Not Rated. Approximate running time: 4 hours 18 min.
Our content advisories (1-10): Violence 5; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
This is not a re-issue of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s masterpiece The Gospel According to Saint Matthew. Instead, it is a sumptuous visualization of the entire text of The Gospel According to Matthew produced by a group using the name The Visual Bible. If you are old enough to remember The Genesis Project’s “New Media Bible” back in 1979, a group that planned to film the entire Bible, but succeeded only in finishing Genesis and Luke before they ran out of money, then you will welcome this new venture. The Visual Bible began as a South African venture that had the ambitious goal of filming the entire Bible in fifteen years. Unfortunately, they also ran out of money, but not before producing three filmed Bible texts that ought to be in the library of every minister or church. (More on the other two later.)
Matthew is a big budget production, in terms of costumes and settings, as well as in “a cast of thousands.” Cecil B. DeMille could not have handled the crowd scenes better than Director Reghardt van den Bergh and Producer Robert Marcarelli. But the producers do not try to awe us with huge special effects, as Mr. DeMille so often did — a wise move, I believe, when dealing with faith events such as the appearance of angels and miracles.
Richard Kiley plays Matthew, an old man in the early 60’s A.D. recalling for friends the events he witnessed as a young man. As a scribe writes down his account, the gospel events unfold before us. The text of the N.I.V. Bible is used, so there is no wandering away from the recorded events, after the manner of such extravaganzas as The Greatest Story Ever Told or King of Kings. The camera switches back and forth between Matthew dictating and the acted out scenes, the actors speaking the dialogue. You might think that this would be awkward, but it really isn’t. The Visual Bible includes even the genealogy of Chapter One in an entertaining way — and that takes some doing! I wonder how the producers would have handled Numbers and Leviticus?!
Key to the whole enterprise, of course, is the actor portraying Jesus, and this Bruce Marchiano handles very well. His voice is not as stately as Max von Sydow’s in The Greatest Story…” or of Robert Powell’s in Jesus of Nazareth. It is so ordinary sounding, and as the story unfolds, this becomes a strength, adding to the believability that Christ, the Son of God, really did become one of us. There is a youthful, playful side to this Jesus that has not been shown before, making me wonder if the actor, or rather the director or producer, were familiar with Elton Trueblood’s ground-breaking book of a number of decades ago, THE HUMOR OF CHRIST. For this is a Jesus that not only smiles (a nice touch to the often dour-faced revolutionary Jesus of Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Saint Matthew), but who smiles, jokes, and laughs.
He even pulls off a practical joke. The latter is during his delivery, of all things, the Sermon on the Mount. Instead of sitting down, this Jesus moves about among his listeners. He takes a goatskin of water from a man, sips a drink, walks on, and then dumps the water over the head of a startled listener. Everyone laughs with him. Then Jesus tousles the man’s hair, as if to reassure him that no malice was intended. This may shock some straight-laced purists, but I thought it was a wonderful touch, following up a funny rendering of the parables of the man with a board in his own eye trying to take a splinter out of his neighbor’s — Jesus picks up a board and holds it so that it appears to be sticking out of his eye, evoking guffaws from his listeners. No wonder “they heard him gladly.”
I love comparing the various Jesus films, to see how different directors handle the same incident. I’ve noticed that directors influenced by the Roman Catholic Church show John baptizing Jesus by sprinkling or pouring, whereas Protestant oriented directors choose immersion. When people come to John the Baptist in this film, there is no mistaking that this is filmed by a Protestant.
Like all Jesus films, this one is not perfect: the angels are a bit hokey. Several sections could have been staged and/or edited more creatively, especially in the last half (where it seems that the filmmakers ran short of ideas, time or money). Even so, Matthew is a fine visual interpretation of the text, one that can be used in a variety of ways.
Individuals could use it for personal study, the chapter and verse numbers appearing at the bottom of the screen making it easy to fast forward to the verse you want. You might think the chapter and verse listings would be distracting, like those pesky date and time numbers embedded in some home videos, but they are not; I soon got used to them and took them for granted, until I wanted to find a particular passage. (A good feature of the DVD menu is that there is an Index for an incident and another one for chapter and verse.)
Also a good feature, one favoring group use — the video works better with groups than a book. Ever try having more than two people read from just one copy of a book? Still another possibility for churches that use projectors in their sanctuaries: you could substitute a DVD scene for the Gospel Reading in the worship service. If you do so, then the subtitles should be turned on, which reinforces the oral presentation.
Vision Video offers a one-disc and a two-disc set, the second one at $19.99 being just $4 more than the one-disc version. Plusthe latter’s Bonus Materials include: Historical Background; Production Design; About the Cast; About the Filmmakers; Academic Advisory Committee; Interactive Bible Map; Glossary of Historical Terms; Bibliography; and Filmography. I have not seen this particular set, but think that these must be worth the extra $4. Indeed, I marvel at this price, because when I first reviewed this film 10 years ago, the price for the set of 4 VHS tapes was a whopping $99.95! Affordable then only by large churches and resource centers, now even those of modest means can own a copy. Oh yes, I almost forgot—the other two fine productions this fine company produced are The Gospel of John and Acts, each of which I reviewed in Visual Parables a few years ago. These also are great tools for Bible study and worship, with John being even a better production than Matthew.
Order from: Vision Video, P.O. Box 540 | Worcester, PA 19490. (800) 523-0226 or (610) 584-3500. Customer Service Hours 8:00 am – 6:00 pm EST. [email protected]