In an email yesterday a NT colleague and friend Peter Richardson told me the sad news. The makers of the wonderful verbatim version of the Gospel of John which had a terrific cast, after intending to also film the Gospel of Mark are bankrupt. They had worked through three scripts and planned to film, but the Gospel of John did not do well enough either in the theaters or on DVD. This is very sad since it was a much better movie than the "Passion of the Christ" and far more Biblically accurate. Is it really so difficult for orthodox Christians to get behind the right movies which reach the general public and use them as conversation starters to witness for their faith? We need to do better. But these movies need to be well done and Biblically faithful. Which brings me to a new movie just in the theaters this month./
Picture if you will a Jewish version of "The King and I" movie (complete with ruler who looks great, has washboard abs, but isn't exactly a great actor--- remember Yul Brenner?). This particular take on the book of Esther, or better said the novel "Hadassah" which is loosely based on the book of Esther, runs just over two hours in length (rated PG). A great Biblical epic this is not, and one especially gets tired of the overly dramatic music droning on and on trying to infuse pathos into a mediocre script and an average cast, but it is certainly isn't all bad or a waste of a visit to the theater. As entertainment it is o.k., but don't look for any Oscar nominations.
Clearly enough this movie was not filmed in Susa in Persia-- try India and some of the sites and cities used are stunning. The visual aspect of the movie alone is worth watching, and the CG is pretty good in places as well. But what about the plot and the acting?
Well the movie ads tell us that Peter O' Toole and Omar Sharif are in this movie. They are indeed, the former playing the prophet Samuel (yes that Samuel) for all of exactly two minutes (mores the pity he could really have given us a powerful Samuel), and Omar plays a General who serves at the pleasure of Xerxes in the Persian court. He is effective in the role, but the best acting in the whole drama is done by John Rhys-Davies as Mordecai (remember him as Indiana Jones side kick, or as Silas in the Peter and Paul made for TV movie). Tiffany Dupont plays Hadassah/Esther and does a nice job-- looks good in royal attire as well. We also have nice exotic characters like a slimy and manical Haman (think Grimer Wormtongue slipping into the wrong epic) and the large African eunuch (think Mr. T with a speech impediment). One could have wished to see O'Toole in another role interacting with Sharif, but alas, it is not to be (if you want to see a stunning performance by O' Toole in a Biblically sized epic, rent "Masada" some time, the full length version).
And what of the plot? Well, this movie unfortunately has a bunch of short choppy scenes at the beginning where the director tries to tell too much of a story too fast (500 years or so, from Samuel and Saul to Xerxes and Esther complete with the huge orchestra soundtrack swelling in the background), and then settles into a King and his search for a queen by means of a contest, with interludes where war is on the horizon, dinner is on the table, and reading (yes reading) is most of the action between king and queen to be.
One wonders when the real story of Esther will show up. Meanwhile we have court intrigue, home scenes with Mordecai the king's scribe, and we are left with numerous questions like--- why exactly did Esther not catch the caravan back to Jerusalem when she had the chance, and how exactly did she get to be trapped into the beauty contest? Inquiring minds want to know.
In other words-- the story could have been told much better, the acting could have been better, and the tons of Indian extras were a dead give away that we were not anywhere near Persia! Never mind. Love conquers all, and Esther is brave and saves her people from genocide.
But here is the problem. The book of Esther is the only book of the Bible which does not mention God by name. This was one reason it almost got left out of the Jewish canon, never mind the Christian one. It is a serious story with a serious point-- namely the providence and compassion of God and the courage of Esther a loyal Jew. But in this movie we are always hearing about God, and we even have Esther telling the story of Jacob and Rachel to the king, and Mordecai reading Isaiah 40 for comfort. Nice, but not true to the Biblical story.
The story could have been told in a way that honored the religious weight and character of the original story without resorting to melodrama and smaltz. Genocide was not warded off in the Biblical story by a magic necklace that when light shown on it projected images of the Star of David (a symbol from another era to be sure)! In other words, the original story of Esther deserved better. Still I must not complain too much. I am thankful for any Biblical story reaching the big screen and a decent sized audience. Even if only 14% of the critics have rated this a good movie at least it is providing Jews and Christians with something reasonably wholesome and helpful to watch, helping them think about their faith and their God. But still, one can only hope for better on December 1 when "The Nativity" comes out. Hope springs eternal.....