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Saturday, March 31, 2007

A Jesus who laughs, dances, falls in love

I couldn't begin Holy Week without writing something about the four hour tv miniseries-movie Jesus (1999). As Cura mentioned in a recent comment, movies about Jesus can be more than mere entertainment, and this movie is so for me. It has been woven into my faith history - I watched it the Easter I first participated in the Creighton online retreat. Because of this, I think the Jesus I saw portrayed, one who's gentle, fun-loving, a bit unsure of himself and yet divine enough to raise the dead, will always be a part of how I see him.

Some of the things you'll see in this movie that you don't usually see in others of its kind - an ongoing relationship between Jesus and a still alive (for a while) Joseph, a love relationship between Jesus and Mary of Bathany (nipped in the bud), a Satan dressed in modern garb who tempts Jesus not just in the wilderness but also in the garden by showing him a future in which men kill in his name, and a Jesus who emotes ... who laughs and weeps, skips stones on the Sea of Galilee, gets ticked off, tells bad jokes, and dances the night away.

Jesus is played well by Jeremy Sisto, perhaps best known as the disturbed Billy Chenowith on the HBO series Six Feet Under. Other actors of interest in the movie are Jacqueline Bisset as Jesus' mother, Debra Messing as Mary M, and Gary Oldman as Pontius Pilate.

Here's a bit below from a review of the movie by W. Barnes Tatum, Jefferson-Pilot Professor of Religion and Philosophy, Greensboro College, Greensboro, North Carolina .......


Viewers turning on their television sets and expecting to see a recognizable Jesus story have their expectations immediately challenged. Even before the title frame, three brief sequences depict cruelty wrought over the centuries "in the name of Jesus Christ:" mounted crusaders charging with drawn swords; the burning of a heretic; modern trench warfare. The viewer soon discovers that these images occur in Jesus' mind as he dreams about what will subsequently result from, or in spite of, his appearing in the first century. This flash-forward technique is later used in two imaginative encounters between Jesus and Satan, with Satan alternatively depicted as a smarmy guy in a designer suit or a beautiful woman in red.

The attention-getting opening continues through a tightly edited-series of sequences that establish the social setting for the Jesus story as well as the family context for Jesus' life. Rome rules. Jews are a subject people. Pontius Pilate arrives as Tiberius' representative in Judea. Both Herod Antipas and Caiaphas serve at the pleasure of Rome. The arbitrariness and guile of Roman rule become evident; and the issues of taxation and expropriation of property emerge as points of ongoing conflict.

Jesus himself comes from a tightly knit family threesome that includes his mother Mary and his adoptive father Joseph, but no siblings. Their extended family includes as blood relatives Lazarus, his sisters Mary and Martha, and John the Baptizer. The flash-back technique is used to communicate information about the stupendous events related to Jesus' birth and childhood ....

In the telling of this Jesus story, the filmmakers have created the character of Livio, Roman citizen and political insider, whose comment and presence facilitate the action throughout the film. They also highlight the relationship between Mary the mother of Jesus and Mary Magdalene in ways that reflect the later church's contrast between the blessed virgin and the penitent prostitute. But in the film itself, Jesus verbally affirms Mary Magdalene to be a "disciple," an affirmation consistent with recent scholarship ....

Lesser known texts also provide bases for scenes along the way. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, not to be confused with the Sayings Gospel of Thomas, reports an occasion when Jesus at age five makes clay pigeons that he brings to life. Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, reports an incident when Pilate created controversy by bringing his Roman standards into Jerusalem. Contrary to the general tendency in the gospel passion accounts to portray Pontius Pilate as a man of keen conscience, the Gospel of Luke reports a saying by Jesus that refers to a moment when Pilate slaughtered Galilean pilgrims in the temple (Luke 13:1-5). So far as I am aware, this incident finds its way onto the screen for the first time, with the obvious intention of showing Pilate to be a man capable of brutal complicity .....

Perhaps the viewers who will have the greatest appreciation of Jesus are those who embrace "love" as the central theological and ethical category of the Christian story and who want to see within that story a fully human Jesus. This possibility leads us back to the portrayal of Jesus in the Gospel of John which opens with the claim that the divine Word has become flesh (1:1, 14).

Among the four canonical gospels, it is this fourth gospel that explicitly develops the theme of God's condescending love: God so loved the world that he gave his Son (3:16). Jesus as God's Son loved his own in the world until the end (13:1). Jesus gave to his disciples the "new commandment" that they love one another even as he loved them; and, by their love for one another, others will know them to be his disciples (13:34-35). Jesus goes on to point out that there is no greater love than dying for one's friends (15:12-13). Also, in this gospel, we are told that Jesus loved Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha (11:3, 5); and there appear the enigmatic references to the so-called "beloved disciple" (13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7, 20).

I consider this Johannine theme of love to be the subtext that often comes to the surface in the film on the lips of Jesus himself. But the second encounter between Jesus and Satan, in the garden on the night before his death, constitutes the theological center of the film that must be experienced, not just read about. Here the viewer is again confronted by flash-forwards of human inhumanity and overhears the dialogue between Satan and Jesus. Satan urges Jesus not to die in vain, since "killing for Christ will be big business through the centuries." Jesus declares: "Through me, God will reveal his love for all mankind." Later he affirms: " I'm in the hearts of men. I will die for the everlasting kindness of the human heart created by the Father, so that man will make His image shine once again. And those who want to will find in me the strength to love until the end."

Certainly, more than all its cinematic predecessors, this film goes out of its way to humanize Jesus. Not only does Jesus find himself attracted to Mary of Bethany, but he assists Joseph with carpentry work. He also loudly laments when Joseph dies, dances with verve, cries over the body of a slain Roman soldier, playfully swings children in the air, and engages his disciples in a water fight at a village well. And then there is the smile, although Jeremy Sisto's smiling face as Jesus can become as predictable as those solemn faces that have preceded him in the role, including the face of Robert Powell as Jesus of Nazareth. But in Jesus, the words between Satan and Jesus in the garden abide even beyond the end.


- here's a scene from the end of the film which shows Jesus still around in the present day (I will always be with you). It was cut from the American version.


Blogger Cura Animarum said...

This is our family's favorite version for exactly the reasons you mentioned above. I love the very human side of Jesus that it portrays, and I think the scenes with Satan are perfectly excellent especially the encounter in the garden. It shows the very real temptation Jesus had to walk away from what the Father was asking him to do.

We watch it every year at this time.

Hosanna in the Highest!

9:25 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

It sounds like we have similar tastes in movies :-)

12:17 AM  
Blogger TRUTHMONGER said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

3:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't offend Jesus by watching a film where He had a romantic relationship with a woman. That is wrong. Jesus is above us all, because He was divine and you can see that in the Bible. Making up stuff about Jesus like He was any old-tom-dick-harry is offensive. And Jesus is too good for that and He is very merciful to sinners like us. You know, it seems a lot of Catholics are losing their perspective on what is right and wrong. Watch EWTN! God Bless.:)

1:48 AM  

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