The Nativity of Jesus in Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth
The Nativity of Jesus has been a central element in the medium of film for decades. In all instances, all graphic representations of the birth of Christ are taken from the canonical Gospels of Matthew and Luke. While differences in the actual content of the narrative exist between the two gospels, Franco Zeffirellie’s Jesus of Nazareth combines both accounts of Jesus’ birth to a single narrative and adds other elements not found in either gospel.
In contrast to the Gospel according to Luke, the film honestly depicts the events leading to the birth of Jesus. Similar to the gospel, the film implied that the birth of Christ was foretold to Mary by an angel of God, although the film never really manifested an actual angel and only showed Mary talking to herself. The film, likewise, entailed the arrival of shepherds who were instructed to visit Jesus in the manger, and like Mary’s encounter, the film only implied such phenomenon and not actually shoed an angel instructing the shepherds/
While director Franco Zeffirelli included substantial elements from the gospel of Luke, he also takes elements, such as plot and characters, from the Gospel of Matthew. Particular elements from Matthew included the arrival of the three magi who presented Him with gifts of gold, and of incense, and of myrrh (Matthew 2:11). Likewise, the film also involved Joseph, Mary, and Jesus’ escape to Egypt to flee from the wrath of Herod the Great who was insulted by the Magi’s homage Christ received upon birth.
A notable divergence of Zeffirelli’s version of The Nativity from Matthew 1:18-25 is the presence of a woman named Abigail. In Jesus of Nazareth, Abigail is apparently responsible for Christ’s birth in a manger; she instructed a seemingly hopeless Joseph that in a nearby gate, outside the walls of Bethlehem, just before he reaches the road leading to Jerusalem, he would find stables to, at least, keep Mary warm and comfortable. Abigail’s role is also expanded to assisting Joseph in attending to Mary and the newly born Jesus.
Likewise, Zeffirelli added a prequel story revolving around the life of Joseph and Mary prior to the birth of Christ; the story chronicled the preparations made by Joseph and Mary for their wedding. However, a narrative of that nature was never mentioned by either Matthew or Luke. The evangelist of the Gospel of Matthew begins with the genealogy of Jesus, while devotes later chapters on Jesus’ maternal genealogy and begins the Gospel with a letter of intent addressed to an individual known as Theophilus as well as the annunciation of the birth of John the Baptist (Luke 1:1-4).
While there were notable changes in Zeffirelli’s version of the nativity story, the significance of the gospel narratives remain unchanged. This is because the film never really delineated the miraculous nature of the nativity. Although the involvement of the angels was never shown, the film managed to rouse the feeling that all the unexplainable events happened through God’s intervention. Similarly, the alterations made to the story never implied any negative undertone on the story of how Christ was born. However, Zeffirelli’s combination of elements from Matthew and Luke have created an entirely different story of the nativity of Jesus
The most probable cause of the film’s alterations is for the writers to establish the powers of God without making the film too literal and shallow. Likewise, Zeffirelli most likely intended the film to become as realistic as possible, so instead of showing the characters’ first hand experiences of divine manifestations and interventions, the film simply established it through second and third hand stories and perspectives. The annunciation of Christ’s birth to Mary, for instance, Mary’s conversation with the Angel is seen through Saint Anne’s perspective and not of Mary’s.