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    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.

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    Wednesday, October 06, 2010

    Visual Bible's Matthew:Ch.26-27

    For obvious reasons the depiction of these scenes is always particularly critical to the artistic success of a Jesus movie, and as a result it's more widely discusses by Jesus film scholars than most parts of Jesus' life. So I've got significantly more thoughts on these two chapters of this film than normal which is partly why the write up of these two chapters has come so far after the preceding 25 chapters.

    Whilst the coupling of these two chapters is my own analytical device, it nevertheless highlights an odd pairing in the film: Jesus in his underwear. Obviously Jesus will end these two chapters wearing only a probably anachronistic loincloth, but interestingly he starts chapter 26 washing himself also in his loincloth.

    One of the more unfortunate aspects of this portrayal is its failure to distinguish between the different types of Jewish groups we come across in the text. In an earlier post I mentioned their similar style of dress, and also the presence of one particularly notable Pharisee, who was put out by Jesus even more than his colleagues. Now however whereas Matthew doesn't mention the Pharisees in these two crucial chapters until after Jesus is dead, the film shows this particular Pharisee to be a close confidant of the Chief Priest Caiaphas. In fact, for a while I thought he was Caiaphas. Such blurring of the distinctions between the differing sects in Judaism of the period is a little unhelpful, bunching together all the Jews into one group.

    Sometimes, this film fails to act out on screen the words that we hear from the narrator. Here for example (26:7, Jesus' anointing at Bethany) we're told that Jesus is "reclining at the table" but the pictures show him sitting upright. As with Pasolini's take on Matthew it is Judas who objects to the waste of perfume. The text of Matthew merely assigns this to the disciples. It is only in John's Gospel where Judas is named as the offender.

    It does however lead nicely on to Judas' betrayal. The scene closes with a long shot of the 30 silver coins being counted out one by one. This stresses Judas' greed in contrast to an earlier moment whereby Judas' objections seem to be less driven by avarice.

    We come then to the Last Supper. Jesus' identification of the one who has betrayed him ("Yes it is you") is made all the more explicit by Jesus embracing him for a long time after Judas asks "Surely not I Rabbi?". I can see the point that the filmmakers were trying to make, but it comes across as trying a bit too hard.

    In a similar fashion Jesus' impassioned crying in Gethsemane is not very convincing. It's surprisingly overdone given some of the better acting which we've witnessed in the immediately preceding chapters. There's also an unusual moment when, as the soldiers come to arrest him, Jesus hands a woman his coat. It seems to be Roman soldiers who are sent to arresting Jesus, even though Matthew simply calls them "a crowd".

    We get to the trial and it finally becomes clear who Caiaphas is, it's not the leading Pharisee of earlier chapters, though he is still present, but another actor. I use the word trial because the scene seems rather different in tone to the hearings before the Sanhedrin in other Jesus films: there's much more of a mob mentality. This reflects the way the text ends this passage with those present striking, slapping and mocking Jesus, but it starts a little earlier on. When Jesus answers "Yes it is as you say" the mob tries to grab Jesus, but the execution of this scene makes it seem a bit feeble. Ultimately they gather around him to hit and spit on Jesus, but again it's very unconvincing. Then suddenly we see part of Jesus' beard getting pulled out. This visual element references Isaiah 50:6 ("I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting.") which many, including the filmmakers apparently, consider to be a prophesy that is fulfilled in the events Matthew describes here.

    Whilst this is going on, Peter is denying ever knowing Jesus. It's far and away the best scene by Gerrit Schoonhoven playing Peter, and quite powerful. As he gives his oath he kisses his hand. I'd be interested to know if this has any historical basis as it's not something I've encountered before.

    The most controversial moment in Matthew's Gospel, at least with regards to the question of anti-Semitism, is the trial before Pilate. The way the scene is handled in this respect is interesting. The trial takes place before a very large crowd (larger than the number shown during the feeding of the 5000 in fact) which tends to give the impression that this is a fairly representative sample of the population of Jerusalem at the time. I don't think that's the impression one gets from reading Mark in isolation, but the anti-Jewish rhetoric is greater in Matthew, and so it could be argued that this is in keeping with the text, even if personally I would have preferred a smaller crowd.

    These problems are compounded by the poor handling of two other issues. Firstly, Pilate is portrayed very nobly. He's certainly not the vicious butcher of Luke 13:1, Philo and Josephus. The second is the line from Matt 27:25 when 'All the people answered, "Let his blood be on us and on our children!"' (a line which is worsened by the NIV's unnecessary use of an exclamation mark). This has been the principle verse used to justify persecuting Jewish people for being "Christ Killers". As a result many Jesus films omit it. Some may remember that Mel Gibson conceded to leaving it out of the subtitles although the words were still shouted by the crowd, just not in English.

    This production rather has its hands tied in this respect. Having decided to produce a word for word adaptation, regrettably the verse had to be included, but perhaps to mitigate its unpleasant history the filmmakers have it shouted out by just one woman, in spite of the wording of the text.

    In contrast, Jesus is then led away to be mocked by "the whole company of soldiers", but this is acted out by only a handful of soldiers, certainly not the whole company that would have been present during the troublesome Passover celebration. The soundtrack at this point takes a turn for the worst, opting for a synthesizer, which already appears very dated. Perhaps it's a nod to Jesus of Montreal, but I suspect not.

    And so we come to the crucifixion. What's striking about this film is that, in comparison to other Jesus films, it highlights how briefly the text talks about this story. Because of its perceived theological importance the crucifixion is often given far greater attention relative to it's actual length in the text. In the end it's just 25 verses out of 28 chapters. For Matthew, at least, Jesus' death is only a small part of the whole story. It's interesting, for example, that this is one of the few places where Matthew doesn't insert a prophecy from the Old Testament into Mark's account. When Jesus is finally crucified there are only 7 brief close-ups and two long distance shots. I've not yet read the section in Marchiano's book where he describes the filming of this scene, but it doesn't appear he will have suffered to the same degree that James Caviezel did in The Passion of the Christ.

    There are however a few interesting moments here. Firstly there's a shot taken along the ground as Jesus is having his hand nailed to the cross which is almost identical to one that appeared later in The Passion of the Christ. I've included them both below for comparison.

    Secondly, the apostle John is present at the crucifixion. Again this is something that we only find in John's Gospel, although it's interesting that Pasolini also placed John at the crucifixion in Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo. Likewise John is also comforting Jesus' mother. Interestingly we are never shown where John and Mary are standing in relation to Jesus. In John's Gospel they stand "near the cross", but in Matthew they are "watching from a distance". By not showing their relative positions, the filmmakers leave it open to the viewer to interpret the images.

    After Jesus dies we cut to the narrator explaining the tearing of the curtain and the events that follows. Whilst the text of Matthew does not quote from the prophets directly, he does add a description of "the bodies of many holy people" rising to life. My personal hunch is that this is a metaphor rather than a literal event, note for example the awkward way Matthew expresses the timing of the event. The film gives some credence to this theory. Instead of literally depicting these events, the narrator is shown describing them in a very exaggerated way.

    Lastly we end the chapter with the chief priests and Pharisees requesting a guard for the tomb. This incident is seldom included in Jesus films so it's nice to see it included. No prizes for guessing which character leads the delegation asking for the increased security.

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