Thursday, 13 February 2014

Jesus of Nazareth

'This film represents a very important turning point in my life because it gave me the opportunity to draw closer to the mystery of Christ. I was forced to study the Scriptures in depth and my Catholicism, which I had been taught as a child, underwent, you could say, a new initiation which went far below the surface of my childhood experience. I would in part compare that moment in my life with the political experience I am living now: they are two periods of my life when I have had to work hard to get to the heart of mankind's great problems: life, spirit, faith. During the filming of Jesus of Nazareth, I felt the Lord was guiding us and the wind was always behind us. In fact, everyone involved in the film had the same sensation, and it was a particularly happy, airy and easy time in our lives. There was a kind of 'energy' given off around us'

~ Franco Zeffirelli 

'There is only one star here, the star of Bethlehem'

~ Sir Laurence Olivier 


Franco Zeffirelli directs Robert Powell in Jesus of Nazareth

Franco Zeffirelli's Jesus 

Shortly before Christmas 1973, Franco Zeffirelli embarked upon the major project of his career.

A movie adaptation of the life of Jesus Christ.

The idea for a mini-series about the life of Jesus had originated with Italian TV. The Radiotelevisione Italiana (RAI) television company were eager to collaborate with Lew Grade of ITC Entertainment. Grade had made the TV movie Moses The Law Giver (1974) with Burt Lancaster and Irene Papas and Pope Paul VI had given the Jewish television mogul his blessing to produce a production about Jesus. 

Franco Zeffirelli would later assert that the Pope had been instrumental in the early days in seeing that the production went smoothly through any difficulties. 

Initially the Italian company wanted Igmar Bergman to direct the TV movie. 

But the Swedish director was regarded as too avant garde

However, Lew Grade wanted the celebrated Italian movie and theatre director Franco Zeffirelli to direct it.

Zeffirelli had already experienced great success and acclaim with his adaptations of William Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew (1966) and Romeo and Juliet (1968) and numerous stage and opera productions with luminaries such as Maria Callas. 

The famous Italian director was reluctant to commit at first but after Lew Grade made him an offer he could not refuse - he accepted. 

Franco Zeffirelli asserted in 2007, that from then on the production progressed as if "it had wind in its sails." (Zenit News Agency)

From the outset, there was a genuine desire to produce a work that would be as accurate as possible and to depict the life of Jesus in unprecedented detail. 

Never before had so much been invested into evoking 1st Century Palestine and the Jewish diaspora in which Christ lived. 

The producers consulted experts from the Vatican, the Leo Baeck Rabbinical College of London and the Koranic School at Meknes, Morocco. 

Both Lew Grade and Franco Zeffirelli were eager to produce a work that would be "acceptable to all denominations", faiths and "even to non-believers". 

They accomplished this feat. 

And the completed mini-series would garner praise from all quarters.

The screenplay to the mini-series was co-written by Anthony Burgess who had written the dystopian satire Clockwork Orange (1962), Suso Checchi d'Amico and Franco Zeffirelli. 

The powerful and sweeping score to the production was written and composed by the acclaimed French composer Maurice Jarre who had written the Academy Award winning scores to Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965) 

The majestic musical score to Jesus of Nazareth had a decidedly oriental influence and became instantly memorable.

Principal photography was carried out in Morocco and Tunisia from September 1975 to May 1976. 

The hills above the village of Moulay Idriss in Morocco with their little settlement of white Berber houses served as Nazareth. The synagogue scenes were shot with extras from the Jewish community on the Tunisian island of Djerba. While the city of Monastir in Tunisia served as 1st Century Jerusalem.

The Life of Jesus (as it was called then) was turning out to be the most ambitious TV production ever undertaken. 

Sir Laurence Olivier had been interested in the project from the beginning; both from a professional and personal viewpoint.

"I am too old for all that horse riding, so I can't be Pilate. I'm not Jewish enough for Caiaphas. Just give me those two little scenes as Nicodemus" Olivier informed Franco Zeffirelli (Zeffirelli, Franco, Zeffirelli)

The Italian director wrote in his autobiography that "moved I like to think, by these latent religious impulses and certainly by the presence of Olivier as the doyen of their profession, the stars rushed to join us" (Zeffirelli, Franco, Zeffirelli)

The huge international cast included; 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 asJudas, James Mason as Joseph of Arimathea, Anthony Quinn as Caiaphas, Laurence Olivier as Nicodemus, Ernest Borgnine as the Centurion, and Claudia Cardinale as theAdulteress.

The part of Joseph was given to the Greek actor Yorgo Yoyagis - although his voice was later dubbed.

Franco Zeffirelli had given the part of Mary Magdalene to Elizabeth Taylor but when she was too unwell to commit, he requested the reclusive Italian-American actress Anne Bancroft instead. 

To his great surprise not only did Bancroft agree to play the part but she accepted less pay than what she was accustomed to, thus saving the production money (Zenit News Agency)

Conversely, Marcello Mastroianni had been offered the part of Pontius Pilate but he was unsure about the $30,000 a week flat fee that associate producer Dyson Lovell had suggested for all the stars. 

In the end the part of Pontius Pilate went to a memorable Rod Steiger instead.

The Italian company had wanted a well known actor to play the part of Jesus to draw in a large audience. 

Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino were considered for the role. But the film makers were concerned that their looks might not match the popular perception of Jesus.

Lew Grade's Catholic wife Kathie Moody suggested an actor named Robert Powell whom she had seen in a UK BBC production of Jude the Obscure

Powell had also featured in Ken Russell's film productions Mahler (1973) and Tommy (1975).

Franco Zeffirelli was testing Robert Powell for the part of Judas when the sarcastic joke of a producer stung the Italian director and compelled him to test Powell for the part of Jesus instead. 

The British actor was promptly dressed in ancient robes, had his hair parted and was given a beard.

The photographer Armando Nannuzzi was adjusting the camera and Franco Zeffirelli bent down and looked through the viewfinder into the darkness. 

Suddenly Nannuzzi lifted away the lens cap and there stood Jesus Christ.

The effect was instantaneous

A seamstress noticing a stray thread, ran onto the set to remove it and as she did so she saw the full effect for the first time.

"Oh my God" she said and crossed herself. 

"Who was I to argue?" Franco Zeffirelli later declared.

Robert Powell famously did not blink throughout his portrayal of Jesus.

His eye makeup was composed of a thin line of dark blue eyeliner on the upper lid of the eye, and a thin line of white eyeliner on the lower lid to emphasise his penetrating blue eyes.

According to his autobiography, Franco Zeffirelli had initially intended for a young unknown Moroccan girl to play the part of the Virgin Mary. 

He also considered having the Greek actress Irene Papas play the older Mary and he auditioned actresses in Athens who could play the teenage Mary. 

In actuality, Franco Zeffirelli offered the part of the Virgin Mary to the French actress Maria Schneider.  She had come to prominence in Bernardo Bertolucci's controversial movie Last Tango in Paris (1972) But Schneider turned Zeffirelli's offer down - a decision she would always regret. 

The part eventually went to Olivia Hussey who had starred in Romeo and Juliet (1968). 

According to Hussey, Franco Zeffirelli telephoned her out of the blue.

"How would you like to be a virgin again?" Zeffirelli asked her.

"Excuse me?" Olivia Hussey replied. 

It would prove to be one of the highlights of her career.

Although the filmmakers had taken great pains to produce an authentic biblical TV production - many of it's principal players were decidedly European looking. Jesus's North European appearance in the series was influenced by Warner Sallman's iconic The Head of Christ. 

While Catherine O'Brien in The Celluloid Madonna: From Scripture to Screen suggested that the Virgin Mary had been depicted "without regard to historical or ethnographic accuracy" by the "definitely Caucasian Olivia Hussey". 

The production was not without controversy. 

Franco Zeffirelli caused outrage in certain quarters by informing an interviewer from Modern Screen that the TV movie would portray Jesus as "an ordinary man - gentle, fragile, simple". 

The Italian director had departed from the traditional depiction of Jesus Christ as a religious icon. 

Therefore long before the production aired on April 3, 1977, it had already fallen victim to protesters and several of it's sponsors pulled out. 

Great pains had been taken by Zeffirelli not to demonise the Jewish people for the crucifixion of Jesus. 

In 2004, he criticised Mel Gibson for perpetuating the traditional stereotype of Jews and for being "sinisterly attracted to the most unrestrained violence" (Bates, Stephen The Guardian)

The films were transmitted in the United States, Britain and Italy at different times over the Easter period of 1977 as Jesus of Nazareth. Other countries followed on various days. 

In the United Kingdom and in the United States, it was broadcast in two parts by the network ITV in the United Kingdom  and NBC in the United States. In both countries, the first was aired on 3 April and the second on Easter, 10 April 1977. 

During its original showing in Britain, Jesus of Nazareth had an estimated audience of 21 million. 

Throughout the period of its transmission, crime levels in Britain were noted to have been at a record low. In the United States it was estimated to have attracted an audience of 90 million. 

Jesus of Nazareth premièred on the Italian channel RAI 1 on 27 March 1977. 

It was broadcast in five episodes, one shown every week until 25 April. On Palm Sunday, 3 April 1977 - the date of the airing of the second episode - the Pope gave the series his endorsement. 

According to Franco Zeffirelli, between 80% and 83% of the Italian population had watched the mini-series.

Theft was reported to have dropped to near zero and many churches noted a rise in attendance during period the programmes were shown. 

In West Germany, Jesus of Nazareth was broadcast by ZDF in four episodes on the 19th, 21st, 23rd and 24 March 1978. It was estimated that 40% of the audience viewed it. 

And the mini-series would continue to be shown every Easter on a Greek TV channel.

The mini-series had been a huge commercial success with astronomical viewing figures. Sir Lew Grade claimed in his autobiography Still Dancing: My Story  that Jesus of Nazareth had made a "a net profit of $30 million."

Jesus of Nazareth remains the definitive adaptation of the life of Christ and the measure by which all biblical epics are judged. 

Nearly 26 years after its first transmission, the actor Jim Caviezel commended Robert Powell's depiction of Christ as the chief inspiration for his own portrayal of Jesus in Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004). 

While Keisha Castle-Hughes as the Virgin Mary in The Nativity Story (2006) bears a passing resemblance to Olivia Hussey from Jesus of Nazareth in her looks and attire. 

Jesus of Nazareth was nominated for six British Academy Television Awards (BAFTA Awards); Best Single Play Franco Zeffirelli Best Actor Robert Powell Best Film Cameraman David Watkin Armando Nannuzzi Best Film Editor Reginald Mills Best Costume Design Marcel Escoffier Enrico Sabbatini Best Film Sound Simon Kaye Gerry Humphreys. But it did not win. 

The production received an Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Special Drama or Comedy. Additionally, James Farentino, who portrayed St. Peter, received a nomination for Outstanding Performance by a Supporting Actor in a Comedy or Drama Special. 

However, Jesus of Nazareth did win awards from the Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists (Silver Ribon); Best Cinematography (Migliore Fotografia) Armando Nannuzzi Best Production Design (Migliore Scenografia) Gianni Quaranta Franco Zeffirelli

Franco Zeffirelli's stunningly emotive Jesus of Nazareth is one of the most sensitive and reverent portrayals of Christ ever seen on film. 

The celebrated Italian director had the gift of bringing out the beauty in his actors and Jesus of Nazareth is crafted as a piece of art.

It is a beautiful and majestic television production that is watched and revered by millions of people around the world. 

And Jesus of Nazareth remains one of the most powerful and profoundly moving productions about Jesus Christ ever made.


Franco Zeffirelli directs Robert Powell as Jesus in Jesus of Nazareth (
Robert Powell and Franco Zeffirelli during the shooting of Jesus of Nazareth
Franco Zeffirelli, Robert Powell and Lew Grade (gettyimages)
Robert Powell as Jesus Christ in Jesus of Nazareth  (

Olivia Hussey as Mary in Jesus of Nazareth
Olivia Hussey as Mary in Jesus of Nazareth


Robert Powell as Jesus in Jesus of Nazareth (
Jesus Christ: What is the heart of the law? 
Joseph of Arimathea: "Hear, O Israel, thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul and with all thy strength." This is the greatest commandment. 
Jesus Christ: You have said well. You are not far from the Kingdom of God, Joseph of Arimathea. But there is another commandment, no less greater: you must love your neighbor as yourself.

Robert Powell as Jesus in Jesus of Nazareth (pinterest)
Olivia Hussey as Mary in Jesus of Nazareth (Getty Images)
(gently, to the Virgin Mary) Simeon: And a sword shall pierce your heart.

Olivia Hussey  as Mary in Jesus of Nazareth' (

Franco Zeffirelli directs Robert Powell in Jesus of Nazareth (pinterest)

 Robert Powell as Jesus in Jesus of Nazareth (pinterest)
Pontius Pilate: Do you realize I have the power to release you or have you crucified? 
Jesus Christ: You wouldn't have had that power over me if it hadn't been given to you from above.

Jesus of Nazareth (
Michael York as John the Baptist in Jesus of Nazareth (
Peter Ustinov as Herod the Great in Jesus of Nazareth (

Jesus of Nazareth Top left, Robert Powell as Jesus, Anne Bancroft as Mary Magdalene, Ernest Borgnine as the Centurion, Top left second row, Olivia Hussey as Mary, Claudia Cardinale as the Adulteress, Valentina Cortese as Herodias, Top left bottom row, Stacy Keach as Barabbas, James Mason as Joseph of Arimathea, Laurence Olivier as Nicodemus 


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