Celluloid John the Baptist: Zeffirelli's 1977 Jesus of Nazareth (abbreviated)

Mark Goodacre has inspired me. As you may know he enjoys watching Jesus films. (His list can be accessed here: Celluloid Jesus: The Christ Films Web Pages). We can learn a lot about how people have read and interpreted the Bible and Christian tradition by observing what is included and excluded from these films, how characters are portrayed, etc. Well, I've decided it would be fun to do what Prof. Goodacre has been doing, but with an eye on how John the Baptist is portrayed. Since Franco Zeffirelli's 1977 mini-series Jesus of Nazareth is on Netflix I began there.

English actor Michael York plays John. The first mention of John is an adaption of Luke's gospel. Mary visits Elizabeth, the child in her womb leaps, Elizabeth bless Mary as the father of the messiah, etc. Then the child John is presented as being circumcised and named. We don't hear of John again until there is a scene of a scribe reading Isaiah 40, which serves as the transition to John's preaching along the river.

He is shaggy in appearance, especially his hair. His preaching is a mixture of rage and compassion, warning against a coming judgment while gracefully offering forgiveness to participants of his baptism. John warns the people against relying on "rituals" such as going to the temple and offering sacrifices. This feels a little bit Protestant in its polemic, though John as an anti-temple prophet is an interesting, and possibly historical, interpretation of his preaching.

John's preaching focuses on the hearts of the people. Crowds rush to him, evoking visually what Josephus and the Evangelists suggest when they present John as being wildly popular with the people. John's baptism washes away sins as he says, "Let this water wash away your sins," while baptizing.

The best scene is the one when Herod Antipas' train is passing through the region. John begins to yell at Antipas, rebuking him for his marriage to Herodias, Herodias is depicted on a couple of occasions as trying to convince Antipas to do something about John. Antipas replies that John is harmless, he's been in the wilderness all these years, and he doesn't want anything (as made evident by his poverty). Antipas mentions the inability to arrest John until he is back in Galilee, suggesting that the reason for the delay had to do with jurisdiction. When John screams at Antipas there is a shot of spit flying out of his mouth. Either he is unstable or extremely passionate and angry! 

John the Baptist in Jesus of Nazareth (1977). Source: excerptsofinri.com

John the Baptist in Jesus of Nazareth (1977). Source: excerptsofinri.com

John's preaching focuses on the hearts of the people. Crowds rush to him, evoking visually what Josephus and the Evangelists suggest when they present John as being wildly popular with the people. John's baptism washes away sins as he says, "Let this water wash away your sins," while baptizing.

The best scene is the one when Herod Antipas' train is passing through the region. John begins to yell at Antipas, rebuking him for his marriage to Herodias, Herodias is depicted on a couple of occasions as trying to convince Antipas to do something about John. Antipas replies that John is harmless, he's been in the wilderness all these years, and he doesn't want anything (as made evident by his poverty). Antipas mentions the inability to arrest John until he is back in Galilee, suggesting that the reason for the delay had to do with jurisdiction. When John screams at Antipas there is a shot of spit flying out of his mouth. Either he is unstable or extremely passionate and angry! 

John the Baptist and Jesus in Jesus of Nazareth (1977). Source: excerptsofinri.com

John the Baptist and Jesus in Jesus of Nazareth (1977). Source: excerptsofinri.com

He yells "God led you back from Babylon to serve him, but you betrayed him. Now you're warned: flee! flee!" Again, John wafts back and forth between judgment and mercy (much like the Gospels). Men and women respond to John coming to him for baptism. Eventually Jesus arrives in a very Matthean/Lukan way: John says Jesus should baptize him, but Jesus says the baptism must be done. The words "This is my beloved son in whom I'm well pleased" comes from John's mouth after he looks into the sky and sees a dove flying. Then the Johannine version of the story is integrated with John pointing out Jesus to Andrew and Philip saying that Jesus is "the Lamb of God." John tells them they need to follow Jesus: "It is him you must follow now, not me. He must increase and I must decrease." 

As Jesus departs and Andrew and Philip scurry behind him soldiers from Antipas descend upon the area to arrest John. His final words are "My time is over." He is arrested and Jesus is told, but that's the final scene with John in the abbreviated version (according to Goodacre the full version is 382 minutes while the version available on Netflix is 269 minutes). John "appears" twice more: First, Jesus uses his "brood of vipers" comments and later as the Sanhedrin debates what to do with Jesus one person lumps Jesus in with other failed prophets saying, "We've heard it all, from John the Baptist and others."

Although I don't have access to the extended version, I did find this clip from it where John and Antipas have a Jesus-Pilate moment. Antipas is distraught that he has imprisoned John. He wants to buy off John, to give him power. But, of course, John says he's come to announce the one who will be King. Most interesting here is when Antipas asks what John would do if set free. He says he'd follow Jesus.

John plays an important role in Zeffirelli's film. He is the forerunner to Jesus. He is wildly popular among the crowds. He haunts Antipas. Overall, not a bad cameo.