• Bible Films Blog

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

    Friday, March 22, 2019

    Jaël et Sisera (1911)

    Amazingly this short film from 1911 is the only time any part of the story of Deborah (Judges 4-5) has been filmed in any kind of vaguely significant production. For this reason (and a few others) it's been one I've wanted to see for very many years and last week I happened to be at BFI Southbank -  where you can now access the BFI's digital library - and was able to walk in and watch it for free within a minute or two of arriving. If you're passing that way I very much recommend it. A few other old silent films are there to view as well. (For example, three films about Jephthah's daughter from a similar time period are there also).

    Unfortunately, Deborah doesn't get to feature in this film either. Whilst Barak, Sisera, Jael and her husband Heber all get a part, Deborah not only remains off screen, but doesn't even get a mention in the intertitles. In some ways that's not entirely surprising, at only 10 minutes long the film has to trim the story right down and given the success of the biblical-women-slaying-Israelite-enemies-whilst-they-sleep genre (OK,mainly Judith) it's not that hard to see why Pathé and director Henri Andréani prioritised Jael.

    The film starts outside Jael's tent. Things are a little unclear, but Sisera has seemingly conquered the camp because a group of Israelites are chained up, Jael is somewhat subdued and a minute or two into the picture Heber, previously described by an intertitle as being "friendly with Sisera", is brought in seemingly under a certain amount of duress. When nobody is looking Jael gesticulates towards the skies, and then breaks the chains of some of the Isarelites. They then flee to tell Barak about Sisera's location and his army marches our to battle. This opening shot, and indeed most, if not all of the film, is all filmed on location outdoors (as with Andréani's 1911 Caïn et Abel and a number of his other films).

    On hearing the news of Sisera's location, Barak and his troops attack Sisera's camp in various locations, including the scene of the opening shot and one particularly pleasing shot as the Israelites chase Sisera's men up and over a hill. Another scene takes place on what looks like a beach though the intertitles describe God sending a "Kishon Torrent" to help Barak in an interesting dovetailing of Judges 4 verses 13 and 15. The torrent looks more like a lake or a sea, but the location does provide Andréani with a sizeable rock for Sisera's man to scramble upon in a fashion similar to Francis Danby's Painting "The Deluge" (c.1840), which also found its way into Darren Aronfsky's Noah (2014).

    Sisera survives however, and creeps away somewhat stealthily, but Barak nevertheless manages to hunt him down. So it is that Sisera arrives back at Jael's tent and begs her to shelter him. In an echo of the first scene Jael gives Sisera water and he then collapses in exhaustion.Whilst he lies there unconscious she pulls up a large tent peg and drives it through his head (pictured above). The moment is surprisingly brutal. Whilst there's no blood and the action takes place in mid-shot, the repeated violent hammering is rather shocking.

    Moments later Barak's army arrives, only to find Jael has done their work for him. Barak kneels besides Sisera's lifeless body and kisses the hem of her garment in tribute.

    The quality of the print of the film is pretty impressive. I don't know enough about restoration and transfer to be able to tell whether this has been simply transferred to mp4 format or whether some restoration work has been done, but I should point out that the image above was taken rather hastily on my phone from the computer screen and so doesn't at all do it justice. The colour is quite striking, and consistent with Andréani's David et Goliath from the previous year. Particularly memorable is the shot panning up the hill as Sisera's troops seek to escape. As early biblical films goes it's an interesting mix of reliance on the text combined with the odd bit of dramatic licence when it suited the filmmakers, but perhaps most interesting is the use of somewhat shocking violence. Biblical films are well known for sword play, but rarely until the present century have they been quite so violent. Still, if ever a source text justifies such an approach, it's this.

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    Saturday, March 16, 2019

    Fortini/Cani (1976)

    Image result for cani del sinai
    As part of exploring the context of Moses und Aron (1974) I am exploring Huillet and Straub's other films including this one.
    Fortini/Cani (1976) marks the beginning  of a new phase for Straub and Huillet as their first Italian film. Italy had been the subject and location of some of their previous efforts, most notably Othon (1969) and History Lessons (1972), and even some of the funding for Moses und Aron (1974) had come from RAI, but the works themselves had been predominantly German-funded and usually in the German language.

    As a result it becomes the point at which much English language scholarship around Huillet and Straub dries up a little. Roud's book - for over two decades the only English language book on the duo - stops even before the completion of Moses und Aron, the next book in English, Barton Byg's "Landscapes of Resistance" covered only their German period. Whilst I understand Ursula Boser's 2004 "The Art of Seeing, the Art of Listening" is apparently a little more wide-ranging, I've never managed to get hold of it. Ute Holl's "Moses Complex obviously largely focused on Moses und Aron. Recent works such as "Writings" by Sally Shafto, and "Jean-Marie Straub & Danièle Huillet" by Ted Fendt have done something to redress the balance but certainly it feels something like dropping off a cliff edge. For me being able to read about Straub/Huillet's work is such a crucial part of watching with it and engaging in it because you tend to need to know so much in advance.

    The title, as is often the case, is somewhat unusual. The "Fortini" is the Italian writer Franco Fortini; the "Cani" from the title of his book "I Cani del Sinai" (The Dogs of Sinai), although, as the film concedes early on in proceedings "There are no dogs on Sinai". Having worked on a number of historic texts during the 1970s, the filmmakers were keen to return to the approach of some of their earliest work and adapt text by a living author and Fortini was keen to see his work given similar treatment as that of Heinrich Böll, whose work was the subject of Machorka Muff (1962) and Not Reconciled (1965).

    This time, however, the major difference is the appearance of Fortini himself. Fortini appears reading various passages from the work itself. It is left to the audience to decide if this is Fortini appearing as himself, or playing a version himself, or indeed another man of similar age. The lack of clarity on this issue raises a further question of genre: is the film a documentary or something else?

    The "something else" in that question summaries the difficulty of pigeon-holing exactly what the film is. Aside from the the scenes of "Fortini" reading two other types of footage dominate. The first consists of Fortini continuing to read excerpts from the book, but as a voiceover, over various scenes of Italian land and city-scapes. In one particularly striking one, the camera holds static down what appears to be a reasonably typical Italian street. Cars drive up and down, people walk along pavements seemingly going about their everyday business. And then I see it, and struggle to believe that I have not noticed it before; Florence's Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore poking out in the background.

    In attempting to reflect how I missed such an obvious landmark I can only reflect that this is because of how the film up to this point has trained me to watch it, not only in the scenes of Fortini, but also in the third type of footage - the long, slow, almost silent, 360° pans around various  landscapes. Watching these in a cinema is quite unlike watching such images at home on a DVD player. For one thing the there are no distractions. No escapes when otherwise temptation to look away to be distracted might prove irresistible. For another there is the sound, the quietness of crickets in the background, and an audience all holding their breaths. I'm reminded of Kolker's quote about "viewing a film by Straub and Huillet... is essentially an act of watching oneself watch a film" (208). The process is a little like mindfulness, eventually you yield and the rich images, textures sounds are transformative and indeed transportative; they take you to another place. Another quote about Huillet/Straub which I can't seem to shake off is Daniel Fairfax's line about the "sensual role of the material environment in their work". It's the slowness of the panning camera gradually peeling back a little at a time. Because of this you find yourself focusing on the textures of a stone wall, or the expression on a passerby, and somehow missing a cathedral spire poking out magnificently from behind the buildings.

    The beauty of the locale is something of a double edged sword, however. Much of the pans across the countryside are taken in the Apuan alps, the scene of the 1944 Vinca massacre of 162 Italian citizens by Nazi soldiers, though Italian fascists were complicit. At times these are left for silent reflection, but at times they are accompanied by Fortini's commentary. The primary theme of Fortini's book is the Six Day War and Israel's seizing of the Sinai Peninsula which Fortini is appalled by. Fortini, who was no stranger to the issue of anti-Semitic abuse on account of his Jewish father,is particularly critical of the way large swathes of Italian society were supportive of Israel. Fortini argues "that the enthusiasm of the Italian intelligentsia of 1967 for the Israeli course was fuelled by the concealment of the Fascist...complicity in the extermination enterprise and by the burying of the victims on Italian soil" (Rancière 41). As in Moses und Aron and numerous other of their films Huillet and Straub are drawing attention to the ground where blood of earlier generations has been spilt even though it is no longer visible. The quiet beauty of the landscape speaks volumes about our attempts to cover our bloody past when it suits us.

    There is one particular shot that highlight. There are several shots of landmarks and signs in the film commemorating those who have been slaughtered in the one. This particular shot begins on one such obelisk, before commencing a slow 360° pan around the otherwise quiet location, only then to end on the same plaque. Rather than using historic documentary footage, Straub/Huillet use this subtler approach.
    "There are no tortured bodies matching the writers words, but the opposite - their absence, their invisibility. From the terrace where Fortini is rereading his text...the camera slips far away to explore the places where the massacres occurred. In those mute hills, crushed by the sun and deserted villages, only the words of commemorative plaques remember, and say, without showing it, the blood that once stained these oblivious lands." (Rancière  42)
    In addition to the argument from the Fascist past, Fortini also argues that Italian support for the war derived from anti-Arab sentiment. He argues this at length, and on a single viewing it is difficult to be able to competently summarise it (not least as the subtitles left certain sentences untranslated), but essentially resists the accusation that criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic by referencing his own suffering on account of it and by drawing a sharp line between Israel the state and the Jewish people as a whole. That his points here seem so contemporary given the once again apparent problems of anti-Semitism coming from the resurgent far left of British politics. Fortini feels a sense of isolation, marginalised for being a Jew by the wider society, whilst simultaneously marginalised by other Jews for not being sufficiently pro-Israeli,

    There are also allusions to the Hebrew Bible, not least a passage where Fortini talks about reading it in his youth and contrasting "lo scontro esaltante, liberatore, con la scrittura, i Salmi, Giobbe, Isaia, letti e riletti con terrore e rapimento" (the exciting, liberating battle with the Scriptures, the Psalms, Job, Isaiah, read and reread with terror and rapture) with his perceptions of his own faith. There's a lengthy static shot from the balcony in a synagogue whilst various Jewish rituals are undertaken.

    As noted above whilst the footage mainly falls into three categories (Fortini reading, silent nature and Fortini reading over images of nature) other such images do appear. For one thing there is the film's opening image (above) of the book itself, followed shortly afterwards from a close up on its dedication. There are also various cuttings from newspapers from various nations including, of all things, one from the Daily Mail. These shots emphasise Huillet and Straub's rootdsness in texts. The film is an adaptation of "I cani del Sinai", but as with Machorka Muff they are happy to go beyond the one text by incorporating 'contemporary' newspaper headlines and articles which they want to hold up to criticism.

    However the film goes beyond the text in other ways. The screening notes from the showing I attended consisted of Fortini's 1978 "Note for Jean-Marie Straub" that accompanied the 2013 English translation of the book (which rumour has it includes a DVD of this film). In it it is clear that Fortini recognises that Huillet and Straub have brought out things from his work which he himself was not aware of until he watched the film. "Through the gaze of the camera looking at me, I was also able better to understand some formal lessons I had received, across many years" (Fortini). He goes on to explain how the instructions from Straub and Huillet worked by "unweaving the fabric of my thoughts, surpassed them and conserved them" (Fortini). The excerpt ends "From then onwards the words and ideas which, in "The Dogs" still pained me have ceased to hurt me (Fortini).
    - Fairfax, Daniel (2009) "Great Directors: Straub, Jean-Marie & Huillet, Danièle", Sense of Cinema, September. Available online
    - Fortini, Franco (2013) "A Note for Jean-Marie Straub" in Fortini, Franco The Dogs of the Sinai, translated by  Alberto Toscano. Seagull Books
    - Kolker, Robert Phillip (1983) The Altering Eye: Contemporary International Cinema. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    - Rancière, Jacques (2014) Figures of History. John Wiley & Sons

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    Sunday, March 10, 2019

    Joan the Woman (1916)

    I'm introducing a screening of Cecil B. DeMille's 1927 film The King of Kings next month, so I thought now would be a good time to finally watch DeMille's take on Joan of Arc - whilst not a biblical narrative, certainly a story that, in popular culture terms at least, is a very close neighbour.

    The film stars Geraldine Farrar, an opera star who Jesse Lasky poached for the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company by offering her an exorbitant salary (Higham 49). Farrar is hardly the young teenager that Joan was, but she is otherwise good in the role, not least because her own star power gives an extra element to Joan's meteoric rise.

    It's a while before Farrar gets to appear on screen however because the main part of the film is bracketed by some scenes from the trenches of WW1 - then a current conflict. This seems certainly like a response to Griffith's Intolerance, also Fritizi Kramer of Movies Silently (read her review of this film here) that amongst the reasons this was added was because screenwriter Jeanie Macpherson insisted on it in order to give the film "a more upbeat ending". I can imagine though that it would also reflect DeMille's concerns about the Great War and certainly this comes across as very much pro-France film with the French forces needing to repel the invading forces in their country. Of course as I'm looking for connections with The King of Kings then this link to a film that features Jesus cannot be ignored.

    It'd be interesting to know (and I will probably read up on this in DeMille's autobiography shortly) to hat extent Griffith's work influenced DeMille. Joan was his first historical epic. From today's perspective that is surprising for his name is now synonymous with the genre. On the other hand however DeMille seems to critique Griffith's film, most notably in the scenes towards the end of the film when a series of men wearing white robes and hoods. It's an interesting way to link the KKK and the Borriquita brotherhood in nearby Spain. Their role as leading persecutors of DeMille's heroine certainly reflects badly on them and seems to be a rebuke to Griffith's Birth of a Nation (1915).

    Perhaps the film's most significant contribution is the use of colour, most notably the Handschiegl Color Process (aka "Wyckoff-DeMille Process") for certain scenes Most notably Joan burning at the stake. DeMille pioneered colour a few times, and it's curious that whereas he used it for Joan's death, he uses another pioneering colour technique for Jesus' resurrection in The King of Kings. (In the earliest cut of the film he also uses colour for the opening sequence of a vampy Mary Magdalene and her lovers). It's very effective here, partly due to its limited use. There are some good screen grabs of it here.

    Aside from the use of the Handschiegl Color Process, there is also the widespread use of tinting and toning throughout the film which DeMille uses to good effect. One memorable image is of the red tint that accompanies Joan's vision and calling. Here, as with many places in the film, DeMille uses double exposure to add an element of the supernatural here with the appearance of a cross. He uses this technique quite extensively through the film and to be honest overuses the double exposures, for a technique that had been in use since the turn of the century it seems a little odd that DeMille is so enamoured by it. Again though this reminds me of DeMille's use of double exposure - or more to the point multiple exposure in the scene where Jesus casts seven demons our of Mary Magdalene.

    Lastly I just wanted to touch on the way DeMille and MacPherson use quotes from the Gospel accounts of Jesus' death. Two in particular stand out, notably when Joan herself asks why God has foresaken her, and then later, when she is on her way to the stake (and there is a very Golgotha-y feel to the way a procession leads her to the stake) when one of those who gave false testimony against her, and was even involved in torturing her, asks for her forgiveness because they "knew not what they did".

    In many ways this actually recalls DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1956) more than The King of Kings (though it is perhaps the "middle term"). Through that film DeMille and screenwriter Aeneas MacKenzie draw out numerous parallels between Moses and Jesus often reversing the very ones the gospel writers put in to do the same. Here again we see this, not only in the use of these two lines to verbally create the parallels but also in variopus bits of imagery and composition.

    As a film I must admit it didn't really grab me. Whilst some of the imagery is rather fine, particularly on a bigger screen, a lot of it had too much going on. In particular the Battle of Oreans was long and a little dull. DeMille clearly hadn't quite perfected his eye for the small details against the largest of backdrops and the composition looks cramped. It's one of the longest scenes in the film and it feels like the time and money invested it could have gone elsewhere.

    That's all for now on this film - this is a scribbling down of a few thoughts, rather than a proper review as such, but hopefully it will be of interest to some.

    Higham, Charles "Cecil B. DeMille, an Uncensored Biography". (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1973).

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    Friday, March 08, 2019

    April Release for Revival!

    If you follow me on Twitter, you may recall that a while ago to I posted a link to a story about  a very limited release for a new musical film about the life of Jesus. I've been meaning to write about it here ever since but have only now found the time.

    Revival! is the work of creator Harry Lennix, co-star of NBC’s The Blacklist. The musical blends together traditional spirituals such as "Down By the Riverside" and "Wade in the Water" with original gospel music such as the title piece "Revival". The mostly black cast includes some impressive singers including Chaka Khan, Destiny's Child's Michelle Williams and Grammy-nominated Mali Music in the role of Jesus.

    The film received a limited release to just ten theatres back in December, and whilst there is a piece on it by Variety, it was kinda hard to find its IMDb page. That may all be due to change. A trailer on the Tricoast website ends by announcing that it is "Coming to Theatres Good Friday April 19th" so it sounds like there might be a plan for a wider distribution.

    From the look of the trailer it looks like the film will be a mix of live on-stage footage and outdoor location shooting. According to the Religion News Services piece, it will combine those elements with "technological performances", though it's not entirely clear what is meant by that. Perhaps there will be some element of CGI. IMDb goes a step further describing it as a "hybrid of every film idiom: Broadway musical, Hollywood musical, animation, green screen technology, and sound stage". I'm guessing that the onstage footage will be taken from live performances of that stage show "Revival! The Experience".

    There is more information on the movie's official website including some more stills from the film, a change to sign up for more information and some merchandise. There is also a video featuring Harry Lennix (who also plays Pontius Pilate).

    The casting of Mali Music as Jesus will doubtless earn comparisons with the two films from 2006, Color of the Cross and Jezile (Son of Man) and I have been thinking of revisiting the former piece more recently. I'm interested in the fact that the latter (a recontextualisation of the story) attained so much media and then subsequently academic interest, whereas Color of the Cross which simply portrayed the characters as black - arguably a more daring approach - has largely been overlooked. It's interesting as well that Revival! not only largely casts black actors, but also features a female member of the historically male-only Sanhedrin, so it is crossing more than one boundary in terms of casting. I'm also reminded of the 2004 film Hero: The Rock Opera which featured a mixed cast but gave the role of Jesus to a black actor Michael Tait.

    I'll hopefully be able to review this nearer the time, but in the meantime, and particularly if you live in the US, it might be worth signing up to get more info.

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    Monday, March 04, 2019

    Der Bräutigam, die Komödiantin und der Zuhälter (The Bridegroom, the Actress and the Pimp, 1968)

    As part of exploring the context of Huillet and Straub's Moses und Aron (1974) I am exploring their other films including this one.
    Like its title Straub/Huillet's 1968 short The Bridegroom, the Actress and the Pimp, splits readily into three parts, but the three parts of each do not so much correlate to each other as to the three leading characters who emerge as the film progresses.

    In many ways the film references the very earliest period in film history. The opening shot - a 40 second focus on a piece of graffiti functions like an intertitle. The second shot, a four minute pan taken from a car as it drives along Landsberger Strasse in Munich's red light district recalls many of the actualité of the 1890s, most notably the Lumière's Leaving Jerusalem by Railway (1896). It also anticipates the longer shots from a car in Huillet and Straub's later work History Lessons (1972), not to mention Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976).

    Then there is the third shot, even longer at 11 minutes than the two that went before it. In most other respects however the shot is different. The outside, street location is swapped for inside a small theatre. The moving camera is exchanged for a static one. The real life "set" becomes a deliberately artificial one with a drawn on looking door. Again this recalls early silent film, but here it is more the static tableaux of the early films such as Scrooge, or Marley's Ghost (1901) or the earlier versions of Pathé's Life and Passion of Jesus Christ (1902 onwards). As with those film, the camera holds this mid-shot without moving for the entire shot, the main noticeable difference with those tableaux silents is that, as ever, Straub and Huillet have placed the camera off centre.

    Furthermore whereas the earliest part of the previous shot started in silence before giving way to Bach's "Ascension Oratorio", here we lose the extra-diegetic music but gain audible dialogue. There's a brief moment of diegetic music when one of the characters slips a typical 1940s instrumental onto the record player and two of the characters begin to dance. It's a moment worth bearing in mind because it's easy to assume that that delivery of the play is without acting that is actually not quite correct. The speech that is delivered is more about rhythm than emotion, but it's not entirely deadpan and the characters movements whilst muted from what might be expected in conventional cinema, is still largely present. The characters stand, sit, smoke, twirl, come into and leave the room.

    It's this section footage that was shot first. Straub was approached by Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Munich Action-Theatre group  to direct a theatre production of Ferdinand Bruckner's "Pains of Youth" (1926), and only agreed on condition that he could strip it down to its essentials. The filmed, live, footage (and it is live, even the two moments of blackout between scenes retain that atmosphere thanks to Huillet and Straub's insistence on live sound) is what we find in the film and whilst following the thread of the plot through the terse dialogue is tricky, it nevertheless forms the key to understanding the rest of the film. Fassbinder himself plays the pimp, and the link to the opening footage from the red-light district is apparent. He also portrays the pursuer in the final section of the film where the documentary like footage of the first section and the stage footage give way to a more conventional (but still rather unconventional and stripped down) sequence.

    The final sequence contains more shots than the rest of the film put-together, and they are far shorter in duration. There's an opening shot outside a woman's flat where she kisses her lover goodbye. As he gets into the lift, the camera holds on it and we see it descend. The next shot captures Fassbinder waiting for the man in a VW Beetle outside. The car recalls the opening section where one of the cars that the camera overtakes is a similarly shaded Beetle. A car chase - shot Straub and Huillet style - ensues. The man leaves his car to flee on foot. The pimp catches him up, but give up when the man kicks him away. The man is then reunited with his lover and in the lengthiest shot in the sequence (some 5 minute or so) get married. They return home only to find Fassbinder waiting for him, whereupon the woman shoots him and then gazes out of the window (recalling a similar shot in Der Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach) as the (extra-diegetic) music of Bach's "Ascension Oratio" starts up again.

    The three sections, then, unite and complete one another with their interaction. Straub/Huillet's films are always political, but the use of real-life documentary footage to frame the artificial theatre section and the dramatic cinema section makes this one of their more political films (not to mention the Mao quote emblazoned on the walls in the theatrical section). This is not simply an entertaining story about a woman escaping prostitution, it is born of a real-life scenario. Indeed if anything, the demonstrable artificiality of the final two sections highlights the improbability of such an escape in the real world. The woman saved from prostitution by a man who loves her, and by her taking her fate into her own hands is, in the majority cases, a fantasy as pristine as the footage from the church.

    For such radical left-wing filmmakers religious imagery and references abound. The church footage here recalls that from Machorka Muff (1962), not least because of the diagonal, low angle of the camera (this time however, the couple is shot from the rear, and the church is more austere and less ornate) and of course is a regular feature of Anna Magdalena. Then of course there is Moses und Aron (1974) which speaks for itself, but there is also a reference to the law of Moses following the wedding ceremony here (which is taken from the writings of St. John of the Cross). And then, naturally, there are the words of the wedding ceremony and religious element behind the music of Bach's Ascension Oratorio which appears at the start and end of the film.

    In honesty I didn't intend this article to be quite so long, but somehow I just find Huillet and Straub such fascinating filmmakers to write about. In some ways their shorter works are far more suited to this kind of blog-length analysis than their longer ones; the dense, intellectual nature of their films means that there is just too much to explore satisfactorily for the lengthier works. And for anyone who is interested in getting acquainted with this one - which until now has only been available on a French DVD - there's a chance to see it on the big screen on Wednesday (6th March), and it will be released by Grasshopper on Bluray and DVD as an extra for their  release of Der Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach).

    Although I've not cited them directly I owe a debt to the authors of the following words , from whom I've derived many of my ideas about it.
    - Byg, Barton (1995) Landscapes of Resistance: The German Films of Daniele Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub. Berkeley: University of California Press.
    - Pummer, Claudia (2016) "(Not Only) For Children and Cavemen: The Films of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet" in Ted Fendt (ed.) Jean-Marie Straub & Danièle Huillet. Vienna, Filmmuseum Synema Publications, 2016.
    - Roud, Richard (1972) Jean-Marie Straub. New York: The Viking Press.

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    Friday, March 01, 2019

    The Sword and the Cross (1958)

    La spada e la croce (The Sword and the Cross, 1958) was a vehicle for Canadian actor Yvonne De Carlo who took the leading role of Mary Magdalene, in a film which involves Jesus a great deal more than many such Jesus cameo films, yet still keeps him away from the glare of the camera.1

    De Carlo came to prominence in the 1940s, in a series of films for Universal Pictures which hinted at her future participation in peplum films, but were set in different eras. Her breakthrough film, Salome, Where She Danced (1945) contains the name of a famous (biblical) object of the male gaze, and in two of her next three films  Song of Scheherazade (1947) and Slave Girl (1947) she played a dancer in revealing costumes. It's strange, then, that one of her first scenes in The Ten Commandments (1956) features her sitting out whilst her sisters, Jethro's daughters, dance to impress Moses. Heston's Moses is initially smitten by De Carlo's Sephora, but he seemingly loses interest in her from the moment he meets God at the burning bush. In between she made two fine noirs with two of the genre's great directors, Brute Force (1947) with Jules Dassin and Criss Cross (1949) with Robert Siodmak.

    In many ways, De Carlo's role in La spada is the mirror of her role in Ten Commandments. Here though it is the woman, Mary who is the focus, and she who has the life-changing supernatural encounter which leads to the effective, though not actual, rejection of previous partners in favour of a more spiritual life. However, in contrast to Heston's Moses, De Carlo's Mary does not immediately change track in a Damascene style conversion. Instead her experience is closer to that of Anthony Quinn's eponymous hero in Barabbas (1961) - the encounter is significant, meaningful, but initially troubling.Only later does it become apparent that some sort of metanoia (change of heart) has occurred.

    Magdalene's initial response to the Jesus movement is mockery. Whilst her sister and brother (Martha and Lazarus) are followers, she torments one of his male followers by having him tied up, dressing provacatively and dancing before him in an attempt to "convince him that sin is more amusing than virtue". When she fails, she rips off the mask that her paramour/provider Anan has given her, and when her true face still fails to arouse the man, the camera defocuses on her face and she flees the room.

    It's then she hears Jesus' voice, accompanied by esoteric sounds. Going to her balcony she sees that a ghostly vision of Jesus has materialised, his head hidden in the shadows. The encounter prompts her to scold Anan "Don't touch me. No-one must ever touch me again", but she is filled with fear rather than love or faith. Mary remains in this troubled, haunted state, and resolves to go to the temple to pray, though what kind of conversion has occurred is somewhat ambiguous.

    It's there that she is caught by the mob and becomes the woman accused of adultery from John 8. Indeed the film conflates various biblical women into the figure of Mary Magdalene. In addition to the unnamed woman of John 8, she is also combined with the sister of Martha, and the woman who anoints Jesus' feet. Given the previous scene where Mary at the encouragement of a powerful man dances to add torment a holy man, she also fulfils the role of  Salome.

    Jesus, of course, intervenes. The moment in question is shot from what initially appears to be his point-of-view, but then he walks into shot. Again we see his body, but not his head. But anyone thinking that this encounter will propel her to a sold faith would be mistaken. When Martha mentions Jesus to her, she reacts "The Nazarene! Enough of this talk of the Nazarene". Martha's insistence that Jesus is the messiah only prompts Mary's self-loathing to come to the surface "Why would the real messiah come to me?...His forgiveness means nothing to me. I know what I am, and I know how I'll end." It is only when Lazarus dies and Mary calls out for Jesus that her faith becomes apparent Lazarus is raised, of course, and finally Mary becomes devoted and free to express her faith.

    The Bible tells us so little about Mary Magdalene that all this invention and conflation is necessary to fill out a 90+ minute film, but what is most surprising is that the one passage in the Bible where Mary features most prominently - their pot-resurrection meeting in the garden - is omitted. Indeed the film ends somewhat surprisingly and darkly at the foot of the cross moments after Jesus' death. Gaius Marcellus, the roman centurion who she has, through the course of the film, come to love and then pass over in favour of the messiah, tries to dismiss what has just happened. "Jesus will be forgotten after his death" he suggests, as if to help. But, by this stage, Mary has been inspired: "No", she counters, "it is by his death that he will begin to live". The film ends a little darkly, but given the audience knows the rest of the story it is not without hope. Perhaps such an ending poses a question to the audience. If nothing else it's one way of avoiding one of the central dilemmas of biblical epics - how to sufficiently appease the opposing beliefs of faithful and faithless about the events being depicted. That said, if this is the reason for ending the film at this point the logic seems inconsistent. Jesus has already healed Lazarus and gone beyond the miracles in the Bible by adding gthe miraculous (and somewhat spooky) materialisation following Mary's dance.

    The materialisation scene is just one example of the film's unusual attitude to Jesus' physical body, Whilst Jesus is in one sense present far more than in films such as Ben-Hur and The Robe, the manner in which the camera is never truly permitted to fully behold him. In many scenes, including  when Jesus prevents Mary from being stoned and her visit to him in a cell before his execution, we see just his arm, or hear his voice as his body stands just off camera. In the materialisation scene his head is so hidden in the shadows it caused one scholar to mistake his body for being "headless".2 Other scenes, such as his appearance before a crowd in Pilate's courtyard, are shot from afar, so that the audience can just about make out his body in full, but cannot distinguish the features of his face. Finally we come to the crucifixion scene which uses a combination of the above strategies. Firstly the scene is shown from afar; then as the sky grows dark and a storm begins to rage the camera closes in on Mary at the foot of the cross; then in two shot of Mary and Gaius Marcellus, Jesus' legs appear between them at the top of the shot. This is followed by the camera slowing panning upwards to reveal the body of the crucified Jesus in full, but in darkness contrasted against the sky. Finally, seconds before the end of the film, a flash of lightning finally reveals Jesus' body in for just a split second.

    It's tempting to speculate as to why the film adopts such an attitude towards Jesus' physical presence. Given the final reveal, it works as a metaphor for Mary's slowly ascending faith finally reaching completion. But it also suggests that the filmmakers are uncomfortable with the nature of the incarnation and the idea of Jesus fully human body.

    The film's attitude to Jesus' body contrasts starkly with its attitude to Mary's and whilst the decision to make Mary the central character could be read as a more feminist approach to the subject, the objectification of Mary's body is just one of a number of concerns with its attitude to gender. In particular Mary's financial dependence on Anan is contrasted with her concerns, at least, that she is growing too old to retain his affections. De Carlo was only 36 at the time.

    This peaks in the dance scene. Mary is clearly hurt when Anan gives her a mask to wear during her performance, interpreting his insistence as a sign that he no loner finds her face attractive. When her masked performance fails to arose the captive follower of Jesus she throws it off in the hope that her face will succeed where her body has not. It does not. The man's rejection of her body seems in accordance with its almost gnostic attitude to Jesus' body. The film is also guilty of double standards in this respect on the one hand sexualising De Carlo's body in order to boost the film's box office appeal, whilst on the other, chastising Mary for appearing sexually "available".

    Also problematic in terms of gender is the film's conflation of various female characters in the Bible into one, Mary. This contrasts with La spada's fleshing out of the role of various male characters who are only mentioned in passing in the biblical text. Other women do appear in the film notably Mary's virginal sister Martha and Pilate's wife Claudia, but the film's contrast between "virgin" and "whore" is the person of Mary is problematic even despite the fact she is not quite portrayed as being a prostitute.

    That said La spada was arguably the first in a string of Biblical pepla where a woman was the leading character. The following year Solomon and Sheba (1959) would significantly enhance the queen's role to the extent that by the end of the film the audience is more invested in her character than that of her male counterpart. 1960's Esther and the King followed the two-names pattern but relegated Esther's co-star to a nameless "King", in the title at least. The Story of Ruth also released in 1960, went a step further and only named the female charcter in its title.

    1 - Various cuts of this film are available including a 97 minute English version and a slightly longer 101 minute Italian version which includes the trial before Pilate and a scene in which the subsequently freed Barabbas chokes Anan to death. Barry Atkinson also notes the existence of an even shorter 88 minute cut.2
    2 - Atkinson, Barry (2018) Heroes Never Die: The Italian Peplum Phenomenon 1950-1967. London: Midnight Marquee Press. p.81.

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    Friday, February 22, 2019

    Il figlio dell'uomo (1954)

    Il figlio dell'uomo (dir. Virgilio Sabel) is a rare film and an important one. It's rare, perhaps, because it was ahead of its time. Despite a burgeoning period of Italian Bible films in the early to mid-silent era, facism seemingly brought a stop to that with over thirty years passing between the last of the silent era Jesus films and 1950's Mater Dei. In Hollywood and elsewhere films based on the gospels were largely absent during the years of the Great Depression and the Second World War.

    But it's rarity is also perhaps a reflection on its style. Sabel and his cinematographer Oberdan Troiani created an expressionistic film that in places almost borders on the avant garde. Yet it's style is also what marks it as important. Sabel had been a documentary maker before being given the job of directing the film, twice wining awards for best short film (Atkinson, 63)

    Neo-realism with it's documentary-style footage had dominated the late forties in Italian cinema, and whilst it had already begun to lose a little of its appeal, it was still to the fore of public consciousness. Il figlio is very much a neo-realist film. In addition to its documentary feel and its black and white photography, it also used mainly outdoor locations and an unprofessional, proletariat cast. The opening credits announce that apart from a few of the major characters the "altri interpreti sono ...pescatori e contadini" (the other actors are...fishermen and farmers), the inhabitants of two local villages where much of the movie was filmed. The film's neo-realist credentials are only enhanced further by the choice of Renzo Rossellini, brother of the famous pioneer Roberto, and the man who had scored his brother's groundbreaking Roma, città aperta eight years earlier.

    Of course by the time Rossellini would get around to filming his own Jesus film, Il messia (1975) both he and the world in general had moved on from neo-realism, though many of its traits remain in the film nevertheless. Instead, when one thinks about Jesus films made in the neo-realist style one thinks of Pier Paolo Pasolini's Il vangelo secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to Matthew, 1964). There's little evidence, one way or the other, to suggest that Pasolini, filming ten years later, was influenced significantly by Sabel's film. I'm not aware of Pasolini mentioning Sabel in his interviews or writings on the subject, nor is there much to suggest its distribution was widespread enough that Paoloni would have been likely to see it.

    Furthermore what Sabel did was to apply neo-realist principles to his choice of subject. Similarities in the two works seem far more dependent on a common filmmaking philosophy than of conscious or unconscious derivation. That said there are a couple of moments in this film which seem particularly familiar. The most striking is Jesus' calling of the disciples. In Il figlio the scene takes place on a beach. As Jesus walks along the seafront, the camera cuts to each of the disciples in turn in the foreground with Jesus appearing over his shoulder. The scene is different in Il vangelo, Pasolini's calling of the disciples is a little more natural, yet it also takes place on a beach, and the scenes that immediately follow it show either Jesus striding around with his disciples scurrying about trying to keep up, or shots of him in the foreground with them in the background over his shoulder. Indeed Pasolini uses such compositions at various points in the film.

    That said, the film's neo-realist tendencies are about far more than similarities with latter films made after the end of the neo-realist period. Particularly significant in this respect is the way the film's opening images are close-ups of the "fishermen and farmers" who will perform the various the various parts in the film. At once this breaks the illusion (or at least significantly hampers its formation) of this being Jesus on screen. But it's also a clear marker that this is a film about ordinary people, made by ordinary people. There's relatively little presentation of hierarchy in this film, and what there is tends to be in the events leading up to Jesus' death. The disciples are called and named, but given no special role except for their attendance at the Last Supper, in Gethsemane, and Peter's later denial of Jesus. They are given no back story or motives. Jesus' only interaction with the central aspects of his Judaism are his clearing of the temple. Whilst both the shepherds and the magi appear in the nativity sequence, the camera is more interested in the peasants working in the fields with their animals than the wealthy, exotic, visitors from afar.

    Another element of the film that seems to emphasise the ordinary people in the story is its use of high and low camera positions. The low angles  have an empathy to them, a literal view from the ground; the high angles carry more of a sense of God looking down on all people in the same fashion.  Much of the crucifixion scene is shot from what appears at times to be Jesus' point-of-view, but at other times this seems not to be the case. Are we seeing these scenes from Jesus' point of view, God's perspective, or simply out own?

    The use of shots from Jesus' point of view are present throughout the film. One of the very first shots from Jesus' ministry is as crowds of people in need of healing crowd around him. It's a masterful shot because it conveys a sense of the crowd pressing in an a certain sense of claustrophobia, without imparting those to Jesus. We are not given his reaction so much as made to feel what our own might have been in that situation. Perhaps surprisingly it's a technique that would be used so rarely in Jesus films for the next half century. Whilst he shots from on the cross could be read as associating his perspective with that of the divine, the majority work to associate him with the other ordinary people. The camera treats him as it might do any other character. It's interesting to see the same technique (the PoV) being used to emphasise both his diving nature and his human one.

    Having said all this, Il figlio does breakaway from the classic traits of neorealist films in other significant ways, which are particularly telling in the opening sequence covering the Fall. For example, whilst neo-realism specialised in a documentary "feel", much of this sequence involves shots of animals, which seem far more like actual documentary footage. At the same time however these shots are juxtaposed with some of the film's most artificial scenes, most notably those of a model world globe emphasising creation and the universality of the stories that are being told. In another, an imposing wall of flame blocks off the way back to the Garden of Eden. Even our first vision of Adam - a rippled reflection on a pool of water - is somewhat artificial. Later Eve's image returns in a ghostly double exposure with Mary seconds after the annunciation.

    The annunciation itself, however, is notably low key. The news is delivered by a visible angel, but one plainly clad in white, in similar fashion to Pasolini's, without wings, a spiritual glow or a dazzling light. The visuals are similarly pared down when Jesus receives God's blessing at his baptism. There's no white dove, though there is a booming voice speaking the words from Mark 1:11, but this and the healing of the paralytic in Mark 2 are rare examples of the explicitly supernatural. Tradition is frequently evoked - as when Veronica wipes Jesus' face with her cloth - but also stripped back - we are not then shown the cloth bearing a miraculous image of Jesus.

    The ministry section of the film is remarkably short (just 8 minutes between his baptism and triumphal entry) and mainly confined to teaching. The healing of the paralytic is the only miracle Jesus is shown performing, though a voice-over informs us of others. As with the Gospels, the resurrection occurs but is not documented.

    In between the triumphal entry, temple clearing and Last Supper are treated fairly briefly, in contrast to the relatively long treatment of Jesus' various appearances in front of the differing authorities. Throughout Sabel's camera has been at pains to emphasise the imposing nature of the imperial architecture and towering statues, from the declaration of the census through to the trial in Pilate's courtyard (with strong echoes of Antonio Ciseri's painting "Ecce Homo").

    That said the portrayal of Jewish people is somewhat uneven in the film. The most troubling aspect is the horned hat that Caiaphas wears, not uncommon in Jesus films before the Holocaust but not something I can otherwise recall afterwards. Also troubling is the way Jesus is slapped, thrown to the ground, has his beard tugged and is spat on, all whilst in Jewish custody. The references to Ciseri's painting have the effect though of minimising Jewish impact on Jesus' trials before Pilate. For much of it the crowd is obscured by the architecture and Roman bodies, as if shutting them out from the events that are happening. We see enough to realise the "crowd" is relatively small. When the camera does occasionally switch to the crowd, it's clear that whilst there are some voices condemning Jesus that a range of responses are taking place. The Jewish crowd is not acting as a single mob. Some call for Jesus' death, others just for Barabbas' freedom, but many stay silent. Significantly whilst the troublesome words "his blood be upon us" do appear they are spoken only by a single individual whilst those around him remain silent and stony faced. The issue of supposed Jewish culpability could have been handled better, but this treatment is certainly better than many.

    The violence at the hands of the Jewish authorities is also put into a degree of context by Jesus' treatment by the Roman soldiers. Aside from his crucifixion he also receives a lengthy flagellation at their hands and the camera lingering over the crown of thorns. Parts of the scene are shot from a towering and expressionistic high angle and dark shadow, numerous shots are again uncomfortable close-ups of the soldiers' jeering faces. As Barry Atkinson suggests, "the whipping and crucifixion scenes in Sabel's radical effort are, for the time it was made, unflinchingly graphic" (63). Jesus' final breath is accompanied by lightning, which is harnessed to give the moment an expressionistic feel, enhanced by an almost avant garde montage of brief, overlaid shots against a black background. Then as Mary cradles her son's lifeless body there's a flashback to the Last Supper and Jesus declaring "Questo il mio corpo...se uno mangia di questo pane vive eternal" ("This is my body...if anyone eats this bread they will live eternally")

    When the resurrection comes it's quietly at first and typically low key. A woman knocks on the disciples door, a tearful Magdalene mistakes the risen Jesus for a gardener. Jesus shares breakfast on the beach and offers Peter a shot at redemption. Thomas has faith. The ascension scene, whilst feeling a little out of place with a floating Jesus double exposed against a cloudy sky, nevertheless still cuts to give us Jesus' point of view as he leaves the world behind. It's perhaps a metaphor for the film itself neither purely of one camp or another, but nevertheless a remarkable experience.

    I have already posted a scene guide for this film.

    Atkinson, Barry (2018) Heroes Never Die: The Italian Peplum Phenomenon 1950-1967. London: Midnight Marquee Press.


    Sunday, February 17, 2019

    Il figlio dell'uomo - Scene Guide

    One of the films I mentioned in last week's list of Italian Jesus Films is 1954's Il figlio dell'uomo. My review is here, but I noted down the various scenes as I was watching it, so I thought I'd post these as a separate scene guide. If you're a detail-y kind of person (and we love them round here), then here's how I use citations in scene guides. Please note. The only version of this film I've been able to find is this online one, and there are no English subtitles.
    Creation and fall (Gen 2-3)*
    Annunciation (Luke 2:1-3; Luke 1:26-38)
    Birth of Jesus (Luke 4:21; Matt 2:11).
    John the Baptist (Mark 1:1-11)
    Teaching on Revenge (Matt 6:38-42)
    Healing a paralytic (Mark 2:1-12)
    Beatitudes (Matt 5:1-12)
    Teaching about the law (Matt 5:17-20)
    Bread of Life (John 6:25-59)
    Plot to kill Jesus (Mark 14:1-2)
    Question about marriage (Mark 10:1-12)
    Calling the 12 (Mark 3:13-19)
    Jesus predicts his death (Mark 10:32-34)
    Triumphal entry (Mark 11:1-11)
    Clearing temple (Mark 11:15-19)
    Last Supper (Mark 14:12-31)
    Gethsemane (Mark 14:32-50)
    Sanhedrin Trial (Mark 14:53-59)
    Peter's denial (Mark 14:66-72)
    Jesus is beaten & spat on (Mark 14:61-65)
    Pilate 1st trial (Mark 15:1-5)
    In front of Herod (Luke 23:6-12)
    Pilate 2nd Trial (Mark 15:6-15)
    Jesus whipped & mocked (Mark 15:15-20)
    Crucifixion (Mark 15:21-41)
    Resurrection (Luke 24:9)
    Mary & the gardener (John 20:11-18)
    Breakfast on the beach (John 21:12-19)
    Ascension (Luke 24:50-53)
    A Few Notes
    The film's opening credits are shown over various close ups of the people who will be playing some of the characters in the story, but once the film-proper starts then we see a close up of a Bible open on Genesis 2. There are then a number of intertitles, which only occur at the start of the film, with citations as follows:
    *Gen 2:7; Gen 2:25; Gen 3:1; Gen 3:22.

    At two points in the film, a few passages are mixed together. The first is during the healing of the paralytic. This is immediately preceded by Jesus being crowded by people needing healing. This occurs at various points in the gospels, and what happens here is a bit of a conglomeration, so I've gone for the reference in Mark 2:1 to cover that. We then go inside the house where the healing will occur where Jesus teaches on revenge (Matt 6:38-42) which is interrupted by the man's friends breaking through the ceiling.

    I've put Jesus's death and crucifixion all down as Mark 15:21-41, but the sequence draws on a number of different gospels to include six of the phrases Jesus said on the cross. "Father forgive them" (Luke 23:34), "Today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43), "Why have you forsaken me" (Mark 15:34); "Woman, your son..." (John 19:26-27), "I thirst" (John 19:28), "Into your hands I commit my spirit" (Luke 23:46). Having said that, my Italian is not brilliant and the sound quality here is pretty poor, so I'm not 100% certain the first one is there, nor that "It is finished" is absent.

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    Friday, February 15, 2019

    Cain and Abel (2009)

    I discovered a Korean series on the UK version of Netflix last week (just before it expired...) which has been given the English title of Cain and Abel, but is set in modern times. At 20 episodes long, the first of which is over an hour long, I only managed to watch the first episode, but thought I'd post my findings for anyone interested enough to want to give it a look.

    The series takes place in a hospital and is centred around two brothers, both of whom are doctors. One (Lee Seon Woo), seems to be some superstar surgeon that swans in to the hospital from elsewhere for special surgeries; whereas the other (Lee Cho-in) prefers to work in the emergency room, where homeless people turn up for treatment with life threatening conditions, only for him to swoop in and offer for payment for their treatment to be "added to his account".

    On top of this both of the brothers' parents are also at the hospital. The father, somewhat oddly for a show based on a patriarchal story, is in a coma (so far at least) and so present and yet somehow absent. I suppose this might be some kind of metaphor for the way Adam seems strangely estranged from his children, given that, according to the most popular reading of the text, there are only four people on earth at that point in the story.

    More interesting is the mother character, who has some sort of senior medical role at the hospital - at least that's what I infer from the fact she wears a white coat and keeps walking into rooms barking orders at younger looking doctors. She is also somewhat estranged from Lee Cho-in. The two have to talk in a professional context, but both there is conflict, both personally and professionally.

    All of which brings me to the naming of this show. Korea has a large Christian community, but I have no idea to what the Bible has permeated the wider culture, which gives me a range of questions. Is the 'Cain and Abel' tag a literal translation, or something that Netflix, (or whoever first brought it to the English-speaking world), called it in order to grab viewers attention? Is one of the key players in the production a Christian? None of the leading characters' names seems to be linked to the original story so at what point did this become a "Cain and Abel" story?

    Indeed thus far the story fits the set-up of the Jacob and Esau story at least as much that of Cain and Abel. Even the start of the show - which starts ahead of the rest of the main story with Lee Cho-in staggering through the desert injured - could be as much About Isaac's sons as Adam's. It also seems like naming the series after a story which famously climaxes in the murder of one of the two protagonists potentially reduces the tension. But then, if the story is not widely known in Korea then perhaps that was less of an issue.

    Sadly this disappeared before I could watch any more of it, so it's possible that it's still 18 episodes away from the story reaching any kind of biblical parallel, but the IMDb summary does suggest that things do continue along biblical lines as the series progresses:
    Based on the biblical story of Adam and Eve's first two sons, Cain and Abel is about Cain's jealousy towards his brother Abel. Lee Cho In is a very gifted doctor who has everything that he wants whereas his older brother, Seon Woo, is jealous of all the attention that Cho In receives. Seon Woo blames his brother for taking everything good in his life away from him. Seon Woo blames Cho In for getting their father's love, getting more recognition as a doctor, and for stealing the woman he loves.

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    Saturday, February 09, 2019

    Italian Jesus Films - a List

    (Traduzione Italiana sotto)
    I'm doing a bit of research into Italian films about Jesus at the moment, so found myself compiling a list. The below is restricted to films which feature Jesus (as an adult or a baby), are at least partially set in the time of the gospels, and at least part of the funding is Italian. I'm grateful to Hervé Dumont's "L'antiquité au cinéma" for many of the titles I did now know about before, as well as the folks at the Peplum Paradise Facebook page for adding a few as well.

    I've inevitably missed a few out, so please do let me know in the comments. In particular I've struggled to find anything more recent than 2012, which seems highly unlikely to be accurate, but bizarrely it's harder to keep track of these than older titles. Square brackets are either a translation or an English Language release title, directors names in standard brackets.

    Io sono fa i ricerce di Gesu nel cinema italiano et questo e un list comprehensivo. Questi filme feature Gesu (come un adulto o bambino) e accadano nel tempo dei gospels e sono stati fatti con alcuni soldi italiano. Grazie per Hervé Dumont's "L'antiquité au cinéma" per molti titli che non ho saputo e i gente di Peplum Paradise Facebook page.

    Credo che dimentico alcuni titli. Se trova alcuni, dimme nei commenti, per favore, recente i filmi da 2012 in particulario. (E piu difficile trovare questi titili).

    -Passione di Gesù (Luigi Topi and Ezio Cristofari, 1900)
    -Vita, passione, morte et resurrezione di Gesù Cristo (1908)
    -Redenta [Redeemed, Episode of Sacra Bibbia](1909)
    -La Samaritaine (Henri Desfontaines, 1910)
    -Giuda [Judas](Luigi Maggi, 1911)
    -Erodidae (Oreste Mentasti, 1912)
    -Satan/Il dramma dell’umanità (Luigi Maggi, 1912)
    -Quo Vadis? (Enrico Guazzoni, 1913)
    -Christus (Comte Giulio Antomoro,Ignazio Lupi,Enrico Guazzoni, 1914)
    -Maria di Magdala (Aldo MolinarI, 1918)
    -Redenzione (Carmine Gallone & Godofredo Mateldi, 1919)
    -Giuda [aka L'ultima cena] (Mari Febo, 1919)
    -Mater Dei [Mother of God](Don Emilio Cordero, 1950)
    -Il Figlio dell'uomo [Shadow on the Hill](Virgilio Sabel, 1954)
    -La spada e la croce [Mary Magdalene](Carlo Ludovico Bragaglia, Antonio Petrucci, 1958)
    -Erode il grande [Herod the Great](Viktor Tourjansky as Arnaldo Genoino, 1959)
    -Barabbas (Richard Fleischer, 1961)
    -Mistero della Natività, Passione e Resurrezione di Nostro Signore (Gian Roberto Cavalli, Ghilka, Muzzi Matteuzzi, 1961)
    -La Ricotta/RoGoPaG (Pier Paolo Pasolini et al., 1962)
    -Ponzio Pilato (G.P. Callegari,Irving Rapper, 1962)
    -Processo a Gesù (Sandro Bolchi,1963)
    -Il vangelo secondo Matteo [Gospel According to Matthew](Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1962)
    -Il Mistero della Natività (Orazio Costa Giovangigli, 1966)
    -Processo a Gesù (Gianfranco Bettetini, 1968)
    -Il Messia (Roberto Rossellini, 1975)
    -Povero Cristo (Pier Carpi, 1975)
    -Jesus of Nazareth (Franco Zeffirelli, 1977)
    -Il ladrone [The Thief](Pasquale Festa Campanile, 1979)
    -Cammina, Cammina [Keep Walking](Ermanno Olmi, 1982)
    -Quo Vadis? (Franco Rossi, 1984)
    -A.D. (Stuart Cooper, 1985)
    -Secondo Ponzio Pilato (Luigi Magni, 1987) 
    -A Child Called Jesus (Franco Rossi, 1988)
    -Il bacio di Giuda (Paolo Benvenuti, 1989)
    -Un amore a Betlemme / Per amore, solo per amore (Giovanni Veronesi, 1993)
    -Il ventre di Maria (Memè Perlini, 1993)
    -I Giardini dell’Eden /The Garden of Eden (Alessandro D’Alatri, 1998)
    -Jesus (Roger Young, 1999)
    -Joseph of Nazareth (Raffaele Mertes, 2000)
    -Mary Magdalene (Roger Young, 2001)
    -Thomas (Roger Young, 2001)
    -Judas (Raffaele Mertes , 2001)
    -Maria, figlia del suo figlio [Mary: Daughter of Her Son] (Fabrizio Costa, 2000)
    -Gesù – Un regno senza confine (Jung Soo Yong, 2003)
    -San Pietro / St. Peter (Giulio Base, 2005)
    -La sacra famiglia [Holy Family](Raffaele Mertes, 2006)
    -Jesus. A Kingdom Without Frontiers (Orlando Corradi, 2006)
    -La stella dei re [Star of Kings](Fabio Jephcott, 2007)
    -7 km da Gerusalemme (Claudio Malaponti, 2007)
    -Io sono con te [Let it Be](Guido Chiesa, 2010)
    -Su Re [The King](Giovanni Columbu,2012)
    -Maria di Nazaret (Giacomo Campiotti, 2012)

    -7 Miracles (Rodrigo Cerqueira, Marco Spagnoli, 2018)

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    Sunday, February 03, 2019

    The Christ Slayer (2019)

    The Christ Slayer (dir:Nathaniel Nose, 2019) is the third and final instalment of The Quest Trilogy a series of films, written, produced and often starring actor DJ Perry. As with the other films in the trilogy it's a well-filmed, thoughtfully-crafted film that's not afraid to explore key moments in the gospels from a quirky angle. 40 Nights (2016) examined Jesus' time in the desert and features a more nuanced exploration of Jesus' temptations there than is typical. The following year Chasing the Star (2017) went back to the time of Jesus' birth and found the magi similarly in similarly introspective mood. As with 40 Nights the time journeying in the desert leads to discussions with the devil and reflections on their past, and therefore future lives.

    It's to be expected, then that The Christ Slayer treads a similar path. The action, such as it is, has shot forward to Jesus' crucifixion. At the foot of the cross we find Longinus (Carl Weyant), a blind Roman centurion who is tasked with piercing Jesus' side. One of the things I have enjoyed about the trilogy is that Perry is not afraid to tweak the details in the gospels just a little in order to get closer to the heart of the issues he is exploring. Earlier this week Alex von Tunzelmann wrote a piece for The Guardian arguing that if films can encourage audiences to think more critically about the source material, then that is arguably more important than unswerving historical accuracy. Quest's deep dives do just that. I don't think Perry would claim his versions of what happened to Jesus, or to the Magi in the desert were what actually happened, but they raise bigger issues about faith and humanity. And so it is with The Christ Slayer. Here Longinus believes himself to be the man who killed the Christ and for a while it looks like the guilt will drive him insane. Much of the early part of the film feels like horror, with Longinus's various nightmares taking centre stage for a while.

    But if that sounds like a 21st century reworking of The Robe (1953) the the film soon plots a different course. Longinus decides to return home to end his life. He sets off accompanied by his servant and friend Albus (Josh "Ponceman" Perry). Along the way the two encounter Jesus and gradually Longinus re-evaluates his plans for what remains of his life.

    Josh Perry's casting is particularly notable given he has Down Syndrome. The role feels like it could have gone to any actor; there's nothing about it that indicates that the character has the syndrome or anything like it. At the same time though, because the story setting in a world before such a label had been created, it's perfectly plausible that someone with a similar condition could have been a servant for a man who was himself vision-impaired. I love that the film makes nothing of it. It neither feels like it's trying to make a point and yet it does. Perry does good work here with no special pleading and its to his credit and that of the other filmmakers for making it happen.

    As with the other entries in the series the film perambulates along its journey. The destination is not really the destination, and rather than summoning up false peril to create a sense of urgency, the film is content to let the protagonists inner journey to take the wheel. Nose, like Jessie Low and Brett Miller before him provide some nice images of the landscape for such inner exploration to take place. For a series made with three different directors the three films still feel like they belong together.

    It will be no great spoiler to reveal that Longinus eventually makes his piece with Jesus. Not only is it the typical place such films end up, but he is also now venerated in many church traditions as a saint. What is interesting is that just as 40 Nights was content with the idea that Jesus was not fully knowledgeable before his ministry, he also still had some things to learn after it. Some will find this point objectionable, offensive even, but I find it fascinating. After all, even having lived for thirty years amongst humanity, would anything prepare you for the trauma of crucifixion? The forty days of Jesus' ministry after his resurrected is often seen as about those he was to leave behind, but the stories from this period consist mainly of the things that happened in that first week. Why did Jesus stay around so long? Perhaps this is just my interpretation, but perhaps it suggests that Jesus's experience of humanity still had some way to go. To understand healing and forgiveness from a new, and difficult angle.

    There's much to admire here, then. From one some unconventional takes to one of the late Rance Howard's final roles (again kudos to the producers for not overly exploiting that in their publicity). The film is not without its weaknesses - I'm not entirely convinced by some of the acting and the odd line doesn't quite land - but overall, its a fitting end to the trilogy. This is particularly true considering the series has had such a limited budget, and it's certainly a film that from which a lot of those making films for Christian audiences could learn a great deal.

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    Friday, February 01, 2019

    L'uomo dalla croce (1943)

    Back in 2014 I wrote a chapter for the book "The Bible in Motion" on the films of Roberto Rossellini. One of the biggest challenges in writing the chapter was tracking down enough of his films to be able to discuss. Since then the BFI and Criterion have released a number of his works, but there was one title in particular that I was disappointed not to be able to see as it sounded like it might be of some relevance: L'uomo dalla croce (The Man of the Cross, 1943).

    The film was only Rossellini's third feature and came during what is often called his fascist period. For most of its existence Italian fascism was somewhat different from what was happening with the Nazis in Germany, such that communists, anti-fascists and fascists could mix without too much fear of reprisal.

    Rossellini, himself never hugely political, was good friends with Vittorio Mussolini, son of Il Duce, indeed it was he who got him his big break into filmmaking. In later years, Rossellini was understandably keen to distance himself from his involvement with the fascists and there's precious little evidence to suggest he was took on their beliefs, even if he was closer to the dictator's son than either he, or many of his admirers care to discuss.

    His films from this period, however, contain a surprising degree of ambiguity around their connection with fascism. Tag Gallagher, in his fine biography of Rossellini highlights the many ways that the three films he made at that time subvert expectations. Indeed he makes the point that it is hard to imagine an American film from that period including such criticisms of the military. Not everyone agrees, Peter Bondanella argues that some Rossellini scholars are a little too keen to read into these films subversive messages. I assume he's thinking of Gallagher, but have not read enough about the subject to know for certain.

    Rossellini's two previous films La nave bianca (The White Boat, 1941) and La pilota ritorna (The Pilot Returns, 1942) had dealt with the navy and the air force respectively, so naturally the final instalment deals with the army. The story revolves around the Italian insurgence into Russian territory, but the film's was delayed for so long that by the time it was released the Italian army was very much on the back foot in chaotic conditions. The "man" of the title is Father Reginaldo Giuliani, an army chaplain, who stays behind in no-mans-land between the two warring armies to look after an injured soldier. The majority of the film takes place in a crowded, ramshackle cottage where the Italians mix with Russian peasants, themselves equally trapped.

    As with the other two films in this trilogy, Rossellini includes elements that may well have not made it into and English or American movies from the same era. For example, it's difficult to think of a film by the allies where they show injured men being left behind at anything other than the victim's insistence, yet here it is the central element of the plot. Anyone seeking an unlikely double bill with Mel Gibson's Hacksaw Ridge (2017) need look no further.

    The brief behind my previous piece on Rossellini was to cover how he treated the Bible, and it took a slightly broader course than simply re-hashing my writing on Atti degli apostoli (Acts of the Apostles, 1969) and Il Messia (The Messiah, 1975), covering how relevant parts of films, even such as his biopic Blaise Pascal (1972), touched on the Bible. This film certainly touches on issue of faith and the Bible as much as Pascal, if not slightly more.

    There are various moments that stand out in this respect. At one point, stuck in a bombed out cottage with a potent mixture of Italians and Russians, Giuliani refuses to treat the later any differently from how he would treat his compatriots. "I am a minister of God who is the Father of all men and even if they are hostile they are all brothers in his eyes" he argues at one point.

    More to the point, however, is that Giuliani sees his role as a comforter, not least because there's a suggestion that God's salvation is already present for those who pursue it. Moments after Sergei, one of the leading Russians, dies, Father Giuliani comforts his partner Irina, urging her not to give up hope so they will be reunited, with the words:
    "And God will tell you. And God will urge you. But if he was a man with goodness in his soul, then he is never truly gone. Before you give up you must shout, and you must plead with him. The Lord is always listening to you, up there in heaven. The Lord, who died on the cross for you, for your Sergei. Sergei, Sergei...God says to you: 'Bless those who cry for they must be consoled'"
    Of course part of this portrayal is also propaganda. Italy hosts the headquarters of the Roman Catholic church, the faith of its army is a central point that contrasts strongly with the atheism that was the policy of the Russian state at the time. Indeed the opening credits of the film dedicate it to "the heroic chaplains fallen among the Godless in barbaric lands".

    But perhaps the film's most memorable "biblical" moment - and I don't want to just reduce the film to that, as it's certainly about far more - is the birth of Sergei and Irina's child. It's here that the film's humble setting comes into it's own: the rural context means that animals are in the background, and hay abounds in the misè-en-scene all give this the feel of a certain stable in Bethlehem and the composition of Irina holding her child further reinforce the point. Moments later Giuliani gives the child a Christian baptism, just one of many examples of him performing the function of a priest amongst his people. The child is baptised with the name of Nicola, with its connotations of St Nicholas, who as well as his connection to the birth of Jesus is also the patron saint of Russia.

    As much as the film nicely covers the essential bases of priesthood in the most unlikely of contexts - under fire in a remote part of atheist Russia, it never really gets beneath Giulliani's skin in the way later films do. To quote Tag Gallagher, by this early stage in his career "Rossellini is not yet a moviemaker with real people. His priest is an outline, his other characters bare figures in the chorus." (Gallagher, 105). In some ways it is that old problem of portraying goodness being far harder than portraying evil. Giulliani is more or less faultless even as he dies he crawls across the floor to whisper the words of the Lord's Prayer into his assassin's ear. He is far from the tormented ministers of Bergman's faith trilogy, or from a variety of movie priests who have struggled with their consciences.

    Even with that said there is more to the portrayal of goodness than that. Three years later Rossellini's Roma, città aperta would revisit the heroic priest character, who similarly lacked the flaws of other movie ministers. Yet there, in the character of Don Pietro Pellegrini, Rossellini fashions a character of real depth as well as real goodness. In many ways Giulliani is his forerunner; the connection between the two is plain to see.

    Having said all that, the film is not without its masterful moments. In particular, Rossellini shows his skill at recreating what looks like documentary footage. The battle scenes are particularly effective in this respect. There's something about them that I can't quite put my finger on that makes them seem so much more real than other war-action scenes, yet they are all dramatic reconstructions. Particularly striking in this respect is the shots of the Italian infantry moving in with their fire hoses ablaze. Even if Rossellini was not the finished article by this stage, his mastery of these scenes is already apparent and it was not long before his command of dialogue and social interaction would catch up.

    Gallagher, Tag (1998) The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini: His Life and Films New York: Da Capo Press.

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    Saturday, January 26, 2019

    Quo Vadis? (1913)

    At the time, Enrico Guazzoni's Quo Vadis? (1913) was called "The most ambitious dramatic work ever seen in cinema" (New York Times). Today it remains overshadowed by it's 1951 Hollywood remake, a product of Hollywood, though that too was shot in Rome, in the Cinecittà studios. Both films and the 1902 (Pathé) original were based on Henryk Sienkiewicz's (Polish) novel, itself dating only as far back as 1890.

    The film's creation, produced by the Rome-based company Cines, marks the coming together of a number of interconnected trends. Even at this early stage in cinema history there had been numerous adaptations of 19th century epic novels pitting Romans against early Christians from Edward Bulwer-Lytton's "The Last Days of Pompeii" (1834, adapted in 1908 and again in 1913) to Lew Wallace's "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ" (1880, first adapted in 1907). Then, in terms of Italian output, the epic film was very much emerging. If Arturo Ambrosio and Luigi Maggi's 1908 Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei, an adaptation of Bulwer-Lytton's novel, can be seen as the first true epic film then just a year after the release of Guazzoni's Quo Vadis? (1913) was it's silent era high point - Giovanni Pastrone's still impressive Cabiria. Watch those three films back to back and suddenly much of the credit given to Griffith's Intolerance seems a little misplaced.

    But the enduring impact and impressiveness of Quo Vadis? and Cabiria masks the level of turmoil that was present in the Italian industry at the time. Despite the acclaim for Quo Vadis? Cines hit a downward spiral plagued by poor business decisions and a failure to conquer America and was sold off just a year or two later (Tomadjoglou 108). By the time Christus was released in 1916, it was very much a different company.

    The popularity of the epic film was itself part of a broader movement in Italian filmmaking around this time. Naturally there was a strong emphasis on Roman history. From Carthage (Cabiria) and Spartacus (1913's Spartaco), to the loose Shakespearean adaptations Anthony and Cleopatra (Guazzoni, 1913) and Julius Caesar (Guazzoni, 1914), through to Constantine (In hoc signo vinces, 1913), but the subjects covered were far broader, taking in subjects as diverse as Greek myths (L'Odissea,1911), the Crusades (Guazzoni's La Gerusalemme liberta, 1911) and Napolean (Guazzoni's Pro patria mori, 1912). Naturally there were no shortage of biblical titles either. Again Guazzoni was at the fore with Guiseppe ebreo (Joseph the Hebrew, 1991), I Maccabei (1911) and Quo Vadis?, but consider also Milano films' 1910 San Paolo, Luigi Maggi's Giuda (Judas, 1911), and Cines' Christus (1916).

    Having said all that, please don't gain the impression from my rather overenthusiastic listing that the Italian film industry of the early 1910s was dominated by such offerings. In fact "historical films did not make up the majority of Italian production but, rather, were considered the flagship product, geared both to the domestic and foreign markets." (Muscio 163) This ties in well with what we know of the American industry at the same time. Many saw the cinema as disreputable so companies like Vitagraph sought to provide a higher quality of output. Historical films, based upon reputable sources like the Bible and Shakespeare were a much favoured route. I guess we could debate - comparing the way cinema is regarded in comparison to other art forms today - whether or not Vitagraph and the Italian film exporters like Cines' George Kleine were successful or not, but perhaps another time.

    Nevertheless, the artistry and quality of the Italian films was what set them apart from competition abroad. According to Muscio's research "the most common traits of historical films pertained to the quality of the mise-èn-scene, which included the visual blocking of the masses, the richness of the scenographic details, frame composition, the quality of the lighting, and the use of landscape" (166).

    In Italy the historical films were also considered an important medium for those looking "for literary kinships and a strong link with traditional culture" who were typically "wanting to educate the masses by popularizing the classics" (Muscio 166). In this we perhaps find the roots of Roberto Rossellini's later historical works, which were made with very much the same intention. But at home they filled a further role. The unification of Italy had only been completed forty years previously and was still a source of tension in some quarters. Historical epics had a "capacity to glorify history as a nostalgic escape from post-Unification disenchantment and the mounting social unrest of the present" (Muscio 168).

    The film itself runs to around 100 minutes, far better paced than the 1951 remake which drags in places. Visually it's typified by the use of tinting and/or toning in almost every scene, and this technique is used to great effect, particularly as Rome burns. My favourite, though might be the way the colours change as the orgy scene progresses. Initially pink, is switches to a more sultry red as things hot up a bit. By the time we reach the last throws of the event the next morning, the colour has changed again to a pale sickly green.

    As implied above the sets are certainly impressive as is the size of the various crowds which fill so many scenes, but the fire scenes and those in the Colosseum particularly stand out. It's also noticeable how well Guazzoni uses the available space and the film's depth of field. In the Colosseum scene an unfortunate group of Christians wait in the deep background for a pride of lions who emerge at the front of the shot and prowl terrifyingly towards them

    The film opens by introducing us to each character in turn as one shots are alternated with intertitles giving us the names of each character and their actor in turn. Vincinius' arrival in the city is somewhat muted, as his attempted courtship of Lyggia is kept short. Less than nine minutes passes before she is arrested and then dragged to Nero's orgy. Once there, Vincinius' attempt to seduce Lyggia is far more uncomfortable viewing than the 1951 version. Things start off pleasant enough, but it seems like it might have ended in rape had not Ursus stepped in to whisk Lyggia away.

    It's a surprise then when Lyggia so quickly decides to marry him, and he decides to convert. The two head off to find Peter in the first of many scenes in the catacombs. Peter is seemingly much more involved with the everyday goings on in the Christian community. He is far more hands on and less remote than Finlay Currie's take in the 1951 version. Later we also meet Paul and then, of course, Jesus. Peter's vision on the Appian way occurs right at the end of the film. By this point Nero has already burned Rome, blamed the Christians and murdered them in the amphitheatre by various grisly means. The Roman "games" scene features a Ben-Hur style chariot race (not found in the novel).

    Jesus' appearance is shot using double exposure, a ghostly figure with hair that reaches down to his chest. Peter barely gets back to Rome before the legions have revolted and Galba has been declared emperor. Nero flees but dies shortly afterwards and an intertitle declares that "from the rain of strife and blood sprang a new life: the life of Christianity, in the sign of love and peace". The film's closing image, featuring a green tint, is Jesus stood in front of a glowing cross in the background, being worshipped by his followers. 

    For Bible films fans there are appearances by Peter, Paul and Jesus, quite possibly the first production to do so. It seems unlikely the original adaptation would have had time to include the Paul scenes, and whilst one of the early films about Paul might have included both the apostle's brushes with Peter and a lifelike vision of Jesus on the Damascus road it's hard to imagine they had the running time either.

    For everyone else, Quo Vadis? is rightly celebrated as a landmark film.It may not have a claim to fame for a historic first, but it's impressive sets, crowds, use of colour and set it above the films that were being made across the Atlantic and in neighbouring France.

    Muscio, Giuliana (2013) "In Hoc Signo Vinces: Historical Films", in Bertellini, Giorgio (ed.) (2013). Italian Silent Cinema: A Reader (New Barnett: John Libbey Publishing), pp. 161-70

    Tomadjoglou, Kimberly (2013) "Rome's Premiere Film Studio: Società Italiana Cines", in Bertellini, Giorgio (ed.) (2013). Italian Silent Cinema: A Reader (New Barnett: John Libbey Publishing), pp. 161-70

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