A Victorian surgeon rescues a heavily disfigured man who is mistreated while scraping a living as a side-show freak. Behind his monstrous facade, there is revealed a person of intelligence and sensitivity.
In this film, Jesus Christ's opposition against the scribes and the Pharisees ("Woe to you scribes and Pharisees!") come from Matthew 23 and Luke 11 in New Testament. Jesus Christ's biggest opponents were the Pharisees and the scribes because the Pharisees, the scribes, and all Jews who belonged to the sect of Pharisees obeyed Traditions of the Elders ("Mashlmanwatha da Qashishe" in Aramaic) which nullified the word of God (Matthew 15, Mark 7). Traditions of the Elders later came to be known as Talmud. This is also agreed by Jewish society. Rabbi Michael Rodkinson - "The Talmud, then, is the written form of that which, in the time of Jesus, was called the Traditions of the Elders, and to which he makes frequent allusions" (Source - The History of the Talmud, Vol. II, page 70, Chapter IX). See more »
Pilate asks Jesus if he is a king. Jesus responds, "I am," but his lips say something else. See more »
[discussing the idea of Jesus' being born in a stable]
And yet, I see the justice of it.
Not in glory, but in humility.
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With Franco Zeffirelli's 1977 made for television masterpiece and Anthony Burgess' screenplay, religious film simply does not get any better than this. Much as I admire Mel Gibson's monumental depiction of the last 12 hours of Jesus' life in "The Passion of the Christ", I still believe that the yardstick by which all 'passion play' genre films will be judged in future generations will be "Jesus of Nazareth".
After completing "Brother Son, Sister Moon", Zeffirelli turned (the Jewish) Sir Lew Grade down flat for this project, stubbornly refusing to engage on the project for a year and a half. As his other stage and screen projects turned to dust, however, he finally accepted the task. What finally convinced him was his conviction that the film could be compassionate towards the Jews, and thus could help undo some of the past hatred for which Christianity was renowned.
Burgess and Zeffirelli was a match made in heaven: Burgess turned in a script that took great liberties with the sacred text. Zeffirelli was uneasy with his liberalism, and sought to bring the script back to a more faithful rendition; yet Burgess' awesomely effective dramatic structure remains. Interestingly, Ingmar Bergman had already been asked to turn in a treatment, apparently before Zeffirelli was ever approached. However, the Roman Catholics who had been the original driving force for the project strongly objected to Bergman's idea of a series of mini lives of Jesus, as seen from the viewpoint of different characters.
Bergman was dismissive of the final Zeffirelli project, and it is certain that it would have been an entirely different film had he been asked to direct. While there is much to respect about Bergman, he would have been totally incapable of producing the beauty, purity and meaning in the hidden text that is so apparent in the final film.
Less than seven years later, Zeffirelli estimated that 750,000 people had seen the film. I saw the original transmission on American television in 1977, (it was aired nationwide at least twice in two years), and I also have an original and ageing VHS (PAL) copy. I plan a London revival of the series during Lent 2007, to mark the film's 30th anniversary. Back in 1977, it was the talk of the nation - in St. Louis, I heard of one lady who was instantly healed of cancer as she watched the crucifixion scene.
Interestingly, the resurrection scene nearly never got filmed. In fact, what we do see on screen is simply screen test material rescued from the editing bin at the final hour! The information above is documented in Franco Zeffirelli book, "Jesus: a Spiritual Diary" (1984: NY. Harper & Row) and Ingmar Bergman's "The Magic Lantern" (1988: London: Hamish Hamilton). However, there is no substitute for watching this masterpiece: in a word, it's awesome!
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