I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.—Jesus of Nazareth
Regardless of one's particular religious persuasion, there is no denying that the life of Jesus Christ has had more impact, in more of the world, than that of just about anyone else who has lived. This is a man who started as an itinerant preacher at the age of thirty and was killed by the Roman authorities at the age of thirty-three. In that time He never traveled more than ninety miles from His hometown and, unlike other religious figures, never wrote a single line on a scrap of paper. Yet now, almost 2000 years later, His name is universally known and His teachings are carried to every corner of the globe.
The Jesus film was created to help carry the story of His life and ministry to even more people worldwide and make it more accessible to people of varying educational levels. This film, developed specifically as an evangelistic tool, has been shown to millions of people in almost every country in the world. Now it is available on DVD to reach the next generation of viewers.
Facts of the Case
Jesus adheres strictly to Christ's story as told in the book of Luke. All of the familiar episodes are here, from the Annunciation and virgin birth to His baptism by John the Baptist, and on through His ministry and miracles, and finally the arrest, trial, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension.
I have no idea how to review this film. Most of the thousands of films we watch during our lives are meant at some level to entertain, and we can judge them on their success or failure in that regard. In the case of Jesus, however, entertainment is a secondary consideration at best. Indeed, this film has less in common with the offerings at your local multiplex than it does with those old black and white films from eighth grade featuring DeForest Kelley as a Confederate general.
The movie strives to provide as accurate a picture of the life of Christ as it possibly can. It presents the accepted, traditional interpretation of Jesus with little room for embellishment or artistic license. It succeeds admirably in its intended goal; all of the stories are here, just as I remembered them. The Jesus of this film is the Jesus from Sunday School, not Scorsese. He is represented in this film by Brian Deacon. Deacon brings a sense of humanity to the role, managing to be solemn and reverent when it is called for but also showing the warm, friendly, compassionate side of Jesus.
Jesus was shot on location in Israel, giving a feeling of historical reality to the surroundings. Also, many of the characters are played by actors who are native to the area, further adding to the authenticity. Among the supporting cast Niko Nitai, who plays Simon Peter, stands out with an honest depiction of a working fisherman, with at times a hearty laugh and heartfelt anguish at others. He's a good actor, but his accent did make him hard to understand on occasion.
The video presentation on the Jesus DVD is about as good as can be expected. There are scenes and moments of exceptional clarity, where details like the weave of Jesus's garments stand out in sharp relief. Shadow areas in darker scenes are surprisingly well-defined. On the other hand, there are many scenes where the background crawls with compression artifacts, especially in scenes showing blue skies. There is evidence throughout the movie of nasty edge enhancement and haloing. There are at least a few spots where moiré noise appears in textures such as stonework. Throughout its running time the movie is slightly yellowed with age, and colors seem a bit weak most of the time. Flesh tones are a bit pinkish. I did notice some pretty bad color bleeding from the red tunics of the Roman soldiers. This is not a movie that is designed to appeal to the technophiles and video enthusiasts among us, and it shows; it looks better on DVD than it did on VHS, but not by much.
Owing to its nature as a tool for evangelistic outreach, there are no less than eight audio options on this disc, presenting the story in a wide variety of languages. They are all presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround. The English track was clear, and dialogue (the bulk of the audio) was intelligible but tended to be flat and hollow at times. This is not a disc that is going to tax the technical capabilities of your sound system, but there was some occasional use of the surround channels for ambient crowd noises and so forth.
Extra content consists of two items. First, there is an option entitled "Knowing Jesus Personally." This is just a recap of the closing message of the film, including a call to salvation and a generic prayer that viewers can repeat along with the narrator. The other extra feature is a quite interesting behind the scenes featurette about the making of Jesus, focusing on the intended purpose of the film as a global outreach tool. Of particular interest was a look at the extensive work that goes into making accurate translations of the film into other languages. It's a meticulous process, and includes getting native actors to dub the film, taking care to match syllables and the on-screen actors' mouth movements as much as possible. Finally, the featurette shows how this film has been used in the missions field, with traveling teams carrying portable projectors and generators into some of the most remote parts of the world to spread the Gospel message. It is an interesting look at the film, but one wishes it could have been longer than its roughly six and a half minute running time.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I understand the unique nature and purpose of this film. Still, the movie critic in me has some nagging concerns. I appreciate the desire to stay as true to the written word as possible. The problem is that Luke wasn't really a screenwriter, and his prose doesn't always work very well as film dialogue. Also, the filmmakers apparently felt the need to stick to the King James Version of the Bible, so the language becomes even more stilted. Faithfulness to the Scriptures is one thing, but faithfulness to a particular antiquated translation is quite another. They would have done well to remember that Luke originally wrote in Greek; faithfulness to one particular English translation provides more an illusion of authenticity than reality. It seems to me that there could have been a happy medium, a way of communicating the scriptural intent while modifying the language slightly to make it a bit more conversational. This was apparently done in some scenes; some of the scenes between Jesus and Peter approach a level of friendly informality. Other scenes fall pretty flat, however, with characters pausing and stiffening before delivering important Biblical lines. A glaring example comes early in the film, when Mary delivers the Magnificat, declaring "My soul doth magnify the Lord…" It's one of the most beautiful passages in the Bible, but intoned so portentously here as to make it unbelievable and lessen the impact. On top of this, many of the actors are not very good, so it makes their lines even more stilted and unbelievable.
I also have a bit of a problem with the depiction of Jesus himself. Brian Deacon is a solid actor, and manages to give a performance that is as human as possible given the awkward dialogue that he must deliver and the expectations built into the role. My problem is this: if the intent of this film is to reach out to people all over the world, why was it necessary to make Deacon conform to the European model of Jesus as a white guy with perfect, straight hair? The casting of many of the other figures in the story was done very well, incorporating a lot of people who looked as though they were native to the Holy Land. It seems that the makers of the film could have made Jesus a little more authentic and made Him look more real, more like someone who grew up in the home of a Jewish carpenter, rather than the Shakespearean stage.
Finally, even as an evangelical Christian myself, I was a little bit uncomfortable with the "pray-along" portion at the end. I understand the intent of this film is to bring people to salvation, and that many who see the movie might not have anyone around to explain things. Still, I question the inclusion of a prepackaged "repeat after me" self-contained conversion experience at the end of the movie. I understand as well as anyone does that this is the heart of the movie's message, but it comes across as a little bit heavy-handed. Perhaps it has been successful, but to me it stresses the wrong thing. It may be theologically sound, but I am uncomfortable with the emphasis on outward form rather than true inner spiritual acceptance of the message. However, this is getting into matters far removed from the proper purview of this court.
Jesus may not be a great piece of filmmaking from a critical perspective, but no one can deny its impact. I've seen it used as a tool for evangelism. I've even used the Spanish version myself in that capacity. I've seen people moved to the point of tears by this film. I've seen it change lives. Well, that's not totally accurate; I've seen the story and life of Jesus change lives. It is a powerful story and a powerful message, and it shines through. Whatever shortcomings the film might have cannot hold it back. I could recommend this film to Christian families looking for a wholesome movie to show the kids, or to people in the intended target audience: if you don't know much about Christ, but are interested to learn, then this might prove a good place to start.
If you think I'm going to sit in judgment over this film, you're crazy. Much like people, it can only be judged it by the fruit it bears. If that sounds too much like Pilate washing his hands, then so be it.
We stand adjourned.
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