That CBS scheduled its Jesus: The Epic Miniseries for the pivotal May sweeps ratings period says a lot about the network's confidence in the film. The $24 million project comes highly touted by many members of the evangelical community. Sparrow Records has even released a commemorative CD, Music From and Inspired By Jesus: The Epic Miniseries, with tunes by popular Christian artists like Yolanda Adams, Steven Curtis Chapman, dc Talk, and Jaci Velasquez. It took five years for Italian producer Lorenzo Minoli to bring Jesus to television. Minoli, whose TNT Bible series featured critically acclaimed films such as Moses and Joseph, pulled the project away from TNT after the cable network tried to jazz up the Jesus story with sensational special effects, like Jesus flying. Minoli's desire to protect the sacredness of his subject is to be commended. Unfortunately, CBS's Jesus ultimately disappoints in its storytelling, history, and theology, repeating past egregious errors and going on to invent its own. Though the look of the film is authentic enough, the screenplay tries too hard to be hip and politically correct, translating Jesus into terms agreeable to the clichés of contemporary culture. The film opens with Jesus, played by Jeremy Sisto (The '60s and Clueless), already an adult, working in his dad's carpentry business. But Jesus, Joseph (Armin Mueller-Stahl) and Mary (Jacqueline Bisset) face a perplexing dilemma: When will the Son of God receive his divine marching orders? The filmmakers freely interpret the process by which Jesus comes to understand his messianic purpose, and even then it never seems that he is fully aware of the extent of his mission. There are some interesting moments. In the wilderness, Jesus is tempted by a young girl, à la Scorsese, and then by Satan in modern attire, who constructs huge temples in front of the sun-blistered Jesus and then whips him out, Superman-style, into outer space so he can see what is at stake in ruling the whole world. "Come on, Jesus. Bow down to me," he goads, sounding and looking like a Mob boss. Sisto's Jesus is just one of the boys—a New Age, sensitive guy whose messiahship emanates from his identity as a miracle-worker guru. His preaching seems incidental, and when he does bother, it's more like a support group Q-and-A session in which he banters with the crowd. The biggest problem with Jesus, though, is its huge muddle about the meaning of the Incarnation. The film hardly quibbles about Jesus' divinity, the miracles, and the Resurrection, but it seems to have no idea of the purpose of Jesus' coming. This Jesus has nothing new to say or be, largely because of the absence of both his scriptural words and conflict over his teaching. So bad is this that the Devil has all the best lines. Still, that CBS would back such a high-profile presentation of the Jesus story is heartening, despite the film's flaws. If nothing else, the movie may send viewers reaching for their Bibles to get a fuller understanding of this carpenter from Nazareth.
See this week's Film Forum for a roundup of what Christian reviewers are saying about Jesus: The Epic Miniseries. Reviewers include Michael Elliott of Crosswalk.com Dr. Ian Truscott, guest reviewer for Christian Spotlight, and Ted Baehr's Movieguide.The April cover story of CCM Magazine looked at the miniseries in an article titled "Jesus Christ, TV Star?"Variety says Jesus is "reverence lite, rooted solidly between the pious showmanship of The Greatest Story Ever Told and the interpretive and controversial The Last Temptation of Christ."TV Guide also gave Jesus a cover story.The official CBS site includes a trailer, a decent interactive timeline, cast bios, a "trivia challenge," and some shopping opportunities.Christian Web site iBelieve.com has been fighting with CBS over whether it can advertise during the miniseries. Read about from the perspectives of the Associated Press, iBelieve.com, and Salon.com.
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