• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.


    Name:
    Matt Page

    Location:
    U.K.










    Sunday, January 08, 2023

    Queen Esther (1948)

    About 6 years ago I mentioned that the Gospel Films Archive were hoping to release a DVD of the 1948 Cathedral Films production Queen Esther. It's been a longer wait than any of us expected, but I was really excited this week to get an email from them informing me that the restoration work on the film has finally been completed and it's now available to buy on DVD alongside the 1937 biblical film, Ruth which I'm yet to see1 Here's my brief review of what I think is quite an important work, given the general of paucity of US biblical films in the 20 year prior to its release.
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    Esther has often been a popular choice for Jewish and Christian artists working in an array of media over the decades. The patriarchal succession for Israel and Judah meant that biblical queens have tended to only been involved in the royal families by marrying into them, and of those few to get anything more than a cursory mention, often they are seen as having a negative influence rather than a positive one.

    Esther, though, is distinctly different. As a Jewish woman who gets elevated to be a queen in the Persian Empire. Not only does her story have excitement and glamour built into it, but she is also given a heroic role that she can fulfill by being faithful to God. No surprise, then, that during that first big crop of films based on the Hebrew Bible from 1908 to 1913, Esther got her movie debut in 1910 (Esther and Mordecai & The Marriage of Esther) and that by the end of the decade her story had graced the silver screen seven times. 

    Yet by the time Cathedral films released Queen Esther in 1948 it had been almost three decades since her story had been made into any kind of film. As such it's the first Esther film to feature sound and one of the rare American Bible films from the period from the Great Depression to the immediate aftermath of the Second World War.

    Interestingly the film starts in a modern setting with a Jewish family reading the Bible as part of celebrating Purim and using her Jewish name Hadassah. This framing of the story as a Jewish story is quite remarkable given its age, but perhaps just three years after the horrors of the Second World War the resonances between Haman's attempted destruction of the Jews and Hitler's were unavoidable. Indeed when we return to this family at the conclusion of the film the family's patriarch ("Grandfather") reminds them that "throughout the centuries there have been many who have attempted to destroy our people..."

    By the time the story transitions to Ancient Persia then Esther has already married the Persian king, here identified as by the Greek version of his name Xerxes (rather than Ahasuerus). Esther, played by Ottilie Kruger, is also identified as Mordecai's cousin. The opening scene is fictional and, somewhat bizarrely,2 features Mordecai (Richard Hale) explaining to Esther that those who approach her husband without permission risk being condemned to death. There's also an additional episode where Haman (Addison Richards) tries to convict one of Mordecai's associates of stealing from him, only for Mordecai to outwit him. While it remains an implication, it certainly is implied that Haman is acting dishonestly. It also firmly establishes that Mordecai is the kind of brave, forthright, quick-witted person whose character will be used to heroic effect later on.

    Only then do we come across the first biblical episode from Esther 2:19-23 where Mordecai overhears a plot to kill the king, tells Esther who informs one of the kings advisors meaning the plot is foiled. Xerxes (Charles Evans) assumes this is Haman's work, but the official involved makes sure that it's recorded in the annals that it was Mordecai who was responsible for saving the king. But the official continues in his conversation with the scribe. It's clear that even a (presumably) neutral Persian considers Haman a bit iffy.

    It turns out though that really this official should be more concerned about Haman's wife (pictured below) than he himself. Following Mordecai's refusal to bow before Haman, it is she who comes up with the idea to kill all the Jews and then urges Haman to do it. "It's beneath your dignity and rank to avenge yourself against one man. If all the Jews refuse to pay homage, let them all suffer" Later she will also suggest building some gallows for Haman to have Mordecai executed. I'm not sure if this is the impact of film noir and its femmes fatale, but its strange to shift the blame from the villain in the text to another when no motive is particularly apparent.

    Xerxes seems to have a rather laissez-faire attitude to Haman's authority which makes him somewhat unsympathetic. Nevertheless, Mordecai is very positive about his emperor's character, even calling him "Good King" when he is not around, stressing that "the king is not unkind, not unreasonable". Even when Haman's plan becomes apparent Mordecai is unable to blame the king. "It's evident that our good king has been misled". What's interesting is that (thankfully) there's no real attempt to present Xerxes as a romantic figure to whom Esther is drawn, something that is bolstered by the opening of the story being excised. But then in some ways this is because Mordecai is almost more of the focus in this film than Esther herself.

    For a low budget production the sets are pretty good. I can't speak to their authenticity, though as with The Story Esther  (1910) there are suggestions of the bas-reliefs in Haman's house and Xerxes' palace. The exteriors seem pretty good too. Likewise I don't know enough about the costumes of this time and place to be able to pronounce on their authenticity, (Haman wearing trousers) but they do seem to be more distinctive and of better quality than in some of the other releases by Cathedral Films. 

    There's the occasional nice use of the camera too. As many of the shots are fairly static the more dynamic shots – such as the pivotal scene when Esther risks all to request a dinner date with Xerxes and Haman – stand out all the more. The eve of the second banquet finds neither Esther nor Xerxes able to sleep, leading Xerxes to discover Mordecai's heroics meaning Haman's spends the day before the banquet leading Mordecai around the city to be honoured.

    I always feel with the Esther story that the protracted stages with which Esther makes her request doesn't really translate very well dramatically. Here the film takes steps to make that seem less awkward while maintaining the original three-request structure of the original text. The first banquet follows immediately after her shock appearance in the courtroom and is very short: As with the Bible, Haman arrives at the second banquet hot on the heels of his day honouring Mordecai finally arrives. 

    It's interesting, though, how director John T. Coyle has subtly altered the seating arrangement. Esther sits to the left of the frame in both scenes, but in the first she sits next to Xerxes, literally getting him on-side: In the second, now Haman sits between the king and his wife, as if underlining the fact that his schemes threaten to separate king and queen permanently. Esther seizes her moment when Haman proposes a toast to the royal couple's reign "may it be a long, prosperous and happy one", opting out of the toast and then, when pressed by Xerxes, explaining her predicament. Xerxes is angered. Haman exposed. Xerxes orders that Haman and his sons be hanged on their own gallows and promises Esther that he will find a way to save them.

    It's here that the film cuts back to the film's modern book-end. The extent to which the Jewish people fought back (killing over 75,000 of their enemies) is doubly watered down here. Firstly, no scenes of this violence are depicted, but also when instead the "Grandfather" (played, I think, by the same actor as Mordecai) narrates the end of the story his rather child-friendly summary is that  "they defended themselves so valiantly, their enemies were discouraged". 

    For those familiar with Cathedral Films' other efforts, particularly The Great Commandment (1939), No Greater Power (1942), I Beheld His Glory (1952) and Day of Triumph (1954), this film is more or less what one might expect. The story holds fairly closely to the biblical story, with the most significant variations being being the point at which the story dips in and out of the original text, often using some kind of framing device. The costumes and sets look good value for the low budget and the acting is to a better standard than similar church produced films in the era. While, like nearly all Esther films, it makes certain elements of the story more palatable and family friendly, at least it doesn't take things in the opposite direction of making it a love story. And of course the kind of more incisive interrogation of the text that that we might give it today was not remotely on the agenda in 1948.

    What was on the agenda back then is reflection on the Holocaust and it's here where the film is most powerful and creditable. Its framing of this as a Jewish story and a reminder that persecution of Jewish people has been an ongoing aspect of history, not a one off, seems unprecedented to me, even with biblical films from the post-war period. It's even more remarkable given its the product of an unashamedly church-based producers and deserves to be seen more widely.

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    1 - I haven't been paid to endorse this film though I did receive a screening link. I don't even make money via Amazon affiliate links: They're just convenient.

     2 - I don't mean that the law permitting this is bizarre, even though it seems so to our eyes, more that it seems odd that Mordecai is explaining this to Esther only after she has married him and that this wasn't covered during the 12 months she was being institutionalized at court.

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    Tuesday, January 03, 2023

    When do subtitles start in The Passion of the Christ (2004)?

    Here's a question from the "you asked, I answer" pile: When do subtitles start in The Passion of the Christ (2004)? 

    This really depends on which version you're watching, but there are subtitles in the opening scene where Jesus is in the Garden of Gethsemane. Sometimes people are caught out because the first words Jesus speaks aren't subtitled. So actually the first line which appear in the subtitles is just "Peter".

    This is when (going by the timer/time bar) the various version have this line:

      - UK 1-disc DVD (2004) – 0h 2m 15s

      - Amazon Prime streaming – 0h 2m 22s

    I'll look to add details from more versions if I find them. If you have access to a different version of the film I'd be grateful if you'd email me or drop something in the comments to let me know and I'll update the post.

    Other Posts on The Passion
    Here are some of my other posts about The Passion of the Christ (2004).

      How The Passion of the Christ Wrong-footed Hollywood
      Caiaphas and Jabba the Hutt in Gibson's Passion
      Text and Interpretation in The Passion of the Christ
      The Passion Without Subtitles
      Film: A New Passion (Preview written prior to the film's release in 2004)

      Bible Films Podcast: The Passion of the Christ (2004)
      My original review: The Passion of the Christ (2004)

    Book me or read me
    If you're interested in Jesus films like this then you might enjoy my book "100 Bible Films" which not only covers around 50 Jesus films, but another 50 that cover the rest of the Bible, going right back to the first still-in-existence Jesus film from 1898.

    You can read more about it here: 100 Bible Films.

    I also love to do talks, podcasts etc. If you're interested in having me to speak drop me a line.

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    Saturday, December 31, 2022

    The Story of Esther (1910)

    Back in 2016 (was it really that long ago?) I wrote the first entry in my "Silent Bible Film Mysteries" series, seeking to get to the bottom of three Esther titles that Gaumont released around the early 1910s. The conclusion was that there were two shorter films, The Marriage of Esther and Esther and Mordecai that were released in the US a week apart in June 1910, but at other times and places were circulated as a single film Esther. There was also something of a lament that these films were not available to view outside of (offline) film archives.

    Recently, however, I got notified by John from betweenmovies.com that a composite version of the film could now be streamed from the (online) Gaumont Pathé archives. You have to create an account – which takes a while, perhaps because they are individually verified – but then a composite version of the film is there to view. (BetweenMovies is a great website, by the way, and has some really interesting additional information about these films, including original reviews, press ads, still and some more screen grabs).

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    The first thing to notice is that the title version of the film is The Story of Esther. It's plain enough that this is a renaming of the composite material, though perhaps with some additions and subtractions. The production was attributed to Louis Feuillade, and its stars were called "three of the most noted of Paris", "Mademoiselle" Gravier as Esther, Leonce Perret as Ahasuerus and "Monsieur" Legrand as Mordecai. Perret also worked for Gaumont as a director. He was at the helm of at least 292 of their films, including his La Fille de Jephté (1910) which I've discussed before. Mlle Gravier then is presumably Gisèle Gravier who starred in both another of Perret's films, Gisèle, enfant terrible  and another of Feuillade's La prêtresse de carthage the following year.1 I could turn up nothing on M. Legrand.

    The plot remains fairly close to the contours of the biblical text. Vashti has already been deposed before the start of the film, conveniently relieving the film's leading man of the suggestion of impropriety. Instead the opening shot sees an array of young women arrive at the palace as candidates for Ahasuerus' next wife. For most of the shot, though, Mordecai and Esther stand at the front right of the screen facing the crowd. Esther hesitates before entering – and is the last to do so – then Mordecai returns to centre stage and reaches his arms to heaven. 

    After the width of the opening outdoor scene, the indoor scenes move in closer for a more intimate atmosphere. Esther and the other "maidens" are prepared to meet the king and there's a deft iris shot to close the scene focusing on Esther. 

    In the next scene similar camera placement sees Ahasuerus chose Esther from only a handful of women, with everyone else ushered out before the King himself places the crown on Esther's head. Moving Picture World's Rev. W. H. Jackson called this moment "decidedly and extremely peculiar, most unwarranted, and without doubt not faithful to the times and custom".2 I think he may be protesting a little too much. "Without doubt" seems a bit strong given how little was known about the era 110 years ago, even if he is probably right. Historical inaccuracies in Bible movie? Surely not.

    In any case it's noticeable that this scene is not particularly romanticized. Given the lengthy procession of women into the palace, Ahasuerus seems to spend almost no time at all deciding on his new queen and while he picks his bride based purely on looks, there's very little indication that she is attracted to him.

    Jackson was much more favourably disposed towards the wedding banquet scene however which manages quite an impressive depth of field with an advisor front, centre and relatively close while dancers twirl away on the stage at the back of the room. The composition is a little odd – Feuillade doesn't pan or zoom at all in this film – so the advisor is sat facing off screen, but it does leave a gap for Esther and Ahasuerus to process down. This seems to be the climax of The Marriage of Esther and, in honesty, it's more than a little slow.

    It's also noticeable here how the walls reproduce some of the statues and bas-reliefs taken from the Palace of Sargon II (in Khorsabad). While Sargon II pre-dates the era in which the story was set by about 200-250 years, the palace had only been discovered by French archaeologist Paul-Émile Botta in the 1840s and was (and is) prominently displayed in the Louvre. If you compare the scene with this image from the Louvre you can see it's a direct attempt at reproduction.
    A fairly detailed title card leads us into the second half (or Esther and Mordecai) opening the shot above. I've not managed to turn up any association between Esther and the harp, but it makes for quite a striking image. Mordecai warns Esther and the two proceed to foil a plot against her husband in the film's best action scene with Esther and Mordecai saving the king in the nick of time. 

    The same set is also used for the next scene where Mordecai refuses to bow to Haman. The wall decorations here are not immediately identifiable; they look more Egyptian than Babylonian to me. Perhaps they were recycled from another Gumont film set in Ancient Egypt, perhaps even Feuillade's own L'exode (1910), which I've seen but don't have access to in order to check.

    Haman goes to Ahasuerus who gives him the ring from his hand in order to enact his revenge on Mordecai and his people. Interestingly the throne room here resembles Jean Pesne's print/etching of the scene. It's supposedly based on Nicolas Poussin's "Esther devant Assuérus", but, Pesne's image mirrors Poussin's and makes it a good deal lighter such that the detail and architecture is far more apparent. Perhaps Feuillade and his set designers were influenced by one or both of them, perhaps neither. Haman sets off to set the wheels in motion.

    However in the meantime, Ahasuerus discovers that Mordecai had not been honoured, calls in Haman and orders him to put Mordecai on a horse and lead it through the streets announcing his honour. One of my favourite parts of the story is omitted here. In the Bible, the king asks Haman to devise the method of honouring. Haman thinking it is he who is to be honoured is then appalled by to discover his method of honouring himself will now be applied to his hated enemy (Esther 6:6-10). This ironic switch is made all the worse as it is her who has to parade round honouring Mordecai. It also foreshadows the following chapter, with a not dissimilar switch whereby the method of execution Haman has devised for Mordecai will be used to kill Haman instead (Esther 7:9-10).

    The scene of Mordecai's honouring is the film's most interesting in terms of influences. It cleverly combines both Gustave Dore's "Triumph of Mordecai" & Jacques Tissot's "Mordecai's Triumph" with a single static shot that merges the composition of one into the other. On top of this the bystanders wave palm leaves which also recalls Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. While it's appropriation / supersessionism this typological interpretation of Mordecai (as a "type" of Christ) has long been popular with Christian interpreters and so it's no surprise that biblical filmmakers carried on this tradition.

    And then comes the climatic scene with Esther's banquet. the plot abridges the cycle of meals Esther goes through prior to explaining her predicament to her husband and instead cuts to the chase. The composition here is more akin to Rembrant, Lievens, Victors and Armitage than to Tissot or Dore, but it's notable how many depictions of this scene place Haman on the left, but none of the historical artistic takes on this moment capture the dramatic way in which Esther flings her arm out across Ahasuerus to point to the man she is accusing. 

    It's noticeable also that she doesn't faint in contrast to the deuterocanonical passage from Esther 15:7 where she swoons. However Ahasuerus comforts Esther as she sobs which is found in Esther 15:8. Haman begs for is life, is seen and is led away. 

    Haman's grim execution is omitted, but there's a final scene in Ahasuerus's throne room and a final Thanksgiving scene featuring women dancing in the kind of generic SE Mediterranean costumes that dancers are routinely given in this kind of scene. I don't know enough about costumes from this time and place to know if any of them are accurate, but these ones feel particularly orientalising.

    There's little of the additional material from deuterocanonical books, or subsequent Jewish tradition. What's more interesting though is the way that he parts of the narrative that are omitted tend to benefit Ahasuerus, Mordecai and perhaps the never-mentioned God. The grim realities of Harem life are minimised. While Esther's not portrayed as attracted to Ahasuerus, he's made to seem decent enough with physical shows of affection and comfort. His questionable treatment of Vashti is left out as his Haman's execution. Meanwhile, Mordecai's orders which result in over 75,000 gentiles being killed are also not included.

    So while there isn't anything as heinous as the trivialising in the Veggie Tales version, nor the teenage romanticising of One Night with the King (2006) and perhaps a few other recent outings), it is a fairly sanitised adaptation of the story. 

    That said, all things considered this isn't a bad first cinematic screen outing for the Book of Esther. Some of the processions are over long and the characterisation is a little weak, and there's little of the spark that we find in Feuillade's Fantômas just a few years later, but it does have its occasional moments. And it's network of visual references from Assyrian bas-reliefs to Tissot and Dore provide a good deal of interest.
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    1 - Gisèle, enfant terrible listed on the IMDb. La prêtresse de carthage listed on p4 of this catalogue of Early films from the collections of the Swedish Film Institute.
    2 - Jackson, W. H. "The Marriage of Esther: A Critical Review by Rev W.H. Jackson" in Moving Picture World, vol 6 Jan-Jun 1910, p.1098. Available online at https://archive.org/details/movinwor06chal/page/1098/mode/2up?view=theater 

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    Wednesday, September 21, 2022

    The Queen of Sheba and Solomon in Three Thousand Years of Longing


    I've been so busy recently that I've not had a chance to do a blog post yet, but, given its recent release, I thought it would be remiss of me not to say, at least, something about Three Thousand Years of Longing which is on the tail end of it's theatrical run.

    The film stars Tilda Swinton as  Alithea, a narratologist, and Idris Elba as a Djinn/Genie who escapes from a bottle she buys in the grand bazaar in Istanbul. Elba's Djinn has been trapped for 3000 years – with only occasional moments out in the open – for 3000 years and is desperate to escape. Alithea however, as a professional in this field, is not only wary of making her three choices, due to the string of cautionary tales which form a cornerstone of her expertise, but also wise  to the opportunity to explore the kind of first-hand information about her specialism which is hard to come by.

    And so the two talk, at length. Indeed, while the trailers and pre-release hype for the movie have focused on the special effects and the fantasy CGI, the story itself is essentially an extended dialogue, just with impressive-looking backdrops and flashbacks.

    One of the earliest flashbacks goes right back to the days of King Solomon, or, more to the point, the days of the Queen of Sheba (played here by Aamito Lagum). It is she, rather than he, that is the focus here. Both the Djinn and Solomon are in love with her but Solomon is able to use his magical musical skills (he's shown playing a fanciful instrument that accompanies Solomon) to win her over and having done so it is he that is the first to trap the Djinn in the bottle.

    The segment – which is only brief – is an interesting mix of the passing mention of the couple in the Hebrew Bible, some ancient non-biblical traditions, other traditional mythical stories and modern storytelling. The queen is, herself, part Djinn, but nevertheless ultimately she chooses Solomon, not the Djinn. What's interesting here is the question of who has the upper hand in the relationship is reversed. In the Hebrew Bible, events take place at his court. The queen comes to him and is just one of the many women he is connected to. Here it is the queen that is in the driving seat. Her court, and she has can choose between Solomon & the Djinn – effectively a choice between her two natures, human and Djinn.

    I suppose that could be viewed as a feminist take on the story, though as the film unfolds her choice seems more and more to be a bad one. He uses demons to help him pass the queens tests and shows cruelty for his rival for her love by casting him into a bottle and then into the Red Sea. Moreover, the Djinn turns out to be loving, caring and compassionate, as well as looking like Idris Elba.

    It's also interesting, then, that to impress Solomon we're told that the queen shaves her legs, and there's a brief shot of (what looked to me like) her incredibly hairy legs – not so much like someone who has run out of Veet, or even like a hairy man's legs, but more like the kind of thick fur that grows on an alpaca's throat. Is this a surrender of her true self to humane/male/western beauty ideals. I'd need to see it again. Those interested in more details might like to read Peter Chattaway's fairly long long write up at his substack.

    I came away from the film quite disappointed though. This may just be down to false expectations – it was a great, enticing, trailer, but it rather mis-sold what the film was about. The CGI work was impressive, but being mainly used in narrated scenes it felt strangely limp. I think it was that the sound was largely non-diegetic, and Alithea never enters into those worlds, so they felt almost hermetically sealed off. He tells what should be incredibly exciting stories, in a dull, almost disinterested, fashion.

    This is compounded by the way the actors deliver their lines. Elba speaks softly, there's care and compassion, but never much passion, he seems strangely inert and the accent he adopts is kind of distracting too. it's too forced. Swinton's accent is no better. Again, perhaps this is just my expectations, but she adopts the kind of thick Lancashire accent, that's usually encountered in a Wallace and Gromit film. It should be perfectly valid, and perhaps this just a reflection of my own prejudice, but it just took me right out of the film.

    All of which feels like a shame because I did enjoy it as well. It is, at the very least, highly original, and the CGI is very good. And there are few quite films about friendship, and love that revolve around two great actors talking. And it's not like I don't have a penchant for films where the emotion is turned right down. Somehow, though, the heart is missing and so like the Queen herself, I'm more taken by Solomon's story than the Djinn's.

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    Friday, August 19, 2022

    Join my Italian Cinema Course


    If you're in the Nottingham area you might be interested in coming to a 10-week course on Italian cinema that I am tutoring this autumn at Broadway cinema. The course runs on Tuesday nights, starting at 7pm and will cover "everything" from the earliest Italian silents to the Oscar winners and Netflix movies of the present. Obviously there will be generous helpings of neorealism; auteurs such as Rossellini, Fellini, Antonioni and Pasolini; and pepla, spaghetti westerns and gialli along the way.

    You can get more details from Broadway cinema, ask me any questions, or book a place here

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    Sunday, July 31, 2022

    The Blind Christ (2016)

    Christopher Murray's El Cristo Ciego (The Blind Christ, 2016) leaves Netflix tonight after a 5 year run in which it's garnered almost no attention, even among those who should really be most interested. Rotten Tomatoes only lists a single review, in Spanish. IMDb lists a few more, but only one is in English, by the inestimable John Bleasdale, and even then it has the URL wrong. I checked with friends from Arts and Faith and none of them had seen it or even heard of it, despite it feeling, to me at least, like exactly the kind of film that has always fared well in their Top 100 lists. And tonight it sinks without trace, leaving Netflix unlikely to return and still without an English language DVD release.

    To me this feels like a significant error on the part of those interested in the Bible and film. "Sometimes..." the DJ of my current favourite radio show says as he reflects on a great track from the 80s that failed to make the charts "...we got it wrong". This is a film that deserves better even if people don't like it's conclusions, it's undoubtedly worthy of discussion.

    Despite Murray's English-sounding name, both he and his film are Chilean. Murray, interviewed here by Variety, was born in Santiago and graduated from the Faculty of Communication at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, where he is now a professor. While lead actor Michael Silva is a professional, most of the rest of the cast are non-professionals, inhabitants of Chile's Pampa del Tamarugal.

    Even without knowing Murray's affiliations, his understanding of Catholicism is unmissable. The title alone, cut down from the working title "Parable of a Blind Christ",1 suggests as much and it's not long into the film before the centrality of Chile's surviving vestiges of Catholicism becomes apparent. The proportion of the population professing Catholicism has dwindled from 70% in 2006,2 to just 42% last year,3 and there's a sense in which, the buildings remain, and desire for something beyond the people's experience remains, but they only rarely coincide. Like the rest of the film's architecture found in desert villages the churches are crumbling, the priests have gone, leaving the remnants of what was, perhaps, once a thriving community. Poverty permeates almost every shot, yet Murray finds a dignified beauty in that, which never detracts from the sense that these are people who are both desperate for something to happen, yet highly sceptical that it ever will. "God abandons and is abandoned".4

    So when a stranger comes visiting there's a mixture of anticipation and detached cynicism. The stranger is Michael,5 the film's central figure, through whose eyes and voice we witness much of what we're shown and told. The film opens with Michael recalling a story, and there are a lot of those, of a boy who asked his friend to nailed his hands, Christ-like, to a tree , while a waited three hours for a sign. "His sacrifice... attracted God's attention". It's unclear, though, who the boy was and what actually happened. Did Michael himself witness a miracle, or is it just a story, a parable, that so reflects Jesus' often enigmatic way of talking?

    Either way when Michael hears that his friend's cousin, Mauricio, has pneumonia,6 he sets off across the desert to see if he can enable a similar piece of divine intervention. Michael's actions carry a high price. His father immediately tells him that he'll disown him if he goes and when regardless he leaves that night, he encounters similar opposition elsewhere.

    His first port of call is to a desert shrine/grotto where people queue up to partake in the ritual. Michael insensitively says "You only have to pray to God. He's inside you" and tells the story of an artisan, who work became revered so much that he created a sculpture of a volcano so spectacular it unintentionally burned down all his work. When he follows this up by saying "Man's work disappears" and pointing out that the shrine's central "figure doesn't walk or talk" he's forcibly moved away from the shrine, tied to a stake and left there. Eventually a local woman, who's tells him she's a carer for her mother, helps liberate him and he comes to her house and helps bathe and care for her mother. 

    Michael makes many similar statements and tells many such stories. "I don't believe in any religion" he says at one point, "God doesn’t talk to the church he talks to the people. When you’re alone the Christ inside you opens his eyes". Michael, despite what people begin to think, is not that he is special, but that "Anyone can heal. Anyone who realizes they come from God". "All you have to do is believe". "If god is with you you shouldn’t be scared." Phrases like this crop up at regular intervals. There's certainty that typifies many young people of his age, that lacks empathy, or at least awareness of the lives that people have lived

    Yet Michael too wavers in his self-assurance. The audacity of his journey and occasional claims such as "I'm going to heal him" at times contrast with his delivery. When a man asks him to pray for him he suddenly seems to lose confidence at the last minute sensing that God has abandoned him. But it's also around this point in the film that Michael develops his most significant relationships in the film, first with the teenaged Bastian and then with his mother. Bastian idolises him; his mother enjoys his company and shares her story (including a shocking story about Bastian's father – "a fucking psychopath". The evening after an impromptu driving lesson, the two sleep together. 

    That night, in the darkness, a young girl calls him " the Chilean Christ and prays with some folk as they gather round a campfire. It's unclear if it's because of this, or because of what happened with Bastian's mother, but either way Michael leaves before sunrise to resume his travels. This time however he faints in the desert and is rescued by another small community.

    Here there appears to be some sort of functioning faith community, albeit one led – in the loosest sense of the word – by an ex-prisoner who had been handed the reins by the last, rapidly departing, official priest. He attempts to convince Michael to look after the village's tiny chapel (though he questions "who am I?") and he completes some baptisms in a nearby stream. When this meets some opposition he tells the story of a hit man released from prison shoots himself only to find love. And so he undertakes the final leg of his journey. 

    At this point I'm going to raise the [SPOILERS] tag as I want to discuss the end of the film, but don't want to spoil it for anyone that's reading this before watching the film.

    [SPOILERS]When he finally arrives it's clear that stories about him have gone ahead of him and people come seeking miracles. Yet he finds Mauricio not only ill, but in a deep state of depression: "Everything’s happened to me. I sometimes wonder why God keeps me alive. I want to be dead. I don’t want To kill myself. I want him to do it." Yet the number of people who have turned up persuade them that Michael should pray and see if Mauricio will be miraculously healed. The resulting scene is reminiscent both of Andrea Mantega's "Lamentation of Christ" (1480) as well as the climactic scene in Carl Theodor Dreyer's Ordet (1955). 

    [SPOILERS]Yet unlike Ordet, when Michael prays, his friend is not healed. Mauricio tries to reassure Michael (and perhaps himself) by insisting "Your company is enough" but Michael leaves. Having been barefoot for most of the film – perhaps a symbol of his spiritual idealistic naïvete – he slips on a pair of boots – a returns to the prisoner-turned-church leader of the penultimate visit on his travels. Now it is a crestfallen Michael who laments "God has abandoned us". 

    [SPOILERS]But now it's the older man's turn to tell a story, one of a girl hadn't slept for 2 weeks. Jesus was brought in, and goes to consult his father, but hears nothing so tells the girl that God is waiting for her in her dreams. The girl slept. Michael describes it as a con, but the older man explains that God "went away so Jesus would fill the emptiness. Then Jesus went away so we would fill the emptiness". He rings a nearby set of altar bells and further clarifies "Faith is the sound that fills the emptiness". He heads up to the roof, but when Michael follows his new friend has disappeared and he has a vision (perhaps) of the sea.

    [SPOILERS]And so Michael returns, first to his father's house, where a shrine has now bee set up, to reconcile to his father, who himself has been impacted. "You brought faith son" he tells him by way of explanation for the way the streets near his house are festooned with night lights. Perhaps these are types of crucifixion and resurrection scenes, the death of self and the new life that follows.

    [SPOILERS]Finally, Michael returns to the boy and his mother, but like so much of the film even this is left unclear, inviting the view to make up their own mind. It's so typical of the film, it's reliance on the vagueities of story, with their multiple interpretations and invitation to participate.

    [END OF SPOILERS]

    What I like about the film is that it consistently refuses to tell you what to think. Is Michael, this "Chilean Christ" a modern version of Christ; Christ himself; a Christ-like figure; or just a deluded, if charismatic, man who has some growing up to do? The character's name, Michael, captures this brilliantly being both the name of God's number two messenger ("angel" means "messenger") and the name Michael itself literally means "Who is like El?" (i.e. God). Or it could just be an ordinary name that remains popular in "Catholic" countries. Did Michael experience the divine when he was younger, or did he just feel like he did after 3 hours in the sun losing blood? How do the people come to believe in him even before he arrives in their village?

    The parallels with the Jesus of the Gospels are certainly there, but interestingly they do not follow the contours of the typical Christ-figure. For one thing there's no cruciform pose, nor are the episodes that are paralleled those that are typically included. The parallels are either with more obscure elements (like Jesus's failure to heal on occasion) or they are more tenuously linked. It raises the question, am I just looking for parallels because of the film's title (The Blind Christ) and how people refer to him within the confines of  the film itself ("The Chilean Christ"). This is, in itself, feels like the medium being the message. It is not just the characters in the story that don't quite know how to pigeonhole Michael, or what to think about the possibility of divine activity.

    And then, of course, there are the stories, which appear regularly throughout the film, often introduced in a way so typical of the Gospels "Let me tell you a story" which chimes with some of the little introductory phrases we find in the synoptics, with their sometimes unclear meaning and their more experiential method of conveying meaning.

    The film is beautifully shot, and moves along at a slow contemplative pace that allows you to savour and immerse yourself in the story. The performances never feel like the work of amateurs, and the genuine concern for the plight of the people of the Pampa del Tamarugal evokes the ghost of neo-realism. Some of the lines of dialogue are hard to unpack and fly past a little too quickly, but that's a minor quibble with a thought provoking, challenging and deeply affecting film.

    ==============

    1 - An old bio from Torino Film Lab used this name about his "forthcoming project".

    2 - According to the "Encuesta Nacional Bicentenario 2016: Religió" survey, available online: http://web.archive.org/web/20171107025524/
    https://encuestabicentenario.uc.cl/wp-content/uploads/2016/
    11/encuesta-bicentenario-2016-religio%cc%81n.pdf
    .

    3 - According to the "Encuesta Nacional Bicentenario 2021: Religió" survey, available online: http://web.archive.org/web/20220121091337/
    https://encuestabicentenario.uc.cl/wp-content//uploads/
    2022/01/Encuesta-Bicentenario-2021-Religion.pdf
    .

    4 - It's the film's leading character, Michael, that says this, but it would have spoiled the flow of the review if I've said this there and I don't have the time at the moment to re-write this to fix that.

    5 - See notes on the use of the name "Michael" in 4th paragraph from the end.

    6 - This is the condition as described in the subtitles earlier in the film, but, once revealed, the actual condition seems to be a skin/wasting disease/infection of the ankle.

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    Saturday, July 23, 2022

    Visions of Ecstasy (1989)

    Visions of Ecstasy (1989), a 20 minute short film by UK director Robert Wingrove, was released the year after the Last Temptation of Christ furore and, as such, was always likely to hit the headlines. Wingrove's film was an exploration of the sexuality of Saint Teresa of Ávila, a subject which had interested numerous artists and writers before and caused various controversies. It became the first and only film to be banned in the UK on grounds of blasphemy. When Wingrove appealed to the European Court of Human Rights that his right to free speech was being unjustly curtailed, they found against him and upheld the ban.

    Eventually, though, it found it's way onto DVD in 2012, then onto YouTube and is currently showing on Mubi. It's not a film I'd particularly sought out as it doesn't really have much to do with the biblical narratives – really it's a work of fantasy and imagination inspired by religious figures.

    Seen 20+ years after all the controversy it's hard to know what to make of it. It's very much a late 80s/early 90s British art film, Jarman-esque you could even say (if you don't have a huge number of frames of reference for this kind of work, which I do not). It could be classified as a silent film – certainly there's no dialogue – but the soundtrack by Siouxsie and the Banshees bassist Steven Severin plays a key role in situating the film beyond the realms of reality.

    There are two main scenes, which are intercut, the consistency of Severin's soundtrack blending-together the multiple joins between the scenes. In the first Teresa and another nun (her psyche) kiss, standing up. In the other Teresa clambers upon Jesus, who is lying prostrate nailed to the cross.

    Many claim that it's pornography, but I don't think that carries much weight. Aside from Visions of Ecstasy's religious angle, it's hard to see how this would gain anything more than a 15 certificate. The whole film consists of erotic material, but two-thirds of the characters keep most of their clothes on and the other has his dignity preserved by a historically implausible loincloth. 

    Wingrove has a history of work that has pushed at the boundaries of what certain parts of society have deemed acceptable. His coffee table book "The Art of the Nasty" featured images from the "video nasties" banned in the UK in 1984. Peter Malone notes how in 1999 Wingrove made Sacred Flesh, about "a convent where the superior had visions of Mary Magdalene and discussed sexuality, the Catholic Church, and its attitudes toward sex".1 He's directed various sexploitation/horror films including three in the Satanic Sluts collection. Back in 2013 his website described his work like this:
    I also direct the odd film, get banned for blasphemy, fight censorship, produce books, attempt to write a novel, run a nightclub, shoot pornography, create imagery, flirt with Satanism and have an unhealthy obsession with political extremes.
    It's hard to imagine now, but back in the late 80s there was a lot of political heat around censorship. Last Temptation was a relatively small episode compared to the extent of the column inches spent frothing about video nasties, the pro-gay movement, Madonna's "Like a Prayer" video and whatever else Mary Whitehouse was campaigning about. Wingrove was told by the BBFC that if Jesus had been a statue rather than an actor they would have passed it.2

    Despite the above Wingrove later claimed "Visions didn't set out to offend and the film was about Teresa, it wasn't about Christ. I know how to be blasphemous and offensive and Visions is not what I'd have done had I set out to do that".3

    What I've not really been able to grasp was what Wingrove was intending to do with the film. Looking back, while there are obvious points of comparison with Jarman's The Garden (which came out the following year), it doesn't feel like its cut from the same cloth. The sexuality in Jarman's film feels like it's deeply-felt self-expression. Wingrove's feels more exploitative, not least because Sacred Flesh is typically considered a nunsploitation film. Visions is artfully shot, but I'm not how artistic it is. Perhaps it exists to give erotic pleasure to those who find something sexy in the more visceral/ritualistic elements of Christianity, something which does little for those who don't share that predilection.

    As is often the case in these scenarios, controversial films such as this live on, extending far beyond their actual merit because of the fuss that was made about them. Wingrove says he wasn't deliberately intending to often, and I'm inclined to believe him. Ironically, if Mary Whitehouse and the various other protesters had just let him be, few of us would even have heard about it. 

    ===========
    1 - Peter Malone, Screen Jesus: Portrayals of Christ in Television and Film  (Lanham/Toronto/Plymouth, UK: Scarecrow Press, 2012), p.245.
    2 - Mentioned in discussion on "Heart Of The Matter - Censorship Debate" (BBC) broadcast in 1996 available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fbUz9lbGhrM
    3 - Mentioned in "Banned In The UK - Visions Of Ecstasy" broadcast (08/03/05) available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QC98HABm5p4

    Sunday, July 10, 2022

    Peter Chattaway is now on Substack


    You don't have to have taken in much of my output, here, in print, on a podcast or on the radio to know I find my friend Peter Chattaway's work invaluable. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of Bible films, a unique way of looking at things and I'm forever referencing his work in my own. 

    So you might be interested to know he's started his own Substack site. His previous work will remain at his Patheos blog (though I've already archived all the pieces I reference in my book at web.archive.org), but new material will be appearing on the Substack site at regular intervals.

    Initially this new material is going to focus on The Chosen as well as a new series by the team behind 2014's The Savior called God's Stories which covers stories from the Hebrew Bible in 9 episodes, but I imagine there will be plenty of observations about other new or proposed Bible films/series as well as fresh insights into old ones as well.

    At the moment all of the posts there are free, but the point of Substack is to enable professional writers like Peter to earn from their work without having to resort to constantly bombarding their readers with advertising. So you can already sign up for the crowdfunding options and I imagine it won't be too long before certain posts become exclusive to those choosing one of the "support options".

    Friday, June 24, 2022

    The Chosen (2019) s1e05

    I've been busy trying to promote my book recently, so it's been a while since I posted one of these and, as it is, there's now so much commentary on The Chosen out there now that I'm not really sure how much this will be worth the effort. (As well as their main YouTube channel there are this channel and this video as well. And of course Peter T. Chattaway's episode-by-episode guides to this series are an epic work in themselves, though I generally avoid reading them so I know that what I'm writing is my own thoughts, rather me subconsciously repeating what I've heard him say and it leaves me free to write a more impressionistic/first thoughts article rather than feeling I need to tick every box. This time I did read his piece all be it 2 months before I wrote this, but I now I realise I've dwelt on a detail he dwelt on first – regarding James – so that must have gone in and stuck somewhere. Then again I've obsessed about this before, so.... Anyway, if you want a more comprehensive take on this episode, read his review.

    Still The Chosen is so popular right now that even if my posts can only garner a tiny fraction of the audience looking for related material and they will still get more interest than the other pieces I'm thinking of doing at the moment, such as writing about Jesus in series 10 of Red Dwarfmaking additional points about Roberto Rossellini's Il messia (1975) or commenting on his "appearance" in season 5 of The Good Fight (2021). And I do want to catch up with it rather than falling further behind.

    Lost in Jerusalem
    This episode is titled The Wedding Gift and as that suggests covers the Wedding at Cana. However, already we've seen in this series how it combines knits together stories from the Gospels for dramatic effect (as other films have done before hand). So here we start not at the beginning of John's Gospel (where we find the Wedding at Cana in chapter 2), but at the start of Luke, with the story of the boy Jesus getting lost in the temple (2:41-50). 

    This happens for two reasons. Firstly it gives greater focus to the relationship between Mary and Jesus, which is pivotal in the incident in Cana, but secondly to emphasise the question of timing. Once Jesus is found Mary says "It's too early for all this" and her gestures suggest that she means Jesus is growing up more quickly than she is happy with. Jesus counters, quoting Rabbi Hillel (who perhaps died around the time as this incident)  "If not now, when?". This contrasts with the part in the Wedding at Cana story where now it is Mary trying to move Jesus along, and it is he that is seemingly a little reticent to see things progress. This time it is Mary's turn to use the Hillel quote.

    Peter
    Next we get a scene of Peter recounting to his wife the events of the previous episode, including his struggle to see in himself what Jesus does. They also discuss their own wedding and enjoy a brief romantic moment in the wine press. The use of the winepress as a location in their house (perhaps unlikely that an indebted fisherman has his own winepress) also allows the filmmakers to emphasise how integral wine is to the culture etc. The scene ends with them kissing as the camera pans away, ending with a shot that, were it from a different filmmaker might be read rather differently....

    James not James the Big
    This part of the episode is one example of the series becoming a bit more soap opera-y. It's immediately followed by some banter between Peter and Andrew in a similar vein. Eventually the two of them meet with Jesus and the other disciples who now number 7 including Mary Magdalene. (though there's a indication that there will soon be 12). 

    Then there's a moment distinguishing between the two James', something that is a bit of a confusion in early Christian tradition because there are four different James-names: James the Brother of John & son of Zebedee; James, Jesus' cousin/(half?) brother; James son of Alphaeus and  James the Less, or James the Little / Younger / Minor / Lesser. Many argue that there are only two men, James son of Zebedee and James the Less, where James the less is Jesus' cousin and son of Alphaeus, but there are various problems with that and with the proposed alternatives. 

    So it's perhaps understandable that when faced with two James' one of whom is bigger than all the other disciples and the other is smaller than the others he hesitates and waits for them to self-distinguish (while many of the audience is mentally thinking "Little James"). James son of Zebedee eventually breaks the silence by suggesting he be "Big James" and then Jesus says "is that acceptable to you young James" and it sounds like it's just an adjective, but it's obviously a nod to the designation in Mark 15:40 (not the work of the main author of Mark). But this skips over the fact that the title Young James is used seemingly to describe Jesus' mother, so it's odd that Jesus isn't a bit more familiar with his brother / cousin. In any case it's possible that we will find that "Young James" is the brother of Matthew/Levi (also a son of Alphaeus who didn't seem to know Jesus particularly well in the last episode). So it's a bit of a fudge, but done with some internal and external humour/nods to nerds like me so I kind of admire it for that. The "young James" thing is so easy to miss, but a nice detail.

    Magdalene
    Having banged on about James I find I've not yet mentioned the fact that of these 7 disciples one of them is Mary. This is quite a radical step and I am here for it. Given we're now in John territory, it's worth pointing out that John never uses the concept of 12 disciples. There are 2 passages here John 6:60-71 where he actually contrasts "the twelve" with "the disciples" and John 21:1-3 where we get the only numerate reference to the disciples - a list which adds up to 7 members, though 2 are unnamed. So Mary being here and there being 7 disciples at this point is pretty Johanine. And I like the way it gives Mary more prominence.

    Thomas
    An eighth is on the horizon though, because in this episode we're also introduced to a man called Thomas. Here Thomas is one of the caterers for the wedding who are unsure whether to get 3 jars of wine or 4 for the numbers. Note that uncertain/doubting personality being hardcoded in from the start. "I just want to be certain" he says, just seconds after we first his name. Numbers-wise its a marginal call and as he, his partner Rhema and the happy couple are under financial pressure they opt for the three. 

    The implication here seems to be that the reason that turns out to be the wrong call is due in no small part to the fact that Jesus turns up unexpectedly accompanied by his disciples. I remember hearing this theory in evangelical circles years ago and it struck me then as an odd rhetorical flourish. Here though there are many others and they fall well short "it's only the first day" when Jesus is told the wine is out. I'm not sure the maths here really adds up.

    When Jesus starts dishing out instructions there's more of this "Thomas was always a doubter" schtick. Jesus' instruction to "Fill these jars with water all the way to the brim" is met with a "why" shortly followed by a "From the directions you have provided I see no logical solution to the problem". Doubting aside I'm not sure even Sheldon would say something like that. It''s interesting, though, that when Jesus comes to perform the miracle he asks Thomas to step outside – denying him the opportunity for clear proof of witnessing a miracle.

    But it's then that Jesus suggests he is going to ask Thomas is going to join him and he praises those same questioning characteristics "It is good to ask questions to seek understanding". And then he calls him, instead of talking about making fishers of man he uses a term relative to his profession "Join me and I will show you a new way to count and measure; a different way of seeing time." Thomas is left struggling to make a decision as to whether to follow "I don't know what to think".  I found the response – with it's obvious message for the doubters of today – a little worrying: "So don't. Don't think". Er, OK then.

    More about Jesus
    The performance of the miracle is overlaid by one of the other characters delivering a monologue about the difference between smithing and being a stonemason and how "once you make that first cut into the stone it can't be undone" shortly afterwards Jesus (who's is clearly weighing up the decision whether to begin his ministry) says "I'm ready Father".

    Before all that though we learn quite a few other things about Jesus from an early conversation his mother Mary and her close friend the bridegroom's mother, Dinah. Dinah bets he's grown up to be handsome. Naturally, Mary does not deny it. More crucially we learn from Mary that Jesus' father Joseph has already died.

    Jesus also reveals a little, recalling an incident in the past where he "was a clumsy teenager who cracked my head open" which an interesting indicator that while the series may see Jesus as free of sin, he still has human imperfections. Suffice to say there are times in church history when that would have been seen as controversial – perhaps even with some folks today. 

    We also hear about his values at this stage. Talking about the wedding he says "The most important person I know will be there: my mother". Lastly we get to see Jesus dancing. This has taken place in a few Jesus films following The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) – Jesus (2000) and Shanti Sandesham (2003) spring to mind. The dancing in question seems a bit too stereotypically Jewish for my liking, by which I mean stereotypically modern-day Orthodox Jewish. I don't think there's any reason to assume that Jewish dancing styles have remained largely unchanged over 2000 years, particularly given how much dancing styles in the UK varied across the 20th century alone.

    Exaggerating
    The Chosen does seem to have a tendency to take fairly basic things and push them to an even further degree. The first such passage in episode 5 takes place right at the start with the boy Jesus conversing with the teachers in the temple. Luke 2:46-47 says he was "listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers". Here, though, Joseph says Jesus "was teaching when I found him...they barely let us leave" (emphasis mine). That's quite a step beyond the text though it could be put down as Joseph's exaggeration rather than the filmmakers.

    Except of course that this is a pattern and we get another example in this episode which concerns the quality of the wine that Jesus "turns". In John's Gospel the steward makes the comment that "Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now" (2:10). Here however, this practice is mentioned once in the build up to the wedding and again after the miracle, only the steward – who, one presumes, will have tested tasted quite a lot of wine in a professional capacity – describes this wine as "the best wine I have ever tasted". 

    This is actually why its such a relief when Mary is asked about Jesus' career that she doesn't go off into a eulogy about his carpentry skills, but reacts with more of a shrug. I like the little hint that even though, really she knows who he is and the importance of his new job, there's part of her that still wishes he was diligently following in Joseph's footsteps.

    The End (of the Beginning)
    Even though I left out the discussion about the ongoing conversation between John the Baptist and Nicodemus, this piece went on far, far longer than I intended it to be, doubtless why it's taken me 3 months to write it up and publish it. Next time I'll have to go for less detail and quotes and more general first impressions or else I'll never get through the series. (Indeed while I've been writing this Peter Chattaway has posted a fascinating he ran with The Chosen's director/show runner Dallas Jenkins. Check it out).

    Nevertheless, we've reached a turning point though. It wasn't over emphasised but one of the discussions amongst he disciples ends with one of them concluding that the private phase of Jesus's private ministry has come to a close and now he is moving onto the public stage.

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    Tuesday, June 14, 2022

    Magdala (2022) Plays at Cannes ACID

    I've paid Damien Manivel’s Magdala only a fraction of the attention that I should have and now I find that it has already played at the ACID Festival (Association for the Distribution of Independent Cinema) that runs alongside the main Cannes Film Festival, so it really is about time I posted something about it.

    Magdala is a dialogue-free film, apparently similar in style to Albert Serra's Birdsong (2008), that features an elderly Mary Magdalene, reflecting on her time with the long-departed Jesus. It's French made, and, at only 78 minutes, it's one of the shorter biblical features I've come across in a while.

    As ever, my friend Peter Chattaway has been much more on the ball with the news. After an initial post in January 2021, he followed up in April with the news the film would be playing at ACID, and now he's got excerpts from some reviews of the film and a few images and video clips.    

    In an interview for Cineuropa Manivel describes his film as "very minimalist in some sense, but it also places sensations centre stage" and was born out of his desire to work with the film's star, Elsa Wolliaston, again, following their collaboration on two short films La Dame au chien and Isadora’s Children.  

    The reviews seem largely positive so far, though, that is, in part, because all the reviewers seem to appreciate Manivel's austere approach. As a fan of that kind of thing, I'm looking forward to it too. Hopefully it won't be too long before I'm able to report back. Mubi streamed Manivel's last film Isadora's Children (2020) – for which he won Best Director at the Locarno Film Festival – so hopefully they will be showing Magdala at some point as well.

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    Thursday, May 19, 2022

    My book is out!

    My book finally arrived, 15 years after I first had the dream of writing it. I'm mega pushed for time today, but it's all very exciting. You can find out more my looking at my other posts here or my going to the Bloomsbury website.

    It's available in lots of the usual places including Amazon (UK/US) where it's been sitting near the top of their Historical Films Books Bestsellers list (in the UK).

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    Monday, May 16, 2022

    Jesus the Christ (1923)

    One of the things that is so interesting about silent film is the possibilities for discovery: a lost classic turns up in an attic here, mention of a previously unknown movie is unearthed in a journal there. So it's genuinely exciting when an entire film turns up that no-one had ever even previously heard of. And this is precisely what's happened with Jesus the Christ (1923) which was released by Grapevine on DVD/Bluray and digital download a couple of weeks ago.

    Grapevine's release is made all the more intriguing by the total lack of credits. There's no director's name so we can compare it with their other work; nor are we told the name of the actors who play Jesus or any of the other characters so we check out their past roles. 

    Herald Non-Theatrical Pictures
    There is, however,  a company name: "Herald Non-Theatrical Pictures". Terry Lindvall discusses this company in his book "Sanctuary Cinema: Origins of the Christian Film Industry". Herald was an off-shoot of periodical "Christian Herald" who first tried to get into the film business to promote a better quality of film but quickly ended up making them themselves. While much of their surviving footage was pro-prohibition pictures and "missionary films", in addition to this film apparently they also made "fourteen episodes of Old Testament history".(1) Periodicals from the time also record that the company was "non-sectarian",(2) and apparently this film specifically was "made at one of the renditions of the Passion Play in Europe".(3) Lindvall concludes that herald's efforts "constituted the most comprehensive film production effort by any religious organization of the silent era" yet notes that its "muted" demise shortly after "did not even make front-page copy".(4)

    Compositions and lighting
    The film itself belies the notion that Herald were just amateurs jumping on a band wagon. Some of their goals may have been a little naïve, but there is an undoubted artistry behind some of the compositions and lighting. This is certainly helped by Grapevine's excellent transfer (the digital download is 1080px full HD), but even an excellent copy cannot add what was not there to start with. The image above, for example, looks almost like a sepia-tinted Caravaggio imbued with a burgeoning sense of anticipation of the life that is to come. A long shot of Jesus carrying his cross across a ledge above (final image below) anticipates the famous closing shot of Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1957) while a shot into the tomb containing a freshly resurrected Jesus captures both its full-bodied nature and its inherent strangeness. It feels like the first time a film has really captured an event that left some overjoyed and others frightened and startled. This resurrected Jesus feels like he could credibly be both mistaken for something as mundane as a gardener (John 20:15) and something as extraordinary as a ghost (Luke 24:37). It's a shame the intertitles jump in here rather than leaving the camera to linger, but it's a wonderful moment nevertheless.

    Recalling the earliest days of cinema
    At the same time, this feels like a step back to an earlier era in cinema history. It feels like those early Pathé Bible films may well have impacted some of the filmmakers. There are several uses of the double exposures techniques which so typified Zecca's work, for example, which feel a little stagey here. One notable example –  the Ascension – tips its hat to Zecca's La vie et Passion de N.S.Jésus-Christ (1907) in terms of composition, even if it omits its visual flourishes. Characters often bow in unison with their backs to the screen. Often the larger crowd scenes are filmed  in long static shots while the crowd processes in or out. 

    Elsewhere in the world of the cinema, Robert Wiene was bringing German Expressionism to the masses with Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari (1919) while films such as The Phantom Carriage (1921), Nosferatu(1922) and Haxan (1923) were emotionally affecting audiences in creative new ways. Meanwhile DeMille and Curtiz were reaching new heights in terms of spectacle and epic scale while the montage of Battleship Potemkin was only two years away. Compared to these more pioneering movies (and perhaps its unfair to compare a run of the mill film with some of the greatest example of what the medium is capable of) Jesus the Christ feels fairly antiquated. At the same time, I like slow cinema and and there something dignified and contemplative about its stately pacing.

    A Filmed Passion Play
    Having considered the film's visual contributions, what of the story? The suggestion that the film was made at a European passion play certainly chides with the film's structure, which would otherwise seem a little unusual. Of the film's 55 minute runtime, the first 5½ minutes (10%) cover Jesus' birth and childhood, the next 11 minutes cover Jesus'  ministry (20%), with the remaining 70% covering the events of the 'final week' from his Triumphal Entry to his Ascension. In other words this is just a passion story with an extended prologue – a description that has also been used about Mark's Gospel.

    The incidents that are featured in that brief 11 minute section are interesting though. We start with Jesus declaring his mandate in Nazareth and then casting a demon out of a boy. Next comes the Sermon on the Mount featuring a fair bit of the Beatitudes in the intertitles as instructions to be like children from Matthew 19. A woman is accused of adultery, then (prior to his triumphal entry) he casts the sellers out of the temple. Lastly he raises Lazarus. In other words this is a real jumble of highlights from the four Gospels harmonised into one account.

    After the Last Supper and Gethsemane Jesus is tried before both Caiaphas (briefly) and Pontius Pilate (at greater length). Judas' remorse and suicide is also treated at length, most notably is the way that Judas also walks along the same rocky ledge that Jesus will take on his way to the cross moments later (mentioned above, pictured below). On the cross Jesus says five of the seven last phrases (Paradise, forgive them, I thirst, why forsaken, It is finished), then a procession takes him to his tomb. Pilate has the tomb sealed before the Resurrection and Ascension scenes mentioned above.

    A Contemporary-style Jesus
    The other-worldly nature of these final two scenes is given extra heft because of the very physical portrayal of Jesus that has preceded it. While the film generally feels most at home with mid-long shots, it does occasionally shoot Jesus in close-up. This is something even DeMille's The King of Kings (1927) is reticent about (the film's famous first shot of Jesus is a close up, but it's in soft focus, and a rare example). Here however, the occasional use of close-ups in combination with the high-contrast lighting really emphasises the wrinkles on Jesus' face. While he's nowhere near as old as H.B. Warner's Jesus he certainly seems older than Jeffrey Hunter's or Enrique Irazoqui's. There's something refreshingly real about the actor. Not only is he believably human, and a credible manual worker, he also seems grounded; he feels like someone who has experience of real life.

    This is doubtless part of the reason (and only part) of why this unnamed actor playing Jesus somehow feels very contemporary. It's not just about the close-ups, it's the mid and wide shots as well. There's a lack of pretension or affect. Much of the footage simply doesn't feel like it's a hundred years old despite  the apparent lack of technical sophistication. It's a salient reminder that artistic prowess can exist, even in the absence of innovation of form. Jesus the Christ transcends its limited innovation regarding form to provide a fresh and groundbreaking portrait of Jesus the man. 

    Sadly, Herald Non-Theatrical Pictures never really took off and the film found itself stuck in a vault; it's backstory, and the lives of those who contributed to it, were eventually lost. I'm grateful, then, that Grapevine have rescued and restored it. It is by no means an exemplary film. The pacing of the film is a little off and perhaps part of the reason Herald lost out is their failure to remain contemporary in a fast-changing visual world. Nevertheless there are some beautiful moments and the presence of a contemporary-feeling, believable, Jesus in the midst of all this staid presentation somehow feels almost as paradoxical as the character himself.

    You can download a copy of this film from the Grapevine Video website. Not only am I not affiliated with them I paid for my copy myself.

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    1 - Lindvall, Terry, "Sanctuary Cinema: Origins of the Christian Film Industry" (NYU Press, 2011). Quotes are from page 147, but the whole section from 139-148 is instructive.

    2 -"Christian Paper Backs Non-Theatrical FilmsExhibitor's Herald, April 21, 1923

    3 -  "Religous Move Here July 12- 14", Arizona Daily Star, July 5, 1923.

    4 - Lindvall, p.148

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