Indicative of the tone is the casting of Jeremy Sisto, who most notably played a superficial high school student in 1995’s “Clueless,” as the son of God. But credit must be given to the young actor for instilling the character with a real sense of humanity, vitality and charisma — characteristics that traditional productions placed behind the ability to convey supreme holiness.
That said, “Jesus” is everything a sweeps event is meant to be — an entertaining, bigger-than-life story with marquee stars, sweeping locales, fancy costumes and elaborate sets. CBS is broadcasting the telepic in high-definition and touting it as part of the commemoration of the year of the 2000th anniversary of the birth of Jesus. Rumor has it that the Pope has been sent his own copy.
Suzette Couture’s script carefully blends the historical, political and religious in an attempt to bridge the ideological divide and find common ground in the life and teachings of Jesus. For most of the fast-paced story, it works. Mary (Jacqueline Bisset), Joseph (Armin Mueller-Stahl) and even Jesus struggle to come to terms with their calling, while followers are unsure if passive resistance or insurrection is the answer to religious and Roman oppression.
Although pic starts with Jesus at age 31, it is a basic rendering of the major events of his adult life, with Young effectively utilizing flashbacks to fill in the blanks.
At a few points though, Young and Couture’s attempt to convey a down-to-earth casual Jesus is a bit over the top. In one key scene, Jesus selects his apostles , the men who will help him spread the word of God, with the jocularity of a school boy picking teammates for dodge ball.
Similarly, Debra Messing, as prostitute turned believer Mary Magdalene, tells one of her johns in her best post-feminist tone, ” I decide when, not you.”
Overall, however, most performances are quite credible. Bisset subtly infuses Mary with common parental instincts as well as the quiet reserve of a saint. Same with Mueller-Stahl, who inhabits only a few moments of the story and then appears briefly in flashback. Jeroen Krabbe makes for a slick and creepy Satan, arguing quite a good case against dying for our sins.
A significant addition to the plot is the political chess game orchestrated by Pontius Pilot (Gary Oldman) as he claims his position as governor of Judea. Oldman, as Pilot, is magnificently wicked and savvy, as is G. W. Bailey, best known as Sergeant Rizzo of “MASH,” as Livio, Caesar’s henchman who helps to propel events to their ultimate conclusion.
Music by Patrick Williams is a little overwrought, with every scene before a commercial break swelling to a great crescendo. Costumes by Simonetta Leoncini and Giovanni Viti vary from understated to elaborate, but all are immaculately crafted, as is the incredibly detailed and authentic-looking set by Paolo Biagetti.
Tapes reviewed were still rough, with unfinished special effects and sound.