• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as current film releases with spiritual significance, and a few bits and pieces on the Bible.

    Saturday, April 20, 2019

    Jesus: His Life (2019)


    It's not unusual for Easter to feature a new biblical documentary and 2019 is no exception. This year it's the turn of The History Channel whose latest offering Jesus: His Life begins in the UK tomorrow, having recently completed it's run in the States (for those of you wondering where my coverage has been).

    Jesus: His Life though is a little different in that according to The History Channel's description, it's "part drama, part documentary". They've no doubt used this phrase in preference to "docudrama" because of the confusion surrounding the latter term. Many, for example, applied the docudrama tag to Killing Jesus (2013) even though many queried it's factual basis. The approach here is different again in that it intersperses dramatised sections with talking heads from various scholars and church leaders.

    The series is different to Killing Jesus in another key respect. Whereas that film sought to provide a more sceptical take on the events in the gospels, His Life aims for a more traditional version of the story. For one thing, amongst its executive producers is mega-church leaders and televangelist Joel Osteen and he and a number of other church leaders offer their thoughts in between scholars such Ben Witherington III, Robert Cargill, Shively Smith, Nicola Denzey-Lewis, Candida Moss and Mark Goodacre. That said the church leaders are drawn from wider perspectives than mega-church evangelicalism including Episcopalian Bishop Michael Curry and Roman Catholic Fr. James Martin.

    Such an approach will please some and disappoint others. For example, the opening episode, which tells the story from Joseph's perspective, never raises some scholars' opinion that Joseph never existed. It's possible to do that without derailing the programme's overall thrust. Sceptics will find this makes the series difficult to take too seriously: Conservatives will be pleased that it is more respectful of the Gospels.

    That said, I have only seen the first two episodes and a few clips from the final episode. Everything so far suggests this traditional approach, including shots of the resurrected Jesus. That said two or three of the episodes may present an alternative approach. The series' innovative set-up is that each episode is made from the perspective of a different character in the Gospels (though not Jesus himself). As mentioned above Joseph is the focus of the first episode, with subsequent instalments being based on the perspectives of John the Baptist, the Virgin Mary, Judas, Caiaphas, Pilate, Mary Magdalene and Peter. It's the docudrama equivalent of Jesus Christ, Superstar in that respect I suppose, and just as that film includes more sceptical solos from Judas, Caiaphas and Pilate later episodes may go that route as well.

    This approach goes quite far as well. It is not just that the episodes shown are those that centre on each of the protagonists, and that their perspectives are given by the various interviews, it's also that the characters get to speak in the first person. For example, in the closing scenes of the second 'hour' John the Baptists asks "Did I do enough?". That question also reflects the programme's use of more contemporary language. I think this is one of its strengths. At times it completely works the biblical language in a way that stays true to the original but transforms and enlivens it.

    Jesus: His Life is also interesting visually. For one thing it is lushly shot with real attention played to composition, lenses, filters and lighting, take the above shot of Jesus' time in the wilderness for example. But the costumes, locations and sets are all impressive as well. Again I can't comment on the bigger scenes in Jerusalem towards the end of the series, but certainly it's a very good start.

    But aside from its cinematic quality there are also other notable visual choices. For one the ethnicity of the actors involved is from a wider range of backgrounds than is typically the case, and it generally attempts to give the actors a western Asia appearance. It's also notable that British actor Greg Barnett, who plays Jesus has his hair cropped relatively short. This was an observation that was made in the BBC's 2001 documentary Son of God, but it's rarely been taken up in more dramatic portrayals, even as more recent films have sought to move away from the old blond hair, blue eyes stereotype.

    That said perhaps the most memorable shot from the two parts I watched was the depiction of John the Baptists severed head. It's something that's never really been done well before. There have been some bizarre depictions, but never something as well, um, executed as is the case here. It's all the more gruesome for coming after so little blood up to this point. I wonder how the trial and crucifixion scenes will play out.

    So there are many strengths to this one. If the frequency of new insights it brings are perhaps a little pedestrian, there are many other plus points. The visuals, dialogue and performances are good - so often a let down with this sort of project - and giving each episode its own narrative arc, enables the series to keep up the interest across what is the longest portrayal of Jesus for quite some time.

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