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  • 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.


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    Matt Page

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    Wednesday, June 21, 2017

    La Sacra Famiglia (2006)
    The Holy Family: Jesu, Mary and Joseph


    At 159 minutes long Raffaele Mertes' La Sacra Famiglia (2006) is one of the longest films primarily about the birth and childhood of Jesus, but, surprisingly it's the least "epic" of all of those I have looked at recently.

    It's actually Mertes' second film about the birth/childhood of Jesus, the first being Joseph of Nazareth from six years earlier. Indeed Mertes has become one of the most prolific Bible film producers having also directed Esther(1999), Mary Magdalene (2000), The Apocalypse (2000), Thomas (2001) and Judas (2001). Mertes' seventh and, at the time of writing, final Biblical tele-visual film is one of his better ones however, most notably in the first half whilst the story is still able to stick relativity closely to the gospel accounts.

    The story starts in the period immediately before Mary and Joseph's betrothal. In contrast to almost every Jesus film that covers the subject Mary hails not from Nazareth, but from Jerusalem. She has been orphaned before the start of the film and, in an interesting interpretation, now lives with her aunt and uncle Elizabeth and Zechariah. She's adventurous and fun-loving as a scene where she fashions bed sheets into a rope in order to escape from her room, but also capable of being serious and strong-willed ("I am the one who decides who I will marry").

    Not dissimilarly Joseph also plays against the traditional portrait, at least the one that we find in cinema. Rather than having long had feelings for Mary (and having to bide his time until she, euugh, reached the already rather young marriageable age), he is a widower, himself also something of a rebellious character, who gets chosen to be Mary's husband when a nearby almond tree spontaneously bursts into bloom. It's one of a number of miracles in the film, all of which are handled in a low-key fashion. This is a strong contrast with traditional biblical epics when miracles are typically accompanied by swelling, reverential music. Joseph takes some convincing that anything out of the ordinary has occurred. After all he was only a visitor in Jerusalem, heading home to Nazareth.

    This leads onto another are in which La Sacra Famiglia differs from the traditional biblical epics, its lack of self-seriousness. Again, it's noticeable right from the early scenes that Joseph is often a source of mild comic relief, notably when his donkey refuses to behave as he wants it to. There's something of Au Hasard Balthasar here, with the donkey as a divine agent who honks just in time to prevent Mary and Joseph kissing in an early scene, and kicks Joseph to prevent him from leaving Mary later on. The donkey is a divine fool, acting for God yet nevertheless providing comic relief. This contrasts with the approach of the classic epics where the aesthetic only works if everyone keeps a straight face (even if they give the impression they might have been a lot of fun to make).

    Mary and Joseph's arrival back in Nazareth causes something of a stir. Like Mertes' Joseph of Nazareth Joseph has children from his previous marriage (in line with Catholic and Orthodox theology rather than Protestant). These have grown up to the age whereby they are far closer to Mary's age than is their father, and her fiancé. Indeed James also seems to be attracted to Mary and while his dad seems a little unsure about about marrying her, James shows far less reticence. Joseph is a little thrown by this but Mary's strength of character comes through again. "I must follow God's will, not James's. I'm promised to you". Joseph concerns ("I'm old enough to be your father.") are soon alleviated.

    In addition to Joseph's sons, James and Judas, we're also introduced to other members of the family, such as Joseph's daughter Sarah, his brother Cleopas (and, of course Mary's uncle, who we met in the almond-tree scene above, is Zechariah the priest). There's a real suggestion, then, that most of those associated with following Jesus during his lifetime were members of his own family.

    Things are complicated further when Joseph has to head away for work for a few months. Joseph has noted something going on between James and Mary, and so he leaves Judas in charge. It's during this prolonged absence that Mary has a vision from God by which she understands that she is to give birth. Interestingly whereas one of the characterstics of many epics is the audible voice of God, here the message is conveyed silently so that only Mary hears it and using techniques such as slow-motion and hand-held camerawork which tend to feauture in epics only during battle scenes. When Joseph returns he is naturally dismayed, but quickly realises he loves Mary and decides without apparent divine intervention (aside from his donkey) that he should stay with her.

    The film adopts a more traditional approach for the remainder of part one, Joseph and Mary travel to Bethlehem, find a stable and host unusual visitors. The most notable moment here is when Joseph rushes off to find the village mid-wife - the only time I can recall the use of an unknown midwife in amongst all the birth of Jesus films I have seen.

    The second half of the film never quite matches the strengths of the first. As Catherine O'Brien observes "efforts to depict the childhood of Jesus are fraught with danger". (2016: 456) Not only does the audience know Jesus' survival is assured, but once Herod dies there is no real antagonist (save perhaps a sulky James, and some immigrant hating Egyptians) and rather than re-working a familiar and cherished tale, as with the first part of the film, the second half is largely what was created by the screenwriter.

    Nevertheless, La Scra Famiglia is one of the better dramatisations of the birth and childhood of Jesus. Certainly the first half, which can stand by itself, will get repeat viewings around Christmas time in years to come.
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    Sunday, June 18, 2017

    Joseph and Mary (2016)


    Joseph and Mary is just one of five films from 2016 and 2017 to make an explicit attempt to cover the birth and childhood of Jesus. The Star and Chasing the Star are both due for release later this year, The Young Messiah was the highest profile release of those from last year and Le Fils de Joseph won acclaim on the art house circuit. Which leaves Joseph and Mary a Christian movie distributed by PureFlix and directed by Roger Christian. The film's biggest star is Kevin Sorbo, best known for his work in another epic production the TV series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (1995-1999).

    Indeed, from the start, the film makes clear its aspirations to fit the mould of the classic biblical epics of the 1950s and 1960s, John Rhys-Davies' rich, Welsh, voice narrating exactly the same kind of prologue, one "in which the voice of history defines...the significance of the world-historical contest to be enacted". (Babington and Evans 1993: 181)
    It was the year of our Lord, Jerusalem was ruled by King Herod the Great. Ruthless and greedy he ignored the laws of God and chose the favours of Rome over his own people. But from the darkness emerged light. The time had come to bear witness to a 2000 year prophecy: a child of God would be born.
    Rhys-Davies' close association with epic films, and indeed biblical films, in his younger days gives his introduction extra significance, a trusted and authoritative voice of experience, "old-world knowledge" and "apostolic wisdom". (Babington and Evans 1993: 182). As with the opening of King of Kings (1961) the voice-over is accompanied by images of the temple set against the clear blue sky.

    When the film descends to street level to pick up the story, we find that the annunciation, and the accompanying emotional drama, has already happened. Furthermore, Mary conceiving outside of marriage does not seems to have caused the least bit of controversy. Indeed they remain close friends of the local rabbi/Pharisee Elijah and a recent young widow, Rebecca. This couple form a contrasting pair with Mary and Joseph, particularly Elijah who is selfless and good. Indeed his devotion to his Jewish faith marks him as exactly the kind of positive, yet fully Jewish, character that was so needed in The Passion of the Christ (2004).

    In contrast, Rebecca is afflicted by the urge for revenge. The same soldier, Tiberius, kills her husband in the opening scene, then her two children during the slaughter in Bethlehem. As the years pass, her thirst for revenge remains unquenched. When her and Elijah are reunited with Mary and Joseph twelve years later (in the moments after Jesus has been lost in the temple) Elijah and Rebecca have married. Rebecca is no longer clad in the black of the opening scenes, and unusually for a character set on revenge, her desire for it has not corroded her soul entirely, but she is still determined to get even.

    The appearance of Jesus in Jerusalem is also interesting for the way it portrays Judaism. Not for the first time in the film there is debate amongst the Jewish leaders which manages to be passionate yet jovial. The men clearly love the cut and thrust of debate, and to defend their own ideas and listen to those of others as a natural part of faith and community, rather than as a source of conflict and division. These men are arguing together because they like one another, not because they don't. Jesus brings another angle to the discussion. It's welcomed and they are impressed, but they don't stand back in awe as if centuries of learning have suddenly fallen by the wayside. Again this is a very positive portrayal of Judaism, and not merely one where all the good characters are Christians-in-waiting.  

    However, the downside of this extra emphasis on Elijah and Rebecca, in addition to that on Joseph and Jesus, is that Mary is very much pushed to the margins. Indeed not only are Joseph, Jesus, Elijah and Rebecca more prominent than Mary, but even Tiberius, the Roman. As with Lucius in King of Kings (1961) and Severus in The Young Messiah (2016), Tiberius is a member of the roman-who-keeps-crossing-paths-with-Jesus trope, encountering the holy family at several points along the story's extended timeline. He first enters the story before Jesus' birth; then doesn't quite encounter them at the slaughter of the innocents; and then again later after the twelve-year-old Jesus' trip to Jerusalem. He also seems to be the character tasked with injecting a bit of camp into proceedings given the shortness of his tunic and sleeves.

    However it's not just the presence of other characters that squeezes Mary's screen time, it's that even the parts of the story where you would expect to find her role to be more prominent are strangely compressed, often even as Joseph's role is inflated. So the term of Mary's pregnancy is shortened; Joseph's efforts to find her a suitable place to have the baby are dramatised and fleshed out. The birth and the arrival of the magi are shown only in montage; Joseph's dream and the resultant flight to Egypt is expanded. As much time is spent on the holy family meeting Simeon and Anna as is spent on Jesus' birth, and even then Mary speaks only once in the scene.

    That said, perhaps this is just a matter of personal preference over subject matter. After all of the twelve most recent film versions of the Nativity, (going back all the way to the release of The Nativity Story in 2006), this is the only film to even mention Mary in the title. There's no reason why looking at the story from Joseph's point of view is without merit, in fact Raffaele Mertes did precisely that with Joseph of Nazareth in 2000. And this is what we see. Whereas other Jesus films, such as Roberto Rossellini's Il Messia (1975) and Mary the Mother of Jesus (1999) showed moments where Mary is heard passing on the Precise form of phrases that he is recorded as saying during his ministry, here we hear Jesus talking to Mary and Elijah about having love for an enemy.

    Again this is the sort of slightly too pleased-with-itself connection touch that would not be out of place in a 1950s epic. Elsewhere, Jesus says to Elijah rather portentously "It seems we are at the crossroads Rabbi. Are you coming with me?" And then there are the unexpected connections such as it emerging that Jesus' uncle is Joseph of Arimathea.

    Indeed, whilst the film doesn't have the budget to give the visuals that epic feel and the soundtrack of largely consisting of synthesizer and string quartet lacks the militaristic pomp (Wood) that full orchestras gave to the major Hollywood epics. Nevertheless in many ways this is the film that has most attempted to walk in the footsteps of the epics of years gone by. The bright colours, prologue, sense of its own importance, camp and re-use of actors already established in the genre all capture something of a interestingly nostalgic return to the biblical epics in their heyday.

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    Tuesday, June 13, 2017

    Nativity Films Revisited


    In the run up to the release of The Nativity Story back in 2006 I drew up a list of films about the birth and childhood of Jesus. I've come across quite a few more over the last decade so here's an update. I've put in a few links of interest, but haven't had time to link even to all the bits and pieces on these films even on my own blog. Overall, if you include this year's forthcoming The Star, that makes 50 films excluding documentaries (which compares to the mere 19 films I listed in 2006)

    -La naissance de Jésus (1908) - Pathé
    -The Star of Bethlehem (1908) - Edison - 10 mins - B/W
    -The Birth of Jesus (1909) - France - short - hand tinted colour
    -La Nativité (1910) - France - short - B/W
    -Herod and the Newborn King (1910) - France - Gaumont - B/W
    -Star of Bethlehem (1912) review B/W - 3 reeler -
    -The Three Wise Men (1913) - US-Selig - - 1000 ft - B/W
    -The Birth of our Saviour (1914) - US - Edison - - 1000ft - B/W
    -Naissance de Jésus (1914) link Dir: Maurice-André Maître, starring: Jacques Normand
    -L 'Enfance de Jesus (1914) link
    -Der Stern von Bethlehem (1921) - Germany - B/W - Lotte Reiniger
    -Reina de reinas: La Virgen María - Mexican (1948)
    -Mater Dei (1950) - Italy - 80 minutes - dir: Emilio Cordero
    -A Child is Born (1950) - US-NBC TV - 30 mins - B/W
    -The Play of the Nativity of Jesus Christ (1952) - US - Studio One in Hollywood
    -The Star of Bethlehem (1954) - James Mason brief review
    -The Star of Bethlehem (1956) - D/GB - 90 mins (re-release of the Reiniger film with narration in English) brief review
    -Erode il grande [Herod the Great] (1959) - Italy/France - 93 mins - colour - dir: Arnaldo Genoino
    -Hvezda Betlemska (1969) - Czechoslovakia - (The Star of Bethlehem) - 10 mins - animated colour.
    -Jesus, Maria Y Jose (1972) - pictured - 92 minutes YouTube
    -The Small One (1978) - US-short - 20 mins - colour
    -The Nativity (1978) - US-TV - 98 mins - colour
    -Mary and Joseph: A Story of Faith (1979)- Ca-TV - 152 mins - colour (review)
    Cammina, Cammina [Keep on Walking] (1982) - Italy - 171 mins - colour
    -Deux heures moins le quart avant Jésus-Christ (1982) review
    -Hail Mary (1985) link, review
    -Un bambino di nome Gesù - A Child Called Jesus (dir. Franco Rossi, 1987) FilmChat
    -L'Annonce faite a Marie (1991) - dir. Alain Cuny
    -Per amore solo per amore (1993) - Penélope Cruz
    -Marie de Nazareth (1994) Jean Delannoy Fr/B/Mor
    -La Estrella de Belen [Star of Bethlehem] (1998) Spain
    -Mary Mother of Jesus (1999) Bale
    -Close to Jesus: Joseph of Nazareth (2000)
    -Maria, figlia del suo figlio (2000) dir: F. Costa, Italy
    -The Nativity (2000) Latter Day Saints
    -Saint Mary (2001) dir. Shahriar Bohrani, Iran
    -Los Reyes Magos [The Magi-Kings] (2003) Spain
    -Maria - Mãe do Filho de Deus (2003)
    -The Nativity Story (2006) central page
    -La Sacre Famiglia (2006)
    -The Fourth King (2006)
    -La stella dei re (2007) Italian - 90 minutes
    -Birdsong (2008)
    -Little Baby Jesus of Flandr (2010)
    -BBC Nativity (2010)
    -On Angel Wings (2014) animated short - review
    -Joseph and Mary (2016)
    -The Young Messiah (2016) review
    -Le Fils de Joseph (2016)
    -The Star (2017) - Sony Animation

    The very earliest films about Jesus were Passion Plays and as the twentieth century began these began to expand to include other episodes from the life of Jesus, including the Nativity story. The situation is complicated by the fact that these earliest tableau films were often sold in individual sections so it is difficult to work out which of the Pathé films were released in their own right.

    Nevertheless, the first Nativity epic was probably Thanhouser's 1912 The Star of Bethlehem which at three reels would have run for approximately 45 minutes. Whilst only a reel's worth of material survives it's clear to see rudimentary elements of the biblical epic already in place. Herod's lavish palace is packed with beautiful courtiers in exotic dress and Herod's outfit reveals his muscular limbs. According to the Thanhouser Vimeo page for the film, its special effects, which "took a week's work",  include a bright star that appears to shepherds and magi alike and a choir of angels appear in the stable to celebrate the saviour's birth, both indicators of divine activity. There is also impressive architecture, a 200-strong cast and a reputed cost of $8,000. .

    Whilst there were a number of other silent films based on the Nativity, such as Lotte Reinger's silhouetted Der Stern von Bethlehem (1921) it would not be until 1948 that a more expansive film was released. At 85 minutes, the Mexican Reina de reinas: La Virgen María (Queen of Queens: The Virgin Mary, 1948) was the longest film yet primarily focussed on Mary. Two years later the Italian film Mater Dei (Mother of God, 1950), covered the period from Mary's own childhood to Jesus' ministry. The decade witnessed vast swathes of 'pepla' such as Erode il grande (Herod the Great, 1959) which ends with Herod ordering the slaughter of the innocents as an almost casual command after hearing the story from a shepherd (there's no sign of the magi).

    The 1950s also saw the first television adaptations of the Nativity story with four productions in the decade's first six years. A similar trend occurred in the latter part of the 1970s when both The Nativity (1978) and Mary and Joseph: A Story of Faith (1979) were broadcast. Only one feature length film was produced in this period, a low-budget Mexican film Jesus, Maria y José (Jesus, Mary and Joseph, 1972).

    Widely regarded as quiet period for biblical films in general, there were a number of significant, feature-length, films released in the 1980s. Whilst this included traditional style Bible films such as Un bambino di nome Gesù (A Child Called Jesus,  1987) the majority took more unconventional approaches such as Jean Luc Godard's controversial Je vous salue Marie (Hail Mary, 1985), the comedy Deux heures moins le quart avant Jésus-Christ (Quarter to two before Jesus Christ, 1982) and the longest of all Nativity-themed films the Italian Cammina, Cammina (Keep on Walking, 1982). This popularity continued into the 1990s and the start of the twentieth century. Notable releases include Penélope Cruz in Per amore solo per amore (For Love, Only for Love, 1993) and Christian Bale in Mary, the Mother of Jesus (1999) as well as several films from Italy France and Spain, however none of these were the kind of big-budget spectacles that are associated with the biblical epic.

    This was about to change however with the unexpected success of an independently made Bible film which also gave significant focus to the relationship between Jesus and his mother - The Passion of the Christ (2004). This emboldened New Line into giving the green light to The Nativity Story (2006) and there have been several other films since which I suspect wouldn't have seen the light of day otherwise. It is noticeable, for example, that almost all of the films made since The Passion have been English language films. Regular readers may have noticed I have discussed a few of these in recent weeks and I intend to cover some of the others in more detail than fits here in the next few weeks as well.

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    Thursday, June 01, 2017

    Le lit de la Vierge (The Virgin's Bed, 1969)


    Undoubtedly one of the most beautiful Jesus films if also one of the most likely to offend the devout, French auteur Philippe Garrel's Le lit de la Vierge (The Virgin's Bed) is and usual take on the life of Jesus. Filmed shortly after the May 1968 protests in Garrel's trademark high-contrast, black and white style, it follows a young Jesus round the countryside as he tries to work out his angst and sense of lost-ness. The imagery and characters (Jesus, his mother and Mary Magdalene) are clearly biblical but the events that unfold are only tangentially related. As with Garrel's Le révélateur (1967) the images are dreamy and surreal and you sense that to try to interpret each as if it were some sort of cipher is to miss the point.

    The film sits, both chronologically and stylistically, somewhere between Pasolini's Il vangelo secondo Matteo and the 1973 Jesus Christ Superstar, with the starkly beautiful black and white photography of the former and the rocky vibe and attitude of youthful rebellion of the latter. The second scene - a long tracking shot of Jesus riding a donkey down the middle of the street whilst being taunted by people riding on horses - accompanied by rock guitar, is perhaps the coolest shot of all biblical films. At other points the music is more accordion based - perhaps one of the sources of inspiration for the similarly surreal Little Baby Jesus of Flandr (2010).

    Some of the events that occur are easier to make sense of than others. Jesus is frequently rejected by those he meets, aside from Magdalene and, towards the end of the film, a small boy who asks him to open the large box he has begun to carry round on his shoulder. There' s a sense of foreboding about this, and the horrors that unfold when it is finally opened suggest Jesus has been carrying a sort of Pandora's box, containing the sins of the world. A Jesus type figure appears before Pilate, but it is only when they are dragged away that we realise it's not Jesus but Magdalene. The imagery here however suggests that this is not an attempt to radically revise the gospels as much as an attempt to appropriate the imagery of the gospels as metaphors relating to the failure May 1968.

    There's an interesting quote from Garrel on this aspect of the film on the Artfilms site:
    I believe my point of view on the Christian myth is quite clear in Le Lit de la Verge. It is a non-violent parable in which Zouzou incarnates both Mary and Mary Magdalene while Pierre Clementi incarnates a discouraged Christ who throws down his arms in face of world cruelty. In spite of its allegorical nature, the film contains a denunciation of the police repression of 1968, which was generally well understood by viewers at the time.
    There's also a quote there from Harvard's David Pendleton who says the film is only "minimally concerned with traditional religion" instead focusing on "the ways in which Garrel and his friends saw themselves as belonging to a kind of religious sect, engaging in ritual behavior.” I assume that the "friends" referred to here are those related with the Zanzibar Films Collective a group of directors and artists even younger than the French New Wave directors who had been inspired by the '68 uprisings. Also worth a read is a brief piece at Strictly Film School.

    Saturday, May 27, 2017

    The Young Messiah (2016)


    Back in the first few months that I was writing this blog I wrote two pieces about a potential adaptation of Anne Rice's novel "Christ the Lord". I must admit that in the meantime I've never quite been quite interested enough to read the actual book, but it's certainly pleasing to finally sit down to see a film that you've been following for so long. That said the same could have been said about the Star Wars prequels and look how that turned out.

    In some ways the premise is also not so dissimilar. It takes an iconic character we know well due to their adult life and attempts to fill in the gap. Rice had an advantage over George Lucas in that she also had a few fragments of birth stories to work with, but there's a sense in which the audience's investment in the character is both a help (in selling tickets) and a hindrance (in terms of their heightened expectations).

    Young Messiah, then, starts in Egypt several years after Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the rest of their never-fully-defined wider family have fled from Herod. The family seem to have settled well overall but Jesus is beginning to discover some of the things that make him different in ways that don't necessarily help his family to lead a largely anonymous existence. Plus he's being tracked and taunted by a mysterious Brad Pitt look-a-like who appears to be one part devil, one part 80s heavy-metal guitarist. It's hard to know which aspect is more terrifying.

    The devil manages to incite the crowd against Jesus' family such that, as is often still the case for asylum seekers today, even though they have done nothing wrong they still get blamed and in this case feel they have to leave their home again. Plus Nazareth is calling them home (which sounds a little bit like it might have been the title of one of the Pitt-Devil band's biggest hits). Unfortunately just as the family arrive home Herod's son is beginning to inherit his father's paranoia, such that he's sending out soldiers out to try and track down the youngster who so threatened his father. Clearly he wants to tidy up any such loose ends.

    Such plot, then, means that the story necessarily takes place around the quiet byways and backwaters of first century Galilee, Judea and beyond, rather than in amongst the cities and crowds. This means that whilst the film retains many aspects of the Biblical Epic, its size and scope means that overall it lacks the genre's typically "fantastic excess". (Wood 169) That is not to say that it is entirely devoid of spectacle; in one scene Satan appears to Jesus and shows him a burning Jerusalem and later scenes take place in the temple, amongst impressive sets and a mass of extras. And the film also retains many of the other aesthetic characteristics of the genre such as "the typical locations, characters, and sounds" (Grace 13).

    What is particularly interesting about the film however is the way it maps out a new space within the genre's terrain. Traditionally the Old Testament Epic and the Jesus film have been accompanied by a third type of film - the Roman-Christian Epic - epics which visually and thematically fit within the scope of the Biblical Epic, but whose content is only tangentially biblical. The majority of these films, such as Ben-Hur (1925, 1959, 2016), Quo Vadis? (1913, 1924, 1951, 2001) and The Robe (1953) were based not so much on the Bible itself, but on works of fiction in which either minor biblical characters were given a greatly expanded role, or a major biblical character appeared only fleetingly. They also tended to be set in the time around or after Jesus's death.

    Like these Roman-Christian epics Young Messiah occurs around the fringes of the biblical narratives, however the events it depicts occur in an earlier time period between Jesus' birth and his appearance, aged twelve, in Jerusalem. Like them it is also based on a fictional work, Anne Rice's "Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt". Like them it also contains a prominent member of the "(e)arthly powers" (Sean Bean's centurion Severus) through whose eyes we witness the events and who eventually comes to faith. (Babington & Evans 202) Yet whilst Severus is Roman, the power figure in this story is not a Roman, but Herod, who describes himself here as "Jewish". And Bean's climatic epiphany is not a conversion to Christianity, but more of a moment of revelation and reflection on his past. Whilst it would clearly count as a moment of divine intervention, it clearly goes even further than the "ecumenical blandness" which Babington & Evans find so typical of the Roman-Christian film. (p.8)

    Essentially, then, this is a fourth type of Biblical Epic, distinct from the Roman-Christian epic by being neither 'Roman' in the fullest sense nor technically 'Christian', (since it had not yet come into existence), even if both undeniably form a critical part of the film's historical backdrop. Furthermore whereas the Roman-Christian Epics relied on a blend of the promise erotic sexual content in the background and romantic love in the foreground here Young Messiah is essentially sexless. Severus is not converted due to his attraction to a Christian woman as in Quo Vadis? but by his encounter with Jesus - something more typical of the Jesus film. And the implication is that the film's leading lady - Mary, Jesus' mother - has remained a virgin even through her married life.

    One key element of the traditional Biblical Epic that is retained is the sense of camp, although the two main camp elements are both more influenced by The Passion of the Christ (Gibson 2004) than the earlier epics. Like Gibson's film Herod is depicted as a camp figure, albeit more subtly than in that film. With his love of soft furnishings, and his court of sycophantic misfits, he flounces barefoot round his throne room treating women with disdain but starring longingly at Sean Bean. In one notable scene he confronts Severus whilst using a female dancer as a proxy for his conflicted feelings about him. Not dissimilarly, the film also depicts Satan as a queer/androgynous figure, though in contrast to Gibson's use of a woman with angular features and a short "masculine" haircut, here Satan is played by a man with long curly blond locks, large dark eyes and soft features.

    Sadly the film's development of the Biblical Epic genre is probably the most interesting thing about it. The holy family's travails from Alexandria to Nazareth to Jerusalem makes little narrative sense yet never really captures the reflection and personal growth aspect of the road movie - a genre it otherwise sits within at least as comfortably as it does the Biblical Epic. Ultimately the plot is driven by Mary and Joseph's unwillingness to tell Jesus the basic facts about his life that apparently everyone else seems to know. A long and dangerous trip takes place simply because the otherwise sympathetic and caring Mary and Joseph can't cope with not being able to give Jesus all the answers. When Mary sits down to tell Jesus about his conception, she starts with the words "Listen well because I'm only going to tell this story once" which will cause most viewers to wonder why an apparently caring mother would refuse to repeat such an important and inspiring story. (I say "most viewers" because those in the UK may be distracted by the presumably unintentional citation from 'Allo 'Allo.)

    Bean's more metaphorical, internal, journey is no more satisfying. Our first encounter with him is as a tough Roman soldier who occasionally spares the life of a child. His ultimate decision not to kill Jesus (I'm assuming anyone reading this already knows that Jesus makes it through to the end of the film) and the revelation he may have acted accordingly in Bethlehem, show that, in fact, he has always been that kind of person.

    It's left, then, to Jesus to bring the film to some sort of vaguely reasonable conclusion and his final voice-over is perhaps the film's most satisfying moment. Trying to work out the reason God has sent him, he concludes "I think I'm here just to be alive. To see it, hear it, feel it, all of it. Even when it hurts. Someday you will tell me why else I'm here. I don't know when, but you will." It's an interesting way to capture some of the critical aspects of the incarnation without getting down into the details. Perhaps this is just "ecumenical blandness" again, but as Mary and Joseph eventually come to realise, sometimes not having a solid answer is OK.

    ==========================
    Babington, Bruce, and Peter William Evans. (1993), Biblical Epics: Sacred Narrative in the Hollywood Cinema, Manchester: Manchester University Press.
    Grace, Pamela. (2009) The Religious Film: Christianity and the Hagiopic, Chichester: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
    Lindsay, Richard A. (2015), Hollywood Biblical Epics: Camp Spectacle and Queer Style from the Silent Era to the Modern Day, Santa Barbara, California/Denver, Colorado: Praeger.
    Wood, Michael. ([1975] 1989) America in the Movies, New York: Columbia University Press

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    Sunday, May 21, 2017

    Using Ewan:
    Star Power in Last Days in the Desert


    I finally got to watch 2015's Last Days in the Desert a month or two ago and I've been so pushed for time that I've not been able to properly review it and, given the various other things I need to write about at the moment, and how rarely I actually get to do that, I thought I'd make some brief/informal comments on the most interesting aspect of the film now, and hopefully get to return to review the film properly in a few months time. I'm telling myself that this way I can then concentrate on the more important writing projects, but I'm probably just procrastinating by putting off the next bit of writing for those more important project. But I digress, because, well...I want to talk about Ewan.

    Ewan McGregor is a star. Even if you haven't seen him in Trainspotting, the Star Wars prequels or Moulin Rouge you'll have seen him in something. Indeed at the time of filming he's almost certainly the most famous actor ever to play Jesus on film. Other actors have become famous after they played the role, perhaps even, in the case of Robert Powell, solely because of the role, but at the time the film in question was actually filmed I can't think of anyone else.

    So, clearly, it's time to talk about star theory. The major notion behind star theory is that actors bring with them their previous roles. Filmmakers may use that as shorthand (so we expect Jimmy Stewart to be a good guy in Harvey (1950)because he was a good guy in Mr SMith Goes to Washington); or to set us up for a fall by subverting our expectations (as Hitchcock uses Stewart in Vertigo (1958)), but essentially it recognises that few actors come to us as fresh, that stars always carry a certain amount of baggage with them.

    As McGregor wanders around the desert it's hard not to think of Tattooine and wonder if the devil will appear as a Sand-person. When he sees things that may not really be there, I know it's not heroin, but I'm still reminded of the baby crawling across the ceiling. I never quite expected him to burst into a duet with Nicole Kidman, but wouldn't have been completely surprised if as he was being crucified I heard his internal monologue intone "I chose not to choose life. I chose something else".

    It's difficult therefore to escape this when watching Last Days. In other words, I find McGregor as Jesus distracting. It takes me out of the illusion that I am watching Jesus, and I imagine most people feel the same. In fact, I wonder if, really, this was the point of the film. That it was an exploration not so much of the gospels as an exploration of star power. I think this for two reasons. Firstly, because McGregor is such a massive star that any filmmaker who would be good enough to convince him to take the role would know that they would be unlikely to overcome his back catalogue. I'm reminded of Groucho Marx's line about club membership. Any filmmaker that wanted McGregor to play Jesus would not be a good enough filmmaker to get him to do it.

    The other reason is the specific subject of the film. This is not just a Jesus film, it's one about his time in the desert. Whilst everyone has an opinion on Jesus, that specific section of the gospels is, almost paradoxically, something of a blank canvas.

    Of course, perhaps it's just that McGregor has always really wanted to play Jesus and finally found someone that agreed to let him fulfil his wish. But I don't think so. I think what the film is really about is about how we project onto Jesus our own experiences, opinions and preconceptions. But then I would say that , because it's the point that comes back to me again and again about this subject: it's incredibly hard to escape our own pre-conceptions about who Jesus was and what he was like. Watching a multitude of Bible films is at least one way of challenging the ideas we bring with us.

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    The Nativity Story from The Passion to Trump

    It's been over a decade since New Line's attempt to mirror the success of The Passion of the Christ ended in failure. This perhaps ought not to have been a huge surprise. For every TheTen Commandments (1956) or Ben-Hur (1959) and there is a GreatestStory Ever Told (1965) or The Bible: In the Beginning (1966) - a film that tried to ride on the coattails of a successful epic, yet failed.

    In the aftermath of the film's failure many sought to discover why the film had been unsuccessful, and many different ideas were proffered. My own theory was that whilst various factors contributed to its disappointing performance, the speed with which the film was produced (less than a year between writer Mike Rich turning in his script and the film debuting in cinemas) didn't allow for sufficient quality control.

    Ten years on, I think that's a valid criticism of the film, and indeed I think that the speed of the production was a key contributor to the problem, but not in that way. Instead the issue was the amount of time that was spent promoting the film to its natural niche audience. As producer Wyck Godfrey said, just a few months after the film's release, Gibson spent six months promoting his film, they only spent one.1

    But whilst the length of time that went into the promoting the film was certainly a factor, not to mention the corresponding amount of effort that it suggest, was a huge factor, I think the failing was not only about how long the respective filmmakers spent marketing their films, but also how it was done.

    The key difference in this respect is the way that Gibson tapped into the sense of persecution that appears to have developed amongst many Christians in America  – something that was surely part of the reason such a large proportion of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. I wrote about this a little in my recent post "How The Passion of the Christ Wrong-footed Hollywood", but I'd like to revisit the subject here. In doing so I aim to be briefer overall whilst looking at the perception of persecution in more detail. These two pieces should probably sit alongside one another then, always recognising both that the roots of this issue are complicated and that there are many causes as well as a lot of background noise all of which makes a definitive analysis impossible to find.

    However, at the very least this perception of persecution goes back to the early 1970s. On the one hand books like "The Late, Great Planet Earth" (1970) popularised the kind of theology that anticipated a time of persecution, as a pre-cursor to the second coming.2 At the very least that gives something of an incentive to spotting evidence that the church is being persecuted. And then, of course there was Roe vs Wade and the shock wave that sent out, that sense that traditional Christianity's position of power was under threat.

    Whilst Ronald Reagan's election as president was initially greeted as a victory for the religious right disappointment at the community's perceived marginalisation under Reagan grew, such that by 1988 "traditional" Christianity was seen as losing ground to liberalism. And then in Hollywood - one of the main centres of the growth of liberalism - Martin Scorsese directed The Last Temptation of Christ. This was perhaps the leading conflicts in the culture wars of the late twentieth century and this isn't the place to get into the rights and wrongs of that particular film. However I do remember reviewing Thomas Lindlof's book "HollywoodUnder Siege" (about the controversy surrounding the release of Last Temptation of Christ) years later and being struck by the fact that the only people to make any money from the film were those Christian lobbyists who had run successful fundraising campaigns off the back of their opposition to the film's release.3 The perception that the religious right is under attack from liberalism has only grown since then such that in 2004 the scene was right for Mel Gibson.

    Gibson's approach typically involved a number of key aspects (again see my previous article). Firstly he claimed that he had been trying to make his Jesus film for years but none of the major studios would have it. I've no evidence to support or disprove that claim because as far as I know it's never been challenged. I'd sure like to see some though. Part of the reason it's not been challenged is because no-one is surprised that big popularist studios were not interested in an ultra-violent Jesus film in two dead languages based on the anti-Semitic visions of a nun.

    But the way Gibson told it was rather different. There was no calm of acceptance of what was in all likelihood a business decision. No, this was a tale of persecution; a tale of a Hollywood elite treating traditional Christians unfairly.

    Another aspect in Gibson's story regarding the film was the various intimations that God was in favour of it. The stories of miracles and conversions, of the "Holy Ghost directing traffic", the leaked 'papal' summary "It is as it was" and the repeated claim that he wanted to really show it as it was.4 In contrast to films such as Last Temptation his would "show the passion of Jesus Christ just the way it happened...like travelling back in time and watching the events unfold exactly as they occurred...I'm telling the story as the Bible tells it".5

    In other words - whether intentionally or just naturally, he painted himself as a warrior in the culture wars standing up for God against liberalism. In so doing he made supporting his film a sign of faithfulness. Let's show Hollywood there's an audience for faithful depictions of the Bible, (even if, as it turned out, the results were not necessarily as faithful as might have been claimed). Lindsay describes this as a process of "scripturalization" that occurs through four stages of "directorial inspiration, ecclesiastical endorsement, experiences of spiritual transcendence, traditions of viewing and devotion".6

    In trying to market their film the makers of The Nativity Story attempted to reproduce The Passion of the Christ's strategy of attempting to court church leaders in order to gain their endorsement for their film. Just as Gibson talked to church leaders in order to secure support for The Passion, so writer Mike Rich, director Catherine Hardwick and producer Wyck Godfrey did the same. In fact they even made explicit links to Gibson's film to do so. Prior to the movie's release, Rich spoke of how he "was really inspired by the scene where Jesus falls while carrying the cross and Mary has a flashback to Jesus as a small child in danger".7 Rich even stressed explicit links with Gibson's epic such as the fact that parts of both films were shot in Matera, Italy, as well as the fact that they were loaned "the big olive tree...from the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane".8 Similarly the film's historical advisor, William Fulco, also drew links between the two films pointing out how "this film could not have been possible without The Passion."9

    The film's marketing team also commissioned prominent Roman Catholic film specialist Sister Rose Pacette to write a study guide for the film as well as edit another book collating eleven essays on the film and there were numerous special screenings for church representatives.10 The film's creators even arranged for it to premiere at the Vatican, Making it the first feature to do so.11

    Yet merely drawing the links between The Nativity Story and The Passion, and gaining acknowledgement of its worthiness was not sufficient. Whilst the film was seen as "authentic" and "faithful" the producers didn't create a similarly compelling narrative 12 Some church leaders did try to tell their followers that this was "an opportunity to get behind" a "family-friendly" film "as a way of telling Hollywood that's what audiences want".13 Whilst sending messages about the kind of film Christians wanted to see (even if they admitted it wasn't a great work of art) was something of a cause, it was nothing like as compelling as Gibson's. In terms of Maslow's hierarchy of needs the fear of persecution, or even expressing support of an associate who is being persecuted significantly outranks entertainment preferences.

    As mentioned above the far shorter amount of time spent both creating relationships with church leaders and building a sense of anticipation about the film's release was also critical factor, as was the fact that Hardwicke and Godfrey lack Gibson's star power, but what The Nativity Story really lacked was a compelling story of how watching their film was a show of defiance and support for their community in the face of a supposedly unsympathetic, if not malevolent, behemoth like Hollywood.

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    1 - Moring, Mark. "Nativity Comes Home" Christianity Today. 20 March 2007 -  (http://www.christianitytoday.com/movies/news/nativitystorydvd.html) cited at Queen Spoo - http://nativitymovie.blogspot.co.uk/)
    2 - Lindsay, Hal. "The Late Great Planet Earth" Zondervan (1970)
    3 - Lindlof, Thomas R. (2008) Hollywood Under Siege: Martin Scorsese, the Religious Right, and the Culture Wars Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky. p.283-4.
    4 - More detailed sources for these quotes can be found in my post here - http://biblefilms.blogspot.co.uk/2005/11/film-new-passion.html
    5 - Zenit Staff - Zenit - "Mel Gibson’s Great Passion" - https://zenit.org/articles/mel-gibson-s-great-passion/ - March 6, 2003
    6 - Lindsay, Richard "Hollywood Biblical Epics: Camp Spectacle and Queer Style from the Silent Era to the Modern Day". (Denver, CO: Praeger, 2015). p.8
    7 - Pacette, Rose "The Nativity Story: Contemplating Mary's Journey of Faith" Boston: Pauline Books & Media 2006. p.5-6
    8 - Pacette, Rose (ed.) "The Nativity Story: A Film Study Guide for Catholics" Boston: Pauline Books & Media 2006. p.6
    9 - Patterson, Hannah - "The greatest teen drama ever told" The Guardian, 1 December 2006 - https://www.theguardian.com/film/2006/dec/01/2
    10 - Namely the two referenced in 7 & 8 above.
    11 - Moore, Carrie A. "The Nativity Story - Vatican premiere spotlights a new marketing tool" Desert News, Nov. 25, 2006 - http://www.deseretnews.com/article/650209537/The-Nativity-Story--Vatican-premiere-spotlights-a-new-marketing-tool.html?pg=all
    12 - See, for example the debate between Christian film critics here - http://www.beliefnet.com/entertainment/movies/2007/02/the-nativity-story.aspx
    13 - Moore, Carrie A. "The Nativity Story - Vatican premiere spotlights a new marketing tool" Desert News, Nov. 25, 2006 - http://www.deseretnews.com/article/650209537/The-Nativity-Story--Vatican-premiere-spotlights-a-new-marketing-tool.html?pg=all

    Wednesday, May 10, 2017

    Maestà, La Passion du Christ (2015)


    How should I describe Guérif's Maestà? It's a biblical film, certainly, but quite unlike any I have seen before. In fact quite unlike any film I have seen before. Indeed, even in writing that I wondered whether it is really a film or twenty-eight different shorts, as people sometimes ask whether the Bible itself is one book or a collection of books.

    From a distance Andy Guérif's film appears to be one single take of the main section of the back of Maestà of Duccio - an elaborate altarpiece painted for the Siena Cathedral by the artist Duccio di Buoninsegna. Yet withing the individual tableau the figures move. Initially these tableau appear empty, then one or two characters enter the frame-within-the-frame, often setting up the items they find there for the rest of the scene. They are soon joined by others and the action takes place before freezing suddenly, in an exact representation of Duccio's poses. Once the moment has been captured, the scene unfreezes and the characters leave the scene; in the majority of cases in order to move into the next cell in the sequence.

    However, the opening ten minutes of the film however is rather different. Instead of the full view of all twenty-six cells, we start zoomed in on the central crucifixion scene. This clues the audience in as to how the rest of the film will work so that when, after the titles, the camera pans out to reveal all twenty-six panels we know to look closely at where the action is taking place. It starts in the bottom left tableau - the Triumphal Entry - and works its way along the bottom row and onto the top, before finally returning to one last shot where all the scenes are repeated simultaneously.

    It's undoubtedly a film that would look best on a cinema screen. If you get the chance to see this one at home - it is currently screening on the home-streaming service MUBI (for a few more days) - then do so on your biggest screen and position yourself as close to it as is comfortable. Only this way can you see the details and where the action deviates slightly from what might be expected. In the Gethsemane scene Jesus splits off from himself - an interesting interpretation of 'withdrawing' in order to pray. At another point the mocking and scourging scenes take place at more or less the same time.

    The effect is not just merely quirky, as if for the sake of it, but stunning. Individuals scenes appear messy and occasionally gaudy, but somehow achieve perfection just as the action freezes. It makes the viewer look at and consider the painting in an entirely new way, but one that is thoroughly in keeping with the original work. It makes you want to see the original. If it had received widespread distribution Siena would doubtless be overrun.

    Wednesday, May 03, 2017

    Little Baby Jesus of Flandr (2010)
    En waar de sterre bleef stille staan (And Where the Stars Remained Silent)


    Little Baby Jesus of Flander
    (Van den Berghe, 2010) was released just two years after Serra's Birdsong and is certainly reminiscent of it. It's West European origin, stark black and white photography, long takes and, of course, subject matter make for an easy comparison. Surprisingly, it was also director Gust Van den Berghe's first film. More recently he directed Lucifer which I reviewed back in 2015.

    But whereas Birdsong appears, on the balance of probability, to be set in the past, Little Baby Jesus seems to be set in something approaching the modern day (though it is based on a Flemish play written by Felix Timmermans in 1924). Neither film provides absolutely clear markers. Birdsong's small cast list and outdoor setting place the focus more on it being timeless than necessarily in the time of Jesus; Little Baby Jesus shows the characters in a pub at the start of the film, then later in a music club, and later still dashing towards an illuminated city on a night-time horizon. There are other clues to a modern day setting, but initially the film leaves it unclear as to whether this is a modernised re-telling of the nativity story, or just deluded "wise men" mistaking their experience for something it isn't.

    The plot, such that it is, revolves around three separate Christmases. In the first, three "beggars" Suskewiet, Pitje Vogel and Schrobberbeeck sit down to console one another at a pub (Caruso 2010). Following a Flemish tradition they have been going from door to door singing Flemish folk songs in a largely unsuccessful attempt to gain some money (twelve francs and fourteen cents). But they do also meet a man whose wife is so heavily pregnant that when the three call on them later they also encounter the couple's new born son.

    The film's ambiguity is heightened by the use of actors with Down's Syndrome to play the majority of parts in the film, including the leading roles of the 'Magi', 'Mary' and 'Joseph'. This draws on the audience's prejudices and limited understanding in order to pose difficult questions. It's a bold move. Actors with Down's syndrome have limited opportunities to appear in film and when they arise it's usually playing a character with the condition, rather than a role that could, in theory, have been given to any actor. Yet it doesn't appear that Van den Berghe is particularly campaigning on the issue, certainly it never feels like this is a force piece of over-earnest propaganda. Interviews with Van den Berghe show him to be aware and empathetic towards his actors, yet also very pragmatic about the situation and indeed appreciative of what he gains byworking with them.

    What Van den Berghe's choice of actors does do however is create ambiguity around what the audience witnesses, without providing easy answers. Its all too easy to lazily assume that Suskewiet's almost immediate belief that he has met "Mary, Joseph and Little Baby Jesus" is down to childlike naivety or a lack of intelligence, but for the fact it is his two friends who doubt, question and interrogate him are also portrayed by those with Down's. Such generalisations are rarely helpful. Here the film confronts us not only with our own ignorance about the condition, but also about the shortcomings in how we all approach issues of spirituality and faith.

    By the time the second Christmas comes around, Suske has not seen his friends for sometime. We find him contemplating his experiences accompanied by one of the film's most striking images - a fleet of rowing boats displaying crucifixes as they bob up and down in the sea. His peace is soon disrupted by a bishop and a priest who disliking his utterances threaten to have him "carted off to the loony bin". Moments later the two lead a procession seemingly doing just that to an angel, who sits glumly on a stretcher as she is carried away.

    These are just a couple of the many unusual and surreal images that populate the film. Indeed the film constantly contrasts such quirky imagery with long, peaceful meditative shots, such as the slow, three-minute pan across a "Brueghel-esque winter landscape" with which the film opens (van Hoeij 2010). Not infrequently these appear in the same shot, such as the aforementioned shot of boats on the sea, or the brass band marching across the horizon that precedes it.

    The soundtrack, by Va Fan Fahre, is no different. In addition to the aforementioned Flemish folk songs, we hear the brass band; but also circus tunes, an Arabic mourning song, classical religious music, accordion pieces and "operatic electronica" (Senjanovic 2010). Both the audio and visual elements contribute to the film's dream-like feel and "original and tender tone" (Sejanovic 2010). Indeed Van den Berghe thinks the feelings experienced watching the film are far more important than the actual story. "..it's about feeling, about emotion about experiencing something....If you don't need it [the story] to feel good about it, then don't." (Van Aertryck 2010)

    Eventually Suskewiet's friends find him, blessing sheep and reciting bits of Palm 119. But then, moments later, they fall out with each other over the nature of what exactly it was they witnessed the previous Christmas, not to mention the hunger in their stomachs. Pitje and Schrobberbeeck find themselves in a club and there - in the film's only colour scene - they witness, emerging from an upwards pan (as if they are ascending into Heaven), a man dressed as a woman singing. According to Van den Berghe, whilst the iconography suggests Heaven it's really more about the reality of our modern world (as opposed to the fake world of the rest of the movie). As he puts it himself, "You're in a very safe world until...and this is where the scenario lifts up from this old medieval piece to something more modern... all of a sudden they are in a very, very strange place...It's a bit of statement maybe about modern life, because we are fake and this guy is fake. ..because this guy is pretending to be a woman but he's not." (Van Aertryck 2010).

    The unusual experience only brings Pitje Vogel's frustrations to a head. He calls Suske a "traitor" who has ruined the men's reputation only to find Schrobberbeeck continues to defend him. The two men argue and go their separate ways. Shortly after he meets two figures in the forest and makes something of a Faustian pact with the result that by the start of the "Third Christmas" segment, he is sat as if on a throne in a pristine, spacious, white room next to an inverted cross an fretting about his fears about both the Devil and Heaven. The imagery is dense and complex from there on in, very much leaving the viewer to draw their own conclusions.

    As with Birdsong the film's style is very much at odds with the classic Biblical Epic. Whilst it is an adaptation of Matthew's account, it adheres far more closely to Timmermans' play "En waar de sterre bleef stille staan" (And Where the Stars Remained Silent) and whilst ultimately the filmmakers seem to settle on this being a surrealist, modernised adaptation of the story, albeit with substantial dramatic licence, it is also possible to interpret it in other ways. Naturally, the surrealist tone is almost in complete contrast with the typical Biblical Epic. Again cast numbers are minimal and whilst the setting mixes rural and urban contexts these are not the gigantic sets of Roman architecture, but brief glimpses of real, modern day buildings, typically far in the background.

    Yet in many ways the film is much closer to traditional epics than it might appear. Consider for a moment, Babington and Evans' list of types of spectacle found in most biblical epics (pp.64-65). Whilst it's true that those of "architecture", "the body", "ceremonies", "ancient warfare" and "slavery"  are absent, there are certainly various examples of the spectacles of "geography", "costumes", "forbidden gods", "sadism" and "the act of God". Whilst these are typically adopted in a more playful, post-modern fashion they are nevertheless present, (though there was always something slightly knowing about their inclusion in the epics of the 1950s and 1960s). But perhaps the way the film aligns most closely with the Biblical Epic is the element of camp. Here some of the costumes are kitschy, others more typical of queer cinema, notably the cross-dressing night club singer and the cackling, make-up-wearing fallen angel.

    In many ways, then, whilst Little Baby Jesus of Flandr takes certain steps even further away from the traditional Biblical Epic (such as moving the story to a modern era), it is often those very elements that bring it full circle towards some of the genre's typical characteristics. Whilst it's unlikely that it will ultimately become venerated by conservative audiences, Perhaps this is because the camp is every bit as modernised as the rest of the story and because with biblical films and conservative audiences, 'modernised camp' is so much less familiar than ancient camp. All of which brings to mind something Suskewiet says as he reflects on how his encounter has brought division as well as revelation. "I don't want to scare people, I just want to tell them how beautiful God has made the Earth."

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    Babington, Bruce, and Peter William Evans. (1993), Biblical Epics: Sacred Narrative in the Hollywood Cinema, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

    Caruso, Valerie. "Gust Van den Berghe, director of Little Baby Jesus of Flandr", (Video Interview) Available online - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1jCGT-WYAaE Posted 26th May 2010. Accessed 1st May 2017.

    Senjanovic, Natasha. "Little Baby Jesus of Flandr -- Film Review", Hollywood Reporter. 14th October 2010. Available online at www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/little-baby-jesus-flandr-film-29596 Accessed 29/4/2017

    Van Aertryck, Maximilien "Interview with Gust van den Berghe about Little Baby Jesus of Flandr", (Video Interview) Available online -https://vimeo.com/11872589 Posted 19th May 2010. Accessed 1st May 2017.

    Van Hoeij, Boyd. "Review: 'Little Baby Jesus of Flandr", Variety. 14th May 2010
    http://variety.com/2010/film/markets-festivals/little-baby-jesus-of-flandr-1117942737/

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    Saturday, April 22, 2017

    Birdsong vs the Biblical Epic


    Two years after The Nativity Story and Spanish/Catalan director Albert Serra produced El cant dels ocells (Birdsong). In contrast to The Nativity Story which sought to position itself as a new, family friendly take on the epic in the hope of reproducing the success of The Passion of the Christ, Birdsong deliberately took almost the opposite approach. Just as Pasolini's Il vangelo secondo Matteo opposed 50s and 60s Biblical Epics such as King of Kings, so Birdsong can be seen as an antidote to the excesses of The Passion. Rather than the cast of thousands Birdsong  had a cast of just six. Instead of excessive, lavish sets the film is nearly all filmed outside on deserted landscapes. There are no moral victories, promises of sex, or analogies between the past and the future, indeed the line between the two is somewhat blurred. Birdsong is essentially an anti-epic.

    This 'anti-epic' style is typical of Serra's broader body of work, "a cinema of gentle observation and slow demeanour, in which eccentric characters incarnated by non-professional actors bring new dimensions to well-known fictional and religious archetypes". (Delgado 2013: 12) Two years earlier he had produced a similarly sparse version of the Don Quixote story Honor de Cavelleria (2006) and his 2013 film Història de la meva mort (Story of my Death) similarly drained the stories of Cassanova and Dracula of their melodramatic excesses.

    Serra's work is just one example of "a new kind of cinema that exists on the margins of the Spanish film industry, to question its premises." (Javier 2014: 95-96) Javier suggests that films such as this "create images that seem to resist the recent explosion of our current 'multi-screen' reality. As opposed to the 'excess image' dominating screens in the contemporary world, this cinema opts wholeheartedly for simplicity and restraint". (2014: 96) Nowhere does this movement contrast more greatly that with the excess of the Biblical Epic.

    The most obvious indicator of this is Serra's long, static takes, reminiscent of the style of Roberto Rossellini's later films. Rossellini held that by minimising artificial, and potentially manipulative, editing, not only created more genuine films, but it also reminds the viewer that what they are watching is just a reconstruction, not the real thing. Such long static takes, beautiful compositions and minimal soundtrack make the viewing the film not unlike that of viewing paintings in a gallery. Serra treat his audience to incredible image after incredible image, somehow investing each with great meaning from very little.

    Instead of putting the film in context and recounting all the events surrounding Jesus' birth, or even just covering the complete story of the magi's journey, Serra "reduces the symbolic journey of the Three Wise Men to the characters' simple wanderings through stark mountainous areas or across wide open plains where they are mere blots on the landscape and, on many occasions, actually disappear from view". (Javier 2014: 97). Such a portrayal of these "solitary wanderings undermine narrative momentum, inviting the viewer to contemplate, in silent long takes, images of the empty landscape he traverses" (De Luca 2012: 194). The "temporal elongation of the shot surpasses by far the demands of the story". (2013: 193)

    Indeed, so low key is the film's aesthetic that the story's most iconic moment can almost creep up on the viewer without them really noticing. When the kings finally find the Christ child there is no crowd of curious onlookers. The holy family are on their own; their visitors lacking in an entourage. This is s a genuine moment of earthly royalty encountering divine royalty without the pantomime that usually accompanies such encounters. Serra produces "a moment of pure reverence, highlighted by the film's only instance of non-diegetic music, when the three men finally prostrate themselves before the mother and child, and the family's private life takes on monumental significance." (O'Brien 2011: 109-110)

    It is this moment that most captures "the tradition of Dreyer, Rossellini [and] Pasolini" as the director intended. (Hughes) It's an understated moment that rather than relying on pomp, ceremony, a powerful soundtrack and over-wrought acting performances is built on the slow realism of al that has gone before it. It not only brings to mind the climaxes of Dreyer's Ordet (The Word, 1955), Rossellini's Viaggio in Italia (Journey to Italy, 1954) and the moment when Christ is removed from the cross in Pasolini's Il vangelo secondo Matteo (Gospel According to Matthew, 1964), but extends the tradition.

    Part of the reason this strategy is successful is the way it humanises the three kings, going further than even Pasolini dared. They hide from the rain, put their quest on hold to go for a swim and they even seem to get lost at one point. They even bicker over which way to go, each trying to nudge the others into making the decision so they can escape blame if the plan fails. Yet despite this, the film still leaves them shrouded in mystery. We know not what motivates them and drives them on their pilgrimage, yet somehow the characters are very engaging.

    Serra also sees something "absurd" in the characters' mission.
    All of the ideology, what Jesus means, we added later. We’re talking about the pioneers. Just three men who probably feel stupid, you know? They don’t know why they are going to see this child, or where they’re going, or how long it will take. They’re following a star to find a small child in order to adore him. (Hughes 2009)
    This forms an interesting contrast with the approach in The Nativity Story. Both films seek to inject humour by portraying three men who have come to be known as wise, acting like ordinary people. Yet in Birdsong this is done without revealing a great deal about who these men are or stripping away the mystery; in contrast, in The Nativity Story, everything is explained, the characters are given names, backstories and motivations, yet both the humour and the attempt to draw parallels between us and them falls flat.

    Just two years, then, after New Line had produced the first Nativity epic, this film becomes the first Nativity 'anti-epic'. A tendency that would be repeated twice more in the following decade in Little Baby Jesus of Flandr (2010) and Le Fils de Joseph (Son of Joseph, 2016).

    ==================
    Delgado, Maria. M. (2013), 'Introduction', in M. M. Delgado and R. W. Fiddian (eds.), Spanish Cinema 1973-2000: Auteurism, Politics, Landscape and Memory, 1-20, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

    De Luca, Tiago. (2012), 'Realism of the Senses: A Tendency in Contemporary World Cinema' in Lúcia Nagib, Chris Perriam, Rajinder Dudrah (eds.) Theorizing World Cinema,183-206, London: I.B Tauris.

    Hughes, Darren (2009), 'Albert Serra Interviewed on El Cant dels ocells (Birdsong)', Senses of Cinema. Available online: http://sensesofcinema.com/2009/conversations-on-film/albert-serra-interview/(accessed 22/4/2017).

    Moral, Javier. (2014), 'Behind the Enigma Construct: A Certain Trend in Spanish Cinema' in Duncan Wheeler, Fernando Canet (eds.), (Re)viewing Creative, Critical and Commercial Practices in Contemporary Spanish Cinema, 93-104, Bristol: Intellect Books.

    O'Brien, Catherine. (2011), The Celluloid Madonna: from Scripture to Screen. London, U.K. : Wallflower Press.

    O'Brien, Catherine (2016) 'Women in the Cinematic Gospels'. In: Burnette-Bletsch, Rhonda, (ed.) The Bible in Motion : a Handbook of the Bible and its Reception in Film, vol. 2, 449-462, Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter.

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    Wednesday, April 19, 2017

    The Resurrection on Film
    Part 4 - John's Gospel


    This is the last in a series of short posts for Easter this year looking at film portrayals of the resurrection. The idea is to take each of the Gospels in turn and look at one or two films that have sought to portray the resurrection in a manner that fits with that particular Gospel. Yesterday I looked at the resurrection in Mark's Gospel and so today we end with the Gospel of John.

    As is well known, John's Gospel is significantly different from the other three "synoptic" gospels. Whilst the resurrection scenes are not an exception we do see something interesting in how John essentially takes the basic plot structure from the other three gospels and expands it with the writer's own ideas as well as adding on a significant chunk of new material towards the end. This is essentially a microcosm of what John does with the Synoptic text as a whole. (I realise that some dispute whether John was even familiar with any of the synoptics).

    What we have in John's gospel is Mary Magdalene visiting the tomb, finding it empty, running to tell the apostles, who run back to the tomb and find it empty. When they leave she comes face to face with Jesus, although initially she mistakes him for someone else. That evening Jesus appears to the disciples. John then adds a 2nd appearance eight days later, this time where the "doubting" disciple is present. Then we get a later incident, sometimes called an appendix or the epilogue where Jesus appears on a beach and cooks the disciples fish for breakfast before rehabilitating Simon Peter. One of the reasons this second chapter (21) is sometimes called an epilogue or appendix is because the text seems to have come to a close at 20:31, but then starts up again.

    Overall these incidents are not that well represented in film, indeed when thinking about them the main two that spring to mind are the two word for word adaptations, one from the Visual Bible in 2003 and 2015's version from the Lumo Project. That said two versions of the appearance to Mary Magdalene - the episode from John's resurrection scenes that gets the most coverage in Jesus film - are worth a brief mention.

    Brief Mentions
    The first is in The Miracle Maker (2000) which as I alluded to yesterday gives better coverage to the events of the resurrection than practically any other film. Here we get a nice point-of-view shot as Mary first sees the risen Jesus, partially accounting for her failing to recognise him.

    Also mentioned yesterday was the BBC's The Passion (2008). As with the Road to Emmaus scene in Luke's Gospel where Jesus isn't recognised by seemingly close friends, the film uses a different actor to portray Jesus as he meets Mary.

    The Lumo Project's Gospel of John (2015)
    So how do the word for word translations do? Some of the Lumo Project's Gospel of John of the resurrection  are available on YouTube. The Magdalene, Thomas and Simon Peter scenes are obviously filmed specifically for this instalment but there's quite a bit of footage that is recycled in the other films. Part of the disappointment with this version is that it doesn't really do anything particularly interesting with what it has available and conversely part of the disappointment is that, again, some of the nudges in the text are ignored. I suspect it's the practicalities of trying to create re-useable footage, more than a desire to minimise the distinctives of each gospel that is the driving consideration here, but the result is much the same.

    The Visual Bible' Gospel of John (2003)
    In contrast I find the Visual Bible' Gospel of John more moving and it uses a couple of nice filmic techniques to good effect. It actually spends fifteen minutes on these two chapters, not quite as long as The Passion, but still one of the longest treatments.

    The first thing that really stands out here is that Magalene's case of mistaken identity is because Jesus is rather oddly crouched down behind a plant. This seems a little bit odd (what was he doing at that moment? Had he got distracted from his important business of making his debut post-resurrection appearance by a stray weed or something?), but is one way to deal with a somewhat odd bit of the story.

    What really stands out about this film's resurrection sequence - memorable to me even before I watched it, is the very end of the film. As Jesus' conversation with Peter draws to a close, the group of them are walking along the beach. Peter gestures towards the disciple that Jesus loved and asks "What about this man?". Jesus replies "If I want him to live until I come, what is that to you". The "other" disciple is standing behind the two of them but compositionally he is in the middle of the frame between Jesus and Peter. Once Jesus has spoken the line he an Peter walk past the camera (which is tracking back very slowly) such that the other disciple is left alone in the middle of the frame and gradually moves closer to the camera looking more than a little taken aback. Then the footage freezes, the image turns sepia and then merges into a sketch -type version of the image (pictured above). At the same time, the music to the film - which I find to be one of it's strong points - swells in a particularly moving way. The freeze frame/sepia-ing/distorting of this image really conveys the passing of time and the sense that the live action we have been witnessing passed into history. It's my favourite moment in the entire film, poignantly placing an emphasis on what happened to these followers, and the church who followed in their wake, after the story we have seen has been completed. And when it comes to the resurrection, perhaps that is the most significant thing.

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    Tuesday, April 18, 2017

    The Resurrection on Film
    Part 3 - Luke's Gospel



    This is the third in a series of short posts for Easter this year looking at film portrayals of the resurrection. The idea is to take each of the Gospels in turn and look at one or two films that have sought to portray the resurrection in a manner that fits with that particular Gospel. Yesterday I looked at the resurrection in Mark's Gospel and so today it's onto Luke.

    There are three Jesus films that strike me as reflecting something of the ending to Luke's Gospel. Firstly there is the recent Lumo Project version The Gospel of Luke (2016). A few of the relevant scenes from this film can be viewed online. This time the narrator is Richard E. Grant, but it's obvious that much of the footage - at least of the initial resurrection is that we find in their version of Mark (and indeed John).

    As I say in my review of Mark there's an interesting tension in this between reflecting the distinct portrait of these events that Mark provides and the purported historical events that stand behind them. But one of the disadvantages of this approach is the footage doesn't always act out clear stage directions from the text, so here there are no men in dazzling clothes and no-one puts their face to the ground.

    The Road to Emmaus scene is new though and as with other films has Jesus half covering his face to explain why Cleopas and his companion don't recognise him. This seems to me to be a rather odd approach. If Jesus meant to conceal his identity surely he could have done it more effectively: If he meant to be visible then why not make it more plain and uncover his face?  This halfway house just makes it seem like a key test of faith is the ability to recognise faces in bad light.

    The second film to mention when talking about Luke's resurrection is the Genesis Project's extended version of Luke's Gospel, from which the Jesus film (1979) was edited. This also employs the partial face covering tactic on the Road to Emmaus (pictured), but does present the other aspects more or less as directed. I don't really like the soft focus in the upper room scene though.

    Lastly, as films go, I tend to think The Miracle Maker (2000), whilst a harmonised Jesus film is a fairly Lucan take on proceedings. That said after the resurrection the script seems to switch to John as the primary source, such that there are a further 3 episodes not found in Luke. However, the shape of the narrative at this point remains Lucan with the discovery by women, Simon seeing Jesus (24:34), the appearance on the Road to Emmaus, and then just a single appearance to the disciples in the upper room. The Johanine inclusions are more flourishes within that broader narrative than the text that defines the text of the narrative.

    For whatever reason very few films feature the Road to Emmaus episode, although this has increased in recent years, but this is certainly the first film I think of when this episode comes to mind. Again we get the same tactic with face-covering. The one portrayal of this scene that does something different is the BBC's The Passion (2008) which uses a different actor in various parts of the resurrection episode - certainly a more interesting, and not necessarily a more controversial, way t solve the question of why Jesus was not recognised.

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    Last Days of Jesus (2017)


    Screened on Channel 5 on Good Friday (having premiered on PBS on April 4th) this is the latest 'controversial' documentary promising to tell us something new. And it did. As seasoned as I am in these things, I must admit that I had not previously known a great deal about the head of the praetorian guard around the time Jesus was ministering, Lucius Aelius Sejanus; nor about Manaen the Herod Antipas's courtier/foster brother who is mentioned as a leader in the early church in Acts 13; nor about the reason why Herod took a shine to his brother's wife; nor even, for that matter, the times of year when palm fronds are/were available in Jerusalem. In fact, come to think of it, I'm not sure I even knew what a "frond" was before watching this.

    The challenge for the viewer in all these situations is to both pick up new information, but maintain a healthy scepticism about what is being presented. This documentary is certainly no exception, leaning heavily, as it does, on the work of Simcha Jacobovici. Jacobovici was the driving force behind 2007's documentary The Lost Tomb of Jesus and whilst someone else's voice is used to present the UK version of the documentary, Jacobovici is listed as an executive producer, is perhaps the most prominent of the talking heads and, based on the way he addresses the camera, may have actually presented the programme in the US cut of the film. The theories here are a little less out there than they were in The Lost Tomb of Jesus, but they're still essentially minority positions which have seemingly found a platform primarily because of their ability to gain interest (and therefore an audience and sponsors) rather than primarily because of the veracity of their new theories.

    The central thesis here is that Jesus was under the control of Herod Antipas and perhaps also Pontius Pilate as the more acceptable face of religious reformation (compared to John the Baptist). Herod was attempting to curry favour with Sejanus, such that when Jesus was arrested around the time of Sejanus's downfall he was left politically impotent for a while. Sejanus's downfall and the resulting temporary impotence of Herod and Pilate gave Caiaphas and Annas the balance of power for a few short months. The high priest used this temporary cessation to get Jesus, who threatened his power, executed.

    This is all very well, but it does appear to leave the whole theory balancing on the supposed seasonal lack of availability of palm fronds and very passing mentions of people connected with Herod in the writings of Luke. Suffice to say I don't think they can bear the weight of the argument.

    The filmmakers claim that the only time the palm fronds were available to wave around was in the autumn, not the spring so that the events depicted as occurring in Holy "Week" may have lasted for as long as six months. This isn't a particularly radical revision in itself, there is almost certainly some aspects of the Holy Week narratives where the symbolism became more important than the cold hard facts. The filmmakers assert that it's in the week (failing to recall the axiom about a week being a long time in politics), but there's no reason why it couldn't be either the presence of the fronds, or the timing being around Passover that were imported to give the story extra theological power. If the filmmakers want to question some of these things, fine. But they look at a picture that doesn't, to them, appear to quite piece together and then seem to hone in on one particular detail without justifying that is. Then they use that to make a massive supposition - that Jesus's demise was linked to Sejanus'. But again, it's clear that Jesus was just one of a number of religious/political reformers. What's remarkable about him isn't the number of his followers, but what they said happened after he was executed.

    But the link to Sejanus is weak anyway. It's assumed that the money that Joanna the wife of Chuza (Herod's chief of staff, we are told) was politically tied. This again is an unsupported assertion. It's not impossible, but it does assume that Joanna was acting under her husband's orders rather than her own discretion and that Jesus was susceptible to this kind of bribe. Furthermore, the fact that only Luke mentions her raises further questions. Mark is the oldest gospel why did he not mention her impact if it was so important? Joanna may have been Luke's source for what went on in Herod's court hence why only he includes the trial before Herod, but this suggests the link with Herod was hardly as pivotal as the filmmakers would have us believe (or else Mark would have included it). It seems at least as likely that Luke is doing as Luke often does and bringing in people around the margins of the story - particularly women (such as Joanna) and non-Jews (such as Antipas).

    And then there's Manaen/Manahen who turns up in Acts 13. Whilst the link with Herod is potentially significant these events are at least as late as 44AD (after the death of Herod Agrippa in Acts 12). This is a big window of time. Large enough, certainly, for the Christian movement to reach and convince at least one prominent courtier to join them, but also probably too large for a Herodian spy to be still bothering to infiltrate the movement of a failed political reformer. The presence of Manaen's name seems unlikely to bolster a claim that Jesus was Herod's man.

    Whilst the theories of the documentary do rather tail off as its thesis becomes more apparent, Last Days is well made with the usual mix of talking heads, dramatic re-enactments, motion stills of ancient-looking texts and location shooting. The pacing is good and the arguments, for all their faults, are well laid out. Certainly this is well above average for Channel 5, even if their penchant for complicated conspiracy theories over more straightforward explanations ultimately lets them down.

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