Arts & Culture | Reviews

Craft and faith in equal measure

'The Chosen' series is an improbable triumph

Mark Twain’s famous proclamation – “there’s no such a thing as an original idea” – may allow some respite to creators (me included), but there are those who set themselves up for a different kind of challenge – one of telling a story, the story, again for the gazillionth time and that too from a fresh, unexplored point of view. As if this isn’t hard enough, the vision is to achieve this goal without studio backing and solely through crowdfunding. I can only imagine the superlative conviction and singular vision shared by everyone working on this project.

The Chosen is easily on the top of such a list of attempts stacked against the improbable odds of being more than just another visual representation. For one, it’s so very easy to ruin even a simple film or show with its million moving parts. A poor casting choice, a below-average editing, a little excess of this, a little shortage of that . . . and the whole enterprise becomes a parody of itself. Add to that the titanic task of doing justice to the faith of 2.3 billion followers of Christ. The slope, no doubt, is slippery.

So in the hands a lesser filmmaker who hasn’t processed the scripture down to its atoms, its dramatization can easily reduce to sensational pandering. And I’m happy to report that the director of the show, Dallas Jenkins, is no such filmmaker. So expertly does he get to the heart of the book and the backdrop that his soaring vision transports the viewers. Jenkins, along with writers Ryan Swanson and Tyler Thompson, has clearly left no stone unturned during the legwork; hence, the resulting screenplay packs much intrigue and genuine surprises even for devout readers of the Bible.

The show works its way around the retelling of the story by exercising a restraint of known details and adding obscure interpretations, which I find is a delicious way to keep it engaging for everyone. One of my favourite episodes from the Bible is when Jesus rescues an adulterous woman condemned to stone-pelting. Having adored the minimalist take of Mel Gibson’s The Passion, I was excited to see the show’s spin on this instance. In an unexpected but welcome surprise, it chooses to do away with the incident altogether only to place the woman in an equally moving, final predicament. The show nimbly dodges many laser beams of the redundant and repetitive.

Also, it doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to place its protagonist right into the action partly thanks to the freedom that comes with long-format storytelling. In a season of 8 episodes, Jesus only arrives during the last couple of minutes of the first episode and remains just as largely absent in the second one. This decision allows other important characters a crucial breathing room and also serves to provide the backbone for the realism of that time and setting. Lives of Mary of Magdala, Simon Peter and his brother Andrew, Matthew, and Nicodemus are explored from the get-go. So when they eventually come to be touched by Jesus, we personally feel the redemption of Mary, the absolute devotion of Simon and Andrew, the perplexed acquiescence of Matthew, and the devastating heartbreak of Nicodemus.

The casting of major characters couldn’t be any better. Jonathan Roumie’s Jesus is all things divine and yet surprisingly accessible to the audience. I believe for a true artist, the personal isn’t cordoned off from the professional. In fact, they are sewn together by a thread of honesty that allows their art to transcend the purgatory of merely “good.” Roumie is heavily involved with several religious and philanthropic missions and personally appears to understand the Bible several layers beyond the superficial. As a result, his screen presence as Jesus is so tangible that you feel like he’s in the room with you. There’s a disarming lightness to his performance with no hint of effort in sight. He captures the full range of Jesus’ personality from his tongue-in-cheek lightheartedness to his fleeting discomfort at the prospect of an unwanted public display of his godlike powers.

On the other hand, the character of Nicodemus beautifully complements that of Jesus. He’s also a teacher (Rabbi of rabbis actually), arrives in Capernaum around the same time as Jesus, and attempts to channel the higher power to cure a tormented individual. Nicodemus’ season arc is heart-wrenching, and the winning sincerity with which Erick Avari plays him elevates the character to a worthy counterbalance to Roumie’s Jesus. Their first and only scene together alone merits a second viewing of the season.

Episode 5 is my favourite. Simon has just become a follower and asks others why Jesus had chosen to build a ramp to help people with disabilities use a public amenity when he could easily have healed them all instead. Even today, there are churches and religious leaders who see and position Jesus primarily as a miracle worker. So naturally, an inquiring mind like Simon would be inclined to ask the same. Episode 5 has the answer to this daunting question.

The apostles have accompanied Jesus to the wedding of his childhood friend. When the wine runs out with a few days of celebrations ahead of them, mother Mary urges Jesus to save the groom’s family from disgrace. In response, we see Jesus tenderly declare, “Mother, my time has not yet come.” Of course, he’s convinced soon, and what follows is biblical history. But the episode, and the show at large, seems to indicate that although Jesus can perform miracles, he also mindfully employs his human hands whenever he can to, say, build an accessibility ramp. But by doing so, he leads by example.

Simon

Speaking of miracles, The Chosen looks and sounds like one, especially for a show that’s been crowd-funded into existence. The cinematography by Akis Konstantakopoulos is textured and immersive. And if the divine could ever be rendered into music, it’s been done already by Matthew S. Nelson and Dan Haseltine. Also, the sweet-sounding middle-eastern accent is smartly used to separate the Jewish folk from their clear-tongued Roman administrators. Interestingly, Nicodemus, who’s very high up in societal ranks and demands fitting respect even from the Romans, possesses a similar clarity of speech. My only gripe with the show is that it’s available only on its app, and the subtitles (in a surprising range of languages) don’t always carry when cast on your smart TV.

To the uninitiated in the faith watching the show, Jesus would obviously be in the titular role since the term chosen (one) implies a messiah figure. The show’s poster, however, is a black-and-white close-up of Simon piercingly staring back at us. In the show, John confesses in pleasant wonderment that he had never seen a rabbi choosing pupils, for the convention of the time was the opposite – one of pupils choosing a rabbi. And just so, the show’s subtle triumph resides in conveying, even to those from the outside the faith, that Jesus is doing the choosing. This makes the apostles – and by extension all of us – the chosen.

  • Gaurav is an aspiring fiction writer and an occasional poet based in India. He is passionate toward all things cinema and books. And when he isn’t writing reviews, he’s busy reading them.

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