Woe to those who produce Jesus movies, for their worries will be many. The first task of a producer is to cast a credible Jesus. Such an actor must look at least something like the Everyman edition of Jesus: big, mysterious eyes, brown hair and full beard (with the notable exception of Willem Dafoe in "The Last Temptation of Christ"). He must seem magnetic enough to attract dozens of followers. He must be able convincingly to say things like "Lazarus, come forth!" (which is not the sort of thing one might say in regular conversation). And he must perform what St. Mark calls "mighty works" without looking overly pleased with himself.
Second, producers must decide which Gospel(s) to use and how closely they will hew to the Evangelists’ work. For example, one trip or three to Jerusalem? Does Jesus say and do only what is recorded in a particular Gospel (the tack taken in Pasolini’s "The Gospel According to Matthew")? Or do the scriptwriters combine sayings and events from several Gospels? Do they fill in details of the "hidden life," from ages 12 to 30? How graphic a crucifixion? And the most difficult decision: What does the post-resurrection Jesus look like? (Good luck with that one.)
Finally, the increasingly harried producers will eventually find themselves coming to grips with what one could call the more Christological questionsthat is, navigating between the shoals of Arianism and Docetism. In some movies ("The Last Temptation of Christ," "Godspell") Jesus is definitely human; in others ("Jesus of Nazareth," "The Greatest Story Ever Told") almost 100 percent divine. (Good luck with that one, too.)
So one may begin viewing the new CBS offering Jesus (9 p.m. ET, Sunday, May 14 and Wednesday, May 17) with a modicum of pity for the producers. Such compassion, however, quickly turns into self-pity for having to sit through four hours of what may be called, at best, a serviceable explication of the Gospel.
Casting difficulties lie at the heart of the problems of this ambitious mini-series. On the one hand, CBS scored a coup in its selection of the devilish Gary Oldman as Pontius Pilate. Mr. Oldman, a superb actor, is terrific in a role that he seems to have been born to play. His Pilate is a petulant, decadent functionary of Caesar. "What is truth?" he asks, and you believe that he cares little about the answer. Mary is played by Jacqueline Bisset, a morsel of entertainment news that may bring chuckles to some, but the casting works. Ms. Bisset is now of the right age, possessed of a serene beauty, and she speaks her lines with dignity. Armin Mueller-Stahl portrays her husband, and though his Mitteleuropa accent is miles out of place, he is a stolid but respectable Joseph.
With Jesus, on the other hand, we have some problems. Jeremy Sisto, a talented young actor, appears lost portraying the Son of God. While his laid-back, surfer-dude Jesus easily shows a human, even playful side, when required to act divine Mr. Sisto seems rather out of his depth. And the lines he is given are often atrocious. Admittedly, Jesus was fully human, but one wonders why the writers found it necessary to have him say things like, "Nice to see ya!" when greeting his disciples. One wishes for at least a little gravitas. Mary Magdalene is not much better. Played by Debra Messing ("Will and Grace"), all of her lines are delivered in the same flat manner. When Jesus predicts his upcoming Passion, Ms. Magdalene offers her response. "No," she says blandly, as if she were turning down another cup of coffee.
And there are some real howlers. When Jesus begins to doubt his divine mission, his thoughtful mother decides to offer him some proof. She reaches into a hope chest and pulls out...frankincense! Mary, good housekeeper that she is, has kept the gifts from the Wise Men. (Apparently, she really did treasure all these things.) I was very much hoping that she’d also tell Jesus about the little drummer boy who stopped by. The show’s biggest embarrassment, though, comes when Mary tells Jesus, "Your father would be proud of you."
"Which one?" asks Jesus. Fully human, fully divine, fully ridiculous.
Surprisingly, the film is on firmer ground when attacking scenes that other movies have downplayed or avoided because of their difficulty. At the baptism of Jesus the filmmakers do not shy away from trying to depict the "sky opening up" and the "Spirit descending." It’s a bit of a "Star Wars" effect, but bravo for trying. The tale of Jesus in the desert is also presented with imagination. Satan (played slyly by perennial bad-guy Jeroen Krabbe) tempts Jesus to power with what theologians might call "transhistorical" scenes of famine and war in an effort to persuade the Son of Man to forestall future suffering. Again, somewhat offbeat, but clever and creative.
Throughout, there are imaginative touches that help to fill out the Gospels. Mary of Bethany, for instance, is portrayed as in love with Jesus and regrets his choice to devote himself entirely to God. This lends added depth to their scenes together. The Sermon on the Mount is performed as a kind of dialogue homily: "What do you want from God?" asks Jesus. "Mercy!" someone shouts. "Then be merciful." The miracles are handled effectively, particularly an early cure of a paralyzed man (not the fellow lowered through the roof, but some other one). Another surprise is the crucifixion, which is much gorier than you might expect for network TV, but realistic nonetheless. AndI hope I’m not giving away the endingthe post-resurrection Jesus seems suitably recognizable, yet reasonably ethereal.
So why is this mini-series so bland? Possibly because of the lackluster Jesus and the workaday dialogue that the writers penned to create a more "realistic" Jesus. But while Jesus of Nazareth was certainly human, he must have had something of the mysterious and divine about his earthly personality. Just look at spiritual leaders of recent times: Pope John Paul II, Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama. They too are human, but when speaking there is, or was, always something of the otherworldly about them.
Simply put, I would have a hard time imagining anyone following Jesus of CBS any farther than a few blocks outside of Nazareth. Next time, please, a little less Arianism, a little more Docetism.