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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.

    Matt Page


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    Sunday, June 17, 2018

    St. John in Exile (1986)

    Somewhere between about ten and twenty years ago, I picked this up, on VHS. I imagined, perhaps purely from the title, that it would be a film or TV series adapting the Book of Revelation in a similar fashion to that to Raffaele Mertes' The Apocalypse (2000), the final entry in Lux Vide's The Bible Collection series. Mertes' film, made its central character St. John (played by Richard Harris), but devoted a good deal of its running time to fairly literal enactments of his prophecies.

    As much as I was curious to see what an even cheesier version of this film looked like I only got around to finally watching it this week. I've trying to fill a few gaps in a list of Bible Films and this was one of the remaining few. But after such a long period of mild anticipation, I must admit I was somewhat disappointed to discover that this was not at all cut from the same cloth as the Harris film.

    For a start, St John in Exile (1986) turns out to be a filmed performance of a live show - a one man play featuring Herbie star Dean Jones at the apostle in his final days on Patmos. Here, however, the disciple is not primarily recounting the visions he has seen - although they do feature, but recalling the full array of biblical material to which John's name has become attached.

    The largest chunk of the film, then, belongs to his retelling of the life of Jesus. There follows a few brief excerpts from the three letters of John, but, in contrast to my initial expectations, very little of Revelation. Jones' performance is fine here, even if it's difficult to imagine the real John being a folksy American farmer. The script nicely breaks up its more intense sections with humour, and the live audience clearly find bits of it hilarious. And there are certainly a few good lines, such as the description of Peter as "a walking bundle of outrageous extremes".

    What works less well however is how the persona Jones creates tallies with the actual texts. "John" is presented as the author of Revelation and the fourth gospel, but doesn't sound like either. In particular, his reflections on Jesus' life don't sound at all like the fourth Gospel. The play is smart enough to recognise the similarity of the synoptics, and even makes sort-of jokes about how unlikely it is that they will ever be bettered, but doesn't really seem to appreciate the form and content of John's Gospel. Jesus as described like Jones talks in shortish synoptic like sayings and stories, rather than the long monologues which form the majority of John. Not dissimilarly, in trying to connect the Book of Revelation to the amiable character Jones creates, it too loses a bit of its power.

    There's clearly a reasonably conservative approach behind all of this. Whilst many scholars question if the Gospel, Revelation and the three letters could really be the work of the same author the belief persist in conservative circles which prioritise the Bible's integrity and the traditions around the Bible over modern methods of literary analysis. Unfortunately, the failure of works like this to fashion a credible composite portrait from the diverse sources, do rather cut away the ground on which they are built.

    Of course the idea that an author cannot write in a variety of styles is hardly compelling, and the character that Jones and his writer Don Berrigan manage to create does feel like a credible "real person". It's just that this person feels far more like the writer of the letters than of the two more famous works. As a result, ultimately it tells us more about modern Christianity than it does about the first-century, and more about the other bits of the Bible than the one that many would have expected.



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