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NEWS FEATURE: CBS Mini-series Balances Human, Divine Portrait of Jesus

c. 2000 Religion News Service (UNDATED) Jesus’s claim that he was both human and divine confounded many early Christian thinkers, and it has also been a recurring challenge for filmmakers struggling to balance these seemingly contradictory concepts in their movies about Christ. People who argued Jesus was wholly divine but not human were charged with […]

c. 2000 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) Jesus’s claim that he was both human and divine confounded many early Christian thinkers, and it has also been a recurring challenge for filmmakers struggling to balance these seemingly contradictory concepts in their movies about Christ.

People who argued Jesus was wholly divine but not human were charged with the heresy of gnosticism. And some film critics say Franco Zeffirelli’s “Jesus of Nazareth” (1977) portrayed just such a removed, otherworldly Christ.

On the other hand, those who denied that Jesus was divine and eternal were charged with the heresy of Arianism. And films like 1973’s “Godspell” and “Jesus Christ Superstar” and 1988’s “Last Temptation of Christ” portrayed an all-too-human Jesus.

When Lorenzo Minoli, producer of a dozen Old Testament films, began work on his Jesus film five years ago, he took his story line from John’s mystical Gospel but also grounded Jesus in the historical realities of first century Palestine, complete with its rich Jewish culture and its long-running tensions between Jews and Romans.

The stunning result is “JESUS,” a four-hour mini-series airing Sunday and Wednesday on CBS, which was the first major network to announce it would broadcast a New Testament film but was beat to the punch by NBC (last November’s “Mary, Mother of Jesus”) and ABC (Easter’s claymation feature “The Miracle Maker”).

Jesus once said the last would be first, and that’s the case with “JESUS,” which is by far the best of the three TV offerings.

“Everyone has an opinion on Jesus, rightfully or wrongly,” says Minoli, who won an Emmy for his production of “Joseph,” one of his biblical epics broadcast on TNT. “You have to deal with as many opinions as you can if you want to make a movie that is not offensive.”

Although the film features Hollywood veterans like Jacqueline Bisset as Jesus’s mother Mary, Armin Mueller-Stahl as father Joseph, and Gary Oldman as Roman governor Pontius Pilate, Minoli chose relative newcomer Jeremy Sisto to play Jesus. His warm and expressive portrayal balances Christ’s humanity and divinity in creative and compelling ways.

The movie’s script, which was reviewed by Jewish, Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant and Muslim experts, features a Jesus who not only walks on water and rises from the dead but also laughs and clowns with his disciples, swings children through the air with glee, and dances at a wedding celebration at Cana.

That celebration is important, for it was where Jesus performed his first recorded miracle _ turning water into wine. Minoli says he struggled to portray the scene.

“He is reluctant,” Minoli says. “He is being Jesus the man. But his mother says, `Hey, it’s time to do your work.”’

The criteria Minoli used to determine when to elaborate on the Bible and when to play it straight was simple. “Generally speaking, where the Gospel is specific, we try not to be creative. But when the Gospel is not specific, we try to be creative within certain boundaries.”

Two of the most creative scenes feature Satan tempting Jesus: during his 40-day fast in the desert, and on the night before his crucifixion.

“We don’t know exactly what happened, because Jesus was tempted by himself,” says Minoli, who portrays Satan as a well-groomed man (Jeroen Krabbe) in a stylish, velvet-trimmed 20th-century suit. “We wanted to give a contemporary sense to the story and say, `Hey, this story is still alive today. It’s not just 2000 years ago. We are still dealing with same issues.”’

Filmed for $24 million using a Morroco set that has also been used for films like “Gladiator” and “Rules of Engagement,” the film won rave reviews and great ratings when it aired in Minoli’s native Italy last year after he and cast members had a private audience with the pope. In America, the film has been publicized with the help of both an original score soundtrack and a separate “Music From (And Inspired By) JESUS” recording featuring Leann Rimes, dc Talk and Sarah Brightman.

Raised as a Catholic (“In Italy there is only one kind of Christian”), Minoli moved to America 10 years ago, where he was amazed by the diversity of Christian expressions and married a Unitarian. “I don’t like to label myself,” he says, “but I would say I am a proud believer in Christ.”

But the man who for a decade has had a profound impact on the way Americans envision the Bible says “JESUS” is his last biblical epic. His next project is a Bill Cosby comedy feature for TNT.

“When I began doing Bible movies, I was thinking like Gutenberg did,” he says. “I am doing a visual Bible. There are great stories to be told, and it happens that the content agreed with my interests at the moment. But I’ve done it for a long time, and had all the success I felt I could get. Now I want to do contemporary stories.”

DEA END RABEY