Review: Jesus (dir. Roger Young, 1999)

By now, it’s become standard practice for filmmakers tackling the gospels to say that they will show Jesus in a more ‘human’ light. What this usually means is that the Jesus in their films will smile more often than the Jesuses in other films. He will laugh, he will cry, he will help the fishermen with their nets, he may even get up and dance at parties.

But this definition of humanity, with its implicit assumption that God, in his divinity, is somehow above all that stuff, does a disservice to both sides of the equation. The God of the Old Testament definitely has feelings, so emotion itself is no big sign of humanity. If Jesus is fully human, as the creeds insist, then there has to be more to it than that.

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Jesus at the Movies

In Jesus of Montreal, Denys Arcand’s witty satire about a group of actors who put on a revisionist Passion play, the church sponsoring the play sends in some security guards to call off the production in mid-performance. The actors have tinkered with the Gospels too much; their reconstruction of the historical Jesus challenges church tradition at nearly every point, so out it must go. But the audience objects; one woman says she wants to see the end, and the head of security replies, impatiently, “Look, he dies on the cross and is resurrected. No big deal. Talk about slow!

The scene neatly sums up one of the main challenges faced by films about the life of Jesus: namely, overfamiliarity. Jesus has been represented in paintings, sculptures, and stained-glass windows for centuries; since the invention of moving pictures in the 1890s, he has also been a perennial subject in films and television. All these portrayals tend to fuse together in the popular imagination; audiences think they’ve seen it all before, and they can remain blind to the unique perspective each film sheds on the life of Jesus and his relationship to modern moviegoers.

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Review: The Bible Collection (dir. various, 1996-1997)

Samson and Delilah, Warner Alliance, 1996, dir. Nicolas Roeg.
David, Warner Alliance, 1997, dir. Robert Markowitz.

THE BIBLE Collection was, and is, a great idea, but like so many great ideas, its execution has proved rather uneven.

The initial films in this made-for-TV series — Abraham, Jacob and especially Joseph — treated biblical sex and violence with uncommon frankness, and they brought to life biblical stories that had, until then, languished in cinematic obscurity. Moses covered more familiar territory, but its down-to-earth naturalism and a terrific performance by Ben Kingsley helped to set it apart from the overblown epics of the past.

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Review: Moses (dir. Roger Young, 1995)

ABRAHAM meandered too much, and Jacob fell completely flat. Things started looking up with the epic Joseph, and now, with the brisk Moses under its belt, it would appear that ‘The Bible Collection’ has finally hit its stride.

And what a fast pace it is, too: Moses opens with a quick montage to show how this Hebrew came to grow up in the Egyptian palace and then it squeezes Exodus and Numbers into a mere three hours while skipping Leviticus and using just one or two chapters from Deuteronomy. (By way of comparison, it took seven hours for The Bible Collection’s first three videos to cover 39 chapters of Genesis.)

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Review: The Bible Collection (dir. various, 1993-1995)

Abraham, Warner Alliance, 1993, dir. Joseph Sargent.
Jacob, Warner Alliance, 1994, dir. Peter Hall.
Joseph, Warner Alliance, 1995, dir. Roger Young.

BIBLE MOVIES refer so often to “the God of our fathers” it’s surprising at first to discover just how little attention films have paid to the patriarchs.

There are several reasons for this. Most biblical life stories are made up of disconnected episodes that do not easily conform to the structure of a two- or three-hour film. Attempts to be “historically accurate” with Genesis falter since no one knows when these stories occurred; scholars have dated Abraham to anywhere between the 23rd and 14th centuries BC.

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