Jesus On Screen

JesusI don’t usually do reviews on Friday, but today is Good Friday, leading up towards Easter Sunday, and I just watched a movie that is immensely appropriate to the day.  It has the very simple title of Jesus and was originally a TV miniseries from 1999, though it plays like a three-hour movie (and there were only a few obvious commercial breaks!)

I watched at least part of this when it first aired, but all I remembered was Jesus having a conversation with the devil, and a vague image of Jesus walking down the road and joking around with his disciples.  Not a lot to go on trying to find the movie again–but obviously it worked out.  And it turned out to be a fantastic movie–I ordered the DVD from Amazon before I even sent back my Netflix disc, and I searched IMDB to see if the director has done any other Biblical movies (he has!)

So what blew me away so much?  Oddly enough, it really may be encapsulated by that moment of Jesus joking around with his disciples.  This is the most joyful Jesus I can remember seeing in…maybe any movie.  The church teaching is that Jesus is fully human and fully divine, but the divinity seems to get more play in movies.  Usually it’s all very serious, every word he says is a solemn and profound pronouncement.  Most often, the humanity gets expressed in suffering.  I’m not saying any of that isn’t important, and this movie gives those moments too–but there are also a lot of moments where you get the feeling that it’s a good time hanging out with Jesus.  Or just that he knows how to live a normal human life, and goes through periods of learning, uncertainty and change.

The movie opens slightly before Jesus (Jeremy Sisto) begins his public ministry.  We don’t often see Jesus with Joseph, and I really liked this movie’s exploration of Jesus’ relationship with his adoptive father.  Mary figures in quite a bit too, and while there isn’t a full scene of the Nativity, Mary and Jesus do have a conversation or two reminiscing over family stories.

Jesus begins his ministry with the baptism by John, and then goes into the desert for a very interesting Temptation sequence.  This was a particularly clever Satan, who is clearly evil but convincingly persuasive.  Although, while the desert sequence was mostly good, I could have lived without the image of Jesus with a severely blistered sunburn…

Jesus then starts collecting disciples, and I love that not only is Jesus very human, real and alive, everyone else is too.  There are about six of the Apostles who get some development, and without spending a lot of time on most of them, I still got a sense of all of them as people, not just distant figures in Bible stories.

As one representative example, I’ll take the calling of Simon Peter.  Peter and his friends have been fishing and caught nothing.  Jesus tells them to take the boat out and he’ll tell them where to drop the nets to catch fish.  Peter scoffs at the whole thing (because what does this guy know about fishing anyway?), but says he’ll do it to prove a point about this supposed Messiah.  When the nets come in miraculously full of fish, Peter is completely flummoxed–and Jesus starts laughing.  There’s nothing remotely mean about it, but it’s so clear that Jesus is having fun teasing Peter.  I love that.

There are lots of moments like that.  The movie walks a nice line, because while it is fun, at the same time, Jesus is also a profound teacher who takes his mission seriously, and has an important message about love and compassion.  It’s not all just larks, there’s a spiritual depth as well.  And there are serious moments–as when Jesus cries over a Roman soldier killed by Zealots (not Biblical, I don’t think, but I like it).

One of the other major characters in the story is Mary Magdalene (Debra Messing).  Overall I thought her portrayal was wonderful, although (rather like the blisters in the desert) I could have lived without two very brief, gratuitous scenes of Mary Magdalene, um, at work.  The movie conveyed everything needed in another scene of her watching Jesus forgive the woman caught in adultery.  We didn’t need the more sensationalist moments.  The tradition of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute isn’t Biblical, but I don’t object to it generally, and the movie used it for the most part in a very profound way to convey a message about forgiveness and releasing judgment.  Another nice touch was the relationship between Mary Magdalene and Mary, Jesus’ mother.  They’re next to each other in paintings of the Crucifixion a lot, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it really explored.

On the villain side of the story, Pontius Pilate (Gary Oldman) and King Herod are threaded throughout the movie, rather than only coming in at the very end.  Herod has his own issues, particularly around John the Baptist, and Pilate is working political manuevers to make sure he stays in good with Rome.  By the time we reach the Passion, we know Pilate very well, and I like seeing Pilate as a human too.  Not a very nice one, but human.

The movie successfully makes the bridge from a largely light-hearted ministry to the intense end of Jesus’ life.  The Raising of Lazarus is something of a turn in the tone, I think, as it’s handled in a more solemn way, and that leads into the last week of Jesus’ life.  Satan returns in the Garden of Gethsemane, which I thought was an excellent touch.  The Passion is intense and bloody (as is probably inevitable), but it is mercifully brief.

And after the Crucifixion, there are a couple of lovely scenes with Resurrection appearances.  I don’t know why exactly, but the Passion seems to get far more focus in movies than the Resurrection (more dramatic?), which is too bad because there are wonderful Resurrection stories in the Bible.  Another ten minutes in this part would have been even better, but at least there were some wonderful moments.

I have a tradition of watching Jesus Christ Superstar leading up to Easter, but I may have to expand that tradition a bit.  Jesus is a wonderful movie, and I have to love a Bible-retelling that frequently made me smile.  And not only because it led Netflix to send me an email with the subject line, “Has Jesus arrived yet?”  🙂

Other reviews:
Charles Tatum’s Review Archive
Canadian Christianity
Anyone else?

Buy it here: Jesus

10 thoughts on “Jesus On Screen

  1. I’ve never heard of this film before but I like the sound of it, and what a perfect film for the Easter holiday. The BBC did a mini-series called The Passion a few years ago now but I really liked that.

  2. I think I have seen part of this! Jesus was telling the parable about the man with the log in his eye, and he was waving around a giant plank of wood, and it was funny! I agree — it’s great to see a portrayal of Jesus as someone who (1) had friends and (2) enjoyed hanging out with them and laughing.

  3. Thank you so much for your interesting review especially on this Easter weekend. From what you say, the film reminds me of a book by John Eldredge called Beautiful Outlaw which I read a while ago. The book also portrays a different side to Jesus and made me think about his human character in a totally new way. Happy Easter from me too.

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