Mad men, prophets, messiahs in the desert — television is turning its attention to religion in a dramatic way, and, undoubtedly, praying for ratings.
National Geographic Channel’s “Killing Jesus” — based on the book by Fox News host Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard — which debuts Palm Sunday (March 29), takes a somewhat historic look at the life of the Christian Savior, with Lebanese actor Haaz Sleiman, a Muslim, in the title role. “Son of God, son of man or threat to Roman rule?” the TV movie asks.
CBS’ two-night “The Dovekeepers,” premiering Tuesday, three days before Passover, retells the story of Masada, the famous siege in which more than 900 Jewish rebels and their families are said to have committed suicide rather than be taken by the Roman army. Based on Alice Hoffman’s novel, the tale is seen through the eyes of two survivors played by former “NCIS” star Cote de Pablo and Rachel Brosnahan.
On Easter Sunday (April 5), NBC begins its 12-part series “A.D.: The Bible Continues.” It picks up from the end of the History Channel’s “The Bible.” That 2013 miniseries was later repackaged into a shortened form for theatrical release last year as “Son of God,” making $67 million worldwide at the box office.
The husband and wife team of Roma Downey and Mark Burnett are behind “The Bible,” “A.D.” and “Son of God” as well as “The Dovekeepers.” The couple is well known for their Christian beliefs. “Killing Jesus” is from Scott Free productions, Ridley Scott’s company. The British director’s most recent film was “Exodus: Gods and Kings.”
Both “Killing Jesus” and “A.D.” were shot near each other and around the same time in Morocco, the go-to place for filming biblical and swords-and-sandals epics like Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” and Scott’s own “Kingdom of Heaven.”
“A.D.” overlaps somewhat with “The Bible,” with the time around the Crucifixion being revisited. Besides moving from a basic-cable channel to a broadcast network, there are casting differences. Juan Pablo Di Pace, from Argentina, has replaced Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado as Jesus because of a scheduling conflict, says Downey.
“Every decision in my life, big or small, always includes a prayer. So there was a lot of prayer involved in casting this series,” says Downey, who starred in CBS’ “Touched by an Angel” for nine seasons and is turning over the role of Mother Mary to Greta Scacchi (“The Player”) for “A.D.”
“We knew that we had to find an actor that could deliver the strength that we believe Jesus has, as well as the tenderness and the kindness. Juan Pablo’s audition was outstanding,” she notes.
Di Pace comes from a Christian background. “My mother is a religious painter. She has a painting in the Vatican. So I grew up with all of that,” he says. “My name, actually, Juan Pablo, comes from John Paul II.”
Playing a screen version of Jesus, whom millions of Christians consider divine, is ultimately a no-win situation. History has shown that whoever is chosen will be scrutinized, and, inevitably, someone will be displeased.
Both actors cast for the role have tried to steer clear of controversy.
“As somebody who is raised Muslim, it is an honor to play Jesus,” says Sleiman. Di Pace declares, “It’s a huge responsibility, and I’m absolutely humbled to be playing him. It certainly is a role of a lifetime.”
“A.D.” and “Killing Jesus” approach the story of Jesus and the Crucifixion differently.
O’Reilly has called his book a history about Jesus the man, not the Messiah. The book has drawn criticism from evangelical Christians and some historians, too.
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SOURCE: LA Daily News