ROME, NOV. 5, 2007 (Zenit.org).- When the television miniseries “Jesus of Nazareth” was released 30 years ago, Pope Paul VI personally thanked Franco Zeffirelli for his work; but the series was a success only because of the Pontiff’s help, the director said.
At an Oct. 25 lecture marking the new academic year at the Pontifical Lateran University of Rome, Zeffirelli recalled some of what went on behind the scenes during the filming of the more than six hours of “Jesus of Nazareth.”
As a youth, Zeffirelli studied at St. Mark’s Convent in Florence. There, Cardinal Giovanni Montini, then archbishop of Milan and the future Paul VI, visited a group of Christian university youth involved with Catholic Action. It was at the school that Zeffirelli got to know the future Pope.
Cardinal Montini went there frequently, the director recalled, to spend what the cardinal called “the most happy hours of his day.”
The 84-year-old director related how the cardinal, who knew of the youth’s aspirations to the theater, told him jokingly, “In a different era, they would have kept you from being buried in consecrated land, but now the Church has changed, so much so that we welcome you as an instrument for spreading good ideas and good hope.”
“Later,” Zeffirelli said, it was the Pope who, “with his discreet network of influence, brought ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ forward through some difficulties. In the end, this order was given: ‘Zeffirelli or no one.'”
As the Italian director embarked upon his career and advanced in it, he said he realized “the weapon I had in my hands and how it could be decisive for the lives of thousands of people, as much for good as for evil.”
“When you have the possibility of encouraging men who suffer and of broadening their horizons of hope, you feel a responsibility that is too big for the poor man that you are,” he said.
“Jesus of Nazareth” is just one of the some two dozen productions that Zeffirelli directed.
Since its debut, he affirmed, letters of thanks and affection have been nonstop. And a few notes have even recounted a decision to follow a religious vocation, thanks to the inspiration received through the film.
“I only did what I could do as the Christian that I am in the depths of my spirit,” the director said.
Falling in place
According to Zeffirelli, “Jesus of Nazareth” progressed as if “it had wind in its sails.”
He recalled that Elizabeth Taylor was to play the part of Mary Magdalene. But when she fell ill, Anne Bancroft replaced her. Bancroft accepted less pay than what she was accustomed to, thus saving the production money.
The director also remembered the role of Monsignor Peter Rossano, former rector of the Pontifical Lateran University, who acted as consultant during the preparation and filming in Morocco.
Zeffirelli said his own faith was invigorated with the film. He described one moment, in particular: “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.”
“We suspected the intrusion of a supreme force guiding us,” he added, and because of this, “everyone knew that we were doing something very important.”
Zeffirelli spoke of the moment when the Pope expressed his gratitude for the movie: “When Paul VI received me in a private audience after viewing the film in 1977, he thanked me and asked me what the Church could do for me. I told him: ‘I would like this work to be brought to Russia as well.'”
“He looked at me and told me prophetically: ‘Have faith; soon the flag of Our Lady will wave above the Kremlin, in place of the red one.’
“On Dec. 8, 1991, the feast of the Immaculate Conception,” Zeffirelli recalled, “the red flag with the sickle and hammer that waved above the Kremlin for decades was replaced with the Russian Federation flag.”