• 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.


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    Monday, May 24, 2021

    The Egyptian (1954)

    I've been meaning to write up my notes on  Michael Curtiz's The Egyptian (1954) for a while now, not because it's a Bible film (it isn't), but because there are, nevertheless, numerous overlaps with the Biblical epics which at the time (1954) were in full flow.

    Firstly there's a lot of overlap with the cast and crew - and what a cast/crew it is. Director Michael Curtiz had been involved in four silent biblical epics (directing Sodom und Gomorrha (1923), Die Sklavenkönigin (The Moon of Israel, 1924) and Noah's Ark (1929) and being involved with Alexander Korda's 1922 Samson und Delila though the exact extent of his involvement is unclear). Lots of the crew came more or less straight from The Robe (1953) as did stars Jean Simmons and Victor Mature. Then there's Peter Ustinov who played Nero in Quo Vadis? (1951)'s and Edward Purdom who would go on to star in The Prodigal the following year. And to top it all Alfred Newman - who scored several biblical films, including The Rove - here teams up with Bernard Herrman. Having just one of those great composers on the soundtrack would be impressive, but both? I'd be interested to read a bit more about that incredible combination.

    The main story / theme here is the rise of monotheism under Akhnaten - a story I first encountered via Philip Glass' 1983 opera "Akhnaten".  Akhnaten (originally know as Amenhotep IV) was an Egyptian pharaoh from the 14th century BCE who abandoned polytheism in favour of a much greater focus on one god in particular, Aten the sun god. But his religious reforms failed and his compatriots reverted back to their traditional faith after his death, removing most of the evidence of his reforms. 

    Due to the timing of these events, many have speculated about potential links between the temporary cult of Aten and Moses' restoration of YHWH worship, not least because of significant similarities between the Hymn of Aten and Psalm 104.

    Given all this; as well as the way biblical epics had performed at the box office over the past five years; the aforementioned similarities in cast and crew; and a story focusing on a time and place in close proximity to parts of the Bible, it's hardly surprising that are numerous allusions to the Bible and, more specifically, the biblical (epic). These begin from the very start when the Purdom's physician Sinuhe describes how he was pulled from a basket on the Nile when he was young. Interestingly he makes this sound fairly common place, but still this is a clear klaxon from the film-makers to be on the look out for more biblical allusions.

    While Purdom is the lead, the film's biggest star is Victor Mature's Horemheb, who begins as Purdom's friend. It's not long before Mature is defeating a lion recalling not only the Biblical account of Samson and the Lion (Judges 14), but specifically a now infamous scene in DeMille's Samson and Delilah (1949) where Mature and his stunt 'double' between them wrestle a real lion and a fake one. This time there's no wrestling (even the first time, Mature was understandably not terribly keen) Horemheb relies on a bow and arrow. Shortly afterwards another interesting piece of intertextuality emerges: Mature is a Cheesemaker, a profession it's impossible to hear about these days without thinking of Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979). Any influence is the other way here and quite possibly unintentional by the Pythons (I struggle to believe it's nothing but coincidence, though that is possible). Nevertheless, as soon as this is revealed it's hard not speculates as to whether he is also the manufacturer of other types of dairy products.

    Sinhue and Horemheb happen across Akhnaten in prayer and manage to save his life and as a result the two get promoted into his service. Sinhue as his physician and Horemheb into the army where he eventually becomes a general. It's not long however before it becomes clear that the barmaid at the inn where the two friends celebrate their successes (Jean Simmons as Merit) has very much taken a shining to Sinhue. Sinhue is good natured and builds a friendship with Merit, but he is smitten instead with Babylonian courtesan Nefer (Bella Darvi), who openly admits loving her will ruin him and so she does. Again this is one of the classic tropes of biblical epic - the "good" man is so tempted by exotic/erotic woman that he ignores the honourable sensible woman who quietly adores him and, as a result, stumbles into ruin.

    However, it turns out that Sinhue is not really that good. [SPOILER] When he realises that Nefer has not only taken his money and slept with his best friend, and his now rejecting him, he tries to murder her, making him a pretty grim "hero". The film and other reviewers don't seem overly bothered by that, but it's a pretty inexcusable act of 'domestic violence'.[END SPOILER] Why Merit still wants to have anything to do with him is beyond me.

    The parallels with between the Aten worshippers and Christians comes in more in the second half, particularly around the use of "the cross" as it is frequently called (though technically it's Egyptian cross/hieroglyphic/cross with a loop, the ankh). These elements peak in the final few scenes. Jean Simmons character Merit turns into a Mary figure. Not only is there similarity in names, but Merit seemingly remains a virgin but mothers a son, is pure-hearted, dresses in pale blue, is seen with a donkey and devoutly follows Aten.

    Meanwhile Akhnaten - who is portrayed as being mad for most of the film - realises as he dies that he was on the right track but didn't go far enough. Both him and Purdom get final speeches anticipating Christianity's one god/Prince of Peace. Yet there's no mention of Hebrew/Jewish religion. And then there are the final titles which - just in case anyone missed the film's 'subtle' implications - mentionsthat these events happened 1300 years before Jesus Christ.

    Aside from the Bible/biblical epic parallels there are a few other interesting points. There's an interesting detail about the invention of iron being a key advance in military technology which few films (I recall) from this era mention. The history here is fudged to a degree to make this point.

    Also, the visual similarity of the sets to DeMille's 1956 The Ten Commandments (which was still in the early stages of production) is striking. In the 1920s Curtiz and DeMille had this mimetic rivalry each both copying and vying to outdo one another with their biblical films. Here, 30 years later, there's so much about the look of this film that is very similar to what DeMille would do two years later. According to archivist James Harrison this is not entirely coincidental. DeMille really admired the look of Curtiz's film, to the extent that when "Fox lost so much money" on it and decided "to sell what they could to other productions", "DeMille nabbed it nearly all of it."

    Harrison also notes that the film "was panned by most of the critics. Even Variety, who were fans of Zanuck, thought it was a miss fire by him". As a result Fox stashed it in their vaults, described Alan Rode as ‘an embarrassing instance of excess’."

     The sets and costumes are great - I can see why DeMille was so keen to re-use them - , but plot-wise the film is a mess and eventually it runs out of steam. Purdom lost my sympathy after the incident and as a result it became hard to care for him as thew film takes ever more preposterous turns. Nevertheless, it's interesting to see what is more or less a biblical epic that is neither based on the Bible nor on the direct aftermath of Christianity.

    There's another write up of this film at Roderick Heath's blog and you can read a great deal more in Alan Rode's biography of Curtiz cited below.

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    Rode, Alan K. (2017) Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film, The University Press of Kentucky.

    Saturday, May 01, 2021

    Superbook: Nehemiah and the Walls of Jerusalem (1982)

    A while ago I wrote about the Japanese Anime Bible series Tezuka Osamu no Kyuuyaku Seisho Monogatari (In the Beginning, 1992) and I ended it with a passing mention of "Brasilian anime series called 'Superbook'". That was based on a translation of this site, but revisiting that again made me realise that was wrong. I'm not sure if the translation has improved or whether I just mis-read it, but at the moment it's translated "Perhaps the best known Christian anime in Brazil is Superbook (Anime Oyako Gekijo)". 

    In fact it turns out that this series was also a Japanese production made in conjunction with CBN, first broadcast in 1981. It was produced by Tatsunoko Productions who were set up by anime pioneer Tatsuo Yoshida and his two brothers Kenji and Toyoharu and are probably best known for their work on Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995-96). It was directed by Masakazu Higuchi (The Real Ghostbusters (1986)). The series ran for two 26-episode series in 1981 and 1982 was rebooted with CGI for CBN in 2011 with five series having been produced so far.

    According to Wikipedia, the original version of the Nehemiah story was broadcast on 11 March 1982 (the series having begun in October 1981). As with the series usual format, Chris Peeper (Sho Asuka in Japanese), Joy (Azusa Yamato), and Gizmo the clockwork Robot (Zenmaijikake) travel back in time via Chris' titular Superbook - a magic Bible. Chris is grumpy because he has to help build a fence and well you can probably see where this goes.

    The trio arrive back in the 5th century BC and immediately bump into Nehemiah's opponents Sanballat and Tobiah who accuse them of being spies and start to attack them. In contrast to other portrayals of Nehemiah, here he arrives on a horse and flanked by soldiers - much more aligned with the power Artaxerxes has invested in him.

    When they arrive back in Jerusalem Nehemiah brings his 20th century guests up to speed on the recent history of Jerusalem as he ponders his next strategy. The next day his speech inspires the crowd to pick up their tools to rebuild the city wall, despite Sanballat and Tobiah's attempts to discourage them. Foiled at this the Tobiah and Sanballat arm a party of soldiers to attack those working on the walls and are only repelled when the Jerusalemites fire arrows back at them. This goes rather beyond the text where the threat of attack is sustained, but never quite seems to go all the way (Neh.4).

    Interestingly the film also includes the incident where Sanballat and Tobiah bribe the house-bound Shemiah into suggesting Nehemiah should hide in the temple - as part of a relatively sophisticated plan to then discredit him. It  fails, of course, and so the film ends on the Jews celebrating the completion of the wall. This enables the film to avoid Ezra and his purging of gentiles from the city altogether, but it also means the film has a fairly good narrative arc - better than the book which peaks a little later, but then gets bogged down in the details. 

    The animation is fairly good - it's no Studio Ghibli, but is fairly well executed and the robot figure - while obviously totally anachronistic - lends the series a suitably Japanese 80s vibe. It's the most prominent gimmick of the dramatic devices that put 20th century kids alongside biblical figures, but it's has its own charm. It never feels like the team behind it are desperately trying to cling on to their audience's attention as other kids Bible series do at times and the storytelling is reasonably competent while capturing the spirit of the original. Speaking as someone who has never really enjoyed the Book of Nehemiah, this ranks as a decent effort to dramatise a somewhat stodgy text.

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    Sunday, April 25, 2021

    Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? (Pedro Costa, 2001)

    Regular readers will know that, owing in part to my fascination with Moses und Aron (1975) I like to write about the work of the film's directors Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet. At the risk of pushing things even further I recently got a chance to watch Pedro Costa's documentary Où gît votre sourire enfoui? (Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?, 2001) shot in the editing suite as Straub and Huillet worked on their 1999 film Sicilia!

    Naturally this is a film that I have wanted to view for a while, not least because Jean Luc Godard called it "the best film ever made about film editing" (see this video), so the fact that it you can currently stream it from Grasshopper/Projectr.tv. was great news for me.

    As you might expect the film reflects much of its stars' trademark style: diagonal shots and long takes captured with a fixed and seemingly impassive camera. If you count film as a text, then one could even go further and note that the passage of Elio Vittorini's novel "Conversazione in Sicilia" into Huillet and Straub's film and then into Costa's documentary is typical of their multi-layered adaptations. Indeed much of the running time is given over to close-ups of that 'text', primarily shot from the screen in the editing suite. Brief excerpts play and then are re-wound, forward and back until the subtitler gives up translating and we wait while one of them pinpoints the frame they were trying to find.

    The subtleties revealed by this are immense. Seemingly insignificant details, the slackness in a wrist, the bow of a head, a branch flitting about in the background are highlighted and debated as the pair seek to solve the problems they cause. As someone without any experience of what happens in the editing room it's hard to know if this is typical or not. Perhaps if Costa had set up shop with Scorsese and Schoonmaker the same level of exacting precision would have been captured, but it seems unlikely that the rigour on display here is typical. It's perhaps all the more surprising because of the length of the typical shot in a Straub-Huillet film. One wonders about the number of shots it has taken to even taken them to get this far.

    Yet if Costa's film bears many of the marks of its subjects' style then one key difference is the way in which the dialogue is delivered. In many Huillet-Straub films it is deliberately very mannered and forced. There's an emphasis on rhythm and cadence of the language (which gets mention at one point here). Yet the dialogue here is quite the reverse. I don't know for a fact how Costa shot it but all the indicators point towards it simply being their natural dialogue. And what dialogue it is! Much of it is the back and forth of a married couple who are closing in on 40 years of working together. They bicker and chide, but never with anger, or to cause offence - these conversations feel well worn, familiar, perhaps even comfortable. Huillet (as the primary editor) is trying to focus on the task in front of her and Straub injects with something unrelated. Or he messes with the light. Clearly these discussions have happened many times before and so you sense so much about the strength of both their relationship and the nature of couples who have been together for so long. She knows how he is: he wouldn't object to changing but just cannot Time has mellowed their little conversations, and in any case there is a film to make.

    In between this domestic banality there is a masterclass in film philosophy and practice. Straub talks about this similarities between editing a film and a sculptor working with marble. Just as the sculptor has to work with the veins in the raw material so must they. Elsewhere Straub, in the words of John Dickson "can’t help telling stories about Bunuel, Ray, Chaplin, and Eisenstein, as he paces in and out the door of their editing room, which might as well be the portal to another world".(1) 

    That portal effect (see above) is one Costa creates by his immersion of the camera in the dark recesses of the editing suite. There are no establishing shots, introduction or pre-suite interviews. The film starts in the editing room and remains there except for a few scenes where the pair present the show to an audience. The camera moves position, occasionally someone even turns on the light, but it's a film of warm shadows and silhouettes. The filmmakers are present, usually on camera (unless Sicilia! is), but only rarely in such a way to be able to capture their features. Instead we capture their essence. Their warmth and humour, but also their focus, particularly Huillet's who keeps the more restless Straub on course.

    I'd like to go into more detail, but am both pushed for time and my three-day ticket has expired. I'm aware that Costa's role is pivotal. As Jean Pierre Gorrin asks "What did he do to give us the Straubs with such vitality?"(2). But I'm also short of time and the chance to re-watch it. But the film has been written about else where (in addition to Dickson and Gorrin) and those reviews do enough to re-kindle my memories.

    It would be easy to dismiss this as a film about insignificant details, and, as with many of Straub, Huillet's films it can seem paradoxically dull and engorssing. But it's a film that stays with you. Its words and images. Having never heard Huillet and Straub talk before it's fascinating to see them move, speak, discuss and work, and to see the relationship between them. For that along it will be memorable, but it also captures so much of their spirit. In a wonderful final shot the two approach the theatre inside a cinema where Sicilia! is playing. Outside in the red velvet lobby Huillet continues up the stairs to the projection booth, but Straub stays behind as the music drifts out from inside. He sits on the stairs as if soaking in the moment. In one sense he seems to revel in having a solitary moment left to his own devices. But in another he seems alone and bereft without her. Like so much that has gone before its a moment that seems to encapsulates their relationship perfectly.

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    1 - Dickson, John (2017) "Pedro Costa’s WHERE DOES YOUR HIDDEN SMILE LIE? (Documentary Revival)" in Cine File: Cine: List (Friday July 21 -  Thursday, July 27). Available online: https://www.cinefile.info/cine-list/2017/7/21/-friday-july-21-thursday-july-27-

    2 - Gorrin, Jean Pierre (2016) "Nine Notes on Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?" in Ted Fendt (ed.)  Jean-Marie Straub & Danèle Huillet, Vienna: Synema Publikationen, p.156.

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    Wednesday, April 21, 2021

    Nehemiah: The Joy of Jehovah Is Your Stronghold (2020). Parts 1&2

    Nehemiah  is a rather overlooked biblical character. Not only has he been almost entirely ignored by filmmakers, but 18th and 19th century operas and plays; novelisations; picture Bibles and Christian art have been significantly less concerned with his story than that of earlier characters from the Hebrew Bible. Even those reliable staples of Victorian-era Christian Art - James Tissot and Gustave Doré only produced a handful of works between them, such as Doré's "Nehemiah Inspects Jerusalem's Walls" and "The Rebuilding of the Temple" Tissot's "Nehemiah and the King" and "Nehemiah Sees the Ruins of Jerusalem.

    So it's something of a surprise to discover that last year (of all years!) the Jehovah's Witnesses made what appears to be the first significant screen adaptation of the story. Nehemiah: The Joy of Jehovah Is Your Stronghold (2020), split into two parts, covers most of the material in Nehemiah, before delving into the Book of Malachi in towards the end of part two. That in itself is an unusual choice, but it's even harder to fathom given the film's treatment of Ezra. 

    The precise relationship between the two men is somewhat unclear. In the popular imagination, however, they are often seen as more-or-less contemporaries, not least because partway through the book of Nehemiah, Ezra pops up to read the law to the people - a moment that's pivotal to the text as a whole. Scratch the surface, though, and there are reasons to think this passage was inserted at this point in the text for thematic emphasis, rather than historical verisimilitude. It's hard to establish a smooth chronology and as a result some scholars see Ezra as preparing the way for Nehemiah's work, others see them as more or less contemporaries, while still others seeing his reforms as coming significantly after Nehemiah's.

    The film begins with a prologue that gives more or less the traditional chronology,1 and goes on to call Ezra as "a man who had come before" Nehemiah, and show that he was still around to read out the law the marketplace at the start of part two. But both men are still young and therefore contemporaries, so the decision to sideline Ezra, to the extent that he doesn't even feature in part 1, but gives such prominence to Malachi is an interesting decision. 

    This is probably an attempt to downplay the racist messages which are found in both Ezra and Nehemiah, but are largely attributed to Ezra. The film largely summarises Ezra's policy of wide-scale divorce foreign wives (Ezra 9-10) and dispelling foreigners from Jerusalem (Neh 13:3) as responding to a single misdeed, "divorcing our wives to marry foreign women" which is the most (still not that) palatable part of his policy. Later Nehemiah speaks out those who have divorced their Jewish wives to marry those from other tribes.

    The inclusion of the Malachi material takes up a sizeable portion of part 2 and allows the portion on tithing to be included. It's worth remembering at this point that this film is a teaching aid produced by a worldwide denomination - as indicated by a preacher at the start of the film - and the film includes one of the passages that is used, in various forms of Christianity, to promote the idea that 10% of church-members' income should be given to the church.

    I first watched this film a month or so ago and in the meantime the issues I've reflected most upon are to do with the sets and lighting. Even the "distressed" sets have the feel of being brand-spanking new.This is somewhat contrary to most 21st century epics, where the trend has generally been to portray all biblical era sets as being old-looking and rundown. The increasing popularity of Italy's medieval town Matera as a location is both a cause and an effect in this respect. 

    While I must admit I love the look of Matera, and that aesthetic, at the same time it's also something of a construct. As much as the buildings we see on screen represent something from the past, that does not mean they would have been old at the time of the story. Indeed, at some point, all buildings were new. Modern cities tend to feature architecture of various ages and while we might hypothesise that certain cities after a recent razing might be more homogeneous, or that the time range might be narrower due to lower standards of expertise, even those assumptions can be challenged. For example, some buildings from this era still stand today - hardly indicative of shoddy craftsmanship. Of course, what's particularly interesting in the case of Ezra-Nehemiah is that it literally is a story about a building project to redevelop a city. Certainly by the point in the film by which the building work is completed it's not unreasonable for buildings to be looking pristine. 

    That said, I'm just as bothered by the 'before' scenes (see enlarged version of the above photo). The filmmakers have attempted to make Jerusalem's walls seem damaged by a siege and 70 years of ageing, but the city still seems sterile and fake. I'm reminded of DeMille's hurriedly instructing his team on The Ten Commandments (1923) to grab bits of seaweed at the last minute so that the sea bed would look genuine when the waters parted. Struggling to put my finger on what exactly was wrong in this respect I asked Twitter and I'd like to thank the people who were kind enough to reply.2 They confirmed that the lighting was the biggest problem as well as pointing out a few other issues (such as CGI integration, post-production work and the costumes). 

    Given this is a relatively low budget film it is perhaps unfair of my to hone in on this, but it does take me right out of the film: I'm never able to buy into the world that is portrayed as being real rather than a bunch of actors on a set. Instead I find myself asking question that would never normally occur to me.3 As I prefer to keep my focus on the positive aspect of a film and the points of interest it raises, I'll refrain going into the film's various other problems such as the acting and the dialogue.

    While the film is wary of wandering away from the biblical text too much it does include a number of invented figures so the audience can experience the events from there perspective. Peleth and Imma  are a Jewish couple who originally came to Jerusalem with Ezra along with another man Raham to whom they are now in debt. (The names Peleth and Raham both feature much earlier in the Biblical chronology, but not in Ezra-Nehemiah).4 Imma and Peleth follow Nehemiah (and, by implication, God) faithfully while Raham grows to question Nehamiah's plans as well as trying to convince Peleth to sell his daughter into slavery to pay off the debt Peleth owes him. Peleth later divorces his Jewish wife to marry a Moabite.

    These fictional episodes run alongside the biblical episodes which did highlight to me various incidents that I otherwise didn't recall. The celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles (Neh 8:13-18) towards the start of part 2 is portrayed in a fairly vivid fashion which makes it stand out more compared to the six verses in the text. Though perhaps it won't be quite as memorable to those who have not seen Ushpizin (2004).
    Similarly the incident where, Tobiah, one of Nehemiah's main opponents talks his way into getting a room in the temple (Neh 13:4-9).

    While the film is artistically and dramatically weak and is very selective in its presentation of the original book's most problematic area, it is the only significant attempt to adapt the book of Nehemiah - at least that I know - and so will doubtless be of interest to many seeking a dramatised version of these stories. I may post a scene guide, but for now you can view or download the two parts of this film here:

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    1 - This is usually that the first Jews return in 537BC; the restoration of the temple is completed in 515 BC; Ezra returns in 458BC and Nehemiah leaving for Jerusalem around 445BC. However the film does not give a date for Ezra and moves Nehemiah up to 455BC. The JW's New World Translation agrees with most other translations that Nehemiah 2 starts in the 20th year of Artaxerxes (465-424BC).
    3 - Why has no-one taken the rubble for their own building projects as was common? Is that how we would expect walls to fall in this circumstance? Why have the fallen stones weathered so much more than the stones? These are pedantic questions, I know, but the come from pulling at the thread of "why does this world not seem genuine?". 
    4 - Peleth is named as the father of one of those who complain in Num 16:1 alongside Dathan who alone tends to be the token dissenter in Moses adaptations, Presumably he is also father of the Pelethites mention in various lists in Samuel Kings and Chronicles. Raham just gets a single mention in 1 Chron 2:44. Interestingly the filmmakers do not use the names of those listed as returning with Ezra in Ezra 8 as they are only the heads of clans and, I imagine, they wanted to show the experience of ordinary people like the Witnesses for whom the film was intended.

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    Friday, April 02, 2021

    Das Neue Evangelium (The New Gospel, 2020)

    © Fruitmarket_Langfilm_IIPM_Armin Smailovic

    "I couldn't do a Jesus film here as Pasolini did" explains director Milo Rau, partway through The New Gospel "without including these real social problems we have and go back to the Gospel and go back to the social revolution for which Jesus stands for in his time." Charged with reworking Pier Paolo Pasolini's Il vangelo secondo Matteo (1964) as part of Matera's stint as the European City of Culture in 2019, Rau initially headed to the ancient southern Italian town imagining a more conventional take on Pasolini's famous adaptation, but things changed when he encountered the improvised migrant settlements around the outskirts of the city. 

    The economic migrants and asylum seekers that stay there were living in severe poverty, often working on the surrounding farms for around four euros a day in stiffling conditions and returning to improvised homes without water or electricity. Rau decided this was the situation that should be at the heart of his multidisciplinary project which not only included documenting the lives of those living in temporary migrant settlements, and casting them in a Jesus film, but also taking part in non-violent marches and protests that sought to draw attention to the issues.

    In the lead role of Jesus, Rau cast African-Italian activist Yvan Sagnet, who was given the Italian Order of Merit in 2016 by Italy's then president Sergio Mattarella. Sagnet first became an activist in 2011 when working as a student labourer he witnessed first hand a colleague passing out due to heat exhaustion. The foreman docked his wages to cover the costs of getting him medical attention. Such practises are not uncommon particularly on tomato and orange farms, which are often mafia run.

    What makes Rau's "utopian documentary" so interesting is the way it juxtaposes Matera's apparent serenity with the struggles of these migrants. It was similar levels of rural southern poverty that attracted Pasolini to Matera in the first place. The lack of development that left the city unspoilt was primarily a sign of poverty. In the years since Matera doubled for Jerusalem in Pasolini's Matthew, it has been used subsequently for a string of other Biblical films including King David (1985), The Nativity Story (2006), Young Messiah (2016), Ben-Hur (2016), Mary Magdalene (2018) and Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ in 2004. But it's Pasolini's film that is very much front and centre here not only in terms of ideology and direct homage but also artistic form. Pasolini described himself as a "pasticheur" cobbling together disparate source material drawn from both "high" and "low" culture.1

    The film continues this tradition, but with a new twist for the 21st century. Careful shot-for-shot reproductions of scenes from Pasolini's 1964 film sit alongside documentary-style making-of footage  that recall his location scouting films such as Sopralluoghi in Palestina (1965) and Appunti per un'Orestiade africana (1970). And in weaving these two elements together Rau recalls Pasolini's tragi-comedic short from La ricotta (1962). It blurs the boundary between documentary and fiction taking "making-of" type footage and blending it back into the mix. In one shot straight out of Pasolini's film Jesus has his head bowed and eyes closed as if having breathed his last. But then teh director says "cut" and Sagnet open his eyes and breathes a sigh of relief as the camera keeps rolling beyond the end of the scene.

    This juxtaposition of contrasting images kicks in early in the film between the first and second proper scenes. One minute of Rau and Sagnet chat as they survey the beauty of Matera at sunset, the peaceful old city bathed in dusky light. Suddenly there's a cut to a roving daytime shot within one of the temporary settlement on the outskirts of the ancient city. 

    While it's the kind of contrast that Pasolini would have loved, the cross-references go far deeper than this. Rau is joined on set by the star of Il vangelo  Enrique Irazoqui, now in his mid 70s and a freeman of Matera, a status he very much appear to enjoy (alongside his role in international chess). Irazoqui fulfils several roles not only does he act as an ambassador for the film within Matera (a fan expresses their admiration for him at one point and he swiftly takes the opportunity to encourage them to come to the shooting later in the day), but also he acts as a coach to Sagnet as well as appearing in the film as John the Baptist - handing over the mantle to his cinematic successor. Moreover Irazoqui also features in the film as his younger self. Two excerpts from the 1964 film are shown firstly as Irazoqui, Rau and some of the other crew watch it from within a tiny cinema, and then later as the film is shown in the open air to a group of the migrants. 

    Rau's New Gospel also incorporates various sections of music from the original - a reminder of how transformative that music is - though interestingly it's the older, classical pieces that Rau retains. The more modern songs from Il vangelo's soundtrack are replaced by other more contemporary songs again an interesting blend of folk and more contemporary African music. 

    These direct references are complemented by more oblique ones Sagnet (out of character) arrives at a fig orchard only to find this time fig trees have been destroyed by hail and rain, rather than by Jesus' curse. And of course Pasolini's original is repeatedly recalled in views of the city (both in precisely matching compositions and 'just' in the background) and in discussions about the project they are undertaking, including that opening scene where Rau and Sagnet discuss Matera's cinematic pedigree. 

    The two also discuss Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004) in this scene, and as with Pasolini's film, numerous verbal and visual references to The Passion follow. Also starring is Maia Morgenstern the actor who played Jesus' mother in Gibson's film. Here she reprises her role re-enacting identical shots, most notably during the crucifixion, but also at times evoking images of Pasolini's mother Susanna in the same role. The other scene that recalls Gibson's film is Judas' suicide where already troubled local children hound him and chase him far from the city.

    In The Passion of the Christ that sequence was one of the most troublingly antisemitic parts of the film. Here the question of race cuts in a different direction. Firstly, the children's faces do not distort (whereas in Gibson's film this perpetuated the children of the devil trope). Secondly, whereas in The Passion the issue of race centred on the depiction of those playing Jewish characters, here the suggestion is the persecution these children dish out is racially motivated. In isolation that could also be read as antisemitic, but the difference is the way the film consistently centres itself on the modern parallels. The film's terrain indicates the children here meant to be Italian not Jewish. 

    There's a similar unease during the scene with Jesus and the crowd before Pilate. Again this is one of the problematic elements in The Passion and here the question of race is at the fore as someone in the crowd racially abuses Jesus for being black. That could be read as indicating that the crowd here was loyal to Rome (is there always more of a sense of this in Italian Jesus films than in those of Hollywood I wonder?), but it could also be read as drawing a sharp divide between the proto-Christians and the Jewish people. Again the way the film persistently invades the historic footage with its modern context throws the focus heavily onto modern interpretations, but, in honesty I'm not entirely comfortable in either scene. But then I suspect I'm not meant to be.

    But perhaps the film's most disturbing scene occurs during an audition for the guards. In what feels like the film's longest shot a seemingly mild-mannered practising Catholic removes his shirt, picks up a whip and beats a plastic chair to within an inch of its life, all the while unleashing a tirade of racial abuse. The film gives little indication as to whether the man is improvising or if these are lines he has been given. Something is unmasked in that moment, but is it an unrecognised acting talent, or an indication of of the strength of racist feelings that exist towards African migrants. The options are so stark that is feels a little reckless to leave them without comment or clarification.

    In a sense, this is just one of many examples of self-perception and reality being out of step. In addition to this actor, and Matera itself (with rich tourists flocking seemingly unaware of the poverty hidden around the city's fringes) we could add the city's mayor. He chooses the role of Simon of Cyrene and is shown pontificating about how a his official role is about servanthood.2 Yet he also represents the town's authorities who are not only failing to act to alleviate the migrants suffering and exploitation, but also exacerbating it. Viable accommodation for the migrants remains empty for years. Meanwhile the mayor's police destroy even the meagre temporary accommodation some migrants had. Having visited one of the improvised migrant settlements searching for people to join his march into the city, Sagnet returns later to find the police have bulldozed it. "Foxes have dens..but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head".

    The film highlights the illegality of some of this activity n(paying below minimum wage for example) and is at pains to point how rules in place to protect migrants and farm workers are either not being applied or actively broken. This is why the first words of Jesus spoken in the film are from Matt 5:17 - "I have not come to break the law but to fulfil it". This seems to be the heart of much of the activism of Sagnet and the others. The rules are in place to protect them. Often what is happening is either neglectful or illegal. 

    The film does manage to end on a positive note, a resurrection of sorts I suppose, as the church manage to provide some space for accommodation and Sagnet is able to celebrate the creation of a mafia-free brand of tomato sauce, but it's set against a backdrop of tragic stories: acquaintances and family members lost at sea, racism facing those who survive, and system that either unwillingly or deliberately works to prevents the many migrants entering the country from thriving. For all its celebration of Italian culture and )religiously inspired?) activism, this is not a film that dishes out easy answers.  

    ==============
    1 - Stack, Oswald (1969) Pasolini on Pasolini. London, Thames and Hudson/British Film Institute. p.28
    2 - When the scene does arrive there is an interesting role reversal here. Ever since Sidney Poitier played Simon of Cyrene in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) he has often been portrayed by black actors, usually assisting a white Jesus.

    Here are some interesting links which I don't have time to embed in the above text just now.

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    Thursday, March 25, 2021

    Seven Forthcoming Books on the Bible and Cinema


    I'm aware of seven books about cinema and the Bible being published either this year or next so I thought it would be worth me pulling all their details together into one place. I've contributed to two of them and know the other people involved, so it's an exciting time for publishing in this area. I may revise this post as time goes along and more details become apparent and hopefully I'll be able to review some of these in due course.

    100 Bible Films - Matt Page
    This is obviously going to be the best of those mentioned here (that's a joke) and if you can only afford one, then this is the one to go for ;-)

    I'm covering what I consider the 100 most significant film adaptations of the Bible aiming for a really diverse mix of filmmakers from across 14 decades, 6 continents, with a wide range of beliefs and covering stories from across the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament and the deuterocanonical books. It's written in a more terse style than my rambling blog posts here and will have plenty of images as well as an appendix listing the entries by biblical character.

    It's part of the BFI's "Screen Guides" series and I honestly couldn't be more excited.
    Due: February 2022 [BFI]


    Costuming Christ: Re-dressing First-Century ‘Jews’ and ‘Christians’ in Passion Dramas - Katie Turner
    After a number of general books on the subject, it's good to see more specialist volumes staring to be published and so Katie's "Costuming Christ" will be most welcome. Building on her PhD thesis on the "Representation of New Testament Figures in Passion Dramas" Katie's book will look at a subject discuss less than I probably should and with the expert eye of a NT scholar. Katie's perhaps best known for her contribution to the collective volume "Jesus and Brian" called "'The Shoe is the Sign!' Costuming Brian and Dressing the First Century".
    Due: 2022 [T&T Clark]


    Jesus Christ Movie Star - Phil Hall
    "Jesus Christ Movie Star" will explore how Jesus has been depicted by filmmakers from the beginnings of the motion picture industry in the 1890s through the digital cinema of today. Phil is a film journalist / historian who also runs the Online Movie Show podcast and has written nine other books. I sense from some of his tweets and blog posts that he'll be covering some of the less well known international films as well.
    Due: May 2021 [Bear Manor Media]


    Jesus, the Gospels and Cinematic Imagination (revised) - Richard Walsh and Jeffrey L. Staley
    Richard is probably the greatest scholar in this area and the first edition of "Jesus, the Gospels and Cinematic Imagination" (also co-written with Jeffrey Staley) has long been one of my favourite books on the subject. However, it was written for a very different cultural context where DVD was king and before a number of recent Jesus films have been released.

    Richard and Jeffrey's revision, then, is fairly wide ranging, including chapters on two of those recent releases  films, Jezile (Dornford-May, 2006) and Garth Davis' Mary Magdalene (2018) as well as revisiting Alice Guy's Vie de Jesus (1906) and Il Messia (Rossellini, 1975). Moreover there will also be more emphasis on films and film criticism and less on gospel criticism and more attention to location, actors' other roles and directors' other films. 
    Due: Fall 2021
    More info (publisher website)


    Judas Superstar:  Judas Iscariot in Cinema - Christoph Stener
    Having previously covered religious texts (vol.1), Christian art (vol.2) and dark legend / theatre / folklore / caricature (vol.3) in his series on the antisemitic iconography of Judas Iscariot,  Prof Stener arrives at cinematic depictions of Judas for volume IV.

    While Stener is French, there is both French and English version available, The longer French version comes in two parts and covers 137 films over 1200 pages, but there is an abridged English version which discusses 121 films in 192 pages. He analyses each film for its respect for the Bible and qualifies its message either ecumenical or antisemitic.
    Published: Feb 2021 [BoD]
    More info (publisher website)


    T&T Clark Handbook to Jesus and Film - Richard Walsh (ed.)
    Walsh again, only this time he's editing the work of some of the best scholars in the field (and me...). There are 27 chapters broken into two sections. Part 1 covers "The Jesus Film Tradition" while part 2 looks at "Other Jesuses, Christs, Messiahs, Sons of Men…". A lot of those involved also contributed to Walsh / T&T Clark's 2018 book "Companion to the Bible and Film". This should be out already, but mine hasn't arrived yet, so I'm assuming there's been some kind of a delay. 
    Due: Feb 2021 [T&T Clark]
    More info (publisher website)


    Edit:
    Bible and Film: The Basics - Matt Rindge

    I only learnt about this one after making the original post, but Matt Rindge's Bible and Film: The Basics is also due out this July. It joins the list of publication I like to call half-and-half Bible film books, following in the tradition of Baugh's "Imaging the Divine" where the author explores biblical adaptations (Bible on Film) before discussing Christ-figure, allegorical, metaphorical and thematic treatments (Bible in Film). The latter chapters "provide a hermeneutic by which readers can create their own new conversations with the manifold ways that Bible and film interact".
    Due: July 2021 [Routledge]
    More info (publisher website)

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    Monday, March 22, 2021

    Silent Henri Andréani Films Online

    I've decided to start posting more general Bible film news on here in addition to the reviews. I already post some stuff like this on Twitter, but it's increasingly hard to find stuff there again and it's nice to keep this site ticking over. 

    Over the years I've posted quite a bit about the series of biblical shorts Henri Andréani directed for Pathé in the real golden era for biblical films, 1908-13. However, while many of his films based on the Hebrew Bible have survived, most of them remain locked away in archives. 

    The good news is, though, that three of these films are now available either to watch online or download from Harpodeon for just $5. The three films are David et Goliath (1911) one of its three sequels, Absalom (1912) and Le sacrifice d'Abraham also from 1912. 

    I have seen the first of these films before in the BFI archive's Joye collection and interestingly, this is a different print from the version I saw where the colour was far more impressive. In fact, as there's also a plain black and white version of this film on YouTube and there are also some frames from another version available to view online in the Eastman Museum Collection. then there are at least four extant prints of this film, three of which are in (differently) stencilled colour. I wrote about this film for my David chapter in "The Bible in Motion" as well as a long blog post about it here (which includes a transcript/translation of the German intertitles). 

    As for the other two, however, I've not yet seen them, but I plan to review them shortly. In the meantime you might be interested to read Fritzi Kramer's review of Absalom at Movies Silently. 

    Harpodeon have a number of other biblical silents available as well, including the 1907 Ben-Hur, Judith of Bethulia (1914) and Nazimova's Salomé (1922).

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    Saturday, February 20, 2021

    Histoire de Judas (2015)

    As the cradle of cinema in general, and biblical movies in particular, France's religious films (often featuring long static takes) have travelled from the Lumieres, Pathé Passion plays and Alice Guy, via the likes of Robert Bresson and Philippe Garrel, to find recent expression in works such as Le fils de Joseph (2016) and now Histoire de Judas (The Story of Joseph). Of course this kind of slow, contemplative cinema is hardly unique to France, but the connection between the two is certainly well-established.

    Histoire is a strikingly beautiful film. Director Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche sets his take on the Jesus story in the midst of some remarkable exteriors on the edge of the Sahara Desert. Ameur-Zaïmeche was born in Algeria, before his family moved to France two years later, which is perhaps why he chose to locate the film in the Biskra province in northeastern Algerian and the Roman ruins at Thamugadi in the Aurès Mountains.  While his film is very much anti-epic in style with it's long static takes and its slow pace, in an odd way the breathtaking scenery lends the film some of the same kind of feeling the original audiences might have got from a DeMillean spectacle; one is seduced by the striking images, even though there's an historical unlikeliness inherent in their eye-catching nature. Riccardo Centola sums up well the film's anti-epic style:
    Lo stesso Gesù viene rappresentato volutamente secondo canoni antispettacolari, in atteggiamento quasi sempre meditabondo, a viso semi-coperto, mentre snocciola frasi celebri nel modo meno enfatico possibile.

    Often Jesus' representation is deliberately according to anti-spectacular traditions: in attitude, almost always brooding; his face half covered, while he rattles off celebrated phrases in the least emphatic manner possible. (translation mine).1
    Irina Lubtchansky's cinematography brings a sensuous, materialist quality to the images here. When a woman anoints Jesus with perfume - which we have just witnessed her bartering prized possessions to obtain - you can practically smell the aroma of the oil as it dribbles tantalisingly across Jesus' forehead. As with other films directed by Ameur-Zaïmeche's, the ambient sounds are enhanced giving the impression of a world that endures beyond the confines of the narrative. Elsewhere it's the lighting. In contrast to the bright, colourful exteriors dominated by blue skies and ocre rocks, the interiors opt for more a tenebristic feel. Indeed Ameur-Zaïmeche cites Caravaggio and Rembrandt as the inspiration for these scenes. 2

    Visually Histoire de Judas recalls a number of Jesus films. The anti-epic and desert locales recall Pasolini's Il vangelo secondo Matteo (Gospel According to Matthew. 1964) and Albert Serra's less familiar El cant dels ocells (Birdsong, 2008), but also, to a lesser extent, Le lit de la Vierge (The Virgin's Bed, 1969), although that may be partly due to both films - and perhaps French-language Jesus films in general - typifying the tendency to veer into philosophy. (Indeed, the trial scenes feel similar to those from Jesus of Montreal (1989), for this very reason, and that's only French-Canadian). Surprisingly, the Jesus film to which Ameur-Zaïmeche actually refers to in the press pack is Carl Theodore Dreyer's (ultimately unmade) Jesus of Nazareth.3 However, the most striking piece of intertextuality is with Jesus Christ Superstar (1973). Both films rely on desert locations, even during the trial scenes and both films are set amongst Roman remains which whilst largely ruined nevertheless both feature prominent columns.  

    One other Jesus film that comes to mind while watching Histoire is Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). Both films re-cast Judas as Jesus' closest friend, who knows him even before his temptation in the desert and who remains faithful even after Jesus' crucifixion. Ameur-Zaïmeche's film goes several steps further, however, for here Judas is not even responsible for leading the guards to Jesus.4 Indeed this attempt to "rehabilitate Judas" with a more sympathetic portrayal is the film's main premise.5 The opening scene shows Judas ascending a mountain to retrieve Jesus after his 40-day fast, which has left his master so weakened by the experience that Judas has to give him a piggy back all the way back to Nazareth. Later Judas persuades his former zealot colleagues to arrange for a crowd to attend Jesus' triumphal entry in to the city and he quickly follows his master's lead in destroying the cages and tables in the temple. "No living being deserves to be in a cage" he announces as the people begin to contribute to the carnage.

    However the biggest and most significant deviation from the Gospels surrounds the Last Supper and Jesus' arrest. Earlier in the day Judas witnesses a man from Qumran (who is presumably meant to be an Essene, the group responsible for the Dead Sea Scrolls) writing down what Jesus is saying. Judas knows Jesus is opposed to this (he "distrusts the word that is frozen, and which will inevitably become dogma, a tool of power, an instrument of domination and submission") and so having confronted the man, seeks permission to destroy his writings. And this what Jesus means at the Last Supper when he tells Judas to do what he has to do quickly.

    [SPOILERS]So while Jesus and the other disciples head to Gethsemane (seemingly without the knowledge that Jesus is to be arrested there) Judas heads to Qumran and burns the Essene's writings. However, shortly afterwards the man finds his records in ashes and rushes to confront Judas, stabbing him in the stomach and leaving him for dead. Judas is found and returned. A Samaritan (named so in the credits6) returns him to the city, but by the time Judas awakes and staggers to Golgotha, Jesus has already died on the cross. Judas finds Jesus' recently vacated tomb and unaware of the significance of what has happened lies down 'in Jesus' place' and dies. The shot deliberately evokes Hans Holbein the Younger's "The Dead Christ in the Tomb" (1521-22),7 and is the first film I can think of where Judas dies not by hanging as in Matt 27:3-10, but in a way that more closely relates to the Bible's other description of Judas' death in Acts 1:15-20.[END SPOILERS]

    But the film's inherent sympathy for Judas is perhaps best embodied by the fact that Ameur-Zaïmeche himself plays Judas and that he chose his close friend Nabil Djedouani to play Jesus. (Djedouani is a director in his own right and is also credited by Ameur-Zaïmeche as an Assistant Director, one of a number of cast members to also take roles in the crew - Marie Loustalot cast as Bathsheba, was assistant editor).8

    Ameur-Zaïmeche's five other major films - Wesh wesh, qu'est-ce qui se passe? (2001), Bled Number One (2006), Dernier Maquis (2008), Les chants de Mandrin (2011) and Terminal Sud (2019) - have, to a greater or lesser extent, explored Algerian-French identity, and the accompanying internal and external conflicts. His Berber family moved to France when he was just two, so just as all his other films have primarily been in French, and so too is Histoire. This does seem to have raised a few eyebrows,9  However, whilst it's understandable that a director born in Algeria might seek out Algerian locations to stand in for the Holy Land, as someone who has lived in France since the age of two it's only natural that his film is shot in French. Rather than being a purely Algerian film it's more nuanced and complex than that.

    However, the use of French in an Algerian context does recall the country's suffering under French colonialism. In particular the extended scenes where Pilate (Régis Laroche) and his colleagues - played by a white actors -  interrogate Jesus adds an extra dimension, almost as if they are events from the fringes of the Algerian War. Pilate fears Jesus is a revolutionary and wants to quell the threat to the empire. "Look all around you. Your empire lies in ruins" says Jesus at one point, "it’s in my name that nations will place their hopes".

    That said the tone of the discussion here is decidedly philosophical compared to standard Hollywood fare. It feels like a number of French-language Jesus films similarly pit Pilate and Jesus against one another in a battle of philosophy, though perhaps my impression of that is exaggerated by my love of existential New Wave movies. Nevertheless, both Golgotha (1935) and Jesus of Montreal (1989) feature relatively long sequences where Jesus and Pilate engage in philosophical tête-à-tête. It perhaps also reflects Ameur-Zaïmeche's uses of Roger Caillois' "Ponce Pilate". I have to say I'm not hugely in favour of these kind of portrayals: The more Pilate appears as philosophical, the less he seems like the brute of Luke 13, Philo and Josephus, and the more the blame for Jesus death deflects from him onto the Jewish people. That said, given that Ameur-Zaïmeche's motivation for making Histoire de Judas was to counter antisemitism, it's less of a concern in this case.

    These concerns are also offset by the film's handling of the Barabbas figure. Here he is called Carabas and he appears to have a severe cognitive disability. Pilate has him arrested but the chief priests seeing the injustice appeal to Pilate and persuade him that Carabas is not a threat. By dismantling the way the Gospels place the two men in opposition, and by making distinction (found in Mark 15:6-8) between trying to save Carabas / Barabbas and trying to have Jesus killed this also counters many of the ways that the text has often been presented which reinforce antisemitism.

    However, perhaps the film's biggest weakness is that it's unclear who exactly was driving Jesus' execution. Judas is recast as Jesus' great friend, nowhere near the events in Gethsemane. The priests have some qualms, but don't seem particularly involved and even Pilate seems reluctant. Things kind of fall on one of Pilate's advisers, but it's not exactly convincing.

    Nevertheless, this is an interesting take on the story and one which is beautifully shot. For those who are interested, it's currently available on Mubi along with several of Ameur-Zaïmeche's other films.

    =========

    Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat have also reviewed this film at spiritualityandpractice.com. Moreover Reinhold Zwick has written more extensively on the film in the soon to be published T&T Clark Handbook of Jesus and Film (pp.67-76) edited by Richard Walsh and also containing an essay from me.

    =========

    1 - Centola, Riccardo (2015) "21 MFF Histoire de Judas" at Cinemafrica, 11 November. Available online: http://www.cinemafrica.org/spip.php?article1603 

    2 - Frodon, Jean-Michel (2015), “An Interview with Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche,” in Sarrazink Productions (ed.), Presskit for Story of Judas. Available online: https://medias.unifrance.org/medias/7/42/141831/presse/story-of-judas-presskit-french.pdf

    3 - Frodon, "Interview"

    4 - In Last Temptation Judas does this only after Jesus' emphatic instructions to do so. It's hardly what could be called a betrayal.

    5 - Ameur-Zaïmeche, Rabah (2015) "Director’s Note" in Sarrazink Productions (ed.), Pressbook for "Story of Judas". Available online: https://medias.unifrance.org/medias/44/47/143148/presse/story-of-judas-presskit-english.pdf

    6 - Zwick, Reinhold (2021) "Inculturation and Actualization: Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche’s Histoire de Judas" in Walsh, Richard (ed.) T&T Clark Handbook of Jesus and Film, London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark. p.69

    7 - Frodon, "Interview"

    8 - Frodon, "Interview"

    9 - Not only does Frodon ask Ameur-Zaïmeche about this in the press-pack interview, but both Centalo and Zwick (p.67) have also questioned this decision/choice/move.

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    Saturday, January 30, 2021

    An Anouncement

     
    Apologies to regular readers that it has been so quiet around here of late, but I have been writing my first book. 

    "100 Bible Films" is to be published by the British Film Institute as part of their screen guides series. It's a project I've been dreaming about for 12 years since I came across the series in the BFI's bookshop in London. 

    The text is being peer reviewed at the moment and in the meantime we've been looking at cover designs and so on. While the text is written there's still a lot that needs to happen to make that text into a book. We're currently looking at a publication date of February 2022. 

     I'll be posting more information about the book here and on my Twitter feed as the publication date draws closer. Until then thank you, as ever, for all the support.

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    Wednesday, November 25, 2020

    Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

    N.B. My scene guide for this film is here.
    "This film is not based on the Gospels but upon this fictional exploration of the eternal spiritual conflict". So begins the opening titles of Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, a clarification that so many of its critics were seemingly unwilling to accept or understand. Hampered by the campaign against it, the finished film struggled to recoup its costs; meanwhile the American Family Association, the chief group leading the protests, saw an increase in their income for 1988 of around a million dollars (Lindlof, 284).

    Just as Pier Paolo Pasolini saw his film as an analogy of the challenges facing those fighting for equality, so Scorsese and his script writer Paul Schrader see theirs "as a metaphor for the human condition". Just as Jesus agonises over the question of what it is that God wants from him, so Scorsese and Schrader - both from strongly religious backgrounds - continue to wrestle with that central question. Almost thirty years later these questions still trouble them. 2016 saw Scorsese release Silence the story of an emotionally, and then physically, tortured priest in 17th century Japan. The following year, Schrader's First Reformed depicted a minister caught in the midst of a crisis of faith.

    Consequently, Last Temptation's opening image is of Willem Dafoe's Jesus writhing on the ground wracked in emotional agony, and as the film draws to a close almost 160 minutes later, the situation has only worsened. On the verge of an agonising death on the cross, Jesus' has drifted into the depths of his unconscious and become trapped by the lure of an ordinary, domesticated life. It's unclear whether this is a dream, an hallucination, or simply the last fantastical flickers of activity in his brain, but the entire 40 minute sequence occurs between Jesus' cry of "My God, why have you forsaken me", and the final victorious cry of "It is accomplished" just seconds later.

    It's the visual and aural aspects of the transition to this sequence which many seem to miss. As Jesus hangs on the cross, the camera twists through ninety degrees, almost as if Jesus is lying down, the natural sound of the scene is muted and the sun brightens to warm Jesus' face. "It's clichéd" Scorsese would later explain, "but after all, it's a scam, it's the Devil" (Thomson and Christie, 143). These scenes are difficult and uncomfortable precisely because for the first time we experience in ourselves Jesus' disorientation - the bizarre shared life with Mary and Martha, the illogicality of Saul's empty preaching. It's as if, on the verge of death Jesus' mind is flitting about trying to make sense of this his most testing trial.

    Only when he remembers his friends, the disciples, does he return to his senses. The bond of friendship has been a key theme in Scorsese's films, from Goodfellas (1990) to The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) often with a growing sense of fear and that the protagonists are getting in out of their depth. Additionally, much of the film employs Judas in a similar fashion to the "buddy" roles of Raging Bull (1980) and Casino (1995). The filmmakers even cast Mean Streets' Harvey Keitel as Judas. Yet whilst Jesus is emotionally dependent on Judas for much of the film, at various other points he takes on the mantle of the sexually-repressed loner, typified by Robert DeNiro's anti-hero in Taxi Driver. This occurs most notably in the scenes where Jesus faces the devil both in the desert, after his encounter with John the Baptist, and on the cross when he enters into the last temptation itself. Here Judas' role as friend and confidant is taken over by the young girl who is playing Satan. Many of Scorsese's films have been typified by the tension the lead character feels between the women in his life and his buddies. Here the devil removes Judas and the disciples from the temptation and encourages him to marry both Mary Magdalene, and then later Mary of Bethany. Only at the end of the 40 minute temptation do the disciples and Judas burst back onto the scene, make him see Satan's deception and inspire him do the right thing and see his sacrificial death through to the end. Jesus dies victorious and finally at peace. To quote the novel's closing words "He uttered a triumphant cry: It is accomplished! And it was as though he had said: Everything has begun" (Kazantzakis,575).

    At this point in the film the image gets "edge fog" which then gives way to a series of flashing bursts of coloured light and the sound of ululations and church bells. The visual distortion was the result of light accidentally leaking into the canister, but the filmmakers were able to use it to create a modern way of expressing the resurrection. Indeed one of the aspects of this film that makes it stand out from the biblical films that had gone before it was its contemporary use of the camera. The earlier scenes feature a constantly moving camera giving the idea of things being spontaneous, yet also unsettled. Yet as the film moves on we find the scenes with Pilate and the in front of the crowd utilise long panning shots suggesting events are moving unavoidably towards an inevitable conclusion. Elsewhere we see the camera rushing past Jesus as he is pulled into Lazarus's tomb, and towards his destiny and inevitable death.

    The dynamism of that shot is typical of the film's refreshing lack of reverence when people interact with Jesus. Whilst some of the ordinary people he preaches to accept his message, many are unmoved, and others resort to bristling insults. We're used to see Jesus charged with blasphemy, but are unfamiliar with him being accused of madness. When he disrupts a mob stoning Magdalene, someone throws a stone at him. When he preaches about love, people laugh at him. When he is brought to trial, Pontius Pilate (played aloofly by David Bowie) treats him with detached cynicism. Jesus is just another failed messiah that the governor has to dispatch.

    Much of this is carried over from the film's invented opening. Jesus feels God's call and it terrifies him. In an attempt to dispel the voices in his head he makes crosses for the Romans, visits Magdalene in a brothel and ends up in a monastery. God has become another of Scorsese's complex father figures. Even for those who may be uncomfortable with this initial sequence or. indeed, its radical final act, the episodes most reliant on the Gospels have an unprecedented energy about them. Willem Dafoe's Jesus is unpredictable, and possibly unstable, but the energy of his performance is breathtakingly compelling. The sense of spontaneity when Jesus launches into the Sermon on the Plain, his forceful exorcisms and his playfulness when turning the water into wine are all memorable scenes, as are that of his fasting in the desert which has been copied so often in subsequent productions. The scenes are given extra dynamism by the actor's use of thick contemporary American accents and the way by Schrader's fresh paraphrasing of the Gospels liberates them from centuries of church tradition.

    And of course, there's much more that could be discussed about Peter Gabriel's evocative soundtrack, Thelma Schoonmaker's editing, or simply the lighting, pacing, costuming that make Last Temptation such an original piece of work. What's disappointing is that more than thirty years later the film is known more for its controversy than its accomplishments. It's a strange reaction to a film that was made sincerely, and was born out of a desire "to get to know Jesus better" (Thomson and Christie, 120). Perhaps after thirty years it's time for the film to be appreciated for its attempt "to make the life of Jesus immediate and accessible to people who haven't really thought about God in a long time" (Thomson and Christie, 124).

    ==========
    - Lindlof, Thomas R. Lindlof (2008) Hollywood Under Siege: Martin Scorsese, the Religious Right, and the Culture Wars. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky (July 1, 2008).

    - Thomson, David, and Ian Christie (1996) Scorsese on Scorsese. London: Faber and Faber.

    - Kazantzakis, Nikos (1961) The Last Temptation. Translated by Peter A. Bien, London: Faber and Faber. 

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    Monday, October 19, 2020

    T&T Clark Handbook of Jesus & Film


    T&T Clark Handbook of Jesus and Film

    Edited by Richard Walsh

    Bloomsbury T&T Clark (2021)
    352 pages - Hardback

    ISBN 978-0567686916
    Publication Date: 13/2/2021

    Apologies if things have been quiet round here of late, but I've been working on an exciting project that I'm not yet had to go ahead to talk about in public yet. 

    In the meantime, details have gone up on the Bloomsbury website about the next book to feature a chapter I've written. The "T&T Clark Handbook of Jesus and Film" contains 27 essays by various film scholars discussing Jesus films from all kinds of angles but particularly the Jesus Film Tradition (part 1) and Other Jesuses, Christs, Messiahs, Sons of Men etc. in part 2.

    My chapter is called "Jesus of Cinecittà" and looks at specifically Italian Jesus films across the last 20 years and the distinctive perspectives the country has brought in contrast to Hollywood's Jesuses. I'm particularly excited by some of the contributors to this collection who I have not been published alongside before, including my friend Steven D. Greydanus, though it's also good to once again join some of the most significant scholars in the field.

    The book is already available to order online on the Bloomsbury website where there is also a little more info. However, here is a list of the contents. I have posted a list of the contributions below.

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

    T&T Clark Handbook of Jesus and Film

    Introduction: The Jesus Film Tradition - Richard Walsh, Methodist University, USA

    Part One: The Jesus Film Tradition
    1. Obscure Gospel Elements in Jesus Films - Peter T. Chattaway
    2. “Who Do you Say That I Am?” Responses to Cinema Sequences of the Woman Taken in Adultery - Peter Malone
    3. One Hundred Years of Cinematic Attempts at Raising a Stiff (Jn 11:1-46) - Jeffrey L. Staley
    4. Seeing Differently with Mary Magdalene - Michelle Fletcher
    5. Inculturation and Actualization: Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche's Histoire de Judas - Reinhold Zwick, 
    6. Through Other Eyes: Point of View and Defamiliarization in Jesus Films - Steven D. Greydanus, 
    7. The First Seventy Years of Jesus Films: A Canonical, Source-Critical History - Jeffrey L. Staley
    8. Reading the Gospel(s) in the Dark: The Gospel Effect - Richard Walsh
    9. The “False Syllogism” of Archaeological Authenticity in Jesus Movies - Kevin M. McGeough, 
    10. Jesus of Cinecittà - Matthew Page
    11. Three Revolutionary Gospel Films: By the People, with the People, and for the People - Lloyd Baugh
    12. Jesus in a Modern Contemporary Context - Freek L. Bakker
    13. Miéville, Godard, and Dolto: The Psychoanalysis of Mary and Joseph - Anne Moore
    14. From the New Testament to The Brand New Testament: Moving Beyond “Jesus” Films - Caroline Vander Stichele

    Part Two: Other Jesuses, Christs, Messiahs, Sons of Men…
    15. “Walk[ing] upon that Gospel Highway”: Experiencing Physical Pilgrimages, Places, and People in The Gospel Road: A Story of Jesus - James M. Cochran
    16 Scorsese's Jesus: Christology in The Last Temptation of Christ and Silence - Rhonda Burnette-Bletsch
    17. Obviously, It's a Christ-figure Movie…Or is It? - Robert K. Johnston
    18. Sacred Subtexts and the Biblical Buttressing of Klaatu as a Christ Figure in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) - Anton Karl Kozlovic
    19. Guillermo del Toro's El laberinto del fauno (Pan's Labyrinth) and the Subversion of the Cinematic Jesus/Christ figure - Matthew S. Rindge
    20. Failed Christ Figures in Québec Films - Adele Reinhartz, University of Ottawa, Canada
    21. (Un)Holy Saturday - Tina Pippin
    22. The Bible in the Star Trek Universe (2000-19) - Larry J. Kreitzer
    23. A Modest Proposal for Christ-Figure Interpretations: Explicated with Two Test Cases - Richard Walsh
    24. Messianism and the Horror Film: Transcendence and Salvation in The Mist and Martyrs - Brandon R. Grafius
    25. “It's Alive!”: Frankenstein and His Horrible Fellows as Messianic Figures - Robert Paul Seesengood
    26. Founding the New Old State: Messianic Cowboys on the Frontiers of Europe and America - Ward Blanton and James Crossley
    27. Lars and the Real Girl as a Son of Man Story - George Aichele

    Bibliography
    Index

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    Thursday, August 27, 2020

    Lamentations of Judas (2020): Podcast

    It's been 11½ years since I last posted on the Bible Films podcast. Podcasting has come an awful long way in that time - to the extent that I'm somewhat embarrassed by the older entries, but I've been wanting to return to it for a long time, and to try a new, more conversational approach.

    So I'm delighted to have just posted a discussion about the recently released Lamentations of Judas a fantastic part drama-part documentary which tells both the story of Jesus and the modern(ish) day story of some of the combatants in the Angolan Civil War. 

    It's a very special film typified by the kind of natural lighting and straw-tinted landscapes that made films such as Timbuktu (2014) and Wallay (2017) so special.

    This time round I'm in discussion with Melanie Pegge most widely known as an artist, musician, but an art psychotherapist by profession. As some of the film's publicity talked about how it was the process of re-enacting the story of Jesus' betrayal that enabled these former soldiers to open up about their experiences and subsequent rejection I thought Mel would bring a fascinating perspective to the film and indeed she does.

    Please have a listen and please, if you could, "like and share" that would be fantastic. My old podcast channel currently only has a couple of votes and, as one of those is a "one-starrer", it doesn't encourage others to give it a chance! You can find it at one of these places:

    Podbean
    iTunes
    Google

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    Monday, August 17, 2020

    The Ten Commandments (1923)


    Nearly 20 years ago now I started writing a book about portrayals of Moses on Film. I abandoned it long ago, even the few chapters I had written would pretty much writing from scratch were I to pick it up again, so whilst I've written and reviewed it extensively in the past, I've never actually posted anything here on it, so I figured it was time to remedy that. Much of what follows was written back then so is not my best work, but nevertheless hopefully it's useful.

    Given his reputation today it seems hard to believe that there was a time when Cecil B. DeMille was a leading figure in Hollywood but had not yet made a biblical epic. By 1923 he already had 45 films to his name and only decided to make a film on the Ten Commandments after running a competition to "get the idea for his next picture” .Eight entrants snagged the $1000 prize money, but one stood out for its hookline “You cannot break the Ten Commandments - they will break you".

    DeMille’s and his screenwriter Jeanie MacPherson decided to split the film into two parts, with a Prologue concentrates on the story of the Exodus giving way to a modern morality tale, for the remainder of the filmDeMille and his built and then subsequently buried the massive sets in Guadalupe, Santa Maria in California's Mojave Desert 

    Among the film's many distinctions are that it was amongst the first to use of Two Strip Technicolor. DeMille put it to good use, in particular as a device for highlighting the emotions of the Hebrews as they left the promised land. The use of the Technicolor, the orthodox refugees and the soundtrack at this point make this scene one of the movie’s most enduring.

    Amongst DeMille's motives for the film was perhaps a desire to inject some much needed morality into Hollywood which was in danger of being engulfed by the scandal surrounding (the wrongly accused) Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle. It worked Photoplay, amongst others, described it as "wonderful entertainment and a marvellous sermon” and was said to have inspired large numbers of people to become rabbis, priests and ministers. More significantly the film's opening titles explicitly referenced "the shattering thunder of the World War" arguing that following the Commandments was the only "way out" of the situation happening again.

    The ‘Prologue’ concentrates on the story of the exodus, from the oppression of the Hebrews through to the giving of the Ten Commandments  getting as far as the worship of the golden calf.Just as the confrontation between the Israelites and Moses is just about to reach its climax the story fades and the viewer is transported to the dinner table of a 1920’s mother telling the story to her two adult sons. The younger son, Dan declares the commandments to be “bunk" and sets about breaking as many as he can. This upsets both his fiercely religious mother and his more even-handed brother (who accuses her of using the Bible "like a whip") Of course Dan ultimately gets his comeuppance when a church he has built using shoddy materials collapses and kills his mother. Dan is forced to flee to Mexico with the authorities in hot pursuit, but is caught in a storm, ultimately, like the Egyptians being dashed into the sea.

    DeMille uses lighting effectively elsewhere in the film, most notably within Pharaoh’s palace which despite its grandeur is shot as dark and dingy. It may be filled with reproductions of the treasures of Tutankhamun’s tomb, but by making it seem shadowy and gloomy DeMille further stresses his point.

    DeMille also uses two recurring motifs to tell his story. The most obvious is his use of the tablets which the Ten Commandments are given on. In addition to the actual tablets being seen in the story, as well as appearing as a backdrop to the intertitles on three different occasions their shape is made by light shining on stone.  The first of these is when God is about to reveal the commandments to Moses. Although it is possible that this is linked to the sin of the Hebrews below, it is more likely that it is drawing attention to the motif for use in the second half of the film. When it does occur in the second half of the film it appears to signify God’s impending judgement - firstly before the church collapses on Mrs. McTavish, and just before Dan’s boat crashes in to the rocks.

    The other recurring motif is that of leprosy. The first character in the film to catch leprosy is Miriam who contracts the disease as she worships and caresses the golden calf. She repents to Moses she is seemingly healed. Leprosy enters the film again in the second half where the titles announce that Dan’s smuggled jute has come via a leper colony. A figure is shown escaping from the bags of jute, which turns out to be Sally Lang who infects Dan, who infects Mary Leigh. Sally Lang and Dan are killed as a result of the phobia generated by the disease, but Mary Leigh finds healing and redemption through listening to the words Jesus said to another leper in John’s story.

    DeMille chose his long time friend Theodore Roberts to play the part of Moses, their ninth and final film with DeMille ending the relationship between the two that had stretched back to the days of DeMille’s acting career. Roberts’s Moses is portrayed as a supremely confident man, assured in the certain success of his mission. He first appears striding into Pharaoh's throne room, and is far closer to the prince of the realm that he was brought up as, than the fugitive shepherd he later became.

    However, in seeking to establish the most important feature about the portrayal in Moses it is vital to remember that it is not he who is the biggest star of the film but the commandments themselves (The film is after all named in their honour). By comparison the Moses character operates only as a delivery boy/midwife. Although he seems the most important character once he has delivered the commandments into the world there is little more for him to do than to fade out and watch the decalogue take over. (This interesting device, of creating a character who appears to be the star of the film, only for them to disappear and be superseded by another, was later used to great effect by Alfred Hitchcock in Psycho). 

    For the remainder of the film the other characters play their part but it is the commandments that are the real hero. Ultimately they win out and the strap line that inspired the film (“You cannot break the commandments , they will break you.”) proves its point. When the role of Moses is compared to the prominence of the commandments it becomes apparent that the major role of Moses in this film is that of a lawgiver

    The result of all these elements is that we have a Moses who has nowhere left to go. He is the epitome of wisdom, trust in God. To anyone that does not know the story well he appears faultless, perhaps even sinless. Certainly incidents such as the fit of anger that saw him murder an Egyptian, or the doubts that loomed so large at the burning bush have been excluded from the film to portray Moses in the most positive light possible. What else would be appropriate for the giver of God’s laws?

    Sadly the outcome is a rather one dimensional, whitewashed image of Moses, which despite its no doubt intended piety leaves him lacking any real depth. Except for a momentary look of horror when Pharaoh orders the Israelites to make their bricks without straw Moses constantly stands firm, unswayed by the situations around him. In reality the bible presents us with a very different Moses who when called by God in the opening chapters of Exodus comes up with a string of excuses rather than a confident knowing smile.

    God’s role in the film however, is markedly different. Seemingly absent from the film. The idea of an unseen God is not an unusual one, but as this is a silent film he is also unheard. The only real manifestation of him is as the parter of the Red Sea, and as creator of the fireworks that accompany the unveiling of the commandments. 

    Perhaps one of the reasons for this is that The Ten Commandments fails to see the idiosyncrasies in the way it proposes its remedy. Whilst it highlights God’s law as the solution to the bloodshed of the war, it inadvertently shows God killing thousands of Egyptians in the process. The irony of these deaths (of these nameless, faceless Egyptians) in a film about how God’s law can save us from the horrors of the First World War, is lost. 

    polarisation occurs with Pharaoh's son. When he appears he is clearly a spoilt, objectionable child such that the audience can have very little compassion for him when he dies in the tenth plague. Yet the bible reveals nothing of his character. It would have been equally faithful to the biblical text if the son of Pharaoh had been played by a wide-eyed ‘cute’ child, and yet the death of such a child would be considerably less palatable. Regardless of the character of Pharaoh’s child, the death of the first born children, once stripped of religious triumphalism, is one of the most troubling stories in the bible.

    It is in the second half of the film that God’s implied character shows through the most vividly. 

    “you cannot break the ten commandments, they will break you”.

    Do McTavish’s buildings fall down because he has cheated on his building materials, or because God is punishing him for doing so? The same ambiguity also surrounds the other events in the last scenes of the film. A similar question might be raised regarding Dan’s leprosy.

    It is no until the penultimate scene in the film that DeMille resolves the issue for us. As the Dan’s boat is dashed against the rocks we see a light shining on them in the shape of the tablet motif. Significantly, this is the only incident in the second half of the film that could not be explained away by scientific reasoning, implying that not only did God not prevent Danny’s tragic accident, but that he specifically ordained it. God’s vengeance is meted out and the one who broke all of the commandments appears to be killed for it.

    This path is presumably best illustrated by Mrs McTavish’s other son John, who, as noted above, is something of a Christ figure in the story. On the one hand he is righteous and good, but he is also loving and considerate. Perhaps more importantly for viewers in a post modern age, he is not afraid to speak out when he sees things wrong, challenging both mother and his brother in the course of the film. It is often stated that it is much harder to play a supremely good character than an evil one, and it is to the credit of both DeMille and actor Richard Dix that apart from moments of tweeness John is the most attractive character in the movie.

    If DeMille intended his audience to aspire to John’s character, he perhaps also anticipated that they would best relate to the character of Mary Leigh. Essentially she is the only character in the film whose views change, moving from indifference in the opening scenes to finding forgiveness and healing in the later ones. Although she is mislead at the start of the second half, when she turns to the Christ figure for help she finds God’s grace and forgiveness. DeMille’ then essentially presents his viewers with a choice. Will they chose secularism and modernity, blinkered religious extremism, or aspire to be good, honest and compassionate?

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