Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Bible Series -- Drama and Historical Context

While I realize that the only thing people seem to want to talk about at the moment in connection with The Bible Series is the alleged resemblance between a still of Mohamen Mehdi Ouazanni and President Obama, I will risk talking about several other features of the most recent instalment of the drama, which was broadcast in Sunday evening on History Channel.  Here is a recap of the episode (courtesy of the History Channel website):

One of the aspects that I appreciate in the New Testament episodes of The Bible series is the attention paid to historical context.  One of the challenges for film-makres on this kind of project is to provide some explanation of the historical context without weighing the narrative down with turgid exposition. I talked about this a little in relation to BBC's The Passion in 2008 in a piece that also found its way onto the DVD, "The Passion" and Its Historical Context.

The Bible nicely illustrates the political situation at the turn of the era by drawing in an incident from Josephus's Jewish War 1.33.2 (648-655), the cutting down of the golden eagle over the great gate:

Josephus describes the young men as gaining courage from the report of Herod the Great's ill health.  The Bible series depicts that bad health in an extraordinary and memorable scene where Sam Douglas as Herod lies bloated and in agony with leaches all over his body.  This scene is a great adaptation of the story from Josephus and, as I commented the other day, Sam Douglas's Herod is up there with Peter Ustinov's iconic depiction of Herod in Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth (1977).  Here is Douglas:

While Herod is suffering away in his palace, the viewer gets to meet Mary and Joseph for the first time, in Nazareth in Galilee.  The viewer is treated to an imagination of a first century BCE synagogue.  This, of course, is difficult to imagine given our lack of detailed knowledge, but I was delighted to see Mary and Joseph sitting down next to one another, in a scene that depicts the meeting of their eyes.

Since several people have asked me about the role of an academic consultant, this is the kind of thing that one comments on.  There was a question, for example, over whether or not to depict Mary and Joseph separated into different parts of the synagogue, a male section and a female section.  This is where a consultant points out that there is no evidence for that kind of segregation in this period.  It is one of those areas where history and drama come together -- the scene works better as drama if the two are side by side, but it coheres at the same time with what we know of the history.

This is not, of course, to suggest that attempts to provide historical context trump the drama.  The Biblical texts are what drive the narrative, and one of the ways that the episode dramatizes the Birth Narrative is to combine Matthew's story about the Magi and Herod (Matt. 2.1-12) with the context previously established.  Although the narrative provides the traditional three wise men (to coincide with the three gifts, Matt. 2.11), just one of them consults with Herod, and he is given the traditional name Balthazar:

Focusing on one character among the several from the Biblical text is something that often happens elsewhere in order to generate a story that is easier to follow; compare the miraculous haul of fish later in the episode (based on Luke 5.1-10) where only Peter is present .  This Balthazar is similarly the spokesman for the magi in the nativity scene itself.  The whole clip is available on Youtube here.  It begins with Balthazar seeing the star:

The depiction of the Nativity is traditional, harmonizing elements from Matthew 2 with elements from Luke 2, but it's very effective, very moving.  Leila Mimmack's Mary is just sublime in this scene.  I tweeted the other night, while the episode was being broadcast, that you'd have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by her performance here (after which several respondents responded that they were indeed in possession of hearts of stone).

Once the narrative moves forward by a few years, the political context requires some further explanation.  Once again, turgid exposition is avoided and instead we see an encounter between Pontius Pilate, the newly arrived governor of Judea, and Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee and Peraea.  The encounter between them sets the scene nicely for the drama to follow both in the immediate context -- John's baptism and death, and the broader context -- the trial and crucifixion next week:

The conversation between the two men not only establishes the politics of the region and the period but also the question of a "Messiah" and what this language means.  It reminds me of Peter Ustinov's Herod the Great in Zeffirelli's  Jesus of Nazareth, who tells Proculus (a fictional character from Rome), over a sumptuous feast, all about the dreams of a "Messiah" figure and what this means.  But by having this kind of conversation just before the beginning of Jesus' mission, The Bible is able to segue neatly straight into John's baptism and messianic preaching.  "You need to keep an eye on your Messiah", Pilate says, as the film cuts straight to Jesus walking along the side of the River Jordan, with snatches of what I think is a kind of "Jesus theme" in Hans Zimmer's score, here heard for the first time in the drama:

And when it comes to Jesus' walking, I can't help thinking of Martin Scorsese's comments about the importance of making sure that your Jesus walks normally, and not a couple of inches above ground.  He loved Pasolini's Gospel According to St Matthew (1964) in which Jesus clearly just walks.  Diogo Morgado, who plays Jesus in The Bible, gets this right too.  He does not glide; he does not float; he walks.  In fact, there is a lovely moment towards the end of the episode where Jesus sploshes through the water to get to Peter's boat for the miraculous haul of fishes story.

There are many others things I would love to discuss about this episode of The Bible, but I will conclude with just one.  Although it came in for a lot of criticism from academics and others, one of the things that Gibson's Passion of the Christ did well was the "point of view" shot, whereby the viewer would see events as Jesus sees them, often the trigger for a flashback, a flashback that was often Jesus remembering something.  Here in The Bible, there is a great point of view shot, as Jesus goes down into the waters of baptism, and we see things as he sees them:

He is looking at John, as he emerges from the water.  It's an impressive scene not least because this is the kind of area where one could end up being really crass and cheesey.  In the Synoptics' narrative, a dove descends and there is a voice from the heavens.  The Bible does not attempt to depict that directly, but simply suggests Jesus' epiphany by showing a shot of the sky as he emerges.

(Note: the above pictures are mainly screenshots taken from episode 6 with a view to illustrating the points I am making; the second picture (of Sam Douglas as Herod) is a publicity still from History Channel).


Jason A. Staples said...

I see you were unable to persuade them that Jesus was not born in a stable.

Mark Goodacre said...

Ah, but what makes you think that that's a stable? :) said...

"The Bible nicely illustrates the political situation at the turn of the era by drawing in an incident from Josephus's Jewish War 1.33.2 (648-655), the cutting down of the golden eagle over the great gate:"

What political situation are you talking about?

I don't accept this story as historical, or even likely.

Anonymous said...

Where would you have him born? In a mansion? The text only says he was born in a manger because there was no room at the inn, I do not think that reading into the text is appropriate, do you?

Timothy N. Mitchell said...

The political situation would the Roman Empire exercising more and more control and restrictions over Palestine. The eagle being a symbol of that repression. This eventually came to a boil with the First Jewish Revolt and the destruction of the Temple. The account can be found in Josephus' "The Jewish War" 1.33.2. I put a link to a great site on Josephus giving an overview of this incident.
( said...


Why would a law obedient Herod build a temple to God decorated with a creature, a bird? And why would he want to risk the anger of the clerics? The eagle may be a symbol of repression but it was a fiction of its Flavian editors.