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Jesus of Nazareth (1977)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment Ltd

Main image of Jesus of Nazareth (1977)
ITC for ITV, tx. 3 & 10/4/1977
360 mins total, colour
DirectorFranco Zeffirelli
ProducerVincenzo Labella
ScriptAnthony Burgess, Suso Cecchi d'Amico, Franco Zeffirelli
PhotographyArmando Nannuzzi, David Watkin
MusicMaurice Jarre

Cast: Robert Powell (Jesus Christ); Anne Bancroft (Mary Magdalene); James Mason (Joseph of Arimathea); Ian McShane (Judas Iscariot); Laurence Olivier (Nicodemus); Donald Pleasence (Melchior); Christopher Plummer (Herod Antipas); Anthony Quinn (Caiaphas); Ralph Richardson (Simeon); Pontius Pilate (Rod Steiger); Herod the Great (Peter Ustinov); John the Baptist (Michael York)

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The life of Christ, from his birth in Bethlehem, his meeting with John the Baptist, his work as a healer and eventual acclamation as the Messiah, leading to his crucifixion and resurrection.

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Produced on location in Tunisia and Morocco on a massive scale with a budget to match (exact estimates vary, from between $12m and $15m to £18m, more than twice that), Lew Grade's star-studded Jesus of Nazareth proved to be the most successful and critically acclaimed project of his career. When first shown, it reached audiences of 21 million in the UK and an astonishing 91 million viewers in the US.

The drama was co-produced with Italian state broadcaster Radiotelevisione Italiana (RAI), and to handle the largely Italian crew Grade turned to Franco Zeffirelli, a pious and politically conservative director used to working on a grand scale. Thanks to sterling work from cinematographers Armando Nannuzzi and David Watkin, the result was visually highly assured and frequently extremely effective; the feeding of the 5,000, for instance, is handled subtly, almost as a magic trick, while the crucifixion, shot with hand-held cameras, is powerful and dynamic, aided by an agonised performance by Robert Powell.

Over six hours long, it encompasses all of Jesus' life, starting with a surprisingly protracted opening section establishing the story of Joseph and Mary. Powell makes his entrance only after the first two hours, meeting John the Baptist at the river. While Powell was a relative unknown, the cast is decked out with a multitude of stars, which suits well the episodic nature of Nazareth, one of the first 'mini series'. Of the supporting actors, Anne Bancroft stands out as a beautiful, if world-weary, Mary Magdalene, while Rod Steiger gives a restrained and intelligent portrayal of Pontius Pilate.

Ian Holm probably has the best of the supporting roles, however, as Zerah, an invented character not found in the gospels, a political 'fixer' who gets to speak the dialogue with which Anthony Burgess, who wrote the initial drafts of the script, had meant to conclude the drama, staring at Jesus' empty burial chamber, uttering "Now it begins". Grade instead added a scene between Jesus and his disciples, concluding the mini-series with a close-up of Powell looking directly into the camera.

Ironically, Monty Python's controversial religious satire Life of Brian (d. Terry Jones, 1979) was shot on many of the same locations and Tunisian sets. Burgess later expressed admiration for the comedy team's film, praising it as a "very fair interpretation of the lot of the Jews under Roman rule. I wish I had written the script for it".

Sergio Angelini

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Video Clips
1. Judas (3:16)
2. Gethsemane (3:23)
3. Pontius Pilate (3:11)
4. Crucifixion (2:19)
Bannen, Ian (1928-1999)
Cusack, Cyril (1910-1993)
Holm, Sir Ian (1931-)
Hussey, Olivia (1951-)
Jarre, Maurice (1924-2009)
Mason, James (1909-1984)
Mills, Reginald (1912-1990)
Olivier, Laurence (1907-1989)
Pleasence, Donald (1919-1995)
Plummer, Christopher (1929-)
Powell, Robert (1944-)
Richardson, Ralph (1902-1983)
Ustinov, Peter (1921-2004)
York, Michael (1942-)