Tonight, having decided that rather than watch episode by episode, we’d watch in one go, we sat down to watch the whole of The Passion, the BBC and HBO co-production that aired in the UK in four episodes over Holy Week. (As an aside, the slightly odd one hour, thirty minutes, one hour, thirty minutes running times for the four episodes, plus the fact that only the one hour episode had a recap before the opening credits does seem to imply that the serial was shown as two episodes elsewhere – anyone having seen it on HBO care to confirm?)
My first thoughts having watched it all the way through are firstly the superb production values. The sets and locations looked fantastic, this was a grimy, dusty and rough portrayal of first century Jerusalem. A couple of friends have commented that the mix of accents was a bit off-putting – particularly James Nesbitt as Pilate – certainly I know out of place accents can be distracting, the Visual Bible Gospel of Matthew being one that bugs me when I watch it. About the only way around it is to take the Mel Gibson route and have everyone speaking in original languages, but then that produces it’s own set of problems too. I didn’t have too much of a problem with this production.
The other significant thing I noted was that although this drew on the bible sources, it really wasn’t true to any of the Gospels – it was very much a pick-and-mix, pulling passages and teaching from other places in the Gospels into the final week, and part using other passages to suit the story-line. As an example of the first kind of change, Jesus’ statement about it being easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle that a rich man enter the Kingdom of Heaven which occurs in the Gospels before the events depicted in the programme is placed within scenes of Jesus teaching in the temple. In terms of the second example, in the foot washing scene during the Last Supper, the first part with Peter refusing to let Jesus wash his feet is there, but his later request that Jesus wash his head and his hands also is not. Moving forward to the resurrection appearances, the point where Jesus asks Peter if he loves him is relocated to Jerusalem, and also Jesus only asks the question once – in the Gospel it is asked three times, paralleling Peter’s three denials – having said that, Peter denies Jesus three times in one conversation rather than the three separate denials mentioned in the Gospels. That scene also includes Jesus statement that in the Gospels is made to Thomas instead being made to Peter.
The programme was quite clearly going for realistic, well-rounded characterisations, so Pilate, Caiaphas and Judas are not presented in the black and white, way that they often can be. Pilate comes over as someone trying to keep an unwilling populous subdued – keen to please his superiors back in Rome, but equally aware that he is being manipulated by the Jewish Temple hierarchy, and being backed into a corner by local politics. Caiaphas again is presented as someone with mixed motives, primarily trying to maintain the status quo, and remove a trouble maker. Judas also is presented as a troubled soul, who on several occasions tries to get Jesus to change his mind. It is made clear that Jesus knows who his betrayer will be, but also that Jesus forgives him, and knows that it is a part that has to be played – at one point crying for Judas and at another saying that there were places in heaven for all his disciples, even his betrayer. The rounded characterisations not surprisingly have led to criticism – for example the preview in the Independent highlights the comments of Stephen Green of Christian Voice.
Amongst the other characters, Mary Magdalene is shown as a close confidante of Jesus, and clearly understanding much more of what is going on. Her love for Jesus is particularly highlighted when Jesus and his followers leave the Last Supper, and Jesus stays back to talk to her – certainly there are hints of a sexual tension between the two, most potently in this scene.
Joseph of Arimathea and Barabbas get significant fuller roles, with Joseph one of the Temple leaders who gets sidelined by Caiaphas and on one occasion challenges Caiaphas to have him crucified too. We also see Barabbas crime that gets him arrested, and he also gets a brief meeting with Jesus, and later with Judas – Barabbas is how Judas finds out that Jesus has been condemned to death.
The portrayal of Jesus is also very human – definitely none of the other worldliness of the Robert Powell portrayal in Jesus of Nazareth. In terms of style it is a lot closer to the Henry Ian Cusick in the Gospel of John movie. This Jesus is very much the kind of peasant, itinerant preacher that he was, speaking language that the people understand, and someone who is fundamentally unacceptable to the temple authorities in Jerusalem because of who he is as much as what he is saying. Joseph Mawle’s Jesus seems primarily focused on his works of compassion, and largely disinterested in the high powered political manoeuvres of Caiaphas. Caiaphas is convinced that by removing Jesus he can save his country from a total Roman take-over – Jesus is concerned with saving the people. In particular Jesus comes across as very human as he struggles with what he must do. In the garden in conversation with his disciples that he leaves open the option that he might decide to leave, something they have advised him to do on several occasions. Later he is seen struggling mentally as he is put in a prison cell and during the trial before the Temple elders and Pilate he seems to almost change tactics as the situation changes, note the points where he is silent, and when he answers questions.
Is he the Son of God, or as is said during the programme someone who believes that he is the Son of God. Certainly there are no miracles shown – although Jesus visits the unclean, and is shown caring for them, he isn’t shown healing them. It is clear from his discussion with his mother Mary that he is only her son, but there is nothing to suggest some sort of miraculous conception – what she says could be taken several ways. When Jesus is arrested you see one of the disciples cutting off someone’s ear, and Jesus berating them, but no miracle healing. You don’t get a Mel Gibson style resurrection either – the guards on the tomb go off to get some food and come back to find the tomb empty. The person who Mary meets at the tomb that she recognises as Jesus is played by another actor, and she herself tells the disciples that it didn’t look like him – there is a definite question mark over whether this is just Mary going mad. The same thing happens on the road to Emmaus – it is a different actor, but this time after he breaks bread and uses the words that Jesus has used, the camera cuts back and there is a brief glimpse of Jesus, but is this just us being shown what they are seeing. The final two appearances, to all the disciples, and finally to Peter are less ambiguous, and are clearly Jesus, but equally you don’t have any of the elements of the appearances where you see his wounds, indeed the Jesus who appears seems to have no indication of wounds at all. It seems very much as though any mystical or fantastical elements have been stripped back, so at the beginning we are left to decide whether Jesus is fulfilling prophecy or using it for his ride into Jerusalem. Right at the end Jesus walks away into a crowd – there is no ascension. Quite what the programme is saying about the resurrection I am sure is being left deliberately ambiguous – it is up to the viewer.
So overall, I thought it was a good production – enough elements of drama to keep a casual viewer interested. Nothing massively controversial to annoy Christians – except perhaps those who want two-dimensional comic-strip villains rather that the more rounded characters we got. The resurrection appearances in particular will I’m sure give Christian commentators a good deal of discussion – if you read the biblical accounts of Mary Magdalene at the tomb, and the road to Emmaus, they do clearly say that Jesus wasn’t initially recognised – often shown on film by Jesus face being hidden – but then in the Bible the unrecognised Jesus walks with his disciples and eats part of the meal with them before he is recognised, so what is shown is accurate to what is written – definitely food for discussion.
If you missed it, or perhaps want to see it again, the DVD will be available next month.