I AM always curious about stories from the Bible. Jesus Christ has always been—bar none—the most intriguing individual of all time. For someone so historically significant and arresting, there are no clear proofs of the person who lived and caused trouble to an occupation force, that of Rome and the Jews of that age.
The contradiction in Jesus’s presence in the world is best summed up by the label for a juncture in our history—A.D. Anno Domini is roughly the Year of the Lord. It is a summation of the years that followed after Jesus passed on—dying on the Cross—and, believe it or not, rising again from the Dead and living forever.
The miniseries, which is titled A.D. Kingdom and Empire, now appears as one of the popular offerings from Netflix, cites its main source: the New Testament of the Bible for Christians. But the series has a huge impact on viewers because it attempts—and succeeds—to use its sources differently.
The series opens already in the middle of the Crucifixion. The storytelling is brisk as it grabs the tale from its throat. The scenes are in-your-face; the episode makes no excuses about how natural grandeur and not spiritual fervor attends the death of the Son of God. If you think you have seen the gore and blood in the controversial The Passion of the Christ by Mel Gibson, you are in for a treat in A.D and the Empire.
Clouds accumulate into the gravest formations, intense lights inflame the horizon and a massive earthquake rumbles when the Crucified Christ expires. Where the earlier versions downplayed the “supernatural” in the many retellings of Christ’s death, this series employs the extraordinary occurrences of that day to drive home the point: that Man on the Cross was no regular dude. And we believe his power and glory.
When at last this Christ is risen from the grave, we realize that A.D. Kingdom and Empire works because it is really an adventurous composite of two point-of-views: the narrative of writers/filmmakers telling the story of the Christ within the accounts of the Roman empire, its greatness and failures, and the persistent perspective of chroniclers in the series who are bent on talking about the majesty and magic of conversion and martyrdom. If only for its depiction of the Angels, this series is already a winner.
The said POVs never run against each other but rather appear to work hand in hand to deliver the many messages of the great story. The material (data on empire and politics) and the supra-material/spiritual (those fantastic images of might and apparitions) are given equal weight. It is a case of take it or leave it, believe in it or question it. Always, always the audience is left to judge, be in awe or even question the reports, but never to ignore them.
There is something fresh also in the manner by which scenes are staged and the characters are presented—they are never camp.
As the stories unfold, the Passion and Death are over; the Acts of the Apostles are about to begin.
This is post-Crucifixion and the psychic fortunes of those involved in the saddest crime of all are now falling apart. The problem, who is Christ, is supposed to have been eliminated already, but why the anxieties of the Roman officials and the Jews?
A.D. Kingdom and Empire covers the biographies of Caiaphas, the High Priest of the Sanhedrin; Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor lording over the boring Judea; and the followers of Christ, lost during the Crucifixion but gradually getting their bearings as they discover that their Master is alive and they are in contact with what they call the Holy Spirit. These disciples are led by Peter and John, brave men with lots of imperfections that, when surmounted, make them endearingly human and compelling.
Cluttering the minds of these principals are other recognizable names: Herod Antipas, a troubled king-guest of Pilate who now occupies the palace where he grew up, and his wife, Herodias (remember them for their beheading of John the Baptist); Claudia, the wife of Pilate, she who dreams and sees the future; Leah, wife of Caiaphas, who actively schemes and plots to support her husband and whose decisions pull him down, deeper into a conflict with his religion and the dominance of Rome; and Joseph of Arimathea, whose ideology urges him to offer his tomb as the place for the Christ. Joseph would be immortalized in many bas-reliefs and paintings as the man swaddling the Dead Christ as he takes him down from the Cross.
Between Caiaphas and Pilate, an uncanny détente would be formed because Rome is always represented by an emperor whose absolute power makes that person a madman. The two, however, are not prepared when a true madman becomes the emperor, the notorious Caligula appearing midway through the series.
As the makers weave the tales of the world after Christ or during the years presided by his teachings, the lines between history and the supposed inspirational memories of those people who lived in the era are blurred.
The actors are stellar. Richard Coyle as Caiaphas and Vincent Regan as Pontius Pilate are charming cads. Both play against the many caricatures available for them to imitate and share with us as rulers who are always undermined by events bigger than them.
Adam Levy as Peter is magnificent in his struggle to understand why he leads the followers of Christ. He is never ready to assume management of a band of men who are competing against each other in insecurities and lack of understanding. We root for them whenever they find the right path and soldier on with their decisions.
Joanne Whalley as Claudia, wife of Pontius Pilate, is always a sight and sound to behold. She used to be known as Joanne Whalley Kilmer, ex-wife of Val Kilmer, and was noted for films, such as Willow and Kill Me Again. For someone whose dreams are as powerful as they are real, her Claudia is equal to the Leah of Jodhi May. Whether in real historical times these two plotting wives did meet and broker a sisterhood does not matter. We love the message of women as the power behind the thrones of men. They sometimes make a difference.
There are impressionable filmic decisions in the series. One of them is to cast main personages like John and Mary Magdalene as black. Chipo Chung as Mary Magdalene and Babou Ceesay as John are quiet presences. Chung’s Mary Magdalene is imbued with active political power here and she escapes the allusion to her sinful past, which proves to be an unwanted modifier of a woman who emerges to be equal to the other men in the life of Christ.
What is cinema located in the Year of the Lord without Mary and Jesus. Here we have Greta Scacchi as Mother Mary who knows when to stop being dolorous and becoming the strong maternal support to the disciples. Scacchi’s Mary is elegant, compassionate and in full control of herself. Scacchi, a popular leading lady in the late 1980s and 1990s, is noted for her roles in Presumed Innocent, opposite Harrison Ford, and Shattered with Tom Berenger.
Jesus is played by an Argentine actor and singer, Juan Pablo Di Pace. He is the Christ as we imagine him as he was imagined by artists from the ancient and contemporary arts world. If there is a tradition maintained here, it is the fact that, like all the Christ of the past movies, Di Pace’s Redeemer has the best pair of eyes in the cinemas of Ancient Civilization.
A.D. Kingdom and Empire is created by Roma Downey and Mark Burnett. It is directed by Ciaran Donnelly, Tony Mitchell, Brian Kelly, Rob Evans and Paul Wilmshurst. To have a rare pleasure out of this film, may I suggest that you view another Netflix offering, the documentary Roman Empire, where you could know more about the madness of Caligula.