There's nothing miraculous about this `Jesus'

May 13, 2000|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

There's nothing terribly wrong with "Jesus," save for the occasional silliness that comes from putting a new spin on oft-told stories. It's enjoyable enough and certainly not disrespectful.

But there's nothing particularly right about "Jesus" either. The two-part miniseries, which debuts tomorrow night on CBS, tries very hard to create a Messiah that TV viewers can relate to. So we get Jesus joking with his friends, Jesus playing tag with his apostles -- the Messiah as a regular, unassuming guy with a winning smile who's pretty much resigned to his fate.

Do we really need four hours of this?

We first encounter Jesus of Nazareth (Jeremy Sisto) in the midst of a bad dream, in which he sees visions of all the evil future generations will excuse by invoking his name. This turns out to be one of several temptations concocted by Satan (Dutch actor Jeroen Krabbe, looking decidedly 20th century), who tries luring him to the dark side by pointing out that the human race is a pitiable thing to die for. Jesus and Satan will have two encounters before the end comes, and they're the series' inventive high points.

But for now, Jesus is happy just being a carpenter's son, helping Joseph make ends meet and flirting innocently with Mary of Bethany (Stefania Rocca), whose brother goes by the name Lazarus -- just the first in a series of characters who appear for a few moments early on, then show up later for their really big scenes. (Lazarus, for those who have forgotten their New Testament, is the friend Jesus raises from the dead.)

Things turn serious when Joseph (Armin Mueller-Stahl) dies, and Jesus realizes the time has come to serve his other father.

Meanwhile, the intrigues of Roman politics are playing out in ways that will inevitably lead to Jesus' crucifixion. The newly arrived Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate (Gary Oldman, continually threatening to pop a blood vessel in his neck), is desperate for ways to demonstrate his control over the province and make a name for himself. First he visits neighboring Galilee and, in an amusing game of one-upmanship, gets the better of its hen-pecked ruler, Herod Antipas (Luca Barbareschi).

Then he visits the Temple in Jerusalem, to remind the Jews worshiping there that they do so only at the pleasure of Rome. Perhaps getting a little carried away with himself, he decides to post soldiers there -- but is thwarted when the high priest, Caiaphus (Christian Kohlund), heretofore regarded as little but a Roman pawn, takes an unexpected stand. Pilate slinks away unhappily.

Thus are the principal players of "Jesus" set up, and events begin moving toward their inevitable climax. Jesus starts healing the sick; 12 apostles are selected to help him spread the word; Pilate and his minions worry that this could lead to a Jewish insurrection; and Caiaphus, afraid that Roman anger over Jesus could lead to further persecutions of the Jews, determines to prove this false prophet a charlatan.

Sprinkled throughout the two nights is such unintended silliness as the first encounter with the apostle who would be known as doubting Thomas (apparently, he was a skeptic long before the resurrection); the selection of the 12 apostles, done as if they were choosing sides in a pick-up baseball game; and Jacqueline Bisset as Mary, cradling the dead Jesus in her arms in an obvious imitation of Michelangelo's "Pieta."

For the most part, "Jesus" sticks closely to the Gospels, save for one area. While the writings of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John portray Pilate as more weak than evil -- sentencing Jesus to death, after all, is what the masses seem to want -- the writers here don't hesitate to paint him as the bad guy.

He's the one working quietly to make Jesus look bad, he's the one who sees Jesus as a threat to Roman authority, he's the one who manipulates events so that the residents of Jerusalem have no choice but to call for Jesus' persecution.

A little more of such revisionist daring might have helped turn "Jesus" from a trifle to an event. That, for instance, is what Martin Scorsese was after in "The Last Temptation of Christ," by making the Messiah a divine being struggling to rise above his human failings.

"Jesus," in the final measure, just gives us a Messiah with a killer smile.


When: 9 p.m.-11 p.m. tomorrow and Wednesday

Where: WJZ, Channel 13

In brief: A two-part miniseries portrays Jesus as a nice guy who also happens to be the Messiah

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