(Italian: Gesù di Nazareth) is a 1977 British-Italian television miniseries co-written (with Anthony Burgess and Suso Cecchi d’Amico) and directed by Franco Zeffirelli which dramatizes the birth, life, ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus. It stars Robert Powell as Jesus. The miniseries features an all star cast of famous American and European actors, including seven Oscar winners (Plummer (subsequent winner), Bancroft, Steiger, Olivier, Borgnine, Ustinov and Quinn).
Extra-biblical traditions were used in the writing of the screenplay and some characters (such as Zerah) and situations were invented for the film for brevity or dramatic purposes. Notably, Jesus of Nazareth depicts Judas Iscariot as a well-intentioned man initially, but later as a dupe of Zerah who betrays Jesus largely as a result of Zerah’s false platitudes and pretexts. However, in accordance with the Gospels, the film depicts Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea as sympathetic members of the Sanhedrin. Many of the miracles of Jesus, such as the changing of water into wine at thewedding at Cana, the transfiguration, and the calming of the storm are not depicted, although Jesus healing the blind man and the crippled woman on Sabbath, the feeding of the multitude, and the raising of Lazarus from the dead are.
Jesus of Nazareth premiered on the Italian channel Rai 1 on March 27, 1977 and was first aired in the United Kingdom and the United States on the ITV and NBC networks on April 3, 1977. It is generally well-praised, but was not received without controversy.
The storyline of Jesus of Nazareth is a kind of cinematic Diatessaron, or “Gospel harmony”, blending the narratives of all four New Testament accounts. It takes a fairly naturalistic approach, de-emphasizing special effects when miracles are depicted and presenting Jesus as more or less evenly divine and human. The familiar Christian episodes are presented chronologically: the betrothal, and later marriage, of Mary and Joseph; the Annunciation; the Visitation; the circumcision of John the Baptist; the Nativity of Jesus; the visit of the Magi; the circumcision of Jesus; the Census of Quirinius; the flight into Egypt and Slaughter of the Innocents; the Finding in the Temple; the Baptism of Jesus; thewoman caught in adultery; Jesus helping Peter catch the fish; the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 11-32); a dialogue between Jesus and Barabbas (non-biblical); Matthew’s dinner party; the Sermon on the Mount; debating with Joseph of Arimathea; the curing of the blind man at the pool; the Raising of Lazarus (John 11:43); the Feeding of the Five Thousand; the Entry into Jerusalem; Jesus and the money changers; the Last Supper; the betrayal of Jesus by Judas; Peter denying Christ and repenting of it; the judgment of Jesus by Pilate (“Ecce Homo”); the Johannine Passion Narrative (John 18-19; including the Agony in the Garden); the Carrying of the Cross; the Crucifixion of Christ(Laurence Olivier’s Nicodemus recites the “Suffering Servant” passage [Isaiah’ 53:3-5] as he looks helplessly on the crucified Messiah); the discovery of the empty tomb; and an appearance of the Risen Christ to his Disciples. The film’s storyline concludes with the non-Biblical character Zerah and his colleagues gazing despairingly into the empty tomb. Zerah’s laments: “Now it begins. It all begins”.
Robert Powell as Jesus of Nazareth
- Robert Powell as Jesus
- Anne Bancroft as Mary Magdalene
- Ernest Borgnine as the Roman Centurion
- Claudia Cardinale as the Adulteress
- Valentina Cortese as Herodias
- James Farentino as Peter
- James Earl Jones as Balthazar
- Stacy Keach as Barabbas
- Tony Lo Bianco as Quintillius
- James Mason as Joseph of Arimathea
- Ian McShane as Judas Iscariot
- Laurence Olivier as Nicodemus
- Tony Lo Bianco as Melchior
- Christopher Plummer as Herod Antipas
- Anthony Quinn as Caiaphas
- Fernando Rey as Gaspar
- Ralph Richardson as Simeon
- Rod Steiger as Pontius Pilate
- Peter Ustinov as Herod the Great
- Michael York as John the Baptist
- Olivia Hussey as Mary, the mother of Jesus
- Cyril Cusack as Yehuda
- Ian Holm as Zerah
- Yorgo Voyagis as Joseph
- Ian Bannen as Amos
- Marina Berti as Elizabeth
- Regina Bianchi as Saint Anne
- Maria Carta as Martha
- Renato Rascel as The Blind Man
- Oliver Tobias as Joel
The miniseries was conceived when Lew Grade was received by Pope Paul VI, who congratulated him on the making of Moses the Lawgiver (1974), a television film starring Burt Lancaster which was produced by Grade’s ITC Entertainment and the Italian television network RAI. At the end of the interview, the Pope told him he hoped his next project would be about the life of Jesus. Two weeks later, while dining with a RAI executive, Grade told him he intended their companies to prepare such a film. The role of director was offered to Franco Zeffirelli—a religious Roman Catholic who knew the Pontiff from his days as the Archbishop of Milan, when he often visited Zeffirelli’s school—on the Pope’s initiative, who insisted that either he would make Jesus of Nazareth “or no one else.” The director rejected the proposal at first, but Grade finally convinced him to agree; he accepted the job shortly before Christmas 1973.
Scriptwriter Anthony Burgess later recounted the launching of the project in an essay entitled “Telejesus (or Mediachrist)”:
The notion of making a six-hour television film on the life of Jesus Christ was proposed by an enobled British Jew, with the golden blessing of an American automobile corporation. The project struck some as blasphemous, others as ecumenical. Lord Grade, who was then merely Sir Lew Grade, presided over a massive press conference in the Holy City (viz. the one that crucified St Peter upside down before making him pope) and said all that was available to be said — namely, that there would be this film, that Franco Zeffirelli would direct it, and that Anthony Burgess would write it. Fired by this announcement, the Romans laid on a great, as it were, First Supper, which the Chief Rabbi of Rome attended, as well as odd cricket-playing British ecclesiastics. Sir Lew Grade was made a Cavaliere of the Republic. The Pope was noticeably absent.
Both Grade and Zeffirelli insisted their adaptation of Jesus’s life should be “ecumenical”, coherent “even to non-believers” and “acceptable to all denominations.”To ensure the film’s accuracy, the producers consulted experts from the Vatican, the Leo Baeck Rabbinical College of London, and the Koranic School at Meknes, Morocco. However, when Zeffirelli asked Rabbi Albert Friedlander to help him create Jesus’s Bar Mitzvah scene, the latter replied such ceremonies were practiced only from the 15th Century. Yet the director insisted on having it, and Friedlander tried to teach child actor Lorenzo Monet to read a short portion of the Pentateuchin Hebrew, though he mumbled it and the director was not satisfied (in the film, boy Jesus reads mostly in English).