist (Michael York) to the parable of the Prodigal Son that unites Peter and Matthew, to the Sermon on the Mount, to the Last Supper; every classic scene is dynamic and captivating. The chemistry among the apostles resonates with a pathos I’ve never seen matched on the big or small screen.
My favorite story (at least from the New Testament) has always been Jesus and the Centurion and Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth NAILS that scene:
As you might have noticed by Ernest Borgnine’s involvement, what separates Jesus of Nazareth from many Biblical epics is the amount of star power in the mini-series. Typically in any Bible film there’s maybe one or two movie stars–Charlton Heston, Kirk Douglas, Christian Bale, etc. However in Zeffirelli’s film there’s no less than SEVEN Oscar winners. Some in minor roles. Check out this list of talent:
Mary Magdalene (Anne Bancroft)
Roman Centurion (Ernest Borgnine)
Laurence Olivier (Nicodemus)
Christopher Plummer (Herod Antipas)
Anthony Quinn (Caiaphas)
Rod Steiger (Pontius Pilate)
Peter Ustinov (Herod the Great)
I dare you to find a better All-Star lineup in the history of cinema. And that’s not even mentioning guys like Stacy Keach, Ian McShane, Eli Wallach, James Mason, or Donald Pleasence–all very well-respected actors who rounded out this cast. It’s a beautiful stew of talent.
What makes for a towering story often relies on the backbone of cinematography and score. The parties involved in both facets are phenomenal. Armando Nannuzzi and David Watkin brought an elegance and magnificence to Jesus of Nazareth that never crosses the line into bombastic. It’s no coincidence that Watkin later won the Academy Award for 1985’s Out of Africa. Not to be outdone is Maurice Jarre’s memorable score which ranges the gamut from thrilling and powerful, to light and joyous, to severe and bleak. Every moment in the film fit the score hand in glove.
Despite everything I’ve mentioned, any story of Christ’s life hinges on the actor portraying Jesus. We’ve had some bad ones like Jeremy Sisto and Chris Sarandon (yup Prince Humperdinck from The Princess Bride) and some great ones like Jeffrey Hunter and Jim Caviezel. However for my money the best actor ever to portray Jesus was Jesus of Nazareth‘s lead Robert Powell.
As much as I loved Powell in this film, I can’t recall seeing him in anything else. Imagine my surprise when researching this post I found out that he’s been in over twenty films in a career that’s spanned five different decades. This includes the original 1969 movie The Italian Job. It’s maybe a credit to his performance in Zeffirelli’s mini-series that Powell’s turn as Jesus is so iconic, all his other roles fall by the wayside. Kind of like Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker in Star Wars.
Powell delivers a powerhouse performance that is unparalleled in my opinion. Every time he’s on-screen, his presence demands you to stop and take notice. He’s everything that I always pictured Jesus to be. Powell’s Jesus effortlessly flows between teacher and prophet, a man filled with righteous anger (his handling of the money changers at the Temple) and religious fervor, culminating with forgiving savior and Messiah. The two scenes that standout for me the most are The Last Supper and The Crucifixion. The latter is less violent and tempered than Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, but no less moving and emotional. I can’t overemphasize enough how amazing Robert Powell is in this role.
Whether you’re Christian, religious, non-religious, or agnostic, Jesus of Nazareth contains thematic elements that believers and non-believers alike can appreciate. Every element, down to the grains of sand on the streets of Jerusalem, scream authenticity. It’s hard not to get swept up in a world 2,000 years old yet somehow still relevant in the early part of the 21st century. This is a min-series that I would recommend to anyone and it conveniently just came out in Blu-ray. (JON) I implore you to give it a look.
Happy Easter everyone!
*For what it’s worth I think it’s impossible to critique a film with 100% objectivity. You can’t be completely objective about a totally subjective matter like movies. This holds true for almost any form of art, everything from video games to paintings hanging in the Louvre.
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