Every year about this time I lament the absence of a good copy of Franco Zefferelli‘s Jesus of Nazareth, which aired as a mini-series on low-def TV in 1977, though it was surely filmed in at least 35mm stock.
But this year, to my amazement, there is an HD version on YouTube. It seems to be 3 x 4 stretched sideways to 16 x 9, but still looks better than the awful VHS version that had previously been (to my knowledge) the only copy available, in stores or online.
It is reverently directed, and features an all-star cast, most of which do an excellent job:
- Anne Bancroft as Mary Magdalene
- Ernest Borgnine as the Roman Centurion
- Claudia Cardinale as the Adulteress
- Valentina Cortese as Herodias
- James Farentino as Peter
- James Earl Jones as Balthazar
- Stacy Keach as Barabbas
- Tony Lo Bianco as Quintillius
- James Mason as Joseph of Arimathea
- Ian McShane as Judas Iscariot
- Laurence Olivier as Nicodemus
- Donald Pleasence as Melchior
- Christopher Plummer as Herod Antipas
- Anthony Quinn as Caiaphas
- Fernando Rey as Gaspar
- Ralph Richardson as Simeon
- Rod Steiger as Pontius Pilate
- Peter Ustinov as Herod the Great
- Michael York as John the Baptist
- Cyril Cusack as Yehuda
- Ian Holm as Zerah
- Yorgo Voyagis as Joseph
The script is by Anthony Burgess and the (truly fabulous) music by Maurice Jarre. While considered mildly controversial at the time (mostly by prickly Christian fundamentalists), it mostly combines and compresses the biblical accounts of Jesus’ life, which (lets admit) is a heck of a story. (Perhaps it matters that Zefferelli is a devout Roman Catholic, and the Pope liked it.)
Some bonus facts:
- Robert Powell, as Jesus, almost never blinks in the film. This is by Zefferelli’s intent. So was casting a dude with big blue eyes. Zefferelli wanted Jesus to look like people are accustomed to visualizing him, rather than how he likely looked in reality. For cinematic effect, it works.
- Zefferelli, a lifelong smoker, is still around, at 93 years old. Most of the stars in the movie are dead.
- There are a few goofs. One is Jesus’ Bar Mitzvah. That Jewish tradition was more than a millennium off in the future.
- Rotten Tomatoes actually rates it (85%).