The Bible - “Passion”

The members of Monty Python, when defending their satirical masterwork The Life of Brian against charges that it was mocking Jesus, repeatedly explained that there was nothing inherently funny about Jesus or what he had to say. (Those claiming to speak for Jesus, on the other hand...) That comedic unassailability has largely extended into the dramatic realm as well, with decades of onscreen Saviors blending into a blandly beatific sameness. (Willem Dafoe gets a pass, partly because his odd casting lent the Son of God an incongruously fascinating tinge of menace.)

There are a number of reasons for this, not the least of which is every filmmakers’ fear of offending anyone, anywhere by imbuing such a revered figure with anything resembling human idiosyncrasy, complexity, or doubt. You know-the things that make dramatic characters interesting. Again, Dafoe, in teamwork with Scorcese, managed to wring some actual human drama out of Jesus’ journey, but for the most part audiences have had to make do with whatever innate charisma an actor just can’t hide when playing the unplayable. Which is too bad, since The Bible’s Jesus Christ, Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado, seems to have left his charisma back in Lisbon. In these final two episodes, Morgado’s terminal blandness, when coupled with The Bible’s continuing indifferent filmmaking, combine to bring the religious miniseries to a thoroughly underwhelming end.

Since shifting from the more spectacle-heavy Old Testament, The Bible has swapped one weakness for another. The obviously meager History Channel budget signaled some underwhelming visualizations of the Old Testament’s various miracles, disasters, and smitings, but there (in the first two episodes at least), a handful of surprisingly strong and colorful performances provided some entertainment value. Shifting to the less visually spectacular New Testament, while mostly free from distractingly CGI displays of grandeur, means that that entertainment burden falls on the shoulders of Morgado who, laboring under a case of terminal ordinariness and the leaden weight of the series under-imagined dramaturgy, creates the least compelling Savior in memory.

To be fair, the first episode “Passion” doesn’t give him much to work with. Basically an hour-long exercise in physical abuse, the episode requires little of the actor except victimhood. Whimpering and groaning as he’s given the basic cable equivalent of the Mel Gibson treatment, Morgado portrays Christ’s endless journey to Calvary as a succession of bloody staggers, collapses, and slow, slow rises, all accompanied by a nondescript, murmuring score and intermittent slo-mo just to drag this interminable sequence out even longer. A literal and figurative slog, this sequence inexplicably fails to build any dramatic tension or pathos, despite the liberal lashings of blood (and actual lashings), and co-producer Roma Downey’s perpetual wet-eyed cries as Mary, watching her son be tortured. For a long, long time.

Look at the scene where, as Mary reaches out to a fallen Jesus, he attempts to reassure his mother with the words, “Don’t be afraid! Everything is possible with God!” which, in Morgado’s delivery comes across as blandly generic as a bumper sticker slogan. This Jesus remains a platitudinous cipher throughout, with such legendary (and, for the faithful, innately impactful) lines such as “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” and even “My God, why have you forsaken me?” rendered in a cracked, weedy voice, which even through clenched teeth and caked-on gore, fails to reach out through the TV to viewers’ ears, let alone to Heaven. A beefier Jesus than we’re used to, Morgado simply has no presence as the Presence, and for The Bible, that’s crippling.

It’s no better in the second episode “Courage” after the Resurrection, when, with the grue scraped off, Morgado’s performance upon rising and greeting his dumbfounded followers is one undifferentiated beatific pronouncement after another. With the bearing of a blissed out surfer, this Jesus fades in (holiness makes you blurry) at strategic points in his followers’ post-awakening travels, smiles vaguely, delivers the mandated scripture verse, then fades away, leaving the disciple in question grinning tearfully, and the viewer trying to remember what he looks like once he’s gone.

One unavoidable criticism leveled at any dramatization of the biblical record of the events of Jesus’ death is that it must paint the behavior of the Jewish hierarchy of the time in a negative light. (I leave this discussion to internet message boards I will never read.) And while The Bible’s carefully milky treatment of the issue isn’t going to bring any Gibson-level backlash, its depiction of the Jewish elders (scheming and conniving as they pass the responsibility for Jesus’ death to Pontius Pilate, leading the crowd to choose Barrabas to be freed instead of Jesus by loudly proclaiming, “We have no king but Caesar!” dickering over the sign to be used to mock Christ on the cross, employing thugs and fascist tactics to root out Jesus’ followers, etc.) as one-dimensional, undifferentiated bad guys is irresponsible. Here The Bible’s signature eschewing of any sort of character nuance opens the doors to charges of anti-Semitism through sheer thoughtlessness. (The tradition of the Romans being played by clipped, dour Brits continues, with Greg Hicks essaying Pilate as a weary career politician, clearly exhausted at having to deal with these ever-squabbling locals and their, to him, incomprehensible traditions.)

In addition to its lackluster protagonist (“Protagonist”?) these last episodes have little to recommend them. Unlike the first two in the series, there aren’t any especially noteworthy character actors to liven things up, with one exception. As the thuggish Paul, leading the persecution of Jesus’ apostles following His return, Con O’Neill is hammy as hell (“Blaspheeeemer!!!”), but his energy (at least before his conversion) is a welcome relief from all the somnolent sermonizing. It’s like a Guy Ritchie gangland thug let loose at a choir practice. And his tortured speech about the nature of love to a surly and suspicious crowd once he’s been converted is by far the best piece of acting in either episode, his very human struggle to put his newfound faith into words the sole convincing depiction of a man trying to thoughtfully live a good life. The Bible could have taken a few lessons.

Stray observations:

  • The phrase “previously... on The Bible” continues to sound silly.
  • “Thomas... stop doubting.”
  • One of the disciples is killed in what purports to be Ethiopia by what appear to be extras from a Tarzan movie.
  • I suppose its astute marketing, but the ad for ChristianMingle.com coming directly after seeing a soldier jab a spear into Jesus’ guts was a trifle unseemly, no?
  • Now Satan Obama looks to be wearing whiteface? There are enough levels of wrongness there to keep the internet smoking for a while...
  • The series never tires of guys bleeding from the mouth.
  • Or of having light shine, Robert Rodriguez-style, through the holes in Jesus' resurrected hands.
  • Keith David isn’t called upon to fill in the blanks with his sonorous tones until after the one-hour mark, when his narration is increasingly used to tie the apostles’ fates up in a hurry. He’s used like tape to hold sloppy writing together.
  • The depiction of John exiled alone on a barren, scorpion-infested rock for decades and there writing the Book of Revelations serves to explain a lot.
  • The Bible is brought to you in part by WalMart.” Because of course it is.

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