Out of the Desert Comes `Abraham'

An ambitious series of movies-for-television treats Bible stories seriously and authentically

ABRAHAM Cable-Television movie. Starring Richard Harris and Barbara Hershey. Airs Sunday April 3 on TNT (check local listings).

TIME seems to have overlooked this remote region on the edge of the Sahara. Camels and goats are tended by barefoot herdsmen. Women bake unleavened bread in the age-old fashion. Remarkably little here has changed for thousands of years.

It's somewhat surprising to learn that the nearby monasteries were united in devout supplication for - not rain or good crops. They were praying for the success of a new international television production, the filming of which began in the area last April.

But this isn't just any old TV enterprise. It's safe to say that it is one of the most ambitious ever embarked upon. Fifteen years in development, it's the retelling of the Old Testament. Pooling German (Kirch Group) and Italian (LUX) financial resources, in association with America's TNT, to the tune of some $120 million, the result will be more than 30 hours of airtime devoted to the Bible.

A spear-and-sandal rendering with the voice of Charlton Heston booming down from the heavens it will not be, emphasizes executive producer Gerald Rafshoon. Great pains have been taken to make this serious, thoughtful, and Biblically accurate.

The massive project will be divided into self-contained units. The filming of the story Abraham, starring Richard Harris (with Barbara Hershey and Maximillan Schell) will stand on its own as two 90-minute movies. As each section of the Old Testament is finished, it will be released, a process that is intended to span the next several years (The next, ``Jacob,'' stars Matthew Modine in the title role).

With ``Abraham'' being the model for subsequent installments, producer Rafshoon makes it clear that ``there hasn't been any attempt to sell a particular religious point of view.'' This is underscored by the fact that a team of Bible scholars from the Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish faiths has been close at hand to advise and approve both the script of ``Abraham'' and the subsequent filming.

``The person who really kept us on track of Biblical accuracy,'' says Rafshoon, ``was Richard Harris.'' According to the producer, Mr. Harris relentlessly sought out the scholars ``with phone calls in the middle of the night and meetings every morning,'' to ensure that he was getting it right. For his painstaking - to the point of, at times, persnickety - efforts the Irish actor has won much praise. The spiritual depth and subtleties that Harris lends to his portrayal of Abraham, remarks Jesuit scholar Heinrich Krauss, ``are so perfect.''

Still, the aim is prime-time television. The filmmakers are walking a fine line between entertainment and enlightment. Yet, they say, if this initial effort of transposing Abraham's saga to the screen is anything to go by, it will be surprisingly easy. ``The story of Abraham is full of violence, animal and human sacrifice, wars, smaller skirmishes, you name it,'' notes Joseph Sargent, the film's Emmy Award-winning (``Miss Rose White'') director.

MR. Sargent believes TV audiences will be greatly surprised by this film. ``What we are doing is light years from a `Ten Commandments,' '' he says. ``Americans, in particular, will have never seen anything quite like this, I'm absolutely sure of that. We simply haven't had a Bible picture with this kind of [treatment.] It's a highly realistic ... depiction, and the emphasis is on human beings, rather than on Biblical caricature. We approached it with a sense of human logic and human motivation ... while still maintaining the spiritual content,'' Sargent says.

Script co-adviser Vincenzo Labella explains that an underlying aim of the whole enterprise is to stimulate audiences to deepen their knowledge of the Bible. He is confident, in seeing the way ``Abraham'' has developed, that people will realize that the ancient stories have many parallels to modern life.

Jesuit scholar Krauss underscores this by citing, as the film suggests, the very human dilemma the patriarch faced. ``It was a great problem for Abraham,'' he says, ``whether to stay in his comfortable situation in Ur or to call on this unknown God.'' In today's terms, continues Dr. Krauss, it's not uncommon for someone to hear a stirring or ``voice'' inside urging a dramatic departure from a current job, perhaps, to write a book or suddenly change course for a completely different line of work, in an attempt to seek greater personal fulfillment. The path is uncertain. The risk is high. ``That,'' he observes, ``was exactly the situation of Abraham.''

Quite apart from its massive scope, the boldness of the project is found not least in its multicultural flavor. In ``Abraham,'' for instance, the director, executive producer, and co-star Barbara Hershey are American, while the rest of the team and talent is a provocative blend of European - there is a great deal of Italian input, in particular - with a dash of Moroccan. Director Sargent says he thinks ``Abraham'' will be well-received: He is confident that European audiences will embrace it. But he is less sure about American TV viewers.

``The reception is going to be mixed, I think,'' the director admits. ``The idea of having a universal approach, with all different kinds of languages and ethnic perspectives going into a film is rather new in America. We're not used to that. We have people who might think it's too European. It's hard to tell. Then there are the details, which are only implied in the Bible, rather than spelled out, that will cause a lot of good conversation - and, no doubt, not a small amount of controversy.''

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