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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, January 05, 2020

    Messiah (2020): Episodes 1-3

    It's difficult to know what to make of Messiah, Netflix's new political / religious thriller. The only senior off-camera names with which I'm familiar with is executive producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, who were responsible for many of the larger screen Bible productions of the last decade. The three main writers, including series creator Michael Petroni only have a handful of titles to their names (though Petroni did co-write the screen play for 2010's The Voyage of the Dawn Treader), yet the two directors James McTeigue (V for Vendetta) and Kate Woods are much more experienced.

    The story itself begins in Syria, where an unprecedented forty-day storm defeats an ISIS/Daesh siege of Damascus and claiming credit for this "miracle" is a charismatic preacher called Al-Masih (Belgian actor Mehdi Dehbi). The name is perhaps typical of the series itself. For a start, despite the biblical overtones this is also a story centred around the Islamic world. In addition to geographical locations, characters speak Arabic and dress in a way that most westerners would identify as Muslim, even if they are the same clothes that the many Christians in the region would also wear. Then of course there's also a heavy Jewish and/or Israeli angle to the story of as well, notably scenes set in Jerusalem and its environs and passing mention of "the word". Add in the occasional shot of Al-Masih sitting in the lotus position and its clear the production is going to draw on a wide range of religious influences.

    It's not long before Al-Masih has claimed to be the prophet Isa returned and is acknowledged as such by a group of 2000 people who follow him into the desert ("He is Isa returned, the Messiah"), but this is where the story begins to diversify. Al-Masih's actions raise a red flag for the CIA in particular Eva Geller (Michelle Monaghan) who begins to investigate the various goings on.

    Clearly names here have much significance. In particular the use of 'Al-Masih' caused various controversies even before the series began to air. Al-Masih is the Arabic name for the Messiah, but it also has resonances of another character from Islamic tradition, Al-Masih ad Dajjal. Dajjal is a false messiah/evil prophet figure mentioned in the Haddith, about whom Muhammed is claimed to have warned his followers.(1) It is said, he will come to earth and try to lure people into following Shaytan (Satan).Whilst he is largely unknown in white western Christian circles, to many people across the world (and you have to remember Netflix attracts a world-wide audience) Dajjal's name is as common as the word "antichrist".

    Various things happened as a result of this. Netflix was criticised for crassly using a supposedly mysterious name which, for millions, was anything but. For some it was white bias, for others merely just a dumb spoiler, along similar lines as calling a character "Murder McMurderson" (@frankoceanhafiz). There were claims that Twitter accounts pointing this out were blocked, which Netflix strenuously denied. This lead to various Islamic voices, such as the Connotasians podcast, calling for people to educate themselves about the true story of Dajjal and wrestling with the issues of whether this was an opportunity or a threat. Then on Monday, two days before the series was due to be released, The Royal Film Commission of Jordan called on Netflix not to stream the programme in their country, despite some of the footage having been filmed there.

    All of this hinges on the understanding that the names Al-Masih and Al-Masih ad Dajjal are more or less the same, and I'm not convinced they are. More to the point, my understanding of how the series progresses is that this is one of the issues that has not been resolved by the end of the series (2). There's more on this in an article released ahead of the series on the BBC website.

    Other significant names are also apparent, Eva Geller has an obvious connotation of 'Eve', original sin and the mother of humanity, but Geller makes me think of Uri (rather than Ross and Monica) a real life character claiming supernatural powers and a wide (if shallow) exposure. Perhaps I'm reasing too much in. Then of course there's the use of the place name Megiddo, from which we get the word Armageddon.

    So far the series seems subtle and rather slow-paced. This is not necessarily a criticism, indeed given Burnett and Downey's completely over-the-top version of The Bible in 2003 this is a nice surprise. Indeed their trajectory is quite positive. A Jesus film, Son of God (2014, scroll here for brief comments) emerged from The Bible, which wasn't quite as bad and then the sequel A.D. The Bible Continues (2015) got better and better as the series went on. In 2016 they remade Ben-Hur and while the wider, more critical, range of critics that opened them up to were largely critical (including me) it was progress for them. So whilst I'm hesitant to read too much into this on the basis of three episodes, I'm encouraged by the fact that so far the sound isn't hugely distracting and that not every moment of biblical resonance is accompanied by the cinematic equivalent of a giant pointy sign.

    Episode 1 also introduces us to Jibril (the name is an Arabic variation on 'Gabriel') who is to become, at least from the audience's point of view, one of Isa's most prominent followers. There are the scenes of Al-Masih and his followers in the desert which have a particularly strong Jesus vibe, along the lines of the Sermon on the Mount.

    We also learn more about Eva, which only enhances the show's strong Homeland-vibe, she appears to have some mental health issues, including insomnia. Eva is given permission to track Al-Masih and catches up with him approaching the Syrian border with Israel. As Al-Masih crosses the border he is arrested and we're introduced to a further character Avrim, an Israeli agent. His initial interrogation of Al-Masih is turned on its head when Al-Masih begins to probe him about an incident in Mediggo which Avrim thought no-one aside from his friend knew about. When he returns to Al-Masih's cell later, he is gone.

    The story doesn't develop too greatly over the next two episodes. We're introduced to new characters in a new location - Texas, where a family including a preacher father (Felix) and a mysteriously ill girl (Rebecca). Meanwhile Al-Masih turns up at the Temple Mount, there's a scuffle in which a boy is shot, and then Al-Masih miraculously heals him. There's another storm and another miracle in Texas where Al-Masih appears in the eye of the storm, which spreads rapidly. Felix talks to Al-Masih and starts to believe. Avrim arrests Jibril and tortures him.(3)

    I tend to have a bit of a problem writing about modernised takes on biblical stories when they are released on (long-form) television rather than as feature length movies. Part of the problem is that there's too much material and it's difficult to know at the start how strongly the biblically themed material will sustain for. Will it be consist throughout the show, or is it just in the first episode and a half? What happens if it goes dormant for a while only to burst out much further down the line? All of this was a problem with Kings (2009) which is why I still haven't written much by way of my own reflections on it here, in a way that wasn't a problem with A.D. Kingdom and Empire. I knew that there would be enough material to sustain one post an episode. Here, however, I'm unsure, (plus I've been delayed by other projects) so I've decided to tackle a few episodes at a time and see where that gets me. The last two episodes suggest a similar trajectory to Kings but I guess we'll all find out soon enough.
    1 - See Ain-Al Hayat, The Essence of Life by Muhammad Baqir Majlisi, notably chapter 5.
    2 - There are spoilers at this site, but you can learn a few non-spoilery things if you carefully don't look too closely.
    3 - I'm grateful to Ready Steady Cut for their plot summaries. You might appreciate them too.



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