Page 12, 14th March 2008

14th March 2008
Page 12
Page 12, 14th March 2008 — A BBC antidote to Mel Gibson

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Locations: Dublin, Rome


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A BBC antidote to Mel Gibson

The Passion


When will people learn that regional accents do not work in films set in the ancient world? There should be a rule that everyone who lived between the founding of Jericho and the fall of Rome must speak Shakespearean proto-RP, or go for hyper-realistic and have the Israelites talking like Israelis and the Romans sounding like Italians.

Because if there's one thing we learned from Oliver Stone's dreadful biopic Alexander, it is that if the conqueror of the Persian Empire is to speak with a Dublin accent he may as well just open a can of Coke or play with his iPod, such is its realismdestroying effect. Likewise with Tony Curtiss Brooklyn gladiator and John Wayne's Roman centurion.

The BBC's new drama The Passion, which runs every night during Holy Week, is promoted as an attempt to put the crucifixion in its "historical, social and political context". A shame, then, that Jesus's followers talk like a group of football players: Matthew is Welsh. Judas has a distinctive Lancastrian voice, and Barabas is a Scouser (which will please them). Pontius Pilate is an Ulsterman, although strangely that accent, with its associations of warfare and religious extremism, seems to work.

Only Jesus and Joseph of Arimathea talk proper, and the latter loses some ultra-realism points by being black. Not that this is any more unlikely than 13 blue-eyed, northern Europeans wandering around first century Galilee (especially when everyone else is clearly from Morocco, where the programme was made).

This is quibbling, of course — Chinese or Peruvian actors could be playing the roles and the message would still be the same. And the acting is good. Many might have groaned inwardly when they heard that the BBC and American cable channel HBO were joining forces to make a mini-series about the Passion. HBO is the world's greatest television drama factory and the BBC is probably number two, but their previous collaboration, Rome, was a re-working of Shakespeare with dialogue that could have come from Footballers Wives, with lots of painful-to-watch sex thrown in.

Not that the BBC would try sexing up the Passion. Aside from the fact that Martin Scorsese already trod similar dangerous ground in The Last Temptation of Christ. we've all had enough religious controversies recently to last us to the Second Coming. So the BBC, in its wonderfully Reithian way, has tried to make a drama that is selfconsciously for the entire nation. It's refrained from using the tired old phrase "for people of all faiths and none", but that is only because it goes without saying these days. But at least the BBC has not gone out of its way to alienate Christians, while at the same time trying to see the story from the Jews' point of view.

This is no bad thing, either morally or dramatically. After the screening last month director and writer both rejected the suggestion that their Passion was in any way a reaction to Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. It clearly was, and a good thing too. Gibson's sado-masochistic torture flick was faithful to St John's Gospel — at least an X-rated version — but its demonic portrayal of the Pharisees and the high priest Caiaphas in particular struck many as anti-Semitic. It did not help that Gibson. the son of a notorious anti-Semite, then proceeded to get drunk and blame the Jews for causing the world's misery.

So this Passion is told from the viewpoint of Caiaphas, among others, and the high priest is shown in a sympathetic light. And why not? Judas and Pontius Pilate have been humanised on screen, so it makes sense to explain a man who also had his reasons and role in the greatest event in history. Previous portrayals have been extremely tedious; this time around Ben Daniels makes him interesting (strange, 1980s poodle perm haircut not withstanding).

My greatest fear was that the thing would turn into a gigantic metaphor for the Palestinian occupation or the American invasion of Iraq. It seems to have avoided this so far, although I've only seen the first episode and if Pilate says, "You're either with us or against us" by Holy Thursday, I take it all back.

The only major mistake is the depiction of the Virgin Mary telling her son that she didn't choose to bear him, which goes against everything in Christian theology. The whole point of the Virgin Mary in Christianity is that it really was her decision — strange that the film-makers missed this.

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