The Jesus Film was finished 28 years ago, and in the intervening period it has gone on to become the most watched film of all time. Yet whilst missionaries all over the world continue to value it as an evangelistic tool others clearly seem to be aware that their beloved movie is starting to appear dated. As a result, the last few years have seen a number of different versions of the film be released, including a version made for children and a longer edition of the film featuring a brief introduction from Genesis.
Magdalena - Released From Shame is the latest, and most radical development in this tradition. In addition to incorporating its own extra-biblical scenes, it has also incorporated a number of additional stories from the gospel that were not included in the original production. Brian Deacon has reprised the role of Jesus from the original - vocally at least, but in order to avoid the inevitable continuity errors that would result from the passing of almost 3 decades, Jesus's face is not shown in these scenes - it may even be a younger actor. Close listening, however, reveals a slight difference in Deacon's voice: it is richer and more noble than it was in 1979.
This leads to a couple of interesting moments, when we see a more intimate conversation between Jesus and one of his audience. We see their face in close up with part of the back of Jesus' head in the foreground. But the expected, and usual, reverse shot (showing us Jesus's face and the back of the other person's head) never materialises. It's a little off putting, but it does focus the attention on the response of those who originally listened to Jesus, and recollects all those 50s Bible epics which were so reverent they didn't even show his face.
As well as inserting extra scenes / shots, it has also added extra flourished to the original. So the original angels were white men with 70's fros and a white bed sheet, Here they are more indistinct CGI figures. We also see the occasional piece of symbolism, most notably the snake who slithers amongst a pile of ropes during Jesus trial, but is seen dead shortly after Magdalene sees the resurrected Jesus.
The film also jumbles the chronology. We start in 40AD with Mary Magdalene telling a group of her friends about Jesus. She goes right back to the stories of creation and Abraham before jumping to the events of the Nativity and Jesus's baptism and onto her encounter with Jesus. At this point the film returns briefly to Mary and friends before proceeding with the story of Jesus's ministry and execution in a more linear fashion. From then, up until Jesus's ascension we occasionally return to AD40, but it's the Jesus story that by far predominates.*
Essentially then this film seeks to tell the story of Jesus in from the perspective of Mary Magdalene - the message of Jesus is mediated to the audience by her. In addition to the scenes from 40AD and those from Jesus's ministry that feature Magdalene, she also provides the occasional bit of narration. Unfortunately, the actress playing Mary Magdalene herself (Rebecca Ritz) is one of the film's greatest weakness. She is far too earnest and, as a result, comes across as somewhat patronising. Worse still, there's no real passion in her account of this supposedly life-changing encounter.
The film's intended audience is also made fairly clear. Mary is primarily telling the story to a woman who has not heard about Jesus, and who rather conveniently feeds Mary the exact questions she needs to move her monologue on to the next part in the narrative. Unfortunately, it's as forced and awkward as it sounds, and it's not helped by a wooden, unconvincing performance by Shira Lane as the the would-be believer.
The other major key to the production's intended audience is the selection of episodes it includes. Nearly every scene from Jesus's ministry - whether from the original film, or more recent footage - has a woman as one of the crucial characters. The promotional material for the film is clear that in addition to Mary Magdalene the film also covers the stories of the Widow of Nain, the woman caught in adultery, and the haemophiliac who touches Jesus's robe.
In addition to selecting these stories it also inserts shots of Mary and the other woman around Jesus's ministry. So when he delivers his Gospel manifesto to a packed synagogue in Luke 4 we see Mary and a friend in the women's enclosure at the back. Likewise when an adulteress is brought before Jesus for Judgement, it is Mary who observes that the man should also be present.
So this is very much a film made for women, who perhaps find the usual male-dominated Bible films alienate them. As such it could have been a worthy project, but sadly, it's been poorly executed.
Despite it's popularity with missionaries abroad The Jesus film has always been unpopular with film critics. Not only is it a not particularly well made film, but it's rubbed salt in the wound by going on to become the art form's most widely seen specimen. It's unfortunate, then, that the parts of Magdalena which stand out as being the most well crafted are those which have been cut and pasted from that original Jesus film.
*The end of this paragraph was changed to it's present form on 27/11/07 to amend an earlier error.