Jesus of Nazareth Review

"Sir Lew Grade Presents..." This will be the same Sir Lew Grade who, it is alleged, could not meet Ted Willis' challenge to name all twelve apostles, saying, "Right...there's Peter. There's John. There's that geezer Judas. I'll tell you the names of the others when I've finished reading the script!" Indeed, in spite of it clearly being the story of Christ, Jesus Of Nazereth is a film - or rather a miniseries - that pays homage less to Christ than to the efforts of Grade to bring it to the screen in time for Easter 1977. No matter a cast list that includes Robert Powell, Anne Bancroft, James Earl Jones, James Mason, Laurence Olivier, Anthony Quinn and Peter Ustinov. Nor that it was directed by Franco Zeffirelli, then between the successes of Romeo And Juliet and The Champ. Nor that it was scripted by Anthony Burgess from his own novel, Man Of Nazareth. No, above all else, this is a Sir Lew Grade production and it flatters the producer above all else.

And it's Burgess that I'll be quoting throughout this review, a one sure voice at the centre of a production that had the backing of the Vatican, the financial support of General Motors and then IBM and which Zeffirelli was developing for, in Burgess' words, "...small Italians who had forgotten their catechism." His first scripts were rejected on account of their ambition and their attempts at finding reason within the life of Jesus. Each draft was rejected by Zeffirelli and his theological advisors. Burgess responded by saying that he, "would have traded them all for an adviser in carpentry." Instead, Zeffirelli was demanding a traditional telling of the life of Jesus, a greatest hits of the gospels, with as much romance as the tale can support. And so, we have the blue-eyed Robert Powell as Jesus, a cast of white westerners and an army of devilish Pharisees fiddling over semantics whilst they condemn Jesus to death. Burgess writes in the second volume of his autobiography, You've Had Your Time, "I foreknew that we would have a full-dress resurrection of Lazarus."

Burgess is proved right in the watching of Jesus Of Nazareth. On account of the story of Jesus being amongst the most well-known ever recorded - shame on you if you don't know something of Christ - Zeffirelli clearly felt that he could take no chances with the story. So, heavily in debt to the Gospel of St John, the director draws out a story that depends on the legend of Christ moreso than, as Burgess had wanted, one of Christ as a man. A more daring production may have portrayed, as later films on Christ have done, a man who may have been married, been homosexual or been an embittered widower. If Zeffirelli wanted the marriage at Cana, could it not have been Christ's marriage that they were celebrating? Could not Mary Magdalene have been the wife of Christ?

Such things, in spite of the Catholic Church fretting about what their members might think, are, if not generally accepted, part and parcel of the story of Christ. In as much as we have tended to accept the early chapters of Genesis as being mere fables meant to teach the people of Israel lessons of faith and of the power of God - with the exception of those who have dated the creation of the Earth based on the lineage of Christ to Adam - so is there much in the gospels that is debated. A very well-known example is of Christ's teaching to a young Greek man that it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of Heaven. Although, as Burgess and others have pointed out, would Christ not have used Greek in such an exchange, telling the young man that it would be easier for a kamilon (rope) to pass through the eye of a needle?

This literal view of the gospels, particularly that of John, litters Jesus Of Nazereth. It isn't that the miniseries isn't good - it is actually a very watchable but a melodramatic telling of the story of Christ - but more that it has been made for an audience more likely to be impressed by the scale of the production than its message. Millions of dollars were quite obviously spent on the production with such scenes as the feeding of the 5,000 doing nothing to disguise the epic nature of the piece. Similarly, the passion, which begins at the Garden of Gethsemane and ends with Christ's resurrection, is well handled, not only for the flaying and crucifixion of Christ but also the great crowds assembled by Zeffirelli and his framing of the iconic image of Christ on the cross. It may be no better than The Greatest Story Ever Told or King Of Kings but Zeffirelli knows better than to stray from the crucifixion, with the combination of Christ's death, the rainstorm lashing the hillside and the tearing down of the temple proving fairly powerful still.

And yet there are moments when Jesus Of Nazareth dares to stretch itself and to give us something wonderful. There are brief moments in the opening episode that hint at Christ's humanity - something Burgess wanted but which was largely rejected by Grade and Zeffirelli - yet nothing as ridiculous as The Passion Of The Christ's invention of the dining-room table. Indeed, Powell does a very good job of finding a line between making his Christ the son of God and having him the simple son of a carpenter. Burgess' writing of Judas as being much more than one who will betray Jesus - a necessary chapter in the death and resurrection of Christ - has given him the voice of an innocent distraught at what he has done, all the better that his suicide is less the act of a man possessed by the devil and by greed for his thirty pieces of silver than of one with the blood of the messiah on his hands.

Yet the best moment comes at the very end with Christ huddled in a small room with the remaining eleven disciples, sensing their fear at what awaits them. Peter, knowing that the fate of Christ is also in his future, pleads with Jesus to remain, saying, "Oh, Lord, stay with us. For the night is falling and the day is almost over." Jesus, again with the knowledge of the hardships that await the disciples, soothes them with, "Don't be afraid. I am with you every day. Till the end of time." In all other respects, the resurrection - being the central plank on which the entire Christian religion rests - is handled rather casually, as if Zeffirelli, having peaked with the crucifixion, simply lost interest. This final exchange perfectly captures the moment between the end of the gospels and the beginning of the Acts Of The Apostles, with there being eleven men charged with bringing the teachings of Christ to the world but simply stunned into silence at the thought of doing so. For understanding the humanity of that moment, of accepting that what we now have as the broad church of Christianity depended on those eleven terrified men, Jesus Of Nazareth ends with a remarkable few seconds. It is a pity, however, that in spite of the scale of the remainder of the production, there was not the room for any more such moments.


The age of the production is obvious throughout, not only for Robert Powell's youth - anyone who's seen him recently on Holby City will wonder if he's actually deflated over the passing years - but also a look that places it squarely in the era of The Good Life, The Sweeney and Last of the Summer Wine, albeit on something of a bigger budget. Hence, we have a 1.33:1 transfer that looks fine on a small screen but is noisy when shown on a bigger one. This isn't only to do with the detail that's missing on a bigger screen but also the variations in colour that occur with pinks and yellows bleeding into the blue sky. One suspects, though, that much of this has to do with the two DVDs being pushed to hold 366 minutes and a transfer from ITV (likely to be the same one that Carlton issued some years back) that does little to restore the film to its original condition.

The DD2.0 Stereo soundtrack is fine but has clearly not undergone any restoration. The opening theme sounds small and crackly in spite of its grand ambitions and though the dialogue is clear - and what with the sermon on the mount, the parables of the Lost Sheep, the Workers in the Vineyard and the Talents amongst others as well as the trial of Jesus, there is a lot of dialogue - the audio track is simply very ordinary throughout. The subtitles are, however, good and lose little of what is actually spoken.


There are no extras on this DVD release.


In closing the chapter of his book devoted to Jesus Of Nazareth, Burgess notes that the elaborate set was not struck after filming but remained in place and was later taken over by the Monty Python sextet for Life Of Brian. According to Burgess, Zeffirelli was disgusted and spoke of blasphemy but it's a fitting end to have the enormous Lew Grade production of Jesus Of Nazereth pricked by Life Of Brian. However, this is still marvellous entertainment at times with the scale of the thing still able to impress and the straightforward adaptation of the gospels still able to work on the faithful. Indeed, you only need to realise that Jesus Of Nazareth continues to be shown annually - it was shown over two nights this Easter on ITV3 - to know that it still has an audience. One doesn't doubt that there are many Christians - Protestants, Catholics and however many other Christian denominations there are - who sit down before Jesus Of Nazareth at Easter, content with the seasonal programming but I would contend there are just as many who enjoy a good old-fashioned costume drama, some solid writing and a cast that looks no less impressive some thirty years on.

That audience, meanwhile, was sufficient for some of those involved in Jesus Of Nazareth to return for 1985's A.D., which picked up where this left off as the disciples began to spread Christ's teaching through Israel, Greece and on to Rome. Perhaps there was no one better suited to the writing or it may have been that with Zeffirelli no longer involved he could stretch the story a little but not only did the audience return but so too did Burgess, writing both script and novel (Kingdom Of The Wicked). Sir Lew Grade did not. It may be that the absence of one contributed to the presence of the other.

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Last updated: 14/03/2018 15:48:03

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