• 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, June 15, 2013

    The Bible (2013) - Part 7

    I've been slowly posting a few bits and pieces on The History Channel's The Bible as I work my way through the blurays and I thought as this was the episode based on Jesus' ministry it was the one perhaps most requiring a scene guide, as this will hopefully prove useful for others searching for a particular part of this portrayal, or an illustration for a particular part of scripture. (If you're in the later camp and you've not seen my 30 film scene guide you should probably download it). As much as possible I try and follow the same convention in each of these. EBE stands for extra-biblical episode.
    Parable of the Mustard Seed (Mark 4:30-32)
    Healing the paralytic (Mark 2:1-12)
    Healing a leper (Mark 1:40-45)
    EBE - Pilate arrives in Jerusalem
    Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14)
    Not for the righteous but sinners (Mark 2:16-17)
    Beatitudes (Matt 5:3-8)
    Lord's Prayer (Matt 6:9-14)
    Women caught in adultery (John 8:2-11)
    Plot against Jesus (Matt 12:14)
    EBE - Nicodemus plans to check Jesus (John 1:46 cited)
    Feeding of the 5000 (John 6:1-15)
    Various sayings of Jesus:
    Are not two sparrows (Matt 6:26)
    Seek ye first (Matt 6:33)
    Hunger for righteousness (Matt 5:10)
    Ask and it will be given (Luke 11:9-10)
    EBE - Nicodemus and Caiaphas discuss Jesus.
    Who do you say I am? (Matt 16:13-18)
    Walking on Water (Matt 14:22-33)
    Jesus reads from Isaiah (Luke 4:16-23)
    Rejected at Nazareth (Luke 4:24-30)
    John the Baptist more than a prophet. (Matt 11:7-11)
    EBE Pilate aqueduct.
    Raising of Lazarus (John 11:17-44)
    Plot against Jesus (John 11:45-58)
    A Few Notes
    The feeding of the 5000 incident is one of the few films that actually includes the ending in John where the people try and make him king. It's obviously in The Gospel of John, but few films include this detail, which is absent from the three synoptic accounts of the story. Incidentally, this story has been traditionally been described as a miracle, though various scholars have suggested that what really happened was that by highlighting the selflessness of the boy in offering his food everyone else was inspired to produce theirs. I always used to think this was a cop out, until more recently someone pointed out that it was was statistically improbable that out of 5000 men (and women, girls and boys) that only one of them thought to bring any food. Perhaps it was a bit of both. This film suggests the miraculous was involved, but it did send me back to the texts briefly, none of which explicitly state it was a miracle, though John does call it a "sign". It's still the implication of the text, but certainly the suggestion that at least some sharing went on could not be considered contrary to what is actually said.

    This has doubtless been pointed out by numerous other writers elsewhere, but the film uses Pier Paolo Pasolini's method of displaying the Sermon on the Mount as taking place in a number of different locations on various different occasions. There's far less Sermon on the Mount here than there is in Il vangelo secondo Matteo so it feels like the filmmakers are particularly trying to make the point that Jesus used these words more than once. The staging is also more dynamic, and I do rather like it.

    It's interesting to see that fairly early on in this episode (and therefore, at least by implication, Jesus' ministry) that Peter (or is it one of the others?) is speaking words the gospels attribute to Jesus. Speaking to an outraged Judas and Thomas (echoing the complaints of the one rather one-dimensional Pharisee who acts as the voice for the various Pharisaical complaints from the gospels) after Jesus has called Matthew Peter says "He has not come for the righteous but the sinners" (not a direct quotation). Jesus is absent. This throws up at least two interpretations. I suspect that this is the filmmakers, like Rossellini before them, showing Jesus' disciples learning his words and passing them on. But it could be taken as suggesting that some words that the gospel writers place on the lips of Jesus actually originated from Peter and other members of the early church.

    The portrayal of Peter himself is certainly worthy of note. Peter Chattaway has made the point that only "one or two films...[have allowed].. the Peter who followed Christ around Galilee and the Peter who led the early church in Jerusalem to be played by the same actor". Furthermore, those films that do span both periods do so only partially. So in some Peter's elevation to the leader of the disciples at the start of acts forms a triumphal climax to the story of a blockhead come good, or in others his denial of Jesus forms a backdrop to how his life was difficult but incredible from there on in. No other film, that I can recall off the top of my head, portrays Peter from more or less the start of the gospels through to the point in Acts where he moves out of focus. The only two exceptions I can think of are The Living Bible series and The Visual Bible's Matthew and Acts, but the Jesus/Acts sections are actually different productions, and significantly whilst they use the same actor to portray Jesus in both parts, both change the actor who plays Peter. The Living Bible never really provides any depth, so it would hardly have made a great deal of difference, but the Visual Bible (despite being a word-for-word portrayal) adds a lot of interpretation, and that production's portrayal of the Peter of the gospels really captures the fallible Peter we see particularly in Mark. It's no surprise, then, that when they came to chose an actor for the heroic Peter of Acts they opted for someone else.

    All of which is a long rambling way of saying that this is the first film to use the same actor to play Peter across all the parts of his story in the Bible. Sadly, though, The Bible blows it and takes the easy way out. This production's Peter is almost unrecognisable from the gospel of Mark. As noted above, right from the start he has grasped and is understanding Jesus' teaching. But also, most of Peter's foolish actions and poorly thought-through words from the text have been expunged. The impression of Peter I get from Mark is that of a loud-mouth who uses a loud and confident persona to mask an insecurity on the inside. Jesus' recognition of his potential, and his transformation of the flaws in Peter's character are a compelling and interesting story, so it's disappointing to see the way the film takes the easy way out and has Peter as pretty much sorted from the outset. I suspect he will still deny Jesus - everyone's allowed one mistake, right? - but he's not as yet said anything stupid, whereas Peter's positive moments have survived. It's still he who declares Jesus is the Messiah in Matthew 16, for example.

    Most striking in this regard is the incident where Jesus walks on water. Here Peter doesn't ask the flesh and blood Jesus before him if he can join him on the water, he hears Jesus' disembodied voice in his head invite him out. In fact even before this, when the others have asked what they are doing on the water in such a storm, Peter says words to theeffect of "he wants us to trust him". And crucially when his faith falters (perhaps because of the disciples cries of "What are you doing") he doesn't begin to sink a little before feebly asking for Jesus to lend him a hand, he sinks, deep like a stone. In fact we never see Jesus rebuke him for his failure here. Peter seems to lose consciousness, and he hears only Jesus' disembodied voice rebuke him. This serves both to cast Peter and Jesus in a better light.

    To finish, a couple of other things that caught my eye. Firstly no Jesus film would be complete without him getting to play the hero and save the Johannine damsel in distress (John 8). But here, it's interesting that the adulteress in question appears to have a son. This is a fascinating decision: most films portray the woman as a prostitute rather than a mother. Their portrayal of the moment focuses on Jesus, or the woman, or occasionally the baying mob, but none has, to my mind suggested that there were others who would not want the women to be killed. Including the child in the scene brings the barbarity of the practice into clearer focus, and makes Jesus posing as if he is about to throw the stone more striking.

    Lastly, it was interesting to see Caiaphas carried around in a similar fashion to Pilate (or his wife) or Herod from other Jesus films, or various royal persons from other sword and sandal epics. This is a stroke of genius, conveying in an instant how Caiaphas is set apart from the majority of the Jews at the time. He is of a royal and priestly class, very much part of the rich, ruling elite. Caiaphas is a man who is carried around and this contrasts strongly with Jesus, who will shortly be carrying out his priestly duties in an utterly opposite manner. A moment of brilliance.

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