• 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


    Monday, March 12, 2018

    A.D. (2015) - Part 8

    This is part 8 of a series of posts covering A.D. episode by episode & are initial impressions not a review. You can read them all here

    Having spun out episode 7 with it's implausible Tiberius subplot, we finally come to Saul's conversion on the road to Damascus. It's one of those scenes such as the parting of the Red Sea, the defeat of Goliath and the raising of Lazarus that form a kind of set-piece in terms of portrayals of their particular character and a central moment in the films that portray them. So it's surprising, then that it arrives so early in the episode.

    As depictions of Paul's Damascene conversion go, I'm not sure how I feel about it. As with these others there's a sort of mental checklist. For Paul's conversion this is made slightly more interesting because there are three accounts of Paul's conversion (Acts 9:1-19; Acts 22:6-16 & Acts 26:12-20) which differ on some of the minor details, notably the precise words spoken and what those travelling with Saul do or do not, see and hear. The Acts 26 account also omits some details (no mention of the blindness, nor of Ananias) but without contradicting them.

    In this version Paul is on foot, though in the previous scene one of Caiaphas's men rides up on a horse but dismounts to join them. The scene starts with the servant asking Saul as to why he hates Peter so much and Saul gives a curious answer about how he find their beliefs ridiculous, though he does eventually manage to call them apostates as well. In his fury Paul marches off, but is suddenly enveloped in shadow before a bright light shines on him and Jesus appears and asks "Saul, Saul why do you persecute me?". Interestingly Saul is not thrown to the floor at this stage, but angrily holds his ground to ask "Who are you?", and he even aggressively marches towards Jesus when he replies "I am Jesus whom you persecute". Saul's line here - "No, no, no, no, no, No, NO, NOOOO!" - combines the worst elements of Vader's revelation in the Empire Strikes Back and Lockwood's ad-libbed dialogue in Singin' in the Rain, and is met by Jesus raising his arms and Saul being forced backwards and to the ground. At this moment the film cuts to Saul's companions and shows the shot from their point of view. In contrast to all three biblical accounts they are not affected in any way. They neither see the light nor hear Jesus' voice, nor are they thrown to the ground, they are not even in shadow though they are being buffeted by the wind. The camera then moves back to a close up of Saul, featuring the more dramatic lighting. Saul shouts "What do you want from me?" three times, with increasing volume, before Jesus finally says "Go into Damascus. You'll be told what to do." With that there's a burst of even brighter light and a sort of visible energy wave/pulse and Jesus vanishes, leaving Saul with his hands on his eyes. There's then an excellent PoV shot of Saul's vision fading out to black, which seems like an interesting reversal of the famous first shot of Jesus in The King of Kings from the PoV of a blind girl Jesus restores her sight. Now Saul's first sight of Jesus is the cause of him losing his sight.

    Apologies if that is a very long, dull, account of the scene, but I do love to compare these set pieces.

    If the last two episodes of A.D. have been relatively free of the dodgy special effects tha have plagued this series, then this episode seems determined to make up for them. On top of those described, in perhaps a little too much detail above, we also have the conclusion to the Simon Magus episode. One of the down sides of covering this series one episode at a time is that sometimes you write about something before seeing how it will pan out and here is a good case. Having liked the way the last episode seemed to end this part of the story with Philip seemingly wrapping things up without too much ado, in this episode everything goes full blown. Peter and John do turn up, Simon does make a grab for more of the Holy Spirit's power and it all ends in completely over the top fashion. Whereas the biblical account has Simon repenting when he hear's Peter's curse, here God goes all Old Testament on him. The clouds go dark, the wind blows and he starts bleeding from his eyes. Peter yells out asking God to "let him live" and the wind and eye-bleeding abates, but it's all a bit silly.

    Having witnessed this gratuitous use of special effects here, it's rather disappointing that, when it comes to Saul's sight being restored by Ananias the CGI is rather low key. Yes Ananias does see Jesus in a special bright light, but when he puts his hands on Saul's eyes there's not a falling fish scale to be seen.

    In and around all of this there is the backstory of Tiberius' visit to Jerusalem and using Pilate to try and keep Caligula and Agrippa apart. Certainly there's some historical basis for Tiberius' attitude to Agrippa changing. Having held him with some affection at one stage, even getting him to educate his grandchildren, Tiberius ended up imprisoning Agrippa when he was overhead wishing for the emperors death so his friend, Caligula, could become emperor. But I'm not aware of Pilate having any involvement in the affair or even any dealings with Caligula. Here, however, he tries to separate them as Tiberius' bidding and Caligula makes it clear that once Tiberius is gone, Pilate will not be viewed favourably. According to Josephus Pilate was deposed (by Vitellius) and it was around the time of Tiberius' death, but Josephus seems to suggest that Tiberius died whilst Pilate was en route not beforehand.

    Here however Pilate's efforts at keeping Caligula and Agrippa apart is not only not particularly effective, it also backfires by making Caligula so furious with Pilate that he threatens him about what will happen when Tiberius dies. Nevertheless, Tiberius gives Pilate a promotion and he and his wife prepare to return to Rome. Pilate's wife, Claudia, then dreams that Caligula will murder Tiberius, and next we know Caligula returns with news of Tiberius' death. Unsurprisingly he also informs Pilate that the promotion Tiberius offer has been rescinded. It's not quite the way Josephus tells it. According to him, Pilate massacred a bunch of Samaritan pilgrims , an incident which does seem to have been covered by A.D. despite all the stuff it find time to make up. This is a real shame, as it provides such vital context when looking at the gospels' portrayal of Pilate's role in Jesus' execution.

    Speaking of context, it's nice to see Joanna the wife of Chuza not only being depicted but actually getting a proper speaking role. She's mentioned twice in Luke's Gospel both times next to Mary Magdalene. In 8:3 she's listed as one of the women that Jesus has healed and who is now supporting him financially. But more significantly she is mentioned in 24:9-11 as one of the witnesses to the angelic appearance at the empty tomb.  Peter Chattaway has more on her role and of the fact that after years of neglect she finally got a speaking role in two different films on more or less the same day - the other being Killing Jesus (2015).

    Here we're introduced to her being reunited with Mary Magdalene and Joanna refers to the way "Jesus cured us" but then says that she "had heard Jesus was dead" - which overlooks that second appearance in Luke 24. We also meet Chuza who is concerned that his wife has come under "bad" influences recently. Almost immediately Joanna is then subjected to a sexual assault at the hands of Herod Agrippa (almost anticipating the #MeToo movement) only to be saved by Agrippa's sister Herodias, who is the wife of Herod Antipas. According to A.D. not only is Chuza head of Antipas' household, but Joanna works for Herodias directly as well.

    Incidentally, in researching this piece I cam across an extended feature on Chipo Chung, the actress who plays Mary Magdalene, in The Independent. I also came across this useful account of episode 7 from Cornerstone Brethern Church which features a useful family tree of the Herods. They have also covered some of the other episodes in the series.

    That was far more than I intended to write on this episode, but I suppose it was the one I have been waiting for from the start and the tie in with Roman history and a minor but pivotal character getting (almost) her first speaking role proved too much to resist.

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