Lionsgate // 1999 // 375 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge David Johnson // June 9th, 2004
The untold stories from those who know him best.
Christ is in these days and Artisan looks to capitalize on JC's popularity.
Perhaps riding the wave of success that Mel Gibson's little Lenten movie produced, the release of Close to Jesus is a collection of four stories, each focused on a character from the gospels: Mary Magdalene (currently embroiled in her own little Da Vinci scandal), Joseph of Nazareth (The Man's dad), Judas (the sell-out), and Thomas (Mr. Let-me-see-those-wounds-pal!)
Each of these stories runs over an hour and half long, so in essence, the set provides the viewer with four feature-length movies.
The fact that the four highlighted characters have only a handful of text in the Bible devoted to them does little to deter the filmmakers from ballooning their stories.
Translation: This stuff is made up.
It's not that the movies are not reverential. They certainly are. They're not blasphemous either. Jesus is pretty much the Jesus of tradition and scripture. But one cannot elude the simple fact that we're dealing with fiction here. Fiction, defined in the context of scripture as truth.
This enigmatic gospel player has long been a big character in many movies about Jesus. Look at Scorcese's Last Temptation of Christ -- granted, a declared work of fiction -- that holds Mary up as one of Christ's best friends, and his would-be wife. Dan Brown takes it one step further in his trillion-selling novel The Da Vinci Code looking at Mary as Jesus' spouse. The Catholic Church has defined her as a prostitute who shed her sinful life to follow the Man.
What I haven' t heard yet is the story told in Close to Jesus, that she was a spy from Herod sent to rat out John the Baptist.
In this film we follow Mary as her life goes the rags to riches route, and she finds herself rubbing elbows with all the bigwigs in the Roman provinces. She dismisses Jesus and his teachings at first, content with living her now-privileged life.
When her little existence goes sour, Mary soon finds the ground fall out beneath her feet, landing her square in the gaze of Jesus, who changes her life. She opts to be a follower of His and then goes on to be the most controversial woman in the Bible.
The movie has a couple of things going for it and couple of things going against it. First of all, it looks pretty good. The location is as believable as an ancient backdrop and the costuming is very good. Plot-wise, though, it is embedded entirely in the writer's imagination, the story certainly is offensive to Christ's saga, and there's not enough theology present for it to twist people's knickers in a bunch.
That being said, it is obvious that the filmmakers went through great pains to expand Mary's story to 90 minutes. So much of it seems contrived. Jesus is a minor character, stepping in only to deliver the epiphany to Mary.
Well, we know from Scripture that Jesus' (earthly) dad was a direct descendant of the House of David and that he dated a virgin, and, frankly, not much else. Thanks to Close to Jesus, we get a more sprawling account of his life.
Here, Joseph must deal with his family and friends being wiped-out in a Roman Centurion raid; it is an emotional scar that he carries with him through his life. As he bounces around from settlement to settlement, he connects with Mary, his wife-to-be, and the most famous Mother of them all. Now he must contend with the fact that his future wife experienced a divine blessing, and is now carrying a child that is not Joseph's.
His carpentry skills bring him into close contact with Herod, who hires him to build a giant monument in his honor. Herod has problems of his own, however, when his seers inform him of a possible uprising. The wary King questions the loyalty of his own sons, and continually fans the flames of paranoia. He eventually decrees a census be taken, to prove his influence to the Emperor; this, of course, sends Joseph and family, hauling ass (get it?) to Bethlehem.
Jesus is born, swaddling clothes and all, and the shepherd and the wise men all swing by for a gander. But as news of this potential Messiah reaches the ears of those who do not wish change, an edict is decreed for infant sons to be seized. Joseph and Mary flee to Egypt. Will they elude the watchful eyes of the corrupt and save their son? Well, we got hymns don't we?
Joseph is given a good shake in this feature, though, again, much about the man has been fabricated. The filmmakers certainly have more to go no with him (and, functionally, Mary) than the others spotlighted in the set.
As a result, I didn't find myself taken out of the film with as many "Where the heck did they get that?!" moments as I did in others where the main characters had just a few lines of scripture dedicated to them.
Here is another cinematic example of a filmmaker trying to give judas a better rap than he's got in the gospel. scripture clearly denotes him, basically, as a dirt-bag (though one passage does note that the devil "entered him"), but Close to Jesus paints him as a deeply flawed, misguided, and ultimately stupid follower.
Whereas Martin Scorcese drew Judas as a Jesus' closest friend who reluctantly betrayed Him but did so only when Christ begged him to, Judas here is a guy with all the wrong hopes for his savior. He holds the traditional belief that the Messiah would be a warrior, sent to liberate Israel from the clutches of the Roman Empire, and do so in brilliant, bloody fashion.
When Judas starts to realize that Jesus may not be the "I kick arse for the Lord!" Messiah, he panics. He struggles with what he always thought Jesus to be, and realizes he has one more chance to reveal the "Christ-as-the-Crusader" -- turn him over to His enemies.
Faced with death, Jesus would certainly rain down fire and brimstone and angels with laser guns to all who would dare lay a finger on Him.
But, we know how it turns out, and Judas realizes his folly too late.
This one was okay, and elucidates the misconception many folks in these times had about who the Messiah would be and how much Centurion ass He would kick. Christ's mission of freeing people and spreading the kingdom of Heaven in a spiritual sense -- versus the physical, literal representation of such prophecy -- is well illustrated, using Judas as the foil.
Again, there is no record that this is what he was thinking, but as a doctrinal aid, the movie succeeds.
A drummed-up romantic relationship between Judas and a redhead, however feels way too forced. Of course, she probably scored a free thirty pieces of silver.
Okay, there is like nothing about this disciple in the gospels, save for, really, the one adjective he's most famously associated -- "doubting."
I have to say, the writers had to create the most out of thin air for Thomas. I found this entry of the set the finest.
The feature centered on the disciples and their reaction following the crucifixion. Peter struggles with his denial, the others with their cowardice, but Thomas, a gruff, firebrand as portrayed here is simply pissed off that The Man was murdered.
As the other disciples begin discussing their future, which involves high-tailing it to Galilee, Thomas storms around, reluctant to let everything they've been through go. Meanwhile, the Roman government is looking for the disciples, who are on the Centurion wanted list as seditionists.
Things change when Jesus' tomb is found empty and rumors circulate as to where the Big Guy might have gone. Was his body stolen? Was it removed by the disciples? Was the CIA involved?
Naw, it's the risen Lord, silly! As Christ shows himself to the disciples, and Thomas hears of it, he is unwilling to believe the impossible. He starts singing a different tune, however, when he gets his own up-close and personal experience of his resurrected rabbi.
The fear of the disciples (and the resilience of some) helped make the Thomas entry worthwhile. Plus, some solid inspirational musings came into play here as well, particularly the last line.
Though the casing claims Close to Jesus is in full-screen, all four movies feature a widescreen presentation. Except for the Thomas installment, the picture quality of the set was sub-par. Many sequences looked washed out with very dull colors. I know we're dealing with a desert climate, but some of the scenes just looked plain aged. Thomas boasted a sharper transfer with stronger colors. This is a shame, because one of the strongest elements of the presentation is the set and costume design. I was quite impressed at the extent the filmmakers went to rendering a believable ancient atmosphere. Too bad the video didn't do it justice.
The stereo mix is nothing spectacular, but thanks to it we are forced to deal with one of the major detriments to the presentation: the syrupy score. Every scene is plagued by this Hallmark-card-feeling saccharine orchestral stuff that seems to say: "You see, everything is sweeping and emotional!" Accchhh, too much.
There are no bonus features whatsoever on board. Also, I should mention that Artisan has packaged the DVD's in the most awkward fashion I have ever seen.
Okay, bottom line for Close to Jesus: The set includes nothing incendiary or offensive towards evangelical tradition. Jesus, as portrayed here, is a little flaky, but theologically, nothing appears terribly out of order; in fact, there is not enough teaching present anyway to get wrong.
It's important to note what is present here is fiction, with touches of scriptural history thrown in as an anchor to the narrative.
The movies do no harm and boast some good, inspiring scenes, but gospel truth it ain't. However, what your idea of gospel truth-or untruth-will go far in determining your take on the films.
Close to Jesus hath done no wrong. Artisan, however, shall be cast into the lake of fire.
Review content copyright © 2004 David Johnson; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 375 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* IMDb - Maria Maddelena (Mary Magdalene)
* IMDb - Giuseppe di Nazareth (Joseph)
* IMDb - Giuda (Judas)
* IMDb - Tommaso (Thomas)