Ken Tucker
May 12, 2000 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Jeremy Sisto, the latest actor to embody the role of the Son of God, this time in CBS’ new TV movie, Jesus, is a veteran of The ’60s, another miniseries that dealt with a revolutionary era in which people liked to wear sandals. Indeed, Sisto’s Jesus, with his long, lank hair and scraggly beard, is a sort of Age of Aquarius avatar, a free-spirit savior who wouldn’t be out of place in a production of Jesus Christ Superstar. Speaking in a groovy murmur, Sisto’s Jesus tells the blustery, shifty-eyed apostle, Judas (Thomas Lockyer), ”I’m not here to lead a violent revolution.”

Given that this is a slang-slinging biblical epic in which Pontius Pilate tells an underling, ”I love the way you kiss up to me,” you have to wonder what restrained the filmmakers from having Jesus advise Judas, who’s been bugging Christ to have his disciples kill a few nefarious Romans, to just, y’know, like, chill out, dude. George Bernard Shaw memorably described the Christ of the Gospels as ”a real person who meant what he said, as a fact, as a force like electricity.” Sisto is a force like spaghetti, rubbery-limbed when he should be striding purposefully, and sappily squishy when he issues pronouncements about sin and faith.

Still, Sisto’s low-key evangelism grows on you. This Jesus makes only one glaring miscalculation: It gives us Satan in a modern black suit and what looks like a black Gap pocket T-shirt; I kept expecting little devils in khaki pedal pushers to appear, snapping their fingers to some previously unrecorded, latter-day Stephen Sondheim song—a truly hellish tableau. As it is, Satan is played by the hatchet-faced Jeroen Krabbe (An Ideal Husband, The Fugitive). The whole idea of Satan is that he’s supposed to be beguiling, utterly irresistible, but this one is so patently evil, Christ never seems tempted to follow him for an instant.

Director Roger Young and executive producer Lorenzo Minoli, however, know their Bible, having worked together on the TNT productions of Moses and the Emmy-winning Joseph. The duo is aware that the audience is pretty much in on the plot in every sense of the word. The challenge, they clearly recognize, is to present hallowed scenes such as Jesus walking on water and raising Lazarus from the dead in novel ways (which will hopefully keep viewers from switching over to the irreligious miracles on weekly display in The X-Files), while also not offending what Shaw called ”the iconolators”—those Christians who believe any dramatization of Jesus’ story, simply given the vulgarizing nature of commercial entertainment, pretty much dooms it to blasphemy.

The filmmakers do succeed at achieving this balance: The miracles are performed with discreet tact and special effects; the fluid narrative commences with Jesus already 30 years old, so we’re spared the standard Nativity pageant; and the four hours are spent watching Christ deliver his gospel and rounding up 11 good men and one bad egg—a rather faceless bunch of apostles, I’m afraid, with the exception of Lockyer’s twitchy Judas. There are also regular cutaways to bad guys, who lounge around in gilded rooms and mutter grumpily about the rabblerousing this Jesus fellow is doing. The most effective of these by far is Gary Oldman’s Pontius Pilate. In a rare TV appearance, Oldman is wiry-tense, maliciously alert; he makes Pilate a sly prevaricator, and gives a wily, witty performance.

Among the other familiar faces, the more distracting are Jacqueline Bisset as Jesus’ mother, Mary (Bisset played Joan of Arc’s mom in a CBS miniseries last season, and this maternal typecasting is a bit premature for the still-radiant actress), and Debra Messing, playing Mary Magdalene as a tough-dame biblical strumpet. I’m afraid, however, the mere sight of the Will & Grace costar cannot help but suggest the production some of us would really like to see: Sean Hayes starring in Just Jesus! B

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