Jesus of Nazareth

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Great as a TV miniseries back in 1977, but merely OK on DVD

Nov 20, 2003 (Updated Apr 16, 2004)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Devoutly reverent, generally accurate and often quite moving depiction of Christ's life.

Cons:Much too long, and the quality of the video transfer is dreadful.

The Bottom Line: Certainly well intentioned and acted, but lacks the majesty and inspiration provided by "The Greatest Story Ever Told."

Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie's plot.

I know I'm going to upset most of the others who've reviewed this film so enthusiastically, but after recently seeing (and reviewing) "The Greatest Story Ever Told," and "King of Kings," I still feel that the best of the three is unquestionably "The Greatest Story Ever Told."

From a purely technical standpoint, "Jesus of Nazareth" suffers badly. The image is not sharply focused, very grainy, and the soundtrack poorly recorded and distorted. I know this was a made for TV movie, but there's no excuse for these faults, especially considering the remarkable technical quality of "King of Kings," which is almost twice as old. The music, by Maurice Jarre, is also a disappointment, when compared to his outstanding work on "Lawrence of Arabia," and "Dr. Zhivago."

Lastly, on the technical side, the dialog, for reasons unknown to me, sounds as if it were dubbed in afterward, and often looks that way too, much like those dreadful Japanese monster movies. I don't understand this at all, since the characters weren't speaking Japanese, but English.

So, onto the artistic merits, since they have nothing to do with a poor video transfer. First of all, Robert Powell, though good, just isn't as commanding a movie Jesus as Max Von Sydow. Jesus was a carpenter, and as such, would have been a large and strong man. Powell is quite short, and frail in stature, so he doesn't quite "look" like Jesus probably did, though, of course, no one knows what Jesus really looked like.

He often speaks some of the most famous words ever written as if they were cocktail banter, and not the profound words that they are. "Let him among you who is without sin cast the first stone," is one of many lines said with little conviction or inspiration.

On the plus side, unlike other Hollywood films about the life of Christ, "Jesus of Nazareth" doesn't rely on fictitious embellishment. The commonly held belief that Mary Magdelene was the prostitute rescued resulting in Christ saying the line in the above paragraph has recently been discredited, as there is no mention of her in the Bible. Zefferelli, though still casting her as a prostitute, has Claudia Cardinale portray "The Adulteress" who is so rescued. Audiences might not be used to this, but it is perhaps more accurate, in light of more recent studies. Personally, I prefer to regard who was saved, and who wasn't as a matter of interpretation, but I commend Zefferelli on his portrayals of the characters.

Zefferelli also fills this film with an all-star cast, with a couple of real goofs. The first is the late Peter Ustinov as Herod. Instead of the malicious, evil person Herod was, Ustinov portrays him in a manner that's almost comical.

Rod Steiger is also very much over the top in his portrayal of Pontius Pilate. A little coaxing on Zefferelli's part to tone down Steiger's portrayal would have been fine, but he's just too much as it is now.

Several of the more familiar moments in the gospels get a bit of a short shrift. For example, when Christ gathers his disciples, most of whom are fishermen, he says, "Come with me." I kept waiting to hear, "and, I will make you fishers of men," but never did.

On the positive side, Olivia Hussey is outstanding as Mary, and her sobbing over the body of her dead son at the end of the very powerful crucifixion scene is precisely what one would have expected of a young man's mother. James Farrentino is also excellent as Peter, and most of the rest of the all-star cast do very well in all of their roles, with the exception of the two I've already mentioned.

There is also an extraordinarily moving scene in which Jesus is having supper at Matthew's house, much to the anger of Peter. Jesus uses the parable about the Prodigal Son (he was lost, but is found) to bring the two men together in a scene of tremendous inspiration and power, though there is no basis in the scriptures for having spoken this parable in such a setting. In this case, "dramatic license" works perfectly.

I saw "King of Kings," and "The Greatest Story Ever Told" upon their initial theatrical releases back in 1961 and 1965, respectively. I also saw "Jesus of Nazareth" in 1977, over, as I recall, two weeks on television. Seeing all three again, after all these years, was quite an experience, and for the most part, a rather enjoyable one. To me, a film depiction of Christ's life need be accurate, well acted, well scored musically, and majestic.

"King of Kings" is well scored, spectacular (especially the battle scenes) and grossly inaccurate. The sets and costumes were majestic, but the manner in which the story itself is told just wasn't.

"The Greatest Story Ever Told" was inspirational, extremely faithful to the gospels (except for the death of Judas) and combined the glory of Christ's words with the spectacular scenery of the American southwest on the enormous Cinerama screen in a manner that was absolutely splendid. "Majestic?" You bet.

"Jesus of Nazareth" is a pious, generally very accurate and sincere depiction of the life of Christ, told in a reverent fashion over a somewhat difficult time span of 6 1/2 hours. Sincere for sure, but majestic? Unfortunately, no.

Lastly, I would like to mention the fact that both "King of Kings" and "The Greatest Story Ever Told" were originally filmed in wide screen processes, and not designed to be viewed on a relatively small TV screen. "King of Kings," filmed in Super Technirama 70, looks remarkable in its video transfer and is THE standard by which all such transfers should be compared. The 42 year old film looks brand new.

"The Greatest Story Ever Told," though filmed in a 70mm process (Ultra Panavision 70), was presented in Cinerama which remains the widest movie screen in film history. When viewed in a letter-boxed image on a relatively small TV screen, many once magnificent scenes are difficult to appreciate. The titles, for example, are flat out impossible to read.

"Jesus of Nazareth" fills the entire TV screen, not surprisingly, because it was made for TV in the first place. Too bad the image and the soundtrack are of such poor quality.

My final verdict? "The Greatest Story Ever Told" - A-.
"King of Kings" - C+. "Jesus of Nazareth" = B.

Recommend this product? Yes

Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: None of the Above
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 13 and Older

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