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Reviews of The Passion (BBC) - From Blog Entries

Last word on The Passion for the moment - must get on to other topics! Overall my opinion of this drama hasn't changed much. The portrayal of Mary I'm still not happy with, while I really got to like the portrayal of Jesus. My media column in today's Irish Catholic newspaper was devoted entirely to the programme and my review was generally positive. On the back page columnist David Quinn wrote a negative piece about it - he found this depiction of Jesus "the most unconvincing ever to come our way". Jesus as played by Joseph Mawle he found "insipid, uncertain, uncharismatic, unprepossessing". He wondered how such a man could ever attract any followers. He didn't like the way the apostles were quarrelsome, not just among themselves but with Jesus. In trying to avoid the error of making Jesus too holy and divine he reckoned they fell into the opposite error and portrayed Jesus as "effectively a man and no more". Thus miraculous events were portrayed in an ambiguous way.
Funny enough I shared many of these observations, though not as strongly, after watching the first episode. However this production grew on me as the episodes progressed and I found the resurrection scenes in particular very strong on the miraculous, though I realise not all critics I've read agree on that.
I followed a few of these reviewers as they too engaged with this drama through Holy Week. Matt Page's Bible Films Blog was especially comprehensive in it's coverage, while Doug Chaplin posted detailed and interesting reviews after each episode on his Metacatholic Blog. Giving a Catholic perspective various contributors reviewed it on the Jesuit Thinking Faith website.

Thinking today about how I might use clips from BBC's The Passion in my religion class. Had been doing religious themes in TV drama with my Transition Year students so this would be a suitable follow on, and normally after Easter I do some classes on the Resurrection with third year students. Up to now I've used the Resurrection scenes from Jesus of Nazareth, which haven't at all become dated and are still powerful and moving. Maybe for variety I'll use the last 20 minutes of The Passion this year, with plenty of discussion as the students may find the use of different actors for Jesus rather confusing. I'll be interested in hearing their reaction. When I come to do the Eucharist with Leaving Cert students prior to Graduation Mass I'll use the Last Supper scene, another of my favourite "set pieces" from this new production.

The Passion on BBC: Have just finished watching the final half hour episode of The Passion, so these are some preliminary thoughts. At the start I was a little disappointed - I began to wonder if the film was going to be coy about the resurrection. There were two Temple Guards instead of Roman soldiers, half guarding the tomb, no sign of any angels, lack of clarity about how much time had passed before the empty tomb was found by Mary Magdalen, talk of some of the apostles planning "something".
Then there was a gradual yet dramatic transformation - Mary met a man at the tomb, who didn't look like Jesus but she felt it could have been him. What was this - getting a new actor to play Jesus, after getting so used to Joseph Mawle? The producers keeping their options open on whether it was Jesus or not?
Then after lots of realistic bickering two apostles headed off on the road to Emmaus and met another mysterious stranger, more charismatic, which helped. What's this, I thought, now we have three actors playing Jesus? I thought this was a really bold way to convey the Emmaus story when Jesus was not recognised initially. The apostles invited him for a meal, and in a most powerful and emotional moment they really did recognise him in the breaking of bread - the way Jesus did it was just the way he had done it in the Last Supper scene. At that moment Mawle appeared again as Jesus, Jesus that had conquered death and really risen. Shortly after that he appeared to the doubting apostles and that too was a moving scene.
There wasn't exactly an Ascension scene. Jesus just departed into the crowds after a chat with Peter, reassuring him that he would be with them always. All in all this was a most striking presentation of events after the crucifixion.
If there was anything unsatisfactory apart from what I mentioned at the start it was that many post resurrection events were not portrayed - e.g. the doubting Thomas incident (James seemed to be a bigger doubter initially). Yet a lot of attention was given to the conflict between Caiphas and Joseph of Aramathea (left), and relatively speaking I'm not sure this plot line was worth pursuing in such detail. Caiphas was not portrayed as sympathetically in the previous episode when he handed over Jesus, but in this episode he was softened again. He felt he had done what was best for his people, and that as he saw it, he had not agreed to the death of an innocent man - he still regarded Jesus as a blasphemer (or so he said). He got a happy ending of sorts as his wife delivered a new baby.
Pilate was played fairly straight throughout, not rehabilitated, not a psycho, rough by our standards, perhaps half civilised in the context of the time. Even he had a return to Rome to look forward to.
Once again I wasn't that keen on the portrayal of Mary, still too bitter, complaining that God had broken her heart. In general I felt she was underused, as was Mary Magdalen throughout. I'll return to this topic for some more considered observations on the whole series, with some ideas for using parts of it in class when I get back to teaching religion after the Easter holidays.

Have just watched the third episode of BBC's The Passion. Preliminary thoughts: Once again I find the programme growing on me more and more, especially the central performance.
I particularly liked the way the Last Supper was done - starting cheerfully and ending on a sombre note. There was no hedging on the Eucharist. After the usual words Jesus added - "this will be your sacrament … this is how you'll bring me back among you", a rather interesting addition I thought. The presentation of the agony in the garden was reminiscent in visual style of the way it was done in Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, but Jesus got to express his agony in much more detail. Unlike the latter film however the scourging at the pillar was played down (perhaps in reaction to that film?) - we just got three representative lashes, with the camera focussed on the face of Jesus.
The way of the cross was quite short, with Jesus being crowned with thorns on the way, and a repeat of the children throwing red petals as they did in the Palm Sunday scene. This hurry seemed to be designed to convey how quickly the Jewish leaders wanted Jesus put to death, hoping it would defeat his cause and scatter his followers. There was no crowd on Golgotha, suggesting this might just have seemed an "ordinary" crucifixion to the locals at the time. Mary and John arrived a bit later, but in time for Jesus' death.
Jospeph Mawle's central performance was really genuine, affecting and convincing in the crucifixion scene. One curious thing - it was particularly obvious in this episode how the use of the word Jewish was being avoided - e.g. Jesus was described several times as "King of the Judeans". Was this to avoid any accusations of anti-Semitism? Maybe so, but it didn't really sound right. Maybe Jewish people will be even more offended by this ignoring or making bland of their name, race and religion. Would the title King of the Jews not also include Gallilleans, not just Judeans? One more episode to go Easter Sunday night. Interesting to see how the resurrection will be done.

I have lots to write about recent activities in school especially in relation to religious themes in TV drama, but I'm going to try and keep all my commentary on BBC's The Passion in one place here, and will get to other TV drama next week.
Already this year in class I've dealt with films on the life of Jesus, but after Easter I may use clips from the BBC production to update this module, but also to show yet another example of religion in TV drama. So far I really like the Palm Sunday scene and Jesus' conflict with the apostles over what's going to happen to him.
I have to be careful this week to concentrate more on the Holy Week story itself rather than this particular representation of it! However, because of the serialisation of it, as it runs through Holy Week it is in my thoughts quite a bit and new ideas occur to me daily.
As regards the human/divine issue, this production seems more to veer towards the human side of Jesus, especially in the first episode. The second episode balanced it a bit in what Jesus was saying about his mission and his resurrection. I'm looking forward to how they will represent the resurrection, and also to how they'll do the Last Supper. I doubt if we'll get a Leonardo type tableau, like director George Stevens went for in The Greatest Story Ever Told. Focussing entirely on the holy week events seems to me a good approach to a Jesus film, as it gives a tighter focus and avoids the excesses of sprawling Biblical epics. Mel Gibson used the same approach in The Passion of the Christ, using an even tighter time frame - from the striking Garden of Gethsemane scene to the Resurrection.
The only down side is that some of the great stories and incidents from the earlier parts of Jesus' life are missed, so we don't get the context of the Easter story. Gibson's film was much criticised for this, but he did try to overcome the problem by some of the intriguing flashbacks. If only we had more of those and less of the graphic violence!
The BBC production is particularly good at context, in the gritty atmosphere of Passover and in the conversations of the main players. There is plenty of Jesus' teaching, not always exact quotes from scripture. The fresh wording does grab the attention, as we can get too familiar with the well known sayings, but there's always a danger with people taking liberties with scripture. Yet, when only the words of scripture are used, as say in the Matthew series, when Bruce Marchiano played the warmest Jesus I've seen yet, it comes across as stiff and stilted in film terms.

Last night I got to see the second episode of the BBC's The Passion, this time a half hour episode. I’m getting to like Joseph Mawle’s portrayal of Jesus, perhaps just a matter of getting use to him in the role. I liked the scene where he discussed what was going to happen to him with the apostles. John, often portrayed as a gentle soul, had a particularly negative reaction to this and became quite shirty with Jesus!
It’s still hard to distinguish the apostles from each other – more work could have gone into giving at least some of them more distinctive personalities. Jesus was quite strong on the idea his sacrifice saving us from our sins, and in a neat ironic touch, Caiphas also spoke of one man being offered up to save the rest.
The softening of Caiphas continues, but he is edging his way towards having Jesus arrested and handed over to the Pilate (James Nesbit,above) for execution if he doesn’t repent and stop causing unrest during Passover. Other Jewish leaders, including a black Joseph of Aramathea, are not in favour of such a move. With this balance so far, I don’t think there’ll be any accusations of anti-Semitism against the programme.
A few more thoughts occurred to me about Sunday’s opening episode. I was just thinking how lacking in colour the whole production is – it’s all dull browns by day and dark blue by night, but the portrayal of Palm Sunday was striking – apart from the palms, the people were showering Jesus with red petals, perhaps a foreshadowing of the blood to come.
I’m still not enamoured by that scene with Mary the mother of Jesus. Obviously she loves him and seems grouchy on his behalf, but it’s as if she resents having been chosen for her role, as if it was foisted on her without her permission – she has a line that says something to the effect that the baby was in her belly before she knew it. But this doesn’t necessarily clash with the biblical version – maybe this is something that Mary says in the heat of the moment, under the pressure of seeing her son heading inexorably towards a horrible death.
Last time I noted that the production seemed to shying away from miracles. This time there was at least a mention, by Caiphas, of miracles that Jesus was reputed to have performed, though Caiphas himself was sceptical. And in this latest episode Jesus is very clear that he will rise again, leaving the apostles looking sceptical!
It’s useful to have the programme serialised through Holy Week, though I would have preferred to see six half hour episodes spread through the week rather than two one-hour and two half-hour episodes. For those who would like to see it again or catch up there’s a recap edition next Sunday afternoon at 2.15 pm before the final episode on Sunday evening at 7.30 pm (BBC 1).

Full marks this year to BBC for taking the Holy Week and the Easter story so seriously. With HBO they have produced a high budget dramatisation of the last week of Christ's life on earth leading up to the Resurrection. The Passion started last night on BBC 1, continues tonight and Good Friday and will finish Easter Sunday night. Based on last night's opener the signs are pretty good.
As with all film versions of the life of Christ the key issue is how Jesus himself is played. Joseph Mawle (left) is a more bedraggled than usual Jesus, but he has an appealing smile, a gentle and compassionate manner. At this stage he seems quietly confident of the mission he has from his heavenly Father. We see him preaching, tending to the sick, and forgiving sins, but so far there seems a reluctance to show physical miracles - even where the scriptural context seems to call for it - there was one scene reminiscent of the sick man by the pool of Bethsaida and the healing of another crippled man. He says to this man that his sins are forgiven, but there's no talk of taking up the bed and walking. This naturalistic approach was evident from the beginning when it was hard to pick Jesus out from the crowd of apostles - no telling music or reverential camera angles, unlike Jesus of Nazareth when there wasn't any doubt that the magnetic and intense Robert Powell was Jesus. For me Powell's is still the definitive portrayal.
Jesus' mother makes a brief appearance, but she's rather grouchy about the trouble Jesus is getting himself into ("I didn't ask for this" she complains, not quite the Mary of the Magnificat), but they part on good terms at least.
The highly charged atmosphere of Jerusalem at Passover is captured well, with its intermingling of political and religious culture. Jesus causes a stir by his arrival. Pilate is in town worried about unrest, and anxious to show that Rome is boss. The Romans are rough and cruel as always but the Jewish temple guards are portrayed more sympathetically than in Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ, while the Jewish high priests are also given a softer than usual treatment. So far Caiphas is a fairly sympathetic character, a family man trying to keep the peace and adopting a grin-and-bear-it approach to the Roman occupation. Judas is a spy for the Jewish religious establishment. At one stage tries to get him to see into his heart, but Judas is evasive and rather curiously, when he runs away Jesus says: "I'm sorry Judas".
The other apostles are hard to distinguish from each other at this stage.
I'll expand on these preliminary evaluations as the week goes on.