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Watching The Passion

Updated Sunday, 23rd March 2008

Melanie Wright assesses "The Passion" on BBC.

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I’ve been watching BBC’s The Passion this weekend. As with any costume drama, part of the fun is spotting familiar faces in unfamiliar guises. Much has been made of James Nesbitt’s performance as Pilate. I’m also struck by Denis Lawson, who played Cardiac Consultant Tom Campbell-Gore in Holby City a while ago, in the role of Annas, one of Jesus’s chief accusers. Meanwhile Robert Powell, who was ITV’s Jesus of Nazareth in 1977, now plays Holby City Nurse Consultant and coke-head Mark Williams. What goes around comes around, I guess.

Still healing the sick: Former Jesus Robert Powell tends Frank Mills in Holby City

Still healing the sick: 'Former Jesus' Robert Powell tends Frank Mills in Holby City.

The production is good value in other ways, too. Although most draw on the insights of biblical interpreters and archaeologists, no film or television series can exactly depict the world of the first century. Screen images are always ‘re-presentations’ - shaped by genre conventions, and reflecting contemporary understandings of Jesus’s life and ministry. Perhaps inevitably, this series stands in the shadows of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2003). The Passion echoes its colour palette, especially in the dusty brown tones of the Jerusalem street-scenes and the blue mists of Gethsemene, where Jesus is arrested. Careful to avoid the charges of antisemitism that surrounded Gibson’s film, The Passion also goes to considerable lengths (sometimes labouring its point) to depict the Jewish authorities sympathetically. High Priest Caiaphas is shown as a dedicated family man, whose heavy burden of responsibility for the welfare of the Jewish people as a whole drives him to make compromises with the Roman authorities.  

Finally, the depiction of Jesus himself resonates with the priority that many Christians today give to issues of social justice. The Passion plays down Jesus’s reputation as a miracle worker and emphasises his teaching activity. Above all, it presents him as initiating a new egalitarian community: he calls his disciples to recognise sinners and the sick as ‘brothers and sisters’, and eats with women and men on the eve of his capture. There’s a strong degree of fit between this radical Jesus and the beliefs that lie behind the Bible Society’s new Poverty and Justice Bible, and the host of recent Christian campaigns against world debt.

The Passion, then, re-imagines the past in the image of the present, and it’s precisely for that reason that’s it’s been both interesting and entertaining.

Taking it further:

The Open University course AD 317: Religion Today: Tradition, Modernity, and Change, studies the presentation of Jesus in film.


The Passion on
The Poverty and Justice Bible


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