Why Jesus movies should be strange
“Jesus of Nazareth” starred almost everybody who was anybody in 1970s cinema. The cast of Franco Zeffirelli’s mini-series reads like an honor roll of Hollywood legends: Laurence Olivier, Christopher Plummer, Anne Bancroft, Olivia Hussey, Peter Ustinov and James Earl Jones, among others, all took part in his ambitious adaptation of the life of Christ.
Yet, despite its all-star cast, “Jesus of Nazareth” has not achieved the iconic status of the great biblical epics, like “The Ten Commandments”(1956) and “Ben Hur” (1959). The issue, in part, seems to be style. One might say the series lacks it, lurching between melodrama and something that nearly approaches comedy. Scenes of Michael York’s John the Baptist volubly crying out in the desert cut away to shots of Plummer’s Herod cavorting with Herodias; Hussey’s ethereal Virgin Mary is replaced on the screen by Ustinov, droll as ever as Old Herod.
“As with any international casting roster, some performances can be both uneven and jarring,” observed a 1977 New York Times review. “Just as one is settling into the substance of a scene, one sees Laurence Olivier lurking in some corner as Nicodemus, or Ralph Richardson as Simeon staggering dramatically into a synagogue.” It is a strange production that sometimes seems unsure of what it is and what it intends to be.
Disjointedness should not necessarily be taken as a defect.
In 2017, the series was described once again as “uneven,” by National Catholic Register’s Steven Greydanus. Though his overall take on it was positive, he noted that its “best sequences...alternate with indifferent or middling material.” He writes: “Key moments like Peter’s great confession of Jesus and the Last Supper are reverentially staged, while other moments like the Parable of the Prodigal Son and Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin are dramatically reimagined—and not infrequently the latter are more interesting and valuable than the former.”
And there is a disjunction between reverence and lively drama in “Jesus of Nazareth”—but that disjointedness should not necessarily be taken as a defect. Rather, I find that the absence of a unified style is thechief strength of “Jesus of Nazareth.” After all, Jesus Christ became a man who lived at a specific moment in history—and history operates by different rules than art.
When it comes to historical accuracy in religious movies, it is difficult to top Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” (2004), which takes meticulous pains to capture the sounds and sights of life in first-century Palestine, down to the Aramaic spoken by Jesus and his contemporaries. While it never appears to be deliberately anachronistic, “Jesus of Nazareth” goes to no such trouble. The characters all speak English, many with British accents. The costumes—particularly the carefully crimped forelocks worn by Joseph—seem a bit like, well, costumes. Hussey, as the Virgin Mary, never looks a day under 20, despite valiant attempts to age her, in later scenes, by streaking her hair with gray. She does not appear with Robert Powell’s adult Jesus until the very end of the series, probably because it was only too obvious that Powell was older than she was.
But “Jesus of Nazareth” is faithful to history in the very unevenness with which critics have taken issue. Theologians may debate about the degree to which history is scripted by God, but it seems clear that history—whether or not it has a script—has no single genre, mood or tone.
History is haphazard and wild, oscillating between tragedy and comedy. Historical actors do not always deliver their lines with the level of gravitas that a director might wish. There is no soundtrack, no special effects, no pause for applause.
“Jesus of Nazareth”is as comfortable dealing in sincerity as it is wallowing in melodrama. The most significant moments in the Gospels, such as the Nativity and the Passion feel very true to the Gospels. The shepherds kneel to the newborn baby Jesus against a flourish of trumpets and timpani, for instance.
History is haphazard and wild, oscillating between tragedy and comedy.
At other moments, a touch of mischief creeps in. Ustinov makes King Herod sound like an Oxford don, rolling his Rs and playing the dictionary like a piano. “Thank the divine Augustus for his unswerving—hem, benevolence,” he drawls to the patronizing Roman emissary who has just announced Caesar’s new census. When one of Mary Magdalene’s clients—clients!—asks her why she has not heard Jesus preach yet, her answer is blunt: “I sleep during the day, don’t I?” In this case, the series picks up on the historically unlikely but popular idea that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. “This Jesus—he says it’s not the righteous that need him, only the sinners,” the client replies, cheerfully counting out coins into her hand. We begin to see how readily this material can lend itself to the screwball treatment that it received in Monty Python’s“Life of Brian”(1979).In a fitting twist, “Life of Brian” was shot on the sets of “Jesus of Nazareth” a few years later.
These shifts between high drama and something lower and earthy in “Jesus of Nazareth” bring home the fact that Jesus Christ was a man who entered into history and was surrounded by ordinary people. If some of the material in “Jesus of Nazareth” seems too coarse for the seriousness of its central character, all the better: Jesus lived in a coarse and unpredictable world.
Representing something like the incarnation in art, then, becomes no straightforward task. Anything that truly captures the mystery of God become man should be uncertain, unsettled and uneven. Such art may not seem “good” by conventional standards because it defies the categories that we typically use to evaluate it.
Instead, the story of Jesus requires a different kind of art, one that is looser and more responsive to the lives of real human beings. In Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1953), Erich Auerbach says the literary tradition of realism was partially invented by the Jews in the Torah and carried on by the Christians in the New Testament. They created a sense of realism, he argues, by mixing “high” and “low” characters, subject matter, style and dialogue.
This amalgam of “high” and “low” contradicted ancient traditions in which “high” characters like gods, princes and heroes were treated in elevated forms such as the epic, while “low” characters like servants and clowns were portrayed in comedies and burlesques.
The separation of styles, showcased by the likes of Homer, lingered into the Renaissance. Open any play by Shakespeare, and you will notice that the higher-born or noble characters tend to speak in poetic meter, while their servants—when speaking to each other—communicate in the lowlier form of prose.
The Gospels refuse to adhere to any separation of “high” and “low” forms and, in doing so, captured the messy and incongruous elements of history. Auerbach argues that this “mingling of styles” is embedded in Christian theology: It is “graphically and harshly dramatized through God’s incarnation in a human being of the humblest social station, through his existence on earth amid humble everyday people and conditions, and through his Passion which, judged by earthly standards, was ignominious.”
Erich Auerbach was a German Jew. He wrote Mimesis in Turkey in the 1940s while living in exile from the Third Reich. For him, the incarnation was an interesting theory or literary development, not a fact. But if we take the incarnation as a fact, it becomes plain why the New Testament represents reality in a different way than Homer’s epics—in contrast to a fable, the New Testament is, actually, representing reality. God, in becoming man, fused the high drama of “elevated” characters and the low comedy of servants and fools. In his very person and in the movement he created the Lord blended poetry and prose.
The oddities of “Jesus of Nazareth” should not be dismissed as defects.
It is this blend that “Jesus of Nazareth” does so well, especially with regard to the title character. Jesus is a difficult person to represent in film, especially if the film intends to follow the script laid out by the New Testament. As a character, he cannot undergo any real development because his character does not permit it—by his very nature he is perfect and unchangeable. The most interesting figures in films about Jesus tend to be not Jesus himself but disciples or other auxiliaries. Like “Ben Hur”(1956),“Risen”(2016) capitalizes on this tendency by inventing a new central hero and allowing Jesus to appear in a supporting role, skirting any obligation or temptation to develop the character of the Son of God.
Robert Powell’s performance of Jesus is, like the film, “uneven.” His iteration of Jesus spends half the film staring beatifically off into the distance and declaiming in a halting monotone and the other half animated by a sort of desperate energy, clearly only too aware of all that he must accomplish in so little time. He tells the parable of the Prodigal Son with zest—even performing the voice of the aggrieved older brother—and his audience hangs on every word, listening like people who have never heard it before. He sees potential in Barrabas and tries to win him to his flock, and we feel his disappointment when Barrabas refuses and storms away.
One of Powell’s most effective moments as Jesus occurs when he first encounters Judas Iscariot or, more accurately, when Judas, aglow with revolutionary idealism, offers himself to Jesus as a “scholar who wishes to serve you.” This is one of the moments when Powell’s immobility really works; he sits leaning against a wall, head thrown back, eyes closed. But when Judas finishes his speech, he suddenly bows his head and covers his face with his hands, as if burdened by something painful that he alone can know. We recognize, eerily, that this man can see the future. We glimpse the divine in this simple, human gesture.
Powell’s Jesus moves lightly through a world that does not fully understand who he is. The series allows its viewers to share in this mysterious collaboration between the divine and the everyday —Auerbach’s “mingling of styles”—by allowing them to experience what it might have been like to witness the events of the Gospels in real time. Most films about Jesus are pitched to believers, withholding nothing from the audience—perhaps because there would be no point in doing so. The Annunciation sequence in “The Nativity Story”(2006), for instance, stages the full dialogue between Mary and Gabriel and ends with a swell of ethereal music that acts almost like a nod. You know what this means, it says. You know the significance of this, and how everything will play out.
In “Jesus of Nazareth,” the Annunciation is shot from the point of view of Mary’s mother, who watches her daughter cowering on the floor and making her “fiat” to a ray of light shining in through the window. We do not see the angel. Instead, we see Mary seeing the angel and must have faith that she truly sees who she is speaking to.
The question of spectatorship comes into play most profoundly in the scene where Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. The camera pans out as Lazarus advances from his tomb swathed in bandages. In panning out, it allows us to see the large crowd of onlookers that has gathered to witness this marvel. It also suddenly allows us to see the action from their vantage point. Lazarus becomes a mummy, an animate corpse defying the order of nature. We realize how frightening, and even horrific, this miracle might have looked to those who originally witnessed it, without having had their interpretation of the event shaped by centuries of exegesis and art.
The oddities of “Jesus of Nazareth,” then, should not be dismissed as defects. They capture the sheer strangeness and mystery of the Incarnation in a way that more polished films about Jesus fail to do. “What we see here is a world which on the one hand is entirely real, average, identifiable as to place, time and circumstances,” writes Auerbach, in describing the intrusion of Jesus Christ into history, “but which on the other hand is shaken in its very foundations, is transforming and renewing itself before our eyes.”
“Jesus of Nazareth” attends equally to both the reality and the transformation.