One of the things that is most powerful about studying the Bible on film is the way it forces you to look at the biblical texts through another's eyes. It enables us to see our blind spots and to catch things we might otherwise we may have missed. It can be argued, of course, that the benefits of this are only limited with Hollywood films - after all they are a product of broadly the same cultural understanding that he vast majority of us in the English speaking west all share.
Clearly, then, Cheick Oumar Sissoko’s La Genèse (1999) bristles with fresh opportunity. Far from being the product of a group of wealthy middle class westerners, it tells the story of Isaac’s family from an African perspective, specifically that of the Bambara speaking people of Mali, who number only few million people. Whilst it's important to stress that this too is a different culture from pre-historic Canaan, it understands the nomadic tribal context in which these stories are set, far better than any number of Hollywood films. It provides a fascinating series of insights, bringing the tribal context to the fore and exploring the stories with an authenticity that is largely absent in other portrayals.
It's temptingly easy to dismiss some of the ways this adaptation deviates from how we perceive the text - it deviates from the biblical order of the various stories for one thing - but of course that is exactly the kind of thing to which we should be paying most attention. Even after two decades of non-linear story telling through films like Pulp Fiction and Memento people in our culture tend to assume that a series of narratives strung together in a certain order, occurred in that order. But of course that is an assumption, which may or not be valid and the fact that it is not necessarily valid in another, not dissimilar, culture should make us think about its validity.
Given how achronologically we tend to read scripture anyway (for example reading a bit from Mark, then a bit from Jeremiah, then a bit from Genesis and then a verse from Paul etc.) there's much merit in this approach. The convoluted plot line, with flashbacks and stories within stories actually makes the narrative flow much better than The Bible Collection's two films Joseph and Jacob which takes a more straightforward approach. As a filmic device it gives a broad sweep of how unreliable Jacob's clan was in a single snapshot - undermining the Sunday school image of the patriarchs as noble and grandfatherly. Somehow presenting them altogether highlights the instability there.
By refusing to lionise its protagonists it emphasises just how dysfunctional this family was at times. Too often these characters have been stripped of their humanity, and shown simply as one dimensional heroes. La Genèse gives a more realistic picture which testifies to a God who uses such ordinary, broken unreliable people further his will, and offers us hope that he can use us as well.
Sissoko's newly arranged narrative starts with a brief shot of Esau and his servants. Esau pops up regularly throughout the film in similarly brief fashion; as an almost incidental figure around the margins of the story, yet the potential conflict which Esau seeks looms large, casting its shadow across all the other events that are unfolding.
However the incident that drives the plot is Dinah's rape by Shechem and the resulting revenge her brothers wreak on the Shechemites. Perhaps rather troublingly it appears to hold Dinah partially responsible, depicting her as a precocious flirt who, along with a couple of young boys, teases Shechem a little too far.
This attitude is reflected by the Shechemites themselves, who hang around whilst Dinah is being raped and criticise her people for being rootless and without culture. A bloodied sheet is even held aloft for the waiting crowd's approval. The film thus portrays this as a political act as much as a sexual one. Initially Hamor, also, blames Dinah for what has occurred, but then the film becomes the first to give Dinah a voice. She speaks back and rebukes Hamor and he seems to respond to her chastisement and decide to speak to Jacob.
When Hamor seeks out Jacob finds him confined to his tent mourning the death of Joseph. Indeed, Jacob is confined to his tent for much of the film and his inability to lead his people at the time seems to be held responsible for many of the problems that afflict his family. So it is left to Leah to express the family's anger over Dinah's rape and the idea of getting Hamor's people to get circumcised arises from a discussion Jacob has with his sons.
Whilst the film doesn't really make it clear how closely Jacob and Hamor are, it emphasises their connectedness, the "brotherly" nature of their relationship, rather than portraying them as entirely independent of each other. It comes to the fore in particular once Hamor's son Shechem marries Jacob's daughter Dinah as the two men become related, not only through marriage, but also because Hamor and his people partake in the Hebrew ritual of circumcision.
The sequence is easily the most memorable one in the entire film, at least for male viewers, portraying the Shechemites' mass circumcising in wince inducing fashion. Firstly there is the queue of men waiting ominously for their appointment with a man wielding a large, but crude looking, knife and then there are the post-operation scenes of the various men hobbling around trying to minimise the pain. This highlights the link between the crowd complicity in Dinah's rape and their communal punishment. Nevertheless, the women, who also witnessed Dinah's humiliation, not only avoid this "punishment" but make things worse standing by and mock the men. Jacob's sons also mock Shechem: "His crown has fallen and he can't bend to pick it up".
Judah and Simeon take this as their cue to wreak their vengeance and the slaughter is disturbingly thorough. One of the Hebrew attacker pauses when faced with a baby boy, but a fellow countryman insists that even this boy should be killed. The only survivor is Hamor himself (in contrast to the text where he also is killed by Simeon and Levi), who is left to face the cruel implications of his fate: not only has he lost his son and his friends but his tribe will die out with him.
Hamor returns to speak to Jacob who is horrified by his sons' actions, but Hamor takes the incident to the council of nations and the film is there for the majority of its remaining run time. As well as deciding what to do about Jacob's tribe, they also hear the case brought against Judah specifically by his daughter-in-law Tamar.
Tamar's story is another which is covered very sparsely in film. Like the story of Dinah, it casts the man who gave his name to the Jews in a terrible light. Not only is he a co-conspirator regarding the slaughter of the Shechemites, but also a hypocritical user of prostitutes and a man who would deny his daughter-in-law her rights as a widow. Judah is portrayed as vain and foolish in contrast to Tamar who takes things into her own hands. It's no surprise, then, to find Dinah involved in presenting the case to the council of nations. Throughout the film Dinah is portrayed as a strong woman, unwilling to submit to what the various men and what the patriarchal culture expects of her and she is ultimately vindicated in the final scenes when she appears as a witness before God..
It is this sequence that feels most embedded in Maltese culture. Tamar's case is serious, yet its telling is accompanied by bursts of rhythmical music and dance and much mocking of Judah. This feels alien to us - as do the images presented as a flashback that accompany it - but again this serves to emphasise the gulf between the original story's culture and our own.
With the assembled group having ruled on these cases Jacob emerges having left his tent and tells the story of how his mother and father met. This, also, is shown with a flashback to accompany Jacob's narration. Jacob intends to use the story to contrast how things have changed between his parents' betrothal and the time in which he now lives - "before the world was torn asunder", but his interpretation is challenged by one who has appeared in the darkness outside the tent: Esau.
Esau challenges Jacob's nostalgic claims that there was a time before "the rift between father and son...between God and man." He reminds Jacob that their father turned his back on Esau and his mother cutting him off and argues that "Since the dawn of time, children have been into rift and discord". At his command Esau's men attack and burn the tent where the council of nations had been meeting and kill their animals. Esau has dreamt that God will bring him justice in the morning and leaves Jacob to tell Benjamin how the two brothers became estranged (accompanied again by a depiction of the events in the story). Jacob repeats his lament - "God no longer hears men".
But no sooner are the words out of his mouth than an angel, in the form of a boy, summons him to an encounter with God. Jacob pleads at length* with God for Esau's forgiveness so that his family will not be destroyed. Interestingly God is portrayed as many voices as a crowd of children in white in the film's most visually creative moment.
However Esau too meets the angel and is told "Put down your knife. Justice is for God alone to will". Furthermore he witnesses his brothers ordeal such that his heart towards him is changed. In the morning it is Esay who turns peacemaker, reconciling with Jacob but also seemingly knowing the truth about what happened to Joseph. And it is he rather than his brother that sends Jacob's sons to Egypt, tantalisingly setting up the story of Joseph as the next chapter in their family's story.
Visually, La genèse is beautifully filmed making the most of the wonderful Malese landscapes, and capturing something of the empty space that typified the world several thousand years ago. Sissoko also uses colour to great effect contrasting the bright blue of Jacob and his family with the orange of Hamor's people, the use of two complementary colours highlighting the gulf that exists between the two peoples. It's notable also that when God arrives it is in a dazzling display of white. Yet nevertheless the film is, at times, very stark and
Yet for all its grounded-ness in an African tribal culture, the real power of La genèse is the way it testifies to universal human values. Fear, love, hate, revenge, the desire for justice, all of these are present in all human societies from the most primitive early tribes to the supposedly advanced western economies of today. One of the reasons that the stories of Jacob and Esau still have such power today is the way they give voice to those emotions. And La genèse is one of the best Bible films not because of some novelty value, but because it is able to take the latent emotions in the story and give them extra depth and verve, bringing them closer to home even for those of us who reside far away from Jacob and his tribe and kinsmen.
*The discussion is complex and lengthy and would bear a lengthier examination than time permits here.