• 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.










    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.

    ================
    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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    Saturday, May 14, 2022

    My Book is Available for Pre-order

    The official UK/US publication date for my book, "100 Bible Films", is this week – 19th May – but I understand it may be a while before it appears in bricks and mortar stores. 

    However, just this week it's become available for pre-order from the BFI shop online. In some ways this is a relatively small step as various online retailers have been taking pre-orders for a while, but it also feels significant to me that it's in a curated bookshop by a respected name (even if thay are also, sort of, the publishers). Plus for the part of me that is still struggling to believe this is all actually happening, this feels like another firm indicator that everything is going to be OK. 

    Secondly, the publication date for getting a UK/US ebook versions is also this Thursday.  However, you can already view the book's text electronically via Bloomsbury Collections. This is probably something that of more relevance to those who already have access, perhaps via an academic institution, particularly if you are wondering whether it would be a good option for your Jesus films or Cinema and the Bible type courses. It doesn't really capture the essence of the book however and certainly not the fantastic work done by Tom Cabot, Sophie Contento and Louise Dugdale on the visual design, display and range of images.

    Lastly, if you are in Australia / New Zealand unfortunately you are going to have to wait until the 14th July, but you can still pre-order.

    Here are some links:

    BFI Shop
    Bloomsbury (Cheapest) UK | USA | CanAus/NZ)
    Bloomsbury Collections (ebook access)
    Amazon (UKUSA | Can | Aus/NZ | JP | IT)
    Blackwells (UK)
    Walmart (US)
    Waterstones (UK)
    WHSmiths (UK)

    Of course other retailers are available and if you want to buy it from your local shop, you probably can, you will just have to go in to order it first. Despite my desire to sell this in local, bricks and mortar bookshops, it's just not that much of a popular title – it's peaked at 67,000 on the Amazon list. Most physical bookshops don't house that many books, sadly.

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    Monday, May 09, 2022

    BBC Radio 4's 'Sunday' Interview Me

    I've really enjoyed working on the publicity for my book "100 Bible Films", but this will definitely be one of the highlights. Yesterday I had a short spot on BBC Radio 4's "Sunday" programme. They wanted me to talk about 3 films in particular so I went for Pasolini's Il vangelo secondo Matteo (pictured, 1964), La Genese (Cheick Oumar Sissoko, 1998) and Darren Aronofsky's Noah (2014) as I feel these give a reasonable impression about the book itself.

    You can catch the interview from the 7:45 mark here.

    Special thanks to the shows producer Olive Clancy for coaxing some good answers out of me and putting together the music etc. that really make the piece work so well. Thanks also to Mollie Broad and her colleagues at Bloomsbury for their work on bringing this piece together as well.

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    Friday, April 15, 2022

    The Life of Jesus: My 38-Film Montage

    About 7 years ago I did a talk at a clergy conference near my home in Leicester, and for reasons I can't recall I made this 13-minute video which pieces together scenes from 38 Jesus films into one montage of Jesus' birth, life, death and resurrection.

    I meant to post it somewhere sooner, but was concerned about copyright, particularly on the soundtrack (Philip Glass's "Prelude to Akhnaten"), and then meant to do it in time for people to be able to use it in the run up to Easter. Unfortunately other deadlines took priority, and I wanted to end with a brief bit mentioning my book, so had to work out how to do that, and then because I had used a 50-second clip of Son of Man (1969) it got blocked in the UK, and then another problem with sound. And well....

    Anyway, I'd love it if people/churches/small groups were able to incorporate it into their worship in someway. I know I'm biased but I'm really proud of it and despite the ours editing it, still find it quite moving. So feel free to use it. Also if you can't get YouTube to work for me, drop me a line and I'll see if I can fix you up with a copy. 

    The clips used here are:

    Jesus (1979)
    Jesus of Nazareth (1977)
    Life and Passion of Jesus Christ (1907)
    King of Kings (1961)
    Life and Passion of Jesus Christ (1907)
    From the Manger to the Cross (1912)
    The Nativity Story (2006)
    Jesus (1979)
    Jesus (1999)
    Gospel of John (2003)
    The Lumo Project (2014)
    Last Temptation (1988)
    Mary Mother of Jesus (1999)
    The Lumo Project (2014)
    Il vangelo Secondo Matteo (1964)
    Jesus (1979)
    The Miracle Maker (2000)
    Life of Brian (1979)
    Last Temptation (1988)
    Son of Man (2006)
    Karunamayudu (1978)
    Son of Man (1969)
    Il messia (1975)
    Last Temptation (1988)
    Death of Christ (1898)
    Jesus of Montreal (1989)
    Miracles of Jesus (2006)
    Jesus (1979)
    The Miracle Maker (2000)
    The King of Kings (1927)
    No Greater Power (1942)
    Il vangelo secondo Matteo (1964)
    The Passion (2008)
    The Lawton Story (1949)
    Jesus (1999)
    Get Some Money (2017)
    Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)
    King of Kings (1961)
    The Lumo Project (2014)
    Jesus (1999)
    Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)
    Jesus of Nazareth (1977)
    Golgotha (1935)
    The Lumo Project (2014)
    Color of the Cross (2006)
    The Lumo Project (2014)
    Death of Christ (1898)
    The Passion of the Christ (2004)
    The Lumo Project (2014)
    Su Re (2012)
    The Lumo Project (2014)
    Il Messia (1975)
    The Robe (1953)
    Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)
    Barabbas (1961)
    Gospel of John (2003)
    From the Manger to the Cross (1912)
    Su Re (2012)
    Jesus Nuestro Senor (1971)
    Gospel of John (2003)
    The Lumo Project (2014)
    Jesus (1999)
    Son of Man (2006)
    Mary (2005)
    Il vangelo secondo Matteo (1964)
    Son of God (2014)
    Gospel of John (2003)
    Visual Bible Matthew (1994)
    Jesus Nuestro Senor (1971)
    Jesus (1999)
    Which comes to 38 films once you take the duplicates out. I probably could have made that up to 40 if I counted the Lumo Project films as different films, rather than all one.

    If the video above doesn't work for you, the whole thing is available on YouTube

    Tuesday, March 22, 2022

    Nicholas Diak Interview about "100 Bible Films"


    I first got to know Nicholas Diak back in 2017. I'd just heard about the book he was editing "The New Peplum" (my review) and thought it would be good to connect with him. I think I was hoping he might be able to squeeze-in a quick piece on a biblical neo-peplum, but alas, it had already gone to the publishers.

    Anyway, we've kept in touch, so I was delighted when he asked me for an interview for his homepage, which you can read it at the link below:


    If you've got something you'd like to interview me for or you'd like me to speak at, please just let me know.

    Monday, March 07, 2022

    My Interview for Phil Hall's Online Movie Show is now online


    I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Phil Hall for his Online Movie Show podcast. The relevant episode is now available to download from here:

    Online Movie Show: The Bible and the Big Screen 

    It was great to speak to Phil. As I mentioned about a year ago, Phil has written his own book on the subject – Jesus Christ Movie Star – which is well worth a read. By narrowing down the field to just those set in the period and excluding television films, he's able to take in a wider range of films than the standard canon and he discusses a few films I'm yet to see.

    Anyway, it was good to talk about my own book – 100 Bible Films – and to get to know Phil a bit. Of the various authors to have written on this subject, Phil is only the fourth I've managed to actually speak to face to face (by which I mean Skype/Zoom).

    Thursday, March 03, 2022

    Which is the Most Accurate Film about Jesus Christ?

    Overhead wide shot from The Passion of the Christ

    One of the most common questions about Bible films is "Which Jesus movies are the most reliable"? Indeed when I first started getting into biblical cinema one of the main driving factors was trying to find a cinematic Jesus who matched who I thought he was. However, I soon realised that this wasn't the best way to approach the subject.

    Why do so few Bible films stick to the Gospels?
    There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, the New Testament doesn't really work as a film script - the two are very different types of writing. The Bible only rarely offers motivations for how its characters act and often supporting characters are not rounded out in the way that works for a film. Secondly, the lengths of stories in the Bible don't correspond neatly to the roughly two hours length of most films. Some stories are much shorter, but the Gospels are all longer, so they need to expand the material, or condense it. Indeed sometimes filmmakers need to reduce the material to get it to fit the available time, but also have to flesh things out a bit to make something that works dramatically.

    Why can't filmmakers just use the biblical text?
    This has been tried a number of times. 5 "films" have taken a word-for-word approach that has used the entire biblical book as a script: Genesis (1979), Luke (1979), Matthew (1993), Acts (1994) and Gospel of John (2003). (The Lumo Project also narrated all four Gospels accompanied by actors acting out the scenes). All are three hours or more long and if you watch them you soon realise that however well-meaning this approach is, it doesn't seem to produce good movies. 

    Two other films have almost entirely limited themselves to a reduced version of the text – Jesus (1979) and the Italian film Il vangelo secondo Matteo (1964). Jesus is an abridged version of the Luke film above and suffers from many of the same problems. Il vangelo, though, when seen in black and white and not-dubbed is considered a classic by many cinephiles. Oddly though, many of those who most want a "biblically accurate Jesus film" don't like, because it doesn't match how they picture Jesus, which leads us onto another question...

    Why don't Jesus movies show like I think he was/is?
    The answer to this is "interpretation". One of the things the makers of Matthew (1993) tried to do was claim that their film had "no interpretation", but you don't have to think about that claim for long before you realise it's rubbish! What was Jesus's face like? We don't know? How tall/ short/ fat/ thin/ hairy/ neat/ messy was he? The Bible doesn't say. How big were the crowds he spoke to? We don't know. What tone of voice did he use? Was he smiling or angry? Intimate or distant? We might think we know the answers to these questions, but that is our interpretation.

    The bigger question
    Ultimately I realised that there's a bigger issue here: we bring our own inaccurate assumptions with us to these films. When I watched those word-for-word films I realised how much of my own biases and pre-suppositions I brought to the text. We think we want to find an "accurate" depiction of Jesus, but often we just want something that confirms what we already thought.

    The thing is, though, often these ideas don't have much to do with the Bible, if we're honest. Historical Christian art from Europe has usually produced a white-Christ. Many "lives of Jesus" were written in the 19th century, but they all tended to describe a Jesus who was not-that dissimilar to the author. Similarly 20th & 21st century filmmakers portray him with similar attitudes to themselves. 

    So how do I get a more accurate image of Jesus
    So if we're trying to find a more accurate idea of Jesus, finding one that matches our own mental image is never going to do it. That just reaffirms all the faulty ideas about him we have swept up along with the good ones. We ending up making Jesus like us.

    Instead, a better approach is to challenge our existing views by listening to others' ideas. You can still bring it back to the Bible at the end, but trying to understand other people's ideas about Jesus can challenge our own. And that can include filmmakers. Instead of hunting an unrealistic ideal of an accurate Jesus film, it's actually far better to watch those that challenge your views and see whether those opposing viewpoints could teach you something valid. Ultimately, if you want to grow in your knowledge about Jesus then that's not going to happen by watching something you already agree with.

    =======

    I discuss many, different portrayals of Jesus in my latest book "100 Bible Films" available for preorder now.

    Sunday, February 13, 2022

    Obscure silent Jesus the Christ (1923) to be released in July

    Thanks to Sterling Jones for alerting me to this. Grapevine Video – one of the long-running heroes of the silent film world, held a kickstarter in December to fund a digital, DVD and Blu-ray release of an obscure silent Bible film Jesus the Christ purportedly from 1923.

    I don't use the term obscure lightly here. I'd never heard of the film before Sterling's tip off and neither had he. An email from the team at Grapevine explained that they themselves "were unable to unearth really any info that wasn’t in the film itself, and the film itself has no credits for the director or actors." I've consulted with all the recognised works on the subject and various other lists, and asked a number of other people who might have been able to uncover something about this, but still absolutely nothing.

    Judging by the trailer it was a relatively expensive production. The size of the crowd is considerable at certain points (e.g. above) and the costumes look of reasonable quality. My hunch is that this film may have also been released under another name, but even then it's hard to think of a candidate. My mind leapt to 1928's Jesus of Nazareth, but the footage Grapevine have released is at odds with the stills from that film in Kinnard and Davis' "Divine Images". 

    Perhaps when the restoration is complete and the film is released some more evidence might emerge from the wider community. In the meantime, if you have any ideas, please let me know!

    And the kickstarter itself? Smashed its target in just 7 hours – before even I had a chance to sign up. The DVD and Blu-ray are already available for pre-order and are likely to be released in July. Grapevine have also told me they are hoping a digital download option will be available as well.

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    Which is the Best Book About Jesus Films / Bible Movies?

    There are so many books that discuss Jesus movies or cinema and the Bible, that it's hard to decide which is the best. I have over 30 books on those subjects specifically and many many more where Bible films form a substantial part of the publication. There is a bewildering choice for those looking to buy one. Which will work best for you?

    Full disclosure though, I'm biased, because I've written my own book on the subject: 100 Bible Films.

    Yet, that doesn't disqualify me as much as some might think. Reading and regularly using so many of these books has given me a lot of time to really figure out what goes in to making a really good book on the subject and then finding a publisher that was able to fulfil that vision. I channelled all I've learnt from 20 years pouring over those 60+ books (and many, many more!) into writing "100 Bible Films". I looked at what made these books good or bad: how interesting, accessible, useful, academic, credible or helpful were they.

    So instead of pretending to be objective on this question I'm going to explain some of the things I focused on when trying to write what I thought would make the best book I could produce on the subject of the Bible on Film.

    Affordable
    Many of the books in this field are, sadly, very expensive, even in 2nd hand or electronic format. This isn't a criticism. It's a niche area so Academic publishers often have to charge high prices to recoup their costs. Nevertheless, where there's a book in this field that I don't have, it's nearly always due to its price. 

    Well researched
    I've been researching and writing about Cinema and the Bible for over 20 years now and writing this book for about 15 of them. As a film critic I've sought to write about each film in its own context, typically looking at other relevant works by the director, but I've also run various kinds of teaching on the Bible over the years as well.

    Peer Reviewed
    The hallmark of quality for any book these days is peer review - a process whereby an independent expert in the field examines the book to see whether is it well-researched, coherent, etc. While this book is produced by the BFI a lot of the production has been done by Bloomsbury Academic who have given it a thorough peer review. And the finished product is far stronger as a result of the the changes that were suggested at this stage. I'm really grateful for the academics who gave their detailed analysis and helped me make the book even better.

    Accessible
    While "100 Bible Films" passes the test for academic rigour, I've also sought to make it accessible for those outside of universities. The 100 films format makes it easy to dip into, and just read about a specific film. Because film lovers and Bible fans are rarely experts in both fields I've tried not to assume too much, or resort to too many technical terms or acronyms.

    While I'm talking about accessibility, I should also mention that the book is also available electronically, which means it should be compatible with assistive technology like screen readers or refreshable braille displays. There isn't an audio-book version, yet... but if this is a genuine accessibility requirement for you, please contact me (emailTwitter) and I'll see what can be done.

    Student-friendly
    "100 Bible Films" is particularly good for students for two reasons. Firstly, because the price works for those on limited budgets – I've been there trying to stretch a limited budget to pay for text books. Secondly though, because word limits are so tight, I really had to boil down the content to the good stuff. It was a painstaking process, going through sentence by sentence trying to make the contents as lean as possible. A positive consequence of this, though, is that if you're a student trying to include quotes in essays or exams you can do that without blowing your word count or giving yourself too many words to recall in an exam.

    World Focus
    The Bible's influence is so widespread that it has permeated into cultures worldwide. As a result there are Bible films from across the world. I've really sought to bring out the international nature of the subject and move the focus from 'Hollywood'. There are films by filmmakers from 6 continents. Hollywood still accounts for roughly half the films, but over 20 countries are represented.

    Full History 
    Too many film books these days focus too greatly on recent film history and short-change the silent era. While many of the other books in this field do give the silent era decent consideration, 19 of the 100 films are from that first thirty years of cinema history. There's a slight bias to newer films but I've sought to stress the obvious importance of that first quarter of film history. Moreover, I cover each of the 14 decades from the birth of cinema to today.

    Beautiful
    The BFI were my first choice of publisher, in part because they have such a strong track record of creating books that are beautiful as well as from top authors in their fields, but also because they have an archive of photos which we've been able to draw on. And the team that helped me pick out an image for each film, and that designed and laid-out the book have done an amazing job. I'm very fortunate to have worked with them.

    Expertise in both Film and the Bible
    Over the last 20 years I've been paid both to work in & speak to churches and to write as a film critic. I'm not a film scholar who dabbles in the Bible, or a theologian who appreciates film, I have knowledge and expertise in both.

    BFI published
    It really is an honour to write for the British Film Institute. For decades they have encouraged a deeper understanding and fuelled readers’ passion for film with their books. They're a highly respected institution, and their good reputation across the UK cinema scene is well deserved. Hopefully that offers some reassurance!

    ===
    So there it is. Yes, this is a pitch, but I really hope you can catch the heart of what I've tried to do with "100 Bible Films". 

    If you're interested you can already order a copy.

    If not, that's fine!
    There are a lot of other great books on the subject. This post is not to denigrate them – I've learnt loads from reading them and would recommend most of those in the above picture barring one or two.

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    Wednesday, February 02, 2022

    The Chosen (2019) s1e04

    Having enjoyed episode 3 of The Chosen not quite as much as I enjoyed episodes 1 and 2, I'm a little apprehensive about sitting down to number 4. Will it return to the appeal of the first episodes, or has the novelty worn off? It starts bizarre;y enough with Peter on a rowing boat with a group of Roman soldiers when he "accidentally" directs them onto a sand bar – damaging their boat – one of them uses his sword to cut his ear. Presumably this is nod to the moment in the Garden of Gethsemane where Simon Peter (according to John 18:10, but not the Synoptics) cuts off Malchus' ear.

    Of course, at this point in the episode he is only Simon, but this is the episode where Andrew tells him about Jesus, then he meets Jesus after a disappointing night fishing, Jesus produces a multitude of fish, Simon believes and decides to follow him and gains his nickname "Rocky". 

    What's interesting is that this formula is fairly well worn in Jesus films, but it's not really like that in the Gospels. Without checking, I'm reasonably certain that Jesus of Nazareth (1977), Jesus (1999) and The Miracle Maker (2000) all follow this pattern. The Gospels however have it slightly differently. Mark and Matthew just have Jesus meeting Andrew and Peter at the same time at the Sea of Galilee and calling them without any miracle. Luke doesn't really have the story of Simon being called. Simon just appears in 4:38, as if everyone already knows who he is, with a mother-in-law in need of healing. 

    The groundwork for the story of Peter's mother-in-law is foreshadowed in this episode. We're introduced to Peter's wife, who tells him that "Eema" is sick and rebukes him for not looking after her enough. Peter reveals he's in trouble. He has tax debts and has been fishing on the Sabbath (here called "Shabbat" throughout) and is in increasingly desperate need of "a miracle". He needs a big catch of fish. "Where is your faith?" his wife demands "You've not pursued the Lord lately. Not like the man that I married".

    The miraculous catch of fish episode appears only in two gospels, and in radically different places. In Luke it appears at the start of ch.5, just a few verses after the healing of Simon's mother-in-law. In John, however, it's tagged on to the end of the Gospels, as a post resurrection appearance. Some claim these are two entirely separate incidents, perhaps even making the point about Simon's failure to learn, or that it gives the moment when he sees the miracle for a second time he knows this is Jesus even though he's a distance away.

    John's other innovation is to change the role of Peter's brother Andrew. In the Synoptics he's a bit of an also ran. In John (1:35-42) he gets promoted to being one of the two disciples who initially follow John the Baptist (the other is not named, though Jesus films that include this incident nearly always make him John), until the Baptist points them towards Jesus and they then transfer their allegiance. Andrew then goes and tells Peter who meets Jesus and joins up. Jesus changes his name then and there (in Mark isn't mentioned until 3:16, likewise the other Synoptics).

    As  with the three films mentioned above here we have these various bits harmonised into one story, that doesn't really match what any one of the Gospels says. Andrew, is the wide-eyed dreamer: Peter the practical based realist. Andrew returns excited about "the Messiah", Peter thinks he is just being naive. They go out to fish, catch nothing, but when they return Jesus tells them to try again, Peter points out this is impractical. Cue miraculous catch of fish, Simon's exclamation ("You are the Lamb of God. Depart from me. I am a sinful man... you don't know who I am and the things I've done") and his conversion and calling.

    Here however, there's a far greater level of desperation in Peter's circumstances and far more severe character flaws than is typical for this soon-to-be-leader-of-the-(whole?)-church. He's been a gambler and got into trouble and now he's in trouble for tax fraud. There's suggestions of violence and drunkenness in there as well. And now he's working on the Sabbath.

    The moment when the miracle happens is far more dramatic as well, and certainly wants to emphasise that this is a miracle. It comes as Simon is about to be seized for his tax debt - "its my last night as a free man and I'm fishing". The catch takes place in very shallow waters and the nets don't even seem laid out in such a fashion that a bunch of fish could get suddenly trapped. Yet here the pull from the net is so sever that the boat almost capsizes. There's also a God shot at this point - the first in the episode, and perhaps even the series.

    All of which makes this quite a showy and dramatic way to present this story. The films mentioned above follow a similar structure and while they also suggest that this is a miracle by Jesus, these "enhancements" are absent. They all involve interpretation but whereas those other leave the door open for more natural/coincidental/God-working-through-nature interpretations, here only one reading seems possible. It's interesting too that the film's director, in the after the credits chat, actually calls the recording of that scene itself "a miracle". This is a step above Mel Gibson's claims about the "Holy Ghost" when he was making The Passion of the Christ (2004).

    Several other named biblical characters also feature several times in this episode. Firstly I've already mentioned Andrew, but James and John appear in the background and get a few lines. There's also a role for Zebedee whose warm, avuncular, portrayal contrasts significantly with the spiky antagonist of Last Temptation of Christ (1988).

    Nicodemus also makes a few appearances without really moving things on, I'm guessing they're positioning him as a character the audience can relate to, who can be converted as per the John 3:16 passage, relatively early on in the series. The episode ends with him seeking out John the Baptist to ask about "the miracles".

    Matthew also makes another appearance. He's portrayed very differently to Simon. Yes he's a tax collector, but he's nervous and clearly not at all comfortable with his form of employment. It's interesting that whereas The Chosen is making Peter a bit rougher round the edges than the Gospels do, trying to remove that saintly edge, they seem to be semi-rehabilitating Matthew to lessen his complicity in Rome's oppressive machine. He's also fascinated by what is going on and Jesus in particular and the way Matthew always carries a pen and parchment and regularly jots things down, is clearly intended to mark(!) him out as an eye-witness Gospel author who can be relied upon because he was literally noting things down as they happened. 

    Again this is a very conservative view point solidified a bit via the series' presentation of him. But then Christian history has spent a long time developing the romance of Matthew's character and his narrative arc. The opposite viewpoint – that Matthew was not one of the disciples who used other people's accounts and recalled sayings (and may even have written in Hebrew not Greek or Aramaic) has not really been retold with the same level of fond devotion. As a result it's far less appealing despite historical probability being in its favour. 

    Lastly given the last episode took place seemingly before Jesus' ministry, it's a surprise that we've skipped over Jesus' baptism. But then the series is certainly happy with a jumbled chronology and seems to use it (well) as a narrative device a fair bit, so I imagine we will circle back to this moment later. I guess this enables the series to telescope a fair bit. I've no idea if there has been a crucifixion scene yet, but, in theory the filmmakers could keep this constantly within reach, without getting there for quite a long time.

    I do like the way this episode manages to roll a number of episodes in together in a way that is dramatically satisfying, even is the theological positioning is a bit strong at time. It reflects, I suppose, the bite-sized way they Gospels are typically read and in some ways written. Chronology is a secondary concern to serving the narrative and the portrayal and the episodes work as relatively self-contained stories within a grander narrative.I'm interested to see if this is going to be a regular feature of the series.

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    Sunday, January 23, 2022

    Redeeming Love Review Round-up

    I've not had the opportunity to see the new Hosea/Gomer film released this weekend, Redeeming Love (2022), but a number of outlets have reviewed it so I thought I would link to the more key articles and highlight a few excerpts.

    Larger Publications
    The film has been reviewed by a number of larger publications in the USA. Variety's Guy Lodge calls it "long, lumbering and ideologically retrograde" and finds it's links to the Book of Hosea "superficial". He criticises the overall tone for being "drippy", "teen" and typified by "Hallmark sunrises". Finding the repetitive plot tedious particularly excoriating the "together-then-apart dance" between it's lead characters which features "no fewer than three separate shots of a wedding ring being left on a dresser." Moreover he asks a more foundational question "Does Angel need to be 'redeemed' by love, or does she just need men to cut her a break?" and jokes that "its gender politics, at least, are authentically immersed in the 19th century." 

    Katie Walsh, the reviewer for the LA Times is not alone in drawing attention to the Shakespeare quote that opens the film ("All that glitters is not gold") quipping that it "doesn’t yield any cinematic riches". She is the only reviewer I've read so far to pick up one of the things I found troubling about the trailer, specifically that the film could be interpreted as making its hero Michael...

    "an isolated religious zealot who believes he receives a message from God that a local sex worker is intended to be his wife, spurring him to kidnap her from the brothel while she’s in a weakened state and press her into a life of wifely duties though she attempts repeatedly to escape."

    Indeed she concludes that the film "plays like 'tradwife' fan fiction" and worries about why the decision to adapt this source material was made, now of all times. Walsh's review also appears at the Chicago Tribune.

    The Washington Post's Michael O'Sullivan only gives the film two stars out of four, but is perhaps the most positive I have come across. He praises director D.J. Caruso 's "slick work" and calls the film  "an engrossing but superficial epic" ultimately finding it "an incident-rich saga populated by cardboard heroes and villains and outfitted with greeting-card sentiments and cartoon villainy".

    Christian Critics
    In terms of more specifically Christian reviewers, Peter Chattaway has, as ever,  been all over this one, trailing Friday's release with one post looking at older more incidental uses of the Hosea/Gomer story and another looking at 21st century adaptations of the story including Oversold (2008), Amazing Love (2012) and Hosea (2018). Peter's review of the film itself is here and one of its main complaints is that the Hosea character (Michael Hosea) is not sufficiently developed:

    But if you’re going to ditch the prophetic message that is the Book of Hosea’s point, then at the very least I’d like to see some realistic human behaviour; if you’re going to tell a story about a man who dedicates his life to a complete stranger’s sexual salvation, you have to give me some sense of who he is and why he’s doing what he does.... if I’m going to believe in a relationship, I need to believe in both partners as people. Instead, what we get feels like mere wish fulfillment.

    Peter's piece also ends with a few notes similar to Peter's treatment of the other "Hosea/Gomer" films. For what it's worth I find the male character's name notable for two reasons. Firstly it just sounds bad. Michael Hosea? But also in Christian tradition Michael happens to be the name of the third original archangel after Gabriel and Lucifer (though the non-canonical Book of Enoch mentions 7). Given that the lead female character here is called Angel, the association of "The Duke" with the devil (i.e. Lucifer) and Michael's perfection this seems an unlikely coincidence. After all, the Archangel Michael is known for fighting for good over evil, defending God's people and empowering them.

    Another review from a Christian perspective is that of  Mike McGranaghan for Aisle Seat. Going for the jugular right away ("Redeeming Love is the most sexually-charged faith-based film I've ever seen. And, frankly, one of the most misguided.") and condemns its unenlightened and "relentlessly  old-fashioned" story of "a whore who's lucky to have a good man to rescue her" as well as it's use of shocking plot points just to grab attention.

    Leah MarieAnn Klett, the editor of Christian Post disagrees arguing "Redeeming Love tries hard to deal gently with tough topics, but there’s no way to sugarcoat prostitution, sex trafficking, murder and incest." Ultimately, though, Klett finds that the "film’s redemptive and biblical themes are evident, but ... overshadowed by explicit, sometimes unnecessary content" suggesting "conscientious viewers would do well to pass." 

    Given its usual support for Christian Movies I thought MovieGuide might be a little more in favour and it does support its "strong Christian worldview". However it ultimately summarises the film as "lackluster and unnecessarily graphic". Reviews like this make it interesting to see how the film will perform at the box office. It's clearly pushing the envelope for Christian movies/faith-based films, but it's based on existing IP - Francine Rivers’ 1991 novel which was a major hit in large part due to Christians - and it may be that this same audience likes this kind of content despite the warnings of its film critics. At the moment the audience score on Rotten Tomatoes is 95%. I don't think it's too much of  a stretch to assume that the majority of those viewers will be professing Christians.

    Other Web Critics
    Elsewhere on the web Nell Minow's 2-star review for rogerebert.com nevertheless notes how "the novel has a lot of passionate fans who will want the movie to be exactly what they imagined on the page, and that is what they will find... [it's] a story that fits comfortably and reassuringly into a particular spiritual world view." Likewise while the film's numerous instances of sexual abuse may shock some, interestingly Minow cleverly observes how this is perhaps in keeping with "the 'Hell House'-style fascination with (and amplification of) the sins of the world". She does note some positives though especially such as its "beautiful settings" and the way that leads Abigail Cowan and Tom Lewis "make a very appealing couple, warm and natural".

    If the above reviews seem bad then Anna Venarchik for The Daily Beast goes even further, even the url pulls no punches ("evangelicalisms-toxic-slut-shaming-tale-gets-the-hollywood-treatment"). Venarchik is seemingly more familiar with the Rivers' novel than many of the above reviewers which allows her to highlight things that are not explicit in the film, but nevertheless there in the subtext (for many at least, including the filmmakers) such as Michael's unintentionally hilarious description of Abigail as "a soiled dove". She ends pondering "the fates of the harlots who didn’t catch the farmer’s eye" and how the writers seem to "confirm the correlation between beauty and a woman’s prospects—the unredeemed are consumed in a hell this side of death when they perish in a fire at the brothel." It's a great review which expertly tempers its ire at the film's problematic worldview with biting wit.

    ========

    If I can find time I might try and write some of my own thoughts about all this, albeit based on little more than the above reviews, the trailer and my knowledge of Hosea. I'm particularly intrigued by the way that Hosea and Gomer were largely absent from our screens for the first 11 decades of  cinema history and have now been depicted four times in the last 15 years.

    I mentioned above the film's audience score of 95% on Rotten Tomatoes.  I should note that the critics score for Redeeming Love on Rotten Tomatoes is at the other extreme, 11%. IMDb currently has it as 7.3, but it's metascore is 31%. Edit: Box Office Mojo is recording an opening weekend domestic take of $3.7 million. That's slightly less than the $4.2 million that Christmas with the Chosen made but, as Peter Chattaway reports, it's still the top ranking new movie for last week and highest film that isn't a sequel.

    It's hardly the first film to divide audiences from critics, but it's interesting to see that even the concerns of Christian critics are not putting off "the faithful". I'm curious to know how church leaders are framing this. Do they share the concerns of critics about the sexual content (or the depiction of women) or the apparent early enthusiasm of everyday churchgoers?

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    Thursday, January 13, 2022

    The Chosen (2019) s1e03

    The opening scene of the third episode of The Chosen is hard to place. Jesus is praying, outside, surrounded by trees and seemingly in a degree of anguish. If it weren't for the tent and campfire one could easily suppose this is a flash-forward to Gethsemane. The reason for Jesus's apparent distress is never clear, but eventually it emerges that this is still a time before his ministry (or at least a time he is without disciples) and that he is still working as a carpenter.

    These scant clues emerge from the various conversations with a girl from the nearby village and a growing group of her friends. A title informs us that this is Capernaum AD26 and the girl approaches Jesus holding a (broken?) doll that evokes the scene in King of Kings (1927) where Jesus uses carpentry rather than a miracle to restore a girl's broken doll. 

    When she asks Jesus tells the girl he is a travelling craftsman which includes carpentry, only the conversation summarises a fairly accurate translation of the Greek word tektōn with far more graceful writing than my explanation suggests. This goes some way to explaining the extensive gear he has with him, both for carpentry and for camping, I find myself momentarily wondering how he manages to transport it all.

    Nevertheless the opening scenes bring home to me some of the practical implications of that well known verse from Matt 8:20 "foxes have dens…but the son of man has nowhere to lay his head". It's rare in Jesus films to see him and his disciples sleeping  anywhere besides the open air, or in a rudimentary bed in a home, but of course Jesus (in time with his disciples) was a travelling preacher and must have spent many nights on the road with nowhere to sleep. I have no idea how widely-used the tents that St Paul made were, but this does make me think differently about the day to day practicalities of travelling around a variety of Galilean villages. But it soon becomes clear that this isn't just a fleeting point, it's one of the major points of the episode. More or less, the whole episode takes place in and around Jesus' temporary camp.

    The other major theme of this episode is emphasising that Jesus liked children and they liked him. This is certainly less original amongst Jesus films, but it's usually limited to a scene or two. Even The Miracle Maker (2000) where much of the action takes place from the point of view of Jairus' daughter can only devote a certain amount of time to it. Here however the series has a whole 30 minute episode to show Jesus interacting with children, without the burden of having to move on because there are three more miracles to squeeze in before the resurrection.

    It's clear too that Jesus doesn't just peddle a childish version of his message, even if he blows raspberries and uses other techniques to gain their interest, build trust and make them feel welcome. He talks about the difference between intelligence and wisdom ("Many times smart men lack wisdom") and teaches them that the messiah might not meet expectations. At a first watch I thought this was peddling the idea that all Jews at this time had hopes for a military messiah, and it does voice that idea. (As Candida Moss explains here the Jews didn't share uniform expectations regarding Messiah. Different groups had very different ideas of what it meant including mythical readings, and multiple messiah-figures). Here, however, it's one of the children repeating something he's heard a rabbi say - it's hardly painted as a universal belief and Jesus here seems to encourage the children who specifically go to Torah school as well as praising those who have learnt what is taught in school even though they do not go.

    I'm less taken by the extended scene in the middle where Jesus teaches the kids as they are all around sitting in a circle. There's just something unrealistic about it which makes the whole episode feel a bit too rose-tinted. Anyone who has had their own kids and/or tried to deliver "the serious" bit in a kids church group knows it rarely goes like this. I wonder if scenes like this - welcome as they are - maybe set unrealistic expectations. Jesus welcomed little children, but portraying him as such an exceptional children's worker feels a little much to me.

    There's also something a little overly-innocent about the way Jesus spends huge amounts of time alone with these children. Perhaps there shouldn't be. It's a sad indictment on much of western society that a single man spending that much time alone with that many kids, would raise suspicion today, though partly this is because situations like this have been so abused in the past. The children's insistence that they keep it their friendship with Jesus a secret seems particularly odd in this respect. Again, Jesus is an exception - doubtless the filmmakers consider him far beyond such issues. Still, that line bothers me. Kids! Tell your parents if you meet strange men. Parents tell your kids to do likewise.

    There are couple of nice artistic ideas in this episode. Firstly as nice foreshadowing of the resurrection when the children arrive at Jesus' camp early one day and one of them wonders if he's dead. Spoiler alert - he's not, but the tent and the way it's filmed foreshadow another time when people will arrive together, peer into a (possibly) similar hole/structure with uncertainty about if he that lay there the day before will reappear, and the relief when he does. 

    Secondly, the rain that falls during the final scene, following Jesus' departure, which director Dallas Jenkins reveals in comments after a screening was a late decision, is nevertheless a poetic and poignant one. There's a palpable sense of nostalgia in this episode embodied in this final moment. People of faith often talk about how their path through life is far from straightforward. One day everything is sunny and it feels like Jesus is there beaming down upon you; the next you're alone in the rain left nursing your memories.

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    Wednesday, January 05, 2022

    La Nativité (1910)

    My final seasonal offering this Christmas is La Nativité (1910) seemingly released in some English speaking regions as Herod and the New Born King as seen in this advert which I believe was from 1910.1. 1910 was in the middle of peak production of biblical movies (1908-13) and was one of at lease four biblical movies Gaumont was promoting at the time, with Louis Feuillade behind them all (available on YouTube).

    Despite the film's greater focus on Herod and the magi, the action starts with the shepherds inside some kind of shelter. The absence of any scenes featuring Mary and Joseph before the day of Jesus' birth is notable. The shepherds appear bottom left of the screen with the camera peering over their shoulder to a black void beyond. To anyone familiar with this era of filmmaking it's obvious what happens next. It's unclear if this is a double exposure technique or back projection, but a single angel appears in the darkness. Here Feuillade's work is rather clumsy compared to some of the work his forbears have already produced by this stage. The shepherds hold their somewhat awkward-looking pose for what seems like an age. Then the angel appears. They briefly turn to face him/her, bow, and then reconvene, holding their pose for long enough for the original angel to be joined by the full choir. Once the heavenly host has departed, the shepherds leave the shelter by the same exit to the rear of the set.

    Interestingly, a similar composition is adopted for the next shot. Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus appear cramped into the bottom left of the screen, with a view extending into the distance occupying the majority of the remaining space. I've seen various version of this scene that were recorded before this one, and in every other one I've seen up to this point the camera peers into the stable from the outside. Here however things are the other side the camera (and so, by extension, the audience) is inside the stable looking out into the night. Naturally the shepherds soon appear from the rear. It's notable that neither shot would work in a theatre - they only work from the specific vantage point of the camera, not the multiple viewpoints required for successful theatre composition. Even if Feuillade's compositions don't match the standard of his later work, the idea that he just arranges his scenes as if he were arranging a theatre set doesn't hold water.    

    The version I saw runs to almost 14 minutes, but these two scenes with the shepherds occupy only three and a half minutes. As the alternative title suggests, the film's main concern is with the magi and King Herod. The next two shots cover the arrival of the magi, both outside and then inside Herod's palace. What's noticeable here is that one of the wise kings, presumably Balthazar, is played by a Black actor. I haven't researched extensively into who the first Black actor was - a cursory google suggest that a comedian called Stepin Fetchit (aka Lincoln Perry) was the first Black actor to receive a screen credit/earn $1 million but neither of these are the same thing, I'd be interested to know if anyone knows of an earlier actor from the African diaspora.

    Oddly, in contrast to the use of this actor, Herod seems to be played by someone in brown make-up. I'm curious to know how this inconsistency arose. Using a Black actor in a positive role seems somewhat progressive, but the racist use of "brownface" undermines this. What, if anything, they were trying to convey?

    One possibility is that it was a way of "othering" Herod. Herod's father was an Idumaean – a people from Edom, South-West of Jerusalem who had converted to Judaism during the Hasmonean period – and his mother was Nabataean (Arab) princess.  At the time of this production, though, Josephus' designation of Herod as an "Idumaen i.e. a half Jew" was seemingly how his background would have been understood. Perhaps this othering is intended not just to place a barrier between Herod and the audience, but also between him and the other Jewish characters (who are otherwise played by white actors). But given that the historical Herod would most likely be physically indistinguishable from the other Jewish characters the clear determination to mark him as different from them is strange.

    Herod's throne room here is quite dramatically lit, in a fashion that Feuillade also used for the scenes inside Moses' house in L'Exode (1910). There, though, they suggested secrecy, as if the family might have been hiding from the Egyptians. Here, however, the darkness feels more like a moral judgement. 

    The magi head to Bethlehem and  arrive at the grotto, shot from the same angle as before (pictured above). Next there's a cut back to the palace where Herod discusses the matter with his queen before calling three soldiers or perhaps advisers and instructing them to go to Bethlehem. The massacre scene is left off camera, as is Joseph's dream, so the next shot is simply Mary and Joseph walking quietly away from Jerusalem.   

    The author of glowing review in the December 17th edition of Moving Picture World found the film's final scene – where Mary and Joseph rest in front of the Sphinx (still above) – as particularly striking, describing the 50 ft long shot as:

    ...a real master in every sense of the word. It would be impossible to find a more beautiful composition, with such admirable light effects and of such superior photography... this last scene is art, pure and simple and will remain engraved in the memory of every person lucky enough to have a chance to gaze upon it.

    What I find more interesting is the fact that the composition of this scene matches that from the same scene in the earliest extant Jesus film La Vie et la passion de Jésus-Christ (1898). As far as I can make out it's not based on Doré or Tissot so it's possible that this shot is derived in some way from the 1898, though Merson's "Rest on the Flight into Egypt" seems more likely2.

    The MPW review also mentions a scene "Herod and the Woman" which does not seems to appear in the version available on YouTube unless the palace scene with his queen(my assumption) is intended. There are further reviews in the 1910 Moving Picture World including the December 31st edition (available here) which described it as follows:

    An illustration of the first part of Chapter II of the Gospel of St. Matthew. No more beautiful and artistic film has been shown during the year. Every scene is a marvel of accurate representation. The scene which Hoffman has so graphically portrayed as the "Repose in Egypt," is one of the most impressive ever shown on a motion picture screen. It depicts the search of Herod for the new born King and details the flight into Egypt to escape his jealous rage. A reading of that chapter in the Bible will supply a synopsis more graphic and complete than any that could be written now. (view on IMDb)

    Overall though the film is a bit of a disappointment. It's overly slow, not only by today's standards, but even compared to other biblical films of the time, and not in a contemplative way. Moreover it lacks the spark of Feuillade's other work even from the same year. Hard to believe that he was only three years away from the first instalments of Fantômas (1913-14). Without the action or novelty of many of the other films from biblical cinema's boom years it drags, even for those 14 short minutes. It's not bad, and short enough that it's not a bad option to drag out at Christmas and for those who are interested in Feuillade and his development as a director it's certainly worth watching. 

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    In addition to the version available on YouTube the film also appears as an extra feature in Kino's Fantômas Bluray set.

    1 - I'm grateful to John Larsen for drawing my attention to the link between these two films. (If you haven't checked out his excellent website Between Movies, you really should. It looks like the add linked to actually came from 1910's Moving Picture News (not 1911 as stated in the tweet, though I have no idea how I got hold of it as the 1910 edition isn't in the MHDL archive). 

    2 - I owe this observation to Twitter user @Zyber's post here.

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