• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


    Thursday, April 27, 2006

    Jesus (1999 - mini series)

    The most controversial Jesus film of all time, Martin Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ (1988) opened with the following disclaimer:
    This film is not based upon the Gospels but upon this fictional exploration of the eternal spiritual conflict.
    Whilst this didn't prevent the protests and objections it was no douby intended to, it did create some space for Scorsese to explore aspects of the life of Jesus which the gospels do not.

    In some ways, then, such a disclaimer wouldn't be out of place at the start of this film. Of course this Jesus mini-series (1999)is neither as theologically dubious or offensive to some as Last Temptation, nor quite as dull as that film is in places. That said, it was certainly not made simply to illustrate the gospels, but to get behind the text of the gospels and try to flesh out their central character. (Of course, essentially art should be exploration of its subject matter, and so no bible film should require such a disclaimer, but that's an issue for another day.)

    In order to acheive this Jesus imports a greater proportion of non-biblical episodes into its script than any other Jesus film apart from Last Temptation, and uses the gospel material sparingly. As the film approaches its halfway point, Jesus has only really been baptised, tempted and joined by a few disciples - the events of his birth and childhood are only briefly sketched out in a couple of flashbacks. The second half is not dissimilar. A couple of miracles and a bit of teaching, and the film moves into Holy Week.

    Many considered this to be the film's greatest weakness. I would strongly disagree. In contrast to Last Temptation the extra-biblical material this film offers feels like it could reflect what actually happened in the life of the Jesus we find in the gospels. Of course we are not told when Jesus's father died, or if he struggled to find work, or if he ever loved anyone, nor do they tell us how he reacted when he encountered zealots. But, by and large, all of these are certainly possibilities - many of them probablities extraploated from what we know from other historical sources, or from what he said and did that the gospels have recorded.

    The effect of this is to present a very human Jesus. One of the most powerful scenes in the films comes when Joseph dies, and a cocktail of his grief, aloneness, responsibilities and the cost of him doing God's will cause him to breakdown and weep. This is a Jesus we could relate to, who emptied himself to become fully human.

    The other major way the film uses its extra-biblical material is to sketch something of the historical context that surrounded these events. Of course time, and the demands of populist TV allow only a brief impressionistic sketch, rather than a detailed historical portrait, but compared to the lack of historical context surrounding many popular Jesus films, such as The Passion of the Christ, this is a major asset. Perhaps more than any other film this one demonstrates the politics at play, to which Jesus ultimately fell victim. Pilate, (played by Gary Oldman) is undeniably in charge. Caiaphas is shown early on as an heroic figure, risking his neck (quite literally) to preserve vital Jewish religious privileges. Although he still plays a pivotal role in Jesus's death, his actions seem primarily motivated by his desire to quell a potential uprising that history suggests frequently bubbled beneath the surface. Ultimately, Pilate's cunning manipulates Caiaphas in such a way as to leave the high priest taking the blame, while passing himself of as compassionate. It's possibly the most satisfactory visualisation of the almost noble Pilate presented in the records of Jesus's trial and the brutal scheming butcher that history presents us with.

    But no Jesus film is perfect - in fact they rely on each other to cover their backs so they can explore certain aspects more thoroughly - and this film is no exception. Perhaps this film's main weakness is that it wants us to like its Jesus too much, and doesn't trust itself as much as it should. Hence, the scenes of him playing around with his disciples, which start out as a breath of fresh air, eventually turn into an unwelcome draught. Whilst it does well at establishing a Jesus we can relate to, and banishing the traditional image of a boring and irrelevant Jesus, it fails to clothe him with any authority, or his actions with much significance.

    That said, Jesus remains one of the strongest Jesus films of the last 25 years, and it is pleasing that eventually it has been released on DVD in Britain.

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    • At 1:26 pm, April 27, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said…

      Oh, I completely disagree, Matt. This film is the equivalent of I Was a Teenage Jesus. In the U.S., it's like the WB equivalent of a gospel movie. Flat and utterly laughable in many places.

      Here and there, there is an interesting idea, but beyond that the only thing I think it explores is niche marketing.

    • At 2:56 pm, April 27, 2006, Blogger Matt Page said…

      Hi Anon,

      Thanks for your comment. People do disagree with my tastes sometimes, and hilst on one level I think I'm always right, on another level, I know I'm not, so it's good to hear opposing view points.

      : This film is the equivalent of I Was a Teenage Jesus.
      Funnily enough, that's what the critics called King of Kings (1961), which by today's standards has a fairly average aged, not too exciting Jesus.

      : Here and there, there is an interesting idea,
      Just out of interest, which bits did you find interesting? I though there were a fair few. True some of it was just toning down Last Temptation, but I think this is one of the few films that really looks at him from the point of view of someone you could know. I find it interesting that such a lot of screen time is spent looking at various individuals' personal encounters with Jesus. Most films give us the call of Peter and maybe Matthew or perhaps Mary Magdalene, but this film gives all three of them, plus Thomas, Judas. Off the top of my head I can't think of another film that takes this personal relationship angle further.

      That said, it sounds a bit like that might be what you don't like about it.

      : but beyond that the only thing I think it explores is niche marketing.

      Actually I seem to recall it got quite a big audience when it first aired in the US - but then that's from memory, so I could well be very wrong.

      Anyway, thanks for your comment. It would be good to hear from you in the future.

    • At 7:13 am, April 28, 2006, Blogger Peter T Chattaway said…

      Matt, does the British DVD have the British version of the film, the American version of the film, or some other version of the film?

    • At 3:02 pm, April 28, 2006, Blogger Matt Page said…

      I think it has the International version, but I'll have to check. I discuss the two version a bit in the post above though.



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