Monday, March 24, 2008

The Passion – a Jewish perspective and some final thoughts

I’d never thought to look for a review of The Passion in the Jewish Chronicle, which sits alongside The Tablet in the national religious weekly papers shelf of your local newsagent.

But reviewer Simon Round’s analysis of the first two episodes made for remarkably interesting reading. He begins by asking a question relevant to his audience:

“Whenever a major drama is launched about the Crucifixion of Jesus — particularly if it is made by the people to whom we pay our licence fee — it is incumbent on us to analyse the paranoia factor. So is this series good or bad for the Jews?”

And the answer?

“... the Jews do not come out of this one too badly. Having said that, The Passion does suffer the fate of every saga made about Jesus since the late 1970s. Whenever you recreate Jerusalem around this time and populate it with disciples, market traders and Romans, you half expect Terry Jones to appear, saying that ‘Brian is not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy’.

The difficulty in suspending disbelief is exacerbated by James Nesbitt’s performance as Pontius Pilate — The Life of Brian meets Yellow Pages, perhaps.”

Christians like Doug Chaplin have been asking a similar question this week: is this series good or bad for Christians? And Christianity?

Despite the absence of the miraculous and the supernatural (other than the small matter of a resurrection), I think the majority of online opinion settles on “yes”.

(c) BBC - The Passion - Pontius Pilate, played by Jimmy Nesbitt

Anyway, Round goes on to comment on the regional accents that are very obvious in the production:

“The preponderance of Ulster accents is slightly weird though not disastrous.”

Producer of the series, Nigel Stafford-Clark, tackled this very issue in an online Q&A:

“We thought long and hard about the issue of accents. We could, for instance, have asked all the actors to work in what's called RP (Received Pronunciation) - what you might expect if you watched a traditional performance of Shakespeare at the RSC.

However, one of the most important aims for us was to make the story seem as real and as immediate as possible ... We therefore decided to be "accent blind" - to allow the actors to speak in their natural voices, just as they would have done at the time.

Palestine in 33 AD would have been rife with regional accents, even with different languages. We were very happy with the results for us it helped to make characters like the Disciples and Barabbas feel more like real people and less like figures from history. And James Nesbitt's hard Northern Irish accent felt like the voice of an outsider, underlining his role as head of a Roman occupying force.

The "voice of an outsider", unless your a viewer accustomed to or surrounded by County Antrim accents! In which case, terms like "occupying force" and "Rome" take on whole new meanings depending on your background and politics.

BBC The Passion - Caiaphas played by Ben Daniels

Anyway, back to Round’s review in the JC ...

“Our attention is firmly upon Caiaphas, the Jewish High Priest.”

Although I’d never really thought the matter through before, it makes a lot of sense that the production’s treatment of Caiaphas – the highest ranking Jewish religious official in the area – would be a key area of concern. Just as the words put into Jesus’ mouth and every frown and groan will be uber-interpreted and judged by a Christian audience.

“In the Gospel according to Stafford-Clark [The Passion’s producer], Caiaphas is portrayed sympathetically. He presides over a volatile Jerusalem (some things never change) where the balance of power is threatened not only by the arrival of Jesus but also the appearance on the scene of violent terrorists (the Judean People’s Front?), all of whom threaten the tenuous autonomy of the Jews in the Holy City.

But however sensitively Caiaphas is treated (we even see him stroking his pregnant wife’s stomach), he still hands Jesus over to the Romans, or at least I assume he does — we will find out in the third episode, which goes out tonight.

I tend to agree with comedian Ivor Dembina that Jewish history would have progressed more smoothly had we merely roughed Jesus up a little, but presumably the Jewish consultant [the show had one alongside Mark Goodacre as the New Testament consultant] could not persuade Stafford-Clark that this would have made a better story.”

It was really interesting to read someone else’s view with their different perspective. Ed Kessler also takes up the Jewish point of view in an article on the BBC’s The Passion website. As well as thinking about Jesus overturning tables in the Temple, Kessler’s reflections fall on Caiaphas.

“One of the most intriguing characters of the series is the High Priest, Caiaphas. The High Priest was appointed by Rome and his duties included performing Temple rituals, managing the Temple treasury, and presiding over the Sanhedrin.

In the past, performances of the Passion have often inaccurately portrayed him as Pilate's superior. The BBC's The Passion gives the viewer an indication of what it must have been like for a High Priest who struggled with his conscience in order to protect the limited autonomy given to Jews by the Romans. Caiaphas is portrayed as a sensitive man who knows he is caught been between a rock and a hard place.”

I was (pleasantly) surprised that The Passion was actually commissioned. Religion’s not exactly at the top of the list of media crowd pullers in a world that associates Christmas with a man wearing a red suit and Easter with the annual short season of Creme Egg sales. But I’m glad it was made, and I’m glad I got the time to watch it.

Originally destined to be spread over six half hour episodes, it probably did make sense to maximise viewers by concentrating The Passion over a smaller number of evenings. In fact, the first and third episodes (the hour long ones) were probably the main ones, with Monday night’s being missable, and the last resurrection episode strangely also feeling at times superfluous to the production. What do I mean?

(c) BBC - The Passion - Jesus, played by Joseph Mawle

The drama of the crucifixion, the way in which Jesus approached it, the longing to avoid it, the feeling of separation, the unfairness – it made for powerful and emotional viewing. Certainly as a Christian viewer, it brought the reality of the cross and the sacrifice home again.

But while the story isn’t complete without the resurrection, it’s not as visually striking. I did like the gentle and subtle way The Passion portrayed the resurrection, and I’m glad they avoided CGI and mistiness. But it’s the point in the narrative where attention turns away from Jesus’ on-screen presence to the actions and reactions disciples and Jesus wider circle of followers.

There were wonderful moments when the disciples’ human weakness and insecurity were really visible. Moments when you’d expect them to be in the thick of it. Yet instead, you’d find the two Marys and a prostitute tending Jesus body, with no sign of Peter or James.

At the end of the final episode my wife remarked:

“You can see why Luke wrote Acts.”

There’s a wondering about what did they do next? How did the tired, broken and confused disciples begin to build a faith community that would withstand disbelief and continued pressure from Caiaphas and the Temple authorities? The story of Stephen, stoned to death. Of Saul’s conversion.

No wonder that Luke wanted to record the sequel to Jesus life. To make sure that the early application of his teachings wasn't forgotten, and could be built on.

We’ll have to re-read Acts - or Acts of the Apostles - on paper, in the Bible, to catch that story. (Recommend using Peterson's everyday (US) English translation - The Message - as a starting point.) Can’t see it being portrayed on our TV screens anytime soon. But a story worth revisiting.

1 comment:

Mark said...

Yeah, I read a report on this series the other day in a local paper on the Isle Of Man. "The Jews came out all right, the Christians came out all right, but it turns out the Northern Irish were a lot more involved than you'd have thought. Stinkin' bogtrotters"