A film on the life of Christ is perhaps one of the most noble and most difficult projects a filmmaker can undertake.
Of course, the storyline at hand is profoundly significant and arguably cannot be told enough. But the fact that it has been told so often feeds the ever-growing challenge of making audiences hear it anew. For many, the Gospel stories are so familiar, portrayed in so many different contexts and mediums, that the drama, emotions, and surprises they contain (all essential elements for a quality film) are all too easily diluted.
It’s safe to say that most of us, every now and then, have fallen into the habit of seeing the Nativity scene as no more than a pleasant Christmas card, the Last Supper as a museum piece, and the Crucifixion as a church background.
How does one translate the earthly life of the Son of God into a film that feels authentic yet original, powerful yet not over-dramatic, simple yet stirring, all at once?
It is an overwhelming feat. And “The Chosen” has done it.
The original series, an entirely crowdfunded $11 million project from VidAngel Studios, offers an intriguing new view into the life of Christ and his followers in a way that strikes a brilliant balance between creativity and authenticity.
Directed by Dallas Jenkins, the film’s secret ingredient is not just time — it is the first multiseason show about the Gospel — but how it uses that time. With so many Gospel stories to tell, one might expect the first episode to begin at the beginning, with the Annunciation of the angel Gabriel to Mary or with the Nativity, and let the story unfold in the same familiar sequence as in Scripture.
But the chronology of this series is anything but familiar. It begins by thrusting the viewer into the thick of several Gospel characters’ lives in the world where they lived and struggled. We meet Mary Magdalene (Elizabeth Tabish) as she hunts for an escape from the demonic possessions that torment her. We see Simon (Shahar Isaac) banter with his brother Andrew (Noah James), interact with his spirited wife (magnificently brought to life by Lara Silva), and struggle to pay the notoriously exorbitant taxes.
We observe Matthew (Paras Patel) collecting those taxes while trying (and failing) to find a sense of belonging among his Jewish people and his Roman employers. And we follow the Pharisee Nicodemus (Erick Avari) as he attends Sandredin meetings, butts heads with the Romans, and eagerly searches for theological truth.
As all of these characters unfold, the Gospel remains the backbone of their stories. But by filling in creative yet plausible details in the world around them, the series fleshes them out as the real, ordinary people they were.
This unique structure can’t help but grab a viewer’s attention: recognizable enough to convince one that it’s authentic, but imaginative enough to make it fresh.
What’s more, by first embedding the viewer in the world of the Gospel and its supporting characters, Jenkins is also able to magnify the moment in which the lead appears. We meet him as the disciples do, unexpectedly, as a stranger who seems ordinary yet impressive, and experience the same sense of confusion, wonder, and peace that they do.
Jonathan Roumie executes his pivotal role as Jesus with tremendous warmth and naturalness. While Jim Caviezel arguably had more of a regal look in Mel Gibson’s iconic “Passion of the Christ” (2004), Roumie has an aura of affection, reflectiveness, confidence, and even humor that together offer a credible sketch of the Savior’s personality.
He makes the children laugh. He hugs his mother (Vanessa Benavente) with fervor. He beams at others’ joy after performing a miracle. He celebrates Jewish Shabbat with reverence and love. All of these elements present a Jesus both within a certain time and culture and also approachable for people today.
“The Chosen” is not an exact visual representation of the Gospel, nor is it trying to be. Rather, it is an imaginative yet reverent dive into the world of Jesus and his companions. It paints a vivid picture of what it might really have been like to long for, meet, and then follow the Messiah.
This tactic, while not strictly tied to the Gospel, ultimately helps the Gospel stories, and the significance of Jesus stand out all the more. For that, it is both a masterpiece of evangelization and of filmmaking, which will hopefully continue into several more seasons.
“The Chosen” can be streamed via its own mobile app, available on iOS and Android devices.