• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as current film releases with spiritual significance, and a few bits and pieces on the Bible.

    Matt Page


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    Saturday, August 12, 2017

    25 things to look out for on the blog

    I've decided it might be fun to give you a little run down of what the next few months (or maybe years) are going to have to have in stock. I usually resist this kind of nailng your colours to the mast exercise, but sometimes it's quite helpful and I htink now might be one of those times. If I'm ever going to get my book written I should probably get on with it. Plus there are other obligations I have to meet and things I want to cover, not least the three films based on the gospels that are due out before the end of the year. So here's a list of them, either to whet your appetite, or to help you steer clear for a while...

    Firstly there are 18 films

    Joseph in the Land of Egypt (1914)
    Salome (1922)
    Sodom and Gomorrah (1922)
    Samson and Delilah (1922)
    Lot in Sodom (1933)
    The Greatest Commandment (1939)
    Salome (1953)
    Barabbas (1961)
    Il Vecchio Testamento (The Old Testament) (1962)
    I Grandi Condottieri (Samson and Gideon) (1965)
    Jesus, Nuestro Senor (1971)
    Moses und Aron (1973)
    Jacob and Joseph (1974)
    Wholly Moses (1981)
    St. John in Exile (1986)
    Book of Life (1998)
    Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter (2001)
    Noah (2014)
    Chasing the Star (2017)
    Mary Magdalene (2017)
    The Star (2017)

    Then there are three series I'll be continuing to dip into

    The Greatest Heroes of the Bible (1978-79)
    A.D. The Bible Continues (2015)
    Pioneers of African-American Cinema

    Then a few books

    "The Silents of Jesus in the Cinema" - David Shepherd et al.
    "Hollywood Biblical Epics: Camp Spectacle and Queer Style from the Silent Era to the Modern Day" - Richard A. Lindsay
    "Judas Iscariot: Damned or Redeemed" - Carol A. Hebron

    Lastly there's a piece on the Lion's Den that I need to write as well.

    This ridiculous optimist in me likes to think I could get this all done by New Year. More realistically this list is going to take a while to get through and other things will emerge before it's done. Perhaps Christmas 2018 is a more realistic target. Still it's good to have something to aim at...

    Wednesday, August 09, 2017

    Joseph in the Land of Egypt (1914)

    The story of Joseph is one that's never really benefited from a major Bible film, though the Joseph entry in The Bible Collection did win an Emmy back in 1995. For me, this is because the two climaxes to the story - Joseph's elevation to the role of Egypt's second in command, and his reunification with his father - have never been adequately fine-tuned and balanced. The literary version uses Joseph's sudden promotion as something of a mechanism to get the children of Israel into Egypt, the end of a lengthy prologue before the real story of the Hebrews starts in Exodus chapter 1.

    But that doesn't cut it for a movie version of Joseph's life, so films have tended to be caught between the peaking-too-early drama of Joseph's elevation from prison to governor and the actual ending but hard to develop moment when Jacob and his son are reunited. In between the two lies a complicated narrative where the brothers traipse back and forth between Canaan and Egypt, having tests/tricks played on them by their little brother before he finally gets his Dad and full brother Benjamin back by his side. For me, it's this that tends to kill the narrative. It's no coincidence that the most successful dramatisation of the story is Rice and Lloyd-Weber's musical Joseph and his Technicolor Dreamcoat which compresses this final act so that Joseph's elevation by Pharoah and his reunification with his father are in far closer proximity.

    At three and a half reels Thanhouser's Joseph in the Land of Egypt (1914) was relatively long for its day, but is short compared to later versions of the story meaning that whilst most of the to-ing and fro-ing is included, it doesn't take that long overall, even if the love Jacob has for his lost son is largely underdeveloped. This is not helped by the fact that the film's intertitles - in the version that remains on the Thanhouser Vimeo channel at least - tend to be lengthy scriptural quotations rather than something more emotionally stirring. That said, in places the biblical version of the story does contain some good lines, most notably Joseph's "lift up your head" pun when interpreting his fellow inmates' dreams, which the film wisely retains.

    But whilst the dialogue is rather stodgy, the filmmakers do manage to sex things up a bit, mainly in the form of Potiphar's wife. Here, she's a character I feel rather sorry for. The Joseph story is often seen as the climax of the story of the patriarch's Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but this story is a reminder of the other type of patriarchy. Mrs Potiphar is cast as the villain of the piece and the archetype for the seductress attempting to derail the virtuous hero from his quest. It's no coincidence that Potiphar's wife is the last woman encountered in the book of Genesis, forming a matching pair with the first woman of the book, Eve.

    Two points in this regard are particularly interesting. The first is the fact that whilst the wife has tended to be portrayed as am older cougar type, preying on her young buxom servant, here she is very attractive, particularly when compared to some of the actresses that were playing other supposed biblical beauties such as Judith or the Queen of Sheba at the time. She is clearly taken with Joseph right from her first sighting of him in the slave market (above) where she nudges her husband to make sure he buys him.

    The other is later in the film, when she is shamed before Pharoah for her actions. This is a rare insertion into the text, but one that highlights that gulf between her and Joseph that now exists. Joseph is the victor and it is lauded over his former accuser. And this, perhaps inadvertently, reminds us that history, even biblical history, is usually written by the victors. Ultimately Joseph triumphs over Potiphar's wife and accordingly the Bible's account of what happened very much flatters and favours him rather than her (she started it, he resisted, she falsely accused him). It's not inconceivable is it that what really happened was less black and white.

    The other thing that is striking in this film is the use of dream sequences and flashbacks. Whilst this was hardly unknown in cinema at this stage, it was realtively innovative for a biblical film. The first occasion of this is in the dungeon when Pharoah's cup-bearer tells Joseph his dream. The sequence is hardly elaborate, it's a close up of the vine which, after what seems like quite a while, the cup bearer enters to pick some clusters of grapes. Yet the closeness of the shot and the inital absence of humans in it gives it a distinctly different feel from the rest of the film. It feels more credibly dreamy than many of the dream sequences that are produced today, perhaps because it is so simple and primitive.

    Not disimilarly is the moment we witness a flashback which the camera indicates is taking place inside Joseph's head. Again the sequence is simple and Joseph's recollection of his father's love is far from overwrought. Instead the naturalistic, low key acting and the simplicity of the shot are the most emotionally true moment of the whole film. The moment is recalled again in the final shot as with the family reunited Jacob's rests with his son's arm around him as if for all the suffering the pair of them have been through, it's Jacob's that has caused the greatest heartache. The point of the biblical narrative maybe to manouver him into the land of Egypt, but as far as the film is concerned it's a simpler story of a man who is finally reunited with the son he so deeply loved.

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    Thursday, August 03, 2017

    A.D. (2015) - Part 2

    This is part 2 of a series of posts covering A.D. episode by episode & are initial impressions not a review. You can read them all here.
    As I noted in my initial post in this series A.D. doesn't rush straight into the book of Acts in the manner that I, at least, expected. This episode, for example, is the second in a series of only ten, and yet we've still not got into Acts yet - this episode ends with the Ascension. Whilst I imagine the filmmakers had hoped for further series, A.D. - The Bible Continues didn't; NBC cancelled it July 2015 and talk of a new channel which would carry content such as this has not (yet?) emerged. So for now the series looks to be left high and dry in Acts 11.

    This episode is particularly strange in this respect. There's a great deal of weight put on the episode in Matthew 28 with the soldiers at the tomb and an early example of attempting to "control the narrative". Guards are dragged to and forth, examined and cross-examined, beaten and eventually murdered whilst Pilate and Caiaphas scheme. It all becomes a bit tiresome, with the only point of interest the way that Pilate gradually turns from the noble and indecisive-but-thoughtful leader of episode 1 to the throat-slitting, blood-thirsty tyrant he becomes here. Caiaphas eventually becomes appalled by the man he is doing business with, although it will be interesting to see how this turns out when Saul arrives on the scene.

    Meanwhile though Jesus is still around making resurrection appearances. It's strange that some of plays second fiddle to the film's zealous attempts to hammer home Matthew's apologetic concerning the guarding of the tomb, to the extent that it skips over Luke's story of Jesus' appearance on the road to Emmaus. This has proved popular with other filmmakers and has led to some interesting interpretations.

    That said we do get John's story of the appearance on the shores of Galilee. This was the episode's high point for me. The beach that Jesus appears on is busy relative to how it's portrayed in the handful of other films that include this episode, where it is often deserted other than Jesus and the disciples. Given the time of day I think the approach here is a bit more likely and whilst it loses something of the intimacy of a meeting alone, I think it emphasises Jesus being someone who was out among the individual people and like the relatively natural way in which it's portrayed.

    If that's the best scene, it's equally clear which the worst scene and for the same kind of reason. The Ascension is something that is relatively rare, at least as something that is visualised rather than something that happens almost off screen. Relatively few films have portrayed this, though notable depictions include Pathé's Life and Passion of Jesus Christ (1907), where Jesus is hoisted up to painted, hardboard clouds; the Jesus film (1979) where we get Jesus's point of view as the crowd disappears below him; Dayasagar/ Karunamayudu (1978) where Jesus becomes a massive figure against the night sky; and the flashing light disappearance trick of The Miracle Maker (2000). Here it's poorly executed CGI, which will only get worse as the film ages, and took me right out of the film. It's typical of these two series use of special effects - rather than doing something simple their budget could stretch to, they went for something spectacular that it couldn't.

    That said I'm kind of relieved to see the back of this episode's Jesus. Despite hanging around for two episodes the filmmakers haven't given him much to do, other than occasionally turning up smiling. Their interest mainly seems to lie in the fact that he is still around rather than in the person himself. It's not helped by the aesthetics. Whilst the dark-haired Jesus here is better than the blond from the original The Bible (2013) series, his look is far too bearded-Chippendale for my tastes. There's an attempt to roughen him up a little round the edges, but he's all oiled muscles, perfect teeth and shampoo-advert hair.

    However it's not just the visuals that are problematic, some of the dialogue in this episode is particularly poor. "Stay in the water like the eel you are" is one of the finer examples of bizarre phrases that feels neither historical nor modern day. In the opposite corner - dialogue that is meant to sound profound, but is actually pretty empty - was this: "We found nothing...and everything."

    In the next episode I'm hoping we get as far as Pentecost, either way I guess Peter will be the main character.  This is definitely a good thing as Adam Levy's performance so far has stood out in comparison to many of the others, and whilst this should be welcomed as a positive thing, it doesn't look too good if a humble fisherman is outshining the son of God incarnate.