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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Christian Jubilee Overruns Italian

ROME -- Italy, the country that perfected housewife striptease quiz shows, is better known for pizazz than for piety on television.

But on Dec. 25, a Roman Catholic Holy Year, or Jubilee, begins, one that coincides with what most Christians view as the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of Jesus.

With more than 20 million pilgrims expected to flood into Italy to visit St. Peter's and other shrines, millions of Italians, and especially tourist-phobic, traffic-fearing Romans, are planning to stay indoors. But even on television, there will be little respite from the Jubilee celebration.

Turn-of-the-millennium specials, Holy Year documentaries, lives of the saints, Bible stories and even sitcoms promoting spiritual values are programmed on almost every channel. A foretaste, a two-part mini-series entitled "Jesus," ended Monday on RAI, the state-controlled network.

The heavily promoted international production, which starred Jacqueline Bisset as Mary and the American actor Robert Sisto as a sunny, laid-back Jesus, drew 33.9 percent of viewers Sunday night. The film won generally good reviews, but some critics complained that the bloody crucifixion scene was too violent for younger viewers.

Scores of other New Testament shows are planned. They come on top of the special programming of RAI, the official Holy Year broadcaster, which is committed to 200 hours of live Jubilee programming, including live coverage of 80 events f everything from the opening of the Holy Door of St. Peter's on Christmas Eve, to a papal Mass in May dedicated to scientists.

Even Mediaset, a private network owned by Silvio Berlusconi, who was prime minister of Italy in 1994, has joined in. Mediaset is the company that in the 1980s introduced Colpo Grosso, "The Big Coup," a game show that had contestants stripping off their clothes.

For next year, Mediaset has commissioned its own life of Jesus and is putting its own inimitable stamp on religious programming with a series called "Friends of Jesus" concentrating on the more sensational followers of Christ f Mary Magdalen, played by Maria Grazia Cuchinotta, a buxom brunette who played a Bond girl in the latest 007 movie; St. Thomas, the doubting apostle, and Judas, the betrayer.

"They are the more conflicted characters; they lend themselves better to drama," Francesco Nardella, head of dramatic production for Mediaset, explained.

But there are people who find the sheer number of Jubilee specials excessive.

"This is a massive overdose f Rome is turning into Tehran," complained Giovanni Negri, a member of the Lay Observatory of the Jubilee, a watchdog group of lay citizens that monitors the planning. "It could have a boomerang effect. The Holy Year could give rise to a new wave of anti-clericalism among the young."

Major Vatican events, like the Christmas Midnight Mass at St. Peter's, have been broadcast live worldwide by satellite since 1974. There was live coverage of the last Jubilee, an extraordinary one called by John Paul II in 1983. But the year 2,000 has a far greater resonance, and technology allows for saturation coverage.