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Jesus of Nazareth: The Complete Miniseries

Shout Factory // Unrated // February 23, 2016
List Price: $24.97 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted March 10, 2016 | E-mail the Author
A handsomely made, finely acted miniseries, Jesus of Nazareth (1977) plays a lot like a distillation of the best components from all of the biblical epics of the 1940s-‘60s that had preceded it while generally avoiding those movies' flaws. Despite its all-star cast, for instance, Jesus of Nazareth steers clear of the sometimes goofy, distracting stunt casting found in George Stevens's The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), mostly famously John Wayne as the Roman centurion with the single line, "Truly, this man was the Son of Gawd." It's less artful in some respects than King of Kings (1961), but improves upon the casting of Jesus. Instead of that film's matinee idol Jesus (Jeffrey Hunter), the miniseries casts Robert Powell, who in full makeup looks like he stepped out of a Renaissance painting.

As usual with ITC's Sir Lew Grade, no expense was spared and the production resembles a latter-day theatrical roadshow more than a television film. It's a classy-looking work all around: Franco Zeffirelli directed, Anthony Burgess wrote the script, Maurice Jarre wrote its score, etc. And its cast is a veritable Who's Who of great British and American talent (along with a smattering of Continental names): Anne Bancroft (as Mary Magdalene), Ian Bannen (Amos), Ernest Borgnine (John Wayne's old part), Claudia Cardinale (Adulteress), Cyril Cusack (Yehuda), Ian Holm (Zerah), Olivia Hussey (Mary), James Earl Jones (Balthazar), James Mason (Joseph of Arimathea), Ian McShane (Judas), Laurence Olivier (Nicodemus), Donald Pleasance (Melchior), Christopher Plummer (Herod Antipas), Anthony Quinn (Caiaphas), Ralph Richardson (Simeon), Rod Steiger (Pontius Pilate), Peter Ustinov (Herod the Great), Michael York (John the Baptist), and on and on.

The nearly six-and-a-half-hour (384 minutes) miniseries premiered in Italy, broadcast over five nights, while in airings in both the UK and America soon after it was broken up into two halves. Shout! Factory's Blu-ray offers what seems to be yet another variation: four episodes running about 90 minutes apiece. This version uses the same opening credits for each episode, listing stars not necessarily in that particular show, but also with "previews" of the next part, and end titles that appear episode-specific. Nevertheless, in this cut the life of Jesus takes episodic breaks at odd moments sometimes.

The Blu-ray is, correctly, full frame, and has been remixed for DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0, with music and some sound effects channeled into the surrounds. The image is generally good, considering its multiple versions and multi-nationality, and it includes two very good extra features.

The project's origins were rooted in an earlier six-hour miniseries called Moses the Lawgiver, which ITC had co-produced with RAI (Radiotelevisione italiana S.p.A), Likewise co-written by Burgess and here starring Burt Lancaster with music by Ennio Morricone, that $5 million production had a fan in Pope Paul VI, who suggested Grade (himself Jewish) next embark on a miniseries about the life of Jesus. Again co-produced with RAI (which also partnered with ITC for Space: 1999), Jesus of Nazareth had a significantly larger budget of between $12-18 million, of which co-sponsor General Motors ponied up $3 million. Burgess was rehired, and in place of Moses's Gianfranco De Bosio, Grade hired Franco Zeffirelli, likewise a stage producer-director of opera and, in his case, film versions of Shakespeare (The Taming of the Shrew, Romeo and Juliet). Though openly gay, Zeffirelli was and is (at age 93) a devout Roman Catholic who took his job seriously.

The approach taken was reverential and largely ecumenical, a shrewd move that paid off commercially as the miniseries was a worldwide hit. It follows the Gospel a bit more stringently than other film and TV versions, and the length of the show no doubt allows for a more leisurely, character-driven pacing.

Past films clearly heavily influenced the miniseries. In Jesus of Nazareth, for instance, Robert Powell's title character never blinks, just as H.B. Warner and Jeffrey Hunter hadn't in the two film versions of King of Kings. The idea, of course, was to suggest and all-seeing, soul-penetrating Christ. This approach seems at odds with other aims of the filmmakers, to present him, outwardly at least, as an "ordinary man" (according to Zeffirelli). Powell certainly looks the part, at least in the European and American imaginings of Christ for the last five or so centuries, but his manner is at times almost ghostly. In the deeply-flawed but also underrated The Greatest Story Ever Told, Swedish actor Max von Sydow found maybe the best balance of a godly Jesus and a more approachable, human one.

Filmed in Tunisia and Morocco, on sets later used by Monty Python for Life of Brian (1979), there wasn't time for Zeffirelli to get too terribly artistic (as opposed to director George Stevens on Greatest Story, who infamously took ages to film everything, aiming for perfection). Nonetheless, there are nice little visual touches throughout, such as Mary's Immaculate Conception, and the sets and costumes are more authentically period than most such films.

The acting is almost uniformly excellent, from Plummer's risky interpretation of the spiritually tortured Herod to Borgnine's centurion to Hussey's fragile Mary. This reviewer was most surprised by the fine work of an actor I normally dislike: James Farentino, as Peter. There are several scenes where the troubled, Brooklyn-born actor is subtly overwhelmed with emotion during Jesus's sermons; these play extremely well.

Video & Audio

Shout! Factory's Blu-ray, on two discs, of Jesus of Nazareth looks good if a wee bit dog-eared here and there, but considering the multiple versions this is perhaps understandable. The Region A discs offer aforementioned DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 English only with optional subtitles (English only), which impress with their directionality here and there.

Extra Features

Supplements include an interesting one-hour interview with scholar Jean-Pierre Isbouts that discusses the Jesus from a researcher's perspective, along with the challenges facing those trying to adapt the life of Christ in movie form.

A half-hour interview with actor Michael York is, initially, quite startling. Though 73 years old, York for decades was one of those seemingly ageless actors who looked pretty much as he did during his starring role days in the 1970s. In this new interview, however, he appears alarmingly ill and abruptly aged. It turns out that he's been battling a rare disease called amyloidosis.

After a few minutes, however, York is so thoroughly intelligent, charming, and gracious in his remarks about the production, effusively praising Zeffirelli particularly, that the jolting change of York's appearance is largely forgotten. Toward the end of the interview, he frankly discusses his illness in relation to the film's themes and the interview, produced by Greg Carson, becomes rather moving.

Final Thoughts

While there's not much in the way of bold new directions to be found in Jesus of Nazareth, the miniseries is handsomely made, well acted, and literate. The presentation here is good, and the extras are enlightening (in the secular sense). Highly Recommended.

Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His new documentary and latest audio commentary, for the British Film Institute's Blu-ray of Rashomon, is now available.

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