• 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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    Sunday, March 01, 2015

    CNN's Finding Jesus Starts Tonight

    At the start of the year I posted an article listing most of the Bible related films that are due to appear during 2015. Somehow, though, I managed to miss out CNN's six-part documentary Finding Jesus: Faith, Fact, Forgery, despite the fact that my friend Mark Goodacre is the main historical consultant on the series (though for a New Testament scholar he sometimes seems rather unaware of that bit about not hiding lights under bushels).

    Anyway, the first part of the series starts tonight (1st March) at 9pm ET/PT and will continue for the six Sundays leading up to Easter. I'll be interested to see how it,s received given that Mark revealed in a recent interview for CBN that, in contrast to the more sensationalist reporting that often surrounds these subjects, these films will be taking a calmer, more rational approach.

    I've updated my original post with the following summary:
    Finding Jesus: Faith Fact Forgery (CNN)
    Finding Jesus is a six part documentary from CNN examining some of the historical artefacts surrounding the historical Jesus. In contrast to many of the exaggerated claims made for some of these artefacts, the documentary will take a more rational approach, carefully examining the evidence. The six episodes will be: The Turin Shroud, John the Baptist (including the John the Baptist's finger relic), Judas (including the Gospel of Judas), the Secret Brother of Jesus (with the James Ossuary), The True Cross (fragments of the cross relics) and Mary Magdalene (covering all that Da Vinci Code malarkey). Mark Goodacre is the series' lead consultant and you can find out more on the programme's official website.


    Friday, February 27, 2015

    Leviathan (2014)

    This review contains mild SPOILERS throughout, though they are not significant enough to actually spoil anyone’s enjoyment of the film who is, at least, familiar with the story of Job.

    It’s not often I drive 50 miles to go and see a film, so when my friend and I were greeted with the news that the screening of Leviathan we had travelled an hour to see had been postponed our disappointment was tempered just a little by a certain sense of irony. As it turned the cinema had been sent a copy of the immersive 2012 fishing documentary Leviathan rather than Andrey Zvyagintsev’s 2014 drama of the same name.

    The mix-up however, only goes to show the enduring popularity of the leviathan metaphor and the resonance of the Bible’s book of Job. The story and the powerful imagery that accompanies it has long held appeal for writers and artists.

    Having finally got to see it, Zvyagintsev’s film did not disappoint. Whilst Leviathan may not ultimately have won this year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar&TM; it was amongst the nominees and caused a stir earlier in the year when it won the Golden Globe in the same week that criticism emerged from the Russian authorities. Bizarrely it failed to win Russia’s Golden Bear award for best film despite a mountain of international acclaim.

    The objections from the authorities - both from government officials and from the Orthodox church - are not hard to understand: Leviathan shows both in a negative light, complicit in the events which see Kolya's life spin out of control. It starts when the, seemingly corrupt , mayor uses a compulsory purchase order to turf Kolya off his land. Kolya's old army buddy shows up, offering legal expertise, but escalates the case and then sleeps with Lilya, Kolya's wife.

    Things continue along this downward trajectory, meaning comparisons with Job are never far away, but unlike his biblical counterpart, there is no Hollywood ending. The final scenes sees his house being demolished, mirroring the fact that the rest of his life is already in ruins.

    The leviathan of the film's title appears in numerous different guises. There are the more literal shots of a whale surfacing from the sea briefly as Lilya ponders her life. Then there is the huge skeleton that lies stranded on the beach, the seemingly invulnerable beast of God's speech proven to be mortal, nevertheless.

    Then on a more metaphorical level there is Kolya's battle with the impassive establishment that upholds the mayor and seals his own fate. The system that could be abused in the first place, the courts that rapidly fire off their judgements unmoved by Kolya's protests. Then there is the police who make their initial assumptions and fail to ever really challenge them, like Bildad and his friends only with handcuffs instead of words.

    Perhaps the most interesting appearance of the leviathan motif appears as Kolya's house is demolished. In perhaps the film's most visually memorable shot we see the mechanical digger ripping away the wall of Kolya's house shot from inside the house. As the digger's boom reaches up and the scoop arches in the air, it looks for a moment like a mechanical sea monster devouring it's prey, as indeed it is.

    Lastly there is the church who may not exactly aide and abet the mayor in his villainy, but certainly offer little resistance and, as the final shot reveals are the ultimate beneficiaries of the mayor's scheming. For a moment the film's final scene appears to offer some ambiguity. Periodically throughout the film the mayor has discussed the meaning of life and faith with his bishop and as the bishop leads a service in a beautiful church the mayor momentarily breaks his beatific pose to whisper to his son "God sees everything, son". Has the mayor somehow been transformed by his conversations with the Bishop? But the film's final shot, at the end of the service reveals that This new church has been built on the place where Kolya's house once stood, his drive way now replaced with a car park full of expensive SUVs.

    Yet the depiction of Christianity here is not uniformly negative, in contrast to his bishop, Kolya's local priest, Father Vasily, is one of the few characters still there for him at the end. Whilst Kolya is buying vodka to drown his sorrows, Vasily is buying bread for the poor and it’s in their subsequent conversation that direct mention of, and quotations from, Job are made. Seemingly out of the blue Vasily asks “Can you pull in Leviathan with a fishhook or throw a rope on its tongue?” (Job 41:1) and goes on to tell Kolya the story of Job. But it’s difficult to know what to make of Vasily’s version of events. I’m not sure I agree with his explanation that “In the end God took pity on him… and explained it to him clearly”, nor am I convinced that “Job resigned himself to his fate”. Yet the conversation forms a connection between the two men, indeed it’s the last time that anyone in the film speaks to Kolya with compassion and humanity.

    Whilst this part of Leviathan’s script means that, on a textual level, it is more biblical, its bleak images don’t quite carry the spiritual power of The Return. There, the images that stay with you are of a beautiful world, largely untouched by human hands. Here, for all the beauty of the shot of Kolya’s son crouched by the skeleton of a whale on the beach, it’s the human aspects of the images that stay with you - the crumbling buildings, the shabby-chic interiors and the beautiful church interior - a white-washed tomb if ever there was one. The imagery here reflects violence, death and decay, and from the moment Koyla strikes his son in one of the film’s opening scenes, there’s a sense of unease and foreboding about the violence that is waiting in the wings.

    Perhaps it’s just me, but this sense of violence brewing reminds me of the disturbing deaths of Job’s children in the book’s opening chapter. Whilst Job gets is ultimately rewarded with new children it seems unlikely that this would ever really have compensated him. Indeed it makes me realise one of the things that is most disturbing about the Book of Job is that one of its later editors thought his jarringly “happy ending” would paper over the deep theological cracks left by all the pain and suffering that his predecessor expressed so eloquently.

    All quotes are taken from an early version of the script and so may contain slight differences from the words spoken in the the film’s final cut.


    Saturday, February 21, 2015

    The Vikings and King of Kings

    I'm finally sitting down to watch 1958's The Vikings starring Kirk Douglas. It's notable for a number of reasons not least teaming up Douglas with Tony Curtis for the first time, two years ahead of Spartacus.

    But I was struck in the early scenes between this and another 60s Roman crucifixion film, Kings of Kings (1961). The thing that first caught my attention was the voice-over that sets the scene for the action and a quick check of IMDb confirmed my suspicion - like King of Kings the narator is Orson Welles. The voice-over comes to a close over the opening scene and here there is a further similarity with the Jesus film, the opening scene is of an invading army overpowering the locals.

    Then there's the importance of the special baby. In The Vikings it's the son of the Northumbrian queen and her Viking attacker rather than Jesus, but the son is sent away to leaving many to wait expectantly for his return.

    Given the wide range of openings to Jesus films - from Rossellini's trip back to the selection of King Saul to Jesus making crosses in Last Temptation - it's significant, I think, that King of Kings adopts this incredibly similar opening approach.

    And then there's the appearance of Frank Thring as a disreputable King (Aella here, Herod in Kings). He even sits his throne on the top of a little set of velvet steps. I think that's more coincidental and there aren't many other major similarities in the rest of the film. But it is significant that King of Kings takes The Vikings' introduction and basically reproduces it.

    Just a couple of other film links. Firstly there's a scene where Curtis sends his hawk to peck out Douglas' eyes. Being a big fan of Alfred Hitchcock I could help thinking of The Birds, still 5 years away, not least because this film also stars Janet Leigh who would go on to star in another early 60s Hitchcock film, Psycho.

    Lastly, there's a scene where Douglas is trying to rally round his men to set off on another mission. There's an awkward pause whilst Douglas earnestly scans the group looking for people to indicate their desire to join him. If it wasn't two years before it was released you'd have been forgiven for thinking it was influenced by another film as you waited for someone to stand defiantly and declare "I'm Sparatcus!"


    Sunday, February 15, 2015

    Earliest Remaining Bible Film Now Online
    The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ (1898)

    I'm currently reading David Shepherd's "The Bible on Silent Film" and have been really interested, so far, by what I've read. Silent Bible films are one of the things I've discussed throughout the 9 year history of this blog going right back to some of my earliest posts in 2006. Those posts were spurred on by the discovery of a DVD on eBay of a couple of Jesus films, which purported to go right back to 1898 and 1900 respectively. Curiously though both seemed to contain scenes that I recognised from the 1902 film La vie et Passion de Notre Seigneur Jésus Christ (The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ, 1902).

    Dating that film is a difficult enough challenge. The earliest date for it seems to be 1902, but I've also heard 1905 and even 1908 cited (by Campbell & Pitts and Kinnard & Davis respectively) before. What I later learned was that Pathé used to put the various scenes together in a catalogue from which cinemas wishing to display them could pick and choose. The first tranche of scenes were released in 1902, but the catalogue was expanded over time with significant developments in 1905 and 1908. Indeed according to Kinnard and Davis, another version of this film emerged in 1914 under the title The Life of our Saviour and it seems that a version including some colour was also re-released in 1915 as both the titles Son of Man and Jesus of Nazareth and yet again in 1921 as Behold the Man!. That must have been a little bit like your friend inviting you around to play a great new video game they've just bought only to be presented with the original table tennis. The plot thickens still further because at some point someone took it upon themselves to get it hand-coloured (apocryphally by nuns) and it is this coloured footage that appears on the first commercially available DVD of the film.

    Shepherd's book doesn't solve all the questions that arise from this DVD, but in trawling through ancient copies of early cinema publications he is able to make a convincing case that the first Bible film was by Léar (a.k.a. Albert Kirchner) in 1897, simply called La Passion du Christ. It along with the other Jesus film from that year, The Horritz Passion Play are now both presumed lost. Similarly absent is Siegmund Lubin's 1898The Passion Play and those three films are more or less joined in obscurity by The Passion Play of Oberammergau save from a 35mm fragment last seen in the George Eastman House archives by Kinnard and Davis.

    Which means that, according to Shepherd, the oldest extant Jesus film is the other film from 1898 The Life and Passion of Jesus Christby George Hatot and the Lumières. Best of all is the news that the remaining footage of this film is available to watch and/or download for free from America's Library of Congress. Since they even allow you to embed it, I thought I'd break the habit of a lifetime and do just that, so here it is in all its glory:
    Where does this leave the claims of the film I have on DVD? Well, as I noted at the time,
    "a number of different actors are used in The Life of Christ. This and the fact that the style of the intertitles changes from those identical to The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ, to others that look older, and less sophisticated, suggests that this film (and possibly The Death of Christ) are composites"
    But whereas then I thought this might have been the initial footage of Pathé's later The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ, now I think it's various bits of film that someone has wrapped up altogether, in a similar fashion to the way someone has spliced together La vie de Moïse and The Life of Moses in the version in the Joye collection and indeed as they have combined other footage on the same DVD of a a couple of David films. And whilst I suspect some of the footage goes back to the same 1898 film, I'm not sure I trust the 1898 on the title card. After all, it's so prominent it feels a bit too much like the kind of selling point that someone would only conjure up sometime later.

    I'll discuss the actual film at a later date, but note for now how the shadows from the cross fall across the back wall rather than fall across the ground as might be expected.

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    Saturday, January 31, 2015

    Life of Brian in discussion with Jesus of Nazareth

    Mark Goodacre is currently teaching a module on Jesus in Film which is good news for the rest of us as it has led to him uploading his Celluloid Jesus pages again, as well as adding a substantial amount of new material and a few extra blog posts to boot.

    This week he's clearly been doing the late seventies as there are a few blog posts on Jesus of Nazareth and Life of Brian including YouTube links to all the talks from last year's "Jesus and Brian" conference.

    One post that particularly caught my eye was one where Mark discusses being "struck by several Brian - Jesus of Nazareth parallels". The one he discusses is a moment in Jesus of Nazareth when one of the villagers grumbles "What does Rome give us?"* It's memorable of course, because of the famous scene in Life of Brian where one of the leaders of the People's Front of Judea asks "What have they [the Romans] ever given us in return?" only for the group members to reel off an extensive list of benefits of living in the empire.

    What makes it particularly interesting to me is the short time gap between the two productions (just two and a half years between the first broadcast of Jesus of Nazareth at Easter 1977 and the release of Life of Brian in the autumn of 1979. Indeed the two films were recorded so close together that Brian was able to use its predecessor's sets. On top of this when you consider that British TV had only 3 channels at this point, that Jesus of Nazareth was a much publicised production and that this line of dialogue occurred in the first episode, then it's fairly likely that at least one of the Python troupe watched it at the time.

    Once you picture that, then it's not hard to believe that it's no mere coincidence that this line ended up in the Pythons' film, whether consciously or sub-consciously. Lloyd Baugh mentions Jesus of Nazareth's banalities and this is a particularly bad one - it's just not the way people express this kind of sentiment in real life. So perhaps the embryo of this scene was conceived then, whether spoken out at the time as a way of critiquing the programme, or something that just got lodged in the back of somebody's mind.

    I guess what interests me in all this is the way that it faintly mirrors the kind of critique of the early gospels we find in some of the later ones. Much has been made of the negative portrayal of Thomas in John's Gospel. Not a few scholars think that this might be John casting aspersions about Thomas and, by extension, the movement or the Gospel that came to be associated with him. Or think of the many times that Matthew and Luke take a pithy statement from Mark's Jesus and transforms it into a whole scene that makes the original phrase far more memorable - The Parable of the Good Samaritan for example.

    Those two example are from different ends of the spectrum. Many who would feel uncomfortable with the idea of John smearing Thomas in this way, would nevertheless be fine with Luke rearranging his material to make a particular point. But there are all kinds of these little interactions between the gospels, particularly the Synoptic Gospels, and given that they were written relatively close to one another it's not unreasonable to imagine those writing later taking their predecessor's words and enhancing, adjusting, correcting and, yes perhaps, even parodying some of what they had to say.

    I've just left a comment on Mark's post asking if he can remember any of the other examples of these parallels and will be interested to see whether any of these parallels also happen to parallel how the later gospel writers used their sources.


    *Note Mark has this down as "What do the Romans give us?", but on a second hearing I beg to differ.

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    Saturday, January 17, 2015

    2015's Coming Attractions

    This post has been edited more than once to add in extra films omitted in error when it was originally published.
    Having reviewed 2014's Bible film offerings I thought it would be a good idea to preview some of the films that will be appearing on both the big and small screen across the course of the next 12 months. In contrast to last year - where it was the films based on the Hebrew Bible which were in the majority, this year it's almost entirely New Testament films. So in no particular order here's what's coming up in 2015.

    Last Days in the Desert
    Arguably the most interesting sounding of this year's offerings is Last Days in the Desert which premieré's at the Sundance film festival in a few days time. It's had a good deal of press coverage, not least in the UK, due mainly to the presence of Ewan MacGregor as both Jesus and Satan. The film will deal with Jesus' 40 days in the desert and also stars The Nativity Story's Ciarán Hinds. The official website is still a bit sparse, but Christianity Today has a lengthy interview with both MacGregor and director Rodrigo Garcia.

    A.D. (NBC)
    If the premise of Last Days sounds like it might be sailing a little close to the wind for some, one production that will be playing it considerably safer will be NBC's 12-hour New Testament series A.D.. To some it's a sequel to 2013's The Bible; to others a remake of the 1985 series of the same name, though that film was also often referred to as Anno Domini. NBC have done away with all that, ensuring that the series will be impossible to search for, if a little easier to tweet about. The trailer for the film was released a few days ago and features Peter and Jesus fairly prominently, but not a great deal of Saul/Paul. There's a little more on NBC's official site as well as a companion site featuring a glut of resources for churches and character profiles. The series premieré is on Easter Sunday (5th April 2015).

    Another film certain to feature legions of Roman armies is Clavius starring the other, other, other child star of the Harry Potter series, Tom Felton. Felton will play alongside Joseph Fiennes in the story about "an agnostic Roman legionnaire" who is "thrust into the trial and crucifixion of Jesus Christ". Details are still emerging, not least whether it is Felton or Fiennes who will play the titular character, and when, in relation to the death of Jesus, will the story start and end. It's also unclear just how much of a cameo Jesus will play in this film. Fiennes' brother, of course, played the part of Jesus in The Miracle Maker.

    National Geographic’s Killing Jesus
    or, "It's a Jesus film, only this time...it's franchised". National Geographic have had a good degree of success with Killing Lincoln and Killing Kennedy, both based on Bill O'Reilly's and Martin Dugard's books of the same name, so you can see why they were tempted to jump back to the first century to film Killing Jesus as well. It's a little unclear when this is going to air, but it too may be an interesting project, not least because it features a Muslim playing the role of Jesus (Haaz Sleiman). It'll also feature Kelsey Grammer as Herod, as well as Stephen Moyer and Bible Films veteran John Rhys-Davies.

    Finding Jesus: Faith Fact Forgery (CNN)
    Finding Jesus is a six part documentary from CNN examining some of the historical artifacts surrounding the historical Jesus. In contrast to many of the exaggerated claims made for some of these artifacts, the documentary will take a more rational approach, carefully examining the evidence. The six sessions will cover, The Turin Shorud, John the Baptist (including the John the Baptist's finger relic), Judas (including the Gospel of Judas), the secret brother of Jesus (with the James Ossuary), the true cross (fragments of the cross relics) and Mary Magdalene (covering all that Da Vinci Code malarkey). Mark Goodacre is the series' lead consultant and you can find out more on the programme's official website.

    Another Bible films veteran, Ben Kingsley, will also play the role of Herod in Mary, a film with a long, and some would say troubled, past from the pen of Barbara Nicolosi. Nicolosi has been involved since at least 2008, and then the talk was of that being a fifth draft of the script. Since then big names have come and gone (Al Pacino), the title has become more Aramaic sounding and then shortened back to just Mary, but there's still no sign of a website and the release date of April 2015 on the IMDb is looking a little unlikely. Perhaps given the Easter competition, the producers are thinking that the run up to Christmas might be a better time to release the film. Or perhaps this story is going to keep running for a good while yet.

    Lumo Project (Big Book Media)
    Last year, the Lumo Project released its version of The Gospel of John. According to Lumo's official website the other three are underway, and, according to the IMDb, at least two of those will be released this year (though it says Matthew was released in 2014, so it's perhaps not to reliable on this point). Quite when, where and how many of these projects will be released this year is anyone's guess.

    David and Goliath
    Having spent a good deal of time in 2014 writing on films about David, I was certainly interested to hear that another was due to be released in 2015. Sadly, and despite the filmmaker's claims of spending a, um, gigantic, $50 million on the project, any sense of anticipation has pretty much trailed away upon seeing this promo. The idea behind this trailer is to try and lever out some much needed funds for promotion. All I'm going to say is that they're going to need to find some people with rather less wisdom than the offspring of this film's eponymous hero.

    The Ark (BBC)
    Lastly, and not put off by a major film released with similar subject matter being released last year is The Ark from the BBC. It might be promising, actually. A far more accessible and middle of the road portrait than Aronofsky's Noah last yuear, I would imagine, but not necessarily the worse for that. David Threlfall takes the lead role (having played alongside Russell Crowe in Crowe's other big boat thriller Master and Commander) ably supported by Joanne Whalley and Nico Mirallegro. There's a few glimpses of footage on this BBC general preview. Tony Jordan, who wrote 2010's The Nativity for the BBC, has written this one as well, so expect a humanised and sympathetic telling should this ever make it.


    Doubtless there are others I have missed and there are a number of other films gaining publicity at the moment that aren't even due to arrive until 2016, including the adaptation of Anne Rice's Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, another version of Ben Hur and Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth based on Reza Aslan's controversial book.

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    Wednesday, January 07, 2015

    Bible Films Blog Review of 2014

    In previous years, I’ve offered a review of the year, although this has rather fallen by the wayside in recent time. However, 2014 was a bit of a stonker, so it would seem remiss not to do at least something.

    The big news was, of course, the long awaited release of a number of biblical epics, which hit not just the odd art-house cinema, or graced a local congregation with a decentish video projector, but in the local, everyday cinemas. Russell Crowe was talking about Noah in primetime TV shows. The Guardian was offering opinion pieces about Moses every time Ridley Scott coughed in a vaguely atheistic manner.

    As it turned out neither film made the, um, waves, that their respective studios had hoped for and neither director will be pleased to hear that they are more likely to win a Razzie than an Oscar come the spring.

    But before all that there was the matter of the Son of God - not so much the actual one as the cinema release of the Gospel footage from the History Channel’s 2013 series The Bible. Cutting down a TV series to a movie is a risky strategy. On the one hand the popularity of the “best of” genre might mean that he TV series might just be part of a lengthy marketing campaign – the world’s longest ever trailer if you like. But the question still remained, why would people get in their cars, drive out of town and pay through the nose to watch something they have already seen for “free”?

    As it turned out Son of God did rather well, perhaps because compelling answers were found to that question. Buying a ticket to Son of God was a statement of faith, a chance to send a message to Hollywood. Or you could buy two and bring along a friend with whom you wanted to share your faith.

    From an artistic point of view however the quality of the product was largely the same as that of the original 2013 series. Jesus was still too blond and off-puttingly good looking; the dialogue and the acting still left a great deal to be desired; and it still wasn’t really clear what Jesus was actually about other than being nice.

    One Bible film hero who eluded, with consummate ease, any charge of being overly nice, was Russell Crowe’s Noah, who shifted from grunting environmentalist to genocidal maniac over the course of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah. It’s the kind of precipice along which many edge along when they tell us how bad humans in general, and children in particular, are bad for the environment? But that’s another matter.

    Actually the scenes where Noah contemplates whether he should kill his own granddaughter were, in my opinion, rather misunderstood. Noah didn’t want to murder members of his own family, he just thought it might be what “The Creator” was calling him to do. After all it was the logical extension of what he had already done – a point that may of the faithful struggle to appreciate. It was a great performance from Crowe, but the terrain of unlikeable anti-hero seemed to leave the film, rather than just its antihero rather unloved. It was a shame. Aronofsky’s bizarre epic was drenched in biblical and other religious references, many of which weren’t even half as odd as the original text.

    December is often a busy time of year for those of us interested in Bible films and 2014 would prove no exception. In the cinema Ridley Scott's Exodus: Gods and Kings (my review ) received a fairly lukewarm welcome in many western countries and was banned in several countries in North Africa and the Middle East. In the current climate it's hard to know which is more damaging, western indifference or Egyptian anger.

    In the west the film's biggest talking point was the supposed white washing, casting Joel Edgerton and Christian Bale as an Egyptian and someone who manages to pass as an Egyptian for forty years. I must admit I can see both sides of the argument. On the one hand Christian art has always portrayed the faith's heroes in its own image as a way of relating to them. At the same time, as my comments above about Son of God suggest I also like to see more realistic casting.

    One film that did embrace a more ethnically accurate Jesus was The Gospel of John the latest output from the Lumo Project (an offshoot of Big Book Media). The series, which is available on Netflix, narrates John's Gospel over dramatized reconstructed video footage. Jesus is played by Selva Rasalingam who is half Tamil. If his face is familiar it’s because he has been playing Jesus in various Lumo/Big Book projects over the last few years, including the music video for Deliriou5?'s "History Maker" and the BBC’s The Story of Jesus (2011). Also part of those projects, as well as 2012’s David Suchet: In the Footsteps of St Paul, is director David Batty.

    The Lumo Project will eventually cover all four gospels in the same style, and Netflix features narration in both the King James and the New International versions of the Bible. As a medium it’s very similar to the Genesis Project’s Gospel of Luke (1979) which starred Brian Deacon and was recut as Jesus (1979), certainly it’s quite different in feel from other the two Visual Bible word for word projects Matthew (1994) and Gospel of John (2003).

    Given that John’s Gospel only received the word for word treatment 11 years ago, it’s surprising that the filmmakers have chosen to start with John, particularly as John’s wordy gospel is perhaps the one least suited to such a treatment. Personally I wished they’d opted for the only gospel not, yet, to have been filmed this way, Mark. But that will later this year if the IMDb is to be believed. Hopefully it will get a UK Netflix release as well. Incidentally 2015 will also see Rasalingam star as James in a Jesus-cameo film Clavius

    The appearance of The Gospel of John on Netflix seems to reflect a broader trend of niche faith-based films being broadcast away from traditional channels. Another such production in 2014 was The Red Tent, an adaptation of Anita Diamant’s historicalish novel of the same name. Diamant’s novel took the stories from around Genesis around Leah and Jacob’s daughter Dinah and re-imagines Shechem as her lover rather than her rapist. Young’s mini-series, which aired on the Lifetime network early in December, cast Rebecca Ferguson, star of 2013’s excellent The White Queen’s, and also features Minnie Driver, Debra Winger, Morena Baccarin and Hiam Abbass in prominent roles. Peter Chattaway has a great interview about the series with the director Roger Young.

    The other TV film worth a mention was the BBC animated short film On Angel Wings, which aired in the UK on Christmas Eve. It starred an old man recalling the visit of the Angels on the first Christmas night to the group of shepherds he worked for and how one angel secretly flew him to the stable so he got to meet the baby Jesus. Readers may recall my enjoyment of the Fourth King a fictional tale about the magi. On Angel Wings would make a good companion piece dealing as it does with Jesus' other Christmas visitors.

    Then there were several smaller films which brought the more poetic parts of the Bible to the screen. The Song re-imagined the life of King Solomon as an amorous country singer, with nods to both Song of Songs/Solomon and Ecclesiastes. Meanwhile Amos Gitai directed one of the short films in the anthology film Words with Gods. Gitai already has two fine Bible films under his wings, [Esther (1996) and Golem: l'esprit de l'exil (1992)] and here he took the on the work of his namesake, the prophet Amos.

    Perhaps the most significant of the films dealing with the more poetic parts of the Bible was Andrey Zvyagintsev's Leviathan. As with The Song it took the form of a modern story, this time the story revolves around a man fighting corruption in the coastal town where he lives, but there is also a healthy dose of the Book of Job. It's also likely to be the most successful of those films with a substantial link to the Bible, having been Russia's entry for the foreign language Oscar it's now one of the final nominations and has already won the Golden Globe in the same category.*

    Documentary-wise it was a fairly light year, though it's more than possible I missed something. David Suchet did feature in In the Footsteps of St. Peter, the follow up to his 2013 In the Footsteps of St Paul .

    However, there were a couple of new books about Bible Films that are worth a mention. David Shepherd's "The Bible on Silent Film" looks to be an excellent guide to an under-discussed period in the genre's development. I couldn't afford the hardback or a Kindle editions so I've only read excerpts but the bits I've read are full of fascinating detail and insight. Technically the hard back was released right at the end of 2013, but seeing as the paper back will be released in March this year, we can split the difference. I'm looking forward to getting a copy.

    Another book to touch upon the sub-genre is Graham Holderness' "Re-Writing Jesus: Christ in 20th-Century Fiction and Film" which touched on Last Temptation of Christ, The Passion of the Christ and The DaVinci Code, as well as various books about the life of Jesus. There were also various books released related to the films mentioned above including a picture book for the team behind Son of God.

    And lastly there was a conference. Not so much about a Jesus Films as a very close relation. "Jesus and Brian: or What Have the Pythons Ever Done for us?" ran for three days in June in Kings College, London and featured an impressive team of speakers, including John Cleese and Terry Jones, and even gained some national press coverage. Sadly neither time, nor money, nor health, permitted me to be there, but Mark Goodacre made it, blogged about it and did rather rub salt in the wounds of those of us who would have loved to be there but weren't. I mean, he got to meet John Cleese.

    Anyway 2015 promises a great deal. There are various films due for release about which Peter Chattaway is doing some great blogging. He also posts numerous things on the Bible Films Facebook page, for which I'm incredibly grateful. There's also a few books to look out for, including David Shepherd's follow up volume "The Silents of Jesus" and there might even be a book with a couple of chapters by myself to report on in next year's review of the year.

    *There were some subsequent edits here, made after the Oscar nominations

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    Sunday, January 04, 2015

    On Angel Wings (2014)

    In a year of many Bible films being released, one that rather flew under the radar is On Angel Wings, an animated retelling of the Nativity Story directed by Dave Unwin. Whilst Unwin was also involved with writing the screenplay, the main writing credits belong to children's author Michael Morpurgo who penned the book on which the film is based.

    The book's original illustrations were by the great Quentin Blake, but Blake wasn't involved in this animated re-telling which came from a partnership between Illuminated Films, Jerusalem Productions and the BBC. As a result the characters are rendered rather differently from the book giving the new work a fresh feel and severing the tie with the original novel. There are some fairly bold choices in this respect as well. The sharp angular lines used for the angels contrast with the softer more rounded illustration for the human characters. It emphasises the other worldliness of the celestial visitors, as well as the fact that they have an importance, of sorts, as messengers of the king (of kings).

    The other interesting decision regarding the animation is the way figures often hold more or less the same pose for a while before shifting to a new position. This gives the film the feel of an animate book, reminding viewers of the piece's literary roots.

    For a humblish project such as this, the cast list is certainly impressive. The leading character, Amos, appears as an aging grandfather recounting the most singular moment from his childhood and the elderly Amos is voiced by Michael Gambon, in what will probably not be his most widely appreciated voice work on an animated children's film in 2014 (he's also in Paddington). Also involved are Juliet Stevenson as Mary, Colin McFarlane(Commissioner Loeb in The Dark Knight) as Joseph and Dominic Cooper (Captain America) as the Angel Gabriel.

    As a production it's charming enough. Accessible for the younger children and generating a bit of extra interest for children up to pre-teens. However, it rather lacks having anything of substance to say about the Christmas story. Jesus is portrayed as a king but his supposed divine origins are rather watered down for a story based on an angelic visitation. Furthermore his ability to change the world is reduced simply to his ability to "bring us love, through which we will at last have peace and goodwill on Earth" and to "show us a better way of living". There's much truth in that of course, but "love" existed long before Jesus was born and hasn't yet brought any significant measure of peace. It's the significance of Jesus identity which makes the love Jesus embodies special, but the BBC's a bit too PC to mention all that. Indeed, the word "God" doesn't really feature at all.

    The other notable weakness concerns the flashback structure, whereby the story is retold by the now elderly Amos. Despite the fact that Amos has kept in touch with Jesus' life as a adult he has never mentioned these events to anyone which contrasts rather strongly with the reaction of the shepherds in Luke. Did these amazing events change Amos' life at all? We're given no indication. It also leaves the "grandfather" section of the story in a time strangely unaffected by Jesus's life and death.

    These shouldn't overlook the film's strengths. In addition to the animation there are also a few good lines for the adults to enjoy too, and a good bit of adventure. Indeed children will find it easy to relate to Amos - there's a good deal of character development is a relatively short period of time. The film also manages to walk the line between the best and worst of humanity's potential. Even if the final lesson "you have to keep believing in yourself" is a bit mawkish On Angel Wings will provide many families a good way to think about the true meaning of Christmas.

    On Angel Wings is available on BBC iPlayer until the 24th January 2015. The BBC website also features an article by Michael Morpurgo, some character profiles, clips and another article on the film. More details are available from the film's official website.


    Friday, January 02, 2015

    Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)

    Given its big-budget and epic scale, it's tempting to think of Ridley Scott's Exodus: God's and Kings as a remake of The Ten Commandments (1956) for the 3D age, but in many ways it's more of a live action remake of The Prince of Egypt (1998). Certainly the two films explore the theme of brotherhood, a fact underlined by Scott dedication of the film to his late brother. Whilst The Ten Commandments also dwells on the rivalry between Ramses and Moses, no love is lost between them - Ramses' jealousy-fuelled disdain is matched only by Moses' impassive morality.

    Here however the bromance-turned-sour theme rests on solid performances from Christian Bale (Moses) and his sort of cousin Ramses (Joel Edgerton). Early on their "father" Seti (in an intriguing performance by Coen Brothers' favourite John Turturro) expresses his qualms about Ramses' faults, but when Seti's death coincides with discoveries about Moses' past, the new Pharaoh swoops to secure his throne.

    In the run up to Exodus' release I found it hard to imagine Christian Bale as Moses, least of all when portrayed as a combative fighter-general who turns terrorist. In other Moses movies these scenes were played by a pure and upright Heston, a feeble Kingsley, an effeminately drawn Kilmer and by Burt Lancaster's son. But Bale's performance is one of the best aspects of the film, bringing a new angle to Moses and the threat of a Hebrew uprising. Various Moses films have depicted the actions of the fearful Pharaoh who drowned the Hebrew boys. Few have captured the dread and paranoia behind them. Bale's more muscular performance in tandem with Edgerton's subtle and not unsympathetic turn as Ramses take the film into new territory.

    Perhaps it's because the two leads perform so well that Scott draws so little on the wealth of acting talent he also had on the payroll. Sigourney Weaver is almost invisible. Aaron Paul hardly speaks. Turturro sparks in his few scenes but is snuffed out of soon. Kingsley gets the next greatest amount of screen time, but even his role is limited.

    Indeed other than the leads, arguably the most interesting performance comes from the 11-year old Isaac Andrews as Malak, a figure halfway between God and his messenger. This fits well with the ambiguity in Exodus 3 over the identity of the voice that speaks to Moses. Not a few have objected to this portrayal finding Andrews petulant and inconsistent. One can only assume these objections come from those who haven't read Exodus 4:24-26 in a while (where God, having just commissioned Moses, then tries to kill him).

    Yet despite these subtleties, it's difficult to see what persuaded Fox to press ahead with this project. It's been ten years since The Passion stunned movie execs with its surprise success at the box office. But that success was routed in the devout turning out to show their support for a faithful retelling of the pivotal moment in their faith. It was shot on a small budget and as both Hollywood studios and Christian filmmakers have discovered, what will get the devout to turn out has proved perilously hard to predict.

    Furthermore Scott's vision of the film, gestated more in atheism than in belief in the supernatural, was the kind of approach that was likely to leave church audiences wary whilst not sufficiently detoxifying the Bible brand to appeal to the non-religious.

    As it turns out, though, Jewish, Christian and Muslim audiences need not have been so cautious. Scott's scepticism only results in ambiguity rather than a credible debunking and, for me at least, the film's internal logic undoes much of the scientific theories it presents.

    Take, for example, the bump on the head which immediately precedes Moses' first encounter with God. This is arguably Exodus' most controversial moment suggesting that Moses was, in fact, suffering from some kind of hallucination. Yet such a theory suffers because from the very start of the film Moses is the most rational, anti-religious sceptic in the whole film. Wouldn't he, of all people, questioned whether his bash on the head was partly responsible for his new vision? Would such trauma-induced visions persist even for a few weeks, let alone the months and years that pass over the course of the film?

    Then there are the plagues. Scott draws on theories that have been around for many years which have suggested that the rivers turning to blood was what drove the frogs onto land, which caused the plague of flies and resulted in various other plagues occurring. Strangely, such theories tend to act like Rorschach ink blot tests: Believers see confirmation of the events narrated in scripture; unbelievers see a rational explanation that removes the need for God.

    Exodus: Gods and Kings puts this theory on the lips of an Egyptian professional sceptic played by Trainspotting's Ewen Bremner. However, instead of portraying Bremner's character as a wise, archetypal scientist, centuries ahead of his time, he is played as a comically incompetent charlatan, his sudden execution being played for one of the film's few laughs. It's not unprecedented that such a comical character unwittingly hits upon scientific truth (Pumbaa's "big balls of gas millions of light years away") but these moments are generally for knowing comic purposes themselves rather than for advancing serious theories.

    What's also odd is that whereas these domino theories about the plagues tend to see the first plague as the result of exponential growth in the numbers of red-coloured algae, here a plague of crocodiles descend on a fishing boat and having devoured the fishermen they then turn on each other. The modification, though, raises two further critical problems. Firstly even this bloodbath seems insufficient to cause the level of pollution that the film suggests and moreover, what caused the sudden and unusual convergence of all these crocodiles in the first place?

    Perhaps the most glaring example of this tendency is in the parting of the Red Sea. Here the film's theory is that the seabed is cleared by the drawback preceding the tsunami which then annihilates Pharaoh's soldiers. It's not necessarily a bad theory, but it's both unnecessary from a biblical point of view and undermined by subsequent action. On the one hand a far simpler explanation can be found in the footnotes of the Bible itself - the earliest manuscripts talk not about the Red Sea, but about the Sea of Reeds - a shallower, marshier area many miles away, where ordinary overnight tidal variations might make all the difference. In any case this section of the film culminates in the movie's most preposterous scene where despite getting hit with the full force of the tsunami both Moses and Ramses somehow manage to survive.

    In many ways this gets right to the tension at the heart of such a production which is caught between forwarding rational alternative explanations and presenting a spectacular biblical action movie. So many moments in film history rest on the utterly unbelievable - from Buster Keaton's antics on The General to the spinning hallway scene in Inception. Attempting to explain one seemingly watery implausibility (the parting of a huge body of water) and then randomly inventing another immediately afterwards (Moses surviving a tsunami) them is to go against the flow of the both this specific film and the broader genre. Why not just pass on the whole "dry land" bit and have Moses and his followers surf over on the crest of a giant wave?

    Indeed what's strange about Scott's attempts to explain away the supernatural aspects of the story is that far simpler explanations for the miraculous events described in the final texts of Exodus can be found through the work of literary criticism. But then they would not have provided the ingredients for a biblical blockbuster. Ultimately Scott seems to want to have his cake whilst audiences eat it.

    And as blockbuster historical epic beefcake goes, it's surprisingly palatable. It's no Gladiator, of course, even to those who question its weaknesses, but it's a far greater film than Scott's woeful Robin Hood and a good deal better than either Kingdom of Heaven or 1492: Conquest of Paradise. As with those films the detailed sets, costumes and CGI make for an impressive spectacle and the pacing and tension are good throughout. Indeed of all the Moses films I have seen none capture the drama of the chasing Egyptian army as plausibly as this. Sadly I suspect that yet another commercial failure by a Biblical epic will lead to a long hiatus in big budget Bible films for the immediate future.

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    Monday, September 22, 2014

    The Holy Mountain (1973)

    Alejandro Jodorowsky's The Holy Mountain is, I suppose, a Jesus film of sorts. But it's not hard to see it's rarely discussed along with more conventional takes on the story. Jodorowsky's dark surrealist vision is riddled with images that will tend to offend the kind of people who tend to watch Jesus films, and many others besides.

    I don't know a great deal about surrealist films and so I'm not going to pretend I do, nor pass much judgement on what Jodorowsky has produced. Certainly it's hard to know what to make of it all. But the images are undeniably striking and vivid and arresting and the sounds so utterly disconcerting that the hellishness of it all is hard to miss. Nevertheless it's not hard to see why it's not more widely known or even discussed. It's form is so very far from the mass appeal of Hollywood.

    It was financed heavily by John and Yoko and it's not hard to speculate as to  common ground. Nevertheless it remains Jodorowsky's vision of the hell that man can inflict on his fellow man and religion's impotence and at time complicity with that. Yet for all that, it's also kinda dull as the scores of naked bodies rapidly lose their appeal and the occasionally impressive camera tricks begin to form a parade of the grotesque that never really reaches it's destination.

    Sunday, August 31, 2014

    A Reworking of Hebrews 11

    I had the privilege of speaking at this year's Greenbelt festival on "The Depressives of the Bible". Afterwards a couple of people asked if they could get hold of my conclusion to the talk which was a reworking of the famous passage on faith in Hebrews 11. So here it is. Essentially I was trying to make the point that people with mental health problems, including depression, made a significant contribution to the stories in and the literature of the Bible and so I reworked the Hebrews 11 passage replacing "in sadness" for "by faith". Hope people find it useful.
    "Now this present sadness is a loss of confidence in what we hope for and a lack of assurance about what we do not see. This too is what the ancients were commended for.

    By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, but we also see that same universe full of pain and hurt and sadness.

    In sadness Cain's offering was deemed inadequate and he felt the pain of rejection.

    In sadness Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. Yet when he had seen the world condemned he felt a pain so deep that he tried to drown out his guilt with alcohol.

    In sadness Saul saw his kingdom torn from him for acting with compassion and then saw the adulation he had once received transferred to another.

    In sadness David, and those who came after him, found God in their pain and their music and wrote the words that would echo not just through one generation, but through the ages.
    In sadness Solomon, and those who bore his name, found life meaningless, but were unafraid to wrestle with God and cry out at the darkness.

    All these people were still living by faith when they died. Yet they did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and wished for them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. In sadness, they were longing for a better country

    In sadness Job saw his family wiped out and refused to shut up and accept the perceived wisdom. He chose not to be ill-treated but nevertheless suffered at the hands of the people of God. He persevered because he saw him who is invisible.

    In sadness Elijah cried out that God might kill him, even though he had witnessed an incredible miracle. And yet God did not reject him. He turned his back on the fire and the storm, hearing only the quiet sound, but still anointed leaders and put kings in their place.

    In sadness Jeremiah heard God's words of destruction for the city and the world he lived in. In sadness he was despised and abused. He chose to be ill-treated by the people of God rather than to enjoy their fleeting pleasures. Yet despite his sadness God did not count him as unworthy.

    And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Ruth, Naomi, Ezekiel, Mark and Nehemiah. Who despite sadness conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; whose weakness was turned to strength; Women received back their dead. Some faced jeers and flogging. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and ill-treated – the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground. These were all commended in spite of their sadness, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.

    Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders. And let us try to somehow pick ourselves up, and stagger on along the path marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, and he who himself was known as the Man of Sorrows. He endured rejection, loneliness, desperation and the cross, scorning its shame, and sits now at the right hand of the throne of God."
    (Based on Heb 11& 12 NIVUK)


    Thursday, February 13, 2014

    A Story of David (1960)

    British/Israeli production A Story of David is the only modern-era David film not to feature his victory over Goliath. Instead, it bravely starts it's tale during the period when David is well-established at court. His slaying of the giant has led to prominence in Israel's army and he is happily married to Saul's daughter Michal.

    It's a gamble that certainly pays off. Often David films have a sense of anti-climax. After his early heroics, even becoming king seems to lack dramatic pay off. But then A Story of David doesn't have that either. Instead it limits its narrative to the story of David having to flee from Saul and surviving his forces in the wild until he and Saul are reconciled when David spares his life. Certainly this is the only film amongst the David biopics that manages to uncover the inherent tension in this part of the story.

    There are a number of interesting innovations here. Doeg the Edomite relatively minor role in the scriptures is greatly inflated to one as Saul's key advisor, poisoning his mind. Indeed Doeg comes to hold far greater prominence than Abner, who whilst he is steadfastly loyal to Saul nevertheless looks on with disapproval at many of his actions. There's also an enhanced role for Abiathar. As per 1 Sam 22 & 23 he escapes the slaughter of the priests at Nob and flees to be with David. Though still a boy he becomes one of David's inner circle - certainly not implausible given his later position as (joint?) High Priest. But he also becomes the one from David's mighty men who draws water from the well only to see David pour it out to the Lord (1 Chron 11). (This is the only David film to include this incident as far as I recall).

    The film also gives a significant amount of screen time to Abigail and her first husband Nabal, who is played by a relatively restrained performance by Donald Pleasence. This was three years before his role in The Great Escape brought him acclaim from outside the UK.

    By this stage, though, the plot is beginning to peter out. The final scene where David and Joab sneak past Doeg into Saul's tent lacks both the necessary tension and a sufficiently strong resolution leaving the film without a satisfactory ending.


    Tuesday, February 11, 2014

    David e Golia (1959)

    The title may read David and Goliath, but really it's all about Orson Welles' Saul. It's unclear what possessed Welles - a director of sublime talent - to get involved in this film, where very little talent is on display, but nevertheless he did and his portrayal of the Israelite king is, unsurprisingly, the best thing in an otherwise forgettable movie. Welles' heavy, sweaty body evokes memories of his earlier role as corrupt cop Hank Quinlan in A Touch of Evil (1958). The impression of corruption and decay is only heightened by the cheap and poorly lit throne room set and the generally amateurish feel of the production as a whole.

    Whilst the vast majority of the film is set in the period before David becomes his national hero, the filmmakers nevertheless introduce the theme of Saul's jealousy for his one-day successor. It's not hard to see why. In contrast to the boyish figures that feature in many films about David here he is a full-blown, muscular adult. Whilst actor Ivo Payer is certainly shorter in stature than Goliath, he would be a match for many a man. Personally my feeling is that this is a little more realistic. The odds are still overwhelmingly in Goliath's favour, but David's subsequent military heroics make far greater sense.

    One of the most interesting things about this film is that it gives Goliath a backstory. Indeed all three of the major players are developed as characters. The film's early scenes keep the three in isolation working hard to help the audience connect with them and build a backstory. This casts Goliath in a particularly interesting light. His character is shown to be a loner, living outside normal society. His only "friend" is really seeking to sell his labour to the Philistine kings. This sense of isolation is heightened by the bold and unusual soundtrack when Goliath is on screen. The orchestral music that features for most of the film is replaced by more esoteric sounds such as the musical saw and the theremin. It evokes sci-fi / monster B-movies, and makes Goliath monstrous and further emphasising how he is different from normal people.

    Of all the films about David, this is the one that is most content to invent plot lines to flesh out the story and leading characters. David's first scene features his fictional girlfriend Egla who dies when she is struck by lightning. Later David visits Jerusalem (which in this film is already an Israelite city) and appalled by what he sees takes action and makes a speech against those exploiting others to make money. It's strongly reminiscent of the episode in the Gospels where Jesus turns over the tables in the temple. Abner and Saul's daughter Merab are also lovers and plot together against David, a scheme brought to an end in one of the closing scenes when Saul shoots his favourite commander with a bow and arrow. These elements so add a greater level of intrigue to the plot.

    The biggest downside of the film, in the English dub, at least, is the attempted use of King James English. Whilst it's not hard to understand - it feels a little like someone has just gone through the script with a checklist of modern English words that convert to 17th century English - it's not close enough to the King James Bible to sound authoritative or authentic. Instead it leaves the film feeling stilted and phony and whilst the melodramatic acting and cheap sets mean this was never going to achieve classic status, it does ruin what had the potential to be a cult favourite B-movie.


    Friday, February 07, 2014

    David, a Young Hero and David, A King of Israel (1958)

    The The Living Bible series tends to stick very rigidly to the biblical text and the three episodes that feature David are no exception, so I've not got a huge amount of comments on these films. I say "three" because the elderly David does appear at the start of the episode Solomon, A Man of Wisdom. So anyway, here's more of a scene guide to these episodes (something I wish I'd kept closer tags on as I was writing up the others in this series). N.B. Where an incident occurs in both Samuel-Kings and in Chronicles I've referenced if from Samuel-Kings.
    David, A Young Hero
    David playing the harp whilst shepherding (Psalm 23)
    Anointing of David (1 Sam 16:1-13)
    David plays for Saul (1 Sam 16:14-23)
    David and Goliath (1 Sam 17)
    Saul throws a spear at David (1 Sam 18:10-17)
    Jonathan warns David using arrows (1 Sam 20)
    Given my post a few days ago about Saul's mental health problems the one moment of this production that really stood out was the scene where David is brought in to play his harp. It's interesting that the narrator seems to provide both a natural description of the problem as well as providing a supernatural explanation. Initially Saul's problem is described as "black moods of despair" - which is notable not least because we have not been shown Saul's rejection by God. Moments later, though, the cause of Saul's problem is put down to evil spirits.

    Given the film's low budget it does a good job of making an effective Goliath. By limiting the two competitors to only one shot in which they both appear some of the awkwardness about Goliath's relative size is effectively dealt with, and whilst the sound effects on Goliath's voice may lack sophistication they are certainly effective. I also like that David is clearly a late teenager/young man here rather than a young teenager/boy.

    The film does end at a curious point which very much underlines the fact that this is the first instalment of a two-parter. Jonathan confirms that his father is trying to kill David and so David heads off into "the wilderness". When David returns he will be played by an older actor. Most David films change actors shortly after his felling of Goliath suggesting it is this action that turns him into a man. Here however it is his having to flee Saul and live a life of the run that ages him and matures him.
    David, King of Israel
    The 400 come to David (1 Sam 22)
    Protection of Keilah (1 Sam 23)
    David spares Saul's life (1 Sam 24)
    David spares Saul's life a 2nd time (1 Sam 26)
    Elders make David king (2 Sam 2-5)
    The Ark Brought to Jerusalem (2 Sam 6)
    Covenant with David (2 Sam 7)
    It's slightly peculiar that for an episode called David, King of Israel only a third of it (5 minutes) involves David actually being king. Given the series' conservatism it's no surprise that it overlooks the troubles of his reign, not least his affair with Bathsheba and the problems with Absalom.

    One other pouint that stood out for me was in the scene where David spares Saul's life for the first time. Whereas most other films tend to depict Saul wearing his coat at the time, here he puts it down on a nearby rock, a rather more plausible scenario in my opinion. That said the robe itself is more like a women's wrap than any kind of robe, and the actor playing Saul clearly seems to struggle to wear whilst giving the impression that he has not noticed a large piece of it is missing.
    Solomon, A Man of Wisdom
    David announces his successor (1 Kings 1-2)
    David passes on his plans for the temple (1 Chr 28-29)
    [rest of episode]
    This film does go where most other films about David don't however covering the messy situation surrounding his successor. That said the ousted Adonijah seems rather more relaxed about David's pronouncement than the Bible suggests and the two half-brothers shake hands in a manner which in no way suggests that Solomon is about to butcher his rival. Bizarrely the next scene depicts David having sprung up from his death bed and explaining his plans for the temple. It is, to say the least, a rather odd arrangement.

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    Thursday, February 06, 2014

    King David (1985)

    Like The Story of David, Bruce Beresford's King David (1985) also tries to fit the majority of the events of David's life into a single storyline. However, as with that film King David also starts with Saul's sparing of the Amalekite king Agag.

    What follows is the stuff of Bible film folklore. The film bombed, lead actor Richard Gere won the Razzie for "Worst Performance of the Year" and it would be almost 30 years before another major studio would venture into the Hebrew Bible again.

    Surprisingly, though, King David is not nearly as bad as all that. Gere's award probably hung on the infamous nappy scene where he strips off an dances as the ark makes its way into the city. It's hard to suppress a giggle during the scene but in fairness to the filmmakers the text is clear that David's dancing was undignified and semi-naked. It's hard to imagine anything being a great deal more undignified than Gere monkeying around, but his display certainly fits the bill - it's easy to sympathise with Cheri Lungi's Michal. And, if nothing else, it's a tribute to Gere's flexibility as an actor that just three years later he was winning over hearts everywhere with his portrayal of a sex-trade client with a heart of gold.

    The other things that makes King David stand up well to some of the other films about David is that it is relatively short. At 114 minutes it manages to compress the storyline fairly effectively, covering all the main events: Saul's sparing of Agag, Samuel anointing David, David playing for Saul; David slaying Goliath; David and Michal; David fleeing for his life; Saul executing the priests; the deaths of Saul and Jonathan; the Ark being brought into the city; David's affair with Bathesheba; the rape of Tamar; Absalom's rebellion and Solomon's succession. There's even time to go into some of the incidents the other films don't cover such as Abigail and his other wives. By using a narrator the film is able to skip onto the next episode fairly quickly, although sometimes this is too much, too quickly with too little explanation.

    There are a few moments of interest for Biblical scholars. The film brings out and enhances some of the prophetic aspects of the story, such as Samuel using the Urim and Thummim to clarify which of Jesse's sons is to be anointed king. Samuel also follows this up by prophesying to David what else will to happen including that God will challenge him in a none-too-subtle reference to his fight with Goliath.

    There are also echoes of other Bible stories, such early in the film when Saul cries out "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" It's a phrase most familiar for being spoken by Jesus on the cross, but that is, of course, a reference to Psalm 22. Psalm 23 pops up as well as one of the songs David plays Saul (a feature of many of these films). Later on Absalom is question as to the whereabouts of Amnon and answers "Am I my brother's keeper?" with a reference to Cain and Abel.

    Perhaps the most significant re-appropriation of the Bible is the story of Jacob wrestling with God. This first occurs as one of Saul's dreams, but it is then read out by Ahimelech shortly before he and his fellow priests are murdered. The idea of wrestling with God and not just settling for the accepted way of doing things seems to underlie much of the film. As a boy David fought Goliath when no-one else would. As a king he danced semi-naked and shows mercy to Absalom in contrast to his advisors' reading of the law. Nathan even accuses him saying David thinks he "knows his [God's] will better than the prophets".

    This pattern finds ultimate expression in his final piece of advice to Solomon, his heir. "Be guided by the instincts of your own heart, no matter what the prophets tell you. For it is through the heart, the heart alone, that God speaks to man". Whilst such a "follow your heart" message is hardly a radical for a Hollywood movie, it is certainly contrary to the understanding of the time, a fact confirmed by Nathan's disapproving face as David says it.

    That's hardly surprising as Nathan is portrayed as a dour, harsh and inflexible character throughout. Even the way he challenges David by telling him the "You are the man" parable lacks any real conviction, and the film doesn't seem too troubled by the whole affair. In this film it's Bathsheba who approaches David and the screenplay conveniently rearranges the order of events to suggest that Uriah is killed before David sleeps with Bathsheba. Later when Absalom is declared dead David mourns at length, whilst Nathan stands nearby scowling and rebuking him "When will you learn to obey the Lord your God instead of your emotions".

    The scene following this is, perhaps, one of the most interesting in the film. David has been planning his temple, but when he hears God has rejected his plan he picks up Goliath's old sword an smashes his model temple to pieces. What's interesting is that as he is doing this (in slow motion no less) the narrator starts by saying "Fear the Lord and serve him in truth with all your heart. Consider the great things he has done for you" before adding "And behold it came to pass that David sinned no more. And the Lord smiled upon his servant David and strengthened his hand and gave him victory over his enemies wheresoever he went" before listing all the tribes David destroyed. The act of smashing the temple seems to be the filmmakers having an unsubtle swipe at organised religion, particularly as the narrator seems to endorse his actions by talking about David having God's favour.

    Yet the film can't completely cut itself free from the grasp of organised religion. Having contrasted David's faith with Nathan's inflexible religion the filmmakers desperately try to glue back on the branch upon which they had until recently been sitting. David lies on his death bed dispensing "follow your heart" advice like a 13 year old who's just discovered Facebook, but then expresses annoyance at the presence of a scribe. "Must you record every word I utter?" David enquiries irritably? "It's for the Book of Samuel my Lord. You ordered it". It's a strange attempt to lend the film some historical credibility with a rather old theory about how the Books of Samuel may have come into existence. It bears very little relation to any historically credible theory, not least because the Book of Samuel was only known by that title well into the Christian era. Furthermore, the scenes of David on his death bed come from the start of 1 Kings rather than 2 Samuel, and, of course, there David says nothing that could really be summarised by the above.

    It's possible, I suppose, that this is a clever suggestion that Nathan and his ilk got their hands on "the book of Samuel" and changed David's words to something that rather more suited their purpose. Possible, but unlikely. This is, after all, a film where all too often demonstrates its 'sophistication' with slow motion running; a David that can't shoot straight; a pre-battle "I'm Spartacus" type moment; and, yes, a man in a nappy dancing like a big monkey.


    Sunday, February 02, 2014

    Saul e David (1964)

    Saul e David by Italian director Marcello Baldi is a much undervalued member of the Bible films canon. So much so, in fact, that despite it having sat in my film library for many years I had to be reminded of it recently by Witlessd.

    The image above occurs near the end of what is for, for me, the finest shot in the film, and indeed one of the finest in any biblical film. It's from the scene in 1 Samuel 26 when David spares Saul's life for a second time. Only we don't yet know it. The previous shot of Saul's camp in the distance, it's lights twinkling in the darkness of the night fades into a slow panning shot of the hills. As the pan continues Saul's camp emerges in the foreground and the camera tracks past sleeping soldiers before pausing momentarily on Abner's face, and then on Saul who lies asleep with his water jug at his side. It pans again along Saul's body until it encounters his javelin and the feet of someone standing over him. A slow pan upwards reveals the face of David. It's a sublime shot, not quite on a par with Orson Welles' start to A Touch of Evil but certainly worthy of being mentioned in the same breath.

    Director Marcello Baldi was a stalwart of Italian "Peplum" films. Other entries on his CV include Goliath and the Dragon (1960) and I grandi condottieri (1965 - a.k.a Gideon and Samson) so he was familiar with filming this type of material. (He also did a great deal of second director work). However here he transcends much of the cheesy Son of Hercules vs Venus type material to focus on the more intimate story of Israel's first two kings†.

    The film relies largely on Norman Woodward's performance as the troubled king. Some have found the performance to be over the top, others have found it powerful and sympathetic, but certainly it is an intimate performance that tries to understand Saul's paranoia, desperation and faltering faith. Gianni Garko also puts in a good performance as David too. Outwardly he cuts a heroic figure, his blond good looks and confidence winning audiences as well as almost everyone who comes into contact with him. But Garko manages to convey a great deal with his eyes. Again the shot above displays both his love for Saul, but also his sorrow that his King still wishes him dead.

    What's interesting about David's heroic stature is this was previously the role held by Saul. Few films really attempt to portray this, but Saul e David captures it brilliantly in the opening scene. As Saul arrives back at camp following his victory over the Amalekites the people swarm round him . It is clear he is their hero. Saul himself is seemingly swept away by their euphoria. When Saul arrives to chastise him for not following God's commands to the latter, Saul expresses his doubts that Samuel even hears God. The scene ends with Samuel declaring "you will grow smaller and smaller" and with that the film cuts to a series of quick shots of huge tents being collapsed as the army prepares to return home.

    The heroic link between Saul and David is emphasised when the Saul first encounters the young shepherd boy. "You're the ghost of my boyhood come to mock me" mutters Saul to the blond, almost golden skinned, child that stands before him. David's puniness casts a stark contrast with Goliath in one of the rare occasions that a David film portrays the giant at what would seem to be around 9'6". It's also one of the bloodiest befellings of the man from Gath, with blood spurting almost comically from his forehead.

    From then on the story focusses on Saul's obsession with David and his perceived threat and superiority. It's an intimate portrayal which really draws out the tension in Saul's family (Michal, Jonathan) which only serve to twist the knife.

    †Technically, amongst the northern ten tribes Saul's remaining son Ish-bosheth was the second king, ruling for two years before he was ousted by David, but that doesn't flow as well. Interestingly there is a reference to this at the end of the film. As Ish-bosheth witnesses the battle being lost he reminds Abner of his promise to protect him which he does. As they ride away Saul's other sons are killed and Saul falls on his own sword.


    Saturday, February 01, 2014

    Saul, Depression and The Bible Pt 4

    I have a great deal of sympathy for King Saul. I've experienced depression myself and have several close friends who have also struggled with it, so it, no doubt, makes me empathise with those whose minds trouble them.

    It would be foolish, of course, to try and place a precise diagnosis on someone who is, essentially, just a character in a book. We only have a very small part of the picture and the writers hardly sympathise with whatever the mental troubles are that so afflicted Israel's first king, nor do they have any sort of expertise in mental health. Indeed they, like most people of their time linked mental health problems to demon possession. Yet whilst scholars are becoming more comfortable aligning, say, some of the 'demoniacs' that Jesus 'exorcised' with epilepsy, there seem precious few revisionist takes on Saul.

    Saul, was a young and tall man when he was, rather surprisingly, anointed king of Israel. He was not at all prepared for the role - his family amongst the lowest in Israel - but found himself thrust into the limelight with only the resentful Samuel as his mentor. Yet despite the odds against him, he unites Israel and wins a string of key victories over the enemies that had been afflicted him. The result? The kingship is torn away from him on a couple of technicalities and he never sees his guide and mentor again. He slides into an affliction so deep that the court worries about how to help him. Fearing he is cursed, he dithers when faced with Goliath (who according to some manuscripts may only have been a little taller than Saul) and sees another young man from a humble background to fight in his place. David's victory is decisive, but propels him to greater popularity than even his king.

    We don't really know why Saul threw the spear at David. It's unlikely to be justified, but the sources all seem to favour David, despite his desertion to the Philistines, and so it's possible that the accounts of subsequent events are less than fair to Saul, but his reaction to David sparing his life is both an interesting contrast to the madman who we so often see depicted and a sign that sadness and humanity remained in his heart. His last acts smack of despair. Faced with a revived Philistine army, in desperation he consults a medium in the hope of reaching Samuel. Saul's worst fears and realised. The battle is lost. His sons are killed. He takes his own life.

    The above is not meant as a serious historical account, nor as a neatly comprehensive Bible study. It's simply offered as a more sympathetic take on Saul - a man whose great potential was destroyed by his troubled mind.

    I've been mulling this piece for a long time, perhaps almost a year since I first saw The Bible's fourth part. Various films treat Saul more or less badly. In some such as Rei Davi he is clearly stark, raving mad. In others, such as The Story of David he is played more sympathetically.

    The Bible's account is interesting because on the one hand it wants to stick closely to the text. It doesn't really want to appear historically inaccurate by allowing Saul to foam at the mouth. Yet on the other hand it goes to considerable length to cast Saul in a very poor light. In addition to the inclusion of all the major low points in Saul's life, the are three overarching ways in which his failings are highlighted / exaggerated: dialogue, storytelling licence and visual representation.

    As a series The Bible often uses paraphrased / invented dialogue but uses archaic sounding language to give it an air of authenticity. This is particularly true of the narrator whose authoritative voice lend the production the additional impression of credibility, particularly as the series first broadcast on the History Channel.

    In the fourth part of this series the narrator adds various bits of dialogue that emphasise and exaggerate Saul's failings. When Saul is condemned for not destroying Agag and the Amalekite animals the narrator concludes that "in trying to please his men Saul has displeased God". Later on he tells us that Saul is now "obsessed with destroying David".

    When The Bible's characters speak it is a mix of the semi-archaic and modernised dialogue, but it too is used to paint Saul in a poor light, emphasising his paranoia ("he'll want my crown next". "He wants our crown, can't you see?") as well as the extent of his problems ("Father! What demons posses you?"). There is also a good deal of mad/paranoid shouting at various points in the episode.

    Storytelling Licence
    All visual interpretations of the Bible involve a degree of artistic licence, but the ways in which the narrative varies from that in 1 Samuel is fairly telling, frequently painting Saul in a worse light that the biblical text. An early example is the first time Saul attacks David. In the Bible Saul throws his spear at David, just before he goes on to allow him to marry his daughter. It's a moment of insanity, but in the Bible it occurs when David returns from de-foreskinning 200 Philistines and Saul still appears to be brooding about the failure of his plan to endanger his future son-in-law. Later when Michal protects David by claiming he is ill, it's Saul himself who barges into Michal's room, rather than sending one of his men. It implies a kind of driven madness that is simply not their in the biblical account.

    Another occasion when the programme pushes a little beyond the biblical account is when David "spares" Saul's life. In both accounts of this in 1 Samuel Saul repents and calls David his son. In the first account (ch.24) he even weeps. In this film however Saul remains annoyed and angry about the incident and shows no remorse. Finally, Saul's suicide in 1 Samuel happens as Saul is fleeing and pressed hard by the battle. He seems to kill himself to avoid the punishment that the Philistines mete out to his corpse instead. Here however when Saul takes is own life he is under no particular pressure certainly not in the heat of battle.

    Visual Representation
    A few of the techniques used here also make Saul seem less sympathetic. The first is that the actor chosen to play Saul is far less attractive that the actor who plays David. There is only 4 years between the two men but whereas Langley Kirwood who plays David seems hunky and youthful, Francis Magee, who plays Saul, seems old an haggard. Magee's demeanour doesn't really help matters, he sneers and hardly ever smiles.

    The camera-work also adds an extra dimension here. Saul is often shot using a hand-held camera, for example in one scene when he is tossing and turning on the bed. Later on he prays and this time not only is a hand-held camera used it is held at a low angle and extremely close up, giving a real air of madness to Saul's attempts to reconnect with God.

    I'm not sure why this episode stuck in my mind as it did. Perhaps it is just the way that for all the things that are going on around him Magee manages to find some humanity in Saul and help us find some pity for him. But perhaps it's just the way in which a number of small changes all pointing in a certain direction seem to go above and beyond what seems, to me at least, an already harsh assessment in the pages of 1 Samuel.


    Whilst I'm here I noticed a few other things in this issue not relating to the main issue discussed above. The first is when David enters Jerusalem a hero and petals rain down on him from the buildings above. It's noticeable for two reasons, firstly I'm not sure we know about the kind of buildings the Israelites were living in at this point - they had yet to conquer Jebus - but this kind of multi-storey courtyard seems a little far-fetched. It's also noteworthy because this shot is repeated (I believe) in a later scene where one of David's descendants (Jesus) also parades into a city and is greeted by a shower of petals. Later Jesus enters the same courtyard on the way to Golgotha, but this time is only treated with derision. Again, if memory serves the raining petals motif is something borrowed from Last Temptation of Christ.

    Speaking of visual nods to Bible films gone by, there is an awful lot of similarity between the wooden screens Bathsheba gets changed behind in this film and in 1951's David and Bathsheba. Interestingly Bathsheba is also involved in the scene where the ark is brought into Jerusalem. It takes a bit of re-arrangement to make this happen (in 2 Samuel David's affair with Bathsheba is five chapters after the ark has been brought into the city), but it does throw fresh light onto why David's dancing was undignified and why his first wife, Michal, was not best pleased.

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