• 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


    Saturday, April 21, 2012

    A Bit More on The Miracle Maker

    I've written about The Miracle Maker many times before, most commonly around Easter when I find myself watching it perhaps with my children, or perhaps just with others. This year we sat down to watch it as a family and I had a number of new thoughts about it that I hadn't really considered before. One of the things that demonstrates the film's quality is that despite multiple viewings over the years I still find myself noticing new things about it each time.

    Some of the things I found most striking this time around occurred in the opening minutes. In fact the first is the first thing we see as the film starts - the story is dated as "Year 90 of the Roman occupation". The significance of this is that it places the film right away not in our own time frame - viewers of the film unaware that Jesus' ministry was around 30 AD will be none the wiser - but in terms that would have been very resonant in Jesus' day. Straight away it tells us that this is the story about a man, and a people, living under occupation and subjugation. Not just from their own lifetimes but from that of their grandparents and great-grandparents. And the hopes for a messiah are nudged a little into the limelight.

    Our first real glimpse of Jesus is as his overseer is about to strike Mary Magdalene. Jesus steps in, parries the man's blow and saves Mary from being struck. This is a deft combination of two leading aspects of Jesus that the film is keen to emphasise: his strength and his compassion.

    Having begun his ministry Jesus heads to the Jordan to be baptised. But rather than be baptised by John, Jesus crouches down and baptises himself. The early church is often accused of being rather embarrassed by Jesus' baptism by John. In Mark's Gospel it's a straightforward case of John baptising Jesus. Matthew has John question Jesus' request: surely this is inconceivable. By the time the fourth gospel is written Jesus is no longer baptised by John. Whether or not it's accurate to describe this as the early church being embarrassed by the incident, it's interesting that the film portrays things as somewhere between Matthew's version and John's. Jesus still gets baptised, but it's not John who does it.

    Having returned from his post-baptism temptation in the desert Jesus comes out and meets up with his old friend Lazarus. Like much of the early part of this film this is dramatic fiction. What's interesting, though is that Lazarus seems to be attempting to tempt Jesus as well. His words are not suggestions of inappropriate miracles, or self-gotten gains, but simply to turn his back on his ministry and return to normal life. It's intriguing because temptation is often far more like that than the kind Jesus undergoes in the desert. Lazarus is Jesus' friend and doesn't realise what he is doing. The temptation is subtle, but then it so often is. 

    The climax of the first half of John's Gospel (and of the first half of many a Jesus film) is the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Whilst this story is included, the climax of the first part of the film is another of the occasions when Jesus raises someone back to life - the daughter of Jairus. The switch fits neatly with the films desire to appeal to children, but it also fits its desire to be more inclusive to women. Not only is Tamar female, but also the woman who is healed in the interlocking episode. It's also the moment when Jairus, his wife and Tamar decide to follow Jesus, which I suppose raises the question for children of whether they will follow Jesus, something backed up in the film's closing scene.

    The lighting in this scene (pictured above) is really striking. I don't know a great deal about classic art, but it feels a bit like Caravaggio, though that probably exposes how little I know about that period/movement. That said it might also have been inspired by 19th century painting such as those by Carl Bloch, Gabriel Max and the Russian artist Ilya Repin. Given that the 3D scenes were created by the Russian teams of animators the latter might makes a good deal of sense. In any case it's beautifully lit and captures a certain painterly quality.

    The raising of Jairus's daughter is Jesus' greatest triumph, but he comes down with a bump. The scene that immediately follows depicts Jesus hearing about the death of his cousin John the Baptist. Aside from the personal grief Jesus experiences, it's a painful reminder of what is to come for Jesus and in a sense it marks the start of the second half of the film, foreshadowing that which is to come. The first part has been about miracles, strength and compassion all three of which find their expression in raising Tamar to life. The second part will focus on Jesus' death.

    Given that this film was made to appeal to children, it obviously had to include Jesus saying "unless you become like a child you will not enter the kingdom of God". Here the film includes the full incident which begins with the disciples arguing about who is the greatest (Mark 9:33-37, though whereas Mark places the story in a house in Capernaum, the film locates it by a camp-fire on the road). Indeed, the argument amongst the disciples flares up whilst Jesus is picking up firewood. This accentuates one of the other key themes of the film, and particularly the second half: Jesus as a servant. It also echoes the incident from John's Gospel where Jesus washes the disciples' feet. In both cases the disciples are arguing over who is the greatest (John 13 c.f. with Luke 22) and in both cases Jesus responds in the opposite spirit by doing the work of a servant.

    The servant theme finds its fullest expression in Jesus' death as the suffering servant of Isaiah 40-55. One key hint to this is when Jesus appears before Herod and the film shows the tetrarch pull Jesus' beard. The man of strength and compassion, is now in need of someone to step in and defend him as he defended Mary Magdalene earlier in the film.



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