Trimark // 1999 // 173 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Norman Short (Retired) // January 6th, 2001
The gospels, with a few liberties.
The 1999 television mini-series Jesus came from CBS to mixed reviews that ranged from those truly entranced to those who dismissed it as artistic license destroying the original story. I find myself just off the fence on the side of the angels, as it were, because I enjoyed the way Jesus was portrayed: not only as the Son of God, but also as a man. I also have to give bonus points for some very brave decisions that were made in how the story was told. Overall strong performances and a moving narrative convinced me to not only watch it through myself but to show it to other family members. Trimark sent us this disc some time ago and my rusty fingers have finally put the words down to describe this DVD, which is decent on the technical front but lacking in the extras department.
I'm skipping the synopsis portion of the review, because if you don't know the story of the life of Jesus Christ by now you're probably not part of the target audience. Certainly this is one of the most well known stories ever told and is often referred to as "The Greatest Story Ever Told" in film and in thought. Perhaps no other historical character or person has been as much talked about or studied than Jesus. Still there are different stories or events covered in the various books of the Bible and not all are covered in the series. Without commercials it runs just under three hours on DVD, and that simply isn't enough time to tell the story with every anecdote included. I felt a good compromise was made as to which miracles to leave out of the narrative and which to include. For example, the decision to leave out the loaves and fishes miracle and only allude to it in conversation later was fine.
Beyond what was or was not included, much of the story is basically the same one everyone knows. But I was very surprised by the bravery of including at least one lesser-known story. Besides the books that make up the Bible, there were other contemporary writings about Christ that were not included, and have been lumped into a collection called the Apocrypha. Among those were two books written by the apostle Thomas, and in one of those it relates a story of Christ as a young boy raising a dead bird to life. The Catholic Church did not judge this book canon, presumably because it violated dogma by assuming that Jesus did not perform any miracles prior to his baptism by John the Baptist. There are other reasons as well of course, and this review is not the place to discuss theology and canon. But this scene was included in the mini-series, which was sure to upset some of the automatic religious audience for this program. Bravery, and a director's vision still brought a different look at the life of Christ.
Beyond the main story of Christ, his miracles and ministry, and his crucifixion, the story tries hard to portray Christ as he may have been as a man and even a boy, which is something barely touched on in the Biblical accounts. Christ as a carpenter, a man working with his hands under the tutelage of Joseph; a man who could laugh and dance, and enjoy himself at a wedding. A man who might have fallen in love and married if he had not known of his special heritage and place in the world. And even perhaps a man tempted to use his powers to right wrongs and bring perfection to a world that desperately needs it, despite believing that his mission was not to usurp mankind's free will, however flawed. These aspects of the story meant more to me than the basic accounts of miracles and teachings.
Jeremy Sisto plays Christ, a role that is enticing but certain to be criticized. He looks almost exactly as the white version portrayed by the medieval European artists that carries on to this day. His performance was often convincing and touching, though with some trouble spots. I doubt anyone could have played the role without something being troubling to someone however, so I'll give him a break. Armin Mueller-Stahl does a fine job of portraying Joseph, and Jaqueline Bisset is simply captivating as Mary. In fact most of the cast was extremely strong, with special mention of Gary Oldman as Pontius Pilate who brought a theatrical air to his role. Even G.W. Bailey, better known as the hapless cop in the Police Academy films, finally allowed me to take him out of his typecasting for his performance as Livio, a Roman spy for Caesar. Costuming was uniformly excellent, and the sets and locations authentic in detail, at least for the most part.
Another brave choice was how Jerome Krabbe portrayed Satan. Out of synch with time and the setting, he is an Armani suit wearing man of the modern world who becomes a powerful tempter to Christ. His scenes were certainly controversial but I felt were the best special effects in the film.
Trimark did a fine job with the picture quality and sound from this television material. It isn't reference material, but neither was the source. Colors are well saturated, though earth tones predominate. Detail was reasonably sharp and looks at least as good as it did on cable. There were few artifacts, but there was a smattering of grain and other film defects such as nicks and blemishes, but only in certain scenes. Sound was a fairly standard television mix of stereo Pro-Logic. Surround use is on the light side and directionality is rare, but the clarity and level of detail is fine. Dialogue is clearly heard, and only a few accents among some of the actors made understanding difficult, and subtitles helped with those lines. The music score included music from a host of well-known performers, and was quite pleasing.
I mentioned the special effects used in the scenes with Satan, which were quite good, but other attempts at using effects were less successful. This is because of the underlying problem that comes from making a television production; namely budget. On the technical side my biggest complaints all stem from this. Probably the most expensive set for the mini-series was the Temple, but it didn't quite convince me. It seemed more like the best they could afford rather than a truly magnificent structure. A high budget film could have brought the majesty of this building to life, and less is well...less. Production values simply are not as high as a Hollywood film could have provided. It isn't often a problem, but it did distract me once or twice.
I would be remiss in not bringing up the downside of the brave ideas of director Roger Young, veteran of many television films. As I said, this is a very well known story, with a virtual army of religious viewers who know practically every word of the gospels by heart. Taking liberties with the story in any way, even to portray Jesus as more human, is sure to upset many of them. Many have decried Jesus as too indecisive and insecure in this version of the story. Certainly many will be upset at using a miracle from a non-canonical source in his life story. They would have a point in some of these cases, but for the dramatic elements of the story it made more sense, and gave Mary a much bigger and meaningful role. It might be speculation, but it seemed to fit my sense of the story that portrays Christ as a man who has his life thrust upon him. Critics have also been upset by how his sermons were paraphrased, which were heavily translated into modern English, and some left incomplete. I would have some agreement here, but I'm sure pacing was a factor.
Lastly, the extra content is light at best. A music video from Leann Rimes, a seven-minute soundtrack presentation, and a letter from the Pope praising the making of this program are all that is included. Certainly production notes, cast and crew information, a commentary track, or documentary would have all been welcome. I suppose space would have been a problem for much of that considering the program is nearly three hours long.
I was ambivalent at best about watching another version of the life of Christ. At certain points of my life I've been very religious, and at others a hardened cynic. This one caught me somewhere in the middle, and for any of its liberties or flaws I found myself respecting the film. Your mileage will definitely vary depending on your religious viewpoint. If you have seen the mini-series on television and want to have a permanent copy, this DVD will be fine. If you haven't you might consider a rental first.
This judge, in this courtroom at this time, acquits the film and disc. Others might have been harsher or more praising. I admire the effort and the performances and will make special note of the concept taken with the story.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 173 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Papal Letter
* Soundtrack Presentation
* Music Video