• 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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    Friday, April 17, 2015

    The Savior (2013)


    One of the most common criticisms of films about Jesus is that the actors chosen for the leading role are either too good-looking, or too white and, not uncommonly, both together. Recent years, though, have seen a bit of a reversal in that particularly trend and what with the performance of part-Tamil Selva Rasalingam in the Lumo Project's Gospel of John finding a wider audience this Easter and Lebanese actor Haaz Sleiman's potrayal in Killing Jesus actors of south Asian descent are started to provide a more ethnically correct Jesus.

    But before either of those productions got off the ground, Robert Savo's The Savior had already had its première and had been touring film festivals back in 2013. The film not only stars Israeli-born actor Shredy Jabarin in the lead role - which is of itself, I believe, something of a first - but all the dialogue is in Arabic.

    Whilst Jabarin's ethnicity and the filmmaker's decision to opt for a Middle-Eastern language are more quasi-authentic than fully authentic, it does make watching the film interesting and its certainly more authentic than the Hollywood Jesuses with their blue eyes and blond hair.

    Moreover it's not a bad little film. Jabarin's performance as Jesus may not quite be divine, but there's hardly a step out of place and he manages to add gravitas without getting dull or stodgy over being overly severe. Jesus smiles occasionally but he always feels like a man with a bigger, more pressing vision on his mind.

    There is also some nice camerawork, notably the moment Jesus and the disciples emerge over the hill ready for their fateful trip to Jerusalem, good soundtrack and I particularly enjoyed the film's use of colour and camera filters.

    One of the things about Jesus films that is usually quit telling is seeing the episodes from his ministry that the filmmakers choose to include and here the film steers away from many of the scenes that appear in most of the other Jesus biopics. So there's no rescuing the adulteress, or Sermon on the Mount, for example. On the other hand we also get a few episodes from the gospels that appeared in a several of the early Jesus films, but have largely been absent ever after. So there's the exorcism in the local synagogue (Mark 1:21-28); the healing of the widow of Nain's son (Luke 7:11-25) replete with the film's best special effects; the mini-apocalypse of Mark 13; and the discussion with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4).

    Indeed the film manages to pack an awful lot into the first hour or so before Jesus and his disciples arrive in Judea. The nativity story lasts only 15 minutes, the rest of the first hour deals with Jesus' ministry prior to his arrival at the temple. It's able to do this by a combination of economical scene selection combined with the decision to avoid embellishing the story wherever. Whilst it's an interesting approach it perhaps leaves the film a little light on drama and character development. The film tends to whizz from one scene to the next without joining the dots. Each of the scenes, in and of themselves, offer a fairly credible portrayal, but it's not always very clear what motivates the various characters.

    One major exception to this however is the long scene of the Last Supper and, in particular, the moment when Jesus washes his disciples feet. It suggests that this demonstration of humility is one of the key points that the filmmakers are trying to stress and that's highlighted still further immediately afterwards when the disciples argue over which of them is the greatest. There's a hint of this in John's gospel, but the contrast is made all the stronger by moving this incident here.

    Having said all that there are a few weakness in the film, not least the jarring and rather sporadic use of the narrator, and some of the special effects. The narration device - depicting an elderly Luke sitting down to write - feels very dependent on the Visual Bible's Matthew project and stresses Luke's role. It even opens by emphasising the lengths Luke has to go to just to prepare his ink. But this is a rare device in cinema in general and with good reason. I can see why emphasising the written nature of the text might appeal to those seeking to find common ground with the "people of the book", many of whom speak some form of Arabic, but it adds very little dramatically and the latter parts of the film are all the better for his general absence.

    The special effects are also rather mixed. Generally one can accept that a film like this is fairly low budget and may not have the money to invest in impressive special effects; a good film can work around those, indeed as I noted of Ray's King of Kings (1961) some bigger budget films do this anyway. The problem is that most of the effects budget seems to have been used up in the temptation in the desert scene and it doesn't really pay off. I'd be interested to know what proportion of the overall budget went on that scene alone. For some reason it's a common approach to go to town with special effects on this scene and yet the most effective treatments, for me at least, are those where there are no special effects, such as (another big budget film) The Greatest Story Ever Told. Having said all that the angelic scenes are more restrained and I did like the effect used when the widow of Nain's son was brought back to life. I'm quite intrigued to know how they did it.

    However, these are fairly minor complaints. Overall the film has a good sense of restraint and is built on fairly sound filmmaking principles. Most of the scenes work well not least because Savo seems to appreciate the restraints he is under and brings out the best with what he has. He knows for example, that many of his actors are not very experienced, so he places a great deal of weight on Jabarin's shoulders, knowing he is up to the task. The dialogue is dramatised but, aside from the narration, not allowed to get bogged down in any particular agenda. And after years of seeing English, American and occasionally European productions the film gives a sense of place, time and sensibility which whilst they may not entirely reflect the first century Palestinian context in which the stories occurred, certainly captures it in a way that few, if any, other films about Jesus do.

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    Sunday, April 12, 2015

    King of Kings (1961) Revisited


    I watched King of Kings (1961) on Easter Monday for the first time I what seems like a very long time. Whilst I've revisited certain clips in the intervening period it was good to take it in in it's entirety and on a large high definition screen, making those colours stand out all the more and doing justice to Ray's bold images and Jeffrey Hunter's blue eyes. Ray is perhaps best appreciated for his use of internal space and smaller' more intimate stories, so it's interesting that it's the big scenes that I most appreciate here.

    One such scene, that has always been one of my favourites is the historical prologue, voiced by Orson Welles. Many recent films have highlighted the story's context of the Jews living under occupation by the Romans, but rarely to the extent here. Pompey's victory is effectively year nought for this story, everything beforehand is largely irrelevant and everything afterwards is related to it. Welles' narrative seamlessly moves from narrating Pompey's invasion and the subsequent skirmishes into directly quoting Luke's "historical" prologue to the nativity story as if they are cut from the same cloth. But of course Ray is essentially doing to his gospel what Luke has done to his - prefix it with historical gloss to give a sense of place, time and context.

    It's disappointing, then, that this all gives way to such a conventional retelling of the nativity. Having seen this part of the story reworked and reinvented so many times, it's retelling here is entirely devoid of drama, except the slaughter of the innocents. Indeed it seems that Ray intends the main point of the first part of this story to focus on the violent context. Pompey's murder of the priests, the Romans' executions of insurrectionists, Herod's slaughter of the infants and finally Herod Antipas assisting his father's death literally kicking him off his perch. The narration links this all together with the unusual phrase "Herod self-crucified" linking him to both the executed revolutionaries before him and Jesus' inevitable crucifixion. Herod is an evil man, but in a sense he is just another person destroyed by the violence that accompanies the thundering machinery of a violent empire.

    And herein lies the basis of Ray's gospel: Jesus is a messiah of peace that stands in opposition to all this power and violence. Perhaps this is why there is a such a preponderance of low angle shots in this film, stressing the towering magnitude of the Roman Empire and the lowly humble path Jesus and his followers will undertake. The camera often gazes up at the authorities in this film, but down on Jesus, most notably of course in that camera-attached-to-the-top-of-the-cross shot that is so very reminiscent of Dali's famous painting. That said there are exceptions in both directions: the Sermon on the Mount often captures Jesus from below, but when Salome asks Herod for John the Baptist's head, we get a high overhead God shot, a reminder that what goes on in the private quarters of the powerful and wealthy is still seen and judged by the god who sees everything.

    However, this is one of the rare occasions where Ray uses some kind of filmmaking technique to force a supernatural interpretation of what we are seeing, perhaps because of the film's interest in power and the use of force. It's notable, for example, that we're treated to a very Markan baptism. There's no literal dove or protestations from John. Jesus may have heard a voice from Heaven, but we do not.

    Furthermore, whilst several miracles are seen on screen, they don't use special effects. This isn't because the film is low budget, and I don't think it is necessarily to accommodate doubt, but rather that doing so would have forced a particular perspective. Lucius' reporting of other miracles is well documented, but note also how the resurrection is all off camera. I think it's significant that the only time a classic "special effect" is used, it's used by the devil during the temptation, and it's a lurid and unconvincing overlay of a tacky looking city. It's so jarringly out of kilter with the rest of the film's look and feel that it seems deliberate to me.

    Jesus of course rejects Satan's advances, in fact the first words Jeffrey Hunter utters are "Man does not live by bread alone but by every word of God". Again given Ray's concerns with violence and social injustice this seems significant. Those opening scenes pit Zealots against Romans but sides with neither, because whilst Barabbas and the Zealots are concerned with earthy issues such as! presumably, "bread" Jesus emphasises that some things are more important.

    As the film progresses, the idea persists that Barabbas's fighters are really just the opposite side of the coin to Roman violence. Jesus' way is radically different. It's interesting that every time there is a big set piece battle in the film, the kingdom of peace is shown going about its business in virtually the same space, but somehow in parallel to the warring Romans and Zealots. So in the opening overview whilst Rome defeats the Zealots Jesus is born. Later when Barabbas's men ambush Pilate's soldiers, the scene is prefaced by footage from just over the hill of John baptising his followers. And, of course, there is Jesus' alternative entry to Jerusalem via donkey which the Zealots attempt to turn into a revolution which ends in them quite literally being trampled into the dirt by the Roman army. There's perhaps a fourth example: in the background when Jesus is crucified there is, to borrow from Welles' opening narration, a sea of crosses - a sign that Roman violence has once again overcome Jewish violence.

    The other notably unusual use of the camera that Ray utilises extensively in this film is the split-focus diopter lens. (This is a split lens allow one half of the camera to focus on a character in the extreme foreground whilst the other half focuses on a character or object in the background). Despite my familiarity with this film it was a surprise to see it used to widely given that it's a technique largely associated with the seventies. It's used significantly in All the President's Men and on YouTube there are demonstrations of Brian DePalma's repeated use of it in Blow Out. But this was 1961 which makes Ray very much a leader in this field. In high definition there's at least one shot that is useful for demonstrating the technique. After the Sermon on the Mount Jesus and Peter talk and if you look at the tree that runs diagonally across the scene you can see how it moves from being blurred on Jesus' side to being in focus next to Jesus.

    There are a few other nice camera moments that I had not noticed before. There were a couple of nice compositions I really appreciated this time around. The one at the top of this post is from the Sermon on the Mount, the one lower down is from Jesus' trial. Also between Jesus' arrest and his subsequent death there's quite a bit of footage of Judas including one where he somehow gets literal blood on his hands and another where he witnesses the crucifixion up close and picks up a stone (this doesn't seem coincidental so it's perhaps a reference to the earlier non-stoning of the woman taken in adultery scene).

    Another character who gets developed in ways beyond their character's development in the Bible is Pilate's wife. Firstly she is involved in discussions that it seems highly unlikely that Pilate's real wife would ever have been. But, in contrast to her waspish, jaded and cynical husband, she is consistently intrigued by Jesus, his message and the stories that surround him. It's stressed that she is Caesar's daughter but she sneaks out with Lucius to witness the Sermon on the Mount. There's a moment of reflection by a pool of water, and most significantly she is present on Jesus' road to the cross. Indeed when he stumbles she even steps forward as if to offer to carry the cross. All this seems in keeping with the moment in Matthew when she warns Pilate of the potential consequences of killing Jesus, but unusually this moment is not present in the film. The film was much cut and perhaps this is a moment that was filmed but ultimately left on the editing room floor.

    I think the same fate must have accompanied some of the footage of Mary Magdalene. She is present in early scenes, most notably when she pops in for a chat with Jesus' mother, but then she disappears from the film right up until it's time for her to witness the resurrection.

    However, the main omission that most Jesus films include is the presence of the Jewish authorities. This isn't just about edits in post-production, it's far more significant. Caiaphas is one of Herod and Pilate's cronies, but there are no other Jewish official leaders to speak of, nor are there any Pharisees. Indeed, aside from Caiaphas and Barabbas's dismissal of his significance there is no real opposition at all to Jesus and his message from within Judaism. Jesus trial in from of Caiaphas is given the briefest mention, but the soldiers who arrested him are Roman. Given how many Jesus films have been labelled anti-Semitic, this film goes to considerable lengths to distance itself from any such accusations fitting for a version of the Jesus story that goes to such lengths to portray him as the antidote to violence.

    Lastly, there is the Great Commission scene on the beach, clearly in Galilee rather than Jerusalem and on the flat rather than on a mountain. Interestingly, immediately after Jesus words the disciples split up and head off in different directions. According to Acts of course, the church clung together in Jerusalem for several years before really splitting up to travel further afield, but it' say nice visualisation of their future. As a big fan of Rossellini's 1950 film Francesco, giullare di Dio (Francis, God's Jester) I can't help wondering if this is a nod to the final scene in that film where Francis' followers spin round until they fall over and then head off in the direction they are pointing. Jesus' method of commissioning may be more serious, but it's message no less important, for those living under Roman rule, for those in 1961 and for us today.

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    Sunday, April 05, 2015

    David Suchet - In the Footsteps of St. Peter (2015)


    The rise of Simon Peter is an unusual one. He shared more or less the same humble roots as Jesus, but whereas Jesus died in almost the same obscurity and with the same low rank as he began, Peter, if the traditions are to be believed, rose to become the leader of the church across the largest and most influential city of the Empire: Rome.

    It's this unlikely rise that David Suchet charts in his latest two part documentary for the BBC David Suchet - In the Footsteps of St. Peter. Suchet starts in Rome with an introduction not dissimilar to the one above, before returning to the Holy Land for the rest of the first part of the documentary to examine Peter's life up to the point of Jesus' death.

    Suchet starts his investigation in Bethsaida, where Peter, then still known by just his Hebrew name, Shimon, was reputed to have grown up. Culturally it was a very cosmopolitan town with a mixture of Jews and other traders from across the empire, indeed Suchet learns that the archeological evidence suggest a very mixed diet was consumed, much of it non-Kosher. Bethsaida was known for its fishing and we're shown fishing net weights and needles that fisherman such as Peter would have used, although the Sea of Galilee has now retreated from where it stood 2000 years ago.

    From Bethsaida to Capernaum, the alleged site of Peter's mother-in-law's house and a far more Jewish settlement than Bethsaida though still one with a strong fishing industry. Suchet gets to visit the, so called, Jesus Boat and learns a bit about how fisherman like him would have clubbed together with others to go into business. Boats such as this needed crews of five and fishing licences and other expenses would have made the cost quite high. Somehow the notion seems to get accepted that Peter was a middle class business owner, but it does rather seem to beg the question.

    Another key site on the Sea of Galilee is Caesarea Philippi where Peter, now a firm follower of Jesus declared that Jesus was the messiah and Jesus replies that on this rock he would build his church. But the rock Suchet stands in front of is a large, former pagan shrine. Suchet uses his experience as an actor to draw out some of the ambiguities of the raw text. Did he mean the rock behind him or the man in front of him? Was he pointing at himself or just referring to Peter's words.

    It's one of the many strengths Suchet brings to his role. As well as his affability with his guests there's a real passion for the subject and an interest in the material. He carries a notebook around with him, but, as the camera occasionally reveals, it's more for sketching than writing, and there's an ongoing sense that Suchet is getting behind the character, trying to understand the character and pick out the drama and humanity in the story. There are some nice moments where Suchet offers a dramatised telling of the story.

    But the success of this documentary also lies in the way it uses the visuals to make an impact. There is, of course, many a BBC documentary where a presenter goes around getting to see and handle the artefacts that accompany their story, but in addition to this, here the Galilean landscapes and the Roman architecture really add to the scene of this incredible transition. And in HD the overhead footage of Jerusalem looks incredible.

    One particularly powerful moment in this respect is the visit to Mount Hermon. It's not a scene that appears in many Jesus films and most of those that do portray it were made on quite small budgets. So in my mind I picture a small hill at best. However, the footage of Mount Hermon really brings home the size of it and just as Suchet is dwarfed by the size of the mountain, seeing this new context makes me realise how the disciples must have been dwarfed by it as well, but also of the appropriateness of such a setting for a moment that so emphasises Jesus' divinity.

    From the Mount Hermon to Mount Zion where Suchet hears about Passover, the temple and learns the context around that strange part in Luke 22:38 where Peter tells Jesus he has two swords and Jesus says that this should be enough. First century Jerusalem, and particularly the countryside around it, was not particularly safe so travellers would bring some form of self defence as standard.

    Suchet then joins Shimon Gibson on the site of one of his current excavations - a house in Jerusalem. They're there to get a feel for Peter sneaking into the high priest's enclosure where he would deny Jesus. Both Suchet and I are struck by how small the courtyard area is. Whilst it's not hard to imagine the high Priest might live in a slightly grander house than this one, again I find myself having to recalibrate my previous mental images of the scene. Gibson points out that just entering such an enclosed, intimate, yet potentially dangerous space was an act of significant bravery.

    The final, and all too brief, segment of the first part of the film looks at Jesus' death and burial and the empty tomb on the following Sunday. The key location here is a first century tomb, but there's no mention that being entombed was exceedingly rare for those crucified, and the mention of Peter and the empty tomb, particularly for a documentary running over Easter weekend is particularly lightweight. Part one ends with Suchet offering his thoughts and concluding with the question "so how does Peter get from this, the possible lowest point in his life, to becoming, what some people call, the Pope of Rome?"

    The answer to this question would seem to lie with both the resurrection and Pentecost and, sure enough, part two opens with the story of Jesus appearing to Peter and six of the other disciples on the beach (John 21). There's a lovely shot of fish cooking over an open fire on shores of Lake Galilee, but he discussion about the resurrection is rather scant. It's true that Pentecost (which we come to next) was also very significant to Peter's about turn and that the encounter with Jesus on the beach was personally redemptive. Nevertheless, it's a shame the programme doesn't actually mention that the gospels claim that Peter witnessed the risen Jesus at least three times in the presence of the other disciples and once on his own. The veracity of that claim can be disputed. There are a range of positions on what "resurrection" actually means, and on the veracity and verifiability of those claims. I must admit that I personally am unsure what exactly is to be made of them. But surely the remit of a documentary like this that it should at least examine the crucial moments in the story, even if it ultimately finds them wanting, or, as it more often the case, concludes that whether you believe it all or not is a matter of faith.

    Following the discussion of Pentecost we move onto Peter's encounter with the Roman centurion Cornelius - "a huge moment for Peter". There's a brief retelling of Peter's escape from Herod's jail before Suchet picks up the trail in Cappadocia (modern-day Turkey). There's some footage of the stunning frescoes carved into the rock in the old St Basil's monastery there and reflections on how the monks there followed the sort of approach that Peter advocated. A brief reference is made to the early chapters of Acts and 1 Peter 3:8-9 is recited.

    From Cappadocia the story returns to Jerusalem and the council that debated Gentile admission to the church. This felt a little under done, but it's perhaps of less interest in such a visual documentary as this as those parts of the story where historical artefacts or artistic interpretations are quite so stunning.

    Which brings things nicely to Rome and the Appian way. The focus here is very much on Peter's leadership of the Roman church. Was it likely and how might he have influenced things there? The programme's theological consultant Ed Adams suggests Peter didn't actually found the church in Rome, even if he led it at some point, so the programme moves to the most likely time for Peter's leadership of the church around the great fire in 64 AD. Various experts discuss this informing us that Nero was prone to scapegoating, that he liked making examples of the prominent leaders, but that any such reprisals were more likely to be by burning, beheading or garrotting than by upside down crucifixion. Furthermore, had Peter been upside down it may have been by his request or by the soldiers' own cruel initiative.

    And so we arrive at the inevitable tour of the catacombs. It's easy to get blasé about yet another documentary trip around the tunnels and chambers underneath Rome. Yet it also seems that every documentary seems to somehow find a fresh part of this underground world that I've not seen before. It really brings home just how unfathomably large the catacombs are and Suchet certain finds some good points of interest in the bit he chooses on which to focus.

    Having covered a great deal of ground on a horizontal axis, the film's final transition is vertically, back up to the surface and into St Peter's square. Here Suchet chooses to sum up, against the backdrop of Peter's most recent spiritual ancestor arriving in his pope mobile. Even with the current incumbent's drive towards a more humble faith, Suchet cannot escape the disconnect between the finery of today's Vatican and Peter's humble beginnings on the Sea of Galilee. He leaves us with the question that is already in our minds: "What would he have made of all this?"

    Overall David Suchet - In the Footsteps of St. Peter is a strong and fairly enjoyable documentary owing to a combination of Suchet's affable enthusiasm, a strong range of knowledgeable experts, an impressive selection of interesting artefacts and some impressive photography. It's a shame that the events of the first Easter are rather short changed, but there's much here that even well seasoned fans of Bible documentaries will learn and enjoy.

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    I've got into the habit of writing down all the experts' names when I watch documentaries like these and so, having done so here, it seemed a shame to exclude them even though there are so many of them that embedding them within the review itself would rather ruin the flow. The list is rather impressive, not least because I don't recall the majority of them appearing in one of these programmes before. And it has admirable breadth, encompassing archaeologists, theologians, fisherman, rabbis, seminary students and art historians. So here's the full list in order of appearance:
    Part 1
    Kate Raphael, Eugenio Alliata, Orna Cohen, Kurt Raveh, Menahem Lev, Claire Pfann, Karen Stern,Ronny Reich, Guy Stiebel, Shimon Gibson.
    Part 2
    Stephen Pfann, Joan Taylor, Gil Gambash, Daniel R Schwartz, Freda Barut, Helen Bond, Arnold Nesselrath, Edward Adams, Riccardo Di Segni, Thomas Cunnah, Ryan Day, Peter Stoddart, Valerie Higgins, Candida Moss, Jerry Brotton.

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    Friday, April 03, 2015

    The Antkeeper (1966)

    What do "Late Great Planet Earth" and Luis Buñuel have in common? Well if the IMDb is to be believed the answer is Rolf Forsberg. The first part of that comparison is fact: Forsberg directed the 1979 movie based on Hal Lindsay's bewilderingly successful book. The other half of the equation is more open to interpretation. Certainly Forsberg made surreal films about religious issues, of which his first, The Antkeeper is a good example. But I'm not sure how far the comparison goes beyond that. Certainly it flatters Forsberg far more than it does Buñnuel.

    The Antkeeper is certainly a novel little movie. Just shy of half an hour and the only Jesus-as-an-ant movie I know of. It’s premise is a simple one - to explain the Gospel as a metaphorical story about ants and their watchful keeper. In and of itself the idea will be surreal enough for some, but Forsberg makes a number of choices which move it into the field of the experimental as well as the surreal.

    Firstly there are some really interesting shots. The opening shot is an ant’s eye view of some grains of sand that look like rocks. There are the extreme close ups of the ants themselves.Then there is the use of light, colour and film-stock. The film uses bright, almost gaudy, colours but there’s a certain translucence about them. Certainly it deliberately eschews a studio feel in favour of a more arty cine camera feel.

    Lastly there are the portrayals of the characters. One of the characters, Bruja the character who is analogous to the devil, has a bizarre half old-man, half woman appearance. There’s a brief explanation for this, but it’s none too convincing, and really it seems like mainly an artistic choice. It does heighten the bizarre other-worldly feel of the film which some will enjoy, but others will find weird for weirdness’ sake.

    The problem with the film however is that the metaphorical aspect of the film fails in various significant ways. Firstly, and perhaps most significantly, the God character comes out of it very badly indeed. My daughter hit the nail on the head when she inadvertently called the antkeeper "the Evil Gardener". That was surely not Forsberg’s intention, but my daughter won’t be alone in viewing the character that way. For no reason he bans the ants from part of the garden - a decision that is not only incomprehensible to the ants, but also to us as well. When, despite his command, they visit the garden anyway, he pulls off their wings and banishes them to a barren desert bit of wasteland even though it’s surrounded my lusher looking areas.

    This touches on the other significant failing that using such an allegory exposes the holes in their narrative. (I say “their narrative” because while The Antkeeper is presented as a metaphorical retelling of the Christian Gospel certain parts of that gospel are particular to only certain groups of Christians. Certainly there are many Christians who would not accept the version of the gospel that The Antkeeper portrays).

    So taking the examples above the antkeeper’s deliberate maiming of the ants discredits the idea that he has any particular care for the ants. Creating a literal devil character likewise left me wondering why. The analogy makes the original story seem far less credible, rather than more, which surely cannot have been the original intention.

    Finally there’s a problem with the chosen allegory itself. In order to get the analogy to work the film has to anthropomorphise the ants. This then reverses the flow of the metaphor. The ants think and act like humans to the extent that it might just have been easier to tell an allegory using human characters.

    The metaphor is not without its strengths - the idea of a God that is to us like a gardener might be to an ant is an interesting idea, and it may help viewers to think more about how earth-shattering the idea of the incarnation is - but the best aspects of the film are its visual ideas rather than it’s theological ones.

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    The Antkeeper is available on DVD as part of the Gospel Film Archive's Easter 2015 Collection. The GFA provided the disc for this review. There's a little more on the film at the Christian Film Database.

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    Tuesday, March 31, 2015

    The Ark (2015)


    I must admit I'm a big fan of Darren Aronofsky's Noah from 2014. It's a huge, dark exploration of- some of the textual and philosophical issues surrounding the flood story written in bold, dramatic tones. Tony Jordan's The Ark is not those things, indeed it's a very different take on the story, but none the worse for that. Out go the volcanic landscapes of Iceland, in come the warm dry Moroccan dessert. Out goes the grunting, moody grit of Russell Crowe and in comes the quirky warmth of David Threlfall, no less determined, but very much in his own fashion. Out goes the primitive, mythical operatic style of Aronofsky's film and in it's place we find an approach that probably owes more to soap opera than anything.

    Both films have been criticised for their dialogue: Crowe et al. talk in that way which is so familiar from epic films - a sort of halfway between Yoda and Frankenstein’s monster; Threlfall and family for lacking gravitas. The truth is that we don’t know how they spoke. And whilst the importance and severity of the situation Noah foresaw is enough to make anyone strip their sentences down to the bare minimum, it’s also likely that aspects of Noah’s normal family life remained as well, like catching up with cousins at a wake.

    So Jordan’s comes into it’s own. To the cynics, of course, it’s the easiest of targets. The Bible film genre is easier than most to poke fun at, purely for it’s own existence; but somehow the story of Noah is the largest and slowest moving fish in a particularly well-crammed barrel. But if you want to use film to explore the stories of the Bible, and to think about what they might have to say about our relationship to the word today then using a modern soap-operaesque approach is as legitimate as any. INdeed the nature of myth through the ages has been taking an old story and reworking it in a way that your new audience relates to.

    Interestingly The Ark starts with a shot taken under water. In a film about a flood there’s barely a drop of the stuff on display. The Ark is surely the driest Noah film on record. Not only is it set in arid desert, but the rains don’t start until the last ten minutes and even then the time spent afloat is over before it’s really started. Even the post-flood scenes take place against a sandy, dry background, asif the Ark’s inhabitants had wanted to hang on, just in case it was going to start up again.

    So the film’s wettest scene is actually of Noah’s sons, and then the patriarch himself, enjoying a bonding moment in a local oasis. It’s an indication of the way the relationships will continue throughout the film. Noah is a friendly, loved and admired father. Even when his sons think he may have lost his mind they can’t quite entirely rule out the possibility that he might be right. Time and again they honour him for the way he has brought them up.

    Whilst the film overall relies rather more on the Bible that on the Qur'an, in one important aspect it follows the Islamic version of the story - Noah has four sons rather than the more familiar three. From the moment he appears on screen you get the same feeling you have for the fate of anyone who beams down from the Starship Enterprise wearing Any sense of foreboding that presents the viewer with is only heightened by the realisation that the fourth son, Kenan, is played by the excellent Nico Mirallegro.

    Perhaps it's just because I last saw him in his excellent performance in 2014's Common, but the moment he appeared on screen as Noah's fourth son, I got the same feeling I used to get whenever an unknown actor in a red jumper beamed down from the Starship Enterprise. Somehow someone's not going to be on board at the end of the film. Either way Mirallegro is reprising the role of a young man whose punishment seems somewhat out of proportion to his “crimes”.

    But Mirallegro’s Kenan, with the link to the land of Canaan which only becomes explicit in the final scene, is where, I suspect, Jordan’s wrestles most earnestly with his subject matter. Early in the film the distinctions are more black or white (perhaps a little too literally). One the one hand is Noah a believer in God. On the other the city dwellers who worship not, as would have been most likely, an assortment of local and/or ancestral deities but instead are pre-historic new atheists. It’s a little cringeworthy, but Kenan adopts Noah’s arguments against atheism, even at one point, parrotting his argument that "[o]nly an idiot would say there is no god because to say that you'd need to know everything, and only an idiot would think they do".

    Kenan gains far more screen time than Ham, Shem and Japheth. Just as Aronofsky used the fictional Ila to pose his questions, so Jordan employs Kenan for the same purpose. When Kenan fatally writes off the deluge as just another storm, choosing to stay with his girlfriend instead you can sense Jordan’s dilemma. If atheism is idiotic, a more traditional take on the Noah story is no less troubling. The sin which has ruined the world need only be “wanting” rather than being “content”. Kenan might be sleeping with his girlfriend and enjoying the odd puff of a pipe, but his behaviour hardly seems to merit his extinction.

    Certainly, the strain of atheism Noah and his family encounters is rather anachronistic. Its followers pour scorn on the idea of an old man in the sky with a white beard millennia before the greeks would first picture Zeus in such a fashion. They argue that they “have science” and that the "universe created itself". Surely they argue if the world is designed then "Who designed the designer?"

    Elsewhere however these kind of modern-sounding objections feel much more realistic, most notably when first Noah’s wife and then his sons respond to his plan to escape the world’s watery demise. “Won't they all eat each other?” asks Mrs Noah (played wonderfully by Joanne Whalley). “Can’t we just escape to higher ground?” suggests one of his sons.

    It’s these interactions which feel the most natural and are, for me, the the strongest part of the film, whereas the earlier scenes had felt a little too stereotypical. Noah and his godly family are white: the non-white characters are the sinners who will drown. The women either deny sex to their husbands, or are too frigid (and I would estimate that the length of time discussing sex is far greater than the time The Noahs ultimately spend afloat).

    Thankfully this seems to change once a “messenger” appears from God and instructs Noah to expand his farming-come-boat-building business (making a line drawing in the sand as if Noah was unsure what a boat looked like). It becomes a spot Noah returns to as the story progresses, the rains seem delayed and even his faith starts to waiver. The messenger however does not return until the very end of the film, and even then only to pose the question "Will Man learn his lesson?”

    Gradually, though, people start to come around. First Noah’s wife, then his sons and daughters in law. Whilst Noah’s preaching in the city appeared, initially, not to have gained any new converts to his cause, later on a handful of followers turn up. And then, at last, the animals appear, and, just as Noah’s wife had predicted, the family end up having to “make a dash for it when it starts raining."

    The animals appearance is one of the films boldest and best choices and allows the films focus to remain on the human drama at the heart of the story. It also allows it to capture a strange kind of fear as the doors to the ark close and suddenly a bunch of strangers realise they are trapped in a confined space with one another and bunch of equally frightened animals.

    If the ending is rather twee, it’s perhaps because Jordan didn’t want to include it at all. Like the writer of the book of Hebrews Jordan’s interest is more in Noah as a man of faith than the more Old Testament ideas of origins and covenant. Purportedly the first draft of the script ended with very first drop of rain. Whilst that might have felt a little under-done, it’s testimony to Jordan’s writing skills that the happy ending and the token appearance of the rainbow feels a little surplus to requirements.

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    Sunday, March 29, 2015

    Dawn of Victory (1966)

    Dawn of Victory (1966) is one of the four titles that form part of the Gospel Film Archive's 2015 Easter Collection. It's later than many of the films released by the GFA and whilst it still clearly made on a limited budget, it's a more accomplished production than many similar-level projects from the 40s and 50s.

    This is apparent right from the off with a striking, 60s title sequence not dissimilar to many Hollywood productions of the time. Unusually the film opts to start with Jesus already on the road to Golgotha struggling under the weight of a full cross. But as Simon of Cyrene is pressed into action the camera focusses instead on Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea who decide to retreat from the crowds to study what light Isaiah 53 may have to shed on the events they are witnessing. At this stage neither of the two is a follower of Jesus, but they are both intrigued by Jesus and trying to fit all that they have seen into their world-view.

    The publicity for this film really emphasises this part of the film, but after less than 9 minutes it's more or less finished, as the camera arrives at Golgotha to witness the prosecution. Whilst the first shot (above) is a little out of focussed it's very nicely composed. It's noticeable as well that Jesus and the two men crucified with him are only a little higher than the crowd witnesses Jesus' execution. This is actually more accurate than the majority of films about Jesus: those being crucified tended to be more or less at eye level with those witnessing the crucifixion, rather than high above them as per the majority of Jesus film.

    It's also one of the few films about Jesus to include all 7 of the phrases the gospels record Jesus as saying from the cross. Having witnessed Jesus' death we also get the traditional proclamation from a Roman centurion, before the camera returns to Nicodemus and Joseph who are now convinced that Jesus is who he (apparently) claimed to be. "Only the Son of God could have died like that". That's one of those phrases that seems quite dated nowadays. These days it's more widely accepted that claiming to be the/s "son of God" was not as unique a claim and many took it for.

    Joseph heads off to arrange Jesus' burial and so the next scene takes us into Joseph's garden where a small battalion of soldiers are grumbling about having to keep an eye on Jesus' tomb. These scenes are rather mixed. There's a great shot of the soldiers around the campfire, but when the tomb is shaken open the special effects are really not very special. As the film's title suggests it is the scenes on Sunday morning which really take precedence here. The poorly executed moment when the tomb opens comes at the end of a fairly lengthy conversation between the Roman guards, again a moment that is not covered very often by films about Jesus.

    There then follows one of the most extensive selections of episodes from after Jesus' resurrection that I'm aware of - perhaps, even, on a par with The Miracle Maker. It makes a reasonable effort to harmonise the accounts from the four gospels, even if that means occasionally doing things like keeping the voice that first speaks to the women off camera so it's not clear whether they are being spoken to by one man (Mark), an angel (Matt) or two men (Luke), or if it's Jesus himself. It's also interesting that Peter claims to have met Jesus as well, a clear nod to 1 Cor 15:5. Finally Jesus ends, rather strangely, with the words from John 14:27.

    So for various reasons this is an interesting addition to the canon and certainly not the dry proof-texting I was inspecting from the film's description. Sadly the producers, Concordia Films, didn't make many more film, but the actor who played Jesus - Jason Evers - went on to star in a string of classic 80s TV programmes including The A-Team, Dukes of Hazard, CHiPS, Knight Rider and Murder She Wrote. Essentially, if it was popular with boys my age early on Saturday evening, it appears that Evers must have been in it at some point.

    I'll be reviewing the other films on this disc over the next few weeks. (Please note I was sent a copy of the disc to review).

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    Saturday, March 28, 2015

    Mysteries of the Bible: Jesus

    Last night saw what appears to be Channel 5's Easter religious offering the first in an supposedly four-part series called Mysteries of the Bible. I say "supposedly" because despite it being claimed in numerous places that this was the first episode of four, I've not managed to find anywhere that gives any details away about the final three instalments.

    The plot thickens still further as it turns out that this episode was actually a re-edited version of a 2014 National Geographic documentary The Jesus Mysteries (currently available on YouTube). Indeed the game is rather given away by the repeated use of the (above) title card from the National Geographic programme using the original title rather than Channel 5's re-brand.

    This version of the documentary is rather shorter as well. Whereas the original ran for 2 hours with adverts (or 90 minutes without) this cut barely makes it to the hour mark with the adverts, leaving just 45 minutes of actual content. Whereas the original version looked at seven mysteries, here there were only five (nativity, childhood, miracles, Mary and crucifixion, leaving out segments on St. Peter and the veil of St. Veronica).

    Overall it's a strange mix. The producers chose a good group of scholars for their talking heads - Bart Ehrman, Helen Bond, Mark Goodacre, Shimon Gibson, Larry Hurtado and Kate Cooper amongst several others and use them quite well. Apparently all the interviews were conducted at an SBL conference which reflects the kind of economising that is reflected in other parts of the film, although not always with such good results.

    For example, an awful lot of "green-screening" has been used to make this production and so much of it is so poorly executed that it's not only painfully obvious but rather tiresome by the end. Likewise there are several special effects, but the filmmakers' enthusiasm for them does not match the quality of their execution. Too many of the effects used are akin to the kind of filters you get in cheap video and photo editing packages that no-one uses except teenagers trying to impress their friends on Facebook.

    Content-wise, though, four fifths of it is pretty good. It's not exactly new or ground-breaking, but it's well put across and there were a few points with which I was unfamiliar. But that good work is rather let down by the section which examines the theory that Jesus, as a boy, travelled to Cornwall. It's such a bonkers theory that even those consultants who feature in this section are still fairly dismissive barring the one Cornwall local who has a corresponding book to sell. The others, presumably, will no doubt be cursing their tact. In the end even the narrator can't quite muster enough enthusiasm to give things any credibility. You wonder why the filmmakers included the segment at all and even more baffling is why Channel 5 left this part in at the expense of the sections on Peter and Veronica.

    In contrast the strongest section is the one on Jesus' miracles which gives particular emphasis to the social implications of Jesus' healings. The film stresses not only that Jesus' actions included those who had previously been excluded, but also that it was in breaking these taboos that got Jesus into such a lot of trouble.

    So whilst it is rather marred by the "Jesus tours England" section, it has some surprising merits as well and many of the audience will feel that, on balance, it was just about worth their time to watch it.

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    Wednesday, March 25, 2015

    Suchet on In The Footsteps Of St Peter


    Among the various Bible film related productions airing this Easter is this new BBC documentary David Suchet: In The Footsteps Of St Peter. The series is a follow up to Suchet’s 2012 documentary In the Footsteps of Saint Paul and follows a similar format travelling around in Galilee, Jerusalem and Rome, talking to experts and visiting key places in an attempt to get to know St. Peter better.

    For much of the first decade of this century most religious TV documentaries were vaguely controversial, most notably those presented by Robert Beckford on Channel 4. But the BBC seems to have changed tack of late and sought to provide the background to some of the stories of the Bible in a way that will, I would have though, primarily appeal to believers, even though it aims to be neutral and impartial.

    There are several new bits of information on the programme. The most important thing is the news that it will air over two mornings, with part one on Good Friday,3rd April at 9am, followed by part two on Easter Sunday Morning, 5th April at the same time. There are detailed descriptions of parts one and two on the BBC website.

    Also there is a 5 minute video promo with some short excerpts from the film as well as the transcript where Suchet makes some interesting points, as well as an accompanying article.

    One bit that did raise an eyebrow was the final paragraph where Suchet says:
    My travels around Galilee talking with people and visiting places associated with Peter such as Capernaum suggest he might have been more of an entrepreneur, running his own fishing business. His financial security made it possible for him to leave a wife, family and dependents to follow Jesus for some three years.
    That’s a convenient interpretation – Peter falling back on his wealth from his hard work – rather than a more traditional, and dare I say radical, one which sees Peter as literally giving up everything he had to follow Jesus, and I have to say I’m unconvinced. After all Peter’s business seems to have permanently taken a back seat at least at some point and whilst one could argue that gradually the income from being a disciple increased at around the time his savings ran out, it seems a little convenient. Presumably though the documentary will flesh this out a little.

    It’s also interesting to hear that there will be some discussion (and presumably footage) of the, so-called, Jesus boat. It may be almost 30 years since it was discovered but it’s a fascinating find and one I’d like to know more about.

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    Friday, March 20, 2015

    Trailer for the BBC's The Ark

    With Lent progressing rapidly the publicity for all the Bible films being released this Easter is hotting up. CNN's Finding Jesus has already shown a few episodes, more and more is emerging about Bill Reilly's Killing Jesus and likewise with A.D..

    The BBC tends to be a bit more tight lipped about these things until the very last minute, so it was interesting to see that they have finally released a bit more information in a press release detailing their religious programming for Easter. Amongst the programmes discussed is this bit on The Ark:
    The Ark - a one off drama for BBC One, starring David Threlfall (Noah), Joanne Whalley (Emmie), Nico Mirallegro (Kenan), Ashley Walters (God’s Angel), Emily Bevan (Salit), Michael Fox (Shem), Andrew Hawley (Japeth), Hannah Johm-Kamen (Nahlab) and Ian Smith (Ham). It is the retelling of the biblical story of Noah and The Ark. Noah, a farmer and family man, is instructed by an angel to build an ark in the middle of a desert in order to save both his family and the faithful from a devastating flood. A seemingly impossible task, especially when his sons refuse to believe him and help, Noah risks ridicule and humiliation from the degenerate townsfolk as well as his loving but exasperated family, in his quest to carry out his God-given task.

    The Ark is a timeless tale; a story of family and faith; about one man's belief and fixation with building the ark which will ultimately save his family and mankind. It is an obsession which leads to the fragmentation of his family, a test of their faith in their father and their father’s faith in God and everything he believes in.
    The show has been produced by Tony Jordan's Red Planet Productions who were also responsible for other BBC productions such as The Passion (2008) and The Nativity (2010), and their website also includes a trailer for the film.

    Elsewhere, TVWise reveals that the film's first episode will air on Monday March 30th at 8:30pm on BBC1. There's more of a feature piece at Christian Today with some quotes from Jordan himself.

    Incidentally, the BBC announcement also discusses David Suchet's follow up to his 2013 documentary on Paul. David Suchet: In The Footsteps of St Peter and also mentions a word for word dramatisation of John's Gospel, which, given previous partnerships will surely be the recent film by Big Book Media / The Lumo Project.

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    Wednesday, March 18, 2015

    Hostages; Jaël et Sisera (2013)

    Whilst we await the results of the Israeli election I've been enjoying a TV series about the potential demise of another Israeli Prime Minister in Bnei Aruba (Hostages, 2013).

    I mention it here because the lead character is Dr. Yael Danon, a surgeon who is held hostage the night before she is due to operate on the Israeli premier. The terrorists in question want her to see that he dies and whilst written like that it seems a little far-fetched it's actually pretty well done.

    The reason it up here is the biblical overtones of the heroine's name, Yael, a variation on Jael, the woman in Judges who is reputed to have killed the Hebrews' enemy Sisera by luring him into her tent and then driving a tent peg through his head. It's the kind of powerful imagery that makes the story hard to forget, even though it's rarely discussed, and even more rarely portrayed on film. For those unfamiliar with Jael's appearance in Judges 4 here it is:
    Now Sisera had fled away on foot to the tent of Jael wife of Heber the Kenite; for there was peace between King Jabin of Hazor and the clan of Heber the Kenite. Jael came out to meet Sisera, and said to him, ‘Turn aside, my lord, turn aside to me; have no fear.’ So he turned aside to her into the tent, and she covered him with a rug. Then he said to her, ‘Please give me a little water to drink; for I am thirsty.’ So she opened a skin of milk and gave him a drink and covered him. He said to her, ‘Stand at the entrance of the tent, and if anybody comes and asks you, “Is anyone here?” say, “No.”’ But Jael wife of Heber took a tent-peg, and took a hammer in her hand, and went softly to him and drove the peg into his temple, until it went down into the ground—he was lying fast asleep from weariness—and he died. Then, as Barak came in pursuit of Sisera, Jael went out to meet him, and said to him, ‘Come, and I will show you the man whom you are seeking.’ So he went into her tent; and there was Sisera lying dead, with the tent-peg in his temple.
    Hostages isn't any kind of attempt to modernise the biblical narrative, but needless to say when the series' lead character is called Jael and starts waving sharp objects in the direction of the men who are "guests" in her home, it doesn't seem coincidental. Interestingly it's the kind of link that seemed a little too obvious to the show's original intended audience, but flies over the heads of the wider audience that the programme has found due to it's success.

    The only film about Jael I'm aware of is Henri Andréani's 1911 Jaël et Sisera (Pathé). I've not had the pleasure but it's one of the film's discussed by David Shepherd in "The Bible on Silent Film", from where I've taken the image below.

    According to Shepherd the film plays a little fast and loose with the biblical account. Jael is married to Sisera's friend Heber the Kenite who not only slays the Canaanite general, but also releases a group of Israelites from their imprisonment in the enemy camp. Shepherd concludes:
    "While Israelite femme fatales such as Judith and Jael had already enjoyed a long history of glorification and vilification prior to their emergence on the silent screen, Andréani's choice of Jael and treatment of her can hardly be a coincidence given the prominence enjoyed by feminine heroines, often armed and dangerous, within early sensational melodrama."
    Shepherd also notes that the film omits Deborah who is the character that the Bible chooses to focus on.

    The film is still in existence; there's a copy in the BFI archive for starters, although sadly they appear to have inexplicably ditched their excellent Film and TV database and replaced it with a rather dumbed down their archive website. Sadly the new version no longer offer plot summaries for the film but you can read a little more on their Collections Search page. Sadly, it's also not covered by Campbell and Pitts. Thankfully there is a little summary (and the original poster) courtesy of the Foundation Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé:
    The early scenes, tumultuous, violent and colourful in a wild and grandiose setting, depict the bloody struggle that divided the barbarian camp of Sisera from Barak, leader of the Israelites. In the first tableaux, we are at Sisera's camp where Jael, wife of Heber, delivers her fellow Jewish prisoners. They flee, revealing the location of Sisera's camp and Barak decides to march against his enemy. After a fight, Sisera's army is thrown into the Kishon water torrent. Only Sisera, escapes the massacre, fleeing his conqueror/enemy. Cornered, exhausted, he begs for asylum under the tent of Jael, who gives him hospitality. But while the fugitive, overcome by fatigue, falls asleep deeply, Jael, takes advantage of his sleep and kills him, thus delivering the Israelites from their persecutor. God is acclaimed by his people as a liberator.

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    Saturday, March 14, 2015

    No Greater Power (1942)


    Many years ago I won a copy of the cine projector release of this film and have been waiting for our family projector to get into a fit state to be able to watch it. Having finally got around to seeing it I’ve now found out that the Gospel Films Archive have released it on DVD (along with I Beheld His Glory (1952) and the 1949 film Ambassador for Christ from Cathedral Films’ “Life of Paul series) so it’s available to view for considerably less hassle than I had to go through.

    The film itself dates from 1942 which puts it in that early talkie period when very few companies were making Jesus films were made. One of the major exceptions was Cathedral films who also made other early, sound-era, Jesus films such as The Great Commandment (made in 1939 but not released until Fox did so in 1942) and Child of Bethlehem (1940). Like those films No Greater Power was produced by Rev. James K. Friedrich who also co-wrote it with Robert Edmunds. Friedrich’s regular collaborator John T. Coyle directed, a partnership that would produce a vast body of Bible films in the years to follow.

    The film starts, somewhat unusually, with a man and woman arriving in what appears to be a rural village. As she is pregnant and riding a donkey it’s natural to think of the Nativity and to wonder how these images will fit with what we have already been told is the story of Zacchaeus, particularly as the couple are searching for somewhere to stay the night.

    Further unexpected twists are to come: We meet Zacchaeus, but he’s only a down-on-his-luck potter; the couple are not married but brother and sister; and it emerges that the man of the couple, rather than Zacchaeus who is the tax collector.

    Initially Zacchaeus turns the couple away. He already has some financial difficulties and offering hospitality to a tax collector is bad for business such is the feeling of hatred and the fear of spiritual contamination from his fellow townspeople. But then there’s a chance encounter with a pernickety Jewish scribe who forces him to destroy one of his pots when it momentarily comes into contact with a dead insect. Zacchaeus is infuriated and decides to reject the strictures of the Jewish law and offer hospitality, at a considerable price, to the tax collector and his wife.

    As the evening passes, the two men chat and the tax collector persuades Zacchaeus of the benefits of that particular profession, namely that there is money and power to be gained. When his guests leave, Zacchaeus enlists and a quick montage shows us him accruing considerable wealth.

    It’s clear though that his perceived rejection by his fellow townspeople, and his subsequent power and wealth have changed him such that whereas initially he was the kind of man who might be compassionate towards strangers in town, he is now motivated almost solely by profit. So it is that we arrive at the story from Luke’s Gospel.

    Later on Cathedral Films’ offerings tended to adopt a more straightforward, point and shoot methodology, perhaps as the pressures of covering so much material in such a short period of time took precedence over more artistic concerns. Here however there are several notable shots and it’s not inconceivable that these were due, in part, to cinematographer John Alton who went on to greater things in Elmer Gantry and Robert Siodmak’s classic Film Noir The Killers (1946).

    Perhaps it’s just the era, or the black and white photography, but it’s the Noir film that seems more closely related to Alton’s work here, particularly the interiors of Zacchaeus’ house, which is shot from a variety of high and low angles. There’s also interesting use of light, not least the film’s most discussed shot (below), where backlighting forms a halo effect around Jesus’ head.

    Significantly our first shot of Jesus is taken from over Zacchaeus’ shoulder (below), not quite a point-of-view shot, but certainly suggestive of such. Jesus is a small figure in the background, distant, remote and cut off from the film’s eponymous anti-hero. The audience is then privileged with closer shots of Jesus as we see him interact with some of the townspeople. There are blessings of children, and perhaps the suggestion of a healing.

    Here as well we’re given a brief sample of Jesus’ teaching, all of which comes from the Gospel of Matthew rather than Luke. In the main it’s Matthew 5:43-48 (shown as intertitles in the cine release version), but the final line is Matt 5:20: "...except your righteousness exceed the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the Kingdom of Heaven."

    It's not entirely clear why the filmmakers decided that, of all the words of Jesus available to them, it was these that should be chosen here. The "love your enemies" passage from Matt 5:43-48 is conceivably the kind of thing that Jesus might have thought Zacchaeus's neighbours needed to hear, but did they think their audience needed to hear it as well? Given that this film was released the year after the United States entered the Second World War, it's hard not to think of that conflict in the background. And what of the use of Matt 5:20? To end on this passage - and to graft it onto a passage where it doesn't belong, in a story that neither passage belongs in suggests some kind of message intended for the audience.

    It's not long however, Zacchaeus gets to meet Jesus. From a theological angle it’s perhaps significant that this is very much a film about Jesus finding the sinner and not the other way round. Indeed the film brings out some of the more available metaphors in the story which are easily overlooked solely by reading it. Zacchaeus isolated and to, an extent, tangled in the tree. It’s reminiscent of Absalom and also of the tree in the Garden of Eden: neither connection had really struck me before.

    Jesus enters Zacchaeus's house and things largely proceed in line with the account in Luke 19:1-10, but there are more interesting ideas visually, not least the shot of one of the women of the house washing Jesus' feet. Zaccheus' wife had not been convinced about his career change, but was largely absent from the montage that charted his rise to power, but here she (?) takes the first active role in responding to Jesus, unwittingly aligning herself with the "woman of sinful life" from Luke 7.

    The moment of Zaachaeus' conversion is also portrayed interestingly, with a double exposure of his face overlaying a montaged flashback of earlier scenes in the film. Looking back it's easy to smirk at this shot which seems a quite dated by today's standards, but it's easy to forget that this film was made just a few months after the release of Citizen Kane, and only 12 years after Vertov's Man With a Movie Camera, of which it's most reminiscent.

    However, arguably the film's most satisfactory shot comes right near the end, as Zacchaeus leaves his house to return his ill-gotten gains to his victims. The moment (see below) is shot from inside the house, over the shoulder of Jesus who stands in the doorway. Zaccheus gradually diminishes as he moves towards the townspeople, gradually merging with them and so bringing the attention back towards his new Lord. It pairs perfectly with the shot over Zacchaeus's shoulder earlier in the film, suggesting both unity and, perhaps, substitution, with its connotations of atonement. It's a fitting end for a production that uses strong visual ideas and good filmmaking technique to elevate it above its humble origins.

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    Sunday, March 08, 2015

    Nazarin (1959)


    Luis Buñuel is one of a small group of directors whose work started in the silent era and ran way into the 1970s. As a big fan of another member of that exclusive club - Alfred Hitchcock - it’s tempting to get drawn into comparisons between the two, not least because spiritual issues in general and their Jesuit Catholic educations in particular, were major influences on their work.

    I suspect that the attitudes to both men to questions of faith varied throughout their long careers. Certainly the harsh critique of religion in Buñuel’s La Voie lactée (The Milky Way), where religion is a monstrous edifice built of false foundations, is in stark contrast to Nazarin where Buñuel finds sympathy for his religiously motivated lead, even if he implies that such a lost cause is an indication of the absence of God.

    It’s an unusual premise. Priests in movies tend towards one of two positions depending on the filmmakers’ prior beliefs: good priests whose example and ministry hint at the possibility of a good and gracious God; or bad priests whose sins typify the absence of God and, for the filmmaker at least, the murky motivations of many of those who have gained from abusing their position.

    Here however Buñuel presents us with a priest who distils the very best of all those movie priests but uses his ineffectiveness and naiveté to question the existence of God. In part it’s an inversion of the Job story, whereby despite God’s servant living exactly as he ought to, he ends up downtrodden and cursed, repeatedly causing harm not only to himself, but also those around him. There’s no upbeat ending however and ultimately it’s God, rather than his servant, that ends up in the dock.

    Yet it’s also a subversion of the example of Christ. Father Nazario is the very epitome of someone following in the footsteps of Jesus. He protects and attempts to reform the prostitute Andara; he frequently gives all his money away; he takes upa job only to leave it when he realises his appointment means others might go without; and he continues to preach the gospel to anyone that will listen. He even resists being called upon to miraculously heal a feverish girl, prays anyway, and then denies responsibility when she is healed.

    Yet, that incident aisde, instead of a successful ministry Nazario finds only failure and rejection. Indeed Buñuel even strips him of his chance to be a martyr. He’s imprisoned by the authorities, bound and due to March to court, but then at the last minute separated from the other prisonners and allowed to travel unfettered and accompanied by a guard out of uniform. Whilst Nazario is not exactly free, he is no longer fearing for his life. Indeed this is one of the few Christ-figure films that neither ends with the death of the protagonist, nor even photographs them in a cruciform pose.

    He does however manage to incur the wrath of the political and religious authorities. The church is scandalised by his relationship with the two women who accompany him, Beatriz and Andara. Andara is a former prostitute, Beatriz has psychotic episodes - including one where she imagines a picture of Jesus coming to life and mocking her - but both become devoted to Father Nazario and follow him everywhere..

    However, much to his annoyance, the source of their devotion is not his teaching, despite his frequent chastisement, indeed ultimately Beatriz returns to her abusive lover Pinto. In the final scene she is shown falling asleep on his shoulder as they ride past a bedraggled Father Nazario en route as he walks the long road to face the authorities.

    I say “authorities”, but by this stage the religious authorities have long made up their minds. Even at the start of the film he is considered something of a loose cannon, operating without a parish, By the end they consider him “reckless”, a “rebel spirit” affected by “madness”. Many parts of the film are damning of the church, but none more so that the penultimate scene where one of the bishop’s representatives tells him that “your habits contradict those of priests. Your ways confront the church which you claim to love and obey.”

    What’s interesting about the film is where it finishes, further along the road to judgement Nazrio is given a pineapple by a fruit seller. DIfferent writers have interpreted this in different ways. Some see it as symbolic of the crown of thorns, others as suggestive of a handgrenade and still others as a nod to the fruit of the tree of good and evil from the Garden of Eden. At first Nazrio rejects it, but then he changed his mind and acepts the women’s charity, walking on with a troubled, although rather ambiguous look on his face. Has he realised for the first time that he is a human who needs others as much as they need him? Or is this his realisation of the absence of God.

    Either way, ending at this point reminds me of how the ministry of Jesus must have looked like at this point. Despised and rejected, imprisoned by corrupt political authorities after the religious authorities have washed their hands of him. Rumours of him healing people in the past pale into insignificance the numbers of those who cheered him have dwindled away to just a prostitute and a mad woman. And even then they can’t stay awake at the crucial moment.

    Christianity, of course, centres on the notion that this was not the end of the story. But for a while, at least, things must have seemed as bleak as they do at the end of Nazarin.

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    Sunday, March 01, 2015

    CNN's Finding Jesus Starts Tonight

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

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

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

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    Friday, February 27, 2015

    Leviathan (2014)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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    Saturday, February 21, 2015

    The Vikings and King of Kings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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    Sunday, February 15, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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