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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.


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    Sunday, January 20, 2019

    Visual Bible: Acts (1994)


    Back in 2010 I went through The Visual Bible: Matthew a few chapters at a time. But, aside from the odd post here or there, I've never looked at the sequel to that film, Acts. It's been a while since I watched the whole thing through but here are a slightly random collection of thoughts I have about this production.

    The first thing that strikes you when watching Acts is the tagged on prologue. Matthew has only a slight added on "this is the person who wrote this book" intro, and mainly promoted its theory that the Gospel was written by the similarly named disciple, by visual means, occasionally fading between the narrating Matthew, and the disciple years earlier, a wry smile by the older actor at certain points etc.

    This is nothing like the prologue here, where we are introduced to a boat in a storm (which is certainly not on the level of Master and Commander), and then someone needs a doctor, and lo and behold here's Dr Luke - and we're told he wrote the gospel and Acts and was a friend of Paul. Given that there's far from universal agreement that the author of these two letters / accounts was Paul's friend, and that its unclear whether Luke was a medical doctor, let alone the kind who might respond to "is there a doctor in the boat- type requests, this all seems a bit silly. Given the licensing agreement for using the text of the NIV was that the film "literally be the Word of God" [emphasis original] this is somewhat surprising (Marchiano 30).

    Visual Bible's 2003 Gospel of John pulls back from this type of approach. There's an opening title to put the potentially anti-Semitic material in context, and it closes memorably on the young John's face, but it never actually presents things in quite such a black and white way. I think I remembered liking the way it actually gave the film the same sense of mystery about the full identification of "the disciple whom Jesus loved" as the gospel, but I would have to check. Whereas Richard Kiley played the aged Matthew, here we have Dean Jones playing Luke as an older man.

    Whilst Bruce Marchiano (who played Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew ) retains a cameo here as Jesus, many, if not all, of the disciples are played by different actors. This film does seem to be trying to be a sequel, rather than a separate entity like John. Its feel and particularly the use of the same actor as Jesus seem to support that theory, even though the other actors are different. The most noticeable change of actor is that of Peter. In the original he was played by a terrible actor, but he did manage to convey something of the uselessness of the Peter that comes across in the gospels. But here not only have they replaced this actual actor (and there's many reasons why they could have done this such as unavailability or the weakness of his acting), but they've also replaced the type of actor. No longer is is he feeble and stupid, now he is played by James Brolin - an actor so charismatic he was at one stage lined up to play James Bond. In contrast to Matthew's Peter, Brolin's is a leader of men, smiley, confident and so on. He's also older, which of course carries a connotation of being wiser, and more authoritative.

    Now this might be a deliberate attempt to show some of the difference between the gospels and Acts (and Luke does show Peter more positively than Mark, at least) but one of the most interesting dynamics in Acts is how the Simon of the gospels becomes the Peter of Acts and the early church. Even locating a radical turn around as a result of Pentecost would have been something, but Pentecost seems to have little effect on him, other than giving him an opportunity to preach.

    Acts continues the process Matthew started of trying to model the early Christ movement into the image of the promise keepers (a 1990s male evangelical movement). So there's even more hugging and inane laughing. and whereas in Matthew this at least seemed to be Jesus trying to bring them out of their shells a bit, here it's just imposing cheesy Christian man type Christianity onto the early church. Aside from the general feel there's also the choosing of the replacement disciple, where Joseph congratulates his rival in his victory in the style of a disappointed Oscar nominee, and is then commiserated by the man who drew the lots, the victorious Mathias and various others nearby. Perhaps worst of all is when in Acts 5 the disciples are released after a flogging and skip away laughing! This certainly wasn't a flogging in the mould of The Passion of the Christ.

    Another bit that grates with me is the part where Peter's shadow heals someone. The impression I get of reading this from Acts is that Peter's movement is experiencing growth, and as a result, he is more pressed, both physically but also for time. However, his anointing is being accelerated accordingly so that even as he walks past people they are healed. Instead, here they take a very literal approach, taking away the sweep of the past and the amazing healing, and reducing it to an alternative method of praying for someone that allows for a full hug later on. In other words, the means of conveying what is going on (the growth an popularity of the church) becomes the event in itself.

    The special effects, are rather weak in the scope used to depict some of the more supernatural elements. I would have loved to see what Pasolini would have done with some of the material, but here they are terrible. Jesus's ascension is poor and lacking creativity - confined by the film's literalist interpretation. Pentecosts's tongues of fire are similarly disappointing - both something very literal on the one hand, but also akin to a high school play on the other. The conversion of Saul is a little better in this respect with a few whirring point of view shots capturing the moment's disorientation.

    On another occasion though, when a more literalist, understated approach might have fitted the material, the films opts instead to cut back to Jones narrating. This is particularly disappointing for me as someone who has long found the Annias and Saphira  to be particularly significant. The text's lack of explanation for their deaths (it notes only that they dropped down dead) leaves room for speculation. Did God kill them? Peter? Or was it just a coincidence? Given all this, it was a bit disappointing that this was not depicted, particularly given that the most literal rendering of this would require no special effects at all. Perhaps they decided that it was too controversial to impress on people with a specific image, or perhaps they tried it a few times, and failed and budget didn't allow for more takes. This isn't the only time Visual Bible has copped out of dealing with an odd passage, I remember feeling similarly disappointed when Matthew narrated the passage after Jesus dies where random men in their tombs are resurrected and walk round Jerusalem. Having Kiley/Jones narrate these passages is a bit of a cop out - if you're planning to produce a visual Bible it feels a little like sweeping the difficult passages under a rug to just have them narrated.

    The camerawork here does seem to be a little more interesting here than before, despite Marchiano's assertion that the film used "No great camera angles, no fancy acting, no dazzling effects — just Jesus and the word" (Marchiano 27)

    Jones, Brolin and Henry O. Arnold who plays Saul/Paul generally do a good job playing their parts, but as with Matthew, the project itself makes things a little stilted. Matthew however had a groundbreaking performance from Bruce Marchiano at it's core - a Jesus whose smiling "Jesus in jeans" type Christ broke the mould of previous cinematic incantations and which has influenced to a degree most of the versions that have followed (Marchiano 16). But Acts lacks this crucial USP. Whilst being the only word-for-word production of Acts does mean it is still unique, it lacks the draw that Matthew had, and suggests that had Visual Bible had the funds to film more of the good book it may not have had the same reception as the original movie.

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    Marchiano, Bruce (1997) In the Footsteps of Jesus: One Man's Journey Through the Life of Christ. Eugene, Oreon: Harvest House.

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