Perhaps the most iconic of all Jesus films is Jesus of Nazareth, starring Robert Powell. Made for television by director Franco Zeffirelli, it ran for over six hours and, for many, became the definitive version of the story of Jesus.
The lengthy running time enabled it to develop fully the background to the story. It was therefore the first film to seriously attempt to explain why the various characters acted as they did. That said, even with such a long running time, the climatic resurrection scenes feel strangely rushed.
The film was particularly noteworthy for its supporting cast, which featured many household names. Laurence Olivier, Michael York, Olivia Hussey, James Mason, James Earl Jones, Anthony Quinn, Anne Bancroft, Christopher Plummer, Donald Pleasence and Ian Holm all had starring roles, and there were many others besides.
But it was Powell’s performance as Jesus that was the film’s major talking point. Powell’s blue, unblinking eyes, and his slow measured delivery gave his Jesus a sense of awe that some people adored, but others found unrealistic, or just plain dull. The filmmaker’s reverence for Jesus gave an impression of his other-worldliness, but it also made him somewhat remote. Yet even today, Powell gets people telling him how they were touched by his portrayal, and how moving they found the film.
It’s no surprise, then, that after its first screening in 1977, Jesus of Nazareth found itself on Easter TV schedules for years to come. And for many people, Powell’s face is still the one they imagine when they picture Jesus.
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It’s “the greatest story ever told”, according to one famous movie title, and among these films is the alleged most watched film of all time. In these pages we review some of the most significant Jesus movies made over the past 50 years.
Written by Matt Page
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