In the glory days of the over-produced Hollywood Biblical epic you could always rely on certain staples. You were going to spend at least three hours in a darkened movie theater, the music would be soaring, there would be a cast numbered in the thousands and stilted acting by American stars who somehow could not pull off togas and robes the way European actors could.
Even those films that pulled it off best, like 1959’s “Ben-Hur,” faced some of these limitations — though that film’s device of having a faceless Jesus as the pivotal role in the title character’s life still resonates.
“A.D.,” a miniseries playing on 12 separate nights on NBC, is not your father’s Biblical epic. Focusing on the tenuous days of the early Church, “A.D.” has great production values like its Hollywood forefathers, but modern technology, a diverse acting roster that makes the characters seem more authentic and a resistance to insert modern sensibilities into first century human beings makes the series more impactful.
Although the first episode, which ran on Easter Sunday night, felt like it was on fast-forward with the crucifixion of the Lord being hurried along. When this episode finally did settle down and we got to know some of the central figures that would help form the early Church, things got a lot more interesting.
There seem to be a lot of things going for “A.D.” Segmenting the series into one-hour episodes is going to make it easier for modern television viewers to digest. That, coupled with the ability to download episodes at one’s leisure, can make it a more personal experience.
A lot of Biblical epics of the past and not so past have included dubious theology and even more dubious historical elements in order to “spice” things up. The producers of “A.D.” seem to have resisted that temptation, although they do “create” narratives for two major figures who played prominent roles in the scriptural rendition of the Passion of the Lord.
You might say the producers have taken some license with both Roman Governor Pontius Pilate and temple high priest Caiaphas. Pilate comes off as a cross between an indecisive bureaucrat and clever political operative, whereas Caiaphas’ motivation is a logical progression of methods and agendas the Gospels already point to.
When it comes to Pilate, I found his characterization all the more powerful due to the conscious choice the creators of “A.D.” made to give us a man who does not seem all that evil. There is no maniacal laugh or dastardly plan he is trying to enact.
He is just a somewhat bitter middle management-type (no doubt the real Pilate could not have been thrilled with the assignment of governing a backwater province), wishing at first that all this shouting and yelling about some Jewish prophet would just go away.
The evil Pilate cooperates with is brought about more from his inaction and lack of courage than from something more overt. That’s the way evil enters into a lot of our lives.
“A.D.” is different than other similar forms of entertainment for another big reason. For Catholics, sometimes Hollywood isn’t so kind or all that interested in portrayals of personages from the Bible that comport to what the Church has taught for two thousand years. And frankly, a lot of us Catholics are not as well versed in the Bible as we should be.
Thanks to a joint effort from the producers of the series and Sophia Institute Press, there exists a two-volume set of books to assist any viewer of the series who may want to go deeper into the story.
“The Catholic Viewer’s Guide” by Veronica Burchard, and its companion book, “Ministers and Martyrs: The Ultimate Catholic Guide to the Apostolic Age” by Mike Aquilina are powerful tools that will help all viewers of the series, but especially Catholic viewers, get a greater understanding of the world in which the apostles grew in their faith.
Because of the blessing of the Church and her sacraments, we do have a tendency to get a little lax in our personal walks of faith when it comes to examination of Holy Scripture. These two books not only will make the viewing experience more rewarding, they present a richer presentation of the Apostolic age and demonstrate how scripturally based the Catholic faith truly is. … Something our separated brethren have oftentimes accused the Church of not being.
But the purpose of “A.D.” and even the purpose of these two guidebooks is not to divide Catholics from non-Catholics, but rather, to allow consumers of “A.D.” from any particular faith tradition the opportunity to know more. They not only give scriptural facts but give scriptural basis for characters that are literary inventions.
Even those “characters” who were real, flesh and blood people like the apostles, are given voices that coincide with scripture and actions that are consistent with what we know from what has been passed down to us.
I think “A.D.” and the study guides, especially Aquilina’s book about martyrs, could not have come at a better moment. Two thousand years of history and living in the West have worn down the hard edges of what it means to be a follower of Christ. But with nightly newscasts incapable of ending without at least one example of someone dying in the name of Jesus, “A.D.” and the study guides that accompany it could not be timelier.