Watching Jesus of Nazareth is a bit like seeing an illustrated version of Cliff’s Notes.
We all have our guilty pleasures, and one of mine is television miniseries, particularly those from the 1970s and early 1980s (Roots, Shogun, etc.), which I find to be idealistic and self-important in a way that comes across as endearing rather than annoying. They’re perfect middlebrow entertainment, promising culture without challenge, and offer a welcome relief from the endless anti-heroes that seem to be a requirement of fictional television series today.
Jesus of Nazareth, a 1977 Italian/British production directed by Franco Zeffirelli and produced by Lew Grade, falls right into my wheelhouse. The production design and cinematography are stunning, the cast is ridiculously star-studded, and the script hits the high points of the life of Jesus as taught in Sunday Schools across the land. This series makes no claim to historical accuracy nor attempts to incorporate the latest Biblical scholarship—instead, Zeffirelli has produced a spectacular version of a story that he knew would be familiar to much of its intended audience.
The visuals are the most impressive aspect of Jesus of Nazareth. Zeffirelli studied art before becoming a director, and it shows. Many scenes appear to be modeled on classic religious art, and the character of Jesus (Robert Powell) is instantly recognizable, not least because he always seems to be lit from some heavenly source. The script (by Zeffirelli, Suso Cecchi d’Amico, and Anthony Burgess) is more serviceable than inspired, and includes some real clunkers (“Can’t you believe without seeing, Thomas?”) as well as familiar Biblical quotations (“Father, forgive them…” and so on) that simply have to be included in a project of this type.
Watching Jesus of Nazareth is a bit like seeing an illustrated version of Cliff’s Notes with some spectacular set pieces like Salome’s dance (which is very chaste, given the restrictions placed on television in 1977) tossed in among the famous quotations and well-known events. It’s sort of ridiculous but also lots of fun to watch, and not that different from the way American Crime Story is currently reenacting the events of the O.J. Simpson trial. Lots of people seem to be enjoying that show, so maybe audience taste hasn’t evolved all that much in 39 years.
There are so many stars in the cast of Jesus of Nazareth that I could spend this entire review enumerating them. Here’s a few of the cast members: Olivia Hussey (Juliet in Zeffirelli’s famed version of Romeo and Juliet) plays Mary, Anne Bancroft plays Mary Magdalene (and yes, the character is portrayed as a prostitute), Michael York plays John the Baptist, James Earl Jones plays Balthazar, Peter Ustinov plays Herod the Great, Christopher Plummer plays Herod Antipas, Valentina Cortese plays Herodias, and Anthon Quinn plays Caiaphas. As with American Crime Story, one of the pleasures of watching Jesus of Nazareth is seeing so many famous actors popping up as historical figures, and the result is a sort of historical pageant that doesn’t really require the suspension of disbelief to be enjoyable. You don’t have to buy it, in other words, you can just let it wash over you and be carried along by the wave.
Shout! Factory’s DVD and Blu-ray release is being marketed as the “40th-anniversary edition” and is based on a newly-restored print which looks great (and considering that the visuals are probably the best thing about this miniseries, that’s essential). The only extras on the disc are two video interviews, one with Michael York (30 min.) and one with Jean-Pierre Isbouts (59 min.), author of In the Footsteps of Jesus. | Sarah Boslaugh