I finally got around to viewing my recording of the BBC’s The Passion. I was right: it was not very good. But I was also wrong: it was not as bad as I had expected – and it could have been a lot worse. To be honest, I kind of enjoyed it.
Mind you, I almost didn’t get past the initial cliché of Moroccan mountains and “oriental” music. But then I was disarmed and robbed of my dismay by the opening scene of our gang on the outskirts of Jerusalem, as Jesus buys a donkey from a fellow traveller. Never mind the biblical falsification (and there is much more to follow), the twin themes so central to the ministry of Jesus, and to the film – non-violence and money – are nicely flagged up: “John, put away your sword,” Jesus chides John as the pilgrim arrives; “Does this look like an army?” he asks the pilgrim as he and the disciples depart; while Judas the penny-pincher is characteristically miffed that Jesus won’t haggle over the cost of the beast.
Unlike the Gibson fiasco, the film goes out of its way to avoid any hint of anti-Semitism. There are no swarthy stereotypes, and Caiaphas is portrayed as a humane (as well as horny) High Priest, a family man (the missus is pregnant), yet also a true patriot and consummate politician (he knows “it’s the economy, stupid!”), replete with the vice of sincerity. A black Joseph of Arimathea I take to be an acceptable bow to what is sneeringly called PC.
The script is thinnish, but there are some nice lines: “Where else does a child pay to go into his father’s house?” Jesus asks at the Temple; “This is your brother Annas,” he tells a child in his arms, to the former High Priest’s angry chagrin. There are also some cleverly conceived vignettes: the children to whom the kingdom belongs throw petals from the rooftops at the Triumphal Entry – and then, ironically, again on the Via Dolorosa; Judas pukes up the last supper in the street; and, in an image resonant of the passion Psalms, Jesus is lowered into a pit after his trial before the Sanhedrin.
The acting is variable. James Nesbitt as Pilate is particularly good, Irish accent and all, as is Ben Daniels as Caiaphas, each probing his character’s complexities, but the disciples, above all Paul Nicholls as Judas, are all rather wooden. And why is everyone so clean, and why are all the women so fetching? On the other hand, some scenes and conversations that could have come a right cropper actually work pretty well, notably the gratuitous tête-à-tête Jesus has with his Mum: “There’s nothing you can teach me, Jesus, about trusting God’s will” (which even forestalled the tempting interpolation, “You’re a very naughty boy!”).
The crucifixion scene starts well, and the close-ups of Jesus looking up to the heavens, filmed from above, are a brilliant coup. The cry of dereliction, coupled with an avowal of eternal love, is also an inventive touch. But the words of the penitent thief are almost Pythonesque, and the rendering of the Third Word from the Cross as “John, will you look after her?” borders on bathos and completely misses the point.
And then there is the resurrection. Well, full marks for audacity: three different actors play the risen Jesus, presumably to suggest both mistaken identity and physical discontinuity, but there is no aura of mysterium tremendum whatsoever (nor is there a scar in sight), and it just doesn’t work: the blokes are too ordinary. It’s fair to suggest that erring in the opposite direction would have been even worse, but that’s the point: the resurrection, of all events, cannot be done in celluloid. Wisely, at least, there is no ascension; rather the Lord, after a parting private chat with Peter – the Great Commission, reduced, boldly it must be said, to the message of forgiveness – wanders up a side street in Jerusalem and merges with its denizens. I get the point, but is that it? It’s not enough.
Which brings me, finally, to Jesus. Joseph Mawle’s character is charming, winsome, sensitive (very “new male “) – you like him – even Caiphas and Pilate like him! – and that is precisely the problem: it inexplicable why anyone would want to crucify this guy. There is no way he is a threat to Rome – too much of “the kingdom of God is in your heart” for that. And why would the Temple establishment fear the crowds, when for them Jesus is a sort of first century Jewish John Lennon, with a comedic penchant for sharp wit and swift repartee, and liable at any time (you think) to start singing “Imagine”.
That’s the execution of the film. But there are two fundamental flaws in the production from its conception. First, the producers clearly don’t want to offend anyone; Jesus of Nazareth, however, was nothing if not offensive, at least to the rich and powerful. But I don’t suppose Gordon Brown or Rupert Murdoch will be losing any sleep over The Passion, nor the poor and powerless take much encouragement from it, for its gospel is all too individualistic. Second, the producers go relentlessly for a human Jesus. Martin Scorsese tried this approach and failed, though even the great one deployed some tricks, so like the BBC, playing it straight, has a snowball’s chance in hell of succeeding? There is not so much as a hint of the miraculous or the apocalyptic in the Jesus of The Passion, no sense of his transcendent exousia, and the Son’s relationship with the Father is only superficially explored. The point is quite elementary: there simply is no historical Jesus divisible from the Christ of faith, or extractable from the gospel accounts. Still, I appreciate why the film industry will continue to try to make movies about Jesus of Nazareth: because he is there. Unlike Everest, however, attempts on the summit will always fail. The best one can expect is to fail better.