Sunday, April 24, 2011

Easter Acid Cinema: JESUS OF NAZARETH (1977)

Call me a heretic, but I know that if Jesus were around today he'd be passing out dosed wafers in the park like that dude in HAIR; and I believe in Claude, God, and Franco Zeffirelli because none are afraid of dropping the foolish game of fear/desire outer wheel edge running and moving straight to the center, where self-sacrifice made in pure love meets pure light and the borderline between life and death is dissolved like a line of salt up the nose of the Atlantic. That's Jesus' country. Happy Easter!

Back in 2000 I was assigned all of Zeffirelli's film for a search engine project so I actually sat down and watched the entire six-hour movie of JESUS OF NAZARETH in a single night. Dude! I got converted for the whole rest of the weekend. Being less than a year in AA, I literally saw the light --it was the 'pink light' phase of early recovery; I wept a lot in those days, with cathartic joy like my soul had been frozen up inside an iceberg for 20 years and now the ice was breaking off in big chunks as it melted in the pink light sun. THE APOSTLE and BROTHER SUN, SISTER MOON were two other films I saw around the same time, and they made me pink-light gratitude weepy as well. Priase and gratitude to Bill W., Robert D., Franco Z, and Dr. Bob (and nurse Janis).

My previous relationship with Jesus had consisted first of resentful agitation via Sunday school, then anti-dogmatic arguments with various Christians, and then LSD various peaks and spiritual elevations, manic highs and exalted weekends, all followed by loss and depression. I would feel Jesus as my wingman, sometimes, and all would be glorious summer and love and egoless benevolence coursing like electricity through me, thanks to his magic... until he said, "Okay, now try it yourself for awhile, I have to go take care of something." Pretty soon my whole magical worldview would implode as the devil would move in to fill the gap, like the 'fun' uncle. Then of course there's the heaping amount of intolerance that goes on JC's holy name, which he does nothing to stop. All in all, you could describe his behavior as 'erratic.'

But Jesus is the ultimate in cool customers; he waits and waits and never begs you to take him back. He waits 'til you're in that foxhole of mortal fear and your atheism melts in the panic and then he forgives you your trespasses and wanderings, and you're forgetting to call him is forgotten. He never loses his edge of mystery; he's always the hottest guy in the room, spirituality-wise. But even if he doesn't exist except as a concept in a lot of folks' minds you have to agree that concepts have a lot of power. And like Martin Luther King or Gandhi, he inspired people to risk their lives in the name of love and an ideal, and that's not easy.

That's especially true in Zeffirelli's JESUS OF NAZARETH. According to my Argentine socialist intellectual filmmaker ex-wife, there's paintings and pictures all over South America taken from this mini-series TV event, and thus in millions of Catholic minds ever since, actor Robert Powell's Jesus is Jesus. That's what makes me so suspicious of the Shroud of Turin, why does Jesus look exactly like Robert Powell?

This must be said: Powell's performance as Jesus is probably one of the most amazing, deeply spiritual things I've ever seen. With his "piercing blue eyes surrounded by plenty of white, same expression with the mouth, same ecstatic near-death look in the eyes," as Sir Guy of Gisbornne describes, "I remember being totally electrified by Powell (I was 8)."

I hear you, Sir Guy. I was electrified and I was 33!

My favorite scenes involve Michael York as a gonzo John the Baptist (above). Before we see Salome (Isabel Mestres) dance for King Herod (Christopher Plummer) and get old John's head served to her on the proverbial platter (another highlight) there's York's big baptism scene with Powell: a powerhouse moment that rocketed me into archaic Christian nirvana. Frothing at the mouth stampeding around in his little nook of the river, he's gorgeous and magnetic and utterly alive. He's more of a Christ than Powell's Jesus in that moment and it's as if in baptizing him he suffuses Powell with that same grounded but manic holy fire. There's some major women: Ann Bancroft as Mary Magdalene, Olivia Hussey the Virgin Mary, the delectable Claudia Cardinale as the adulteress Jesus saves from stoning. The rest of the all-star cast may hide behind beards and some get less than a scene or two, but that's okay, the film has a great momentum, which as anyone who's sat through ponderous three hour Hollywood biblical epics can tell you, is a real rarity. I love that it's very linear - whatever scene they're in, they're talking about how worried or excited they are at what's coming up, then Boom, they go right to that scene they were worried about, wherein they talk about how worried they are about the next scene, Bam! It's a good steady rhythm that leaves no room for dullness.

The fist stone-casting scene is another highlight. While his anger brews, Jesus is sitting on the ground throwing small rocks back and forth against a wall and staring at them like runes as the local freaks want to stone a maiden death for the usual infidelity -- suddenly he gets up and launches into the "ye without sin" speech, and it flows so organically you're like, yo Jesus! I fucking love you! And Powell finds the line between being ass-kicking and fearless, masculine and idealistic, with being fathomlessly compassionate and kind. There's nothing like this moment anywhere else in cinema, let alone 'biblical' adaptations. It's alive with holy power - even on a small screen with eight other things going on in your living room - it reaches right into you and pulls something out.

Another hugely powerful moment is the crucifixion scene. We've seen Jesus take everything in stride, even his beating and whipping and thorn crowning, and nailing hands to the cross, but it's when the Romans hoist up the cross and Jesus feels the agony in his hands and shoulders as he's lifted up by these wounds that his eyes suddenly bug out in total surprise and pain. It's like this finally is so much pain he's suddenly agonizingly human, just for a second. His transcendence afterwards thus has so much power, even a stone shall not go unmoved.

So with all that in mind, shouldn't all these stone-minded Christians stop stoning our beloved Lindsay Lohan?  If this film were remade, she'd be the ideal choice to play the adulteress. Talk about forcing those unconscious fuckers to take a second or two before casting their next nasty e-comment!

So, wrapping up this sermon: Happy second birthday, Jesus! Keep coming back, it works if you work it so work it, we're worth it, and you're worth workin' it for. Even if those who act in your name are often violent idiots you're still cool. Amen, brother! Thank you thank you thank you. And Jesus, your Zeffirelli biography with all its actual locations, strong acting, fast-pace, trenchant insight, and painterly lush photography, and awesome Powell, York, and Hussey would look awesome on Blu-ray! Just sayin' - pull ze strings!


  1. Oh, Hell yeah! This is as cool as Easter gets. Great post!

  2. Anonymous23 June, 2012

    Hi. One of my teachers at the University is a member of the Shroud Science, which is a group of scientists who are studying the Shroud of Turin. These scientists think that the Shroud is about 2000 years old, and NOT an artifact from the Middle Ages.
    If you're interested in Jesus' possible physical features or message or spiritual power, you might be interested also in reading what some people with some spiritual/energetic talent (psychic, saints...)experienced and wrote. I suggest you try with Maria Valtorta, an Italian mystic and psychic who died in the 1960's. Her most famous writings were collected under the name of The Poem of the Man-God. It's a collection of about ten books where she describes her E.S.P. about Jesus and about superior beings (angels and souls/ghosts) and her inner visions about Jesus and part of His life.
    You should try and read some of that. Also look for Gemma Galgani, Faustina Kowalska, Josefa Menendez, A. Emmerich...

  3. Hey, thanks for the tip I will take a look at them all.

  4. Robert Powell seems forgotten though he was quite good -he has many films and television to his credit. Uk shows like Doomwatch,Thriller (not the one with Karloff),Amicus films like Asylum,Jude The Obscure,Mahler (for Ken Russell!) Tommy (for Ken Russell!!!),even a passable remake of The 39 Steps.It goes on-Shaka Zulu (an excellent piece). He is 75,happily still with us.-

    1. Mahler is on the Criterion channel. Damn, but he's thin. He's an excellent excellent voiceover guy - he does the "WW II in Color" docu series narration (I watch that almost constantly)

  5. Mahler is on the Criterion Channel - I started to watch it but it's kind of too Ken Russell-ish - lots of bland 'it's hard to be a rock god' posturing punctuated with Eisensteinien surrealist montage.


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