Unexpected Easter Stars

Since Easter, I have found Hollywood most enlightening. Thinking about the Passion, especially about the Resurrection and what it means, I dimly remembered that films tell the story in a variety of ways. Just as reading different versions of the Bible illuminates in ways that a single text version does not always do, so seeing several films on the death and resurrection of Jesus yielded surprises that have been most fruitful.

It has to be said that ‘Biblical’ films take liberties with the main story line: a Bible literalist might easily get annoyed with them but most of the additions just creatively fill the many gaps in the chronology that has come down to us, shedding a slanting light onto the familiar. In all cases, the respect shown for the truth of the story is very direct and real. Among the films I saw, the moral force of the tale lies with those who come to believe in Jesus as the Messiah – despite everything, often to the point of martyrdom.

The Robe (1953) tracks three such conversion experiences. The Greek slave ‘gets it’ immediately, on the first Palm Sunday; later, the high-born Roman lady, finally incensed with Nero’s evil, joins Marcellus, her Roman tribune fiancée, in willingly giving up her life; Marcellus’ personal transformation is accompanied by his own sequence of intelligent observations and questions, all challenging Christian faith.

It is a reminder, today, that apathy, scepticism or hostility towards our faith is not necessarily the product of ignorance or thoughtlessness – or even new. Why would an intelligent, well-educated Roman opt to follow what can easily be seen as a wandering band of illiterates who, with fantastical tales, threatened to negate centuries of success by turning away from the apparently proven gods of progress?

Risen (2016) perhaps does the sceptical questions best – and answers them in the best way possible.

Two people stood out for me in all of the films – Barabbas and Pontius Pilate. Barabbas is sometimes portrayed as a rebel leader of insurgents against Roman rule, a man to whom, one version has it, Judas is fatally drawn as more likely than Jesus to deliver the “messianic” victory over the Roman occupiers – hence the betrayal.

Another version has him killed off after a rumpus as Jesus is dying. But all versions have him personally wondering how it is that Jesus dies in his place. As in scripture, quite literally, Barabbas is the first person of whom it can be said, “Jesus died for him” – that alone makes him of timeless interest.

Perhaps the most thoughtful characterisation is by Antony Quinn in Barabbas (1961). Here, Barabbas starts out as popular, boorish hooligan figure who, as he is released from his dark cell, is confusingly dazzled by seeing Jesus under arrest across the square. He is bewildered and then journeys through spiritual rejection and doubt, finally accepting Jesus as his Saviour, dying in the mass crucifixions Nero orders after torching Rome. This is not the once-and-for-all certainty of conversion through a personal encounter with the risen Jesus, as in Risen, but a slow, painful and lonely pilgrimage, brought to a humble end on his personal cross. Precise biblical veracity it might lack but spiritual depth it has in abundance.

The path taken by Pontius Pilate is, of course, different. The various characterisations of him in the films all have value. Reading the Gospels yields no certainty as to his character or motivation; the films give an interesting range of possibilities:

In Barabbas, Pilate is a superbly confident administrator, unimpressed by either the mob or the temple leaders: · the issue at stake is simply too minor to waste time on. He is intellectually interested in the question of “What is truth?” but rather as a matter for philosophical reflection in the Graeco-Roman tradition.

  • In The Robe, Pilate is a weak and petty man – the supposedly untypical Roman, incompetently responsible for deicide so that “Rome” is not tarnished ever after – carried along by events rather than controlling them, envious of anyone better connected at the Imperial court than himself.
  • In King of Kings, he is a dry lawyer, interested only in definitions of kingdom, jurisdiction and authority, ‘truth’ being what a court determines it to be. Herod Antipas is more his real enemy than the wandering Galilean or Judean subversives.
  • In Risen, Pilate is at the end of his career and cynical; above all, he is frightened by the impending visit of the Emperor Tiberius to Palestine and all else is subsumed by that. Kill, suppress, imprison, cover up: anything for the appearance of order. The ‘missing’ body is of far greater threat to that order than the crucifixion and Pilate acts accordingly.

All these are legitimate interpretations of Pilate from scripture. And what unites them all, in the Gospel accounts and in the films, is the central irony that Pontius Pilate is the first man to proclaim who Jesus was and is. By insisting – from whatever motive – on the sign saying, ‘King of the Jews’ in Latin, Greek and Aramaic, he begins the necessary and never-ending task of global evangelisation.

Films are no kind of replacement for the Gospels, They cannot tell ‘the whole story’; they are a multi-layer filter of selective screenplay, direction and acting, based on Scripture. But in another sense they do tell a ‘whole’ story. In particular, the way the disciples visibly react to Jesus startlingly confirm his humanity. The way we see how the miracles amaze them suggest God working within him. The depiction of the Resurrection in Risen is marvellously well done. Because the films are stories of the story, we see somehow more clearly that his sacrificial coming – to save all humanity – is made possible by Pilate and Barabbas. They are the indispensable men in the Passion story. Judas was another – but that, as they say, is another story.

Peter Foot