• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as current film releases with spiritual significance, and a few bits and pieces on the Bible.

    Saturday, April 30, 2016

    40 Nights (2016)

    At a basic level filmmaking is all about choices. Where to position the camera, how to deliver a particular line, how to arrange the characters in the shot and so on. With Bible films these choices become all the more significant - you're adapting a text that has been interpreted so many times before, sometimes with the same choices being repeated so often that they almost stop being choices. They've become ingrained to such an extent that many people just see them as the way things were. So for me the most interesting Bible films are the ones that make brave and informed choices; that are deliberate about how they are doing things and the way they want to do them.

    It's clear right from the start of 40 Nights (2016) that the filmmakers were not afraid to make interesting choices. The opening shot is from a low angle and nicely filtered. And it's in proper widescreen rather than the made for DVD 16:9 that is typical of so many Christian-sponsored Bible movies. Then there's the nature of the project. Rather than adding another sprawling, objective-feeling epic, this one is more personal and psychological. It's restricted to Jesus' 40 days fasting in the desert and it's never quite clear how much of what we see is real and how much is just in Jesus' head. There are flashbacks, of course, to some of Jesus' earlier experiences, but even these are subject to the human weaknesses of his memory and in several cases to his memories of his parents' memories as well.

    Indeed perhaps the only scene to be presented subjectively is its opening one - a prologue of sorts with John baptising Yeshua (as he's called at least once) in the River Jordan - but the Holy Spirit descends as a dove only figuratively, not literally and whilst Jesus is affirmed in his sonship, we don't hear the words that he does. The kind of interesting choice that some people will take umbrage with, but is utterly in keeping with Mark's gospel.

    The script also inserts a couple of nice scenes in here before Jesus heads into the desert. There are some initial interactions with James and John a night-time vision of the devil and talk about practicalities such as provisions, all of which establish Jesus as a human person. These opening scenes are vital as they ground the character in reality and make him someone the audience can relate to and identify with. From here on his experience is outside of our normal experiences and determined largely by what is going on inside his head. The prologue is slight, but it's a significant bridge into all that is to come.

    No less significant are the flashbacks that repeatedly break-up the desert time. We see the Jesus' birth, experiences as a boy Jesus, leaving his parents (who he calls "Abba and Eema" - a nice touch) and the death of his father. These are jumbled up, rather as our own memories come out in no particular order and fleeting, more driven by what Jesus is experiencing in the desert than shipped in as an orderly presentation of his early life.

    There are other deft links to the other parts of the gospels as well. Early on Jesus recites the Lord's Prayer and elsewhere he mutters lines from the Psalms, or from his future teaching "The Father desires mercy not sacrifice". There's quite a strong nod towards John's Gospel here, particularly the passages that talk of food and water (John 6 & John 4). It's as if Jesus is practising what he will say, still working it out. As if the message he has is growing inside him yet but it's not fully formed. Twice we hear "I am the way to truth" which sounds like John 14:6, but isn't quite. Perhaps this is just a translation I'm not familiar with, or a paraphrase to keep the audience thinking, but it feels like Jesus hasn't quite fully pinned it down yet. His later work is still being formed and we're privileged to see part of the process. As the film draws to a close he stops to talk to a shepherd boy, who happens to be descended from one of the shepherds that visited Jesus as a baby, and it's him that uses the phrase "the Good Shepherd" first.

    This isn't to say that the film is wordy and weighed down in dialogue, in fact it's surprisingly visual and tactile. Jesse Low's camera repeatedly lingers on the physical/earthy aspects of the world to which Jesus is confined, drawing our attention to the water, light, wind and animals which inhabit this rocky world. The choice of locations is really inspired, it's not just a sand-pit on the back of a studio lot, it's a fascinating place of contradictions - a world that's barren yet beautiful; a place where one person might feel close to God whilst another felt deserted by him; where on one level the locations all feel the same and yet on another they're very much the same. It's notable that in this film Jesus isn't just fasting from food, he's fasting water and there are various little touches which quickly make what Jesus is experiencing far more real than any other Jesus film I can think of.

    Credit for a lot of this must go to Low and his director of photography Jesse Aragon who find the beauty in the landscape to for Perry as producer who seems to make what I imagine was a fairly low budget stretch a long way. By avoiding a sprawling running time, star names and expensive crowds of extras and investing instead in getting the right locations and a decent technical team, the filmmakers enable 40 Nights to move a notch or two above the level that many more expensive films achieve.

    Of course any film of this nature depends to a degree on the portrayals of Jesus and Satan. Jesus is played by the film's write-producer DJ Perry who has a couple of other Bible films under his belt (The Book of Ruth (2009) and Judges (2006) a loose modernisation). Perry is closer to St. John's "not yet fifty" than Luke's "about thirty", but gives a fairly solid performance in the lead role and gives Jesus the right mix of strength, vulnerability and humanity that this particular version of the story requires.

    But what's more interesting is the decision to cast Satan not as one actor but as several. This isn't apparent at first. When we first encounter Satan he's a teenager, little more than a boy. This is perhaps one of the most interesting choices in the whole film. Whilst Last Temptation of Christ portrayed the devil as a young girl, this was a deliberate act to confuse and disorientate. Jesus is meant to be confused and perhaps mistake her for an angel rather than a devil.

    Here though it's clear who this young man is, it's just a bit of a shock. We're used to Satan being a middle aged man, a disembodied voice in Jesus' head or a seductive young woman; but a teenager? With those more familiar appearances we're used to the accompanying means of temptation, the seductive urge to impress someone beautiful (even if she is a devil) or the mix of rationality, cynicism, power, menace and experience of the older characters. The genius of this choice, and of actor Drew Wise's performance, is it never occurred to me before to think of Satan as being annoying. Now that I've seen it, of course, it's obvious. People so often give way and do the wrong thing just because they get nagged into something, or they have just had enough of the voice telling them to do something and just want it to go away. And not only do Wise and Low conceive of the idea, they also execute it with efficiency. Never mind forty days, I only lasted about ten minutes before I realised I would have been ready to eat the bread, jump off the temple and declare myself king just to get the thing over with.

    The other incarnations of the devil are less noteworthy. Satan number two is more middle aged, and probably the worst decision the team made in the film was to occasionally use some kind of effect on his voice, and briefly we get the devil presented as a younger woman too, but the final incarnation presents the devil as an old man giving the encounter a sense of progression and of a journey which is drawing to its conclusion.

    The importance of what's at stake becomes more apparent here as well. Whilst Jesus' initial encounters focussed on where he had come from, his need to satiate his stomach, his moving away from his parents, in this final stage the flash backs go back further and start to mix with flash forwards. There are brief shots of Moses striking the rock and of Adam and Eve, for example, indicating that what's at stake isn't just to do with Jesus' own personal sense of godliness, but that of both his people and of all of humanity. In an extra-biblical scene we witness his mother saying to him "Your smiles have become rare, your laughter less", indeed even she appears to have "tempted" him to stick to the safe path. Unsurprisingly we see Jesus making a go of picking up Joseph's carpentry business, but wrestling with the sense that it's not his ultimate purpose. Not dissimilarly there's the occasional flash forward hinting at the crucifixion and his destiny. Jesus seems to grasp much of what his role is about, yet you get the impression he's still trying to make sense of things. Sometimes he persists because of his understanding, but at other times it's just because of his experience. "God's love is like a warm dwelling on a cold night".

    It's tempting (if you'll pardon the pun) to systematically work through all the other interesting choices the film makes, like ending the film with Jesus "breaking the fourth wall", or including all the minor embellishments the film makes that really add a sense of needle into Jesus and Satan's encounter, or but to do so would be to rob the film of what makes it such rewarding viewing, the little twists and turns that make a few lines of ancient text an interesting and engaging hour and a half's viewing. I must admit that I wasn't really expecting to like this one: but now I'm not only looking forward to watching it again, but I also have high hopes for the next two entries in Perry's Quest Trilogy as well.

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    Monday, April 25, 2016

    Silent Bible Film Mystery - #02 Joseph's Trials in Egypt

    Last week I posted a silent Bible film puzzle that I was struggling to identify and as I've been struggling with others all week I thought I might turn it into a series. (There's a very old couple of posts that fit with this series as well at that link).

    Anyway, this one revolves around a film about Joseph (son of Jacob not Jesus' guardian) which was released in the US as Joseph's Trials in Egypt in 1914. Now there are a number of other films about Joseph released around that time. The first is Thanhouser's Joseph in the Land of Egypt (1914), which is available to view on Vimeo. It was directed by W. Eugene Moore. Another US film was released the same year - Joseph and His Coat of Many Colors - directed by produced by Sawyer, directed by Louis N. Parker and released by the Dormet film company it ran to six reels. There's some record of both of these films having the alternate title Joseph and his Brethren, but these two films do seem to be separate.

    The confusion starts with the other well attested Joseph film of the era, Henri Andréani's Joseph, Fils de Jacob. David Shepherd discusses this film in some detail in his book "The Bible on Silent Film" (pp.149-154). Interestingly addition to the detailed description of the plot he also explains that Andréani had split from Pathé just before the release of the film and produced the film himself (although Pathé still distributed in).

    The IMDb (which I don't consider particularly reliable on obscure old films like this) considers this film to be the original title for the one in question, Joseph's Trials in Egypt. It's not surprising that the films have been linked as various sources refer to Trials as being French in origin and produced by Pathé.

    However, I'm not sure the IMDb is correct on this point. Firstly none of the people who have compiled lists of these films before seems to list this as an alternate title to Joseph, Fils de Jacob. That may not seem so remarkable for Campbell and Pitts, but it seems unlikely, to me at least, that if there was an established link that Shepherd would not have heard of it given the depth of his research; or that if he had heard of it that he wouldn't have mentioned it.

    Secondly there is also the fact I mentioned above regarding Andr&eacue;ani's split from Pathé. This may have left Pathé feeling that they needed to make their own Joseph film to round off their series. Verreth lists the film by its English title, but also provides a French translation Les épreuves de Joseph en Égypte. Might this have been the film's original title?

    Or am I just over-complicating the issue? Should I have just gone with the IMDb's verdict and list Joseph's Trials in Egypt as an alternate title to Joseph, Fils de Jacob? If anyone has any evidence on this one way or the other I would be interested in hearing it.

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    Sunday, April 17, 2016

    Silent Bible Film Mystery - #01 Gaumont's Esther (1910)

    At present I'm doing some work on a list of films from the Hebrew Bible. It's one of those tasks that you start off thinking will be a big job and then it turns out to be massive. The end is in sight but I'm left trying to figure out if certain films are the same with different title or different films, which is particularly tricky when you delve into the silent period and the period between 1907-1914 when films were short, often released together but also often sold section by section.

    Which brings me to the film/series Esther from 1910. It was made by Louis Feuillade for Gaumont and starred Renée Carl, Léonce Perret, Madeleine Roch. But according to the AFI it was released as two films on two different dates - The Marriage of Esther on the 11th June 1910 and Esther and Mordecai a week later on the 18th June 1910. Dumont (2009) lists these as two films, one simply called Esther and the other called Esther et Mordochée. The IMDb joins them together under the title The Marriage of Esther although if you view it on the iPad app the title is changed to Esther. It lists all three titles as alternatives.

    David Shepherd discusses the film briefly in "The Bible on Silent Film". He lists it as simply one film Esther and indicates that it exists in both the BFI and the Gaumont Pathé archives and describes it on pages 104-5 which you can read in Google Books. It sounds like he has seen it. One key point though is that he describes it as part of a trilogy, though I'm not sure what evidence exists for this aside from his own assertion. Campbell and Pitts mention this only in passing (as part of the easily missed section on page 5 of other Gaumont films) but mention it as two films Esther and Mordecai and The Marriage of Esther, in that order.

    So whilst my hunch is that these films were originally released as one in France, I'm going to list them as two as that appears to be how they were released in the US and that it seems to be the only way to clear up the relationship between the three titles. Unfortunately, whilst I like to call the films by their titles in their original language that would be problematic here so I will have to opt for their English titles. The more I go into this project the more I realise just how many twists and quirks there are.

    A couple more bits of information on this one. Firstly. There are some excellent frame grabs of this film at NitrateVille thanks to Bruce Calvert of the Silent Film Still Archive. These also show that the film was hand coloured rather than just black and white. Disappointingly I can't seem to find this anywhere to buy or view. Neither it, nor any Bible films are part of Kino's Gaumont Treasures Vol. 1 DVD despite the fact that two of the three discs are dedicated to this films director Louis Feuillade and star Léonce Perret. Indeed given that the other disc is given over to Alice Blanche Guy it's a little disappointing that not a single Bible film makes the cut. Opens the door for another project perhaps...

    Lastly, the IMDb also includes a couple of photos of the film and there's also a nice summary of the two parts taken from "Moving Picture World".
    PART ONE: "The Marriage of Esther" King Abasueris, who is now generally understood to have been Xerxes, and who ruled over India and its provinces about B.C. 521, is recorded to have cast aside his wife and directs that it be heralded throughout the domain that he is in search of a new spouse. He issues instructions to have brought before him for his approval the most beautiful young girls of all his lands. Accordingly, the maidens are led to the palace, and we see them being sumptuously gowned and bejeweled before being brought into the presence of his Majesty. Among the number, the king is greatly impressed by the beauty and grace of a handsome young Jewish girl. This one is Esther, who was adopted by her uncle, Mordecai, and by him brought to the palace of the king. Esther's beauty surpasses that of all the others and she is crowned Queen by Abasueris. Mordecai is appointed to sit at the king's gateway.

    PART TWO: "Esther and Mordecai" Mordecai is appointed to sit at the King's gateway. While on duty he discovers a plot to assassinate the King and discloses the facts, whereupon the King orders that this brave deed be recorded in the Annals of the Kingdom. Among the King's favorites, Haman is supreme. He soon becomes violently jealous of Mordecai and plans his destruction. As Mordecai is a Jew, Haman makes preparations to massacre the entire race and thereby complete his revenge on Mordecai. About this time the King decides to make a review of the Annals and to his amazement finds no record there of the good deed of Mordecai, whereupon Haman is ordered to give honors to Mordecai. This only serves to increase the jealousy of Haman. Through the gracious intercession of Esther, Mordecai soon has another and greater victory over Haman. As the time for the massacre of the Israelites approaches. Esther, who has been told all by her uncle, Mordecai, invites Haman to dine with her and the King at the palace. During the feast she discloses the fact that she is a Jewess and declares that all those who are enemies of the King and are not worthy of his favor, whereupon the King, who has been informed of the full facts, orders Haman delivered up to the guards and has him hanged on the very gallows Haman had designed for Mordecai. The victory of the Israelites is now the cause of great rejoicing.
    It's a shame that the BFI have taken all the details of their archive details off their website, as that might have been a potentially useful source of information. I don't understand that decision at all...

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    Tuesday, April 12, 2016

    More Films About Jephthah


    Back in 2013 I wrote a piece about the portrayal of Jephthah on film. Since then I have become aware of several other films about Jephthah, so I thought I would bring them all together here. I'm aware of five in total, though in an age when anyone can own a video camera and video editing software there are probably a few more. Most of these however were released in just a five year period, from 1909 to 1913. Here are some details.


    Jephthah's Daughter (1909)
    Vitagraph. Dir: J. Stuart Blackton
    I discussed Blackton's film at some length back in 2013, but there's also a bit on it in David Shepherd's book "The Bible on Silent Film". He notes
    Much as in The Judgement of Solomon, the characters of Jephthah's Daughter offer the depth and range of emotional responses only hinted at in the biblical narrative itself, but increasingly expected by audiences steeped in the melodrama of early twentieth=century cinema (p.70)

    La Fille de Jephté (1910). 
    Gaumont. Dir: Léonce Perret
    (Pictured above - there's another image at IMDb)
    Whilst this film is sometimes attributed to Louise Feuillade, it was actually made by it's star Leonce Perret (who plays Jephthah) and features additional performances from Luitz-Morat and Jeanne-Marie Laurent. It's apparently based on a scenario by Abel Gance having been inspired by the poem by Alfred de Vigny. It was also released in English speaking countries as The Vow

    A summary of the plot, from a 1910 edition of "Moving Picture Magazine", is also available on IMDb.


    Jepthah's Daughter (1913).
    Diana Film/Warner Bros. Dir: J Farrell MacDonald
    1913 saw the release of not one but two films about the errant judge. I discussed McDonald's entry in 2013 and there are a couple of stills with my review as well.

    Surprisingly David Shepherd doesn't mention this one.


    La Fille de Jephté (1913). 
    Pathé. Dir: Henri Andréani
    Andréani produced a string on Bible films for Pathé in the 1910s - at least six biblical films in 1913 alone. Whilst Shepherd lists this film in his filmography, and discusses Andréani at length in the book, he doesn't really discuss this film. However, there is a summary in the Pathé archive which suggests that the film seems to broadly follow the biblical account. Here's a translation of that summary:
    Jephthah was a brave warrior of Gilead; disinherited by his brothers, he withdrew to the mountain, began to lead a band of adventurers and indulged in a kind of banditry. He thus acquired a great reputation for boldness and courage, and soon the leaders of his tribe - enslaved by the Ammonites - came to him and asked him to put himself at their head to drive out the oppressors. Jephthah agreed, but on condition that after the war he would remain the head of Gilead.

    He completely defeated the Ammonites on the banks of the Arnon. He had vowed, if triumphant, to sacrifice to Jehovah the first person who would come out of his house to meet him. Upon his return, his only daughter walked first to the sound of instruments, at the head of her companions. Jephthah, overwhelmed with grief and despair, tears his clothes and in tears announces the promise that his mouth has uttered. The girl, resigned, asks for a grace period of two months with her companions on the mountains of Gilead, to mourn the disgrace of being neither wife nor mother. Then she offers the sacrifice to fulfil the vow of Jephthah

    Bat Yiftach [Jephtah's Daughter] (1996). 
    Dir: Einat Kapach/Eynat Kapach
    The only modern film about Jephthah of any note is by Israeli filmmaker Einat Kapach (who may spell his first name with a "y"). There's a clip from this film on YouTube which I've embeded below.

    There's also a little more about Kapach here and the same site contains some more information about the film including this synopsis.
    The year is 1984. A Jewish family is on its way by foot from Ethiopiato Sudan, from where they will board a plane for Israel. The father, whom the family’s life depends on, is seized by brigands. Things change when his eldest daughter comes across the place. The story is typical of what happened to hundreds of Ethiopians on their difficult journey to Israel, in the 1980’s, when they crossed the desert, in order to reach the Promised Land
    You can actually pay to watch the film online.

    A few more notes on this one. It's 19 minutes long. The English title does appear to be Jephtah's Daughter with only two aitches. And there appears to be a variety of release dates from 1996 to 1998 (and even 2003). I'm a little pushed for time but I might try and review this one if I can.

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    Friday, April 01, 2016

    Killing Jesus (2015)

    Killing Jesus (2015), based on Bill O'Reilly's 2013 book of the same name has the veneer of being history, but very little of the substance. At a glance the veneer is fairly convincing. Jesus (Haaz Sleiman) is of Middle-Eastern descent - Lebanese to be precise, and likes to embellish various historic-sounding details, like giving Joanna the wife of Chuza a far greater role than in any Jesus film before it, but strip away the veneer and below it's chipboard. There are chunks of real wood in it, sure, but it's not the solid history that we were promised in the trailer.

    Which isn't to say the piece is something to be overlooked. For one thing it's usually fairly nice to look at, Sleiman and various others' fake-looking beards aside. The film's $12 million is largely up on the screen with expensive filters, costumes and sets lending the production an air of authenticity. And Sleiman's performance is fairly solid whilst also being fairly different from the majority of performances in the role. I'm not sure I necessarily warmed to this Jesus, but I think that says more about me and my phony expectations than it does about the film.

    There are a couple of good scenes as well. In one, early in the film, we witness Jesus and his family eating together. Whilst the script doesn't insist that these are Jesus' biological sisters and brothers, it certainly has the feel of a close knit family, who are accepting of one another even if they have some concerns over the path Jesus is taking. In another Jesus holds firm to a boy who is said to be demon-possessed but seems, to our modern eyes, to be suffering from an epileptic attack. The people fear the boy is killed but Jesus remains steadfast and the boy is restored. It's a nicely open-ended portrayal which puts the emphasis on Jesus' love, patience, faith and forebearance, even as it refuses to force a particular view as to what actually happened.

    However, the films problems stem from the heightened expectations of a more authentic version of the story which the filmmakers have been keen to encourage. At the heart of the story is a power play between five men - Jesus, Caiaphas (Rufus Sewell, also with beard troubles), Herod Antipas, Pontius Pilate and Judas - but the film gets the power dynamics all wrong. Historically speaking Pilate held all the cards. His position was difficult, certainly. The numbers were not in his favour and so he had to rely to fear of reprisals to keep the people in check. But the few bits of history we do have about Pilate suggest that, if anything, he was over capable in this area Luke 13:1 tells us about certain "Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices". Similarly, Josephus tells us that eventually the governor was recalled to Rome for the severity with which he dealt with some Samaritans. A man too harsh for the Romans is a harsh man indeed.

    Instead we're treated to the same weak, vacillating, ponderous Pilate so familiar in the Jesus film genre and so unlikely from an historical angle. And again we're treated to a scheming stereotype-laden Caiaphas who pulls all the strings and strives to get Jesus killed off even if he gets a speech here and there where he tries to convince us he's doing all for the people. In contrast Herod Antipas, historically speaking a nasty piece of work if ever there was one, not only needs his arm twisting by his wife and her sexually-precocious daughter, but also needs Pilate to tell him to kill John as well. Then there's the moment when Judas chucks away his 30 pieces of silver, not in a grand gesture of repentance, but to buy a bit of rope to hang himself on.

    These faults aren't unique to Killing Jesus of course, they are far too common to Jesus films, but this films promoted itself on the basis of being more historical to them. Yet it's put to shame, historically speaking, by the BBC's handling of the power dynamics between Pilate, Caiaphas and Jesus in The Passion (2008).

    Then there's also the screenplays strangely literal accommodation of the contrasts between the canonical gospels. Jesus prophesies th fall of the temple twice: once at the start of his ministry in words (Mark's words but John's location) and once during the week before his death (Synoptics). Similarly Peter benefits from two miraculous catches of fish, one at the start of his time with Jesus (Luke 5) and one afterwards (as per John 21).

    It's that second depiction on which so much hangs, because rather than this following the suggestion from a mysterious man on the beach to cast his nets out Peter is shown to be all alone, praying in the heat of the day. Peter looks skyward, slightly surprised, and seems to take this of proof as a miracle. Presumably we're supposed to see as convincing him of the resurrection because we never see the resurrected Jesus, but the music and imagery is upbeat as if we have.

    The only other post burial scene we see if of a group of men and women discovering an empty tomb. And here there is a similarly unsatisfactory compromise between the gospel accounts. The women (and men) don't flee in fear of the empty tomb (as per Mark), nor do they get the reassuring explanation from an angel (Matthew) a dazzlingly attired man (Mark) or two (Luke) or Jesus himself (John). Yet suddenly everything makes sense and it's all smiles.

    The problem is that this more "sceptical" ending is that it fails to give any reason why these people interpreted an empty tomb and a luckily located shoal of fish as proof of Jesus' resurrection. And this absence is highlighted all the more powerfully by the voice-over which concludes the film by telling the audience about the traditions surrounding the deaths of the disciples. Peter's upside-down crucifixion is referred to, but it's hard to believe that but for a second decent-sized catch of fish he would have remained the petrified sceptic of the High-Priest's courtyard.

    From another angle, however, this all just seems like excessive literalism. Even some relatively conservative believers will concede that perhaps John moved this story to the end of his gospel due to its metaphorical power. To depict it as a literal event that happened in reality, but which Peter profoundly misattributed is a severe failure to understand the genre. Likewise whilst the empty tomb was unexpected it seems unlikely that all of those present would simultaneously jump to the same conclusion, particularly as Jesus had not really predicted his resurrection in a great deal of detail.

    Such an ending, then, falls between two stools. It's not nearly sceptical enough for the sceptic, nor is it devout enough for the faithful. It's neither bold enough to form a solid proposal of what really happened that day, nor is it trusting enough to depicit the events as they are described. And no amount of cinematic polish is going to restore its credibility.

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    Monday, March 28, 2016

    In the Footsteps of Judas


    Following on from the success of 2012's documentary In the Footsteps of St Paul and last year's In the Footsteps of St. Peter (2015) the BBC's main Easter offering this year was In the Footsteps of Judas. This time however, the programme was fronted by Rev. Kate Bottley rather than actor David Suchet who starred in the previous entries in the series.

    The change of personnel, if nothing else, is quite significant. Suchet will always be best remembered for playing Agatha Christie's Poirot and his approach to the previous two documentaries carry with them the cerebral, thoughtful air of a literary detective on a case. Bottley is best known as the vicar from Channel 4's Gogglebox which, for those who don't know, is a reality show where we at home are invited to watch others in their homes watching the same telly we've been watching the previous week. It sounds dreadful, but it's actually rather entertaining and has proved very popular and Bottley will have challenged many of the "more tea vicar?" stereotypes that still persist.

    It was only a matter of time, then, before Bottley was given the chance to try and breathe fresh life into a BBC religious documentary which, if left to their own devices, do tend to drift towards being overly remote and unengaging (even if some of us kind of like them that way). So it was no surprise to see Revd. Kate's face popping up in the Easter schedules offering a fresh look at Judas.

    Looking back through my archives I was surprised to see that there hasn't really been a TV documentary of Judas - at least not in the UK in the ten years I have been running this blog, and (from memory) in the ten or so years before that. It sounds like the kind of subject Robert Beckford would have explored back in the noughties, but the best we got was a segment in Beckford's 2008's Secrets of the 12 Disciples and even then it gave a wide berth to the "Gospel of Judas" (which got it's own National Geographic Documentary back in 2006 which Mark Goodacre reviewed here).

    In this film, the "Gospel of Judas" is given fairly short shrift and even then it's primarily a way of introducing one of the five main theories around Judas' betrayal of Jesus. According to the featured consultants, (who for the programme as a whole were Peter Stanford, Prof. Helen Bond, Revd Canon Dr Anthony Cane, Dr. Simon Gathercole, Dr. Janet Robson and Prof. Joan Taylor) the "Gospel of Judas" claims Judas was Jesus' best and most trusted friend and his 'betrayal' was actually part of Jesus' plan. There are flirtations with the thorny issue of Judas being forever berated for a role he had to play in order for God's plans to work, but they hardly go the full Lee and Herring, rather more a kind of uncomfortable "anyway...moving on...".

    Each of the five theories are presented in turn in the middle section of the documentary as a way of countering the suggestion that Judas was merely a thief who betrayed Jesus out of greed (It's pointed out that 30 pieces of silver might only have been a months wages so such a horrific betrayal would be unlikely). The other theories put forward are that Judas might have been part of the Sicarii, who ultimately rejected Jesus for being too sympathetic to Rome; that he may have hailed from a village called Scaria somewhere in the south (and so may always been an outsider amongst these other northerners); or that Judas was trying to force Jesus into the action he thought needed to be taken.

    The fifth theory here is more around what Judas' role was rather than his motivation. Having visited the Garden of Gethsemane, Bottley then visits a cave called Gethsemani and it's suggested that perhaps Judas wasn't there to identify his now famous master, but more to take the soldiers to this secret location. Of these five theories this last is the only one I hadn't come across before and whilst it wasn't argued particularly compellingly (very much the style of this, and indeed the majority of BBC docs) it was an interesting theory and I'd have liked to hear more. But it makes the middle section fairly fast flowing, even if a little choppy, This strikes a contrast with the first part of the programme which was mainly to establish Judas' importance and his traditional role for those less familiar with the story. It's loaded of Lady Gaga and Bottley stressing her desire for a more redemptive and sympathetic look at Judas.

    However, it's the final section that seemed to be causing the most interest on Twitter and contained the part that I found most thought provoking. One of the theories that is put forward in this final section is that Judas became the Church's "poster boy" for avarice just as capitalism was taking root. As capitalism began to become the churches number one enemy so the man who changed to the side of this growing threat had to be put beyond the possibility of mercy and redemption as a way of discouraging others from making similar compromises.

    The film essentially switches between four types of material - Rev. Kate talking to camera; experts giving their words of wisdom in the classic "talking heads" style; location shooting, often with Bottley visiting places from her own parish to key sites in Jerusalem; and dramatised footage of actors playing the roles of Judas (Hicham Bahloul), Jesus (Mohamed Quatib) and the other key players - and it's here that they come together to greatest effect as Rev Kate, full of empathy, asks the camera:
    Who found him? Who came across this young man? Who cut him down from the tree? Who took his body away? Who buried him? Who mourned him?
    It's not a question that is often asked and instantly I started thinking about the general absence of answers to these questions in the dramatised films about Jesus. Theories as to why Jesus betrayed his master go back to the silent era and most of those discussed here have been raised in one Jesus film or another. But these questions - what happened to Judas after his death, essentially - never seemed to be asked, let alone answered. Another interesting contrast with the majority of Jesus films that Judas is notably better looking than Jesus, which surely enables the audience to feel far greater sympathy with him than the man he betrayed.

    So instead of ending by looking at sympathetic movie portrayal of Judas, the programme turns instead to a piece of art engraved on glass. Bottley heads to St. Nicholas and St. Magnus church in Dorset to view a piece by Laurence Whistler. The depiction of Judas - more details here - has him turning towards the light in his final seconds of death, whilst the silver coins fall into the ground, unexpectedly producing flowers where they land.

    All of this suggests the possibility of redemption for him at the last minute, a change of heart after his irreversible act of suicide. And as an image it nicely summarises the documentary as a whole - a compassion for all people, that dares to hope that even those as desperate or far away as Judas, might be drawn to the light. A God of a love so powerful that not even Judas could be beyond the possibility of his redemption.

    =================

    In the Footsteps of Judas was produced and directed by Sian Salt and is available for those inside the UK on iPlayer.

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    Saturday, March 19, 2016

    Je vous salue, Marie (Hail Mary-1985)


    Jean Luc Godard had been established as one of the masters of cinema for over thirty years by the time he wrote, directed and produced his fascinating exploration into the nature of the incarnation in 1985. Godard began as a writer for "Cahiers du Cinema" in the early 50s before graduating to making his own films from 1955 and becoming the most recognisable name amongst the directors of the French New Wave.

    If, by the time the eighties came around, his output had begun to wane and lose a little of his early vitality, there was no shortage exploring ideas; It's no coincidence that his adaption of a key story from the Bible was followed by his re-working of King Lear (1987) and notable too is the film's repeated use of the historic-sounding intertitle "At that time" (Godard's interplay between the written text of intertitles and visual image is one of the most striking features of his body of work).

    In essence the idea is a simple one - telling the story of Mary the Mother of Jesus as if it were to happen today - but hanging on that premise is the exploration of a number of themes including Marie's obsession with her changing body, her struggle to persuade Joseph of the baby's divine origin, her continued virginity, the contrast between the profane and the divine, the idea of a godly figure born into such a lowly background and Marie's struggle to come to terms with her new, and constantly evolving, roles. Many of Godard's films give an importance to, and occasionally verging on the deification of, his female leads. Indeed as David Thomson puts it "It was the discovery that he loved [actress Anna] Karina more in moving images than in life that may have broken their marriage".1 Hardly surprising, then, that eventually he would turn his attention to the mother of God.

    As those familiar with Godard's work might expect there's no shortage of cinematic concepts and contrivances. Those familiar with Il vangelo secondo Matteo by Pier Paolo Pasolini, who collaborated with Godard on 1962's RoGoPaG with Godard, will recognise that Godard uses the same part of Bach's St Matthew's Passion as his Italian counterpart. Godard also plays around with the continuity of his editing, focussing for long stretches on single scenes, or even shots before jumping ahead several days, months or even years. And then there's his characteristic humour for example towards the end of the film Marie's child, who has now grown to the age of young school child, asks a new-found friend his name and then proceeds to change it to Peter.

    From a visual point of view the film is shot in the 1.37:1 that he favoured at the time. Godard uses this more equally-proportioned canvas to focus attention on an array of circular objects, most notably the full moon and the seemingly enlarged sun of numerous shots; the basketballs that Marie and her team-mates use to play; as well as a glowing spherical light shade, which sticks out from the edge of one shot like a huge white pregnant tummy, dominating the screen. Reflections of the sun's light are everywhere from the opening shot of sunlight skipping across ripples of the water's surface, to eighteen shots of the moon, "a Marian symbol of virginity and femininity".2

    Not dissimilarly there is a lot of talk about "holes" and it's notable that the film ends on an extreme close up of Marie's lips; freshly glossed and open in a circle as if signifying that now Jesus reached a certain age she is finally sexually available. Indeed just a scene or two earlier had been Jesus telling his mother he is going to do his "father's work" and we don't see him again.

    But the film's most central visual theme is the body of Marie herself as the camera focuses on her naked body in scene after scene. The intention of this seems to be to focus on the idea of Mary's own confusion and conflicting emotions about her body being taken over by this patriarchal God. As Godard later explained "I was trying to make the audience see not a naked woman, but flesh, if that's at all possible"3. However despite his claim that his "purpose was to try and shoot a woman naked and not make it aggressive, not in an X-rated picture way...more the purpose of an anatomical drawing."4, the film quickly becomes uncomfortably voyeuristic. Given that the subject of this voyeurism is a teenage schoolgirl, these shots, in light of present day attitudes, make these scenes all the more problematic.

    The degree of nudity in the film may well be why it received such heated criticism from many quarters. Pope John Paul II allegedly claimed it "deeply wounds the religious sentiments of believers" - although I can find no original source for this quotation even if it did cheekily appear on the cover of one of the film's DVD releases - and it was banned in Brazil and Argentina. Indeed Godard himself tried to withdraw the film from distribution in Italy and was personally attacked (albeit with a shaving-foam pie in the face) when the film screened at Cannes.5.

    Nevertheless, I'm always struck by the fact that this film is, theologically speaking, very conservative. It clearly pre-supposes that Mary is a virgin before and during her pregnancy and yet was banned and heavily criticised. In contrast, just four years later the far more revisionist and critical Jesus of Montreal was given the Cannes Ecumenical Jury prize, as voted for by religious representatives. The most likely explanation is that this is due to the film's heavy focus on Mary's naked body. Perhaps this at least, a victory of images over script, may have given Godard some pleasure.

    At its heart there is an interesting question - "How would Mary have felt about the changes to her body throughout her pregnancy?" After all the giving of her consent was momentary, but she paid a high cost for that over the next nine months, and forever after. As Marie herself says at one point "Being a virgin should mean being available or free, not being hurt". Many expectant mothers feel a degree of animosity about the difference between their initial expectations about pregnancy and the reality. It's more than possible that Mary's attitudes also swung back and forth a fair bit, as we see here in the scene of Mary's "long dark night of the soul". Nevertheless the way the film explores these issues fails to draw them out as well as it might have.

    None of which is to say that there is a shortage of ideas in the film. Indeed there's no shortage either of the kind of philosophising that was so typical of the French New Wave. Early on a professor tells his class "The astonishing truth is that life was willed, desired, anticipated, organised, programmed by a determined intelligence" and the film in general seems to move between an acceptance of God's existence but a rejection of his methods. In one of Marie's lengthy monologues she mutters "God's a creep, a coward who won't fight, who counts on ass alone...a vampire who suffered me in him".

    The use of "vampire" here is probably a reference to Dreyer's 1932 Vampyr. As is typical of Godard Hail Mary cites the work of numerous artists including Dreyer. As Marie gives birth to Jesus we hear a man speak the words "What a strange road I had to take to reach you". It's a quote from the final scene of Robert Bresson's Pickpocket and it's followed up almost immediately by a shot of a donkey, doubtless referencing Bresson's Christ-figure film Au Hasard Balthazar. There's even a shot of Mary posed like Mantegna's painting "Lamentation of Christ".

    But Mary's language here is also an example of the way the film plays the sacred against the profane. "Here's $500 for God's sake" says Gabriel to persuade Joseph to drive him to the petrol station where he delivers the annunciation under the unblinking light of the forecourt. It's clear that this Mary will remain as chaste as the biblical Mary, even as her use of swear words sets her apart from the Mary of church tradition. All the leading characters, be they saints in waiting or angels, swear or take the name of God in vain. Confronted with the news of Mary's pregnancy, Joseph blames "Guys with big cocks". Mary uses the "c" word as she wrestles with God's unusual calling.

    Gabriel is accompanied here and elsewhere by a young girl. The pair reappear miraculously later in the film - emphasising their divine mandate - and Gabriel appears once more at the film's close. Also making an appearance is a character called Eva, her biblical significance underlined by her taking a bite from an apple close to the camera. She is contrasted with the chaste Marie, in a similar fashion to 1 Tim 2 contrasts Mary and Eve. Eva gives herself freely but is left alone towards the end. Mary stays with Joseph ans takes pride in her son. Many Annunciation paintings represent the Garden of Eden around the peripheries of the main picture and here the inclusion of this seemingly unconnected story works in a similar fashion.6

    This constant attention to, referencing of and subversion of Christianity's visual traditions is what sets Hail Mary apart from so many other Bible films. Godard my only have been grabbing headlines on this production due to the ensuing controversy, rather than his artistry, but the fingerprints of a great master are all over this piece. Even if we're ultimately forced to concede it's far from his best work.


    Je vous salue, Marie (Hail Mary, 1985) - Frequently accompanied by The Book of Mary by Anne-Marie Miévielle

    ====================
    1 - Thomson, David, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, (4th Edition, 2003) Little, Brown. p.342
    2 - O'Brien, Catherine, "The Celluloid Madonna: From Scripture to Screen" (2011) New York, Columbia University Press, p.137
    3 - Dieckmann, Katherine in Sterritt, David, "Jean-Luc Godard: Interviews" (Jackson, 1998) p.169
    4 - Dieckmann, p.169
    5 - "Godard Has A Bad Day In Cannes...And Tries To Withdraw 'Hail Mary' In Italy", Aljean Harmetz, The New York Times, 11th May 1985
    6 - O'Brien, p. 45

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    Saturday, March 12, 2016

    Video Clips for The Young Messiah


    I first blogged about the film adaption of Anne Rice's novel "Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt" almost decade ago. So it's a little frustrating that now it has finally made it to the big screen - albeit under the new name Young Messiah - I have no way of seeing it (at least until it either gets released in the UK or comes out on DVD). But perhaps I should really say "seeing all of it" because at the time of writing quite a large proportion of it is available to view as clips online. That's hardly unique for films these days, least of all Bible films, the amount of footage available before the release of 2014's Noah was considerable. But I thought I may as well post all the links so that anyone who wants to whet their appetite before going to catch it this weekend, or who wants to catch a glimpse of what those in North American are getting to see, can join in too.

    Given the nature of the clips here it's hard to put them in chronological order. The majority of the film is not set during the gospel stories but rather between the nativity narratives and the time we next encounter Jesus at the age of 12. Indeed most of the film takes place when Jesus is seven and therefore consists largely of fictional/legendary stories of Jesus, or the events of the Nativity told via flashback - which can of course happen in almost any order. Anyway, here are the links:

    Trailer
    As you'd expect there are various TV Spots and teaser trailers around at the moment, but this is the main one and it contains a number of points of interest. Firstly, there's the scene which, with a nod to the "Infancy Gospel of Thomas", features Jesus bringing a bird (back to?) life. This incident was also included in the US (but not international) cut of Jesus (1999). It's also noticeable that there's quite a few shots of the film's biggest name, Sean Bean. I get the impression though that Bean is not really in this film for that long. Bean, of course, has Bible film form having starred over twenty years ago in the Bible Collection's Jacob back in 1994. I also like the use of the words from Phil. 2.

    The Divine Plan
    This is one of the more recent clips to emerge and might be one of the best. I think it's strong precisely because it's stripped away of any miracles and doesn't feature the child Jesus and just comes down to the two actors playing Joseph and Mary going head to head. For all the healing birds, big sets and large crowd scenes of some of the other clips I suspect that this is a far more intimate film resting on the performances of its leads and, if so, this scene is quite promising.

    The Decision
    This is one of the scenes that stars Shaun Bean and it hints at another earlier in the film. I'm not familiar with the books, but I wonder if the intended trajectory for Bea's character is to be the centurion at the foot of the cross. That said Bean's character would be rather old by then so perhaps not.

    The Story
    This is the annunciation retold by Mary, an there's good and bad here. On the plus side telling the story from Mary's perspective works well and gives it a more subjective angle. It also saves the need for expensive/potentially cheesy/distracting special effects. Interestingly Jesus (1999) and The Miracle Maker (2000) also have Mary retelling the story to Jesus - although in both cases its the adult Jesus. I also like the way it emphasises how young Mary would likely have been. "I was just 14 when you were born, a girl really". On the downside the line about only telling you this story once seems bit odd. Why on earth would she only tell him once. And how come she was later happy telling it to people (who may have told it to others) such that it ended up in the gospels.

    The Fight
    This is quite an odd scene where Jesus gets bullied and, because - of course - the Prince of Peace can't fight back - has to rely on someone else to do his violence for him. I'm not sure this scene really works, both because of that, and because the child actors aren't particularly convincing here.

    The Nativity
    ...specifically the arrival of the magi, which I notice is on foot.

    The Way of Prayer
    This was another of my favourite clips featuring a nice recontextualising of Psalm 23 as Jesus and his family have to walk through an avenue of men hanging on crosses. Again it recalls Jesus (1999) where John the Baptist and Jesus reminisce about seeing a similar scene as children and, of course, Spartacus (1960).

    The Power of Healing
    This is another shot of Jesus performing some kind of miracle, though it's not clear from the clip shown here exactly what healing occurs.

    The Enemy
    Perhaps this is the strangest of all these clips, most notably the question of who the guy with the blond hair and armoured fingers is. Putting this together with other clips suggest some kind of devil/demon type character )IMDb lists him as "the demon", presumably based on the credits.

    Joining the Family
    Here the Holy Family encounter an escaped slave woman and Jesus offers her a pair of shoes and persuades his family to take her with them back to Nazareth.

    Child's Questions
    Again this is one of those more intimate scenes and whilst Jesus is a bit too holier than thou (which I guess is the point) I buy his interaction with Joseph here, not least because bits of it reflect how I interact with my seven year old (who was sick whilst I was in the middle of writing this post).

    Ambassador Video
    This isn't a clip or a trailer, but something encouraging people to hire out theatres to hold special preview screenings. I'd be interested to know how many people went for this option. It's a little ambitious - "We're particularly looking for gold and platinum ambassadors" - at $100k for the later I rather imagine they are...

    =======

    As it looks like it will be a while until I can review this film, for now I suggest you read Steven D. Greydanus' enthusiastic take on the film ("Jesus has given so much to Superman over the years, it seems only right for Superman to give a little back."), Peter Chattaway's, as always, informative review and for balance a rather more scathing assassination courtesy of The Guardian ("Like a gif from Upworthy.com come to life").

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    Friday, March 04, 2016

    Hail Caesar! (2016)


    Hail Caesar! is not the first time the Coen brothers have delved into Hollywood's golden era. Barton Fink (1991) was the dark story of an up and coming writer with a crippling mental block and the devil for a neighbour. Fast forward 25 years and the Cohen's have returned to tinsel-town with a fluffier, although no less biting, take on life behind the scenes at the movies. The devil may no longer be living next door but the son of God is still stuck on a cross, even he stays almost entirely out of shot.

    In many ways the two films are complementary opposites of one another: Fink somehow constructs beautiful compositions out of disgustingly slimy wallpaper whereas everything in Hail Caesar! is pristine, brightly-coloured and gleaming and yet still manages to seem ugly and vulgar. Fink deals almost exclusively with a writer and occasionally a producer, but never enters the world of directors and actors, whereas in Hail Caesar! it's the writers and producers who almost don't exist, instead the focus is on the stars, the directors and primarily the studio fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin). One has a sealed box that remains tantalisingly closed; the other has a case that is so full of money Mannix struggles to keep it shut. Fink is given a B-movie wrestler picture after he's told his familiarity with "the poetry of the streets...would rule out westerns, pirate pictures, screwball, Bible, Roman...". Hail Caesar! shows various films in the process of being made, almost all of them falling into one of those categories. Fink's crime is a brutal murder, Hail Caesar!'s a kidnapping that could really do with a bit of focus. But Fink doesn't have Bible films and Hail Caesar! does, and what's more they're being done like no-one has ever done them before. But more of that later.

    Whilst the publicity for this film has focussed on Clooney, really the film's leading character is 50s Hollywood itself. It's unashamedly a film for lovers of the studio era. The tributes, parodies and references come thick and fast. Mannix is a fictionalised version of a real Hollywood fixer of the same name. There's a Gene Kelly figure (Channing Tatum), an Esther Williams figure (Scarlett Johansson) and a joke about Ben Hur around every corner. Paranoid communists hide out at Malibu Beach whilst Mannix has to bribe and lie to Police and reporters to keep his 'wholesome' stars from getting the wrong kind of attention.

    And then there's Clooney. As the studio's top actor Baird Whitlock, Clooney's character isn't based on any one actor in particular, but he's certainly at least one part actors such as Robert Taylor and Richard Burton, one part Ulysses Everett McGill and, I suspect, one part George Clooney. Certainly his getting slapped round the face for expressing his lefty views is hardly something with which Clooney is unfamiliar. Whitlock is arguably an even bigger idiot than his predecessors in the Coen's "numbskull trilogy" and yet when the moment comes, he's able to turn on the star power in such a way that it leaves a lump in his on-set colleagues' throats.

    That moment comes at the climax of the film Hail Caesar: A Tale of the Christ which had hitherto provided viewers with several hilarious moments of over-wrought dialogue, unduly earnest performances, portentous voice-overs and good old-fashioned scenery chewing. It also manages to squeeze in almost identical shots from Ben Hur and an almost ginger-headed Christ. That Whitlock's climatic turn has such a marked effect on set is something of a shock - up to this point Whitlock's photo-play had seemed utterly purged of any sense of genuine awe, humility, reflection or wonder. Even the religious advisers Mannix called on in order to make sure he "got everyone's two cents" seem to be particularly shallow - more bothered about the plausibility of being able to swap horses in a chariot race than how the film might effect those who see it.

    And yet the film, our film if you will, is one of the Coen's most religious films to date, it's just that its religion, its true religion, happens far away from the self-righteous clap-trap on the screen. Indeed it's noticeable that when Mannix views the rushes after the day's filming, the key moment of divine presence, is fittingly absent, represented only by an intertitle explaining that it has yet to be filmed. There's simply no link between faith and the biblical film Whitlock is shooting.

    Significantly, the only time we see Jesus' face, it's on a crucifix in the film's opening shot. The shot's taken from inside the church where Mannix is going to a confessional. Yet what's on his mind isn't what we might think of as the big stuff, such as bribing the police - it's about his failures as a husband. Mrs Mannix (Alison Pill) barely appears on screen, but Mannix feels palpably torn between doing the right thing by his wife and child at home and protecting his almost child-like stars at Capitol studios. It's no surprise that at the end of the film 27 hours later he's back in the confessional having (once again?) delivered his stars from evil.

    Of course, that might just be because the confessional is the one place where he isn't being constantly hounded by other people's needs (in fact the priest almost seems to want to get rid of him). Mannix flies from meeting after meeting, placating directors saddled with hapless actors, avoiding a pair of inexhaustibly tenacious reporters (both played Tilda Swinton as this being a Coen brothers film they happen to be twins), reporting to his bosses in New York, listening to offers for a new job and arranging for one of his actresses to adopt her own baby. Perhaps the church is the one place Mannix can find some inner peace. Would that it'were so simple.

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    Monday, February 29, 2016

    Blood of Jesus (1941)

    Spencer Williams Blood of Jesus (1941) is not a Bible film as such, though it contains characters from the Bible, namely satan, and various quotes from the New Testament. It's also a little known and under-appreciated film from a period when the Bible barely featured on the silver screen and the vast majority of portrayals of non-white characters were racist and patronising.

    The film was Williams' second as director and he also wrote and starred in it as a husband who accidentally shoots his wife. It's unclear whether her case is something of an exception, or whether the path she undergoes represents something we all shall face, but either way she ends up at a dusty crossroads torn between the pleadings of a giant-winged angel and the temptations of a horned devil.

    For me the film is strongly reminiscent of The Green Pastures (1936). The budget is clearly not high and viewers may find the concept quaint, hokey or imaginative depending on their perspective, but the key performances are engaging and believable, the compositions are clearly the work of someone who knows how best to frame a scene and whilst there's something comical about the angels wings and the devil's horns this appears to be Williams' intent rather than all he could muster.

    Best of all is the soundtrack, a mix of spirituals, traditional hymns and the odd jazz-era hit thrown in for good measure - evocative and moving without ever becoming twee.

    It's not hard, then to see why the film was the first "race film" to be admitted into the US National film registry, nor why the curators of a forthcoming "Pioneers of African American Cinema" box set consider it to have pride of place amongst the diverse range of films comprising the collection. There's more on that from The Guardian as well as a nice write up by The Bullock Museum in Texas to accompany a recent screening. It will be nice to see a propery restored version so we can assess Williams' work as it was meant to be seen.

    Saturday, February 27, 2016

    More on Jesus of Montreal


    On Monday I was speaking to a class of students at York St. John University about four Jesus films: Il vangelo secondo Matteo, The Last Temptation of Christ, Jesus of Montreal and The Passion of the Christ. I've spoken about all of them before, of course, but I felt I wanted to do a bit more research on Jesus of Montreal, particularly from sources other than "books about Bible films" to find of get a wider appreciation of the film, Arcand's style and how the film sits within his wider canon. Not unsurprisingly there were some really interesting insights to be had.

    Firstly, Arcand's other work. Arcand started working in the sixties on history documentaries, one of the earliest and most notable being Ville-Marie (1965, also known as Les Montréalistes). Canadians will probably know that Ville-Marie was an early name for the city, and unsurprisingly the film goes into Montreal's early history. At one point the narration states “It is ironical that in the end this town should be taken over by a materialism it was founded to combat...yet the voices of its origins still echo [through the city]”1. Réal la Rochelle calls it "the pinnacle of Arcand's short films and one of the greatest ever made in Quebec" continuing that it demonstrates "that the heartfelt though mystical desire of Montreal's French founders to establish, against all logic, a city dedicated to the Mother of God, had ended in tragedy for those who conceived it".2 The film's use of religious music is particularly notable and is not unrelated to Arcand's use of Pergolesi's "Sabat Mater" in Jesus of Montreal. This further highlights Arcand's apparent hope in Jesus of Montreal that the "virtues, seemingly lost" of "the city of Mary, the city of Christianization and hospitality...have some hope of being reborn if the citizens can only recapture the charity taught by Christ and exemplified in the protagonist Daniel".3 It's significant then that the passion play in the film takes place at the St. Joseph's Oratory, "the site where Brother Andrew originally dispensed his cures...a place of pilgrimage and healing for North American Catholics".4

    We see other themes emerge through his other work Réjeanne Padovani (1973) became well known within French-speaking Canada for its critique of corruption in Quebec. This was the film where "for the first time, Arcand draws a parallel between the historical fall of a great western empire and that of America, as seen from the gates of Montreal".5 As I have said many times this further underlines the importance of the scene where Jesus wanders down into an underground subway station and begins to recite Jesus' prediction of the fall of Jerusalem from Mark 13.

    Two years later Arcand released Gina (1975) which featured the film within a film motif that's at the heart of Jesus of Montreal. It also "signifies the death of Quebec cinema" and of course Jesus of Montreal contains a heavy critique of the wider Québécois media.6 The film's heroine, who takes some of her income from performing stripteases, is raped so there are minor links to Mirelle's treatment at the advertising audition that so incenses Jesus of Montreal's Daniel.

    As noted above music is critical to Arcand's sensibilities and we see it again here, not only in his choice of several religious pieces, but also in his use of the two singers who "progress" from the church choir, to the advertising audition to busking on the subway platform (the "monumental tomb of the empires of finance" as la Rochelle puts it).7

    Across this body of Arcand's work a number of key motifs and concerns emerge and we see many of these at play within this film as well. Gambarato analysed a number of Arcand's films and noting several key "objects" that recur in a significant manner, in many of his films/8. He focussed on three in particular - Eyeglasses, Mirrors and Medicine. Given that Jesus of Montreal is not one of those included for the closest analysis, it's interesting to see that all of these crop up in this film as well.

    Firstly, whilst the attention paid to glasses is not quite as important here (aside from one character wearing them), the eyes in general seem far more important, most notably the scene where a woman gets an eye-transplant using Daniel's eyes.

    Secondly, no-one would claim that shots of mirrors are unique to Arcand, there is a notable shot of Mirelle starring wistfully at herself in the mirror, and all the classic meanings such as the character in two minds/being reflective/weighing different sides of her personality are present as you might expect. I don't know whether the play on words Mirelle/Mirror is intentional or just an unintended coincidence upon translation into English. What is clear is Mirelle seems to be the only figure whose life is changed by her time with Jesus.

    Then there is Medicine and here the whole medical system is placed under the microscope more than in most films, even those of Arcand (though the theme is critical in The Barbarian Invasions (2003) as well, clearly). Here we see the injured Daniel moving from one hospital to another, lurching from the Catholic St Mary's hospital to an

    In addition to these three main objects, Gambarato also lists a further thirteen such objects. Whilst a closer analysis of Jesus of Montreal would probably provide several other examples, the most obviously present is that of security guards. Here one of the security guards plays a significant part coming into conflict with the actors and ultimately having a role in Daniel's untimely demise.

    However arguably Arcand's greatest concern is Quebec itself. His films are packed with lots of local flavour and internal critique and this film is no exception, taking on "the media... the hospital system...the legal system...the clergy" advertising and the supposedly intellectual elite.9 Montreal is "a if not the 'main character' of the movie" and the film is as much about it as it is about the Jewish peasant leader from Nazareth.10 Indeed, "this Jesus is specifically located in Montreal, immediately creating a tension between Christ's supposed universality as the saviour of humanity and the particularity of a city in Canada...The US critics trear the Lesus srory as always already universal".11Incidentally, many of these themes were also prominent in the 1987 film Le frère André directed by Jean-Claude Labrecque which having been released just two years before Jesus of Montreal forms an important element of the environment into which the film was released.

    These themes continue into his work in the present day. Arcand's latest film, La Régne dela Beauté (2014) also touches on hospitals and satirises audiences (yawning on the one hand versus sycophantic praise on the other). It also includes another of Arcand's interests, not included in Gambarato's list, friendship in general and especially the act of eating together and spending time in each other's company. Again there is a link to Jesus du Montré most notably the picnic in the church grounds and the time spent in the homes of Constance and Mirelle.

    Another area I've been delving into is some of the film's allegorical symbolism. Much of this is discussed fairly widely in the standard texts - Daniel as a Christ figure/prophet who is heralded by a John the Baptists figure (who even loses his head), gathers a group of disciples, is tempted at a high place by a lawyer/satan figure, clashes with religious authorities, clears out a venerated building before dying and then being symbolically resurrected. However Janis Pallister brings out some of the subtler flavours here. Daniel's surname (Coulombe), for example, "brings up our association with the Dove of Peace".12. She also associates Daniel's troupe with specific members of Jesus' entourage. Constance maps to Jesus' mother, having known Daniel before and having had and illegitimate child; Martin Durocher is Peter, the rock; Mirelle, whilst not a prostitute, has depended on her sex appeal for her work and will become his most devoted follower; and René with his in doubts and pessimism is a sort of Thomas figure. Parallels are even drawn between the ambulance man who cares for Jesus' body and Joseph of Arimathea.13

    Elsewhere Pallister seems to reject and then warm to the idea that Daniel's heart being carried into the heavens in an airplane is a form of ascension and, along similar lines I would add that post Daniel's "death" on the cross, his descent into the subway ties in with the idea from 1 Peter 3:9 / the Apostles Creed about Jesus descending "into Hell" and/or preaching to the "imprisoned spirits".14 There's also an ambiguity around Daniel's resurrection. Is it physically in his rising and discharging from hospital; allegorically in his organs being used to give others life; or spiritually in the way it insires Mirelle to follow in his footsteps; or, I suppose all three?

    These final scenes inspired by a real life conversation Arcand had. "A physician had told me that there are certain types of cranial traumatism that allow a period of 'resurrection' after the accident before the person actually dies. And the physician said that people who die from such traumatism are 'god sent'...because their organs are still in perfect condition of transplant."15

    Finally, Rene's role within the film is also pivotal. The planetarium scene - which riffs on Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause (1955) is also identified as crucial moment. It's not just about Rene's background, but more about our small place in the universe and the importance of seizing the day despite all of this. As René's narration puts it
    “Earth will revert to the galactic gases that formed it. But we will be long gone. The world began without man and will end the same way. When the last soul vanishes from Earth the universe will bear no trace of man's passing."
    As Arcand explains "The 'Big Bang' scene is all-encompassing than the passion-play and ultimately shapes it. The consciousness of death and emptiness is omnipresent".16


    Incidentally, I realised when I started writing this post (though not when I conceived it) that I haven't actually written a review of this film yet - though I have recorded a podcast on it.

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    1 - Cited in Janis L Pallister, “The Cinema of Quebec: Masters in Their Own House". p. 383
    2 - Réal La Rochelle, "Sound design and music as tragédie en musique: the documentary practice of Denys Arcand" in Loiselle,André and McIlroy, Brian (eds), "Auteur/Provocateur: The Films of Denys Arcand". (1995) Trowbridge, Flicks Books. p.38
    3 - Janis L Pallister - “Masters". p. 382
    4 - Pallister – “Masters". p. 382
    5 - La Rochelle - "Sound design and music", p.44
    6 - La Rochelle - "Sound design and music", p.45
    7 - La Rochelle - "Sound design and music" p.47
    8 - Gambarato, Renira Rampazzo. "Talking Objects of Denys Arcand", in 'Revista Lumina'. 2009. Vol. 3. No. 2. p.1-12.
    9 - Pallister - "Masters", p.390
    10 - Pallister - "Masters", p.390
    11 - Peter Wilkins, "No Big Picture: Arcand and his US Critics" in Loiselle,André and McIlroy, Brian (eds), "Auteur/Provocateur: The Films of Denys Arcand". (1995) Trowbridge, Flicks Books. p.123
    12 - Pallister - "Masters", p.383
    13 - Pallister - "Masters", p.383-7, though some of these observations are my own.
    14 - Pallister - "Masters", p.392
    15 - André Loiselle, "I only know where I come from, not where I am going": a conversation with Denys Arcand in Loiselle,André and McIlroy, Brian (eds), "Auteur/Provocateur: The Films of Denys Arcand". (1995) Trowbridge, Flicks Books. p.157
    16 - La Rochelle - "Sound design and music". p.48

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    Friday, February 19, 2016

    Risen (2016)

    63 years ago now, The Robe broke new ground by being the first film to be shot in a widescreen aspect ratio. Whilst the makers of Risen don't quite share that ambition, they have made a film which tells a similar story, that of a sceptical Roman soldier who finds himself hunting the truth about Jesus.

    The start of the film is less familiar as Joseph Fiennes’ tribune Clavius stumbled in to a desert tavern. Moments later, with a drink in his hand, he's telling the inn-keeper about the strange events of the last few weeks and we’re transported back to a scene of Clavius’ men on the offensive against a bunch of Jewish rebels lead by Barabbas.

    For viewers familiar with the story, this instantly raises some questions. Is this before or after his release on place of Jesus? Is this even the same Barabbas? The next scene – of a debris strewn building – brings further unfamiliarity, although these questions are all sewn up by the end of the scene. Nevertheless the stage is set for a sort of first century Sherlock Holmes novel, there's intrigue, a seemingly impossible incident and a no one else is equipped to work it all out. Spoiler alert: Jesus is back from the dead.

    The chief priests are determined to cover it up of course and a weak Pontius Pilate demurs to their increasingly pernickity requests. The problem is though that Clavius and his men can’t find the body to disprove the growing rumours. Their also struggling to track down the disciples, or get any sense out of then when they do. It's nice to see Bartholomew getting something to do for a change, but he can only grin inanely, almost as if he's stoned, and make Clavius think he's an idiot.

    To delve further into the plot really would be giving away spoilers, but the filmmakers make one unexpected decision that radically changes the nature and direction of the story. I don't think it works. Nevertheless it's interesting to see a film portray various stories from the gospels which occur after the crucifixion. Traditionally, many of these are omitted by traditional Jesus films, even from those which cover the resurrection. Conversely, many of the Roman-Christian films start after these events have happened.

    Here though they get a full airing bringing with them some nice new angles as well and there's a good balance between the time spent focussing on the Romans and the time spent with Jesus’ followers.

    The need for the film to appeal to the faith-based market does lead to some interesting decisions. Not unsurprisingly Jesus is given a loincloth on the cross, but bizarrely we also find Clavius and Pilate wearing them in their Roman-style communal bath. Mary Magdalene is still a prostitute despite recent attempts by some to free her from that association and, in the film’s cheesiest moment, Jesus’ burial cloths is shown to bear the same image as the Turin Shroud. When I recently gate-crashed a preview screening of the film for a Catholic audience, even they tittered at that one.

    Less amusing however is the film’s failure to avoid various anti-Semitic stereotypes, most troublingly the reference to the Jewish crowd as a “lathered mob” and their jeering and cheering at Jesus’ death. On top of this Caiaphas repeatedly going back to Pilate to prevent a story getting out about a resurrection depict him as sly, paranoid, dishonest and irritating. And sadly, except for Jesus’ followers, there are no ‘good Jews’ to give the films a more balanced perspective.

    The film does a lot well though as well. Firstly the visuals are generally very good. Risen was filmed in Malta and Spain and the striking landscapes and interesting architecture provide a great backdrop to the story. Director Kevin Reynolds, of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves fame, introduces some interesting visual ideas as well, such as the gradual change in Clavius’ clothing reflecting the changes he is undergoing on the inside.

    There are also a few nice touches with the music such as Hitchcock-esque strings on one occasion when Jesus disappears suddenly – a nice reminder of the inherent strangeness of those post-resurrection stories. And whilst the time Jesus spends on the screen is relatively brief, it's a good performance by Cliff Curtis.

    Unfortunately the positive elements are unlikely to add up to enough for Risen to find a wide audience outside the faith-based sector. The premise itself offers scant enough temptation for those with little or no Christian faith and whilst they may be drawn in initially, the direction the film chooses to go is just too much to swallow. It becomes preachy rather than thought-provoking thereby undoing a lot of the good work of the first few scenes. As an outside observer I can see why Clavius believes in his story. I'm just not sure I can believe in it myself.

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    Thursday, February 11, 2016

    This Man Went to the Risen Preview. What He Heard Will Astound You.

    ...or maybe not. But in any case last week I got the chance to go to Rome. For a special preview screening of Risen. The opportunity came my way thanks to my friend Peter Chattaway so we agreed I'd write up a report of the event for his blog before the film's release date next week. Peter has just posted the piece here:

    Report from Rome: The makers of Risen talk about Bible movies, film noir, sympathetic killers, and meeting the Pope

    I'll be posting my review of the film itself here as normal in about a week or so, but its a real privilege to get a piece published on Peter's blog - he doesn't let just anyone do that.

    The evening itself was a great experience, reminiscent of heading to London back in 2008 for the première of the BBC's The Passion, only without the added joy of meeting Robert Powell (and indeed, Mark Goodacre). And trip itself was a blast - I suppose Rome was on my bucket list and it is just such an incredible city. They have so much ancient history there they don't know what to do with it all. It totally lived up to the hype and then some. I think I walked about 15-18 miles in just over 24 hours and, if you get the chance I'd strongly recommend it.

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    Wednesday, February 03, 2016

    Der Galiläer (1921)

    Of all the silent Jesus films that I have reviewed for this blog Der Galiläer is the most wonderfully composed; it is also the one that most unmistakably reflects the anti-Semitism that was rife in interwar Germany. For many that is a reason to avoid it, but such a conclusion is naïvely wrongheaded. The atmosphere that grew up in Germany, and many other parts of Europe, was fed and watered by films such as these. The tragic conclusion of this trajectory should mean we take all the more notice of a 1920s German Jesus film not less. Is it any wonder that when The Passion of the Christ came out on 2004 most church leaders shrugged it off without reference to the shameful history of dramatic portrayals of Jesus’ last days?

    Der Galiläer is all the more pernicious for it's seductively beautiful images. The film cuts between artful close-ups and perfectly composed wide long shots. Shots such as the above mid-shot are few and far between. The close-ups are all the finer for being wordless, pausing for long enough to give proper consideration to what the characters are thinking. On one occasion we are even shown it as Jesus has a vision of the cross whilst praying in Gethsemane.

    In contrast the wider shots, often featuring hundreds of extras, are grand yet vibrant and chaotic. By the time Kaiphas whips up the Jewish crowd in the marketplace and leads them to forcefully appeal his initial decision, mob rule is very much in the air. Pilate’s fear is evident, his capitulation made all the more ‘understandable’ by the distortion.

    The other thing that is notable about the wider compositions is how they echo so much of Christian art. Whilst this is hardly uncommon in silent Bible films, the pace is a little more stately, the tone a little more graceful and the poses held for a little longer than is normally the case. Unsurprisingly Leonardo’s "Last Supper" is reproduced, but many other works are apparent too. Even for se of us that cannot name them, but know them when we see them. Yet even this has its dark side, suggesting continuity between the historic church and the depiction before us.

    The anti-Semitic elements build as the film goes on, but the focus on the crowd is there from the start. The film starts with celebrations on the street at the news that Jairus's daughter has been healed. Shortly after Jesus makes his triumphal entry to huge acclaim, his progress halted only to restore Bartimaeus's sight. The crowd follow Jesus the temple but are faced-down by Kaiphas and his high priests reasserting their traditional authority. Jesus heads away whilst the Sanhedrin schemes as to how to destroy him with Judas’ help.

    Visually the depiction of Kaiphas and these other Jewish leaders underlines what the film suggests throughout. Not only does the cameras shoot them from below allowing their faces to loom over the camera, but the actors themselves seem to comply with every anti-Semitic stereotype in the book. The actors distort their wizened features to arch their eyebrows, flare their nostrils and rub their hands. Even their headwear is comes into play, topped with horns suggesting the “children of the devil” accusation that has proved so troublesome.
    Following the Last Supper Jesus is arrested, tried and brought before Pilate, but when he fails to deliver the required verdict, Kaiaphas takes to the streets to whip up the crowd into a frenzy to pressure Pilate to giving them the verdict they want. As described above, the ease with which Kaiphas is able to manipulate the Jewish crowd, and the fear it evokes in a hardened Roman leader like Pilate is one of the most troubling parts of the film. The crowd remains on the verge of a riot all along the road to the cross, seeming only to disperse when the earth quakes and the temple curtain is torn in two. Curiously the actual crucifixion is particularly brief – far shorter than the scene where Barabbas is freed, or even than the road to the cross. The stronger emphasis on this scene – where Barabbas is called a murderer and yet still the massive crowd call down Jesus blood on them and their children – really does pose the question as to what the filmmakers intentions were.

    So it's good that the Bundesarchiv-filmarchiv have restored the film. If films about Jesus are to retain their validity, they need to face their chequered past.

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    Monday, February 01, 2016

    Bellucci: From Malèna to Magdalena

    Whilst the path the film treads is not unpredictable, you might want to look away if you've not seen it as I'm going to give away a few key spoilers.

    As I'm heading to Roman this week, I watched the 2000 Italian film Malèna last week. The film, set during the Second World War stars Monica Bellucci as a woman who receives news of her husband's death in combat and as a result has to fend for herself against the town's more predatory inhabitants. As might be expected Bellucci's character, Melèna, has a considerable number of suitors, not least the teenage narrator whose desire for Melèna leads to voyeurism. Her other suitors however are less keen to keep their distance with many seeking to exploit her lack of finances for their own sexual desires.

    At the same time Melèna's reputation with the town's women is getting worse and worse leading her to greater isolation and desperation. Ultimately she ends up fraternising with the Nazis and so when the way ends and the Nazis leave she is left to face the town's ire. What begins as a celebration of the town's liberation ends with Melèna being dragged from the barracks in front of a baying crowd, stripped, beaten and then having her hair cut off. The scene (from which the above image is taken) is strongly reminiscent of John 8:2-10 - the woman caught in adultery, and, of course, with Bellucci also playing this role four years later in The Passion of the Christ it's not hard to make a connection. I don't know if Gibson had seen this film - or even just this clip - when he made the film, but certainly the way it is staged and shot contains many similarities, as does the way Bellucci performs it.

    However, in contrast to The Passion, this film's lead does not intervene to rescue the woman at the centre of the mob. He waits, and watches, certain that he should step in, but too afraid to do the right thing. For those used to such scenes featuring Jesus - or any of a number of heroes from similar scenes in other genres - the lack of intervention is agonising.

    There are a number of other interesting links with Mary Magdalene in this film as well. Firstly there is the idea of Melèna as a fallen woman. Whilst it's church tradition, rather than the Bible, that has portrayed her so, its certainly part of the reason why that scene resonates so much.

    Not unrelated to this is Melèna's changing image, most notably from a brunette to a red-head to a bleach blonde. This is perhaps rather tenuous, but there is something about Magdalene's transformation that could be expressed as a reinvention or a change of image.

    More importantly there is the way the film finishes with the reappearance of Malèna's husband - a resurrection of sorts - who returns as a heroic if scarred figure who restores Malèna to wholeness once again. And perhaps thanks to her admirer being economical with the truth, he sees her without sin. Perhaps its because I am also thinking a lot about Jesus of Montreal at the moment, but I found the way the film explores truth, the perception of truth, oral transmission, kind lies and vicious lies to be very interesting.

    Incidentally I believe I only watched the international cut of this film. There is, apparently, also a scene which was cut from this version which shows Malèna playing the part of Mary the Mother of Jesus as part of some kind of religious pageant (see it here). It seems to me that this changes the meaning of story massively. I'm still thinking over the impact of that.

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