The Bible Stories: Jesus opens with the arrival of Pontius Pilate as governor of Judaea, while Jesus and his father, Joseph, traverse the countryside looking for work as carpenters. This is Jesus as an adult, shortly before he begins his mission. Throughout the film there are several flashbacks of Jesus’ younger days, but this is a recounting of the Biblical Jesus, as he appears in the New Testament where there are few references to young Jesus. The writers took the liberty of imagining childhood scenes that are not supported by the Gospels. Those familiar with the Biblical Jesus may not enjoy scenes that are made out of whole cloth.
There are a number of scenes in The Bible Stories: Jesus that are at odds with Biblical accounts; these include morphing separate events into one, supposing interactions between Jesus and his parents, and imagining events surrounding the death of Joseph. While there are scenes that are pure conjecture (such as Martha trying to ignite a romance between her sister Mary of Bethany and Jesus), most dismaying was the propagation of an image that should by now have been laid to rest, Mary Magdalene as whore. Since there are other stories of Jesus and “fallen women,” continuing the myth about Mary Magdalene serves no purpose. Notwithstanding, the viewer should keep in mind that this is a dramatization, not a documentary. Screenwriters take liberties with the facts of people’s lives when producing biopics; that’s how they resolve the problem of continuity versus the amount of time provided to tell the story.
Filmed in Malta and Morocco, The Bible Stories: Jesus is a visually rich movie. We can easily reconcile these locations with our personal vision of places like Nazareth and Galilee. Every detail we see seems right, from costumes to sets to props.
The Jesus depicted here has a sense of humor, which fits well with the image of a man who tried to teach people to love each other. He preaches and he performs miracles, but he also plays. When I read that Jeremy Sisto was cast as Jesus, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Sisto has the look but his performances are often so understated and his speech so distinctive — could he carry this off? Because he has appeared as so many different character types, he easily fits the role of Jesus. However, if you’ve only seen him as Lupo on Law & Order, you may have to stretch your imagination.
Other performers include Jacqueline Bisset and Armin Mueller-Stahl as Mary and Joseph, G.W. Bailey in an excellent turn as Livy, Gary Oldman as Pontius Pilot, and Debra Messing as Mary Magdalene. Jeroen Krabbe gives an interesting interpretation of Satan who appears, for some reason, in modern dress — black suit and t-shirt.
The Bible Stories: Jesus takes us through the trials, crucifixion, and resurrection. While not as bloody as The Passion of the Christ which depicted Jesus’ last three days, it graphically illustrates the torture and suffering Jesus endured. At nearly three hours, it not only includes many of the stories told in the Bible, but also a taste of the political atmosphere of that time period. There are no special features included on the DVD, which is a re-release, originally filmed in 1999.
Bottom Line: Would I buy/rent The Bible Stories: Jesus? Yes. It’s a well made production that tells an intriguing story, whether the viewer chooses to believe or not.