March 29, 2015


"Killing Jesus," the roughly two hour mini-series airing on NatGeo, has none other than Ridley Scott at the helm (fresh from his epic "Exodus"). Scott is the executive producer and his Scott Free Production company is behind this life of Christ. "Killing Jesus" is based on the book of the same name by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard, with emphasis on the Passion and Death (the last thirty minutes of the story).


How does "Killing Jesus" compare to all the other Bible films and Jesus films? In some ways it is very similar: the set productions, costumes, oratorical style of speech and Middle Eastern soundtrack we have become so accustomed to. In other ways it is different. It follows the recent trend of more realistic ethnic casts with thick accents (instead of all white American or British actors). Jesus Himself is the most "ethnic" of all: a very dark and swarthy Haaz Sleiman from Lebanon who speaks and preaches with great emotion. Jesus' hair is a bit distracting. It falls and swings forward like a pageboy just above his shoulders , and many of the other characters' hair looks extremely wiry and brittle like horsehair--almost as if everyone was given wigs/extensions treated with the same chemicals and dyes. Only the women have natural looking hair.

Attempts are made at being more faithful to the little traditions of first century Judaism (e.g., the cry of jubilation that sounds very similar to the African ululation). The drama strives to be slightly more "naturalistic," and not stilted, formalistic or bombastic à la de Mille's "Ten Commandments."
The film is exceedingly "dark," not just in its being slightly more violently graphic than your average Bible film, but also because of the visually "dark digital" age we live in. Many of the scenes are indoors with only candles and torches illuminating the action. Annoyingly hard to see. Even the outdoor scenes have a decidedly sepia wash to them.


In general, what is the "creative fidelity" to Scripture--since this is not a literal, page by page following of any one Gospel, or even a harmony of the Gospels, and since films should take some poetic license? It appears to be faithful, even with the displacement and unique juxtapositions of the words of Jesus, as well as extra-biblical, invented dialogue. The characters around Jesus (e.g., Herod, Pilate) have rich imaginative conversations and reasonings placed on their lips. We are made to grasp the varying worldviews and religions of paganism, the sects of Judaism, and Jesus' mandates and way of life, not just the historical, political and power intrigues. Excellent performances are given by Herod Antipas, Pilate, their wives, and Caiphas.

There are several outright (often non-crucial, seemingly arbitrary) Biblical inaccuracies, but my greatest complaint is that Mary and Joseph do not seem to understand there is anything special about their child at his birth, and Mary persists in this incomprehension as she accompanies Jesus in his adult life. Mary is a warm, lovely presence (always seated next to Jesus), but she appears rather clueless about his true identity. Jesus himself seemed a bit clueless at the beginning of his adult life as well, until his baptism by John in the Jordan, where he then firmly and clearly knows and feels his mission and closeness to God the Father, and begins performing miracles, preaching and healing with confidence. Awareness of his divinity seems solid from this point onward. In fact, the entire film gets better and better in every way as it goes along, including dialogue and scene construction.

Although it is doubtful no film will ever outdo the Passion as depicted in "The Passion of the Christ," there is a unique emphasis on Jesus giving "proof of his gentleness" and living out his teachings to the end, as he witnesses to one mocker in particular during the rather rushed Via Crucis and Crucifixion.


I believe that the strength of this film is in Jesus being a man of prayer, a man of God, a man who defers everything to God his Father. (He even looks up a lot.) His preaching is also well done for the most part and is presented as something new, focusing on God as love, God asking us to do the hard things like loving our enemy, and why this is not weakness but strength. The sense of conversion is well conveyed: Mary of Magdala, Matthew the tax collector, even those who wanted to stone the adulteress.

Another strength of the film is Jesus' warmth even when questioning others' mistaken convictions (including his own apostles')--which, we have to admit, are often our convictions, too.

"Killing Jesus" avoids portraying Jesus as the "surfer-hippie Jesus," or the wide-eyed radical who's bucking the system for the sake of bucking the system. But am I "attracted" to this Jesus (if I didn't already know about him)? Would this film alone draw me to Jesus? Is He appealing? Not really. He seems like a dangerous man to be around, provoking everyone with his fearless going against the grain, although his way of life is beautiful and transformative. Perhaps he makes sense, and his wholistic religious program (which is automatically a social program) about touching lepers and associating with sinners and prophecies that must be fulfilled and a kingdom to come are somehow not convincing enough in this film that I would leave all and follow Him. Something is lacking to make me go all in. Something doesn't resonate.

The ending is rather abrupt and we do not see the resurrected Jesus, only intimations of his presence followed by an epilogue of the various deaths of the Apostles. Every "Jesus" film has its own charms and illustrative points of view. "Killing Jesus" will take its rightful place alongside them.


--Funny line: "I am menaced by a family of lunatics." --Herod Antipas, when he finds out Jesus is John the Baptist's cousin

--Epic line: "The Child will give us a sign." --one of the Magi

--"What I am doing is not contrary to the Word of God." --Jesus when his own followers think he's rocking the boat

--No long speeches.

--I wonder if these filmmakers or even we think it's OK for Jesus' followers to speak out against "politics" and corruption and governments today? Sometimes it seems our attitude is that it was only OK for Jesus to do so.