A statue should be raised to honor Franco Zefirelli’s moving picture masterpiece, Jesus of Nazareth, and for the courage, boldness and resilience in undertaking on such a heavy and spiritually creative task. For one to dare portray Jesus in a movie sounds really impossible and far fetched, but no matter how well one does it, and if not distorted, any such initiative should be received with open arms, as it is of tremendous help to understand the Bible, the mission of Jesus Christ in the world, and the historical context of His human condition on earth.
It is through the striking, powerful but candid blue eyes of Richard Powell and his faithful intonation that convinces and makes one understand more and strengthen the belief. The acting is so emotionally intense that it follows one through days and dreams, it carries the mind into higher spirits and opens up the Christian story for reconsideration, sweeps away barriers of disbelief and ripens the fruit of faith for any who is enlightened by this journey.
The strive for authenticity and the unfolding of parables and stories from the Gospels of Matthew, Marc, Luke or John provide much of the spiritual substance of this production. There is a unique blend of dusty winds and surreal sunshine that offers the frames of portraying the beginning of our A.D. times – Anno Domini Nostri Jesu Christi.
Filmed on location in Tunisia and Morocco, it originally aired on TV in April of 1977, as a precursory to the celebration of Easter, it was a massive success, some have deemed it somewhat commercial, but it does strike through as a message being followed and attempted to be understood by a very large audience.
This film represents a very important turning point in my life because it gave me the opportunity to draw closer to the mystery of Christ. I was forced to study the Scriptures in depth and my Catholicism, which I had been taught as a child, underwent, you could say, a new initiation which went far below the surface of my childhood experience. I would in part compare that moment in my life with the political experience I am living now: they are two periods of my life when I have had to work hard to get to the heart of mankind’s great problems: life, spirit, faith. During the filming of Jesus of Nazareth, I felt the Lord was guiding us and the wind was always behind us. In fact, everyone involved in the film had the same sensation, and it was a particularly happy, airy and easy time in our lives. There was a kind of ‘energy’ given off around us.
Olivia Hussey as Mary provides much of the essence for the opening acts alongside goodhearted Joseph (Yorgo Voyagis). A very much inspired casting by Zefirelli of a once upon a time 15 year-old Juliette (Hussey starring in Romeo and Juliette), this time around expressing the divine beauty, sorrow and profoundness that much portrays Mary as the Holy Mother of Jesus. So serene and yet so frightened comes the Annunciation through her eyes, such elevated spirits and happy feelings exult of her when bringing up little Jesus, and it is with the deepest suffering and sadness of her eyes that she settles onto the Cross and into contempt when learning of the news of the Passion of Christ.
John the Baptist brings repentance to the screen through the voice of Michael York, acted with will and strength as one would have never imagined. The scene of John seeing Jesus coming towards him through the waters of Jordan is breathtaking as the realization is strong and it melts John’s soul with happiness. “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” And then the Baptism…
“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Luke Chapter 4
The Proclamation of the Kingdom of God
When Jesus pronounces these words in the synagogue in Nazareth it has a tremendous impact, an emotional tear rolls down the hearts of the believer, but it is encountered with total skepticism and disbelief from the locals of Nazareth who knew the son of Joseph and nothing more.
Simon Peter as expressively portrayed by James Farentino, comes on and uncovers torment and hesitation, but also realization and belief. He is the one who thrice denies Jesus who at the Last Supper foretold him that he will do so “before the cock crows twice”.
One can only stop and be filled with joy and shivers of revelation when images shot for the Sermon of the Mount are being rolled and heard; such a strong and fulfilling message must have surrounded His followers and in such a setting that one can feel the Divine and participation to the blessings of the Beatitudes.
3: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4: Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
5: Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
6: Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
7: Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
8: Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
9: Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
10: Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven
11: Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
12: Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Matthew Chapter 5
The Sermon on the Mount, The Beatitudes
There is a majestic conglomerate of acting talent that is honoring this film from the likes of James Mason as the wise and honourable Joseph of Arimathea; Anthony Quinn as the Jewish high priest who thunders at the trial of Jesus; Rod Steiger as the Roman prefect of Judaea that with reluctance and without seeing any guilt has to condemn Jesus to be crucified; Laurence Olivier as Nicodemus the Pharisee that comes close to Jesus and tries to protect him during trial; Claudia Cardinale as the adulteress that Jesus forgives and tells to “go and sin no more”; Anne Bancroft as Mary Magdalene that with tearful eyes follows Jesus all along and is the one that is the first to witness the resurrection; Cristopher Plummer as Herod Antipas the one that savagely executes John the Baptist; Peter Ustinov as Herod the Great, the madman from Judea who couldn’t accept any other but himself as the king of Jews; or Ian Holm as Zerah, a fictitious character that is one of the masterminds of the Jewish council, the Sanhedrin . All these people seem more than actors and provide substance and veracity to the story, it is with great joy to watch them unfold on screen with belief.
The scene of the Last Supper has one’s heart stop and be filled with emotions of intense sadness and joy. The revelation of the betrayal among the apostles, the depthness and importance of the words Jesus lays forth, the highly spiritual atmosphere and intense reaction sends the spectator way beyond the feelings usually transmitted from a film. From Peter to Andrew, from John to James son of Zebedee, from Matthew to Thomas, from Philip to Bartholomew, from James son of Alphaeus to Thaddaeus and Simon the Cananean, they are all listening in silence and awe, eating and drinking the blessed bread and wine. The last one of the apostles, that is absent minded and expresses the hidden countenance of the betrayal – the one and only Judas Iscariot, is there dipping his morsel of demons into the start for the Passion of Christ.
“During the scene of the Last Supper, there was a climate of absolute silence and deep spirituality in the room, while outside, a sandstorm raged. The moment was broken by the sobbing of my co-workers.
“I want to think there was an energy outside of us, which was invoked in order to make that sublime moment. And in effect, it is one of the most beautiful and spine-tingling moments of the film.”
And then came the Cross and the greatest tragedy in the world, the Crucifixion of Jesus, the incomprehensible and hard to follow dramatic events that lead to it, the fulfillment of the salvation and of taking away the sin of the world, and for the world. It is with heavy heart for one to watch, feel and to somewhat understand the sufferings, betrayal, and cruelty that Jesus was to face. Outrage screams from the screen, one can think of how barbaric the Romans were to place the Crown of Thorns to proclaim Him as the King of Jews, or of how far can one go to discredit and get rid of the One that has claimed something they did not want to hear.
There is so much more to be said, thought and felt by, and it is hard to exit from the story of Jesus of Nazareth, but one has to always remember that around any Easter or Christmas celebration this is an excellent reference worth revisiting, trying to remind ourselves of what the celebrations are about, the Christian meanings and the story that defines Jesus, his birth, becoming, ministry, crucifixion and resurrection. There are two stories that are worth concluding on, as a continuation of the movie, it is of the experiences lived through the making of this production, they express and impress a lot, and they bring even more belief to the stage and beyond.
Ernest Borgnine, played a Roman centurion, a believer, for which Jesus has his servant healed, had a truly inspiring story from the set that has had a tremendous impact on his spiritual life.
When it came time for my scene during the crucifixion, the weather was chill and gray. The camera was to be focused on me at the foot of the cross, and so it was not necessary for Robert Powell, the actor who portrayed Jesus, to be there.
Instead, Zeffirelli put a chalk mark on a piece of scenery beside the cameraman. “I want you to look up at that mark,” he told me, “as if you were looking at Jesus.”
“Okay,” I said, moving into position and looking up at the mark as instructed.
I hesitated. Somehow I wasn’t ready. I was uneasy.
“Do you think it would be possible for somebody to read from the Bible the words Jesus said as He hung on the cross?” I asked.
I knew the words well from the days of my childhood in an Italian-American family in Connecticut, and I’d read them in preparation for the film. Even so, I wanted to hear them now.
“I will do it myself,” Zeffirelli said. He found a Bible, opened it to the book of Luke and signaled for the camera to start rolling.
As Zeffirelli began reading Christ’s words aloud, I stared up at that chalk mark, thinking what might have gone through the centurion’s mind.
That poor Man up there, I thought. I met Him when He healed my servant, who is like a son to me. Jesus says He is the Son of God, an unfortunate claim during these perilous times. But I know He is innocent of any crime.
“Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” The voice was Zeffirelli’s, but the words burned into me—the words of Jesus.
Forgive me, Father, for even being here, was the centurion’s prayer that formed in my thoughts. I am so ashamed, so ashamed.
“Verily I say unto thee, today shalt thou be with me in paradise,” said Jesus to the thief hanging next to Him.
If Jesus can forgive that criminal, then He will forgive me, I thought. I will lay down my sword and retire to my little farm outside of Rome.
Then it happened.
As I stared upward, instead of the chalk mark, I suddenly saw the face of Jesus Christ, lifelike and clear. It was not the features of Robert Powell I was used to seeing, but the most beautiful, gentle visage I have ever known.
Pain-seared, sweat-stained, with blood flowing down from thorns pressed deep, His face was still filled with compassion. He looked down at me through tragic, sorrowful eyes with an expression of love beyond description.
Then His cry rose against the desert wind. Not the voice of Zeffirelli, reading from the Bible, but the voice of Jesus Himself: “Father, into Thy hands I commend My spirit.”
In awe I watched Jesus’ head slump to one side. I knew He was dead. A terrible grief welled within me, and completely oblivious to the camera, I started sobbing uncontrollably.
“Cut!” yelled Zeffirelli. Olivia Hussey and Anne Bancroft were crying too. I wiped my eyes and looked up again to where I had seen Jesus – He was gone.
Whether I saw a vision of Jesus that windswept day or whether it was only something in my mind, I do not know. It doesn’t matter. For I do know that it was a profound spiritual experience and that I have not been quite the same person since.
I believe that I take my faith more seriously. I like to think that I’m more forgiving than I used to be. As that centurion learned 2,000 years ago, I too have found that you simply cannot come close to Jesus without being changed.”
And then there is the Resurrection…
“Is there an episode in the making of that film that left behind its mark?
Definitely. It was the episode of the resurrection, a focal point of our faith, which I was unable to film. I didn’t want to show the tomb with the doors thrown open, light shining, thunder… I had come up with another idea for the scene.
The apostles were hidden in the place where the Last Supper had taken place; they were confused and frightened, and it was Thomas who expressed these feelings they had in common. They could not agree among themselves and their faith was beginning to waver. They were still unable to understand the meaning of Christ’s sacrifice: Jesus had wanted to die as if He were a common criminal to show them the strength of His love. Suddenly, Mary Magdalene appears on the scene and as if she were a mad woman she tells them about having found the tomb empty and her meeting with the gardener who she recognizes as Jesus.
At that point, somebody knocks in the door, and all those present are terrified. A poor pilgrim, a beggar, appears on the doorstep and they let him come in. Only then do they realize, having seen His stigmata, that it is Jesus. I think personally this is a very beautiful scene.
We had reconstructed the scene in the garden of the hotel in Meknés in Morocco where we were staying, and having practiced it many times, we began to film the scene. Suddenly, we saw a dark blanket of clouds coming towards us on the horizon. In no time at all, the sky had turned black and a strong wind had come up: it was a sand storm. As the wind and the sand blew around us, we desperately tried to save the set but soon everything was covered in sand. It was impossible to film for the whole day.
The next morning, the weather was back to normal and we filmed some scenes in an olive grove near the hotel. Then, we decided to try to the scene of the resurrection. This time, a storm stopped us from filming. With one problem or another, it proved impossible to do that scene.
On my return to Italy, I spoke to Monsignor Romano, our religious expert, and he urged me to add the episode of the resurrection, saying that it was essential in a film on Christ. At that moment, the film ended with the scene of Sinedrita Zerah, a fictitious character, who having heard about the empty tomb exclaims: ‘Now, everything is about to begin.’ It was a wonderful finale with the excellent Ian Holm as Zerah, however, the film was obviously incomplete.
There was another extended meeting of the experts who all asked me to do something. I didn’t really want to film that scene any more, because I felt inside me that Someone had not wanted me to.
In the final stages of editing, something happened which can only be described as miraculous. In all our preparations, we had filmed a rehearsal of a scene with all the apostles around Jesus. Christ was giving His last farewell to the apostles before the Passion. I had completely forgotten about filming that clip, but here it was at the right time. There was no sound, only the image, so we recorded the sound by using the few words Jesus said to His disciples: ‘I will be with you until the end of time.’ Now we had the finale we had longed for.
God had wanted it so. On the other hand, it is impossible to create the scene of the resurrection and so we had to be satisfied with its meaning: He is risen and is with us forever.”