Friday, February 28, 2014

The Son of God - Movie Review

[Actually, this is an excerpt from the relevant portions of my review of the TV miniseries. Since I haven't seen the film, there may be a few inconsistencies, but I felt this commentary is still relevant.]

“There are the kind of thoughts which in combination create the impression that Christianity is something weak and diseased. First, for instance, that Jesus was a gentle creature, sheepish and unworldly, a mere ineffectual appeal to the world….[But in the New Testament] I found an account, not in the least of a person with his hair parted in the middle or his hands clasped in appeal, but of an extraordinary being with lips of thunder and acts of lurid decision, flinging down tables, casting out devils, passing from the wild secrecy of the wind from mountain isolation to a sort of dreadful demagogy; a being who often acted like an angry god—and always like a god.”
-G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

I have high expectations for Jesus. Of course, it’s not fair to give The Bible’s producers a break because of the intense levels of scrutiny—they knew they had to get Jesus just right, if they got anything right. So most of my criticism is focused on Diogo Morgado’s portrayal of the Son of Man. To be fair, nobody will ever be able to play Jesus correctly (whether they should even try is another subject), but regardless, there are some things one should remember if you want to do things by the Book:

  1. Jesus was fully man – this means that, even if there were times that he was otherworldly, there were other moments that he was just an ordinary guy. Ordinary does not mean “sinner”, ordinary means “has a sense of humor” or rather: “doesn’t treat himself—and everything—with deadly seriousness.”
  2. Jesus was fully God – this means that, despite his ordinariness, he had a few raging-holy-God-of-wrath-and-judgment moments. Usually he used this rage against the self-righteous, and his deep, reckless love, for the poor.
  3. Jesus was not, in fact, an enlightened hippie – he was from a Podunk country town (almost certainly with an accent.)
  4. We have no reliable information that Jesus was drop-dead gorgeous or had cute hair or a perfect nose. It’s rather possible he looked, y’know, like someone from Fiddler on the Roof, an ordinary, albeit Jewish-looking everyday guy.

Unfortunately, Morgado’s Jesus is a sort of mild-mannered, gorgeous surfer dude. It’s not uncommon. I haven’t seen many portrayals of Jesus (not even Passion of the Christ), but even in your usual brightly-colored Sunday School brochures, Jesus is really, really meek. It’s an image that modern Americans are very comfortable with, but that isn’t very accurate. “Our glamorized representations of Jesus say more about us than about him,” Philip Yancey writes in The Jesus I Never Knew.

Jesus’ relaxed meeting with Peter in last week’s installment gave me some hope, but the start of episode 4 quickly cranked the drama. Jesus was put in a square surrounded by adoring crowds with sympathetic lighting and camera angles and plenty of scowling Pharisees. This immediately breaks my first rule, by dramatizing and adding soaring epic music (sorry, Hans, I normally like it). Jesus is very otherworldly, and I can only imagine what atheists thought when watching his almost feminine habit of touching people’s faces and hugging everybody and when arguing with a person, taking their hand. Kinda creepy. I mean, there’s room for tenderness, but going any farther than an occasional Frodo-and-Sam embrace is Not Cool.

While Jesus’ ministry is exploding in Galilee (which is known for its rebels, as the show points out), the Pharisees are worried. I really did appreciate the way the Pharisees are portrayed. Excepting Saul, all the show’s previous villains have been Disney bad guys, with no good traits, nothing to humanize them. By contrast, the Pharisees, led by eternally stressed High Priest Caiaphas (Adrian Schiller), seem like pretty decent guys trying to save the Jewish nation, which is surely how they saw themselves. The show describes leaders who are “loved” by the people, men devoted to God’s law and the preservation of Israel. Surrounded by the merciless brutality of Roman rule, the Pharisees play a dangerous political game.Their desire to squash any rebellions is fueled by the fear that Pilate will punish the entire people for the actions of a minority.

“You know nothing at all. Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” (Caiaphas, in John 11:49-50, ESV)

Caiaphas’s reasoning and pragmatism make him a sympathetic character, even though he obviously never takes seriously the idea that Jesus might really be the Messiah. He said, approximately, “A true Messiah would strive to unite, not divide Israel.” Gotta admit, it makes a lot of sense, while Jesus’ declaration in Matt. 10:34-36 (which didn’t make it on screen, alas) that he comes bringing “not peace, but a sword…to set a man against his father….And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household…” seems crazy. The addition of Nicodemus as a primary character lends even more sympathy to the seemingly rational Pharisees.

But to get back to the protagonist, Jesus’ speeches never seem suitably irrational. Maybe it’s just because I grew up on Michael Card songs like God’s Own Fool, but the real Jesus seemed to me like a radical, somebody turning every natural impulse and idea on its head. He came to bring division, war, and strife, but ordered his followers to turn the other cheek, love your enemies, and eschew materialism. He was from nowhere, had no education, and had a bunch of  slow-on-the-uptake blue-collar workers for companions, but has had more effect on history than any urbane intellectual who pals around with the cast of Who’s Who. He said the weak are strong, the poor are rich, suffering is a blessing, and the last will be first. If Jesus was anything, he was a revolutionary, not a suave hippy who was nice to everybody. Jesus was a living paradox, just as Christianity is built on beautiful, seemingly contradictory ideals that have changed the world forever. The Bible's Jesus wouldn't change the world - he'd be hard-put to change the neighborhood.

I know I shouldn’t expect them to conform to my perfect scenario (because my mental picture is undoubtedly flawed as well), but it’d be nice to just see something different from the norm, just a little artistic bravery. Yet, as we’ve seen in earlier episodes, there isn’t much in the way of imagination, and it hasn’t started here. Again, however, there are some good things about that. It means there’s no ridiculous affair between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, at the least. The bad guys are still the bad guys. Jesus’ words, in general, remain Canonical. Aside from the occasional fact slightly altered for drama’s sake, and the background subplots drawn from historical sources, the details are the same, if the atmosphere is not.
"You turned the tables over
There in your father's temple
You cracked a whip and raised a shout
My daughter asked me why
I said, "Love is never simple
It draws 'em in and drives 'em out."
-The Cornerstone, Andrew Peterson

Jesus’ absolute ransacking of the temple was another disappointment. If a guy can overturn tables gently, he managed it, and there was no hint of a whip or tough love. He ends up holding the hand of the Pharisee he’s rebuking. N.D. Wilson says Jesus stepped hard on the toes of the self-righteous, but was generous to the sinners – and while the temple scene failed to fulfill the first half of that description, the parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector fair pulsed with Grace. It was made even more relevant by the presence of Matthew, a dishonest tax-collector, whose repentant reaction really makes the scene.

The tension in Jerusalem builds steadily, with Caiaphas declining into desperation as Pilate threatens to shut down Passover, Nicodemus searching for answers, and Jesus causing a whole lot of grief for the authorities. The last few scenes tied together all the plots to culminate with the arrest on the Mount of Olives. I was happy with Jesus’ trial—it would be expected to make the Law the bad guy, but it’s made obvious that Caiaphas is being a hypocrite, breaking the Law to “save” it. Jesus’ declaration “I am” confirming his deity was done well, though they didn’t make the most of it. Jesus is tried and condemned by a kangaroo court, while Judas and Peter wait outside on tenterhooks.

Overall, I recognize the difficulty of portraying Jesus in a way likely to appeal, but part of the unique thing about him—actually, the most unique thing—is that he had many unappealing aspects. Truth often does. Portraying him as a tender, constantly-on-the-point-of-tears guru with a shawl and great hair is more than just politically correct, it’s inaccurate.

Pass the pizza?
That said—many of the supporting actors were quite good. Jesus had his moments—one with a little girl, in particular. I’m really looking forward to Peter’s segments in episode 5. It’s still orthodox in the details, if not the spirit.

[Episode 5]

It feels very odd to be reviewing the crucifixion. It feels rather indelicate and almost blasphemous. That said, this is a production by man. It is not the actual thing. So here goes.

The episode begins in the morning, combining Peter’s betrayal with Judas’s regret (not repentance). Political drama goes on in the background, with Pilate caught between his wife and Caesar (or as Granny put it: a rock and a hard place). Mrs. Pilate’s segment is used to great effect, her grief eliciting the ironic statement from Pilate that Jesus will “be forgotten in a week.”

Roma Downey’s performance as Mary is serviceable, but like the series in general, lacking nuance or imagination. Morgado’s Jesus, however, has improved. Despite his lack of the charisma and fierceness of the “rock that makes men stumble,” he’s believable as the “man of all sorrows.” His interview with Pilate is rather odd—he stares up confusedly at the light while speaking of the truth. After more politics, Jesus is sentenced to thirty-nine lashes. While in the first few minutes, he seems more bewildered than anything, Morgado’s suffering is painful and gritty.
Regardless of the fact that Jesus would’ve looked ten times worse after thirty-nine with a cat o’ nine tails, the flogging is still heart-wrenching. I think what hit me hardest, though, is when Jesus, staggering drunkenly around the prison, is crowned with an improvised ring of thorns. He falls back amid the Romans’ laughter, slumping ridiculously against the wall. It really struck me how demeaned and crass it was, on the level of a sloppy paper crown made by a child, but with an edge of horrific brutality, reminiscent of the way Americans used to tar and feather criminals. God not only lost his life, but he lost his dignity—there was no noble condescension—he was humiliated. As Betsy Ten Boom pointed out to her sister, in the concentration camp: “He was naked.”

The route down the Via Dolorosa drags on and on and on, with Jesus stumbling at least four times. The amount of falling and interacting with the crowd is unusual. After all, in truth, it’s only mentioned that Jesus stumbled and Simon the Cyrene was appointed to help him. In The Bible, Jesus meets his mother first, telling her that “With God, all things are possible.” Second, Simon is pulled from the crowd, and oddly seems to know who Jesus is, calling him “my Lord.” They share a smile. He stumbles again, once again helped by a strangely knowing Simon. On the last stumble, an unnamed woman gives him a drink. These things aren’t particularly important, but feel unnecessary and the time could have been better spent. Also, they detract from the betrayal of his friends. “He was despised for our transgressions.” 

Once upon Golgotha, Jesus is forced to crawl to his cross. Until the end, the agony doesn’t stop. Morgado’s performance is particularly good here. At last, the earthquakes begin; the darkness covers the sun. There is silence, and it is over.
Immediately cut to three days later. The disciples are tense, angry, and despairing. Mary Magdalene’s news eventually persuades Peter and John to come to the tomb. Peter, played by Darwin Shaw, after looking over the empty clothes, is caught up in a wave of enthusiasm, crying, “He’s back!” That’s not exactly how it happened, but it’s more cinematic, and the sudden surge of the Zimmerian score perfectly captures the unbelievable joy and turning of the tables. Peter gives the first communion—that’s one of the really neat things—that sacrament is really brought to life and given the importance that evangelicals often forget (kudos, Catholicism).

Morgado’s Jesus is back to his old self—that is, rather ethereal and touching folks’ faces. Skip ahead to the Great Commission. The disciples hit the streets, with a new (but not new enough) bravery.

Overall, since this episode lacked time for Morgado to be lackluster, and more storylines featuring strong supporting actors, I liked this one much better. Hans Zimmer’s score really came into its own, and Lisa Gerrard’s wailing vocals made the crucifixion even more intense. In general, it was just As It Happened, so Christians ought to be happy. Artistically, it still lacked. 

Hopefully, The Bible’s success will give Hollywood a kick that says, “people like orthodox biblical stories.” And hopefully, next time, we’ll get somebody who can actually tell a story.

[Here comes Noah...]

[Later: And here are my thoughts on Noah.]

2 of 5 stars

Hannah Long

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