Jesus of Nazareth (1977)

I’m cheating a little here, since this miniseries actually premiered on British TV before American TV, but only by a week.  This is clearly meant to be more than just a typical miniseries (direction by Franco Zeffirelli and written by Zeffirelli, Suso Cecci D’Amico and Anthony Burgess, it already seems international), but it’s largely American cast and yearly repeats on American TV let it suffice.

And up front, I hope no one takes offense at any of my potshots in a religious sense.  I’m looking at this film purely as a television miniseries, not as a religious artifact.  Broadcast originally on NBC, it’s automatically part of the secular world too.

Joseph (Yorgo Voyagis) is betrothed Mary (Zeffirelli’s Juliet, Olivia Hussey), whose mother seems bent on unloading her, but to the rest of the village, it’s an ideal match.  Woken from sleep, Mary sees light coming through the window and begs to know “who are you?” though her mother, in the same room, sees no one.  Mary has a dialogue without a partner and has her instructions, much to her mother’s concern. 

King Herod (Peter Ustinov, going at it hard and heavy) lives in a sumptuous palace, happily entertaining lavishly and pontificating on the term of Messiah and all of the Jewish prophets running around the area.  He and his Roman friends treat it all as a joke.  “There will be no Messiah, true or false, in Palestine, while I am alive.”  He certainly wasn’t the smartest ruler, but of course he had no idea of what was to come.  For the purposes of this telling, he’s simply a buffoon out to please the Romans.

Joseph of Mary’s mother are understandably shocked when Mary, returning from the birth of John the Baptist to her barren cousin, tells them she will soon be the mother of the savior.  Olivia Hussey plays it so ethereal that she might be able to convince people thousands of years later, but no one then understood ethereal, so Joseph has to have many a consult to convince him to stick with Mary, especially since both should technically be stoned…and they are only betrothed, not married!  A dream of Mary being stoned and a haunting British voice over finally convinces him to accept fate, marry Mary and play dad to the boy he will call Jesus. 

Throughout this miniseries, it’s easy to distinguish the heroes from the villains, even if you don’t know the story.  The good speak like the Bible with strong music behind them, while the baddies, like Herod, sound like the 1970s, or at least the 1870s.  Case in point: slithery Herod manages to arrange a Roman census to benefit his needs, while Joseph accepts he has to take Mary back to Bethlehem (from whence he came), arguing with rabble in the street who are upset at the census in the most flowery and beautiful of language. 

The trek is rough on pregnant Mary, turned away everywhere Joseph tries to find a comfortable spot for her.  Helpful Cockney lass Abigail tries to help, by sending them over to some stables outside of the city walls.

Meanwhile, three kings travel in luxury, following the star (Donald Pleasance talks like he’s in a trance, Fernando Rey has something of a superiority complex and James Earl Jones drones on like the world’s first astrologist), following a star for reasons they don’t understand. 

Mary has a relatively easy time giving birth, understandable, I suppose since he’s no ordinary child.  “Put him there in the manger,” a woman tells Joseph.  Okay, that’s a bit much.  The concept of “manger” is far younger than this story, but if it isn’t uttered, I suppose we would be disappointed.  Visitors show up immediately, posing lovingly around the infant’s shining light as Mary rests through it all.  This is the first of Zeffirelli’s tableaux, giving the visuals here the heft of two thousand years of paintings. 

Ralph Richardson is Simeon, an old man present at Jesus’ circumcision, also hopping on the emotive train the British co-stars of this movie seem to enjoy.  No one has topped Peter Ustinov’s Herod yet, especially as he listens to the rumors of Messiah and the three kings in his realm who have not even bothered to come pay him homage! 

The kings give Mary and Joseph their gifts and warn them to go to Egypt to avoid Herod’s clutches.  Peter Ustinov orders all male children a year…no, two years old, killed, in a wackadoo speech that echoes throughout his palace and probably gave him laryngitis if he had to do too many takes.  It’s left to Sir Ralph, on his knees and looking an awful lot like King Lear, to describe the horror in Bethehem after this slaughter. 

Back in Nazareth, blue-eyed blond Jesus grows up listening to Papa Joseph’s loooooooong dissertations (less talk and more work and his customers wouldn’t be quite so upset at him), proving here and there that he’s clearly special.  An obviously European child (with an accent to match, played by Lorenzo Monet) with intense blue eyes plays Jesus at Bar Mitzvah age.  That celebration is interrupted by nasty Roman soldiers and much lamentation by the townspeople as Jesus watches (with the same look as the kid in “The Omen”).  If Mary had been any other Jewish mother in history, she would have been unshakably angry that her son’s big day did not go according to her very exactly and exhaustive plans.

Cousin John has grown up to become Michael York, much to the annoyance of Herod Antipas (Christopher Plummer) and Herodias (Valentina Cortese, doing a fetching Ann-Margaret imitation).  History’s most exciting eccentric, John the Baptist is a dream role for anyone not lucky enough to play Jesus himself, and Michael York milks every moment.  It’s Michael’s bad luck that Herodias is such an angry person, not only at the peasants who attack her, but at Herod, who is lusting after Salome, that she insists John be arrested.  Christopher Plummer works overtime to keep up with Valentina, but one of moviedom’s finest hams, he’s a worthy successor to Sir Peter.  With Jesus out of the story as a main character, leaving the supporting cast to tear up the place, this segment of the film definitely feels like a typical miniseries, feverish and emotive. 

Nearly two hours into “Jesus of Nazareth,” Robert Powell finally arrives to play out the rest of the piece of the King of Kings.  Eyes gleaming, he and John the Baptist are obviously cousins, as they speak in the same British accent.  John baptizes Jesus, knowing he’s finally gotten a look at the savior.  John tells his followers to leave him and go after Jesus, just in time to be arrested. 

In his first attempt to convince the masses at his home synagogue that the time has come, Jesus is not a success.  Mary and a few others seem to gleam some meaning, but the muttering rabble want him run out of town.  By speaking quietly but passionately, Jesus gathers up his apostles, though the extras typically don’t get it.  A majestic scene, pure Zeffirelli, shows just the shadow of Jesus’ hand pulling the demon from a foaming lunatic, and that one wins a bunch of admirers. 

As the miracles pile up, the rabble sees the light.  After helping the fishermen to haul in record numbers of fish, the whole town lines up just to see Jesus and hear his wisdom.  The curing of the cripple is certainly impressive and goes a long way to impart the gospel of forgiveness.  However, the movie does lose a bit of credibility when we hear of raging angsty Peter, “come on, you can’t talk to him when he’s like this.”  The beauty of Jesus’ words do seem blunted by the rest of the world, which is of course the point of filming the passion play again, but this is just a bit too colloquial for believability. 

Dinner at Matthew’s is certainly a jolt to the townsfolk, but it’s also the best meal poor Jesus has eaten in close to 30 years.  Forgiveness is mighty, and it is allowed to go hand-in-hand with luxury.  He also tells the gripping tale of the Prodigal Son, further helping his cause among the confused.  Powell is not exactly the most infectious presence, directed in that same ethereal way Olivia Hussey had previously used, but when he goes on at length in telling a story, he does open up with some more excitement and the movie kicks back into gear with a lead character worth following.  Unfortunately, this is not done uniformly, leading to some sagging.  Although, Zeffirelli knows how to cut this movie so that when religion gets a bit too much, he brings on the Family Herod and lets them wildly overact to punch things up again (Herod’s birthday celebration and the whole Salome bit are priceless hokum, with Michael York and Christopher Plummer, not to mention Valentina Cortese, going for the emotive jugular).

The Miracle Tour continues, sweeping Thomas into its net when Jesus is able to bring a little girl back from death.  Doubts abound, but these men are seriously beginning to believe.  And note that the episodic nature of the story (conveniently short chapters come from the Bible itself) is ideal for a miniseries because scenes can be short and effective. 

At the burial of John the Baptist’s body, we finally meet Judas (Ian McShane).  He enters during a political discussion about Rome, so he’s already a bit suspect, but at least he’s not demonized yet, merely a political opportunist. 

And then she arrives.  In one of the most classic examples of inept casting, Anne Bancroft plays Mary Magdalene, a tough old pro who can take on a whole crowd of boys playing jokes on her.  It’s obvious from the onset that even Anne knows she has the power here, and decides to play it like a good old-fashioned broad, shrieking and howling, but having a grand time of it. 

The combined efforts of Christopher, Michael and Anne are fun fluff, but they can’t help the leaden Sermon on the Mount or the discussions with Joseph of Arimathea (James Mason).  They are simply too talky for TV.  Even the fishes and the loaves are anemic.  If anything cried out for a touch of special effects, it’s this story, but it definitely converts a lot of people, Annie Magdalene first among them.  Her foot-kissing episode, wordless but with a pool full of tears, enlivens the proceedings after James Mason has threatened them into perpetual slumber. 

Christopher Plummer makes the best out of his assassination attempt, turning the name of Jesus into a three syllable sibilant word as he endeavors to show his power, helping to move along the series of events that have lately slowed to a crawl.  He kills a bunch of zealots, which Judas knows will bring Jesus to Jerusalem.  At the same time, cranky Simon reveals himself to be the most understanding of the apostles and is renamed Peter and Jesus starts to talk about building his church for the first time, actually a notable moment as it’s the first time Jesus has mentioned organizing his teachings into an actual religion.  The music underscoring this moment is appropriately moving and the scene is set in the dark, with only a fire to light the men.  It’s also when Jesus ruins the rest of the plot by telling us what is going to happen.  I mean, sure, we know, but this is a flaw that goes back to the Bible–it’s not much in the way of dramatic tension to know the end 2 1/2 hours before it happen, is it? 

Passover approaches and Jerusalem swells with pilgrims but Jesus is not ready to enter yet.  First, he has to pay a visit to Lazarus.  Frankly, the movie is no clearer on this episode than anything else, pretty much sticking to the facts that Jesus decides to raise Lazarus from the dead simply because the women say they believe Jesus’ teachings (anyone else a little suspicious of that?) and it’s a good foreshadow to his own demise and the after effects of it.  Again, and I’m sorry to say it, it’s cinematic time filler here.  Since we’ve never met Lazarus, seeing him show up alive after death doesn’t exactly wow. 

Judas goes to bureaucrat Ian Holm as his way to get Jesus seen by the high priests of Jerusalem.  The script hedges its bets, with Judas honestly believing what he’s saying, but saying it for the benefit of Jesus and his followers.  Ian is more canny, knowing how to play each faction against the other.  When Judas sees the mob scene of believers (or wanna-be believers) there to greet Jesus at the gates of Jerusalem, he knows he’s on the right track.  Jesus doesn’t look like he minds the attention either, but he’s not thrilled to see what’s going on around the temple, where extras do their bargaining as the most stereotypical of Jewish businessmen.  Jesus causes a (poorly filmed) riot in the bazaar before finally entering the temple. 

Politically, Jesus is way out of his element in Jerusalem, where he fails to impress Ian Holm with his creeds, but that only upsets Judas, not Jesus, who has already told us what is going to happen.  However, Jesus draws a huge crowd when preaching at the temple, but though the set and amount of extras look like something out of DeMille, again, sermons aren’t dramatically inspiring television.  Beautifully delivered by Powell, I admit, and it does pique the curiosity of Nicodemus (the inevitable Laurence Olivier). 

Looking like he wandered in from a Western, Stacy Keach is as good a choice as anyone to play Barabbas, who wants to use Jesus’ teachings to overcome the Romans.  Barabbas claims might will settle the question, but Jesus gives the “lion will lie down with the lamb” and “those who live by the sword die by the sword” speech, as moving a speech as the Bible has, but completely lost on Barabbas. 

By this point, the movie starts to move like molasses again, but there’s not much Zeffirelli or anyone else can do about it but make it look as pretty as possible.  Jesus preaches and preaches, gathering more and more converts, as the temple elders look on with mounting ire, not bothering to listen to what he’s saying.  It’s just a stretch of the story that slows down all the action to make sure the message is not lost among plotting.  It’s the proverbial watched pot waiting to boil. 

Oh, my stars!  Just when I thought the casting couldn’t get any more strange, Claudia Cardinale arrives as The Adulteress, around long enough not to get pummeled after Jesus tells those “without sin to cast the first stone.”  The whole episode lasts barely enough time to justify her billing.

If we believe Claudia, Anne and the rest, why not invite Ernest Borgnine to play as the Centurion, trying his best to adopt a crisp accent that is completely at odds with the rest of his career, who worries about his sick servant.  This brief episode serves only to further anger Stacy Barabbas who, like everyone else, doesn’t understand Jesus’ teachings apply to everyone, not just his converts (blink and you’ll miss Simon MacCorkindale delivering the news to Ernie that his servant is indeed well).

The curing of the blind beggar is the last straw for the temple priests, who are starting to take this awfully personally, so Jesus plays along and roars against them with his most blasphemous (to them) speech yet.  The crowd is upset too, so Stacy Barabbas kills a Roman soldier as a way to incite them further.  Judas realizes all hope is lost.  Well, temporally at least. 

As the Passover of 100 Stars stumbles along, Sir Larry gets his first actual dialogue scene, going to Jesus to say that there are many believers among the priests, but also many enemies.  The old scholar wants to see the truth and the two try to out-whisper each other in an antiquated acting style as Sir Larry learns a bit more. 

Want to guess who plays Caiaphas as the temple priests argue the case?  Come on, take a guess.  It’s 1977 and we need aging Oscar winners to pitch in.  We’ve seen many British greats, but how about a real Hollywood legend?  Ponder this as the scene, with James Mason back, goes on and on and on and on and on and on as this mystery legend seems to actually sleep through the case, waking up only when Sir Larry proposes that Jesus may actually be the Son of God. 

Have you guessed yet?

Oh, fine!  It’s Anthony Quinn.  Yes, Zorba has returned to the Mediterranean to try to snatch away a few moments from the other eager beaver has-beens, none of whom would ever miss a chance to star in THE story.  Tony throws himself head first into the proceedings playing Caiaphas as a judge with the world’s worst headache.  This court case in costume seems longer than an entire “Perry Mason” episode as the hams duke it out.  Ian Holm FINALLY brings the scene to a close when he figures out a way to end it all.

So, he trots off to Judas to urge him to get Jesus to speak to the council, knowing full well that Jesus will never do it. 

Wisely, Zeffirelli chooses not to depict The Last Supper as a Renaissance painting, but rather a dinner in a small crowded airless home, more true to reality.  Of all scenes, this one actually passes perhaps too quickly.  I guess the apostles are not famous enough actors to deserve an over-written scene and this one is played just as the gospels suggest, well-acted to boot.  It does end with a beautiful tableau image too.

Since Ian Holm has seen Jesus preach at the temple, the whole Judas kiss ado isn’t really needed, but it’s part of the legend, so Judas pecks Jesus and Gethsemane awakens as the soldiers take Jesus away and the apostles scatter in fear and confusion.  Nefarious Ian Holm reveals himself to be a far better politician than Judas ever realized, but the movie is fairly sympathetic to Judas, who here honestly believes Jesus would get a fair trial. 

Poor Robert Powell doesn’t stand a chance at the trial, not just because he’s playing Jesus, but because Tony and Sir Larry and Jimmy Mason are all present, not to mention a few other dozen elders fighting for screen time.  Anthony Quinn brings the proceedings to a (none too swift) end by asking Jesus directly if he is the Son of God.  Upon hearing the answer, Anthony rips off his prayer shawl and Ian sends Jesus off to the Romans. 

A nasty crowd outside the temple turns on Peter, who of course denies Jesus.  The Romans are stupid enough to fall for it and the cock crows.  As for Judas, we last see him swinging from a tree, his blood money on the ground below him.

The story has room enough for only one more guest star, and Rod Steiger fully intends to make the most out of Pontius Pilate.  He gallops breathlessly into Jerusalem, tired and thirsty, eager to kill Barabbas as planned.  He knows nothing of Jesus until perky aide Tony LoBianco fills him in.  Rod’s Pilate is completely uninterested in the case, but the priests, eager to shift the blame, insist on being heard.  Once they tell Pilate that Jesus has called himself a King of anything, it’s officially tyranny and he has to deal with it.

So, this sets up one final showdown, Steiger’s bug-eyed Pilate actually being fair in trying to get to the truth, and Powell’s serene Jesus fully resigned to his fate and answering questions honestly.  Ian makes sure Pilate has to condemn Jesus.  This leads to all of those lashes, though the bloodshed is left to a minimum (we’ll save that for Mel Gibson’s version).  The Roman soldiers give him a crown of thorns (here comes Simon MacCorkindale for a few extra moments of screen time).  That crown looks utterly painful and even Pilate seems to have some sympathy for the corporeal Jesus, a wreck of a body but still obviously fully functioning in spirit. 

The buck is passed again as Rod decides to evoke the custom that he can commute a death sentence for Passover, but instead of simply doing it, he puts the decision in the hands of the rabble.  They must decide for Barabbas or Jesus.  A swarm of agents are sent out to convince the rabble to vote for Barabbas’ release, with Annie Magdalene suspiciously winding her way around the crowd (Mother Mary has been there for days, but has declined to see her son, I suppose for dramatic effect, seeing him only at the very end).  The rabble picks Barabbas to be saved and Pilate condemns him to death. 

Strapped to the cross, Jesus begins the Via Dolorosa, with the rabble shouting the whole way.  The women seem more convinced of the truth, but it’s too late.  Jesus is crucified, begging God for the forgiveness of those who have done this to him while the two thieves next to him wonder why he doesn’t save himself.  “Today you will be with me in paradise,” he tells the more understanding of the two as the life starts to go out of his body.  Annie Magdalene witnesses it all and then Mother Mary arrives, helped over to Jesus’ lifeless body by Ernie Borgnine.  The two Marys (three, if you count Lazarus’ sister) weep below with Ernie sad for what has happened and some of the apostles finally returning.  By this point, the crowd is wondering why he doesn’t save himself and feel awfully guilty.  Sir Larry gets to deliver the big speech in his greatest Shakespearean tones. 

The moment Jesus finally breathes his last, a furious rain storm opens up.  Mary Magdalene howls ferociously, clutching the dead body.  She then goes with Mary to anoint the body, but there is soldier Simon MacCorkindale again to throw a wrench into the action.  It’s been three days since the burial, why should they anoint him now?  It was the Sabbath, she says and this is the first opportunity to do the task.  “Jesus is not here,” Lazarus’ sister says, which scares the hell out of the Romans. 

The apostles meet in secret, where Annie Magdalene reports the Resurrection.  None of the apostles believe her, especially Doubting Thomas.  But, then Peter changes his mind in his full moment in clarity, finally understanding the teachings. 

Ian goes to the empty burial chamber and pronounces, “it has begun” as he finally understands.  Jesus appears to his disciples, tells them to spread his teachings and it has all begun.

“Jesus of Nazareth” follows the Bible gospels very faithfully, but also makes sure to throw in some fancy Hollywood touches.  A cadre of bad acting often destroys many of the more subtle moments, but then again, this is a story about wild passion and fervent beliefs, so perhaps the growls and lamentations are necessary to make the piece seem larger than life.  “Jesus of Nazareth” is exponentially better than the snoozy “Greatest Story Ever Told,” but at over six hours, there is a lot of lag time here.  It’s unavoidable that many of the Bible’s most beautiful passages will have to be inserted, and that can often lead to some mighty slow scenes.  As entertainment, “Jesus of Nazareth” is in a category all of its own because it’s main point is not to really entertain, merely to make one of religion’s best narratives come to life for the faithful one more time.  Television is not the ideal medium for this, but it would have cost far more money to do this as a big-budget Hollywood epic and in the late 70s, no one could afford that.

Categories: Historical Miniseries

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