Blockbuster life of Jesus chooses London for film premiere

Image courtesy of The Chosen

By Catherine Pepinster

The groundbreaking drama The Chosen, about the life of Christ, which has built a following of millions around the world, premiered its latest series in Leicester Square, the heart of London’s entertainment quarter, this week. It was a far cry from the days when it was a series offered through a small specialist faith subscription service. 

The drama, set in first-century Judea and Galilee, tells the story of Jesus and his followers. Filmmaker Dallas Jenkins first raised money for The Chosen by selling equity and then by a highly successful crowdfunding project.

The drama took off with viewers during the Covid pandemic when episodes were offered without charge on The Chosen app. Its episodes — Jenkins has made four series so far and there will be seven in total, ending with the Resurrection — are now available across numerous streaming platforms.

According to Jonathan Roumie, who plays Jesus, the latest episodes, forming season four, are darker and tell a more difficult story as Jesus and his followers face conflict with both Jewish religious leaders and the Roman occupying forces who both see him as a threat.

But, says Roumie, the character of Jesus shines through. While others have played Jesus as a quasi-political figure or the suffering Christ, his Jesus, he says, “is merciful, compassionate and accessible”.

Accessibility is key, said Roumie. “Our fanbase was entirely Christian at first,” he said. “Because of its popularity it’s attracted people from all faiths and no faith to the character of Jesus. We’re trying to really portray his message of love and tender mercy.”

The accessibility is emphasised through the way Jenkins tells Jesus’s story, depicting his relationships with his disciples — the chosen of the title — and his impact on people who encounter Jesus the itinerant rabbi.

One of the most significant aspects of The Chosen is the way that it depicts women as crucial to the story. This could have been a series about a man and his 12 male followers, but women disciples are important too.

Elizabeth Tabish, who plays Jesus’s follower, Mary Magdalene, says this aspect of The Chosen convinced her to be involved. “The second I got the audition I was really thrilled that the first episode is bookended by Mary’s story and they wrote her in such a human way and with a full back story and emotional complexity.

“This seems like such a male-centric narrative but women are integral to it as well. The story-tellers of The Chosen have been true to that,” said Tabish, who hopes “it will change how people see Jesus’s story”.

While readers of the Gospels will spot many of Jesus’s words taken from the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the scriptwriters have also carved out their own take. Series four includes dialogue between Matthew, the disciple who was once a tax collector, and Jesus about the difficult relationship between Matthew and Simon, whom Jesus has chosen to lead his disciples and renamed Peter, meaning rock.

Matthew is shocked, saying that Peter has always been vile to him. Jesus encourages him to think of how he wronged Peter in the past through hounding him on behalf of the authorities for his taxes. He urges Matthew to seek out Peter and apologise — a way that the filmmakers expand on Jesus’s teaching on forgiveness.

For Paras Patel, who plays Matthew, his story particularly relates to people today. “A lot of us know what it is not to be understood or valued,” he says. “He steps into that space [with Jesus] and it scares him, but light does come from darkness and there is hope.”

For Shahar Isaac who plays the headstrong Simon Peter, working out why Jesus chose him to be his rock is still difficult. “I don’t understand it yet. The responsibility is put on me and I need to figure out how I am going to do it … When you get something … you have to develop, you meet the challenge.”

To Noah James, who plays Andrew, Simon Peter’s fisherman brother and another of Jesus’s followers, the story of the disciples is that these are people “trying to navigate the challenges of life”.

“Andrew would not say that he is worthy of the challenge. He may not be the best at something or the smartest but whatever he has, he gives.”

For the viewer, though, the story of Jesus is not difficult to follow through The Chosen, with it unfolding the Gospel narratives over seven series, and attempting to explore the background of a society where religion holds powerful sway. The Roman occupiers, too, are an equally powerful oppressive force.

While the Pharisees and Caiaphas the high priest consider Jesus a blasphemer and heretic, failing to abide by their religious laws regarding ritual cleanliness and the Sabbath, the Roman rulers fear he is a troublemaker who will stir up revolt. As series four unfolds, it becomes apparent that while Jesus teaches justice, mercy and faithfulness, these two forces will eventually come together to try to destroy him.

So far, The Chosen has attracted 770 million episode views and more than 12 million social media followers. Those figures are likely to increase with series four with its scenes of Jesus’s miracles, including restoring sight to a blind man, and raising his friend Lazarus from the dead.

Not everyone has applauded the series. Some have claimed that it promotes Mormonism because members of VidAngel (now Angel Studios), one of its production companies, are Mormons, and others suggest it takes too much liberty with scripture.

Jenkins, an evangelical Christian, says: “Throughout history, Christians and non-Christians have wrestled with issues of ‘Why does God allow evil?’, ‘Why do some people get blessings and others seem to be cursed?’; ‘Where is God when you’re experiencing challenge?’, ‘Where is Jesus in the midst of oppression?’ We really dive into that in season four.”

Season four of The Chosen will be released on February 1, showing in cinemas, and available free on its own website,  and app, plus on streaming sites


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