Magazine article The Christian Century

A Jesus to Ponder

Magazine article The Christian Century

A Jesus to Ponder

Article excerpt

AS A CONSISTENT critic of even sober historical reconstructions of Jesus, I was not predisposed to appreciate the CBS mini-series Jesus. Cinematic renderings of a "truly human Jesus" usually combine the lamebrained and the lubricious. They confirm the and that as Hollywood raises its intentions it lowers its artistry.

The literature accompanying the four-hour two-part show contained predictable Tinseltown nuggets: the director wanted "to show Jesus as a real guy"; the executive producer wanted to avoid the "saintly, austere Jesus" associated with "suffering and pain," in favor of a Jesus who had "a tremendous sense of humor and joy"; the film "ended up serving two masters" by trying to satisfy the American crew's quest for an entertaining, dramatic story and the Italian crew's "interest in it being an inspirational story." I prepared to view the film with a comfortable attitude of condescension. But the longer I watched, the more I felt myself move from a posture of amused contempt to one of interest and finally genuine engagement.

There are, to be sure, any number of features that met my low expectations. The four Gospels are mined for episodes that make dramatic sense, with no regard for historical probability or narrative logic. Some incidents and characters are invented for the sake of drama. Joseph plays a role in Jesus' life not described in any Gospel: flashbacks to his consternation at Mary's pregnancy and the loss of Jesus in the temple are amplified by scenes showing him instructing Jesus in temple practice, traveling and working with Jesus as a carpenter, and urging Jesus to a vocation to save his people. Indeed, Joseph's death is the pivotal event in Jesus' transition from being the good son to being God's son.

Similarly, considerable attention is paid to Pontius Pilate and his interactions with Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, including Herod Antipas as well as members of the Sanhedrin. A scene is created that allows Barabbas--as a leader of zealots--and Jesus to meet and disagree long before their fates intersect in the passion narrative. And an essential narrative role is played by an invented Roman historian named Livio who functions partly as cultural informant for Pilate (and the viewer) and partly as agent provocateur in the events leading to Jesus' death.

The film also has an abundance of Hollywood cliches. The characters (if one exdudes the shockingly emaciated Gary Oldman as Pilate) are all supernally beautiful: Jeremy Sisko's Jesus has surfer good looks, Jaequeline Bisset's Mary has disconcertingly fine teeth, and Debra Messing's Mary Magdalene is, in her first scenes, scarcely subtle in her prostitute's (uh-huh) makeup. There is also a great deal of swelling music (notably Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Pie Jesu" as Jesus and Mary are arranged to form a Pieth), and special effects: Jesus walking on the water is one of those classic back-lot -pool-with-wind-machine-as-Sea-of-Galilee affairs, and there are the usual unconvincing earthquake and eclipse scenes accompanying the crucifixion.

The most overt bits of trickery are, oddly, the most effective. The movie opens with scenes from the Inquisition and holy wars that turn out to be a dream Jesus has as he naps with Joseph on a journey. And Jesus' temptation by Satan (both in the desert and in the garden) portrays the tempter as alternately a beautiful young woman and a powerful business tycoon, both in 21st-century clothing.

The miniseries also has the requisite amount of Hollywood sex and violence. Mary Magdalene's bare back is twice shown in intimate post-business moments, Salome does her sensual shimmy, and Jesus forgives an adulterous woman whose mascara is ruinously smeared. The visions of future religious wars are filled with smoke and savagery, tax collectors ravage people's property, zealots murder tax collectors with maximum gore, and the scourging and crucifixion of Jesus are sufficiently realistic to make one flinch. …

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