The 1970s were a time when the traditional aura of respect for Jesus was beginning to be tested, and following the relative success of Jesus Christ, Superstar
in 1973 the rights were secured to adapt Hugh Schonfield's 1965 book "The Passover Plot". Essentially both the novel and the film were a previous generation's The Da Vinci Code
- a best-selling but trashy and implausible book making controversial claims and later getting adapted into a similarly poor movie. The main contrast is that whereas The Da Vinci Code
claimed Jesus died at the crucifixion, but that his blood line lived on, The Passover Plot
suggested that Jesus tried to fake his death on the cross so he could appear to have been resurrected.
The film itself is not nearly as bad as might be expected. For one thing it's the Jesus film most steeped in the Jewish origins of the gospel narratives. Jesus is known as Yeshua, and his disciples also take on the Jewish versions of their names (John reverts to Yohanan, James reverts to Jacob, Judas to Judah and so on). The prayers around the Last Supper have a strongly Jewish feel to them, and rely more on traditional seders
than the New Testament for their dialogue. Other Jewish rituals are shown such as the celebration of the birth of Bartholomew's son, the recital of the Shema
and we even see Jesus and his disciples wearing tefillin
at one stage. There's a strong emphasis on the hopes for a Jewish messiah (which in actual fact many doubt was the case) and Jesus' emphasis is repeatedly stressed as being on reformation and fulfilment of the Jewish faith, rather than starting a new movement.
Another plus is its well-rounded portrayal of Jesus' humanity, at least up until he reveals his plan to convince everyone he is the messiah by faking his own death. It's hard to imagine whether most Christians would find this mentally unstable Jesus more palatable than the one from Last Temptation of Christ. There he is wrestling with the possibility that he might be the Messiah from the start, such that its difficult to ever really like that film's Jesus, even if ultimately the film affirms traditional Christian theology. Here however there's plenty of time to appreciate a Jesus that is devout, dances, smiles, whispers and shouts, but in the end he's not the messiah, just deluded enough to believe he is.
Jesus communicates his message with such diverse styles that it tends to gives the film a surreal and other-worldly feel. At times Jesus chats with his friends, the volume is so low that the audience is straining its ears to catch what he is saying. Shortly after, he is yelling with all his might to a crowd in the open air. This combined with long periods of quiet whilst the camera pans round to capture the mood give the piece a rhythm and mood quite unlike any other Jesus film I can think of. Its good to encounter something new like this: it makes you think in fresh ways about the original source material.
One result of the lingering quiet periods is that the film includes relatively little action. With a running time of over two hours we nevertheless encounter only one miracle - and even then the implication is clearly that it was not actually Jesus' doing - and relatively little teaching. And there lies one of the main problems with the message of Schonfield, director Michael Campus and producer Wolf Schmidt: without the resurrection, Jesus is just a miracle worker and teacher. Without the miracles Jesus is just a teacher. Without much in the way of teaching Jesus is just a nice, but deluded man whose ideals of loving your enemies may well just be a part of his delusion. Telling a story about a sower, and correctly identifying the greatest commandment are hardly the marks of an interesting person, let alone one who was so significant that his followers founded one of the world's great religions.Spoilers ahead
This becomes even stranger when we discover that not only was Jesus crazy enough to try and fake his own death and resurrection, not only was he unable to see that if you have to fake it the chances are that you're not who you think you are, but he ends up dying shortly after the crucifixion anyway. Whilst this might explain some of the resurrection appearances, and Jesus apparently leaving this world after a period of time, it's still unconvincing. Several of the disciples knew what Jesus was doing, the others are unlikely to be convinced that Jesus had in fact entered the life of the world to come whilst he was still looking like he was at death's door. It's interesting that by making Peter a fairly minor character, and bringing to greater prominence those we don't hear of again, such as Bartholomew and Judas, it leaves the door open for the suggestion that Peter genuinely believed it, whilst the disillusioned others left the movement, but Yakov (Jesus' brother James) is pivotal in misguided plot, but still goes on to lead the church in Jerusalem.Spoilers end
So despite a few notable strengths, The Passover Plot
is ultimately a silly and highly implausible piece of filmmaking, which is certainly not dissipated by learning that the actor playing Jesus, Zalman King, would go on to be called "the high priest of erotic filmmaking". Whilst I suspect that overall King's films have little to commend them, I imagine few have quite such a preposterous plot as this one.