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Because director Franco Zeffirelli noted publicly that he intended to depict Jesus Christ as a human being rather than a religious icon, his expensive made-for-TV miniseries Jesus of Nazareth fell victim to protestors long before its April 3, 1977, debut. Despite the pullout of several sponsors, Jesus of Nazareth was aired as scheduled, sweeping the ratings in the process. In avoiding the usual overproduced Hollywood approach to the Gospels, Zeffirelli offers one of the most sensitive and reverent portrayals of Jesus ever seen on film. In the title role, Robert Powell heads a huge international cast, which includes Olivia Hussey as Mary, Peter Ustinov as Herod the Great, Christopher Plummer as Herod Antipas, Michael York as John the Baptist, James Farentino as Simon Peter, Donald Pleasence as Melchior, James Earl Jones as Balthazar, Ian McShane as Judas, Anne Bancroft as Mary Magdalene, Rod Steiger as Pontius Pilate, James Mason as Joseph of Arimathea, Anthony Quinn as Caiaphas, Laurence Olivier as Nicodemus, Ernest Borgnine as the Centurion, and Claudia Cardinale as the Adulteress.

Director: Franco Zeffirelli Writers: Anthony Burgess, Suso Cecchi D’Amico

Robert Powell, Olivia Hussey and Laurence Olivier

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User reviews:
Unfortunately, it’s been some years since I saw this mini series, but remember the experience being tremendously moving and uplifting back when I watched it. There are a few embellishments and minor deviations from Scripture, but only one (discussed later) that I remember these many years later as giving me pause. Of course I would advise anyone seeking strict accuracy to go to the true and best source, the Bible itself, and not rely on anything from the cinematic world. However, I believe this mini series would give a very positive spiritual enrichment to any Christian, whether Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox. Watching it brought for me a closer relationship with the Lord. Robert Powell is magnificent in a role that is of course absolutely impossible for any actor to adequately fill, that of Jesus. Powell has the classic appearance people often imagine as Christ like. I note a great deal of discussion as to his blue eyes, but feel it’s all much ado. True, Powell is not Jewish, so perhaps a Jewish actor might have given a more realistic appearance, but it seems minor in relation to his overall powerful portrayal. I agree with others’ comments that looking at Powell here, one sees not the actor, but Jesus. The beautiful Olivia Hussey, who played Juliet in Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, is perfectly cast in the role of the Virgin Mary. James Farentino gives a compelling portrait of Simon Peter, the sinful ordinary fisherman to whom Jesus eventually gives the keys to the Kingdom. The cast includes many other famous stars, such as Peter Ustinov (Herod the Great), Michael York (John the Baptist), Ernest Borgnine (the Centurion), Claudia Cardinale (the Adulteress), Ian McShane (Judas Iscariot), Anne Bancroft (Mary Magdalene), Lawrence Olivier (Nichodemus), James Mason (Joseph of Arimathea), Stacey Keach (Barrabbas), Anthony Quinn (Caiaphas), and Christopher Plummer (Herod Antipas). Although easily recognized & famous actors, they all seem credible in their roles, in addition to the lesser known cast members such as Yorgo Voyagis who is perfect as Joseph. Jesus’s humble stable birth is eloquently captured. Also, the series brings vividly to life the miracles, parables, teachings, and especially passion & death of Christ. I found particularly compelling the depiction of the miraculous catch of fish, the calling of the tax collector Matthew as an apostle, and Peter’s denial of Christ. Some events may have been omitted, one reviewer citing the marriage feast at Cana where Jesus changes the water into wine. I read from another reviewer that the series is based on the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, & Luke), while the wedding at Cana is found only in the Gospel of John so that would explain its omission. In any case, it would be difficult to include everything, and I doubt that malice was intended here. One reviewer complained that the resurrection is not well portrayed. If that is the case, it did not upset me enough that I recall it these years later. However, I did find rather troubling the fictional sub-plot about the zealots and Judas trying to arrange for Jesus to meet with the Sanhedrin. His betrayal should have been depicted exactly according to Scripture. Nevertheless, Jesus of Nazareth is a captivating, reverent, & moving portrayal of the life of Jesus. It depicts Him as both fully human & fully divine, and shows at every turn His love for sinners. Despite perhaps minor flaws, it is true to both the message & spirit of Christianity. It is definitely a series I would recommend for viewing by any Christian and personally, I would love to watch it again myself.

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