Not Rated. Running time: 4 hours.
Our content advisories (1-10): Violence 5; Language 0; Sex/Nudity 2.
Our star rating (1-5): 4.5
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Director Roger Young’s Jesus, broadcast by CBS in 2000, is a Life of Jesus film with a great amount of non-biblical material. In addition to episodes from all four Gospels, scriptwriter Souzette Coulture inserted this material to provide back-stories and explanations for Jesus’ unorthodox teachings of non-violence. It could be subtitled “The Jesus Film For Peacemakers” because of an early episode in which Judas (Thomas Lockyer), who has been collecting taxes in a village, stands by while a group of Zealots led by Barabbas (Claudio Amendola) ride in and attack the Roman soldiers accompanying him. They seize and prepare to execute a Roman soldier. Jesus rushes into the village and tries to stop the slaughter. Pleading with Barabbas that killing is not the way, Jesus (Jeremy Sisto) argues that killing will not free the people. However, the Zealot leader scornfully slits the throat of the soldier he has in his grasp, and then strikes Jesus across the cheek. The Galilean turns the other cheek, and is struck again. After the Zealots have ridden away, Judas is puzzled and confused, whereupon Jesus engages him in dialogue.
The strangest additions, however, are the changes made to the encounter between Jesus and Satan in both the Wilderness Temptation and Garden of Gethsemane episodes. In the first, Satan (Jeroen Krabbe) is dressed like a Mafioso stepping out of a Las Vegas casino into the desert, as he conducts Jesus to the three temptation sites made familiar by Matthew and Luke. When Jesus withstands all three temptations, Satan leaves, telling him that he will see him again. The scriptwriter, apparently picking this up from Luke’s gospel (Luke 4:13), does indeed have Satan appear again when Jesus is praying to his Father for release from his impending torture and death. This time Satan tries to get Jesus to walk away from the cross by showing him what will happen if he submits to God’s will—and we see scenes of the Inquisition, of the Crusades and WW 1 in which men kill each other in the name of Christ. (Indeed, the film had begun with this future forecast, with the adult Jesus suddenly waking up.) Jesus remains steadfast in his Father’s will, and soon is standing before his accusers, ready to go to the cross. After the Crucifixion and Resurrection, the risen Christ joins the disciples and Mary, and then ascends into heaven.
Jeremy Sisto’s Jesus is a very human life-affirming man, dancing at the wedding at Cana, smiling (those who embrace the famous “Smiling Jesus” painting will love this depiction), and even playing with the disciples at times. This upset some Fundamentalists of the time who thought that Christ’s divinity was being slighted. They forgot the interesting episode inserted into the Temptations story in which Satan, first appearing as a woman (Manuela Ruggeri), requests that Jesus empty himself of his divinity. Apparently based on Philippians 2:1-11, Jesus shakes and shudders as we hear something leaving his body. Also Jesus’ Resurrection and Ascension into heaven are included at the end of the film.
Mary (Jacqueline Bisset) is much more prominent in the story than in the gospels. The film shows the close relationship the adult Jesus has with her and his stepfather Joseph (Armin Mueller-Stahl). When Joseph dies of a heart attack caused by a traumatic encounter with Romans, it is Mary who suggests to Jesus that it is time for him to launch out on his mission. She is shown traveling with him and the disciples, and when Mary Magdalene (Debra Messing) is drawn to Jesus, Mary welcomes and encourages her. The depiction of the Magdalene follows the non-gospel tradition that she had been a prostitute, but having her accompany Jesus, present even at the Last Supper (along with his Mother), follows the gospel’s account in Luke 8:2.
An example of the non-gospel but welcome addition is the following exchange between Mary Magdalene and Jesus, “I just don’t understand how you can believe in someone like me.” “God forgives you Mary,” to which she enthusiastically responds, “If I were a man I’d be your most loyal disciple.” In a statement that feminists can applaud, “Those who speak for me are my disciples.”
Mention should be made also of Gary Oldman’s Pontius Pilate, whom we see numerous times as a wily politician preferring to manipulate the Sanhedrin into arresting Jesus, rather than arresting him himself as a rebel, and thus stirring up the people. Judas also emerges more fully as a character than the other disciples (except for Peter), shown pleading with Jesus to lead the revolt, but rebuffed by Jesus’ statement that he came to save people from their sins rather than from the Romans. Thus this depiction of the motives for Judas’s betrayal moves beyond the gospel of John’s simple claim that he was a thief: as with several other Jesus films, Judas is portrayed here as being heavily engaged in the politics of the time, favoring the Zealot faction advocating violent revolution.
The addition of the fictional character of Philo Livio (G.W. Bailey), a cynical Roman residing in Palestine when Pilate arrives, is helpful for viewers not as familiar with the gospels as churched viewers. The Roman orients the new governor to the Jewish land and customs, even serving as an adviser to Pilate during the early crisis when the Governor insists on bringing his ensigns into the temple. Caiaphas (Christian Kohlund) comes across in this tense scene as very courageous, standing forth with his fellow priests in opposition to this desecration of the sacred place where no images are allowed. He bows down and exposes his neck to Roman swords. Pilate follows the advice of Livio and withdraws his troops. Later, however, he will get the best of the high priest in his game of getting rid of the Galilean whom he is convinced is a threat to Roman peace.
Of course, no Life of Jesus film can fully capture the personality of Jesus, not even the lengthy Jesus of Nazareth, but for feminists and peacemakers, Jesus is a worthy addition to the ever-expanding list of Life of Jesus films, exploring a couple of facets of Jesus’ life that are barely touched upon in other depictions.
My new book Jesus Christ: Movie Star will include a lengthy discussion guide for this film and several others. Watch this site for publication details, hopefully this spring (2014).