Originally Published: May 24, 2000 7 p.m.
Television, rightly criticized for either debasing culture or reflecting it to our shame, on May 14 and 17, sought partial redemption in the CBS miniseries, "Jesus."
Most biblical epics – from "The Greatest Story Ever Told" to the blasphemous "Last Temptation of Christ" – depict Jesus in the image of the one making the film. In the older films, he speaks and acts in stereotypes: wooden, dictatorial, aloof and humorless. In CBS' "Jesus," he is a real man, laughing and cutting up with his disciples and, most of all, feeling pain and suffering along with those he came to redeem.
There will be theological nitpickers. Some people would rather curse darkness than light candles. In a few places the script deviates from the biblical text (as in Jesus' doubt about himself and his mission prior to his baptism by John the Baptist). Elsewhere, the film takes welcome artistic license, such as when Satan returns for a final temptation in the Garden of Gethsemane. Those who already follow Jesus ought to thrill at this presentation of his life, death and, yes, resurrection – a subject other films all too often overlooked. Those who are not followers might want to take another look. After all, John the Apostle said Jesus said and did many other things besides those recorded in the Book. Producers keep special effects to a minimum, but when they use them – as in Satan's first temptation of Jesus during the 40 days in the wilderness – they are awesome to behold.
Most such films have portrayed biblical characters, especially Jesus, so far above us that we can't identify with them. Not this bunch. The disciples doubt, argue, fight and we see ourselves in them. Conversations are credible. Jesus is approachable and inviting. Most films separate his deity and humanity. Not this one.
Throughout is a temptation some face today. Zealots wanted to overthrow Rome and take political power for themselves, using Jesus as their vehicle. Jesus says, "I am battling sin, not the Romans," something his contemporary followers might consider in their political alliances.
The film has humorous moments. People ask others if they believe he is "the one," a cute reference to "The Matrix," which also has a redemptive theme, but nothing on the scale of "Jesus." He gets in a water fight with his disciples and laughs with them on a boat while fishing. Jesus is also full of joy. He's happy to be here.
In a scene between Jesus and his mother, Mary says to her son, "Your father would be so proud."
"Which one?" replies Jesus with a knowing smile.
The Sermon on the Mount is a surprise. Rather than treating it as a lecture, director Roger Young puts Jesus with the people. They ask questions as he walks among them. Jesus makes his points, as recorded in scripture, but in response to comments, even doubts, from the crowd.
The miracle scenes are overpowering in their simplicity.
Jeremy Sisto plays Jesus with more power and credibility than any actor I've seen. The casting is perfect. Jacqueline Bisset (Mary), Luca Zingaretti (Peter), Christian Kohlun (Caiphas), Debra Messing (as the haunting and beautiful prostitute, Mary Magdalene, who turns from her old life to follow Jesus), David O'Hara (John the Baptist), Gary Oldman (Pontius Pilate) and the incredible Jeroen Krabbe as Satan (only the original does better). "Jesus" ought to be a multiple Emmy winner.
For the foreseeable future, "Jesus" has set the standard of quality and power for anyone brave enough to try another remake of this, the greatest story ever broadcast.
(Cal Thomas is a syndicated columnist for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate.)