TV review: NatGeo’s “Killing Jesus” portrays a Christ devoid of divine identity

Unlike this Jesus in a painting in a chapel at the Pontifical Sanctuary of the Holy Stairs in Rome, the savior in “Killing Jesus” seems to lack divine inspiration. (CNS/Paul Haring)

Unlike this Jesus in a painting in a chapel at the Pontifical Sanctuary of the Holy Stairs in Rome, the savior in “Killing Jesus” seems to lack divine inspiration. (CNS/Paul Haring)

By John Mulderig Catholic News Service

NEW YORK (CNS) — Unsettling problems beset the lavish dramatization “Killing Jesus,” which premieres on the National Geographic cable channel Palm Sunday, March 29, 8-11 p.m. EDT.

Based on Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly’s 2013 best-seller, this sometimes gory recreation of events surrounding the Passion tries to be historically accurate while remaining theologically noncommittal.

The result will likely strike believers as incomplete and unsatisfying. Haaz Sleiman’s Jesus, after all, is wholly unconscious of any divine identity augmenting his ordinary human nature, and is even slow to accept his role as the promised Messiah.

Once he does so, after encouragement from his cousin, John the Baptist (Abhin Galeya), he pursues his mission with minimal supernatural fuss: The wonder-shy script includes only two potentially miraculous events, along with the empty tomb — but not, significantly, any sighting of the risen Jesus himself.

Haaz Sleiman in "Killing Jesus." (CNS/courtesy National Geographic Channel)

Haaz Sleiman in “Killing Jesus.” (CNS/courtesy National Geographic Channel)

More a faith-based philosopher and social critic than a savior, this Jesus focuses on bettering the morals of his contemporaries and undermining the entrenched political and religious hierarchies that ride roughshod over the poor. Naturally, those in power — most prominently Roman governor Pontius Pilate (Stephen Moyer), Tetrarch of Galilee Herod Antipas (Eoin Macken) and Caiaphas the High Priest (Rufus Sewell) — don’t take kindly to such an agenda.

Like any number of doomed academic attempts to isolate the “historical Jesus” from “the Christ of faith,” this small-screen narrative finds itself neutralized by the impossibility of separating the real-life events of the Gospel from the otherworldly understanding with which those occurrences have, from the beginning, been inseparably intertwined.

What remains is a reasonably diverting swords-and-sandals saga marked by some frisky romantic misbehavior — Salome (Stephanie Leonidas) trips the light fantastic — and political intrigue.

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Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.

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