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Jesus In Jeans, The Devil In Designer Clothes

Most of the new Labour Cabinet may not have sworn on the Bible, but in the 2000 Holy year religion is making a comeback around the world. New films about to be released have a modern Jesus in jeans and T-shirt and the devil in designer clothes. John Howard reports.

The two-part made for TV film 'Jesus' released ealier this month drew massive audiences in Italy drawing a million viewers more than a comedy special on a competing channel. The American CBS network has now bought the film rights.

It's a startling turn-around for a country famous for sex and soccer saturated TV, but then, 2000 is the Catholic Church's most important celebration for a new millennium.

Following on from the success of 'Jesus', TV filmakers are concentrating on other films including a story called 'The Friends of Jesus', about reformed prostitute Mary Magdalene's life. Then there's 'Mary, Her Son's Daughter', one on the Shroud of Turin, and one on Bernadette of Lourdes.

The film company Mediaset also plans a movie about the life of Padre Pio, the newly beatified Franciscan monk whose shrine in southern Italy draws millions of pilgrims from around the world each year.

'Jesus' is a big budget film, an international production designed for an international audience. The man Jesus is portrayed as a touchy-feely kind of guy who laughs a lot, likes to dance and is careful not to bore people by preaching too much. When he is resurrected, he comes back beachside, in jeans and a T-shirt. The part is played by American actor Jeremy Sisto.

The Catholic newspaper Avvenire opened up a hotline for callers after the broadcast and reported surprising results. Hundreds of youthful viewers were offended by such a modern, human Jesus, while many older people, including nuns and priests, found him charming.

Critics have not been so kind starting with "banal" and then going downhill from there. The movie, says TV critic Aldo Grasso, acts "as if the original sin resided in television itself for being gulity of having banned religion from its programs for too long."

"How do you tell the story of Jesus in any kind of serious way when you've got to interrupt every 15 minutes for commercials about mobile phones and toilet paper," said Fr. Lloyd Baugh a Jesuit film historian.

Nevertheless, religion is being resurrected so to speak, and the airwaves around the world look likely to be swamped with religious films this Year 2000 - the public, it seems, simply can't get enough of them.

"People are desperately looking for something and religion is what's selling now, so we'll meet the market," said film maker Phillipe Trainer.

Pope John Paul II kicked off the 2000 Holy Year celebrations on Christmas Eve drawing millions of TV viewers worldwide.

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