• 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


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    Friday, April 01, 2016

    Killing Jesus (2015)

    Killing Jesus (2015), based on Bill O'Reilly's 2013 book of the same name has the veneer of being history, but very little of the substance. At a glance the veneer is fairly convincing. Jesus (Haaz Sleiman) is of Middle-Eastern descent - Lebanese to be precise, and likes to embellish various historic-sounding details, like giving Joanna the wife of Chuza a far greater role than in any Jesus film before it, but strip away the veneer and below it's chipboard. There are chunks of real wood in it, sure, but it's not the solid history that we were promised in the trailer.

    Which isn't to say the piece is something to be overlooked. For one thing it's usually fairly nice to look at, Sleiman and various others' fake-looking beards aside. The film's $12 million is largely up on the screen with expensive filters, costumes and sets lending the production an air of authenticity. And Sleiman's performance is fairly solid whilst also being fairly different from the majority of performances in the role. I'm not sure I necessarily warmed to this Jesus, but I think that says more about me and my phony expectations than it does about the film.

    There are a couple of good scenes as well. In one, early in the film, we witness Jesus and his family eating together. Whilst the script doesn't insist that these are Jesus' biological sisters and brothers, it certainly has the feel of a close knit family, who are accepting of one another even if they have some concerns over the path Jesus is taking. In another Jesus holds firm to a boy who is said to be demon-possessed but seems, to our modern eyes, to be suffering from an epileptic attack. The people fear the boy is killed but Jesus remains steadfast and the boy is restored. It's a nicely open-ended portrayal which puts the emphasis on Jesus' love, patience, faith and forebearance, even as it refuses to force a particular view as to what actually happened.

    However, the films problems stem from the heightened expectations of a more authentic version of the story which the filmmakers have been keen to encourage. At the heart of the story is a power play between five men - Jesus, Caiaphas (Rufus Sewell, also with beard troubles), Herod Antipas, Pontius Pilate and Judas - but the film gets the power dynamics all wrong. Historically speaking Pilate held all the cards. His position was difficult, certainly. The numbers were not in his favour and so he had to rely to fear of reprisals to keep the people in check. But the few bits of history we do have about Pilate suggest that, if anything, he was over capable in this area Luke 13:1 tells us about certain "Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices". Similarly, Josephus tells us that eventually the governor was recalled to Rome for the severity with which he dealt with some Samaritans. A man too harsh for the Romans is a harsh man indeed.

    Instead we're treated to the same weak, vacillating, ponderous Pilate so familiar in the Jesus film genre and so unlikely from an historical angle. And again we're treated to a scheming stereotype-laden Caiaphas who pulls all the strings and strives to get Jesus killed off even if he gets a speech here and there where he tries to convince us he's doing all for the people. In contrast Herod Antipas, historically speaking a nasty piece of work if ever there was one, not only needs his arm twisting by his wife and her sexually-precocious daughter, but also needs Pilate to tell him to kill John as well. Then there's the moment when Judas chucks away his 30 pieces of silver, not in a grand gesture of repentance, but to buy a bit of rope to hang himself on.

    These faults aren't unique to Killing Jesus of course, they are far too common to Jesus films, but this films promoted itself on the basis of being more historical to them. Yet it's put to shame, historically speaking, by the BBC's handling of the power dynamics between Pilate, Caiaphas and Jesus in The Passion (2008).

    Then there's also the screenplays strangely literal accommodation of the contrasts between the canonical gospels. Jesus prophesies th fall of the temple twice: once at the start of his ministry in words (Mark's words but John's location) and once during the week before his death (Synoptics). Similarly Peter benefits from two miraculous catches of fish, one at the start of his time with Jesus (Luke 5) and one afterwards (as per John 21).

    It's that second depiction on which so much hangs, because rather than this following the suggestion from a mysterious man on the beach to cast his nets out Peter is shown to be all alone, praying in the heat of the day. Peter looks skyward, slightly surprised, and seems to take this of proof as a miracle. Presumably we're supposed to see as convincing him of the resurrection because we never see the resurrected Jesus, but the music and imagery is upbeat as if we have.

    The only other post burial scene we see if of a group of men and women discovering an empty tomb. And here there is a similarly unsatisfactory compromise between the gospel accounts. The women (and men) don't flee in fear of the empty tomb (as per Mark), nor do they get the reassuring explanation from an angel (Matthew) a dazzlingly attired man (Mark) or two (Luke) or Jesus himself (John). Yet suddenly everything makes sense and it's all smiles.

    The problem is that this more "sceptical" ending is that it fails to give any reason why these people interpreted an empty tomb and a luckily located shoal of fish as proof of Jesus' resurrection. And this absence is highlighted all the more powerfully by the voice-over which concludes the film by telling the audience about the traditions surrounding the deaths of the disciples. Peter's upside-down crucifixion is referred to, but it's hard to believe that but for a second decent-sized catch of fish he would have remained the petrified sceptic of the High-Priest's courtyard.

    From another angle, however, this all just seems like excessive literalism. Even some relatively conservative believers will concede that perhaps John moved this story to the end of his gospel due to its metaphorical power. To depict it as a literal event that happened in reality, but which Peter profoundly misattributed is a severe failure to understand the genre. Likewise whilst the empty tomb was unexpected it seems unlikely that all of those present would simultaneously jump to the same conclusion, particularly as Jesus had not really predicted his resurrection in a great deal of detail.

    Such an ending, then, falls between two stools. It's not nearly sceptical enough for the sceptic, nor is it devout enough for the faithful. It's neither bold enough to form a solid proposal of what really happened that day, nor is it trusting enough to depicit the events as they are described. And no amount of cinematic polish is going to restore its credibility.



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