• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as current film releases with spiritual significance, and a few bits and pieces on the Bible.

    Monday, September 20, 2010

    Visual Bible's Matthew:Ch.14-15

    (From a series of posts working through the Visual Bible's Matthew).
    The second half of Matthew's Gospel picks up on the story of John the Baptist. The daughter of Herodias performs a particularly unsexy dance (only Ray's King of Kings manages to find any hint of eroticism in this moment as far as I recall) and soon enough John's head is served up on a platter. This is depicted (as above) fairly gruesomely, which I think is actually to the filmmakers credit. It's a shocking act, yet often it's under emphasised. And thankfully it went, um, over my kids heads. (Daddy hadn't expected it to be so graphically depicted). The film takes its time to show the impact this event had on Jesus. Marchiano does some great work here. Denied any words to express his grief, he manages to convey it all with his body without falling prey to hamming it up.

    The South African influence on the production comes to the fore in these two chapters as well. Herodias's daughter asks for the "hid of John the Biptist on a Plitter", and a couple of the disciples deliver their lines with a similar inflexion, most notably Simon Peter. This is a relatively strange experience. As with English accents, South African accents only seem to surface in most films if someone is a baddie (with the possible example of Patsy Kensit in Lethal Weapon 2, and hers is put on). Here they are both the baddies (as with Salome), but also the goodies. It's nice to see a bit of balance, even if it takes a bit of getting used to. Chief amongst the South African actors is Simon Peter. Unfortunately his performance throughout the film, and particularly in these two chapters, is very poor and the accent only seems to highlight the fact. To make matters worse, Peter is often given the generic lines which the text records only as being spoken by "the disciples".

    Next up is the feeding of the 5000 which seems to mirror the crowds gathering to listen to the Sermon on the Mount in the first half of the gospel. Twice the passage demonstrates some of the difficulties in reproducing an 'action' section of the text word for word. A disciple, bringing a basket containing the loaves and fish has to bump Jesus with it to get his attention (which I can't help feeling could have been avoided) and then when the gospel says "he directed the people to sit down" he has to rely solely on gestures whereas in reality you would expect at least some words to be used even if they were inaudible.

    I don't have much to say about the walking on water scene. The effects are reasonably good for a low budget movie, but Simon Peter's acting somewhat spoils things.

    Chapter 15 starts with debate about what is clean and unclean with Jesus and the disciples working in the field. Jesus is stripped to the waist, which is a bold and unusual move. It works well, emphasising the humanity of Jesus in a usually unexplored fashion. It mirrors the opening of Last Temptation I suppose, but it's somewhat more striking here, perhaps because this is a more conventional Jesus, but perhaps because Jesus is outside. Of course nearly all Jesus films end up with a largely naked Jesus, but then it is, once again, within traditional parameters, and emphasises his status as a victim. Here it is presenting Jesus as normal in a way which is somehow vaguely shocking. It even stood out to my 4 year old. "Why does Jesus not have any clothes on Daddy?"

    We then get one of the more difficult incidents in the gospel - the request of the Canaanite woman. I've used this clip before for something but I'm not quite sure for what. The significance is that whilst the woman still cannot quite see him, Jesus indicates to one of the disciples (and therefore us) that what he is saying is not quite for real. Several commentators suggest at this point that Jesus is being ironic or questioning the perceive opinion in some way, so this seems to be the interpretation that is driving this portrayal. Personally it seems a weak theory, although the portrayal itself is quite strong. Marchiano makes the point well, but the actress playing the woman delivers a very moving performance in just a few lines. It's perhaps the most moving part of the film so far, which just goes to show how much of a difference good acting can make even in a low budget film.

    The section ends with the feeding of the 4000. I don't really have any particular comments on how the filmmakers portray this, other than that it stresses my confusion as to why this story is included given that Jesus has just feed an even greater number. Even if the ordering were reversed it would make some sense (with the greater miracle following the lesser giving a sense of Jesus' ministry getting more significant). It's there in Mark as well. If this were the Pentateuch then I'd be tempted to suggest it's just different versions of the same story coming through in different ones of Mark's sources. But given John's (admittedly later) boast about the wealth of Jesus material, and Mark's desire to tell the story quickly, even if there were two different events this second one seems somewhat surplus to requirements. Does anyone have any ideas on this?

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    • At 8:42 pm, September 21, 2010, Blogger Kevin C. Neece said…

      I'm going to be puzzling over the question of sexy Salome dances for a while. I've never found this section of any Jesus film very compelling, as I recall. This one is particularly dull. But in what films does it attempt to be truly erotic?

      "Marchiano...manages to convey it all with his body without falling prey to hamming it up." This is one of the times where wise use of space and nonverbal communication contributes positively to this film. This is some of my favourite stuff from Bruce. His capacity for subtlety and honesty as an actor is impressive and, I think, rare among film Jesuses.

      As a dumb American, I'm none too good at spotting a South African accent, so it didn't take any getting used to for me. I just hear interesting voices. As to Brits largely being villains, I highly disagree. Villains may be largely Brits, but not the other way around, I think.

      The gesturing is a bit silly. It's just one of the things that keeps reminding you throughout the film of the problems created by the strictures put on the film in the area of dialogue. It remains, for me, a nuisance throughout the picture.

      Peter's worse (as is everything) in "The Revolutionary". Interestingly, the scene is accomplished technically in almost exactly the same manner in both films, though "Matthew" is better at it. This didn't stop the makers of "The Revolutionary' from claiming on the original video box that they were the first to depict Jesus walking on the water. Nevermind that bit in "Il Vangelo" thirty years prior, or that Meles clip 100 years prior!

      Hadn't thought about this film's half-naked Jesus (who shows up more than once) as a similarity with "Last Temptation." Good observation, there.

      The Canaanite woman scene deals with the troublesome nature of the passage better than I've seen depicted elsewhere (in sermons or anything else) but I agree that it makes little sense. I think the idea that Jesus learns something here - that his Father teaches him through this woman - is a powerful and beautiful notion that altogether scandalizes most Christians. It's a shame, too. A bit of a missed opportunity here as this is one of the few cinematic depictions of this moment and Bruce would have handled it admirably (as he does this version nonetheless).

      Perhaps the feeding of the 4000 took place after the feeding of the 5000 and the 5000 is first because of its significance as the first time Jesus did this kind of miracle. The Gospels don't necessarily record miracles in order from least to most spectacular anyway. Jesus still heals in person, even after healing the Centurion's slave by remote. He exhibits power over bread and fish after exhibiting power over the far more indomitable wind and waves. Perhaps, like other apparent "flaws" in the Gospel narratives, this goes to show that these events were written down honestly as they happened, more than in ways that made for the most compelling or logical narrative choices.


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