"Jesus," an uninspired trudge through selected pages of Luke, recalls the dreariest "educational" dramatizations of Biblical stories from Sunday School. Presumably intended to help the poor old Bible "come alive" for modern children, their sanctimonious tone rarely concealed the fact that the dramatic illusion was inferior to real movies.
In film terms, one can experience far more religious exaltation at "The Black Stallion" or "Close Encounters" than at "Jesus," which counts on respect for the Gospels to excuse its lack of artistry. Neither churches nor theaters have any reason to be thankful for "religious" pictures as lackluster as this.
The monotonous, amateurish two-hour condensation of biographical highlights, miracles and teaching was "adapted from The New Media Bible translation of the complete Gospel of St. Luke which is about 5 hours in length." What an exquisitely tedious prospect! In that same five hours you might, of course, read the entire book of Luke carefully at least twice or participate in half a dozen livelier Bible study groups.
The New Media Bible is an audiovisual monstrosity that threatens to dull the senses of generations of Sunday School kids. A german-born British film producer named John Heyman, previously associated with theatrical features like "Privilege," "Boom!" and "The Go-Between," has announced the intention of filming 300 episodes from the Bible by 1993. Evidently packaged as 15- to 20-minute vignettes, they will be geared toward 16mm non-theatrical distribution and video cassette sales around the world. The ragged continuity of "Jesus" may be explained by the fact that it was assembled from pieces of the first three dozen segments of the project.
Heyman boasts that he has produced "the first totally authentic film on the life of Christ." His claims seem to rest upon location shooting in Israel and fidelity to the scriptural text. He also claims that 220 Biblical scholars were consulted to ensure authenticity and that the predominantly Israeli cast spoke in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek and Coptic in a version shot concurrently with the English-language one distributed here.
None of these claims counts for anything on the screen. The location may be Israel, all right, but the lighting is so drab and the composition so awkward that the Holy Land never imposes itself pictorially. Before the crucifixion sequence there's scarcely an expressive camera set-up in the film. More often than not the cameraman seems unsure of what the subject is and what point-of-view is desired.
Certain aspects of the presentation betray an excruciating want of judgment. For example, whose idea was it to leave the camera inside the tomb with Jesus' shrouded body after the mourners have departed and sealed the entrance? This is surely a point-of-view boner for the textbooks. It's immediately contradicted in the following scene, which locates us back outside with the mourners as they return three days later.
The text is similarly diffused by deadly post-recorded sound, betraying phony crowd noises, studio rather than location "air" and unimpressive recitations. Brian Deacon is an insipid Jesus and the obvious joke of the cast: Everyone else may have been found in the Middle East, but the Messiah must be impersonated by an Aryan with an English stage accent. The most commanding feature about Deacon is his lustrous, immaculate hair, which was evidently a wig and fails to compensate for the missing magnetism. Deacon spreading the Word is curiously reminiscent of Jim Henson plugging the American Express card.
Moreover, the translation Heyman seems to be using gave me frequent palpitations. Armed only with the King James and The New English Bible, I wasn't prepared for improvements like "Some one is shouting in the desert: Get the way ready for the Lord." Evidently, this derives from "The Good News for Modern Man translation published by the American Bible Society." I can't question their authority, but their dialogue is bad news.
Are they also the authority for such peculiar details as Jesus immersing himself rather than being baptized in the Jordan by John the Baptist? I suspect that Heyman takes more license with scripture than he lets on.
Since the movie appears to have been shot silent to facilitate dubbing and cut costs, all that exotic Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek and Coptic seems a rather elusive touch of authenticity. Who gets to appreciate it or feel closer to the period because of it?
Moreover, Heyman doesn't see fit to append a single production credit to the movie: No cast, no crew, no identification of a single one of those 220 Biblical scholars who supposedly blessed his handiwork. It reinforces the impression created by the footage itself of a hasty, essentially undirected motion picture.
Heyman begins pompously by descending on his motley footage from NASA photographs of the galaxy and the planet. He concludes with another point-of-view whopper that may also be blasphemous: The camera ascends, presumably with the resurrected Christ himself; above a Judean hillside and then this bird's eye image dissolves into the same photos of Earth and galaxy. Up, up and away indeed!