JESUS OF NAZARETH: THE ORIGINAL FILM ON THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THE FOUNDER OF CHRISTIANITY
Guest Blog By: Alex Karas
"There is only one star here, the star of Bethlehem"
~ Laurence Olivier (Franco Zeffirelli, Zeffirelli)
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 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 Pope Paul VI had given the Jewish television mogul his blessing to produce a production about Jesus. Zeffirelli would later claim that the Pope had been instrumental in the project's 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. Lew Grade wanted the celebrated Italian movie and theatre director Franco Zeffirelli to direct it.
Zeffirelli had already had great success with his adaptations of 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 at first but after Lew Grade made him an offer he could not refuse - the Italian director accepted. From then on, Zeffirelli claimed in 2007 the production progressed as if "it had wind in its sails." (Zenit News Agency)
From the outset, there had been a genuine desire to produce a work that was as accurate as possible. 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". 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 sweeping and memorable score 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)
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.
"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 (Zeffirelli, Franco, Zeffirelli)
Zeffirelli declared 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 as Judas, 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 went to the Greek actor Yorgo Yoyagis.
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. 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 went to Rod Steiger.
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 filmmakers 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).
|Robert Powell as Jesus Christ in the movie.|
Franco Zeffirelli was testing Robert Powell for the part of Judas when the sarcastic joke of a producer suddenly compelled the Italian director to test Powell for the part of Jesus instead. The actor was dressed in ancient robes, had his hair parted and was given a beard.
The photographer Armando Nannuzzi was adjusting the camera and Zeffirelli bent down and looked through the viewfinder into the darkness. Suddenly Nannuzzi lefted away the lens cap and there stood Jesus Christ.
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?" Zeffirelli later asserted.
According to his autobiography, Franco Zeffirelli had initially intended for a young unknown Moroccan girl to play the part of the Virgin Mary. He had even considered a young Greek actress with Irene Papas perhaps playing the older Mary. In actuality, he 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 Franco 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).
|Olivia Hussey played the Virgin Mary in the movie.|
According to Olivia Hussey, Franco Zeffirelli telephoned her out of the blue with; "How would you like to be a virgin again?"
It would prove to be one of the highlights of her career.
Although the filmmakers had taken great strides in producing a biblical TV movie that would be accepted as authentic - many of the 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".
Principal photography was carried out in Morocco and Tunisia from September 1975 to May 1976.
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". 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 demonize the Jewish people for the Crucifixion of Jesus. In 2004, he criticized 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. 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 premiered 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 the period the programs 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.
The mini-serious had been a huge commercial success. 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 beautiful and majestic television production is watched and revered by millions of people around the world. It remains one of the most powerful and moving TV productions ever made.
I would like to give thanks to Alex Karas for this wonderful article on the movie, Jesus of Nazareth, its director, cast, and all the hard work that was done to make it happen. Alex Karas is an actor, writer, and friend based in Hertfordshire, UK. He runs a blog called, "The Needle Pulls the Thread: Solace For the Journey" at:
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