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'Jesus' humanizes the life of Christ

Sunday, May 14, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

When you take the name of a sacred figure and hype it as a television event, there's bound to be some goofiness.

CBS's "Jesus" falls into this trap.

Recently I told a page designer the photo for next week's TV story about a "Brady Bunch" movie is better than this week's. Here's how it came out: "'The Bradys' are better than 'Jesus.'"

See what I mean? With that title things start to sound funny - or like an infamous John Lennon quote.


When: Today and Wednesday at 9 p.m. on CBS.

Starring: Jeremy Sisto, Jacqueline Bisset, Gary Oldman, Debra Messing


Maybe I'm going to hell for this, but probably not if the Jesus in this mini-series is anything like the real one. He even cracks a joke himself. Years after Joseph's death, his mother Mary (Jacqueline Bisset) praises Jesus for his teachings, saying, "Your father would be so proud." Jesus smiles and replies, "Which one?"

That's not to say "Jesus" plays the story of Christ for laughs. Not at all. But it humanizes the title character, especially in early scenes.

When you're telling The Greatest Story Ever Told for the umpteenth time, there needs to be something new. Everyone knows the ending even before the opening credits roll.

Rather than an ultra-serious Jesus, actor Jeremy Sisto makes the Son of God closer to a regular dude. Some conservative Christians may be shocked to see him dancing.

In Sunday's first part, Mary of Bethany (Stefania Rocca) makes doe eyes at Jesus and it's clear he has feelings for her, too. But he knows it's a path he cannot follow. Seeing this comparatively small sacrifice paves the way for a much greater one later.

"You are not just a carpenter, Jesus," Joseph (Armin Mueller-Stahl) says, driving the point home.

Jeroen Krabbe turns in an understated, but powerful performance as Satan, who tempts Jesus to forsake his destiny. Rather than depicting Satan as a horned devil with a pitchfork, this Satan has slick-backed hair and a suit - the modern, corporate devil.

In Part Two, Satan tries to turn Jesus, telling him his name will be invoked as a reason for war: "This is what you're dying for - another reason for them to kill."

"Jesus" manages dramatic moments even in a familiar story. Last fall's "Mary Mother of Jesus" on NBC was strictly episodic - this happened, and then that happened - which made for a pretty boring two hours. CBS's "Jesus" remains interesting by emphasizing the political machinations of the day, although I wish it would have delved into this further (an adaptation told primarily from the point of view of political leaders of the era would really bring something new to the genre).

Screen star Gary Oldman schemes and plots as Pontius Pilate, who is aided in his efforts by Roman historian Livio (G.W. Bailey). And where there's Pilate, there's also Herod Antipas (Luca Barbareschi).

"Jesus" - the mini-series - isn't perfect. Biblical scholars will cringe at the varied accents - who knew Jesus had a British mom and a German dad? - and one scene comes across as unintentionally laughable. When Jesus calls his Apostles out from a crowd of followers it's staged like he's picking teams for a neighborhood flag football game.

Otherwise, "Jesus" is a reverent retelling of the life of Christ. It's certainly an improvement on last May's "Noah's Ark" on NBC, which amounted to an abomination on so many levels. At least "Jesus" won't cause viewers to take its name in vain.

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