• 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.

    Thursday, February 11, 2016

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

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

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

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

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


    Wednesday, February 03, 2016

    Der Galiläer (1921)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


    Monday, February 01, 2016

    Bellucci: From Malèna to Magdalena

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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    Monday, January 25, 2016

    The Prince of Egypt (1998)

    It's fair to say that when DreamWorks' Jeffrey Katzenberg began dreaming up his new studio with his partners David Geffen and Steven Spielberg he would probably have been shocked to know his studio would soon become a byword for popular but unremarkable kids' films. Katzenberg already had a prominent role at Disney doing just that, but a combination of internal politics, his frustration at getting overlooked for promotion and his desire to see animation reach greater heights lead him to launch first the DreamWorks studio with Geffen and Spielberg and then to head up its animation wing.

    "I didn't want us to tell fairy tales" Katzenberg explained at the time, "I wanted us to pick an interesting, dramatic, epic...embracing all the techniques of animation"1 It was an artistic vision that Katzenberg's team on The Prince of Egypt really bought into. As Nicola LaPorte wrote in her book charting the birth of DreamWorks "for visual inspiration, the artists had studied the painterly visuals of David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia, nineteenth-century illustrator Gustave Dor&eacute's Bible woodcuts and Monet".

    As if to underline the point Thomasine Lewis was commissioned to produce a "Movie Scrapbook" for the film which devoted a two page spread just to explain the film's emotional beat board and explaining how the "selection of colours for each scene was influenced by the emotional tone of that scene". "At the movie's darkest point, when Ramsees' son is killed, the film became monochromatic".3 I wouldn't claim to be an expert in the field of 'books written to tie-in to animated movies', but I can't think of many that would even think of going behind the scenes, let alone go into them in such detail.

    The result of all this thought, care, love, referencing and attention to detail is a stunning visual experience. Created at a time when traditional, hand-drawn, animation was still strong, but CGI was finally getting to the stage where it could have an impact, the film blends the two techniques to great effect. It's as if hand-drawn knew it no longer quite had the dominance of its past and CGI had not yet got too big for its boots and so was still eager to serve.

    Indeed despite voices being provided by household names such as Val Kilmer (Moses), Ralph Fiennes (Ramsees) and Michelle Pfeiffer (Tzipporah), the real stars are the incredible backdrops. Richie Chavez's sweeping deserts and Darek Gogol's towering architecture make Prince of Egypt seem bigger and more splendid even than films such as DeMille's Ten Commandments, Lean's Lawrence of Arabia and Wyler's Ben Hur; all of which are given notable tributes as the film progresses. As the Israelites prepare to leave Egypt 75 minutes in, the film's catchiest song - "There Will be Miracles" - strikes up a reprise. The accompanying images, revealing the extent of destruction wrought on this once great kingdom, flick by. Each "scene" lasts only a few seconds but many are so immense in scope that no live action filmmaker would dare to attempt them. In one sixty second section alone there are thirteen shots, many of previously magnificent structures now brought low. The cost of producing the sets for just one of these shots with live action - let alone all of them - would be impossible to justify for the brief few seconds for which they flicker across the screen.

    Gogol's work is particularly notable for the way his dominating architecture is so interconnected with the Egyptian psyche. The Egyptian's all encompassing self-belief reflected in stone and marble, physically towering over the slaves building it, as if as an expression of their masters' systematic dominance. At times both Ramsees and his father Seti unknowingly match the shapes and poses of the art that both surrounds and honours them (see above). All of which forms a startlingly contrast with Chavez's more expressionistic mountains and deserts.

    Yet the most celebrated sequence in the film takes place inside, as Moses' world begins to unravel with the sudden revelation that he is a Hebrew saved from the very man he had come to call father. The moving hieroglyphics scene is repeated in Prince of Egypt's prequel Joseph King of Dreams but it is not a patch on the original. Here, there's a combination of drama, inventiveness and technical mastery as the story hurries from one surface to another, simultaneously providing an objective account of the events that happened in the past alongside a subjective account of what Moses is feeling at that very moment. And then the the two threads merge as Seti coincidentally appears at Moses' side to offer an unconvincing justification which morphs into Hitchcockian strings and the camera fading to black.

    What is also impressive is the way the "camera" thinks like a real camera, occasionally leaving part of the shot out of focus, or placing certain objects or characters on the edge of the frame. There are zooms and shifts in the depth of focus all of which make the images feel like they are more real than they actually are. The burning bush is first observed by the shadows and flickers it casts upon the cave wall and only then do we get the slow pan right to reveal the thing itself.

    Indeed what's strange is that the weakest part of the visuals is the part that the team seemed most excited about at the time - the special effects. The burning bush, for example, becomes less interesting once it is actually appear in shot. The attempt to make the parting of the Red Sea extra dramatic results in it being over-the-top, a little too showy; likewise the pillar of fire. The plagues are a bit of a mix also. Generally they are carried out effectively - the use of fast cuts and short shots adds to the impression of terror - and generally the Angel of Death scene is eerily unnerving, but not dissimilarly the odd moment feels over fussy.

    But that's a minor criticism, even less so when you consider how badly much CGI from the era has aged. Which is just as well as The Prince of Egypt does rely on its visuals to carry a lot of the plot and themes, from the way the camera moves through the mists upto the giant carved face of Pharaoh at the start, through to the various montages that accompany the musical numbers. Indeed, due to the film's relatively short running time (88 minutes, compared to 150 minutes for Exodus: Gods and Kings and 220 minutes for The Ten Commandments) these montages carry considerable weight, making the film feel like less of a musical than most of Disney's output (though more, obviously, than the majority of Moses films).

    The film breaks with The Ten Commandments in other significant ways too, particularly in its portrayal of the two princes. Whilst both films contrast Moses with his 'brother' Ramsees, their characters are very different. In DeMille's film, even as an Egyptian, Moses is upright and honourable, whereas his brother is proud, arrogant and scheming. Here however, whilst both brothers are prone to bouts of teenage irresponsibility, Ramsees' problem is his worry and self doubt. As heir to the throne, his father repeatedly reminds him that he is a link in a chain going back centuries. Ramsees is weighed down by his fear of being the Pharaoh who lets his ancestors down and sees Egypt slide into ruin. It's a bitter irony that it's this fear of failure that leads him down the very path he is so desperate to avoid.

    In contrast, Moses is the carefree playboy, getting his brother into trouble. When he tells Ramsees that is problem is that he "care(s) too much" his brother counters "your problem is that you don't care at all". It's not that Moses is callous - life simply hasn't exposed him to suffering. However things change for him when, in his desire to be the centre of attention, he humiliates the women who will eventually become his future wife. He laughs uproariously, but then he notices the effect his loutish behaviour has had on his victim and he's struck by a sudden pang of guilt. Moses is a hedonistic playboy with a heart. His killing of the Egyptian (above) is an accident - again the result of him witnessing a kind of suffering with which he is totally unfamiliar.5 As he later reflects "I did not see because I did not wish to see".

    Given the degree of personal transformation Moses undergoes after his encounters with Tzipporah and Miriam, it's perhaps no wonder that the Bible's own moment of Moses' conversion is rather truncated. God commissions him and then gets angry with him for failing to grasp the point is what ends up being a few seconds. Pretty quickly, then, Moses is back in Egypt warning his much-missed brother, outsmarting lightly-entertaining priests, dispatching plagues and leading his people to freedom. The sea parts and the people go through, taking a smattering of Egyptians with them, and the film ends with Moses standing above a huge crowd nursing a couple of stone tablets. It perhaps feels a little rushed, yet, like so many of the shots that have preceded it, it is nonetheless an indelibly majestic image.

    1 - Katzenberg from Making of documentary on DVD.
    2 - "The Men Who Would Be King: An Almost Epic Tale of Moguls, Movies, and a Company Called DreamWorks.", Nicole LaPorte p.116
    3 - Thomasine Lewis, "The Prince of Egypt: The Movie Scrapbook - An in-depth look behind the scenes" pgs 32-33
    4 - As my 7 year old son put it "you don't have to get so angry".
    5 - Perhaps it's just the way my DVD player works but it you watch this in slow motion the falling Egyptian goes up instead of down, allowing the "fall" to take longer. Again the contrast of the shots from below and the overhead shot from above is particularly effective.

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    Monday, January 18, 2016

    The Wolf of Wall Street vs Last Temptation of Christ

    I finally managed to catch up with Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street last night and as I'm also preparing a talk on his Last Temptation of Christ I was looking out for similarities between Wolf and Scorsese's other work, particularly his Jesus biopic.

    As you might expect, whilst the lead characters fall on different sides of the goodie/baddie threshold, one of the key areas of similarity is the plot. So both films are essentially buddy movies featuring a character from an ordinary background who early on teams up with a partner who will hold significant say in their vocation. The partner provides the rational scheming as a foil to the lead's natural charisma and sense of, for want of a better word, showmanship. The pair quickly gather a overly dedicated bunch of disciples - men who are prepared a high price to be followers of the lead - and their vocation develops rapidly, as they defy the status quo to provide a new way of doing things. Both stories are told very much from within the bubble of these communities. In neither case do we see behind the scenes of those establishments which have traditionally been seen as the trusted experts within Judaism/Wall Street. Their success is so great that both groups rapidly end up in over their heads, struggling to cope and drawing the attention of the authorities. The authorities deal with them swiftly, dispassionately but without really breaking stride. Kyle Chandler's FBI agent is no more bothered or threatened by bringing down The Wolf than he would be if he had all of David Bowie's Roman legions at his disposal.

    There are other similarities as well. As with many Jesus films Last Temptation features a meeting with John the Baptists. Here it's a single conversation where the Baptists passes on all his wisdom. Here we have the Matthew McConaughey figure who functions in a similar fashion. In the aftermath of both encounters the Jesus/Wolf figure finds himself in a wilderness of sorts having to start from scratch.

    Of course any director of note will also use the other tools at his disposal to reinforce his themes. The most obvious of which here is the Wolf's habit of adopting a cruciform pose, most memorably as he enters his office with a broad smile on his face and his arms spread almost as wide. Then there's the way that Scorsese uses nudity as a shortcut for decadence. And that both films rely on a voice-over from their protagonist. Indeed there are also moments when the audio stops being the "realistic" sound we would normally expect, or the soundtrack and becomes either silent or only some of the sounds that would be expected from the scenario - a more expressionistic audio channel if you will.

    Scorsese's work also repeats certain visual ideas in many of his films. He's particular keen on freeze frames, and slow motion shots, both of which make appearances here although are used more sparingly in Last Temptation. But we do get the kind of accelerated swooping zooms in which accompanies Jesus' first voice-over.

    I suspect the internet will full of other such similarities but these will do for now.

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    Saturday, January 02, 2016

    La Genèse (1999)

    One of the things that is most powerful about studying the Bible on film is the way it forces you to look at the biblical texts through another's eyes. It enables us to see our blind spots and to catch things we might otherwise we may have missed. It can be argued, of course, that the benefits of this are only limited with Hollywood films - after all they are a product of broadly the same cultural understanding that he vast majority of us in the English speaking west all share.

    Clearly, then, Cheick Oumar Sissoko’s La Genèse (1999) bristles with fresh opportunity. Far from being the product of a group of wealthy middle class westerners, it tells the story of Isaac’s family from an African perspective, specifically that of the Bambara speaking people of Mali, who number only few million people. Whilst it's important to stress that this too is a different culture from pre-historic Canaan, it understands the nomadic tribal context in which these stories are set, far better than any number of Hollywood films. It provides a fascinating series of insights, bringing the tribal context to the fore and exploring the stories with an authenticity that is largely absent in other portrayals.

    It's temptingly easy to dismiss some of the ways this adaptation deviates from how we perceive the text - it deviates from the biblical order of the various stories for one thing - but of course that is exactly the kind of thing to which we should be paying most attention. Even after two decades of non-linear story telling through films like Pulp Fiction and Memento people in our culture tend to assume that a series of narratives strung together in a certain order, occurred in that order. But of course that is an assumption, which may or not be valid and the fact that it is not necessarily valid in another, not dissimilar, culture should make us think about its validity.

    Given how achronologically we tend to read scripture anyway (for example reading a bit from Mark, then a bit from Jeremiah, then a bit from Genesis and then a verse from Paul etc.) there's much merit in this approach. The convoluted plot line, with flashbacks and stories within stories actually makes the narrative flow much better than The Bible Collection's two films Joseph and Jacob which takes a more straightforward approach. As a filmic device it gives a broad sweep of how unreliable Jacob's clan was in a single snapshot - undermining the Sunday school image of the patriarchs as noble and grandfatherly. Somehow presenting them altogether highlights the instability there.

    By refusing to lionise its protagonists it emphasises just how dysfunctional this family was at times. Too often these characters have been stripped of their humanity, and shown simply as one dimensional heroes. La Genèse gives a more realistic picture which testifies to a God who uses such ordinary, broken unreliable people further his will, and offers us hope that he can use us as well.

    Sissoko's newly arranged narrative starts with a brief shot of Esau and his servants. Esau pops up regularly throughout the film in similarly brief fashion; as an almost incidental figure around the margins of the story, yet the potential conflict which Esau seeks looms large, casting its shadow across all the other events that are unfolding.

    However the incident that drives the plot is Dinah's rape by Shechem and the resulting revenge her brothers wreak on the Shechemites. Perhaps rather troublingly it appears to hold Dinah partially responsible, depicting her as a precocious flirt who, along with a couple of young boys, teases Shechem a little too far.

    This attitude is reflected by the Shechemites themselves, who hang around whilst Dinah is being raped and criticise her people for being rootless and without culture. A bloodied sheet is even held aloft for the waiting crowd's approval. The film thus portrays this as a political act as much as a sexual one. Initially Hamor, also, blames Dinah for what has occurred, but then the film becomes the first to give Dinah a voice. She speaks back and rebukes Hamor and he seems to respond to her chastisement and decide to speak to Jacob.

    When Hamor seeks out Jacob finds him confined to his tent mourning the death of Joseph. Indeed, Jacob is confined to his tent for much of the film and his inability to lead his people at the time seems to be held responsible for many of the problems that afflict his family. So it is left to Leah to express the family's anger over Dinah's rape and the idea of getting Hamor's people to get circumcised arises from a discussion Jacob has with his sons.

    Whilst the film doesn't really make it clear how closely Jacob and Hamor are, it emphasises their connectedness, the "brotherly" nature of their relationship, rather than portraying them as entirely independent of each other. It comes to the fore in particular once Hamor's son Shechem marries Jacob's daughter Dinah as the two men become related, not only through marriage, but also because Hamor and his people partake in the Hebrew ritual of circumcision.

    The sequence is easily the most memorable one in the entire film, at least for male viewers, portraying the Shechemites' mass circumcising in wince inducing fashion. Firstly there is the queue of men waiting ominously for their appointment with a man wielding a large, but crude looking, knife and then there are the post-operation scenes of the various men hobbling around trying to minimise the pain. This highlights the link between the crowd complicity in Dinah's rape and their communal punishment. Nevertheless, the women, who also witnessed Dinah's humiliation, not only avoid this "punishment" but make things worse standing by and mock the men. Jacob's sons also mock Shechem: "His crown has fallen and he can't bend to pick it up".

    Judah and Simeon take this as their cue to wreak their vengeance and the slaughter is disturbingly thorough. One of the Hebrew attacker pauses when faced with a baby boy, but a fellow countryman insists that even this boy should be killed. The only survivor is Hamor himself (in contrast to the text where he also is killed by Simeon and Levi), who is left to face the cruel implications of his fate: not only has he lost his son and his friends but his tribe will die out with him.

    Hamor returns to speak to Jacob who is horrified by his sons' actions, but Hamor takes the incident to the council of nations and the film is there for the majority of its remaining run time. As well as deciding what to do about Jacob's tribe, they also hear the case brought against Judah specifically by his daughter-in-law Tamar.

    Tamar's story is another which is covered very sparsely in film. Like the story of Dinah, it casts the man who gave his name to the Jews in a terrible light. Not only is he a co-conspirator regarding the slaughter of the Shechemites, but also a hypocritical user of prostitutes and a man who would deny his daughter-in-law her rights as a widow. Judah is portrayed as vain and foolish in contrast to Tamar who takes things into her own hands. It's no surprise, then, to find Dinah involved in presenting the case to the council of nations. Throughout the film Dinah is portrayed as a strong woman, unwilling to submit to what the various men and what the patriarchal culture expects of her and she is ultimately vindicated in the final scenes when she appears as a witness before God..

    It is this sequence that feels most embedded in Maltese culture. Tamar's case is serious, yet its telling is accompanied by bursts of rhythmical music and dance and much mocking of Judah. This feels alien to us - as do the images presented as a flashback that accompany it - but again this serves to emphasise the gulf between the original story's culture and our own.

    With the assembled group having ruled on these cases Jacob emerges having left his tent and tells the story of how his mother and father met. This, also, is shown with a flashback to accompany Jacob's narration. Jacob intends to use the story to contrast how things have changed between his parents' betrothal and the time in which he now lives - "before the world was torn asunder", but his interpretation is challenged by one who has appeared in the darkness outside the tent: Esau.

    Esau challenges Jacob's nostalgic claims that there was a time before "the rift between father and son...between God and man." He reminds Jacob that their father turned his back on Esau and his mother cutting him off and argues that "Since the dawn of time, children have been into rift and discord". At his command Esau's men attack and burn the tent where the council of nations had been meeting and kill their animals. Esau has dreamt that God will bring him justice in the morning and leaves Jacob to tell Benjamin how the two brothers became estranged (accompanied again by a depiction of the events in the story). Jacob repeats his lament - "God no longer hears men".

    But no sooner are the words out of his mouth than an angel, in the form of a boy, summons him to an encounter with God. Jacob pleads at length* with God for Esau's forgiveness so that his family will not be destroyed. Interestingly God is portrayed as many voices as a crowd of children in white in the film's most visually creative moment.

    However Esau too meets the angel and is told "Put down your knife. Justice is for God alone to will". Furthermore he witnesses his brothers ordeal such that his heart towards him is changed. In the morning it is Esay who turns peacemaker, reconciling with Jacob but also seemingly knowing the truth about what happened to Joseph. And it is he rather than his brother that sends Jacob's sons to Egypt, tantalisingly setting up the story of Joseph as the next chapter in their family's story.

    Visually, La genèse is beautifully filmed making the most of the wonderful Malese landscapes, and capturing something of the empty space that typified the world several thousand years ago. Sissoko also uses colour to great effect contrasting the bright blue of Jacob and his family with the orange of Hamor's people, the use of two complementary colours highlighting the gulf that exists between the two peoples. It's notable also that when God arrives it is in a dazzling display of white. Yet nevertheless the film is, at times, very stark and brutal in what it captures – starring unflinchingly at some of the more earthy elements of the story.

    Yet for all its grounded-ness in an African tribal culture, the real power of La genèse is the way it testifies to universal human values. Fear, love, hate, revenge, the desire for justice, all of these are present in all human societies from the most primitive early tribes to the supposedly advanced western economies of today. One of the reasons that the stories of Jacob and Esau still have such power today is the way they give voice to those emotions. And La genèse is one of the best Bible films not because of some novelty value, but because it is able to take the latent emotions in the story and give them extra depth and verve, bringing them closer to home even for those of us who reside far away from Jacob and his tribe and kinsmen.

    *The discussion is complex and lengthy and would bear a lengthier examination than time permits here.

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    Monday, December 21, 2015

    Ben Hur (1959)

    Ben Hur is that rarest of Bible films - one that was both commercially and critically successful. The winner of an unprecedented 11 Oscars and still 13th in the list highest grossing films at the US box office (when adjusted for inflation) it's achievements are on a par with its eye-popping sets and its humongous 4 hour running time. And yet whilst many think of it as the best of all the Bible films, there are many who argue it's not even the greatest adaptation of General Lew Wallace's 1880 novel.

    That honour arguably goes to Fred Niblo's 1925 silent version of the film which had in it's crew a certain William Wyler. Wyler quickly progressed from his role as assistant director to directing a few short films so that by the time the first talking pictures came about Wyer was a full director in his own right. His experience on Niblo's epic stayed with him though and following his big 50s successes with (two of my favourite films) Roman Holiday and Big Country he returned to Wallace's most famous novel.

    Many of the elements in Big Country find their way into Ben Hur - the two feuding men locked into a destructive cycle of revenge; the epic scale of the film, replete with their deserts and dusty landscapes; and, of course, the casting of Charlton Heston. By this point Heston already had turned in his career defining role in another epic remake The Ten Commandments (1956).Both characters have the same moral compass even if Judah Ben Hur is thrown a little off course by his desire for revenge. It makes Ben Hur a more interesting character than Heston's rather one dimension Moses. The darkest moment is just as a beaten Messala is awaiting Ben Hur's visit before he dies (pictured above). Heston's frame stands menacingly in the iron door blocking out the light like the angel of death come for a prisoner. The music underscores the darkness of the moment, for both men. Yet, even so one of the film's weaknesses is that seems so much harder for the audience to see in Heston's face the sort of seething thirst for revenge that so many of the characters in the film seem compelled to comment upon.

    It's a thirst of a different nature however that provides so many of the film's pivotal moments. Having (accidentally) almost assassinated the new governor of his home city of Jerusalem Judah finds himself slave trailing through the desert. He arrives at Nazareth almost dead with dehydration and is only saved when a mysterious member of the village defies Judah's captors and gives him a cup of water. Then after escaping from a sinking Roman ship on which he had been a galley slave he finds himself trapped on the open sea his thirst only made worse by the dangerously undrinkable water that surrounds him. Later trekking back to Jerusalem from Rome, where he has made a free man, he takes a moment to bask in the shade and refresh himself and meets shortly before meeting chariot racing enthusiast Sheik Ilderim. And finally, having found that seeing his sworn enemy die in a chariot race did not ease his thirst for revenge he finds himself on a road in Jerusalem moved by compassion to offer that same, mysterious stranger a cup of water when it is his turn to need water.

    Wallace's book was subtitled "A Tale of the Christ" and whilst all three of its cinematic adaptations have trimmed down the pseudo-biblical material, it is still very much an integral part of the film. Here the film starts with a nativity sequence even before the opening credits. Whilst Jesus makes various appearances throughout the film, this sequence is as much about Balthasar as it is about the newborn in the manger. The magus meets Judah at several points in the latter part of the film as he seeks to answer the question about who that special baby grew up to be. Not dissimilarly Jesus also makes fleeting appearances as the aforementioned compassionate stranger and then as a preacher at a suspiciously high-altitude gathering, though as Judah turns away we never hear his actual words.

    But it's at the end of the film where Jesus begins to dominate proceedings, even despite already being in captivity. During Judah's absence his sister and mother have contracted leprosy and are hiding away, near death, in a colony. The stories of Jesus, combined with Judah's own desperation, lead him to carry his sister into the centre of Jerusalem where the people recoil in horror. Despite Jesus' impending crucifixion

    For all their good intentions these final few scenes are rather problematic. Firstly the film's dramatic tension rapidly begins to dissipate. Despite it's nearly four hour running time it's only in these moments that the film begins to drag. Secondly whilst the authors of various gospels, especially Matthew's, try to highlight the importance of Jesus' death by furnishing it with various supernatural events, none of it really seems consistent with the type of healing event which happens to Judah's sister and mother here and so typified Jesus' early ministry. Thirdly whilst the film itself clearly links the healing of Judah's family to Jesus, it's not at all clear why any of the characters within the story would do the same. The Christ of this story has only been helpful, kind and rather charismatic. There's no real mention of his miraculous healings.

    I concede that these are fairly minor nitpicks and thankfully they don't detract from the magnificent fare elsewhere in the film. The chariot scene rightly stands out as one of the greatest ever scenes in the movies (and my seven year old loved seeing how it had been appropriated by the makers of The Phantom Menace). It bides its time before setting the two leads head to head, by which time the villainous Messala has already shown ample evidence of what he is capable of and Judah has already shown his mettle. The stunts push right up to the boundary of believability without ever leaping over them and Messala's comeuppance is so all encompassing that is generates the right degree of compassion despite of his previous villainy. Almost as good is the boat battle which forms the high point of the first part of the film.

    Yet for all the impressive sets, costumes and stunts, it's the intimate humanity which gives Ben Hur its beating heart - the pain of betrayal, the determination to survive, the hope of justice, the fickleness of victory and the anger of loss. For the most part Wyler knew precisely how to use the action to bring these emotions to the fore in a way that stressed the similarities between his protagonists and his audiences so that he could use the extraordinary to shine light on the ordinary.


    Wednesday, December 16, 2015

    The Seven Ages of Bible Films

    Over the years there have been various books and articles written on the development of Bible films some of which have attempted to sub-divide the material in some way. Whilst some have done this thematically (e.g. Adele Reinhartz's "Jesus of Hollywood") the majority have sought to present films in chronological order and then, if they have attempted to sub-divide them at all, have tended to go by decade (e.g. Kinnard and Davis' "Divine Images").

    However, the more I think about this subject the more I find that whilst the by-decades approach might work well in certain contexts, it doesn't work as well as it might in others. So I'd like to propose a new sub-division into seven periods which link the films to both social forces outside of the industry but also to do with key developments directly related to particular Bible films and their reception.

    I think the history breaks down into these categories fairly naturally, but it's kind of nice that it breaks into seven - a number with far more significance in the Bible rather than say eight or six. But I'd be interested to hear what people think about this - both the number of eras and the points of transition from one to the next. Anyway, enough pre-amble - here they are:

    The Early Silent Era
    No shocking revelations as to where to start this initial period, but I'd suggest that this era runs through the various series of films from Pathé, Gaumont and Vitagraph to the first "feature length" films such as Olcott's From the Manger to the Cross (1912) and Griffith's Judith of Bethulia (1914). However it would be another film from D.W. Griffith, Birth of a Nation, that launched a new era in silent film in general such that his follow up would mark the start of a new period.

    From Intolerance to the End of the Silent Era.
    Whilst some would argue Griffith's work is not as influential as is sometimes claimed, Intolerance was an important film for Bible movies. Before it they were largely small, pious affairs adapting the stories from the Bible in a fairly simple manner. Afterwards they became grand spectacles, like the works of DeMille and Curtiz. And when the silent ea ended Bible films went back into their shell for a little while.

    The Early Talkie Period
    The first talkies largely bypassed the Bible. The depression meant that the large budgets now required were no longer so readily available; industry regulation clipped the wings even of films which served up their overt sexuality with a morality tale. And then World War Two started and budgets tightened still further. A few notable Bible films were made in this period chief among them Golgotha but it was not until 1949 that a new Bible film would really make a splash.

    From Samson and Delilah to Greatest Story Ever Told
    The fourth period is often dubbed the Golden Era of Bible films, but that is perhaps to give too little credit to earlier periods when biblical films did tremendous business. Nevertheless, DeMille's 1949 epic Samson and Delilah triumphed at the box office and suddenly everyone wanted to make, and watch, a Bible film. It worked well for about ten years, aided by the arrival of widescreen aspect ratios, but by the time that King of Kings was released in 1961 the tide was beginning to turn and 1965's The Greatest Story Ever Told put the final nail in the coffin. John Huston's The Bible squeezed through after that, but to no better results, and it is very much a part of this era rather than the one which would follow the fall of the big-budget biblical epic.

    The Experimental Period
    The failure of the traditional, largely faithful adaptations of the Bible resulted in an unprecedented time of creative freedom, as filmmakers were freed from the restraints of having to appeal to the widest possible audience in order to get a decent return on their huge budgets. Whilst a few conservative and traditional films snuck through during this period, the more controversial films that were released during this period speak for themselves - Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell, Il Messia, Life of Brian. Last Temptation of Christ and Jesus of Montreal. Eventually though religious groups began to organise themselves in protest against what they perceived as an attack on their beliefs. The campaigns went off the scale with Last Temptation and even lowish budget but controversial films like that became too risky.

    The Millennial Period
    The impending arrival of the new millennium brought with it an increase of interest in the man at the centre of the celebration. This combined with the pressures brought upon studios led to the arrival of a whole host of more faithful, but (largely) less artistically challenging adaptations. The Bible Collection tweaked the story round the edges, sometimes trivialising the story somewhat, but it became the most extensive selection of film based on the Bible. Not far behind it was the Visual Bible's word for word adaptations of Matthew and Acts. Whilst a few more creatively interesting films got made (The Cross, The Miracle Maker) and the odd more controversial film (Book of Life) still got through overall the tone was fairly traditional a move that came to a head with the 2004 release of The Passion of the Christ, in many ways the epitome of this move to a more traditional portrayal of the Bible on film.

    After The Passion of the Christ
    To say the runaway success of The Passion of the Christ was unexpected is an understatement, but it lead to two different groups of people seeking to make Bible films, but with largely disappointing results (from both a creative and financial point of view). One the one hand were conservative Christians trying to get Hollywood to finance their pet projects. A huge proportion of the films announced failed to make it onto the big screen and those that did were panned by critics. On the other were the money men, who smelt the opportunity, but lacked the necessary understanding of the landscape that was required to make money. There were a few successes - The History Channel's The Bible drew better than expected audiences - but overall he two groups failed to find projects that would satisfy both their objectives. Typical of this phenomena is 2014's Noah - too experimental to do well with Christians, yet too biblical to do well with fans of Aronofsky's previous films, the film failed to find a big enough audience. No surprise then that 2015 and 2016's seem to have approved with lower budgets but only needing to appeal to a more niche demographic in order to make a return on its investment.

    It will be interesting to revisit this post in the years to come to see if, and indeed when, a new era arrives and in which direction if moves.

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    Saturday, December 12, 2015

    Dinah and the Shechemites in Film

    Having looked at The Red Tent last month I thought I'd things off with a quick look at how different films portray the incident with Dinah, her brothers and the Shechemites. Given that it's a relatively obscure part of Genesis, it has only been covered a few times on the screen, but there are some significant variations between the four depictions with which I am familiar.

    The Bible: Genesis (1979)
    The first Bible film to cover the story of Dinah was one that pretty much had to. The New Media Bible project was meant to deliver a word for word portrayal of the whole Bible, though in the end only Genesis and Luke were covered and even then I say "pretty much" because certain parts of Genesis (e.g. the Tower of Babel) were omitted.

    At the time this film was made the broadly accepted view of what constituted rape was different than it is today. Most, now, (in the UK at least) would agree that what is sometimes called date rape fully qualifies as rape. 36 years ago when this film there was no such cultural consensus. So it's perhaps not surprising that this film depicts the rape of Dinah as being of the more violent variety. She is grabbed, out of the blue, in the town square and pulled off to a more discrete location. This is the only film that depicts the incident in quite such a black and white manner.

    In a not-dissimilar vein, it's interesting that as Dinah is "rescued" from her brothers from the smouldering ruins of Shechem, she is shoved around by them as if they are angry with her. I think this blaming of the victim seems to be something the film wants us to see and accept as offensive, though whether this is due to what they see as her complicity in her rape, or her acceptance of her subsequent marriage is unclear.

    The strangest thing about this clip is the way in which the men of Shechem are so compliant in accepting their fate. On hearing the news they simply shrug and walk off and the camera neither seems to anticipate a further reaction or find their fate shocking in any way. The scene is only a little longer than 5 minutes.

    The Bible Collection: Joseph (1995)
    The Bible Collection devotes separate films to the stories of Jacob and Joseph and, perhaps surprisingly, this episode is covered within the longer Joseph film rather than the more obvious location within her father's story. In the cultural understanding of the time, daughters were seen as the property of their father's before marriage.

    The story is given quite a more screen time here - around 15 minutes - and is set at a wedding celebration, contrasting the "right" way of doing things, rather than the way Shechem chooses to act. Dinah herself is far younger here: she's very much still a girl rather than a woman. This is a slightly tricky area. Whilst on the one hand marriage did take place at a far younger age (and of course Dinah has not yet been considered ready to be married) the Bible Collection's leading actors are consistently very much of the western contemporary world, ethnically white and of ages to match (e.g. Louise Lombard who was 29 when she played the young virginal Esther in the Bible Collection's 1999 adaptation).

    The situation is further complicated by the seemingly flirty eye contact between the obviously underage child and her rapist-in-waiting. When she is suddenly taken ill and is lead out to a back room her attacker makes his move. Whilst the scene makes it clear there was no consent, not least Dinah's screams, I find the eye contact rather troubling. I'm not convinced the film wants to rule out any blame on Dinah's part.

    When Hamor subsequently approaches Jacob the idea of these Shechemites getting circumcised is very much Jacob's idea and, again, there are more objections from the sons of Israel than from the soon to be scarred men of Shechem. They attack and give a rather clichéd war cry as they 'sneak' up to the "unsuspecting" city, but the depiction of the slaughter is not very graphic and Jacob's rebuke to his sons is no particularly powerful.

    La genèse (1999)
    The longest and most interesting portrayal of these events is from Cheick Oumar Sissoko's La Genèse (1999) which retells the story as an African tribal conflict. Like Joseph it does seem to hold Dinah partially responsible. She is depicted as a precocious flirt who, along with a couple of young boys, pushes Shechem too far.

    But the film's African perspective highlights other concepts that westerners easily overlook. For example the city dwelling Shechemites resent the nomadic Israelites and criticise thm for being rootless and without culture (all the while Dinah is being held in their city). There's also the grim image of a bloodied sheet being displayed for the waiting crowd's approval. They are made complicit in the act which somehow transforms from an ac of sexual frustration to a political act on behalf of Hamor's subjects.

    Perhaps it is a father defending his son, but initially Hamor blames Dinah for what has occurred, but then the film becomes the first to give Dinah a voice. She speaks back and rebukes Hamor and he seems to respond to her chastisement. Throughout the film Dinah is portrayed as a strong woman, unwilling to submit to what the various men and the patriarchal culture expects of her.

    When Hamor seeks out Jacob he does not do it face to face initially as Jacob remains mourning in his tent. It is left to Leah to express the family's anger, even in the face of many gifts from Hamor. The idea to tell Hamor's people to get circumcised arises only once Jacob has held a second discussion with his sons.

    But in marked contrast to 1979 version this film grimly portrays the Shechemites mass circumcising in wince inducing fashion. Firstly there is the queue of men waiting ominously (and unforgettably) for their appointment with the man with a meat cleaver and then there are the post-operation scenes of the various men hobbling around trying to minimise the pain. I highlights the link between the crowd complicity in Dinah's rape and their communal punishment. Meanwhile their womenfolk just stand by and mock them. The Hebrews mock Shechem also. "His crown has fallen and he can't bend to pick it up"

    When the slaughter does come  it is disturbingly thorough. One of the Hebrews gives pause when faced with a baby boy, but a fellow countryman insists in no uncertain terms that all the males should be killed. The only survivor is Hamor - in stark contrast to the text where he also is killed by Simeon and Levi - left to face the cruel implications of his fate: not only has he lost his son and his friends but his tribe will die out with him.

    The Red Tent (2014)
    I've expressed my views on this film already elsewhere but essentially what The Red Tent does is stress how in the cultural of the time the story occurred/was written rape was primarily about the lack of the father's consent rather than the daughter's. This is why, for example, in that rather troubling passage in Deut. 22:23-29 we find s girl potentially being given in marriage to her rapist, or even stoned, but not being punished if the "rape" happens in the country. The passage simply doesn't start from the perspective that consent is the woman's to give. So in this film Dinah is not taken against her will, but her father and brothers are incensed because Jacob has not given his consent.

    The film also has Dinah staying over at Shechem/Shalem's palace the night they have sex which hints at the importance of ancient near east hospitality codes. This further softens up the ground for the brutality of the slaughter scene which follows. It is considerably more violent than any of the previous four.

    I must admit I'm in two minds as to what I think about the way this film portrays the "rape". On the one hand it could be seen as powerfully exposing the sexism of this part of biblical culture where a woman didn't even have a right to control who had sexual access to her own body. But on the other hand it could be criticised for airbrushing or infantilising a potentially horrific event into a teenage girl's romance fantasy. The sheer brutality with which the film shows Dinah's brothers wreaking their revenge suggests the former, but even with that Shalem and Dinah's love affair still feels a bit twee.

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    Sunday, December 06, 2015

    The Formation of the Canon

    This post is number 2 in a series looking at the idea of canonicity and how it might relate to the subject of film and the Bible. Image info below1

    In the first part of this series I laid out three main areas where the idea of canonicity might be helpful, but it seems obvious that before I get into each of those in turn that I should make a few observations on the canon in general and it's formation in particular. There's no shortage of pieces on the internet about the formation of the canon, of course, but it will be useful for me to reacquaint myself with the subject as well as letting those reading the subsequent posts being able to see where I am coming from.

    The first thing that strikes me is that Christians and scholars tend to talk about a canon, whereas it might be more helpful to think in terms of their being two - that of the Hebrew Bible and that of the New Testament. Certainly the process by which the two collections of books became accepted by the church is rather different.

    The Hebrew Bible
    In terms of the "Hebrew" Bible2 the question of when the matter first came on the agenda and, conversely, was finally settled very much depends on who you are talking too. For some the first major formalising step in the process was the creation of the Septuagint sometime between the third century BC and 132 BC. Since this version is quoted by several of the New Testament writers it's clear it had gained a degree of acceptance by the church by the time Jerome emerged on the scene. It's particularly interesting that Jerome translated the deuterocanonical books even though he was rather disparaging about both them and the Septuagint. Nevertheless many of those who in favour of the deuterocanonical books being included in the canon like to trace the discussion back to the formation of the Septuagint. Ultimately the deuterocanonical books were included in the canon ruled on by the Council of Trent and were also included in the King James Bible.

    Others, however, are less keen on the significance of the formation of the Septuagint. They argue for the main importance of the later Jewish discussions about the canon which took place somewhere during the Jewish-Roman wars between 66 and 136 AD. It's often pegged on the Council of Jamnia (said to be held around 90AD) but this has been heavily questioned with many scholars even questioning whether such a council even occurred. Nevertheless, somewhere within the late first to mid second century the Jewish faith accepted that it was only the shorter canon of 39 books that had such special status and so in the 16th century the majority of the Protestant reformers held that the deuterocanonical books ought not to be part of the canon.

    What's clear from the above (other than the fact that this post is going to be far longer than I initially imagined) is that:
    1 - there is a degree of disagreement about what is actually included in the canon,
    2 - the process of how it actually got there is disputed, and that
    3 - who accepts who's version of events/decisions mostly divides along denominational lines rather than being decided by the substantially more difficult process of individuals sifting the evidence to make an informed decision.

    The New Testament Canon
    The New Testament canon formed gradually over the period between the end of the first century AD and the end of the fourth. Contrary to the claims of "The Da Vinci Code" it wasn't all done and dusted by the First Council of Nicaea in 325. Athanasius' use of the term canon in 367 CE to describe the same set of books or the 397 Council of Carthage where the decision of a previous synod to accept those same books as a canon are thought to be significant. And then of course there's Jerome finishing the Vulgate in 405.

    But of course that's only the story in the West. The eastern churches went their own route with the the Syrian "Peshitta" Bible, only comprising of 22 books (even through to the present day3); the Armenian Bible including and then rejecting 3 Corinthians but not accepting Revelation until 1200; and the Coptic and Ethiopian bibles including texts not accepted by any other groups. And then of course there's the reformation where Luther, amongst others, indicated their displeasure with books such as the "right strawy" James.

    All of this raises the question why certain books made the cut and others didn't. What was it that put Matthew and Colossians in a different bracket to Thomas and The Shepherd of Hermas? Different commentators break-down the various, interrelated aspects of this process slightly differently, and at best the criteria are slightly fuzzy, but the main ideas are as follows:

    Apostolic Authorship
    Essentially this is the idea that a work's author had some kind of direct link to Jesus. So for example Paul meeting Jesus on the road to Damascus gave his books special merit. Even at the time here was clearly some fudging around this one. Mark for example qualified through the connection with Peter, Hebrews seems to have been accepted as being Pauline even though hat was disputed even then.

    Of all the criteria this is the one that is most undermined by modern scholarship. It's alright for Romans but what about 2 Timothy? What happens if the author of Matthew wasn't the tax collector? If we accept that as many as three or four John's behind the gospel, the letters and the apocalypse that bear his name, what are the implications. Many conservatives may cling to the traditionally assigned authors but few would argue that this criterion fits in a manner that most moderns would accept. "[It] is possible that certain writings had already asserted themselves as eminently useful and sound before for apostolic contact was discovered".4

    Existing Usage
    Perhaps most important criterion for the early-ish church was the books that were already being widely used. There were no last minute entries into the canon which came from left field. Even at what we would think of as an "early stage" the church already placed high value on the texts that other congregations were using and those that had been used by earlier generations. There were no surprise late additions to suit the zeitgeist. Conversely the reason certain potentially controversial gospels never made the cut is more to do with their limited popularity than a complex conspiracy theory.

    Not dissimilarly from the previous criterion is this one: provision was generally made for those books which were used in the church's liturgy. In other words, were the texts being used in worship? The church was not just looking for texts that intellectually suited their theology it was also important that something more deep routed was occurring as well. "[Had] the book proved its worth?"5

    The last of these questions was how a writing conformed to established orthodoxy primarily in terms of belief, but also in terms of the style of writing. Indeed this may be what left Revelation in the disputed pile for so long but allowed Hebrews (which still had it's detractors) through. The bigger issue however was the theological conformity; or rather the absence of that which was "contrary to orthodoxy".6

    It should be stressed that these criteria were not applied as some kind of rigorous checklist at the hands of bureaucratic pedants, merely that they were the kind of ideas the church fathers were thinking about as they compiled their lists and latterly subdivided them into acknowledged, disputed or rejected texts.

    Overall I have rather mixed feelings about the process. Was it a good way of doing things or a bad one? And does it give the canon some kind of credibility in the modern era or not? Furthermore what principles can we draw out that might relate to how the modern era in general, and film in particular, have shaped the canon and its perception?

    One the one hand, it's all rather messy and inexact and some might argue that if this process was the outworking of a single, divine mind then it would suggest a rather muddied and muddled intellect. Yet it seems unlikely that a more decisive process would be any less open to criticism. A sudden decision made by a single person, or group of individuals would be far more open to abuse. Indeed it's interesting that "The Da Vinci Code" skews its "history" in order to present the rather long, drawn out process into the result of a single council.

    Secondly, the role of the church in this process is vital. Certain church traditions hold to sola scriptura - the primacy of scripture above all else. That, I must admit, is the approach I am most comfortable with. But, of course, there's a big problems with that because what was included in scripture is very much down to the role of tradition. There are undoubtedly those that would have preferred it if the handing down of the Bible came to us in a similar fashion to revelation of the words of the Koran.

    A third observation is that just as evolutionary theorists developed the idea of punctuated equilibrium, often the process of canonisation often seems to have been spurred on by the need to react to heresy. Indeed often it is Marcion who is credited with creating the first canon. Often it is a threat - perceived or unperceived - that has been a catalyst for how the true/important parts of Christian writing have been given greater significance.

    Fourthly, whilst there have clearly been key stages in the process, it's notable that evolution and diversity continue to have a role when we consider the world-wide/history-deep church. Yes the end of the fourth century is important, but disagreement continued between East and West (and between the different parts of the Eastern Orthodox church) and furthermore the reformers challenged and changed some of what was considered canonical.

    Following on from that it is important to note that whilst there may well be an approved canon, that in practical terms it has only ever represented part of the story. Few would argue that Habakkuk is of the same importance as the Gospel of John. Many protestants, including myself, would give lip-service to the importance of the deuterocanonical books, but are yet to read them all. Other might pay far more attention to "The Imitation of Christ", "Pilgrim's Progress" or "The Purpose Driven Life" than they do to many of the writings in the actual canon.

    Indeed even the lectionary leaves out certain parts of the canon, or at least leaves them for the midweek services not widely attended, and Sunday Schools and those church traditions that don't adhere to the lectionary especially strongly have always ended up picking and choosing a canon within the canon that expresses the essential truths. When it comes to the question of how film has handled the canon, I think this might prove to be particularly telling and the next post in this series will address that very point.

    1 - The image used at the top of this post is a comic strip from "Winebibber" a sort of Evangelical version of Viz which greatly amused me as a teenager. "Winebibber" was created by Mike Stonelake and Mike Brooks and whilst this is not their funniest ever piece, this particular strip was the first time I really became aware of the idea that there were other texts that didn't make it into the canon. This is only the first half of the strip - I'll use the rest of the strip next time. The image is used with permission.
    2 - It's difficult to find a term here that covers all the bases. Generally I prefer the term "Hebrew Bible" to the "Old Testament", but here it risks confusing the issue because of the division between the texts in the Hebrew language and accepted in Hebrew speaking countries and that of the Greek Septuagint.
    3 - Although a 1905 translation also translated the omitted books.
    4 - Moule, C.F.D., "The Birth of the New Testament". London (Adam & Charles Black), 2nd Edition 1966, p.190
    5 - Moule, C.F.D., "The Birth of the New Testament". London (Adam & Charles Black), 2nd Edition 1966, p.190
    6 - Moule, C.F.D., "The Birth of the New Testament". London (Adam & Charles Black), 2nd Edition 1966, p.189


    Monday, November 30, 2015

    Dave and the Giant Pickle (1996)

    One of the films I didn't cover in last year's whistle stop tour of David movies was this entry into the popular Veggie-Tales series, Dave and the Giant Pickle. As with most of the other episodes in this series, the leading characters are played by CGI animated, anthropomorphic vegetables in a light hearted manner that seeks to each the kids who comprise its audience with a life lesson. Indeed so well is this lesson-for-the-day aspect established that it no only does it have it's only jingle, but the characters' boredom at this repetitive formula is played for laughs.

    The story starts in a psychologist's office where Larry the Cucumber is being treated for what will turn out to be low self-esteem. There's a flashback to the story of David which starts with David trying to control his father's sheep, and his brother's abuse of him, But then a messenger arrives to announce the arrival of Goliath - sorry the, um, Giant Pickle, . Then one day David brings his brothers lunch, is incensed by the Giant Pickle denouncing God and vows to defeat his. Goliath makes his challenge no-one from Israel dare fight him; No-one that is, except for David, who, incensed by the pickle's impudence, tells Saul he will fight the pickle. Saul attempts to kit out David in his own armour, but David goes commando, take up his sling and turns the pickle into relish.

    Sorry, that's my joke rather than a line from the film.

    There are a couple of interesting moments. Firstly, the arrival of Goliath is prefigured by the same shaking water shot that Spielberg used to such great effect in Jurassic Park (1993) three years earlier. Other contemporary references include one of David's brothers appreciating the cheese filled crust to his Pizza and a series of Rorschach spots which increasingly look like something rather than being entirely random. Maybe that's just me.

    But in a fortnight where we've been marketing the 20th anniversary of the release of Toy Story it was amazing to see how badly the CGI on this film compared to that. The CGI has not aged at all well.

    That said, the kids loved it, and some of the tunes have come back to us through the day. So whilst Dave and the Giant Pickle might not be great art, it certainly amused and engaged its target audience.

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    Saturday, November 28, 2015

    Relating Canonicity to the Bible and Film

    I wanted to throw out a few thoughts about the idea of canonicity and Bible Films. The first thing to say is that there are perhaps three, somewhat related ideas at play here.

    The first is the idea of how the biblical canon has been portrayed in films. Which parts of the Bible have been covered a lot and, in contrast, which have barely been given any attention whatsoever by filmmakers? That set of ideas could perhaps be grouped by the subtitle "The Biblical Canon on Film". How evenly has the biblical canon been portrayed in the medium of film?

    Leading on from that, there's a question which arises regarding the frequency with which certain groups of characters and subjects feature in such portrayals relative to other characters and subjects. There are numerous films about Samson, but practically zero about Deborah, despite the fact their significance and prominence in the text of the Bible is roughly equal. Why is it that whenever a series such as The History Channel's The Bible goes into production the same few stories inevitably end up being adapted? Do certain stories almost self-select themselves for inclusion and, if so, why? I guess this could be subtitled "Does film have a canon of Bible stories?"

    Finally there's also the question of whether, as film as as medium gets older, a canon of particular Bible films is beginning to emerge. When the Bible on film is discussed, which are the titles that come up again and again, and perhaps even given a prominence that outstrips their true significance. This question could summarised as "Is there a canon of Bible films?"

    So over the next few posts I'm going to unpack these various ideas, taking a post for each of those areas. It's probably best however if I start by making a few observations on the notion of canonicity and drawing out what its key elements are if it's to be used as a metaphor in these differing ways. That'll be the subject of my next post and I'll taken things from there.


    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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