This miniseries, a global event at its premiere, was a big deal when I was a kid. Every Easter, it was shown on TV and I found it an overwhelming experience, in no small part I’m sure because of my upbringing in a church. The crucifixion of Christ certainly made a powerful impact. So did likely the piercing blue eyes of Robert Powell – who made sure to never blink in any of his scenes.
Blending all four New Testament accounts
Today, most viewers will consider Jesus of Nazareth fairly conservative, but it does have a point of view. Writer Anthony Burgess, who was the main driving force behind the teleplay, blended all four New Testament accounts, aiming for a version of Christ as a natural human being with touches of divinity. As expected, American evangelicals chose to misunderstand this approach and were up in arms over a TV project denying Christ his divinity, even before they saw it. General Motors, who had agreed to fund much of the project, were intimidated and dropped out; it was up to Procter and Gamble to save the U.S. screening rights.
I’m sure those evangelicals actually fell in love with the series when they saw it. After all, the story takes the expected path, beginning with Mary and Joseph (Olivia Hussey, Yorgo Voyagis) meeting, followed by the Annunciation, the birth of Jesus, his rise as a controversial preacher, the gathering of disciples and performance of miracles, ending with Judas’s betrayal, the execution and the resurrection.
Promoted from the very top
”It all begins” are the last words spoken, and that’s where the Catholic Church comes in. Right from the start, Jesus of Nazareth was promoted from the very top. Pope Paul VI had seen Franco Zeffirelli’s miniseries Moses the Lawgiver (1973) and told its producer, Lew Grade, that he wished to see something similar made on the story of Christ. The Pope knew Zeffirelli and thought he was the guy to do it. Coordinating the project between his British company and the Italian TV network RAI, Grade secured a deal with General Motors and the massive project was announced in Rome. A perfect wedding between the crassly commercial and the devoutly religious?
In any case, Jesus of Nazareth delivers all the essential highlights from the New Testament in dramatic fashion, but also finds the time (perhaps in a slow-moving way that would never be allowed today) to delve deeper into some of the philosophical ideas and conversations of the scriptures. I’m sure this was the intellectual reward for Burgess when writing the script, but Zeffirelli and Grade also had the clear, immensely sympathetic ambition to make Jesus of Nazareth an ecumenical experience, enlisting the expertise of Vatican, Jewish and Muslim scholars in the process. Technically speaking, this is a very handsomely mounted miniseries, shot in Morocco and Tunisia. Maurice Jarre wrote one of his most memorable music scores, stuck in my mind for many days after revisiting it.
Part of the reason why this was such a big hit was also its all-star cast. As in so many Hollywood epics, some of the performances look a bit jarring, as having Ernest Borgnine play a Roman centurion in the fashion of John Wayne’s appearance in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). Still, many other efforts pay off, including Michael York as John the Baptist, but none as impressively as Powell’s. He wasn’t a big star and the role did for him what Superman did for Christopher Reeve – he was defined by it, for better or worse. But hey, the rest of us won’t be remembered in our obituaries as the ultimate Jesus Christ.
Jesus of Nazareth 1977-Italy-Britain. Made for TV. 382 min. Color. Produced by Vincenzo Labella. Directed by Franco Zeffirelli. Teleplay: Anthony Burgess, Franco Zeffirelli, Suso Cecchi D’Amico. Music: Maurice Jarre. Cast: Robert Powell (Jesus), Olivia Hussey (Mary), James Farentino (Peter), Ian McShane, Anne Bancroft, Christopher Plummer… Michael York, Ernest Borgnine, Claudia Cardinale, James Earl Jones, Stacy Keach, James Mason, Laurence Olivier, Donald Pleasence, Anthony Quinn, Fernando Rey, Ralph Richardson, Rod Steiger, Peter Ustinov, Ian Holm.
Trivia: Also released in 180- and 270-min. versions; shown either in two or four episodes. Maria Schneider, Marcello Mastroianni and Peter O’Toole were allegedly considered for roles. Producer Labella and Burgess reunited for the miniseries A.D. (1985), which chronicled life after the death of Jesus.
Last word: “I once had a letter from someone who worked in an old people’s home in South Africa. She said ‘I showed the film to the people at the home, and I sat next to an unwell woman in her eighties. When it came to the crucifixion I looked at her and she was sitting there with tears running down her face and a huge smile, she died two days later. That was the last image she had before she died.’ Wow, you suddenly realise the power of something like this, it’s phenomenal. I always try and play it down but I’ve been gobsmacked over the years. I get stopped in the street now in Greece, even with short hair, glasses and no beard.” (Powell, History Channel)