Given the many similarities, it's surprising to see how differently the two films have fared since their initial release. For many people Jesus of Nazareth is the definitive portrayal of the life of Christ – even those who have never seen it would identify Robert Powell's bearded face and piercing blue eyes as being Jesus. It was a role that made him a household name. It was the role he would always, henceforth, be identified with.
In contrast Moses the Lawgiver had chosen an existing star – Burt Lancaster – to play Moses, with his son Willliam playing Moses as a younger man. Ironically, it was Lancaster who Cecil B. DeMille had in mind when he began his hunt for the man to play Moses in his version of the story - The Ten Commandments - almost twenty years earlier. Initially Lancaster's presence made the series a success, so much so that the green light was given for Franco Zefferelli to make his famous Jesus biopic.
Thirty years on, however, Moses the Lawgiver is almost forgotten. There is a mound of information, analysis and reviews of Jesus of Nazareth, but Moses is mentioned only very rarely, and, even then, only in passing. Director Gianfranco De Bosio made just 4 more films over the next 20 years and today he doesn't even seem to merit a Wikipedia page. The last decade has witnessed a number of new movies about The Exodus, and on each occasion the film makers talk about showing a more human Moses, perhaps even unaware of De Bosio's film.
So it's pleasing, then, that Moses the Lawgiver has finally been released, uncut, on DVD, because in many ways it's the more interesting film. For all it's strength's Jesus of Nazareth is a fairly unimaginative telling of the life of its hero. Complexity, challenge, doubt and struggle are largely sidelined to make way for Powell's slow delivery, Zefferelli's admittedly beautiful iconography, or just more shots of those azure blue eyes.
DeBosio's film, however, is altogether deeper. Whereas God is made man in Jesus, here he is largely off screen. His words are mediated only through Moses. Even the viewer only hears him speak in Lancaster's voice. His (miraculous) actions are shown through subjective point of view shots, or meet, shortly afterwards, with a rational explanation.
In other places De Bosio toys with the idea of myth. We witness the staff turning into a snake when God first address Moses, but it's a sign that Moses never gets to perform. Once inside the palace Pharaoh seems to anticipate what Moses is about to do and he disparages it before his cousin gets the chance. Elsewhere Pharaoh lists and refute exaggerated claims about Moses which are, apparently beginning to circulate. They far exceed anything Exodus has to say about Moses.
Later in the film the visuals suggest contrasting versions of what really happened. The shots of the people crossing the Red Sea switch between huge waves and remarkably shallow water. Whilst some of this can be accounted for by the low budget, that explanation alone is certainly not adequate. Furthermore, the closing scenes seem to portray Moses dying twice. Initially Moses seems to have died in his tent in the same ordinary way that his siblings died before him. But then, Moses ascends the mountain overlooking the Promised Land and then lays down to die in the manner described at the end of Deuteronomy.
However, this is not purely modernist cynicism attempting to unstitch this great story. "Scientific" explanations for certain events may be voiced, but they are not entirely convincing. DeBosio refuses to give viewers (of any persuasion) the option of simply sitting back and having their viewpoint reinforced. He constantly challenges his audience to wrestle with the data and make sense of it.
Take, for example, the scenes where God's punishment is meted out. As a group of men picking firewood on the Sabbath are condemned to death, we sense Lancaster's struggles. Is he torn between his own feelings and God's will? Struggling with his own conscience? If Moses is making all this up why does he seemingly act against his own sense of right and wrong. If he's following God's orders, why do they seem harsh to him? If God is simply such a harsh God, then why is such compassion evident elsewhere in the film?
To present such delicate balance and such moral complexity in a film requires a great deal of skill, and it's a credit to DeBosio, Burgess, Lancaster, and no doubt many others that they manage hold it all together so remarkably.
Not all aspects of the film are handled quite as impressively. The series is a fairly low budget affair, and at times it really shows. In some cases this is the film's deliberate choice of aesthetic. As Lancaster explains in the DVD's bonus interview feature, the costumes are meant to look coarse, simple and inferior. The Israelites were slaves freed from poverty so they "deliberately tried to make it primitive", and it works well. At other times, though, things just look cheap, particularly the Egyptian sets and costumes. Admittedly DeMille style opulence is probably equally unlikely, but, as a result, the scenes in Pharaoh's court are probably the film's weakest.
The other weak point of the film is the acting in some of the crowd scenes. A great deal of this film is taken showing the opposition Moses faced from his people. Whilst some of this is crystallised into the complaints of a single figure Dathan (Joseph Shiloach), much of the moaning comes from the non-principals. As is often the case with such Bible Film heckling it fails to convince, no doubt because the extras don't speak English so the voices are dubbed later.
Aside from those scenes, there are a number of good performances. In addition to Lancaster's own, as commented on above, Anthony Quayle (Lawrence of Arabia, Anne of the Thousand Days) as Aaron, and Ingrid Thullin (Wild Strawberries) as Miriam carry the series well. And you sense Lancaster would have been proud of the way his son William Lancaster played Moses as a young man.
Overall, then, Moses the Lawgiver is well worth watching. The few weaker aspects can easily be forgiven for the way in which it probes the Biblical accounts of Moses and the Exodus and compares them with modern understandings of the story. By playfully juxtaposing the supernatural with the rational, it refuses to allow viewers to take a comfortable position.