The Bible / What works and what doesn’t in the ambitious mini-series

It’s common these days for each new episode of a TV series to begin with a montage that sums up all the relevant plot points from previous episodes. So it was only natural that, when the History Channel aired its five-part mini-series The Bible over the month of March, all but one of the episodes began with narrator Keith David intoning, in his deep baritone voice, “Previously, on The Bible…”

All of the show’s strengths and weaknesses are captured in that one phrase. Produced by Mark Burnett (a TV mogul best known for unscripted “reality” shows like Survivor and The Apprentice) and his wife Roma Downey (who once starred in Touched by an Angel), the mini-series rushes through the whole Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, in ten hours — though it’s more like seven, once you bracket off the commercial breaks — and it zips through the stories so quickly that you barely notice when they are compressed even further in those opening sequences. But the mini-series also makes a point of emphasizing the continuity between Bible stories in a way that is quite rare among Bible films, and in a way that sometimes allows individual stories to shed light profitably on others.

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History and tradition in movie depictions of the Cross.

Western Easter came and went last week, but the Eastern churches are currently only half-way through the Lenten season, so yesterday was, for us, the Sunday of the Veneration of the Precious Cross.

Thinking about this, I inevitably started thinking about Jesus movies, and I began to think about the fact that the recent mini-series The Bible has joined Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ in taking a step back from recent “historically accurate” depictions of the Crucifixion towards a more traditional sort of iconography.

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Could Moses have a cameo in the next Bible episode?

A thought suddenly occurred to me: If Jesus, a New Testament figure, can make two appearances, however obscured, in the Old Testament section of The Bible, is it possible that the cross-overs might go the other way? Could any Old Testament figures have a cameo or two in the New Testament section of the mini-series, which resumes this Sunday night?

It would be very easy to do this: All the mini-series would have to do is include the Transfiguration as part of its depiction of the life-story of Jesus. The Transfiguration, you may recall, is when three of Jesus’ closest apostles saw him talking to Moses and Elijah — and Moses has already played a significant role in this series.

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Jesus at the Movies

In Jesus of Montreal, Denys Arcand’s witty satire about a group of actors who put on a revisionist Passion play, the church sponsoring the play sends in some security guards to call off the production in mid-performance. The actors have tinkered with the Gospels too much; their reconstruction of the historical Jesus challenges church tradition at nearly every point, so out it must go. But the audience objects; one woman says she wants to see the end, and the head of security replies, impatiently, “Look, he dies on the cross and is resurrected. No big deal. Talk about slow!

The scene neatly sums up one of the main challenges faced by films about the life of Jesus: namely, overfamiliarity. Jesus has been represented in paintings, sculptures, and stained-glass windows for centuries; since the invention of moving pictures in the 1890s, he has also been a perennial subject in films and television. All these portrayals tend to fuse together in the popular imagination; audiences think they’ve seen it all before, and they can remain blind to the unique perspective each film sheds on the life of Jesus and his relationship to modern moviegoers.

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