An Italian-German-U.S. co-production, “Abraham” retells the life of the man biblically credited as the architect of monotheism. Amplifying Genesis, Robert McKee’s script tends to concentrate on details rather than the big picture; still, as Classics Illustrated versions of the Bible go, this one’s easy on the eyes and ears.
Richard Harris stars as Abram, a shepherd who’s dissatisfied with the results he’s getting from prayers to the gods — most significantly, wife Sar’ai (Barbara Hershey) is barren.
Bowled over by a flash flood one day, Abram begins hearing a voice, which he believes to be a god different from and more powerful than those he’s been praying to.
When the new god tells him that he’ll be a great leader, Abram listens closely and persuades several other shepherds to follow him into the desert.
They make it as far as Egypt, whose pharaoh selects Sar’ai for his harem. A plague motivates him to release the wandering shepherds back into the desert, where they eventually make peace with the locals in Canaan and set up housekeeping.
Abram’s nephew, Lot, relocates with his family to Sodom. So endeth part one.
In the second two hours, Abram becomes father to two sons — Ishmael by his wife’s Egyptian slave, Hagar (Carolina Rosi), and, eventually, Isaac by his wife. By now, God has renamed Abram “Abraham” (father of nations) and his wife, “Sarah” (the queen).
Hagar and Ishmael move on, prompted in part by Sarah’s jealousy. Second episode ends with destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and Abraham’s near-sacrifice of 11-year-old Isaac (Taylor Scipio). Audience is informed that Abraham and Sarah live happily after, neglecting to mention that Ishmael becomes the acknowledged father of Islam.
Producers make much of historical research and of number of religious consultants involved. Net result for most viewers will be that a rock is a rock and a sandal is a sandal.
In terms of spectacle and prurience, Cecil B. DeMille showed more flair (and, of course, a higher budget) than the efficient Joseph Sargent.
Acting, too, won’t prompt anybody to forget Charlton Heston, George C. Scott (“The Bible”), Stewart Granger (“Sodom and Gomorrah”) and other stars of earlier biblical epics, though Harris turns in his best mock-Peter O’Toole blue-eyed melancholy stare in a perhaps inappropriately subtle perf.
Hershey and Rosi are both very attractive, notable in that Sar’ai was 90 when Isaac was born.
Vittorio Gassman and Maximilian Schell (did we say Italian-German-U.S. co-production?) appear briefly as Abram’s father and the pharaoh.
Four-hour miniseries is first of three Old Testament adaptations announced by TNT; second will be the two-hour “Jacob,” directed by Peter Hall, followed by four-hour “Joseph,” helmed by Roger Young, both slated for next year.