Years ago I ran a balloon debate on the subject of the four gospels. The participants were each given one of the four gospels, went away to do some preparation and then had to put forward their case as to why their gospel ought to remain at the expense of one of the others. Unsurprisingly, Mark lost. John is the most distinct, Matthew has the Sermon on the Mount, Luke has the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son, but what does Mark have? It's probably the oldest, but other than that most people would struggle to tell you much about its own distinctive take on the life, death and maybe resurrection of Jesus (but more on that later).
Mark's Gospel has also been a loser in another way - until the recent release of the Lumo Project's The Gospel of Mark it was the only canonical gospel not to have a word-for-word screen adaptation. Luke was adapted in the seventies, Matthew in the nineties and John just after the turn of the century, but despite rumours that the company who made those two, later, adaptations were planning to record a version of Mark's gospel, nothing ever materialised. Until now.
The Gospel of Mark has been released as part of the Lumo project, which has produced filmed versions of all four gospels. A not insubstantial part of the reason for the project getting this far is that it has taken a rather unusual approach. Instead of having actors recite their lines at the relevant moment in the film, all the text is spoken by an unseen narrator. The DVD even offers the choice to choose between Rupert Penry-Jones performing the NIV version of the Gospel, or Tim Piggott-Smith's reading of the King James. In contrast to the majority of films about Jesus, which tend to suggest they are getting back to the original historical figure, the use of narration really emphasises the textual nature of the gospel. It's a similar approach to that taken by the Genesis project's Gospel of Luke and Genesis in the 1970s. The characters voices can be heard faintly in the background, speaking Aramaic, but not loud enough to know whether they are speaking the words from Mark's gospel or Matthew's. This has allowed the producers to re-use the same footage in different films even though the precise wording of the two texts may vary. This also de-emphasises the the actors and their acting and places a greater emphasis on the actual text.
All of which raises a number of interesting issues, particularly for biblical scholars. Some might object, for example, that having the same footage re-used even though the wording is different rather underplays the differences between the gospels. Indeed at times the images don't quite fit the words that are being spoken. We see two donkeys in Jesus' entry into Jerusalem; darkness is said to come, when it manifestly doesn't and, most disappointingly of all, Gethsemane's streaker - one of Mark's most intriguing flourishes - is mentioned but absent.
This impression that the differences between the gospels are being somewhat watered down is bolstered by the use of the same actor playing Jesus. Of course, that said, there was only one historical Yeshua so this approach is far from unwarranted. Furthermore the opposite can also be argued. Whilst the reusing the footage might suggest a marginally greater degree of harmony, it does highlight the fact that the latter gospel writers (particularly Matthew and Luke) did simply re-use large chunks of text (/footage) from Mark's gospel (and, in Luke's case either Matthew and/or Q as well).
Nevertheless, having noted the way the film emphasises text the film also has a strong emphasis on image. It is, at times, beautifully shot, with many of the establishing shots filmed in striking locations. Then there's also the choice of Selva Rasalingam as Jesus. Shorn of the ability to act with his delivery and intonation Rasalingam gives a very physical performance, of a strong, tough Jesus. Many filmmakers have talked about presenting a Jesus who could credibly have spent his younger years working as a tekton (builder/carpenter). This is certainly true of Rasalingam, but the strength in his performance is something far deeper.
It is also no a performance designed to win over fans cheaply and easily. Whilst once or twice he's a little over smiley for my tastes there are also times where his brusqueness will not appease those who like their Jesus' meek and mild, or to be constantly sporting a smile. You can never please everyone in this respect so I think the balance is about right, particularly for the Gospel of Mark, which of the four canonical portraits, puts the greatest emphasis on Jesus' humanity. It's a challenging portrayal, but in a way that asks good, honest questions about our preconceptions.
It's also nice to see some of the less popular episodes from Mark get treated, the miracles in particular. One of the distortions of biblical films is that they tend to focus on certain types of miracle. On the one hand there are those that are the most dramatic, or the most spectacular, that look the best on the big screen. On the other hand many filmmakers, choose miracles dependant on their acceptability to cynical modern viewers. 'Miracles' where more 'natural' explanations....
By restricting themselves to a particular text the filmmakers' choice as to which episodes to include are taken out of their hands. And so these less desirable incidents are included when usually they might not be. So here we see a series of exorcisms, hands healed, someone is given the ability to speak and those that were blind see. Mark's gospel is full of little healings like these, but they are often too understated, or repeated too often to get included in big, gospel-harmonising films. In this film, it's a fascinating reminder that Jesus wasn't just about grand set pieces but about changing individual lives. Few Jesus films contain any more than one exorcism, for example, but Mark's gospel is full of them and it's good to see that put on the screen for once, however out of kilter it seems to the modern world.
Not dis-similarly it's also good to see Jesus' apocalyptic predictions about the fall of Jerusalem captured on screen in its unadulterated entirety. It's only natural that the majority of filmmakers, omit, greatly abridge, alter or harmonise this speech. Sometimes the results are even rather impressive such as in Jesus of Montreal (1989). Obviously a variation on this speech has appeared in the Genesis Project's Luke and the Visual Bible's Matthew, but in those cases the sources texts have already changed the words we find in Mark. So it's good to see the original, with it's more this-worldly emphasis and its dramatic imagery. The film does well with this as well setting the scene round a campfire (a setting that captures the dark and fiery tone of the speech) but intercutting it with flash forwards to keep things interesting.
Having done this part so well, it's disappointing that the ending is so unimaginative. The agreed upon text of Mark appears to comes up short at chapter 16 verse 8 (before any sightings of the risen Jesus) and all we're left with is a series of fragments where others have sought to create a new ending. It's a scenario that suggested a series of interesting possibilities cinematically, particularly for an adaptation that puts such an emphasis on the Gospel's text. Sadly, all we get is the most popular of these endings presented as a piece with the rest of chapter 16. Whilst this is perhaps the least problematic and controversial solution, my inner Bible geek had hoped for something more creative and interesting here.
But that's just me, and probably shouldn't be taken too seriously. You see whilst Mark did lose out in that initial balloon debate, over time, it's gradually become my favourite. Indeed, in my estimation, it's even overtaken the gospel attributed to my namesake Matthew. I appreciate the way that Mark is less varnished than Matthew and Luke (both of whom took it and amended it for their particular purposes). I value its breathless, hurried, style. I enjoy its many mysteries such as the ambiguous, possibly lost, ending.
Whilst Lumo's Gospel of Mark isn't primarily aimed at Mark-geeks like me, it does do a good job of bringing many of those aspects to the screen and like the other entries in the series is generally well put together. It may be the last of the gospels to make it onto film, but it's certainly one of the strong attempts at this kind of word for word adaptation.
Labels: Lumo Project