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Jesus of Nazareth (film)

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Title: Jesus of Nazareth (film)  
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Subject: Monty Python's Life of Brian, Franco Zeffirelli, Anthony Burgess, Ralph Richardson, 1977 in American television, Ian Holm, Olivia Hussey, Maurice Jarre, Michael York (actor), Lew Grade
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Jesus of Nazareth (film)

Jesus of Nazareth
File:Jesus of nazareth.jpg
Jesus of Nazareth promotional poster
Genre Biographical
Directed by Franco Zeffirelli
Produced by Lew Grade
Vincenzo Labella
Written by Anthony Burgess
Suso Cecchi d'Amico
Franco Zeffirelli
Starring Robert Powell
Anne Bancroft
Ernest Borgnine
Olivia Hussey
Abdelmajid Lakhal
Music by Maurice Jarre
Cinematography Armando Nannuzzi
David Watkin
Editing by Reginald Mills
Production company ITC Entertainment
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Original channel Rai 1 (Italy)
Original run – April 24, 1977 (1977-04-24)
Running time Original: 371 minutes
UK: 360 minutes
Uncut: 382 minutes

Jesus of Nazareth (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 largely according the Christian Bible's New Testament Gospels. It stars Robert Powell as Jesus. The miniseries features an all star cast of famous American and European actors, including seven Oscar winners (Plummer, 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 the wedding 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 not without controversy. Bob Jones III of Bob Jones University, who had not seen the film, immediately denounced it as blasphemous due in part to Zeffirelli's stated intent to portray Jesus as equally human and divine; " ordinary man—gentle, fragile, simple".[1]

Plot summary

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; the woman 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”.



"Guest Stars"


"Also Starring"




The miniseries was conceived when Lew Grade was received by Pope Paul VI, who congratulated him on the making of Moses the Lawgiver, 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.[2] 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."[3] The director rejected the proposal at first, but Grade finally convinced him to agree;[4] he accepted the job shortly before Christmas 1973.[5]

Both Grade and Zeffirelli insisted their adaptation of Jesus' life should be "ecumenical", coherent "even to non-believers" and "acceptable to all denominations."[6] 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.[7] However, when Zeffirelli asked Rabbi Albert Friedlander to help him create Jesus' 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 Pentateuch in Hebrew, though he mumbled it and the director was not satisfied (in the film, boy Jesus reads mostly in English).[8]

There are various reports regarding the miniseries' budget: Presbyterian Survey stated it was $12 million,[9] The Listener cited the figure of £9 million[10] (roughly $16 million),[11] while Third Way stated it cost £11.5 million[12] (roughly $20 million). Other sources give the sum of $18 million.[5][13] In his autobiography, Lew Grade wrote that "in the final accounting, Jesus of Nazareth took $45 million."[14][15]

Principal photography was carried out in Morocco and Tunisia from September 1975 to May 1976. The synagogue scenes were shot with extras from the Jewish community in the island of Djerba.[5] The city of Monastir served as 1st Century Jerusalem.[16] Ernest Borgnine, who portrayed Cornelius the Centurion, recalled that since regulations required hiring local extras—most of whom with poor English—for many of the smaller roles, they had to be dubbed. Zeffirelli decided to avoid recording sound altogether in many parts, and simply send the principal actors to dub their own characters in the studio later.[17] The standing sets of the film were later used by the British comedy troupe Monty Python's Flying Circus for their religious satire The Life of Brian (1979).[18]

Powell's portrayal of Jesus

The producers considered at first to choose a well-known star, who would draw a large audience, for the role of Christ. The first actor thought of was Dustin Hoffman, and Al Pacino was also a candidate. However, the filmmakers feared that their looks will not match the popular perception of Jesus held by the American public. Eventually, the character's North European appearance in the series was influenced by Warner Sallman's iconic The Head of Christ: Paul Harvey and Edward J. Blum wrote the show "put Sallman's imagination in motion."[19] Virgin Mary, too, was depicted "without regard to historical or ethnographic accuracy" by the "definitely Caucasian Olivia Hussey."[20]

The idea to cast Robert Powell originated with Lew Grade's wife, Kathie Moody, who told her husband the actor had "wonderful blue eyes" after watching him perform in a BBC television adaptation of Jude the Obscure. Powell came under severe criticism from religious groups for "living in sin" with his companion, dancer Barbara Lord of Pan's People, while intending to portray Jesus. The couple married shortly before production began.[2]

Powell almost never blinks throughout the entire film; he mimics H.B. Warner in 1927's The King of Kings, and Max von Sydow in 1965's The Greatest Story Ever Told. The effect was a deliberate decision by Franco Zeffirelli: James Houlden commented that the result was "a penetrating, unrelenting eye contact with Jesus".[21] A dark blue eyeliner was applied on set to accentuate Powell's blue eyes.[19] Powell's portrayal has since become an often-used image in popular devotional art, and "defined the visual image of Christ in the minds of the audience... Perhaps more than any other Jesus film."[21]

Subsequent broadcasts and versions

NBC rebroadcast the series in 1981 and four more times through 1990. It was originally released as a three-tape VHS edition in the early 1980s. Another three-tape VHS edition was released on 22 February 1995. Artisan Entertainment released the DVD version on two discs on December 6, 1999.

The mini-series is broadcast every Easter and Christmas in many countries, including Greece on ANT1, and in the United States on History Channel and TBN.

Narrative deviations from the Gospels

Although the film has been received as generally faithful to the Gospel sources, and more comprehensive than previous film versions, Zeffirelli and his screenwriters found it necessary to take some liberties with the scriptures for purposes of brevity and narrative continuity. Some of these deviations have a basis in time-honored, extra-Biblical traditions (e.g., that the infant Jesus was visited by three "kings" [the Bible calls them "magi" or "astrologers", yet does not state how many there were]). Other deviations were invented for the script:

  • Perhaps the greatest liberties taken in the screenplay are interpretations of the motivation of Judas Iscariot in betraying Jesus to the authorities prior to his arrest and execution. In contrast to the Gospels—which vilify Judas as a thief who stole from the Disciples’ money purse (John 12:6) and betrayed his Master simply for money (Luke 22:5)—the film portrays Judas as a much misunderstood political person who, in several scenes, conspires with the Zealots for the sake of Jewish liberation in a way that could be interpreted as honorable, albeit misguided.
  • The film introduces a number of fictional characters. Of these, Ian Holm's Zerah has the most screen time. (Zerah is used primarily to supply Judas Iscariot with a motive for his treachery: he persuades him that an appearance before the Sanhedrin will offer Jesus an opportunity to prove himself.) Other invented characters include Quintillius, Yehuda, and Amos.
  • In the Bible, the only mention of Jesus in childhood is his trip to the temple in Jerusalem as a 12 year old. In the film, the boy Jesus is also portrayed at his bar mitzvah which is interrupted by a raid of Roman soldiers plundering supplies. The boy Jesus is also portrayed as climbing a ladder and looking out over the landscape of Judea after Joseph makes the analogy of a ladder reaching to heaven.
  • The prostitute and the woman who anoints Jesus' feet with ointment and her hair are combined into one person. The Bible indicates that Mary Magdalene (who is never actually said to be a prostitute) is the woman from whom seven demons were cast out, while the ointment-bearing woman is Mary of Bethany, a sister of Lazarus (John 11:2).
  • In the film, Nicodemus visits Jesus in the late afternoon, not at night as in John 3:3.
  • The Apostle Andrew introduces Simon to Jesus as "My brother, Simon Peter." But "Peter" is the name that Jesus later gave to Simon (John 1:42, Matthew 16:18) after he was well acquainted with him, not his original given name. Later in the mini-series, Jesus does give Simon the surname of "Peter".
  • The Gospels do not record any conflict nor friendship between Simon and Matthew, whereas the film does.
  • The Apostle Thomas, prior to his calling, is depicted as a servant of Jairus, the synagogue leader whose 12-year-old daughter Jesus raises from the dead. Nowhere in the three gospel accounts of this resurrection is Thomas described as Jairus' servant. This was done in the movie to conveniently introduce Thomas as the doubter when Jesus said Jairus' dead daughter is "only sleeping."
  • Barabbas is portrayed in the film as a Zealot (political extremist and agitator). The meeting and dialogue between Jesus and Barabbas are made up.
  • The Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) is used as a plot device which simultaneously redeems the disciple Matthew and reconciles him to his bitter enemy, Peter. Although not in the Bible, this has been praised as one of the film’s particularly felicitous innovations.
  • In the film Pontius Pilate, having convicted Him of treason, sentences Jesus to be crucified. The Gospels record that Pilate acquitted Jesus, but sentenced Him under pressure from the crowd.
  • The Gospels and the film both relate an account of a Roman centurion who petitions Jesus to heal his sick servant. The film, but not the Gospel, presents the same officer (portrayed by Ernest Borgnine) as one of the soldiers standing at the foot of the Cross, where he sympathetically allows Mary to approach her son.
  • In the Bible Judas is paid 30 pieces of silver for betraying Jesus. Full of remorse, he later gives the silver back to the priests (Matthew 27:3-5). In the film, Judas is given the silver as an afterthought by Zerah. He also does not return the silver. The coins are shown lying at the bottom of the tree from which Judas hangs himself.
  • The film depicts a scene which shows Joseph dying. The Gospels never mention anything about Joseph after the story of Jesus, as a boy, in the Temple.


Jesus of Nazareth premiered on the Italian channel RAI 1 on 27 March 1977. It was broadcast in five episodes, one shown every week until 25 April.[22] On Palm Sunday, 3 April 1977—the date of the airing of the second episode—the Pope endorsed the program in his public address for the holiday and recommended the faithful to view it.[5] The series enjoyed high ratings: the German Dominican friar and film critic Ambros Eichenberger reported that according to local surveys, 84% of the television owners in the larger cities watched the show.[23] For example, the number of viewers for the third episode, aired on 10 April, was estimated to have been 28.3 million.[24]

In the United Kingdom and in the United States, it was broadcast in two parts, albeit in different lengths, by the network ITV in the UK and NBC in the US. In both countries, the first was aired on 3 April and the second on Easter, 10 April 1977.[25][26][27] During its original showing in Britain, Jesus of Nazareth had an estimated viewership of 21 million spectators.[28]

When the first episode was broadcast in the United States, it was a major success. The New York Times reported it "swamped all competing programs on Sunday night", with overnight Nielsen ratings of 46% of the total audience in New York and 53% in Los Angeles.[29] The miniseries as a whole received a Nielsen rating of 30.8 points,[30] with each point representing approximately 712,000 television-owning homes,[31] and an audience share of 50% nationwide,[27] on both nights.[32] The company calculated that Jesus attracted about 90 million viewers.[13][27][28][33]

In West Germany, it was broadcast by ZDF in four episodes on the 19th, 21st, 23rd and 24 March 1978;[34] 40% of the audience have viewed it.[23]

Jesus of Nazareth turned into a massive commercial success, and to one of the most widely marketed and best known productions about Christ's life.[5][13][21] Lew Grade stated that it made "a net profit of $30 million."[14]

Awards and nominations

Jesus of Nazareth received an Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Special Drama or Comedy. Additionally, James Farentino, who portrayed St. Peter, received a nomination for Outstanding Performance by a Supporting Actor in a Comedy or Drama Special.[35]

However, Jesus of Nazareth won awards for Best Cinematography to Armando Nannuzzi), Best Costume Design to Lucia Mirisola and Best Production Design, to Mirisola again, from the Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists.[36]

The miniseries was nominated for six British Academy Television Awards: Best Actor, Best Cameraman, Best Single Television Play, Best Editor, Best Costume Design and Best Sound. It won none.[37]

Powell collected the TV Times "Best Actor" award for the same performance.


The success of this miniseries led to a 1985 sequel, A.D., which weaves a fictional story set in first-century Rome into Biblical and extrabiblical material based on the book of Acts. Although many of the same crew members worked on both series, the only key cast member to return was Ian McShane, playing a different role.


Before its initial broadcast, Jesus of Nazareth came under ideological fire from some American Protestant fundamentalists, led by Bob Jones III, president of Bob Jones University in South Carolina. Zeffirelli had told an interviewer from Modern Screen that the film would portray Jesus as "an ordinary man—gentle, fragile, simple". Jones interpreted this as meaning that the portrayal would deny Christ's divine nature. Having never seen the film, Jones denounced it as "blasphemy." Others picked up the cry and 18,000 letters were sent to General Motors, which had provided $3 million of the film's cost. Sacrificing its investment, GM backed out of its sponsorship.[7] Procter and Gamble eventually took it over, buying the U.S. rights for a relatively low price of some $1 million, and their financial support allowed the miniseries to be screened.[38]

In making his film, Zeffirelli explicitly wished to deemphasize the traditional accusation of deicide against the Jews. Some 26 years later, Zeffirelli laid blame for this very error against The Passion of the Christ (2004), which was produced and directed by Mel Gibson. Zeffirelli had directed Gibson in Hamlet (1990).[39]

Further reading


External links

  • Internet Movie Database
  • AllRovi
  • TCM Movie Database
  • webpages dedicated to the movie called "Jesus of Nazareth" by Franco Zeffirelli
  • Arts & Faith Top100 Spiritually Significant Films list
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