Of Many Things

Of course, there were differences of opinion about "Jesus," the two-part movie shown on the CBS-TV network in mid-May. There were intense differences of opinion about the film's hero during his earthly lifetime, and there have been radical differences of opinion ever since he died on a cross.The most divisive difference was pointed out in 60 A.D. by Festus, the Roman procurator m Judea. He was discussing the case of a prisoner named Paul whom he was holding in custody. This Paul, he explained, had been caught up in a violent controversy with the chief priests in Jerusalem. They had been arguing, Festus said, "about a certain Jesus who had died but who Paul affirmed was alive" (Acts 25:19).

Variations among reviewers of the mini-series weren't centered on the Resurrection but were simply differences of opinion about the movie's merits. In the New York City area, for instance, Eric Mink of The Daily News gave it four stars, while Linda Stasi, of the city's other tabloid, The New York Post, gave it two. After quoting the director, Roger Young, as saying he "wanted to show Jesus as a regular guy," Ms. Stasi was blunt: "Wrong. If there were two things Jesus basically was not was 1) regular and 2) a guy."

In the May 13 issue of The Washington Post, the TV critic Tom Shales said: "It's doubtful there's a better movie than 'Jesus' playing on any screen of any kind this weekend in America." On the other hand, both Michael O. Garvey in Commonweal and America's own James Martin, S.J., found it to be four hours of quite bland television.

To some extent, this may be one of those cases in which a glass can be seen either as half full or half empty. For example, when Mr. Shales says this new movie is better than Franco Zeffirelli's 1977 mini-series, "Jesus of Nazareth," he is--to borrow Ms. Stasi's firm style--just wrong.

All the same, "Jesus" has its own distinctive strengths. Some of these are probably to be credited to Suzette Couture, who did the film script. The additions to the New Testament accounts are inventive but also perfectly congruous. The Evangelists had little to say about Joseph, but he was surely everything to Jesus that the best of fathers can be to a son apart from the fact of biological generation. So the movie's picture of the loving relationship between the two is thoroughly right.

Some weightier choices were less successful. As Father Martin pointed out in his review (5/13) the producers' first problem was to cast a credible Jesus. The Jesus impersonated here by the 25-year-old Jeremy Sisto is handsome but not effete; kind and warmly human. He does not, however, suggest the Jesus who, as the British Catholic writer Bernard Wall strikingly put it, "is as mysterious as the existence of the universe itself...the strangest person who has ever existed."

Still, the film taken as a whole does evoke the mystery of Jesus by simply telling the story with fidelity to the Gospel and immense technical skill. That is why it raises the questions that got Paul hauled up before Festus.

Let a single case indicate how those questions continue in one way or another to confront people today. More than 30 years ago, Mary Crozier, who was then the TV critic for The Tablet of London, recalled that she had not been brought up in any church and had not read the New Testament until at age 19 she read .Matthew and John in the original Greek for an Oxford exam.

"How extraordinary, strange and haunting a story I found this coming to me with all the freshness of another language.... Anybody thus reading this story for the first time must answer the question: is it true, or is it not true? If it be true, then Christ lives; and if he lives, then I must become a Christian."

In a similar fashion, "Jesus" may have been for some viewers not just a movie but a grace.

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