There have been many films about the end times, but few have had all that much to do with the actual Book of Revelation. Most apocalyptic movies have been more interested in giving the ancient prophecies a modern spin than in bringing the Scriptures themselves to life — and they have usually accomplished this by spinning a web of hokey political conspiracies and horror-movie shock effects out of thin air. Thus, these films have tended to reflect the social and cultural preoccupations of their makers much more than anything particularly biblical.
Thankfully, there is none of that in The Apocalypse, a European TV-movie (now available on video in North America) which brings some of the visions of John to life more or less as he recorded them. But the filmmakers, evidently convinced (and understandably so) that the Book of Revelation, as written, might not lend itself to a conventional dramatic structure, have imposed a fictitious story of their own on the proceedings — and while it is good to see Revelation put within its proper first-century setting, the results are often quite banal.
The basic premise certainly has potential. John (the late Richard Harris), the last surviving personal witness to the Resurrection, is imprisoned on the Isle of Patmos and sending letters of encouragement to persecuted Christians. However, because John keeps his identity a secret and goes by another name on Patmos, the Christians in nearby Ephesus are not sure exactly where he is. Meanwhile, the Roman Emperor Domitian (Bruce Payne), who has proclaimed himself divine, wants the Christians to worship him, and he gives his generals orders to put the rumors of John’s continuing leadership to a definite end.
This is where things become somewhat trite. The Christians in Ephesus send one of their own, a woman named Irene (Vittoria Belvedere), to Patmos to look for John. The Romans send one of their own, too, an undercover agent named Valerius (Benjamin Sadler) who poses as a Christian and, it turns out, has already struck up a romance with Irene while posing as a member of her secret church group. Oh, and just before accepting this assignment, he discovered that his birth parents were Christian martyrs.
Will Valerius renounce his cloak-and-dagger ways for the cross? Will Irene forgive Valerius when she discovers his deceit? Will true love prevail? And, perhaps most importantly, will the viewer care? The skeptical Roman soldier who falls for the pretty Christian girl is a staple of early-church movies like Quo Vadis? and The Sign of the Cross, and The Apocalypse doesn’t do anything especially interesting with this cliché.
There should, perhaps, be nothing surprising about this strange mix of biblical intrigue and pedestrian storytelling. The Apocalypse, first broadcast overseas in 2002, is the final chapter in ‘The Bible Collection,’ a series of films produced by the Italian company Lux Vide in partnership with other networks and producers from around the globe. Stylistically, the series has been all over the map; a few episodes have been directed by former art-house darlings like Ermanno Olmi and Nicolas Roeg, but the others were put together by industry veterans who have rarely, if ever, worked in any medium other than television.
The most distinctive characteristic of this series is the way it emphasizes the humanity of its protagonists, sometimes incorporating elements of Scripture that other Bible movies would rather ignore. For example, Joseph (which was broadcast in the United States on TNT and won the Emmy for best mini-series in 1995) includes the rape of Dinah, the sacking of Shechem by her brothers Simeon and Levi, and the quasi-incestuous behavior of Reuben and Judah — all of which is perfectly scriptural, and all of which serves to underscore the contrast between Joseph’s virtues and his brothers’ vices.Similarly, in Moses, the titular prophet (played very effectively by Ben Kingsley) is not a Charlton Heston-esque pillar of authoritarian wrath, but a deeply emotional man who rejoices when God gives the Hebrews the Law, and who grieves when they are punished for their idolatry. And while Jesus (broadcast on CBS in 2000) may have brought its title character a little too down to earth — making him less a rabbi who spoke with authority than a roving, smiling hippie — the film explored what it meant for Christ to submit his human will to the will of God like no other film produced before or since.
This emphasis on the characters’ humanity serves The Apocalypse well whenever the focus of our attention is the apostle John. Harris, who earlier starred as Abraham in the Bible Collection film of that name (and, before that, played Cain in John Huston’s 1966 epic The Bible: In the Beginning…), is quite convincing as a man who remembers being personally present at the crucifixion of his Lord some 60-odd years before, and who is somewhat overwhelmed by the mystical, abstract visions through which Jesus now communicates to him. He keeps us grounded as the visions around him turn increasingly surreal.
The visions themselves are quite interesting, and replete with computer-generated special effects that are fairly decent by television standards. Although the visions do incorporate some modern material, the film does not try to tie specific prophecies to specific historical events; when the horseman who represents War gallops across the screen, he is as symbolic of the ancient Romans as he is of marching Nazis and the terrorist attacks of September 11. Prophecy buffs might wish some of the other visions — like those involving lambs, horns, seals, meteors and ominous clouds — were interpreted for the viewer, but for the most part, the film is content to be as mysterious as the Bible itself.
The rest of the film, however, is full of dull distractions, from a thwarted escape attempt on Patmos to the rivalry between Valerius’s adoptive father and the Roman governor he replaces. Cinematographer-turned-director Raffaele Mertes allows some of his actors to overact quite badly, and the script is riddled with boilerplate dialogue and dramatic situations. This, then, is how The Bible Collection ends: not with a bang, but a whimper.
2 stars (out of 4)
Talk About It
1. What do you make of the prophecies in the Book of Revelation? How do you think John’s readers interpreted them in the first century? How do you think we should interpret them today?
2. If you could meet someone who had known Jesus personally and had witnessed his crucifixion and resurrection, what would you ask him or her?
3. How should we respond when people say they have received visions from God? How should we deal with the visions that we ourselves might receive? How do we know if those visions are really from God?
4. Why do you think God allows persecution? What is the significance of martyrdom?
The Family Corner>
For parents to consider
The film has some violent images, most of which concern the persecution of Christians. John has flashbacks to the crucifixion of Christ, and a prisoner on Patmos is scourged by the Romans. The Romans also wipe out a Christian village, though most of this is implied and not shown directly.
— A version of this review first appeared on the Christianity Today website.