The Bible episodes really did improve, the half covering the New Testament being far superior to the first, where it seemed to be the stories containing R-rated elements—violence and sex—that drew the producers’ interest. Although there are still points to quibble about—and I will raise some of them later—for the most part I felt a sense of relief as the series concluded with what it calls “the apostle John” exiled on the island of Patmos. This latter was an important part of my relief because of the artistic restraint in dealing with John and his Book of Revelation. More on this a little later also.
I am glad the fifth week’s episodes were so good, because during the first commercial break I discovered that Turner Classic Movies was airing The Robe. I kept going back to this enjoyable classic during the remaining breaks, and was very tempted to stay with it. Only my promise to finish blogging about the Bible made me return, for which I am glad, Episodes 9 & 10 being well worth watching.
The trials before the Sanhedrin and Pilate were well staged, with actors Adrian Schiller and Greg Hicks as High Priest Caiaphas and Governor Pontius Pilate respectively excellent in their roles. The one is convincingly shrewd and manipulative as the wily priest, and the other arrogant and well aware of his authority. Dieogo Morgado was not quite up to their level, his Jesus at one time being very vacant-eyed and perhaps a little too subdued: this Christ was not as pictured in the Gospel of John, calm and very much in control despite his captivity. However, during the scourging his cries and moans conveys well his humanity. Jesus might be the Son of God, but his suffering was not play-acting.
The Gospel of Matthew’s mention of Pilate’s wife and her dream is expanded so that we see her in several scenes. In this version Pilate has no excuse for his miscarriage of justice, having been given fair warning by his wife. When it came to presenting Jesus and Barabbas to the crowd, the speculative episode of the temple guards vetting the crowd was a good touch. By rejecting admission to the courtyard of all known supporters of Jesus (no doubt at the insistence of Caiaphas) insured that the mob could easily be manipulated by the priests. When Pilate, obviously wanting to release Jesus, tries to argue with priests and crowd about choosing either Jesus or Barabbas for release, I was glad that Matthew 27:25 was left out. This is the passage that has been so widely misused by anti-Semites because the mob says, while Pilate is washing his hands,” His blood be on us and on our children!’ There should be no charge that this film is anti-Semitic, as was done in the case of The Passion.
The carriage of the cross was almost as brutally depicted as in The Passion, the guard almost constantly whipping the bruised and battered Jesus. Mother Mary is there also, played by co-producer Roma Downey. Although very appropriate in the portrayal of the young Mary, she still seems too youthful at this point, very much like those older women in TV commercials aimed at the AARP generation. The best depiction of Mary at the time of the Cross is in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew in which he cast his own mother as Mary, there being no mistaking that she had aged during a time devoid of cosmetics and age-fighting vitamins. To change the subject, did you catch a quick glimpse of Satan in the crowd of onlookers?
The Crucifixion is depicted in all its horror, and it was noticeable that all of the so-called “seven last words of Christ,” gleaned from all four gospels, were used. Especially appreciated was starting out with the most startling of those “words,” those from the Gospel of Luke Christ forgiving his enemies. At the end of the ordeal, when Christ’s body is lowered from the cross, there is a carefully staged “Pieta” in which Mary, flanked by the disciples John and Mary Magdalene, weeps as she holds the body of her son. Meanwhile, much is made of the Gospel of Matthew’s description of a storm and great earthquake shaking the temple and tearing the curtain that veils the inner sanctuary.
The Easter events are considerably condensed (glancing at my watch, I noticed that there was little time left for the Book of Acts, the Epistles, and the Book of Revelation), but rather skillfully done. Peter and Mary rush to the tomb, and when she is alone, the camera shows us from the inside of the tomb looking up when Jesus appears to her. We can understand how, against the bright light outside, she might not recognize her master. Back at the upper room, Thomas is present when Christ appears, but still refusing to believe at first. It is a nice touch that Peter is breaking bread and pouring the wine, referencing the Eucharist that will become the central ritual of the church, when Jesus makes his appearance.
After the Ascension of Jesus into heaven, the scene called Pentecost was done with admirable restraint. I was glad that the filmmakers did not try to emulate any of the countless paintings in which actual tongues of fire are shown over the heads of the disciples. (The Book of Acts sees this description of the presence of the Holy Spirit as a simile, “Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.” (Acts 2:3) Instead, there is the disciples praying together the Lord’s Prayer when the sound of wind, the cloths being blown about as the disciples speak in foreign tongues that they did not know. Outside the crowd of Jews, gathered for Passover from all over world, hear the disciples proclaiming Christ as Lord in their own languages.
Events move quickly, the introduction of young Steven and his all too quickly following death by stoning, the healing and preaching of Peter and arrest by the authorities, the persecution of Christians by Paul, his conversion, and his widespread ministry to the Gentile world. Peter too is led by the risen Christ to go with the Roman soldier sent by the officer Cornelius to share the gospel. (In the Book of Acts it is strange dream about eating both ritually unclean as well as clean animals that convinces Peter to go to a ritually impure Gentile.) We get a few snatches of Paul’s letters as he dictates one to his scribe, and when Romans come to arrest him, he sends some of them off for delivery.
Fortunately, rather than trying with special effects to portray the bizarre apocalyptic visions of the writer, the film emphasizes the real purpose of the Book of Revelation, to bring comfort and strength to John and the persecuted church. Jesus is shown—and as in his other post-resurrection appearances, John can see the nail holes in his hands—declaring that he is “alpha and omega, the beginning and the end,” that he is making all things new.” In response to his master’s promise that he will come again soon, John utters the prayer, “Come!” The effectiveness of this conclusion is only slightly marred by camera moving in for an extreme close up on Jesus eye and then pulling back very quickly to reveal the earth as a globe in a brightly lit up space. It is a no doubt well meant attempt to show that Christ is Lord of the World, but the last shot is so artificial looking that it would have been better had the last thing depicted was the face of Christ. Still, all in all, Episode 10 was very satisfying, showing far better judgment in the selection of material from that in the Old Testament portion of the series.
Two further matters:
To compare this depiction of the life of Jesus with other films, you can scroll way down the screen where you will find a blog on the top ten Jesus movies.
And, you might want to watch the film mentioned before, The Robe. Based on Lloyd C. Douglas’s novel about what happened to the Roman centurion who won at dice Christ’s robe at his Crucifixion, it is a rewarding film. Best scene is when the centurion travels back to Palestine and meets a woman who sings a beautiful Song of the Resurrection. I remember my seminary New Testament professor saying that it was the most authentic depiction of the way that the early Christians spread the stories about Jesus.