And all the handsome young men and craggy older men shall be indistinguishable from one another in their somberness, and all the sultry young women and wrinkled old women in their shrewdness, until someone passing by the set on the way to the washing machine might well observe, "What story are we up to now? They all act alike. I can't tell Moses from Jacob." And, lo, the watcher may well respond, "Yep, they're pretty indistinguishable. You could tell Joseph, though. He acted like a surfer."
In filming the first books of the Bible, NBC has undertaken a project on the Cecil B. DeMille scale: wrangling a cast of 25,000 across the Moroccan desert through 100-degree days and 80mph sandstorms. The grandness of all this left its mark in the form of Bible-movie-itis: self-conscious, stilted deportment and stained-glass voices. It's hard to imagine real desert nomads, feuding and loving and dying, behaving with such stiff formality. An opening message warns that "some dramatic license has been taken." A crank might add, "But not enough."
The alternative, of course, can be worse: The Bible's overly familiar dramatic material is sometimes reanimated by updating it, a temporary solution that only makes things worse. There was nothing wrong with "Godspell" that a good dose of chloroform couldn't have cured. Yet there's an another way of making a sword-and-sandal movie come alive: Bring out a character's complexity with subtle writing and acting, and render a believable, intriguing human being. If Peter Ustinov could do it in "Quo Vadis," why can't NBC do it today?
A later deathbed scene, also invented, is more questionable. (If you miss one deathbed scene in this movie, don't worry, another will be along any minute; there are four the first evening alone.) As Abraham is dying, his son Isaac by his side, his older son by the slave Hagar returns. Abraham takes Isaac and Ishmael each by the hand and states that he doesn't prefer either one, "My blessing is for all my people."
If ancient Hebrew tradition allowed the paternal blessing to be split between two sons, a lot of future sibling strife could have been avoided. But Jewish and Christian tradition has always held that Isaac was Abraham's recognized heir, though God promised to bless and multiply Ishmael as well. "I will establish my covenant with Isaac...through Isaac shall your descendants be named" (Genesis 17:21, 21:12).
Inclusivity-buffs apparently invented this scene to endorse the equality of Islam and Judaism, since Muslims trace their ancestry through Ishmael. In the process, though, it intimates to Christians and Jews that their own tradition is wrong. The awkward truth is that different religions teach different things, and the person who claims those differences don't matter is either ignorant or patronizing.
But then, viewers of "In the Beginning" get used to being patronized. Joseph is by Eddie Cibrian, a graduate of the Keanu Reeves School of Dramatic Arts by way of "90210" and "Baywatch Nights." In lieu of acting, Cibrian gets undressed early and often, demonstrating his range by occasionally substituting a torn shirt for a miniskirt outfit. The good-natured, uncomplicated Cibrian possesses a sweet appeal; he's a puppy trapped in the body of a bull. And it may be said judiciously that everything he's got, he gives. It's just that a nice Valley Boy is not up to the challenge of Joseph's tortured tale.
But in this juiced-up version, Joseph marches around shouting at his brothers, brandishing the bill of sale they signed when they sold him into slavery. With the subtlety of a hammer on a frying pan, Cibrian announces, "Here is the bill of sale! Written! Proof! Of your treachery!" When they're good and terrified, he proclaims that he forgives them. The line we're waiting for does not appear.
Bible movies are tricky territory because audience expectations loom so large. We're apt to already know the stories, and even many of the lines, by heart; what's more, we have a firm idea of the tone and manner in which these events transpired. Since the Bible is a holy book, everybody walking around in it must have been very solemn.
The solution to this is not to make it fluffier or louder or funnier, but to give the characters a fuller range of the human condition. Where "In the Beginning" succeeds with this it is good, and where it doesn't, it avoids being offensive. It's a massive investment of time and personnel, with enormous sets, exquisite costumes and makeup, and the largest blue screen ever deployed to simulate the parting of the Red Sea. The final product is generally accurate, visually interesting, and safe. But it could have been more.