Grover Babcock, co-director of "A Certain Kind of Death," once said something that has always stuck with me. He said that when considering an idea for a documentary, the prospective filmmaker first has to ask himself why this idea should be made into a film instead of an article or perhaps a radio piece on NPR. Unfortunately, Simcha Jacobovici, director of "The Lost Tomb of Jesus," hasn't found an answer to this question, if he ever asked in the first place.
He's certainly gifted with some dynamite material. In 1980, construction workers in the Talpiot neighborhood of southern Jerusalem unearthed a tomb containing several ossuaries (bone boxes) marked with the names Mary, Joseph and, yes, even Jesus. You might expect news of such a discovery to spread like wildfire and possibly turn modern civilization its ear, but the ossuaries were simply catalogued and placed in the storeroom at the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) with no fanfare.
Was this a massive cover up by Jewish authorities? Not exactly. Family tombs such were frequently discovered in Talpiot as well as other city neighborhoods, and the names Mary, Joseph and Jesus (these are English approximations, of course) were perfectly commonplace in 1st century Jerusalem. Nothing to get excited about, right? Not so fast, according to Jacobovici. Each of those names might have been common enough in their day (for example, an estimated 25% of women at the time were named Mary) but finding so many names from the Gospels in the same family tomb (there are other names I will get to in a moment) rules out the possibility of coincidence: this must be the tomb of Jesus and his family!
At least that's the argument Jacobovici relies on most heavily to support his astonishing claim. He also bends over backwards to assure the faithful that such a discovery doesn't necessarily conflict with the Bible: Jesus' ascension could have been spiritual, leaving the behind body, a body which quite naturally would have been buried in the family tomb. He has an even tougher sell for Christians, however, when he pins his hopes on another name found an ossuary in the same tomb: Miriamne, which he claims to be Mary Magdalene. And there's really only one reason Mary Magdalene would be buried in Jesus' family tomb, y'know, plus there's also the nagging problem of the child's ossuary with the name "Judah, son of Jesus" that was also discovered at Talpiot.
For all the surprises the documentary has to offer, the biggest one may be just how staggeringly boring a movie about the alleged discovery of Jesus' tomb can be. Maybe he was hemmed in somewhat by the limiting aesthetic guidelines of the Discovery Channel, but then again Werner Herzog was able to make "Grizzly Man" (2005), another Discovery Channel project, into a personal and visually pleasing film. In any case, Jacobovic takes his stylistic cues from television's most stylistically-challenged show, "CSI." One inexplicably long and dull sequence is devoted to the filming of a paleo-DNA test complete with all the flashy computer graphics that Jerry Bruckheimer has turned into a television staple. Even worse are the numerous shots lingering on a smug Jacobovic who is positively amazed by his own bad self and the amazing things he accomplishes during his archeological odyssey. I suppose there's some absurdist amusement in watching a film crew use a robot camera and an Israeli plumber to penetrate the tomb of Jesus, but I can't think of any other treats this paint-by-numbers documentary offers. No, wait, I can think of one. If the film's treatment is accurate (and in one of the DVD extras, Jacobovic assures us all the recreations are painstakingly realistic) we have learned something fascinating about Mary Magdalene: she is absolutely smoking hot. Any man who could resist that would simply have to be the Son of God.
It's also unsatisfying as an act of scholarship, though I think it's fair to say that no mere feature-length documentary can possibly lay out sufficient evidence along with requisite counter-arguments. The documentary allows a few skeptics to air their views, but mostly relies on a handful of "accomplished scholars" who are convinced this must be Jesus' tomb. Narrator Ron White certainly sounds authoritative as he ticks off all the various items that supposedly prove the tomb's validity. There's certainly not enough here to convince skeptics, and the film's lukewarm reception upon its Discovery Channel debut suggests it's not even convincing enough to make headlines for more than a few days.
The DVD is presented in an anamorphic 1.77:1 aspect ratio. The transfer is not progressive so there is some combing evident. However, the general quality of the transfer is quite good with rich colors and a sharp image quality.
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound. Non-optional English subtitles support the portions of the audio which are in Hebrew. Most of the audio is in English.
The Epilogue (9 min.) is really just a prolonged trailer for the film, in which both Jacobovici and Cameron explain what they were trying to accomplish.
The bulk of the extras are devoted to interviews with Jacobivici, Cameron, and a series of experts. A 3-minute featurette about the recreations in the film and a short trailer round out the collection.
One skeptical researcher has referred to "The Lost Tomb of Jesus" as "archeological porn." Maybe that's a bit harsh, but the documentary certainly has a tacky quality about it. I'm not qualified to assess the validity of the arguments presented in the documentary, but I am qualified to say that it's a real snoozer. Hard to believe considering the topic, but there you have it. The website at www.jesusfamilytomb.com is actually a lot more interesting than the movie, just in case you're interested in the material.