'Mary' can be ponderous; 'Winter's End' compelling

Arts and television writer of The Christian Science Monitor

So many medieval and Renaissance paintings of Jesus' mother, Mary, picture her as a great beauty - innocent, graceful, and humble - but few picture her as intelligent or strong.

Mary, Mother of Jesus (NBC, Nov. 14, 9-11 p.m.) does its best to portray the "handmaid of the Lord" as a bright young girl (Melinda Kinnaman) with a passion for mercy, and as a mature woman (Pernilla August) who accepts heroically the challenge Jesus offered all his disciples, to preach the Gospel to every creature.

The film is told from Mary's point of view, so only the parts of Jesus' career she would most likely have witnessed - in the eyes of writers Albert Ross and John Goldsmith, anyway - are presented here. A great many elements of the story are missing or open to debate. But there are sweet touches, as when the newborn Jesus smiles at Joseph at once, or when Mary tells the child Jesus the story of the Good Samaritan. Still, this somber film can be ponderous, the writing stiff and self-conscious, and the acting sometimes precious.

A more homespun approach to a profound religious theme is the family-friendly Sarah, Plain & Tall: Winter's End (CBS, Nov. 21, 9-11 p.m.), the third in a series based on Patricia MacLachlan's novels. In this warm tale, the power and possibility of forgiveness is central.

The story takes place a few weeks before Easter in 1918 as a Kansas winter winds up to a ferocious blizzard. Before this last blast, a stranger rides onto the Witting farm, hides out with his horse, and is discovered by the Witting children. The stranger is John Witting, Jacob's long-lost father - the man who deserted his wife and child when Jacob was a young boy. Jacob's anger is rekindled by his father's return, but the desire for reconciliation is more powerful.

Glenn Close (see interview on this page) and Christopher Walken star as Sarah and Jacob Witting, creating a convincing marital harmony. But it's Jack Palance who really glows here as the prodigal dad. What is most compelling about "Winter's End" is the idea that forgiveness can lead to a hard-won, realistic reclamation. In the end, the one who forgives is the one who is free.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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