What It’s a Wonderful Life is to Christmas, and Yankee Doodle Dandy to Independence Day, this 6hr. 26min. Franco Zeffirelli miniseries is to Easter: definitive TV entertainment for a holiday, or holy day. Anthony Burgess’ script is the fullest standard text, from which more extravagant versions like Pasolini’s, Martin Scorsese’s and Mel Gibson’s are encouraged to meander freely. In Robert Powell, Zeffirelli found the Jesus of a million dining-room icons: agate-blue eyes, cheeks that didn’t need to be sucked in for that dishy ascetic look, a strength to match the facial sensitivity. Supporting him are stars of varying aptness: Laurence Olivier rolling his eyes as Nicodemus, Rod Steiger spuming as Pilate. Olivia Hussey (Juliet in Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet) plays Jesus’ mother and the much older Anne Bancroft plays Magdalene; the casting director must have mixed up the two Marys.
In the scourging scene, the lashes snap and sting; the soldiers wind up for their work like Olympic discus throwers. There’s no earthquake at Jesus’ death, only rain. Zeffirelli suggests that the response to a Savior’s death would be the tears of angels, not the rumblings of subterranean spirits.