• 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.

    Matt Page

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    Monday, November 23, 2015

    The Bible in Motion: A Handbook of the Bible and Its Reception in Film

    Editor: Rhonda Burnette-Bletsch
    Publisher: Walter de Gruyter
    Date: February 15, 2016
    Language: English
    Length: 900 pages*
    Price (Hardback/eBook): £180/$335
    ISBN: 978-1614515616

    It gives me great pleasure to announce the release of this two-volume work on the Bible in Film. A large part of the pleasure comes from the knowledge that two of the chapters in it will be mine, but also it looks set to be the the most comprehensive work on the subject to date with work from most of the leading scholars in this area. First here's the official blurb from the publisher's website:
    This volume contains a comprehensive collection of original studies by well-known scholars focusing on the Bible’s wide-ranging reception in world cinema. Part I examines the rich cinematic afterlives of selected characters from the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. Part II considers issues of biblical reception across a wide array of film genres, ranging from noir to anime. Part III features directors, from Lee Chang-dong to the Coen brothers, whose body of work reveals an enduring fascination with biblical texts and motifs. Part IV offers topical essays on cinema’s treatment of selected biblical themes (e.g., redemption, lament, apocalyptic), particular interpretive lenses (e.g., feminist interpretation, queer theory), and windows into biblical reception in a variety of world cinemas (e.g., Indian, Israeli, and Third Cinema). This handbook is intended for scholars of the Bible, religion, and film as well as for a wider general audience
    Based on the proofing copy I have seen it seems that his information is a little out of date. For a start it's now split into two volumes, with six parts in total. *Secondly, whereas the data in circulation at the moment suggests that it will be 710 pages, I suspect the final manuscript will be pushing 900. I've excerpted the contents pages below

    I have one chapter in each volume. In the first I have an essay on the depiction of (King) David in film a character who has, hitherto, been rather overlooked by Bible film scholars. But I'm particularly proud of my contribution to the second part, a chapter on Roberto Rossellini. Rossellini is such a great, influential, but - these days - under-appreciated film-maker that it feels like a real honour to write about him. I've been learning some Italian, as much spurred on by my appreciation of his films, and I'm quite looking forward to being able to say I've been published on Rossellini.

    It's also a tremendous honour to be published alongside so many of the writers whose work I have appreciated over the last 15 or so years as well as getting the chance to encounter some new (to me) names as well.

    At 710-900 pages and £180/$335 a copy it's hardly for the casual reader (Amazon even gives it's weight as 1.7lbs!) and I imagine most copies will end up in academic libraries. Still I imagine if it sells well there may be a paperback release at some stage at a substantially lower cost. Certainly if you do get a chance to get hold of a copy I would strongly recommend it.

    VOLUME 1
    Part I: Biblical Characters and Stories (Hebrew Bible)

    1. In the Beginning: Adam and Eve in Film
    - Theresa Sanders
    2. Noah and the Flood: A Cinematic Deluge
    - Anton Karl Kozlovic
    3. It’s all in the Family: The Patriarchs of Genesis in Film
    - Peter T. Chattaway
    4. The Cinematic Moses
    - Jennifer L. Koosed
    5. Samson and Delilah in Film
    - J. Cheryl Exum
    6. There Might be Giants: King David on the Big (and Small) Screen
    - Matthew Page
    7. Esther in Film
    - Carl S. Ehrlich

    Part II: Film Genres and Film Media
    8. Scripture on Silent Film
    - David J. Shepherd
    9. Film Noir and the Bible
    - Robert Ellis
    10. The Bible Epic
    - Adele Reinhartz
    11. Western Text(s): The Bible and the Movies of the Wild, Wild West
    - Robert Paul Seesengood
    12. Mysteries of the Bible (Documentary) Revealed: The Bible in Popular Non-Fiction and Documentary Film
    - Robert Paul Seesengood
    13. From Skepticism to Piety: The Bible and Horror Films
    - Mary Ann Beavis
    14. “Moses’ DVD Collection”: The Bible and Science Fiction Film
    - Frauke Uhlenbruch
    15. The Word Made Gag: Biblical Reception in Film Comedy
    - Terry Lindvall and Chris Lindvall
    16. Drawing (on) the Text: Biblical Reception in Animated Films
    - R. Christopher Heard
    17. Anime and the Bible
    - Fumi Ogura and N. Frances Hioki

    Part III: Biblical Themes and Genres
    18. God at the Movies
    - Rhonda Burnette-Bletsch
    19. Satan in Cinema
    - Peter Malone
    20. Creation and Origins in Film
    - Gaye Williams Ortiz
    21. The Book of Job in the Movies: On Cinema‘s Exploration of Theodicy and the Hiddenness of God
    - Reinhold Zwick
    22. Lament in Film and Film as Lament
    - Matthew S. Rindge
    23. What Lies beyond? Biblical Images of Death and Afterlife in Film
    - Sandie Gravett
    24. This is the End: Apocalyptic Moments in Cinema
    - Tina Pippin

    VOLUME 2
    Part I: Biblical Characters and Stories (New Testament)

    1. Jesus and the Gospels at the Movies
    - W. Barnes Tatum
    2. Women in the Cinematic Gospels
    - Catherine O’Brien
    3. Judas as Portrayed in Film
    - Carol A. Hebron
    4. Jews and Judaism in Bible Films
    - Clayton N. Jefford
    5. Paul and the Early Church in Film
    - Richard Walsh
    6. Mythic Relevance of Revelation in Film
    - Meghan Alexander Beddingfield

    Part II: Cinemas and Auteurs
    7. David Wark Griffith: Filming the Bible as the U.S. Story
    - Richard Walsh
    8. Alice Guy Blaché and Gene Gauntier: Bringing New Perspectives to Film
    - Carol A. Hebron
    9. Oscar Micheaux’s Within our Gates: Emergent History and a Gospel of Middle-Class Liberation
    - Nathan Jumper
    10. Cecil B. Demille: Hollywood’s Lay Preacher
    - Anton Karl Kozlovic
    11. Reframing Jesus: Dreyer’s Lifelong Passion
    - Caroline Vander Stichele
    12. Luis Buñuel: Atheist by the Grace of God
    - J. Sage Elwell
    13. Robert Bresson: Biblical Resonance from a Christian Atheist
    - Sara Anson Vaux
    14. Roberto Rossellini: From Spiritual Searcher to History’s Documentarian
    - Matthew Page
    15. Federico Fellini: From Catholicism to the Collective Unconscious
    - Marie-Therese Maeder
    16. John Huston: The Atheistic Noah
    - Gaye Williams Ortiz
    17. Stanley Kubrick: Midrashic Movie Maker
    - Nathan Abrams
    18. In the Wake of the Bible: Krzysztof Kieślowski and the Residual Divine in Contemporary Life
    - Joseph G. Kickasola
    19. Peter Weir: Man of Mystery, Mysticism, and the Mundane
    - Anton Karl Kozlovic
    20. Cheick Oumar Sissoko: West African Activist and Storyteller
    - Rhonda Burnette-Bletsch
    21. Lee Chang-Dong: Exploring the Hidden Christ
    - Fumi Ogura and N. Frances Hioki
    22. Mark Dornford-May: Transposing the Classic
    - Samuel D. Giere
    23. Serious Men: Scripture in the Coen Brothers Films
    - J. R. Daniel Kirk
    24. Liberative Visions: BiblicaL Reception in Third Cinema
    - Antonio D. Sison
    25. The Reception of Biblical Films in India: Observations and a Case Study
    - Dwight H. Friesen
    26. “A Ram Butts his Broad Horns again and again against the Wall of the House”: The Binding Myth in Israeli Film
    - Anat Y. Zanger

    Part III: Voices from the Margins
    27. Judaism and Antisemitism in Bible Movies
    - Adele Reinhartz
    28. Ethnicity and Biblical Reception in Eve and the Fire Horse
    - Stephenson Humphries-Brooks
    29. A Slave Narrative for the “Post-Racial” Obama Age
    - Rhonda Burnette-Bletsch
    30. The Temptation of Noah: The Debate about Patriarchal Violence in Darren Aronofsky’s Noah
    - Erin Runions
    31. Gay Male Villains in Biblical Epic Films
    - Richard A. Lindsay
    32. Imperialism in New Testament Films
    - Jeremy Punt

    *This is based on the number of pages in the proofing copies I have seen. Final version may differ significantly.

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    Thoughts on the "Banned" CofE Advert

    There's been some discussion about this story in the press and on social media and so whilst this isn't technically a post about the Bible and film, it is sort of about church sponsored films being shown, or not shown, in the cinema.

    Details are still emerging about this story - and that does kind of make me nervous about commentating. Usually stories like these grow and change as the various details seep out, and I suspect this is the case here.

    The facts, as I understand them at least, are these. The Church of England has made an advert they wanted to show in cinemas before the new Star Wars film in the run up to Christmas, but the company that controls adverts in the majority of the UK's cinemas - Digital Cinema Media - have a policy against showing religious adverts.

    Many within the church are crying foul - although this being the CofE they are wisely cautious about using the term persecution - with the CofE's director of communications saying he finds it "bewildering". The more vocal of the atheistic groups are voicing their support of DCM's policy, pointing out that the church doesn't have "an automatic right to foist its opinions" and so on. That said whilst Keith Porteous Wood supports the ban, Richard Dawkins, somewhat unexpectedly, doesn't, which places him, rather usunually, in the same camp as Giles Fraser.

    All of which means it's probably just as well that the church didn't include a gay, cake-baker saying "give us today our daily bread", or else the internet make have imploded. Again.

    A couple of observations at this point. Firstly, this isn't about free speech, it's about a business making business decisions. I don't think DCM will struggle to fill the pre-Star Wars slots, but at the same time they could probably sell them to the highest bidder and in this case one imagines the bidding could go quite high (which maybe raises the issue of why the church is seeking to spend absolutely top whack to fill an advertising slot for a not particularly outstanding quality video advert).

    Secondly, at what point did the CofE become aware of the cinema's policy? I find it very hard to believe that the church didn't know about this in advance. In 2006 our local church tied to run some form of promotion at the cinema around the release of The Nativity Story. Despite, or quite possibly because of, a similar campaign around The Passion of The Christ (which competing churches turned into an undignified scrabble to grab the attention of the few cinemagoers to attend the film) we were told their policy was now, no religious adverts. And the UK environment has moved further in that direction ever since.

    So if the church didn't discover it until after it had spent a significant amount of money creating the campaign and doing all the filming, then it suggests a level of incompetence which they should be beyond. But if they knew before then this looks even more like the church trying to gain some free publicity by creating a media storm around the issue and driving traffic to their website and that of the "Just Pray" campaign the advert is meant to promote.

    DCM's defence will be that they have a policy so they can treat all religions equally. But people will counter there is a clear difference between the CofE and the Taliban and they should be able to tell. Perhaps, but at some point there will come a dividing line and I can understand why the company might wash its hands of the whole issue, even if it might hit its profits. But it will be interesting to see where this story goes. Were there discussions between the two parties in private or did the CofE just throw itself into a media storm in the spirit of "all publicity is good publicity"? Perhaps DCM had made encouraging noises and then got cold feet? It will be interesting to see where this story goes from here. Either way I think the CofE has found a far cheaper way to gain the attention of it's intended audience, even if it won't be in 3D Imax.

    Thursday, November 19, 2015

    The Red Tent - Scene Guide

    I reviewed Roger Young's adaptation of The Red Tent a few weeks back, but I wanted to offer a few thoughts on the way the scenes relate to the text in Genesis. However, in contrast to my usual scene guide format I'm not going to point out where there's extra-biblical material.
    Part 1
    Jacob and Rachel meet - (Gen.29:1-14)
    Jacob marries Leah - (Gen.29:15-26)
    Leah's sons born - (Gen.29:31-35; 30:17-20)
    Birth of Dinah - (Gen.30:21)
    Joseph's coat - (Gen.37:2-7
    Jacob splits from Laban - (Gen.31:1-18)
    Jacob reconciled to Esau - (Gen.33:1-17)
    Move to Shechem - (Gen.33:18-20)
    Rachel's idols - (Gen.31:19,30-35)
    Dinah and Shechem meet - (Gen.34:1,3)
    Dinah And Shechem marry - (Gen.34:2,4)
    Hamor and Jacob meet - (Gen.34:5-19)
    Shechemites circumcised - (Gen.34:20-24)
    Shechemites slaughtered - (Gen.34:25-29)

    Part 2
    Jacob denounces Simeon and Levi - (Gen.34:30-31)
    [A lot of extra-biblical material]
    Joseph sold into slavery - (Gen.37:17-36)
    [A lot of extra-biblical material]
    Jacob reunited with Joseph - (Gen.46:26-30)
    Death of Jacob - (Gen.49:29-50:14)
    A Few Notes
    As you would expect for a 3 hour film that is essentially based on a single chapter of Genesis Red Tent covers chapter 34 and those around it pretty comprehensively, albeit with a radically revised interpretation of the key verses in that chapter (34:1-4). A quick glance a above shows that all of the chapters between chapters 29-37 get referenced at some point, with the excuseable exception of Genesis 36 which is jus a list of Esau's descendants and the subsequent rulers of Edom.

    That said a few key passages do get omitted and a couple of these are fairly interesting. Perhaps the most curious exclusion is that despite the numerous birthing scenes, we don' get to see Rachel giving birth (and if I remember rightly the same is true of Bilhah and Zilpah). This seems strange seeing the film's emphasis on sisterhood and motherhood, and given Rachel's particular expertise in midwifery i would have been interesting to see the roles reversed.

    Another important scene from the Biblical story that is largely passed over here is Jacob wrestling with God the night before his confrontation with Esau. It's not hard to see why this is played down. The supernatural aspects of the whole story are largely in he background here. It's presented as a human story rather than one driven by a divine plan. An incident where God/an angel appears in bodily form to wrestle with God would seem somewhat out of step with the rest of the film. Furthermore, nothing in this parts of the origins of Israel narrative does more to underline Jacob's importance at the head of the tribe and to present him as the key figure. Again his goes against the grain of the story tellers' emphasis on he women of the tribe.

    It would have been similarly contrary to the filmmakers' intentions to include the story of Judah and Tamar (Gen. 38). In many ways this mini-series is about exploring a tangent to the Jacob story. The story of Tamar represents another tangent to that story, so the connection here is slight anyway. Furthermore the feint suggestion of disharmony between the leading women of Israel also would go against the narrative flow that is being presented.

    In contrast to those omissions it's noticeable that the various episodes largely follow their biblical order. This is hardly unique to The Red Tent despite the fact that there's some evidence to suggest that the biblical order is not strictly chronological. Jacob's gift of the coat of many colours/special sleeves is brought forward a little, the disclosure about Rachel hiding her father's icons is moved back, but it's largely all in tact.

    There are three other versions of this story that spring to mind. The New Media Bible Genesis is committed to following the story more or less word for word (although it misses out all of the Tower of Babel - go figure), so naturally this follows the biblical order. Roger Young's other take on this story, Joseph (1995), tells the earlier parts of Joseph's life in flashback, so the order is different, but it's not really subversive in anyway, it's just a narrative device. The fact that this episode appears in the Joseph entry in this series, rather than the Jacob section might be significant as some of the episodes there occur after this incident.

    In contrast, Cheick Oumar Sissoko's La genèse rearranges things to emphasise a time of crisis for Jacob's tribe. When the film starts, Jacob is already mourning Joseph (Gen. 37), but he has not yet been reconciled with Esau (Gen.33). And the film's first major event is rape of Dinah (ch. 34). As Peter Chattaway summarises "Jacob is ineffectual in dealing with the rape of his daughter, and in making peace with Esau for that matter, because he has been mourning the apparent death of Joseph for 20 months, and he simply can't be bothered to leave his tent...". Compared to this The Red Tent's changes are just tweaks to make the story flow a little more easily.

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    Sunday, November 15, 2015

    The Robe (1953)

    The Robe is famous for being the first major widescreen movie. It's a distinction that brings it far greater attention than the spate of other Roman-Christian movies released around the same time but means that it's other achievements are somewhat overlooked. It is, for example, considered to be one if the great composer Alfred Newman's best scores, indeed it's one of the very few Bible film scores I listen to other than when watching the film itself. At times subdued, subtle and whimsical. At times bombastic, dominating and capturing all the self assured pomp of the Roman Empire at it's height. Yet the same refrains weave in and out linking the characters and tracing their journeys.

    Which isn't to say the film, based on Lloyd C. Douglas's novel, doesn't have it's weaknesses. For one thing the advantages of the new technology are still being realised. Many of the compositions aren't quite right either leaving things too cramped in the middle, or leaving too much space there. And some of the performances, Victor Mature's in particularly, are the kind that bring the genre into disrepute. The most common charge is of being overly camp, but this doesn't fully do it justice. A degree of camp is clearly intended, and arguably merited, for Jay Robinson's performance as Caligula, but it still goes over the top and clashes with the heavily reverential tone of many parts of the film. Mature's problem is different. With him it's not so much that he is intending to be camp, but over doing it, but that he appears to be be trying to play it down the line, but ends up in the camp camp anyway. There's just a desperate earnestness in his face which nevertheless fails to convince. But then perhaps that's because he knew that some of the dialogue is so weak that even Olivier would have struggled to redeem it.

    Which isn't to say that moments of the film aren't transcendent and superbly executed. Andrew Greeley describes Douglas's decision to keep Jesus off-stage as "a master stroke of narrative technique" and it's hard to disagree. Recently I segued scores of short clips from Jesus films into one short telling of the life of Christ and this was the one I chose for the Via Dolorosa. Whether it was the novel's influence or the impact of the Hayes Code, the decision was made not to show Jesus' face at all during the film meaning that the camera's attention is far more focused on the reactions of those watching it. And it's one scene where Mature, who becomes the focus of the scene in Jesus' "absence", absolutely nails it. The score dominates everything here. There is almost no intra-diegetic sound here at all save the occasional sound of a cracked whip. Cruel and powerful sounding it grinds on mercilessly and inevitably to the next scene's awful climax. By focussing on the horror of the faces of the onlooking cloud it becomes far more powerful than Mel Gibson's relentlessly unflinching look at the brutality itself. They know the awfulness of the fate that awaits Jesus and it haunts not only them, but through their faces us too.

    Moments later the film's other great scene unfolds, again due in part to the decision keep the face of Jesus hidden. Instead the camera focuses on the soldiers who get on with the job, and it's perks, whilst being lashed by the wind and the rain, stuck in a part of the world they despise. They care not one bit about the man who is dying, they just want him to get on with it so they can get back to the barracks. By opting to defer until later the moment at which Richard Burton's tribune Marcellus sees the light the scene regains it's tension. Burton is humanised by his desire to be professional and not completely unaffected by his prisoner's suffering, but again the focus is one those on the fringes of the traditional story.

    There's two other moments that linger in the memory [the first is as Richard Boone's Pontius Pilate absent mindedly asks for the bowl to wash his hands just moments after he has already made his famously symbolical gesture. The confusion on his face as his servant respectfully reminds him of his error and Boone's noirishly delivered response "Did I? So I did." conjure up an image that is no less effective for being historically unlikely.

    The other is the film's very final moment as Jean Simmons's Diana chooses to accompany Marcellus to his death for a faith she has so newly discovered that she barely comprehends it. The scene itself is not particularly well exceptional and it's marred by the worst of Robinson's excesses. Even the moment when Diana chooses death with Christ/Marcellus over life without them and the start of the procession to their fate is unexceptional. Yet somehow by the time they reach the end of the hall way, figuratively if not actually joined in union with Christ, something has changed and there is a moment which transports the viewer to another place.

    Simmons role is not insignificant Babington and Evans in their seminal work on Biblical Epics suggest that the way Mature's purity of mind contrasts with the viable sexuality of his body embodies the tension at the heart of the biblical between morality and sexuality1. As the star of several such epics a good case can be made therefore for Simmons as Mature's female equivalent. Whilst her attractiveness and sexuality were always apparent, a strong morality seemed to run through the majority of her roles. This, then, endows The Robe with one other distinction: whilst the king and queen of the biblical epic don't share much screen time, it does at least cast Simmons and Mature together and it interweaves the fictional story of Marcellus' spiritual death and resurrection impressively with that of the physical death of Jesus.

    1 - Bruce Babington and Peter William Evans, "Biblical Epics: Sacred Narrative in the Hollywood Cinema", Manchester University Press ND, 1993, p.227


    Thursday, November 12, 2015

    Lucifer (2014)

    My wife is an artist and quite a few years ago now she went through a phase of painting on circular canvases. It's a concept that goes at least as far back as Hieronymus Bosch's works such as "Christ Crowned with Thorns" and "Table of the Seven Deadly Sins". It seems strange, then, that Gust Van den Berghe's Lucifer is apparently the first film to work within a circular frame.

    I say that with certain caveats. Firstly, I can't claim that no-one who has ever turned on a camera has ever ended up with a circularly framed film, but Van den Bergh's picture is hardly a major film and yet it certainly seems to be the biggest film to have made this particular artistic choice. Secondly, many of the very earliest moving images featured something akin to a circular image due to the shapes of the lenses, and perhaps as a result the iris shot was far more common then as it was now.

    Indeed at times Lucifer feels a little like a long tribute to the iris shot and the way it focusses the viewers attention on a particular part of the shot. That said at other points, the composition doesn't really work in a way that is vaguely reminiscent of some of the first widescreen films which struggles to adjust to the possibilities of their new frame. The masked screen works, at times, like a porthole - a portal to another world. At it's best it's a little bit like some of those scenes from inside John Malkovich's head in Being John Malkovich.

    More significantly, at times the circularity of the shot is about more than masking the corners, but the use of a pioneering new technique which Van den Bergh has called Tondoscope (from the Italian for circular, rotondo) which shoots through an optical circular mirror to capture a 360 degree image (such as that below). This distorts the image but crams in all the detail round the edge of the work, which is strongly reminiscent of some of Bosch's work, indeed the Tondoscope logo is based on one of Bosch's circular paintings - "Seven Deadly Sins".

    There's always a question with films which pioneer a new technique as to whether they are able to transcend that technique and still be a good film in their own right. It's not quite so straightforward a question with Lucifer because those Tondoscope images are meant to draw attention to the technique itself and it's historic resonances, but the masked shots do well enough as well. Certainly there are moments when I forgot about the frame and got absorbed with what was happening within it.
    The circle also brings with it a sense of perfection and completeness and these are highly suited to the film's subject matter - hardly inconsequential. Lucifer is loosely based on Joost Van Den Vondel's 1654 play about the eponymous anti-hero's fall from heaven. Van Den Vondel's play pre-dates "Paradise Lost" by 13 years and many point out his influence on Milton's work. The story is relocated to an ultra rural, 'modern day', Mexico. This is outside the usual time frames for Lucifer's fall from heaven, but it certainly makes things more interesting. Lucifer at this point is still in free-fall, even the choice of name - Lucifer - suggests that he is part way between the pure archangel of God's court and the devil, the epitome of evil.

    Other names also carry similar references. Aside from the main character, the film's leading humans are an elderly couple called Lupita and Emanuel. "Lupita" invites some kind of comparison with the visiting "angel". Emanuel of course means "God with us". Equally prominent is their grand-daughter, Maria, whose name is similarly rich in biblical references.

    All this is significant because this idea of Lucifer's morality changing, both with (and perhaps even because of) his interactions with humans is fairly central.Indeed the film is at pains to show Lucifer doing what would ordinarily be considered good acts, even retreading some of Jesus' footsteps. Shortly after his arrival on earth he asks for water from a woman at a well. He rescues a sheep and is shown cradling it in his arms. In one pivotal scene Lucifer takes the feet of the lame Emanuel and begins to wash them.

    Not only is this reminiscent of Jesus actions at the Last Supper, but when Lucifer returns to massage the man's feet it soon becomes clear that the man has been healed. But is this about good for goodness's sake, or about the power of the miracle which continues to hold sway in various religious circles? Or is it simply that after centuries of serving God these things come naturally even to the very one who has sworn him as an enemy? I'm reminded of 2 Cor. 11:14 "for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light".

    The miracle of course brings the crowds but their initial adoration turns to dissatisfaction when no further miracles are forthcoming. When Lupita and Emanuel throw their celestial guest a party one villager rebukes him. "If you knew what pain meant you would be more merciful". Yet despite some of the villagers' misgivings may be, they're not enough to dissuade one church leader from building a babel-esque tower to reach to heaven to enable "the stranger" to visit more often".

    Whether it's because Lucifer is disappointed by the attitudes of the villagers, or because he is unable to resist the temptations such a social event offers him, the party marks the last time we, and the villagers, see this mysterious stranger. The scene culminates in Lucifer plying Maria with an unusual combination of alcohol and heavenly visions, in order to seduce her. As the next day breaks, a clever shot in Tondoscope shows Lucifer sneaking past the still sleeping Maria, creeping out of the door and apparently never to return. He has used his powers for his own selfish and sexual gain and the villagers never see him again. As the film moves into Part II (titled "Sin") Maria's voice cries out desperately over the tannoy "The angel that came has left...Where did you go? Yesterday you were so kind to me...We are waiting for you."

    Several of the film's later scenes also picking up this theme of contrasting the supposed purity of the religious impulse with a more realistic view of mis-functioning humanity. Another memorable scene sees a woman on her knees shuffling towards an altar. But rather than this being portrayed as a holy and emotional moment it is rooted in the profane. The shrine the woman edges towards is being vacuumed by a cleaner. As she homes in on the altar she cuts herself by accidentally breaking her bottle of milk which runs over the and and is led away.

    Three of Van den Bergh's other images are particularly striking. The first occurs fairly early on in the film. It's night and as Lucifer moves around he walks in front of a fire (see above). For a moment the fire seems almost to stick to him and be following him around, a subtle nod to all those hellfire and damnation tales of Lucifer's ultimate destination. The second shows a tree standing starkly by the side of the lake, evoking the tree of life and/or the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But the best of the lot focuses on Maria, shortly after her night with Lucifer and right at the film's mid-point. It begins on a close up of the back of her head only for the camera to gently rotate/twist through 180 degrees. At the same time as camera turns Maria slowly leans back until ultimately she is left as if floating at the top of the screen. It's a transcendent shot, made all the more graceful and moving because of the perfectly proportioned circular frame.

    [Spoilers]It's at this point that it also starts to become apparent that the use of the name Maria carries greater weight than it first appeared. This Maria is also the human chosen to bear the son of a celestial being. Whilst Emanuel's healing eases the family's suffering in one important sense, Maria's pregnancy places them under further strain ultimately leading to the baliffs turning up to destroy their home at the very moment Maria goes into labour. The first film in Van den Bergh's loose-ish trilogy, 2010's Little Baby Jesus of Flandr, was about three socially outcast Magi encountering the infant Christ. In a sense, then, the trilogy has rather come (if you will pardon the pun) full circle. [End of spoilers].

    It's hard to really know what to make of all this, a mixture of the spiritual with the profane. A story about a gullible humanity and a humanised devil. A picture of a spartan way of light that is desperate to connect with the divine and a film that is brave enough to throw all the traditional images up in the air in order to explore their meaning.

    Readers might also enjoy Jay Weissberg's insightful review for Variety, which helped me develop my own thoughts about this film.

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    Saturday, November 07, 2015

    The Red Tent (2014)

    "My name means nothing to you. My memory is dust... I became a footnote, my story a brief detour between the well-known history of my father Jacob, and the celebrated chronicle of Joseph, my brother."

    So Dinah (The White Queen's Rebecca Ferguson) introduces herself at the start of both Anita Diamant's novel and this mini-series adaptation directed by Roger Young. The Jacob and Joseph referred to are those we meet in the latter chapters of Genesis - the founding father of Israel and his most beloved son. But this is not really their story; neither is it a conventional retelling of Dinah's own story. This is a fanciful exploration of the women of Jacob's clan on whom rests so much, yet receive so little credit. It's not just a film about Dinah; it's also about Leah and Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah, Rebecca, Tamar and the wife of Laban. It's an attempt to get behind the female names that tend to get skipped over, or only valued for their motherhood, and to look at the events of Genesis from their perspective and provide insights from their point of view.

    So this isn't a film for those who might like to term themselves as biblical purists. For one thing the "rape" of Dinah portrayed in the film is nothing of the sort, at least by modern standards. Dinah is presented as a self-determining woman who falls in love with a tribal prince and makes her own decision to sleep with him. But of course in biblical times women were viewed as property of their husbands/fathers. It's at least possible that the prevailing view was that consent to sexual acts on their bodies were not theirs to give but that of their fathers. By this world-view it would be impossible for Dinah to give her consent - it was not seen as hers to give., it was Jacob's. The shocking possibility of that shows us what a radically different world we live in today, but in highlighting the difference the film perhaps strays too far into anachronism. If women really were as oppressed as this - denied consent even over their own bodies - then how likely it is that they would dare to defy this social consensus?

    None of this is to suggest that Jacob (Iain Glen) is portrayed as that sort of patriarchal leader. Indeed he too is portrayed at taking a more progressive view of women's rights than the presumed cultural norm. In an early conversation in the titular red tent - the private space of the tribe's leading women - we're told that Jacob treats his concubines (themselves the daughters of Laban's concubines) as proper wives. Not dissimilarly Jacob is "in" on the switch that happens on the day of his first wedding. When Rachel gets cold feet, her similarly smitten sister Leah (Minnie Driver) offers to step in to prevent her embarrassment. Jacob discovers the switch before consummation, but he's happy to go along with the ruse and blame Laban in the morning. This the audience accepts because, really, Laban is the piece's only villain. He is later shown to beat his wife - behaviour that makes Jacob's, at times, rather suspect behaviour seem more acceptable.

    Part of the interest of the camp's red tent is it gets to the heart of the question that intrigues so many about polygamous societies: how did the opposing wives get on? The obvious expectation is that there would be all manner of arguments, jealousy and disagreements, though some (mostly male) commentators have sought to suggest that the women would recognise that the system was the best for all and just get on with it as best they could. The film's take is a slightly different one - Jacob's wives are already sisters and the (initial) shared marriage is their idea rather than his (at least initially), furthermore Bilhah and Zilpah are shown as empowered and equal members of the family. I'm not sure it will satisfy feminists any more than it will biblical traditionalists, but it's intriguing to watch such a perspective played out.

    The casting here is rather interesting, not least in this respect. Ferguson was excellent as Elizabeth Woodville in The White Queen - one of my favourite historical TV series of recent times. There's much common ground here as well. Both stories take traditional patriarchal stories and tell them from a female point of view - suggesting their leads wielded more power than they are traditionally ascribed. And then there is the similarity in the two character's social standing. Both start off as relatively well off women who fall in love with a man on his way to becoming king. Their marriage for love flies in the face of the conventional marriage-for-strategic-advantage that was expected of them and ends up causing a vast number of deaths. Furthermore, both Dinah and Queen Elizabeth rely heavily on the traditional female wisdom of their mothers, using curses and potions alongside a shared understanding of mid-wifery. It places them at odds with the patriarchal order, gains her not unfounded accusations of witch-craft yet proves to have access to a deeper understanding of the world that the dismissive men could ever appreciate. In fairness this it's not totally inconsistent with many of the beliefs of the time, even if the new-age spin on it is, at times, a bit over the top. The other casting is mixed. It's not hard to accept that Jacob, who the Bible seems to suggest was a fairly shallow man, might be so totally smitten for Morena Baccarin, but casting Minnie Driver as the "plain" one is a stretch too far. If the Leah had really looked like (film star) Minnie Driver, Jacob might never have felt the need to work for that second seven years.

    Yet for all the female empowerment it's the actions of Jacob that drive the plot on into the second and third 'acts'. Dinah and the other women voice their displeasure at Laban's treatment of his wife; but it is Jacob who decides to return to the land of his father. Dinah's romantic involvement may be the spark that propels the violence between Israel and the inhabitants of Shechem; but it was Jacob's decision to move to the area and develop closer ties with Hamor that set the wheels in motion.

    When the massacre of the Shechemites does comes it's vicious and very bloody. Up to this point everything about the production is typical of Young's work on The Bible Collection. It's filmed in Morocco and the skies, sets, costumes, indeed everything about the look and feel of the film - even the slightly uneven mix of lesser Hollywood stars with local extras - feels like the earlier series. But the massacre is jarringly out of sync with anything from that earlier work. Indeed it feels far more of a piece with the History Channel's recent series The Bible (2013), where the violence was very much ramped up. When I started writing this review I thought that discrepancy very much a weakness, but now writing these words it feels like it might actually be one of the film's hidden strengths. After all here, at least, it can be argued that Levi and Simon/Simeon's violence should shock us. It's an unprecedented tear in the social formalities of the day. Reparation had been made, or, at least, so it was thought. A treaty had been made. Simeon and Levi's act leaves Jacob reeling in disbelief and fear for his tribe's future. It's not insignificant that when this horrific event was written down centuries later, it's still Simeon and Levi who are still specifically remembered as being responsible. In many places Jacob's sons, and their tribes act as one, but not with this. Young's jarring change of gears jolts the viewer out of a relatively homely narrative of mutual sisterhood into the horrors of violent and dominant patriarchy when it operates without restraint.

    Despite his horror at the events Jacob still struggles to appreciate the weaknesses inherent in the whole woman-as-property system. Jacob tries to put some of the blame for his son's actions on what he calls Shechem and Dinah's "sin". "There was no sin" Dinah fires back, "we were married...Your sons have slaughtered righteous men". The rift between father and daughter is so great that Dinah flees into the arms of her mother-in-law and the two move to Egypt, allowing the film to continue to interweave it's fictional exploration with the more established story of Joseph in Egypt. That said though, the film starts to become a little contrived in the second half and the points of interest, for Bible film fans at least, start to wane. That said Dinah's eventual reunion with Joseph is touchingly done.

    Not infrequently I end reviews by describing them as "an interesting addition to the canon", but in some senses this doesn't quite seem apt given the projects aim to create an alternative story within and around the text of Genesis. Certainly that makes this an interesting experiment which, in turn, throws fresh light on one of the more overlooked parts of the Bible and offers a good deal of food for thought. It isn't for everyone, but, given that the original story is hardly beloved amongst the faithful, criticisms on its original release were rather half-hearted. It's appropriate I feel that The Red Tent is a film which nurtures thoughtful discussion rather than creating unnecessary conflict.


    Incidentally, you might like to read the less appreciative, but more humourous and thorough discussion of the film called "159 Thoughts We Had While Watching The Red Tent"

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    Monday, October 19, 2015

    The Ruling Class (1972)

    Five years ago I started watching the 1972 Peter O'Toole vehicle The Ruling Class - I even wrote a blog post on it - but for some reason I had never got around to finishing watching it until last week.

    O'Toole stars as the 14th Earl of Gurney, a mad aristocrat who believes himself to be Jesus Christ. Such a starting point might invite comparisons with Carl Theodore Dreyer's Ordet, but there the similarities end. Dreyer's film is all staunchly restrained asceticism - a deeply felt exploration of spirituality and the tension between the blessings and curses of pursuing the divine. In contrast The Ruling Class is a bawdy, yet sharply satirical incision into the British class system. O'Toole's Gurney may spout more words from the Bible than Ordet's Johannes, but they don't carry the same philosophical weight. Johannes is haunted and seemingly deluded. O'Toole is simply bonkers.

    Which isn't to say that the words from the Bible included in the film are irrelevant. Certainly there is more to their inclusion than a comparison between a lord and theLord. One the one hand to create a credible portrait of insanity the script is peppered with references to saints and quotes from well-known prayers, but the biblical quotes tend to coalesce around the theme of love, both for God but also for one another - "Love one another as I love you". Furthermore, and perhaps more worryingly from his family's point of view, is the value he place on ordinary people. "I am he that liveth, and behold, I am alive for everyone." All of which plays a pivotal role in the script's intended target - the British class system.

    [SPOILERS] Guerney starts the film clearly and widely understood to be mad, yet his message is that of love. When he is seemingly cured in the middle part of the film he is restored to office, accepted as having returned to normal and regains his position in society. Yet it becomes apparent that Guerney is no more sane now than he ever was. Indeed, now he views himself as Jack the Ripper (a delusion which escapes attention due to the shared first name) and begins a murderous plot to take revenge on all those who plotted against him and plant himself in a position of influence within the second chamber of the government - the House of Lords.[END SPOILERS]

    Perhaps the film's most telling line, then, is this: "Behaviour which would be considered insanity in a tradesman is looked upon as mild eccentricity in a lord. Few batter an eyelid when, despite his previous insanity, Guerney imagines himself as slayer of working class women and rants about the man in the street, but his ideas about love and the value of ordinary people is what really causes a flutter.

    Of course O'Toole rather hams things up and enjoys getting his teeth into some great lines such as "For what I am about to receive, may I make myself truly thankful" and "Last time I preached the Word in holy Galilee, I spoke in parables. Mistake! Now I must speak plain. God is love." However, as might be expected, some of the best lines are in response to how Guerney began to believe he is God. "How do you know you're God?" his ant asks him. "Simple" comes the answer "when I pray to Him, I find I'm talking to myself."

    Such questions also bring one of the film's other key themes to the surface - a desire to contrast between the divine with the mundane/profane. At one point Guerney treats his family to a dramatic description of his calling, replete with thunderclaps and a bright light as "red as fire" but when he's asked for the location of this great visitation his deadpan response is "East Acton, outside the public urinal." Whilst there's little suggestion in the film that O'Toole is anything other than deluded, he does mix spiritual language with the ordinary and everyday. Perhaps the deluded Christ of the 14th Earl of Guerney is summed up best by another statement from his own lips:
    My heart rises with the sun. I'm purged of doubts and negative innuendos. Today I want to bless everything. Bless the crawfish with it's scuttling walk. Bless the trout, pilchard and periwinkle. Bless Ted Smoothey of 22 East Hackney Road. Bless the mealy redpole, the black-gloved wallaby and W.C. Fields, who is dead but lives on. Bless the snotty-nosed giraffe. Bless the buffalo. Bless the Society of Women Engineers. Bless the pygmy hippy. Bless the mighty cockroach.

    Saturday, September 12, 2015

    Heston, DeMille and The Greatest Show on Earth

    Four years before The Ten Commandments Charlton Heston and Cecil B. DeMille teamed up for a different kind of big film The Greatest Show on Earth (1952). It was the only best picture Oscar of DeMille's career and such a huge hit that without it Ten Commandments might never have been made.

    At the time, Heston was a relative unknown, who managed to get the part after DeMille saw him on the lot at the studio. But Heston holds the film together, despite his inexperience. There's much here that echoes his portrayal as Moses. in the first part of The Ten Commandments Moses is shown to be an expert master builder marshalling an army of people to pull off an incredible feat of erecting Egypt's ancient buildings and there's much of that here too. Such is the size of the circus here that its often been show that it's the circus that us the real star if the show.

    Then there's Brad/Moses' drive, focussed on the end goal and not easily swayed from his vision of the right outcome by personal sacrifices of those close to him. Several time in The Greatest Show on Earth the comment is made that he instead of blood he has sawdust in his veins,and a similar trait appears after Moses' encounter with the burning bush, where he's so focussed on freeing the Israelites that he leaves his wife behind and pains Ramsees whom he clearly cares for a great deal.

    There's also the love triangle in both films Heston is loved by two women, seems largely detached from deep feeling for either of them, but ultimately leaves one of them disappointed (although they both marry someone else). I can't quite put my finger on the exact similarity between Gloria Grahame and Anne Baxter, aside from them being stars of key films noir, but there's a certain girl-next door approachability about them both even though one is a Princess and the other rides elephants.

    For DeMille's part there's no 10 minute prologue in The Greatest Show on Earth as there is in The Ten Commandments, but DeMille does do the voice overs, moving the story at several key points and revelling in the kind of pomposity that so defines his films in general.

    The performances are pretty good, though Jimmy Stewart steals the show in a role that ultimately makes me wondered if it influenced the performance of another Moses actor, Burt Lancaster, 37 years later in Field of Dreams. Also, as influence on later films goes I cant help wondering if one of the more memorable lines from Donnie Darko owes a debt to one exchange featuring Stewart.

    But it is the circus tricks that really sets this apart from its contemporaries, particularly as these days films want to be able to say "no animals were harmed in the making of this film". Circuses have a reputation for animal cruelty - though it's possible that many are cruelty free - but it has to be conceded that many of the scenes of animals doing things were hugely impressive and, for anyone born after 1952, this is as guilt-free a way of seeing such spectacular achievements as I can think of.

    So if you've not seen it, I would recommend it. It's not a Bible film as such but informs The Ten Commandments a little and it showcases DeMille and Heston at the top of their games.

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    Wednesday, August 26, 2015

    Deux heures moins le quart avant Jésus-Christ (1982)

    Just as the surprise success of The Passion of the Christ inspired various producers to give the green light to a number of Bible films, a generation before another surprisingly successful Bible film also inspired a handful of copy-cat pictures. Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979) may have been a comedy, and may have caused a stir upon its release, but when it performed well at the box office (returning almost $20 million on production costs of around £3 million) it inspired other film-makers to follow suit.

    The following year saw the release of the hastily made Wholly Moses. Like Brian it starred a Footlights Cambridge graduate (Dudley Moore) as Herschel, whose life strangely parallels the life of a biblical character. Despite Moore being in the middle of a gold streak - with the film being made between his big successes 10 and Arthur, the film flopped and deservedly so. Lacking both originality and wit it tried to reproduce the success of Brian with the minimum amount of effort. It failed.

    Less well known was a French film made two years later in 1982. Deux heures moins le quart avant Jésus-Christ (A Quarter to Two Before Jesus Christ, or 1:45 BC) opted for a more original plot, ditching any biblical parallels, and focussed more on a pastiche of the biblical epics of the 50s and 60s. This had also been part of the intention with Brian - although the link between the "I'm Brian and so's my wife" scene and Spartacus is lost on many - but here it's much more upfront and more to do with epic films in general than specifically skewering Jesus films like The Greatest Story Ever Told. So Taylor and Burton's Cleopatra is very much to the fore, as are some of the gladiator films such as Barabbas and Androcles and the Lion and, of course, Spartacus.

    But the film that is perhaps most clearly referenced is Ben Hur (1959); indeed the film's hero is even named Ben-Hur Marcel (played by Coluche). Ben-Hur Marcel is an ordinary worked, but one day his anger about his working conditions and pay end up with his leading a crowd to protest to Caesar. When the rest of the crowd edges away, Marcel is taken into custody, bound for the Colosseum. But , desperate for spies, one of Rome's commanders frees him so that he can visit the catacombs and keep an eye out for spies and plotters. Somehow however he ends up in a gay bar in the catacombs and unbeknownst to him ends up chatting up a disguised Caesar. When he tells the disguised Caesar about his plans, he is again sent to the waiting bays in the Colosseum, only to be freed again by Cleopatra who is convinced he is her long lost brother.

    Whilst the film is clearly bot on a par with the humour of the incomparable Life of Brian I'm reluctant to judge it to heavily given the differences between French and English humour. Nevertheless there were a few bits where the humour survived the subtitling. Caesar and Ben-Hur getting their wires crossed at the aforementioned bar landed somewhere between the Carry On films and a sketch from the Two Ronnies. There are a number of deliberate anachronisms which are played for laughs and well as more biting satire around advertising. And there's the multiple repetitions of the same amusing sounding phrases which works so well in Denys Arcand's Decline of the American Empire

    But in the final act, the humour turns in a more biting, satirical, direction, as the deliberate anachronisms are used to mock modern day targets. Of course this is also very much in view in the Pythons' film which mocked the disintegration of the left wing into dissident splinter groups. Given the political machinations which are emerging as voting for the Labour party's leadership election gets under-way. Likewise Deux heures manages to nail contemporary targets but still remain fresh a generations later, so jokes about sports advertising, fear of offending the energy rich Saudis and unions protesting in the face of implacable union cut backs. This is all the more impressive as many comedic films sacrifice laughs in the final act for the sake of completing a satisfactory narrative. Here the film manages to be its most coherent and its most on-target.

    Eventually the film tries to echo Brian life-affirming nihilism. "Since we're all shit, why fight?" asks the huge crowd. It's unlikely to have featured in as many funerals as "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" but its sentiment is not so very far away.

    With everyone having made their peace the previously opposing groups all settle down to an after-gladiatorial-show party. There, among the many novelties, is a television playing a news report. And the lead story? A census in Bethlehem has led to massive overcrowding. The news item goes on to focus on a lady who has given birth to her son in a stable. The guests are dismissive ("A kid born in a stable, big deal") but of course their way of life would ultimately be swept away by the kid in the stable.

    It's one last barb, this time at the film's audience, who may, through the epic films, watch the events of the Bible unfold on our screens, but often carry on unaffected by what we see.

    Whilst the humour is often quite pointed it's not really side-splittingly funny. Whilst it adopts so many of the traits of Life of Brian, the spoofing of the epics, the satire on contemporary events, the absurdity mixed up with seriousness and the attempt to land on something more positively humanistic, it never manages to be as hilarious as its predecessor. Late on in the film ons of the characters suggests we'll "still be laughing in the 20th century". Sadly that's not quite as true as it might have been.


    Tuesday, August 18, 2015

    Battleship Potemkin in Pasolini's Gospel According to St Matthew

    On Sunday we held an outdoor silent film night and we watched Sergei Eisenstein's 1925 classic Battleship Potemkin. It was the first time I had seen the film and enjoyed finally seeing such a well-renown film and finding it matching up to its reputation. I could probably write a great deal about it, given the time, but for now I'll restrict myself to the observation that is most pertinent to this blog, namely how it relates to Pasolini's 1964 Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo (Gospel According to Saint Matthew).

    Pasolini was, as is often noted, a Marxist, and many commentators note the ways that he portrays Jesus as some kind of revolutionary leader. One of the other main things that is frequently discussed about his Jesus film is the eclectic mix of songs on the soundtrack. Strangely, though, I don't recall anyone ever mentioning how Pasolini includes one of the key pieces of music from the film's original score in Il Vangelo, particularly as it appears at such moment to make it clear it's a reference.*

    For those unfamiliar with Battleship Potemkin I should explain that it's a Soviet propaganda piece released to celebrate 20 years since the famous 1905 uprising of the crew of the titular vessel. In the film, at least, the person whose outcry starts the overthrow of the ship's oppressive leadership is one of only a few of his comrades killed in the battle that follows. There then follows a poignant scene where his body is brought to shore and the people of Odessa form a mighty procession to mourn his passing and celebrate his sacrifice and denounce the oppressive authorities.

    Eisenstein apparently wanted a new score to be recorded ever ten years. The first was apparently uninspiring but one written the following year by Edmund Meisel, stuck, at least until 1950 when Nikolai Kryukov wrote a new one for the film's 25 year anniversary. More recently a whole range of new scores have been written and performed for the film including ones by the Pet Shop Boys and, Roger Ebert's favourite version, Concrete. But, effectively, it's Miesel's version that is considered the "original" and, significantly, it's the only one that the BFI included in their recent Bluray release. (There's a nice piece on Miesel's and Kryukov's scores here by S. Lopez Figueroa).

    So it's interesting that Pasolini takes this music and uses it to accompany a few scenes of Jesus gaining widespread popularity whilst preaching his seven woes against the Jewish authorities. Like Battleship Potemkin there are scenes of swelling crowds with sometimes people rushing to join the throng, others being more reflective. Jesus' criticism of the Pharisees links to the angery speeches made against the Russian authorities.

    Whilst a few of the shots are formally reminiscent of Eisenstein's (such as the one above compared to the ones from Potemkin below), it's much more the overall impression from a sequence of similar shots, aided, at least for modern viewers, by the fact both films are in black and white, but more to do with the movement of people and the camera, the close ups, the expressions and so on. And of course it's the identical music.

    [Shazaming Pasolini's version of it brought up "La chanson des martyrs" (The song of the martyrs) from the album "Les Choeurs de L'Armée Rouge" (Choir of The Red Army) by Boris Alexandrov, but the dearth of any further information elsewhere suggests it was original to Meisel.]
    But as well as this being the moment when Jesus is at his most revolutionary, it's also the moment when its starts to look like his demise is imminent. So the music links him to the Russian revolutionary seaman Vakulinchuk who loses his life in the fight for freedom and the audience knows that Jesus' life will be similarly lost.

    Watching the scenes from Pasolni's film again, I'm also struck by the way the Roman soldiers appear in the scene. In almost all Jesus films the soldiers are the enemy, usually totally dehumanised, barring the centurion who will convert as Jesus dies. But the rank and file are usually presented as little more than cogs in the machine that will ultimately crush this Jewish saviour. Pasolini's film does particularly develop these soldiers into three dimensional characters.

    Apart from anything the nature of the project leaves them no dialogue, but they are significantly more sympathetic here than in most films. And I think that rests as much on these scenes as anything. Jesus is preaching revolution and the soldiers are happy to let it go on, interested, even, in what is being said. And in the light of Eisenstein's film this becomes a little more obvious why. Pasolini's portrayal is not because they, like him, is Italian. It's because they, like his heroes, are part of the proletariat. Indeed in Eisenstein's film it is the fighting men of the navy who first rise up. Jesus' revolutionary message, then, is for them and indeed to Pasolini they are part of the crowd rather than just a means to control it.

    Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised that this connection is overlooked. Not only are the majority of those studying Jesus and film from the theology side of the equation, rather than the film studies, but also it's worth remembering when Pasolini's film was released. In 1964 (or 1966 in the US), the Cold War was at its peak. McCarthyism had reached its zenith in the previous decade and the ban on Battleship Potemkin in the UK had only been lifted because its widespread distribution was seen as unviable.

    I think it is very significant though. To any film student, least of all an avowed Marxist, Battleship Potemkin is a critical film. And Pasolini's link with it is deliberate and full of meaning.


    *I must confess this statement is built on combination of recollection, Googling and checking the key books on the subject. I'm sure someone has made the connection before. I just don't recall anyone saying it and it appears (from an admittedly briefish scan) that not one of Babbington, Evans, Stern, Jefford, Debona, Walsh, Tatum, Reinhartz or Baugh mention it in their tomes.

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    Friday, August 07, 2015

    How the Internet Revolutionised the Bible-and-Film

    Occasionally I’ve had the pleasure of talking with those who used to study the Bible on Film in the 80s and early 90s and it’s clear that this was a vastly different time to today. One thing is certain: the internet has revolutionised the study of film and religion.

    Despite those fleeting conversations, I’m somewhat lacking in a point of comparison as my own studies in this area only really began around 1999 and by then the internet revolution was certainly well under way. I recall using a site I’d heard a little bit about called Amazon* to get hold of, what I then considered obscure, old Jesus films like King of Kings (1961)

    Indeed one of the main ways that the internet has changed study of film and theology is that it has made a far greater range of films readily available. I would have been fortunate to ever have happened upon King of Kings in a shop (though it did happen two years later), but here I could order it at a click of a button. As things have progressed far more films have become available on Amazon and importing films from other countries through Amazon has become far simpler.

    This convenience has led to more people wanting such films creating more demand, which has, in turn, allowed a greater number of film releases to be viable. Better communications and infrastructure have radically improved the numbers of titles those studying in the field can access. Furthermore, film-collectors have been able to exchange unreleased movies and many films are available on sites such as YouTube*.

    A further development from this is that now filmmakers are also able to sell to their audience directly, with no need to work through studios, distributors and other historic channels. Releasing straight to DVD and selling them direct through a website has become evermore popular. Indeed a more recent development is crowdfunding where filmmakers try and get a broad base of low value investors to invest before films are made, and whilst not many films have made it through to the final stage of this, churches and religious organisations have certainly been a popular target market for “grassroots” marketing campaigns run primarily through the web.

    Even more mainstream films now use the web to build awareness, well in advance, of their product’s release. This has meant that discussion about a film has begun well in advance, with news about casting, directors’ and writers’ previous work, filming locations and even (in some cases) parts of the script, all being dissected months before the opening night. Scholars have been able to look for likely patterns and themes that a filmmaker might continue to explore in the new movie.

    In part this has been possible due to other new internet initiatives such as the Internet Movie Database* (IMDb for short). Prior to the emergence of the web, viewers would have to rely on their memories combined with trawling through written lists of cast and crew from a diverse and disparate range of sources. Now the IMDb makes all this possible at a click of a button. It’s easy to look up, say, a director’s previous work and identify patterns, or interests. It also provides a variety of other information about a film, again in fashion that is extremely simple to access. Other also provide more detailed information on how popular a film is with the paying public (such as sites Box Office Mojo*) or with critics (Rotten Tomatoes*) providing a vital resource for those interested in reception studies.

    There’s one other area which has been significant in the blossoming in the study of film and religion and that’s online discussion. Discussion fora and blogs have democratised the discussion allowing anyone to have their say. Whilst the comments in threads on YouTube highlight the significant downsides of this new democracy, more formal, and well-moderated discussion forums have provided a fruitful source of discussion. These have been particularly beneficial in interdisciplinary areas such as film and religion as they allow experts from either field to cross-pollinate sharing their expertise and learning from the insights of others. Film studies experts, who may have a passing interest in religion due to their own faith, can fly the flag for some of the great directors and highlight how certain films relate to others. Previously, few people in a theology department had much of a knowledge of the neo-realist movement that so informed Pier Paolo Pasolini for example. Conversely, biblical scholars with a bit of a fondness for the cinema could bring their theological expertise to the table. Not many film students had a sufficiently deep grounding in Gnosticism to appreciate its expression in The Matrix.

    Films discussion fora such as Arts and Faith* have enabled this rubbing shoulders and cross-pollination of ideas to proliferate, introducing new cinematic movements and theological ideas to those who were previously unfamiliar with them. It’s resulted in a great deal of growth on both sides of the divide - indeed it has ceased to be a divide.

    To a lesser extent, this has also happened with weblogs, particularly with scholars able to respond to one another in a longer more considered form than in off-the-cuff comments, but far swifter than by publishing papers in journals or delivering them at conferences. Blogs have also enabled scholars to plough their very specific furrows, being able to find a wider audience for their specific niche than was ever possible prior to the popularisation of the internet. Furthermore self-publishing on a blog has enabled scholars to either make their ideas available to the public for free (in contrast with paid for journals - a significant barrier to those outside of academia), or even, as scholars such as Bart Ehrman* have shown, to generate a small income for their toil. Whilst there is a still, in some circles, a strange dedication to words written on dead tree, in many circles ideas are now assessed based on their own merit, rather than on the format in which it has been published, or the qualifications of the writer. Proper formal training and peer review still bring significant benefits, of course, but this new context has enabled more voices and their work and ideas to be judged on merit.

    The result of these changes - a wider, more available, range of films; more efficient resources for studying both the Bible and cinema; an inter-disciplinary, and less-exclusive sharing of ideas - has transformed the study of religion and film seeing a proliferation of books published on the subject, conference papers, blogs, journal articles, podcasts, university courses and so on. But hopefully it’s not just about output. Hopefully the explosion in this field has also enabled us to understand the human condition with far greater depth and appreciation for who we are.


    *Other websites attempting to do the same thing are available, although those quoted are considered to be the leader in their field.

    Sunday, August 02, 2015

    Su Re (The King, 2012)

    Giovanni Columbu’s Su Re was released with so little aplomb in 2012 that the majority of Jesus film commentators, including myself, seemed to completely miss it. It’s a quiet, humble, non-showy and ultimately low budget marketing strategy that is so typical of the film itself.

    Shot on the island of Sardinia, using hand-held cameras and putting the island’s stark and dramatic scenery to great effect, Columbu’s Jesus film looks quite unlike any before it. It’s a dirty, grubby film, brought out by graying filters and gritty filmstock. It’s not hard to imagine someone feeling forsaken here, least of all a peasant criminal about to be tortured to death by a bunch of men who haven’t seen a civilised home for years and for whom the sadistic sport of a good crucifixion is at least some sort of diversion.

    Like Pasolini before him, Columbu uses a cast of largely non-professional actors and who, whether for extra realism or for financial reasons, were told to bring along their own rough clothes for the “costumes”. Although some cloaks were provided, it’s unusual to see Jesus crucified in a pair of rough short trousers, at once both factually anachronistic, yet more truthful than decades of whitish loincloths. It’s the kind of move that you would expect to be glaring, but never really feels that out of place.

    Indeed what Columbu does so successfully despite, or perhaps even because of, such anachronisms, is build a world that feels credibly like the one in which Jesus may have inhabited. Recent Jesus films may have progressed from the pristine sixties crowds of extras, but the odd dab of dirty greasepaint has rarely gone more than skin deep, and even then it’s failed to hide pampered faces and persistently denticured teeth.

    The epitome of this approach is in Columbu’s choice of Fiorenzu Mattu to play Jesus. Christians have long debated whether the words from Isaiah 53:2, recited at the start of the film, meant that Jesus was ugly. There are all kinds of problems with that interpretation, but certainly Mattu fits more closely with the idea that there was “nothing in his appearance that we should desire him”. I have no idea if Columbu is familiar with Colin Blakeley’s performance as Jesus in Son of Man (1969), but certainly that is the only Jesus film I can think of which doesn’t portray Jesus as lean and attractive.

    In using non-professional actors with real, unadorned faces Columbu is very much following in the footsteps of Pasolini, but the similarities go beyond that. Columbu includes all kinds of nods to his countryman’s famous hagiopic, from the use of the handheld camera to the composition of some of the shots, even down to come of the choices of headwear. Like Pasolini he dwells on close ups of faces, yet the person speaking is, not infrequently, off screen.

    Yet Pasolini is not the only director whose work is an apparent influence. The film’s slow, lingering pacing and absence of soundtrack is reminiscent of another Italian director’s work, Albert Serra’s El cant dels ocells (Birdsong, 2008). Su Re is a meditative piece placing the viewer in the moment and involving him or her in proceedings rather than leaving them as an observer from a distance.

    One of the ways this is most noticeably achieved is by the use of non-linear narrative. Whilst Bible films often tinker with the chronology of certain events, that tends to be to merely moving the occasional scene out of order to improve the drama’s pacing. Here though the scenes are all jumbled up a la Pulp Fiction. The result is to transform a story which is known and familiar to its audience into something unpredictable and unsettling. It’s immediately disorientating to find the crucifixion featuring so early in the film, only to be followed up with one of the scenes that closely precedes it. The film jumps back and back and then forwards again, often revisiting the same scene from different perspectives.

    Some of the comments I read about this film before seeing it suggested it emphasised the differences in the gospels. However, this isn’t so much a deliberate contrasting of the scene in one gospel with the same scene in another; showing the cock crowing differing numbers of times, for example. No, it’s more in the process of retelling the same scene from different angles, or in a slightly different way. It doesn’t seem to go out of it’s way to stress the discontinuity; even less to slavish prioritise one gospel over the others. It’s more that narrative continuity itself doesn’t seem to have been a major concern. This, in itself, emphasises the shifting nature of gospel truth. The Bible doesn’t give us a single video camera perspective of what happens, it gives us different written accounts drawn from written and oral sources all of which bring with them their own interpretations and theology. In each gospel the sands have shifted slightly, not to reveal a radically different and contradictory new version of events, but just a different landscape upon which the events play out. Su Re isn’t a nit-picker led exposé: it just captures this story-like nature of the gospels.

    The sense of disorientation is also heightened by the way the different scenes segue into one another. It’s not always clear when one scene ends and a new one begins. This, combined with the way the film jumps back to slightly earlier scenes, gives a sense of a flashback, or accessing earlier memories, only we’re not just inside the head of one specific person. It highlights how the gospels were drawn, in part, from the collective memory of Jesus’ early followers, whilst also immersing the viewer in the action on display. It's more an invitation to look at Jesus' last hours again, in a different light; to experience them as if you were present. The result is that, in contrast the overwhelming majority of Jesus films, Su Re doesn't seem to be pushing one particular idea about who Jesus is - it's very much left to the viewer's interpretation.

    This is possible, in part, because the film, in the tradition of the passion play, deals only with the events of Jesus' death. The miracles and his compassionate acts have largely been and gone, as has his teaching ministry. But perhaps the biggest difference between Su Re and other films in the passion play tradition is that Jesus seems far less in control of the events that are unfolding: Jesus never defiantly drags himself up in the middle of his scourging, nor does he speak to the authorities that are trying him with that knowing sense of confidence and certainty.

    The result is, perhaps for the first time in film, a focus on Jesus as a victim. Stripped of his prior ministry and his future glory we behold the man: forsaken, confused, scared and alone. Many will see that as weakness, forgetting, perhaps, the man in the olive grove sweating blood and praying desperately that this suffering be taken from him. It's rather familiar, however, to those well-versed in another part of Isaiah 53. "Oppressed...afflicted..like a lamb to the slaughter". Columbu's Jesus is an outsider, an unbeautiful victim deserted and discarded in an overlooked corner of the empire of Rome. Elsewhere in Isaiah 53 there is hope and a meaning to all we see here. But it should do us good to remember that at this point in Jesus' life, that may not readily have come to mind.


    Tuesday, July 28, 2015

    Animated Stories from the Bible - Moses: From Birth to Burning Bush

    There are a lot of animated re-tellings of the story of Moses. More even, perhaps, that there are about Jesus. As a result, I've never really tried to track them all down,nevertheless, when I come across one, I'm usually pretty happy to take a look. This one was made in 1993 and is taken from the sister series to Richard Rich's Animated Stories from the New Testament. Once again it's Rich (The Fox and The Hound) at the helm here.

    And as Moses cartoons go, it's not bad. For a start there are no silly sidekicks or overly elaborate sub-plots, the story just sticks to its main focus and tells the story with a nice balance between economy and fleshing out the characters. A meal-time scene from Jethro's tent captures this approach nicely. The group holds hands for a pre-meal blessing - as is apparently the family's custom - but the way it's shown captures both the sense that this is a new custom for Moses, and that there is a spark of attraction between he and Zipporah.

    The biggest drawback with it, however, is that the story only goes as far as the burning bush. Whilst it's unclear why this happened, the most likely explanation is that Rich planned to return to the Exodus as later date, but never did. Given that the episodes from the New Testament series were produced over an 18 year period, that would hardly be surprising. But it does tend to leave the story hanging in mid air. Whilst an encounter with the divine has formed the climax to many a tale, it's always just a means to an end in the story of Moses.

    It's a shame that the rest of the story never got made however because there's an interesting premise here: In contrast to many versions of the story Moses, indeed everybody from the slaves to the Pharaoh, knows he is a Hebrew. The slaves criticise him for doing Pharaoh's dirty work. The overseers moan about having to work for a Hebrew ("I don't like it, a Hebrew ruling over us"), but broadly speaking there is no major problem with such a state of affairs, nothing to suggest this is totally out of the ordinary.

    The most interesting by product of this narrative stance is where it locates Moses' attitude to slavery. We tend to think of Moses as the first anti-slavery pioneer, but in fact the Torah not only accepts the existence of slaves but legislates for the situation. Here Moses is not troubled by the fact that Pharaoh uses slave labour, he's just cares more about how they are treated, increasing rations, ending beatings and allowing a sabbath.

    There's some nuance here as well. When making arguments for treating the slaves better to his fellow Egyptians his arguments are all based on capitalism and extracting the greatest benefit. "Treat them better" Moses says, gesturing towards the slaves "you'll have better workers". Privately, however, it's clear that whilst Moses thinks his economic arguments will prove to be the more persuasive, he is driven more by compassion describing a beaten Hebrew as "A man, a person, a living soul".

    Ultimately, however, that's an argument that never gets resolved. Moses kills an Egyptian and, when it becomes known, he is sentenced to death. The system, it seems, can tolerate an Israelite in power, but murdering an Egyptian, strips away any such privilege. Moses is foolhardy enough not to realise the bigger implications of his act. He fails to appreciate the meaning of crossing that particular line and it is only a moment of compassion from his adopted mother, and apparently good luck, that he manages to escape with his life.

    So whilst this is very much a film for children in terms of form there's a little bit more going on in terms of content and Rich's decision not to pander to the lowest common denominator by introducing twee quirkiness more than pays off.


    Friday, July 24, 2015

    Su Re (2012; The King): A New(ish), Italian(ish), Jesus Film

    For a little while now, I've been meaning to post about a Jesus film, released back in 2012, by Sardinian director Giovanni Columbu

    Su Re (The King) debuted at the Turin Film Festival, but made a bit more of a splash when it was released at the Rotterdam Film Festival a few months later. There's a short write up of it on the festival's website. The festival also prompted an intriguing review from The Hollywood Reporter. It makes the obvious comparison with Pasolini's Il vangelo secondo Matteo and also with Albert Serra (whose Magi film Birdsong I greatly admire). Having seen a little of it, that's a comparison I can agree with. Here's one of the more intriguing parts of the review:
    We see no miracles, no supernatural trappings, no resurrection, no divine signs apart from some heavy rumbles of thunder and a medium-sized earth-tremor...

    Columbu's script, co-written with his brother Michele, consists of mainly short scenes taken from the four gospels, some of which diverge from or even contradict each other, but whose basic details are roughly similar.
    That chides with the Rotterdam's write up's comment that Columbu "takes his inspiration from the way in which the four Gospels provide different angles on the story". That comment is echoed in this brief summary from CPH PIX: "Referring to all four gospels, 'The King' highlights the differences between them...". There's also a reference there to Kurosawa's Rashomon, a film which I am yet to see (though, coincidentally, Kurosawa's The Idiot was the last film I finished watching) which has been echoed elsewhere as well.

    That site also contains some footage, and there are a few other bits and pieces on YouTube, four clips here and some "backstage" footage.

    In terms of getting your hands on it, it can be imported via Amazon, but the audio is only in Sardinian and the subtitles are only in Italian. That said, most of the footage appears to be from Jesus' last 24-48 hours so it's not hard to figure out what's going on and, as I'm learning Italian at the moment, I'm enjoying the challenge. Hopefully, I'll post my review shortly.

    HT Peter Chattaway.


    Wednesday, June 03, 2015

    Background to The Miracle Maker

    Back in 2000-01 when The Miracle Maker first got released on VHS I managed to get hold of some form of special edition which also came with a novelized version of the book aimed at children. I always meant to read it and now that my own children are about the right age for it we recently sat down to read it together.

    Like most such books most of the dialogue comes straight from the script and the more descriptive passages are based solely on what we see on screen. However there are a few parts of the book, particularly in its second quarter, where the writer (Sally Humble-Jackson) adds a little flavour of her own.

    It's hard to know how authoritatively we should take such comments. Is Humble-Jackson fleshing out aspects of Murray Watts' original vision, or just using her own creative license? Nevertheless, as this is one film I've written quite a lot about I thought I would include a few aspects as interesting background.

    The one character whose story is enhanced here out more than any other is Matthew the Tax Collector, and Humble-Jackson provides most of the extra detail in Chapter 4, where Jesus calls Peter and Matthew either side of the miraculous catch of fish. The scene takes place at the port-side where Matthew is collecting taxes from those who pass, both Peter and his fellow fishermen and Mary Magdalene. Here are some of the excerpts from the start of the scene, before Jesus has encourage Peter to put his boat out again:
    The tax collectors had once been ordinary Jews, until the Romans gave them a job. Now they were seen as scum...

    ...Matthew, the tax collector, sighed. She'd crossed the border so she had to pay [Magdalene]. It wasn't his fault - he didn't make the rules...

    ...Matthew flinched. Was he to blame if the nets came up empty? 'It's the law' he tried to explain, over the din of the mad woman.
    Later Jesus begins to preach and catches Matthew's eye. "The tax collector's heart missed a beat. No-one ever met his eye". Then we're given this description:
    Matthew looked uneasily at the flimsy roof of his tax-booth. One day an angry fisherman was going to knock it to the ground. He imagined himself flying to the safety of a tree, high in the branches where nothing could hurt him. And then he closed his eyes and sighed. Who'd want him in their tree? No-one...
    Even from so far away Jesus could see the glitter of tears.
    Finally we come to Matthew's appointment.
    How he wished he'd never become a tax collector. Then he might have been able to look Jesus in the eye...Matthew began to shake. More insults, more anger.
    'Matthew,' called Jesus again, 'follow me!'
    Baffled, Matthew lifted his head. He looked Jesus in the eye. And what he saw there filled his heart with longing. All the things he'd done wrong...they didn't matter any more. His sins had been forgiven! Slowly he got to his feet. With trembling hands he threw down his money and went to Jesus' side.

    Matthew? The tax collector? The others were shocked - but when they saw the love in Jesus' eyes they felt ashamed of themselves.
    Now none of this goes against the scenes we see in the film, but it certainly offers more than is the film itself. And it's a really interesting exploration of the character's inner journey at this point.

    There's one other section that stood out for me, from the next chapter (five) concerning the extra-biblical villain Ben-Azra. Ben Azra is brought in to play a similar role to Zerah in Jesus of Nazareth (1977) and Livio in Jesus (1999) - the extra-biblical authority figure pulling all the strings in the background. And there's a little insight into his character as well:
    Ben Azra, for instance, had grown rich and powerful by helping the Romans keep the peace. He thought the people would tire of this magician from Nazareth, but as the months passed, the crowds just got bigger
    The detail about how Ben Azra had gained his wealth is a step beyond what we get from the film, though it's certainly a very reasonable step. It also contrasts with the above description of Matthew whose wealth had also come because he had sided with the Romans

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    Saturday, May 23, 2015

    Bible Films and the Roots of Cinema

    I’ve been thinking recently about the ways in which cinema is like other art forms and how that leads to such a variety of different types of film. Indeed even in writing “film” in that last sentence made me think about how differently it would have sounded were I to have used “cinema” or “movie” instead.

    Much of this is down to cinema’s roots. Film grew out of the fertile ground of various established, and indeed emerging, art forms in the 19th century and as they have developed in throughout the 20th and 21st centuries they have influenced each other. Furthermore, those who see computer games as a new art form can point to the way in which it has grown out of film and continued to interact with it in ways that would have been hard to imagine 50 years ago.

    For me, I suppose, I grew up thinking of film as a variation on theatre. You might go and see a play, or you might film that play for a wider audience. Movies were about actors acting out a story. Perhaps related to that was film being an acted out version of literature. Indeed a friend of mine says for him, he had grown up thinking that way. Of ‘film’ as acted-out novels.

    However, from a technical angle, film is an extension of photography. Essentially it is a series of photographic images played in such quick succession that those images appear to be one moving image. And many of the concerns of photographers, and by extension cinematographers – thins such as composition and mise en scène are shared by painters.

    Regular readers of this blog will know I am a fan of silent cinema and looking at this over the last few years has made me realise one link I had not previously appreciated. Whilst we like to think of the great artists of cinema – including many in the silent period – film’s roots were, in reality far more low-brow. As much as we may like to think of film as being born out of a marriage between theatre and painting, it is indisputably the case that film’s midwife was the tacky penny attractions of back street fairs and Victorian “freak shows”. Indeed in an age where midwifes can be men as well as women, I tempted to argue that cinema is also the illegitimate child of those low-brow forms of entertainment. And it’s not hard to trace how those roots have also continued into the cinema of today. There has consistently been a stream of cinema that has an emphasis on “spectacle”, things that are “new” or not seen before (e.g. technologically) and that are more about entertainment (and the needs of the consumer) rather than something purer more akin to art.

    And then of course there is propaganda, which can be defined as a creative work driven primarily by the needs of the producer. Film has often been adopted in support of one cause or another from that produced by dictatorships, through to advertising. And whilst many Bible film producers may baulk at the term, many films about the Bible have far more in common with religious tracts. Indeed many of the early silent films were produced by evangelists seeking novel ways to reach people, and the last decade has seen numerous films marketed as “evangelistic tools”

    The result is that cinema is, and has long been, very diverse. Some films are more arty and abstract others more entertaining, but in some ways I thought it might be interesting to look at how some of the key Bible films map to these 6 different roots – theatre, literature, photography, painting, entertainment and propaganda. And I thought some brief form of categorisation might be interesting.

    However, in listing these as follows I am not saying that these streams are distinct or that films fit solelyinto one category or the other: clearly they overlap. In fact, I’ve deliberately listed some in more than one category and fully recognise that films are complex works influenced by numerous people with a variety of aims and motivations (and I’m reminded of Robin Wood’s analysis of Hitchcock’s five basic plot formations and the accompanying disclaimers). That said it is interesting how some films fall fairly comfortably into one category or the other, and so, despite those disclaimers, I thought this might be an interesting exercise.

    Green Pastures (1936), Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), Godspell (1973), Jesus of Montreal (1989)

    The Bible: In the Beginning (1966), Last Temptationof Christ (1988), Gospel of John (2003), Visual Bible: Gospel of Matthew (1994)

    Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), Birdsong (2008) and for a rather differnt reason The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ (1902)

    Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), Jesus of Nazareth (1977), Passion of the Christ(2004)

    The Ten Commandments (1923), The King of Kings (1927), Noah’s Ark (1928), The Ten Commandments (1956) King of Kings (1961), Noah (2014), Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)

    Evangelistic Tracts
    Day of Triumph (1954), Jesus (1979),Jonah: A Veggie Tales Movie (2002), Passion of the Christ (2004), The Bible/Son of God (2013/2014)