• 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.

    Saturday, December 02, 2017

    Mary Magdalene gets a trailer and a website


    We've known that a film about Mary Magdalene was in the works since FilmChat/Deadline broke the story in January 2016, but until now there's been very little to go on. For a while now we've known that Rooney Mara had the title part and that Joaquin Phoenix was playing Jesus, but aside from the various photos of them smoking on set, the filmmakers have been keeping things relatively tight.

    Now, however, there's an official website for the film and a trailer, which you can see below (click for HD/fullscreen)

    The website is fairly barebones for now, but the trailer shows us quite a lot. For a start Phoenix's portrayal of Jesus looks like it will be one of the most interesting we have seen. Aside from his acting pedigree, there's also the rather weathered look of his preacher from Nazareth. Historically, actors playing Jesus were often made as photogenic as possible - even getting Jeffrey Hunter to shave his armpits in King of Kings (1961). More recently there's been a tendency towards more grittier productions, especially since The Passion of the Christ (2004), but Jesus, bloodied face aside, has still tended to have good teeth and skin. In comparison, Phoenix's Jesus looks well worn. At 41, Phoenix is quite a bit older than Jesus probably was, but the harshness of the lifestyle, probably evens this out a bit. Hence we get a Jesus who looks like he has experienced the ups and downs of real life.

    We also see a lot of images of Jesus smiling, but not always winningly, as well as a good range of other emotions, including fear and anger. Various films have focused strongly on one of these before, or incorporated several of them in a more toned down form, but this seems a very emotional Jesus, but also one who is, not necessarily intended to appeal to audiences enough to carry the film. The real star here - at least if we take the film's title seriously, is Mary Magdalene.

    I know far less about Rooney Mara than I do about Phoenix, but her figure here seems far more photogenic and appealing than Phoenix. I'm not quite sure photogenic is the right word here as it suggests a degree of personal taste. Put it this way, swap their costumes for 21st century office attire and it's clear who would fit in more naturally.

    That said even Mary's clothing here gives a suggestion that her character is wealthier than most of the other characters, and certainly compared to Jesus. If I'm right on this then it touches on a key fact about Mary that tends to be overlooked. The main piece of background information we have about her, from Luke 8:1-3, is that she was one of the group of women who funded Jesus and his followers. In fact, her name comes first amongst those benefactors, and it would not be inconceivable that this meant she was the highest of his donors. In this light the smearing of her as a prostitute, seems like an almost deliberate attempt to bury an uncomfortable fact.

    The other piece of information this passage gives us is that "seven demons had gone out" from her. Given its run-time, the trailer goes into this relatively deeply. The first part of the trailer includes a voice over where one male character says "You have brought shame on our family", followed by another man saying "there's something unnatural inside you". We then see several shots of Jesus and Mary with Jesus saying "Your family says you battle with the demons", Mary saying "If there's a demon in me it's always been there" then another shot of a smiling Jesus reassuring her that "There are no demons here".

    But what follows is also more interesting. There are apparent conflicts with a seemingly resentful Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor), reminiscent of Abel Ferrara's Mary (2005) and the non-canonical Gospel of Mary. There is also a scene where Jesus seems to be encouraging Mary to carry out baptisms. Most interestingly of all, Mary asks Jesus "Is that how it feels to be one with God" and Jesus replies that no-one has ever asked about how it feels. None of this is really that unexpected given this is supposed to be a film about Mary, though it looks like it will be a more interesting and self-respectful portrayal than the one we find in Magdalena Released From Shame (2006). Be prepared for a string of stories about a feminist Mary Magdalene between now and the film's release.

    Speaking of which it looks like the film will be release over here in the UK on the 16th March, Australia on 22nd March and the US on March 30 (Good Friday). There are a few more details on the official website, but it's fairly sparse at the moment.
    HT Peter Chattaway.

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    Thursday, November 30, 2017

    A.D. (2015) - Part 4


    This is part 4 of a series of posts covering A.D. episode by episode & are initial impressions not a review. You can read them all here.
    After my last piece on this series, I decided I couldn't continue just to mention the same three or four characteristics of this series over and over again every time I wrote about it. So I decided to try and bring something new this time. I was fortunate, therefore, that this episode was both the most interesting and the best of the series so far, and I'd suggest also better than any of the episodes from the original The Bible series (2013).

    For one thing it felt like it was this episode where the series' multi-ethnic casting really matured. It's been a key feature of course, both of A.D. The Bible Continues/Kingdom and Empire and The Bible before it, , notably the casting of black actors to play Samson and John son of Zebedee, but whilst that has been in some senses laudable, it's also felt a little forced, like a man trying to impress a woman by telling her how into feminism he is.

    This time, however, it felt more natural and it started to reap the benefits. In particular it seemed like the first time that John was allowed to really emerge from being one of the twelve to being a more distinct character. He's still very much playing second fiddle to Peter, but he had a bigger role than in previous episodes.

    More broadly the multi-ethnic casting gave a far more realistic feel to a busy, trade route city such as Jerusalem in an empire that extended into Africa, Asia and across most of Europe. There's a tendency as well to assume that the Jews were largely an ethnically pure race, but I'm not sure that this is much more than an assumption based on a purist extrapolation of Jewish law.

    The most interesting scene in the film was that of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5), a story that has long held a kind of morbid fascination for me. The Bible remains curiously silent on the question of who, if anyone, killed the pair and the film does a good job of capturing this. It won't satisfy those who think that Peter murdered the pair (or ordered others to do it), but those who think his anger contributed to an underlying health issue will like the ambiguity.

    What I particularly appreciated about the sequence, however, was the way it adopted aspects of the horror genre. In particular the music, special effects, reaction shots on onlookers' faces and the low camera angle of various shots gave this a real horror effect. The story feels like one of the last vestiges of the Old Testament stubbornly refusing to leave and the film makes the shocking nature of this contrast stand out. Easily the best sequence in series so far.

    Elsewhere, the relationship between Pilate and Caiaphas, which annoyed me to begin with is developing in interesting ways. Where at first Caiaphas seemed to have the upper hand and be nudging Pilate into executing Jesus, now Pilate is acting in a manner far more in keeping with the thug that emerges from the various documents that describe him and Caiaphas is becoming more the sympathetic victim.

    Here he's challenged by Joseph of Arimathea that if the relationship he has cultivated with Pilate means anything then it has to mean something now (that he is randomly executing young man until the man who tried to murder him is taken into custody). The result is an utter humiliation for Caiaphas meaning that this production perhaps portrays the dominance of the Roman leaders better than any other that comes immediately to mind.

    Lastly, we also get to meet Barnabas in this episode. What's interesting about this is that he is portrayed as a rich man, but one who feels that the disciples judge him because of his wealth. Barnabas' line here "I'm disappointed you assume my wealth sets us apart" sounds like it is working a little too hard to accommodate the subsequent wealth of western churches with the communal sharing of wealth to help the poor that is depicted in the early chapters of Acts, but it's interesting to see how the story develops on this point. I'm actually quite looking forward to the next episode.

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    Sunday, November 26, 2017

    The Star (2017)


    One of the things that neither Bible film fans, nor the people who write about them like to admit, is that, more often than not, they are a form of entertainment. We should all know this of course; anyone who has seen 80 year-old stutterer Moses portrayed by a young Charlton Heston fresh from the gym is kidding themselves if they think otherwise. We excuse all kinds of unlikely dialogue on the grounds of artistic license and accept many of the lines publicists feed us about films raising difficult questions or exploring issues. It's not that Bible films cannot both do those things and be entertaining, but that often those of us who take them seriously forget that, for many, they are just about entertainment.

    Sony Animated Pictures' Christmas release, The Star, seems content simply to aim for entertainment. No-one would watch it's take on the Nativity story and think that this was how things really happened. The dramatic license makes no serious attempt to convince you that it has any kind of link to how historical reality. Instead it just aims for a fun, whilst not disrespectful, retelling of the story of Jesus' birth through the eyes of it's real main character, a donkey called Bo. Bo and his best friend Dave (a dove) end up getting adopted by Mary and Joseph in the weeks leading up to their trip to Bethlehem and unbeknownst to the holy couple bring with them a series of hazards which they somehow manage to, just about, keep at bay.

    As family entertainment it's not bad. The pacing is sprightly enough to stop boredom setting in, the characters are generally appealing without feeling overly cutesy (Ruth the sheep and Felix the camel aside) and there are a few funny lines here and there. Whilst none of it is as amusing as the opening sequence in Despicable Me 3, it's at least on a par with the rest of Despicable Me 3.

    The best thing about it, however, is its affectionate take down of both the typical biblical epic and the various ways in which the Christmas story has been told in the past. The opening title sets the tone, but it continues through the banter between Elizabeth and Zechariah ("I think I liked you better when you couldn't talk") and one of the camels' judgement on Herod's golden shoes ("That, Felix, is money and no taste"). Perhaps the best take down of all comes when Bo realizes the stable he has discovered is where Jesus is meant to be born. What really gives it away is that the poor animals that live there have suffered 9 months of bad sleep due to the star shining through a gap in their roof right on to the manger. It's a great spoof of the clichéd climatic shot in The Nativity Story (2006) and the works that inspired it and one of a number of places where the film playfully takes on the ways in which we have interpreted the original story, without trying to undermine its importance.

    The other thing that is interesting about the film is the way it handles Joseph's reaction to the news of Mary's pregnancy. Having watched almost every available Nativity film this year, most of them take an remarkably adult angle on this story, which feels very much part of the post-1960s shift in attitudes to sex. Typically Joseph is angry or hurt, but never seriously considers stoning her to death. His attitudes are very modern in ways that our ancestors, and perhaps our descendants would not recognize. If you've ever watched one of these films with kids, it's hard to explain to them the nuances of what is going on.

    As The Star is very much aimed at children (and younger, primary age children at that) it bravely decides to omit these very grown-up anxieties, save parents an awkward conversation, and focus instead on Joseph's concerns about how he can possibly father such a child. It's not a unique line of thinking - there's a similar line in The Nativity Story, for example, (a film which has clearly been a significant influence on The Star) - but I appreciate the focus this gives on issues that kids can relate to more readily ("Can I handle what is expected of me?"). It took me a while to get used to it, but it does allow us to see past what has become the dominant aspect of how Joseph tends to be viewed.

    Where the film falls down, for me, is where it tries to move beyond being an entertaining celebration of the story of Mary and Joseph, and force out a cheesy lump of exposition. Suddenly it feels like you have been ambushed by a large dose of unwelcome propaganda, like someone 'splaining the film's life lessons when you've already fully grasped it. Seasonal goodwill had previously enabled me to overlook the awful, mega-churchy sounding soundtrack. Now I'm not sure I feel as generous.

    Perhaps, though, I can forgive the film for that because of it's subtler moments. The nods to Lassie that are not wrung out for all they are worth, the Matera-like design of Bethlehem, and, most of all, the decent, honest, but realistic portrayal of Mary and Joseph who, in the midst of all the crazy animal antics, somehow retain a sense of poise and dignity. Thankfully The Star never lets you forget that behind all the entertainment, there is an important story that we need to celebrate and continue to share.

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    Wednesday, November 22, 2017

    The Great Commandment (1939)


    Which was the first "talking Jesus"? It's a question which is more complex than it might initially appear. Depending on how one defines what constitutes a Jesus film, where it plays, and the language in which Jesus is speaking there is a variety of different answers from 1935's Golgotha to 1961's King of Kings. And then there's the various silent Jesus films which were re-released with sound after the advent of the new technology. Do they count?

    Twelve years after the last, major silent Jesus film, DeMille's The King of Kings came the release of  The Great Commandment (1939). It's one of the many that can, perhaps, stake a reasonable claim to being the first Jesus talkie. It was also the first film made by Cathedral films; produced by John T. Coyle, assisted by Rev. James K. Friedrich and directed by Irving Pichel. The team would work together for almost twenty years creating a series of biblical and religious films which were shown in churches, cinemas and on television.

    That said, technically speaking, the film is not quite a proper Jesus film, but lies partway between a full Jesus movie and the kind of Roman-Jewish-Christian epic where Jesus' role is reduced to that of a significant cameo. Here Jesus does not feature until the halfway point and whilst we hear his voice, his face is shown only once as a fleeting reflection. Thereafter, we hear him speak, and even see things from his point of view, but his face remains off screen.

    The story revolves around a love triangle between two zealot brother who both have an interest in Tamar (Marjorie Cooley) a girl from their village. The elder brother Joel (John Beal) is in love with her, but she is betrothed to his younger brother Zadok (Warren McCollum). The dispute leads Joel to fall out with his pacifist scholarly father so he goes off in search of the charismatic leader from Nazareth about whom he has heard so much.

    Such a plot, where a zealot mistakes Jesus for a political leader before ultimately becoming one of his followers, was one that Coyle, Friedrich and Pichel returned to a number of times, most notably in the television movie I Beheld His Glory (1952) and the cinematic release Day of Triumph (1954).

    This early incarnation perhaps lacks the finesse and pacing of the latter version. There's not a great deal of chemistry between Joel and Tamar, and John Beal's boyish good looks make it hard to take his seriously as a hardened zealot rebel. That said, things pick up in the second half when Beal encounters Jesus. By giving only vague indications as to the story's date (30 AD) and location ("In between Jericho and Jerusalem") the film makes it difficult to pinpoint exactly whereabouts in Jesus' life Joel is encountering him. This adds a sense of tension and mystery to proceedings, even though the audience ultimately senses how things will end.

    This lack of a frame of reference is enhanced by the way the film selects material from the gospels. Aside from a couple of miracles, it largely utilises the sayings material, and even then the order of the material is jumbled up. The Beatitudes (Matt 5) come after the, much later, phrase "Those who live by the sword will perish by the sword" (Matt 26). Material from Matthew's Sermon on the Mount is mixed with parables from far later in Luke. The Jesus we encounter seems far closer than the one from the Q material unique to Matthew and Luke's gospel than any one of the canonical gospels.

    Joel is gradually drawn closer to Jesus, best expressed in a tracking shot of him whilst Jesus recites the Beatitudes. Shooting Joel from below he gradually moves from the outside of the crowd listening to Jesus to close to where Jesus is speaking. The lateral movement enables him to maintain a purposeful pace whilst his eyes remain purposefully fixed on his new master. There are a number of longer moving shots like this throughout the film often portraying a sense of togetherness of those captured together.

    One particularly striking example is a two minute long shot taken from Jesus' point of view. At first it is not even clear that this is perspective from which the shot is taken, but then the camera focuses on Joel's father before panning right to Joel and Andrew and then back to his father. The way the camera, and Jesus' gaze, links the two men and suggests a reconciliation which is never quite fully realised within the film itself.

    Perhaps the most significant of these extended shots occurs when Joel returns home for Zadok and Tamar's wedding, joining the guests in harmony before an abrupt cut to a close-up on Tamar's, slightly regretful, face. The scene is also significant for the emphasis it places on the Jewishness of its characters. The dress, music and dancing style of the characters may seem a little stereotypical, but it's an undeniably positive attempt to capture the Jewish nature of the story, and Jesus himself, just as the Second World War was beginning. Given the film's final scenes, perhaps it can be ready as a naive argument for appeasement, before the horrors of the Nazi regime had become apparent. Nevertheless, any such argument is based on and rooted in the Jewishness of Jesus and his early followers.

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    Sunday, November 19, 2017

    Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach
    The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (1967)


    Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach (1968) is the film that put the "and" in Straub and Huillet. Whilst it was the third of Straub's films to be completed, they started working on it well before they created Machorka-Muff (1963) and Not Reconciled (1965) and thus it was the first film that they worked on together. It was also their first feature length film. Machorka-Muff and Not Reconciled (both of which are included on Grasshopper's Moses und Aron disc release later this month) were 18 minutes and 55 minutes respectively.

    It's fitting because Chronik tells the tale of Johann Sebastian Bach from the perspective of his wife Anna Magdalena and whilst the film never suggests Anna was a collaborator, there are scenes both of them working in close proximity and of her playing on her own. The vast majority of Straub and Huillet's work tended to be adaptations of a single work (in addition to Moses und Aron they also adapted Schöenberg's Von Heute auf Morgen (1997), as well as the Corneille play Othon (1969) and works by Brecht [History Lessons, 1972], Kafka [Class Relations, 1984] and the Italian poet Cesare Pavese [From the Clouds to the Resistance, 1979; These Encounters of Theirs, 2006]). Here, however, Chronik uses a variety of smaller sources, as whilst the film bears Anna Magdalena's name and is narrated by an actress playing her (Christiane Lang), none of her writings remain save a brief note at the bottom of a receipt. The note in question is shown part way through the film, as are a number of Bach's documents and other papers relating to him. The shots showing these are relatively short in comparison to the scenes of Bach and the musicians he is working with performing his work.

    These scenes are notable for a number of reasons. In nearly all cases the scene consists of a lengthy single shot, and in generally the camera remains relatively static for the whole shot. One notable exception is the opening shot which starts with a close up on Bach (played by specialist musician Gustav Leonhardt) as he plays the opening solo part of "Brandenburg Concerto No. 5", before quickly zooming out to reveal his accompanying musicians at the moment at which they join in.

    Another thing that is unusual about Straub's shots, both here and in many of his films, is the camera angles he adopts, most notably his diagonal shots. As Richard Roud explains "throughout the film he plays with binary symmetry, left-right polarity, and the changing direction of his diagonals both in the camera set-up and in the camera movements. In fact, one could comfortably claim that there is never an eye-level, straight-on shot in the film: the camera is always a little above or below the actors, either to the left or right." (Roud, 78)

    But perhaps what is most striking about these shots is the way they ignore photographing any kind of audience for the performance. The focus is solely on the musicians (save for one piece which focuses instead on the organ pipes). Occasionally Anna's comments suggest an audience was at least present, but frequently even that knowledge is denied to the viewer. This has a great impact on how the film's audience react to the various pieces. Shorn of a stand-in audience to show us how to react, our reactions are our own. The focus is on the musicians and their own subtle movements.

    The other things that these cameras catch is the carefully chosen locations. As Barton Byg explains Straub and Huillet's "choice of location is never arbitrary and is indeed preceded on the screenplays in some instances. The films then implore the physical traces of history that human activity leaves behind and confront these spaces with texts or musical pieces" (Byg, 55).Here we are treated to a series of 18th century church interiors as well as various shots inside the family home (though I do not believe this rooms shown here are the Bach's actual home).

    That said, it would be a mistake to think that the film is an exact facsimile of how things really happened. Aside from the wigs, Leonhardt does not resemble Bach physically at all. On top of this, whilst Straub/Huillet's later films were more faithful to one particular source, here Anna's narration is drawn from, and inspired from various documents. Furthermore, the flat, unemotional delivery with which the actors deliver their lines (even when discuss the deaths of their children) is unlikely to have been how the real Anna would have referred to her lost children.

    All of which very much puts the emphasis if the film on the music, the "most important element" according to Roud "but not its only subject" (1972: 65). It is also "a love story...a documentary on the actors and musicians of the film...[and] a film with social and political aspects" (Roud, 1982: 65). These and other aspects are all brought together under the film's title character. It might seem surprising to those who have not seen the film that it is named after Bach's wife and not the man himself. Yet as rigorous and "stripped down" as Straub and Huillet's film is, it still remains a subjective account. The story is told as a series of flashbacks as remembered by Anna Magdalena. She is the film's focus, even if her husband dominates the screen. Indeed "the central question posed by the film...is how the music of Bach (as a cultural treasure, religious expression, or simply pleasing music) can at all be connected to the physical life of a historical individual." (Byg, 62)

    One scene is particularly notable in this respect. At the end of one of the longest of Anna's monologues, in which she recounts the deaths of three of her children and the family's move to Leipzig, we see Bach playing and conducting a choir and orchestra in the presence of the Prince. But here the other musicians are kept off screen. Even more strikingly, rather than the scene being filmed inside a church, stately house, or historical communal building, the exterior of Leipzig town hall is back-projected behind Leonhardt. The result looks extremely false, as if expressing Anna's disturbed state of mind at the time.

    Despite all of the above Chronik has been described as Straub and Huillet's most accessible film. This is, no doubt, reflected in the fact that most people are at least slightly more aware of Bach's music than they are of, say, Schöenberg's atonal operas or Brecht's novels. Whilst it's austerity and complex ideas mean it's never found a wide audience, it does open up on repeated viewings. And unsurprisingly it has a good deal in common with Straub and Huillet's adaptation of Moses und Aron that was released just a few years later.
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    Byg, Barton (1995) Landscapes of Resistance: The German Films of Daniele Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    Roud, Richard (1972) Jean-Marie Straub. New York: The Viking Press.

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    Thursday, November 16, 2017

    Paul, Apostle of Christ: From Saul to Paul?


    A month or two ago a teaser trailer for next year's Paul, Apostle of Christ popped up on YouTube, before promptly being taken down. Well now it's back and available for all to see. I've embedded it below. There's also been a press release which is reproduced in full at my friend Peter Chattaway's Patheos blog. It doesn't reveal a great deal we didn't already know except perhaps to confirm what I predicted in my previous post on this film, namely that "the earlier scenes will be shot in flashback from Paul's final days in prison". Anyway here is the trailer.

    The final image of Paul is obviously the most dramatic: the bald-headed, long-bearded Paul starring fiercely into the camera. Paul here is played by James Faulker (right in above image), who I suppose is probably best known these days for his role in Game of Thrones, but who also have Roman-era form in both I, CLaudius (1976), Peter and Paul (1981) and the 2010 version of Ben-Hur. For me though, he's mainly a bit-part actor in all the usual British TV drama series (The Bill, Minder, Bergerac, Lovejoy, A Touch of Frost, Heartbeat, Spooks, Downton Abbey) or a comic talent as best showcased in his role in the Bridget Jones trilogy. So it will be interesting to see him in the lead role in serious production.

    Having said all that about Faulkner, it would be easy to miss the less dramatically imposing figure of Yorgos Karamihos (left in above image) who is credited as Saul of Tarsus. Karamihos appeared in that other recent version of Ben-Hur, from last year. It's interesting that they have chosen two actors to play the one part and I can't help wondering if the change in name (which occurred when Saul decided his mission was to the gentiles, not at the point of his conversion as is commonly thought) will coincide with the change in actor.

    The film is lined up for release (in North America at least) for the 28th March 2018.

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    Saturday, November 11, 2017

    Moses und Aron (2010)


    As this is a film blog, rather than an opera blog, reviewing a filmed version of a live theatre performance of Schöenberg's opera Moses und Aron is a little outside of my normal habitat, although it's not without precedent. Nevertheless with a new version of Straub and Huillet's 1973 film being released on DVD later this month, I thought it would be useful to look at some other adaptations of a complicated piece, starting with the 2010 filmed version, directed by Willie Decker.

    There has been a significant growth in films of 'live' theatre performances in recent years. Going to the cinema to join in on someone else's trip to the theatre was largely unheard of a decade or so ago, yet today it's common, if not a regular occurrence, at many cinemas. By the time these performances are recorded (even if only at the point it is committed to DVD) these have moved, to a certain extent,  from the theoretical category of a broadcast into the realm of documentary. Whilst it's perhaps more of a continuum rather than two distinct poles of "drama" and "documentary" this kind of performance is far less concerned with convincing its audience that the narrative's central characters are the people they are portraying.

    In a way, this takes us back towards some of the concerns that Straub and Huillet are exploring. Both 'films' give their actors costumes and sets, without expecting their audience to be able to entirely suspend their disbelief. Interestingly, in this respect it's Decker's film, which is closer towards the documentary end of the spectrum, that utilises a more typical acting style. Lead actor, Dale Duesing, for example, does a fine job of portraying the agony Moses feels at having experienced God but lacking the necessary skills to convey it to the people he has been called to lead.

    The opera was staged in Bochum's Jahrhunderthalle and Decker's opening shot gives a sense of the venue's industrial past as both an exhibition venue and, later, a compressor hall. In contrast, the staging, is innovative and modern. From first view two steeply diagonal rows of seats face each other with only a narrow "stage" between them, but as things progress the seats move back and forth to create a greater (or lesser) performance between them. The orchestra sits off to the side, oftentimes concealed and, from time to time, the camera shoots across the stage from behind them.

    There are various other innovations as well, though some are hardly original, such as cast members starting the performance in their seats, the use of seats on both sides also meaning that the actors ascend both sides of aisle stairs in certain scenes. In Act I much of the action takes place within a semi-transparent box which fills the stage. It's large enough that at times the entire cast stand inside it, and dominant enough to symbolise the people of Israel's captivity in Egypt. It also forms a convenient surface on which to project the images of Moses's two miracles occurring. In stark contrast to the more minimalist treatment of these incidents in the Straub/Huillet film here they are projected to such a huge size that the psychological impact of these miracles is still the focus. They two dominate the Israelites, yet the transparency of the box's sides gives an ethereality to the images. Were they something real or imagined?

    The film's other props and furniture are similarly modern, ambiguous, functional and symbolic: Moses' staff resembles, in some ways, a giant pencil and is used to draw on occasion; the golden calf is neither gold. nor particularly impressive; instead of two tablets of stone Moses drags a huge sheet with the words written on them instead (pictured above). There are few other props.

    Schöenberg's second act is, perhaps, best known for its orgy scene and the four characters described simply as "four naked virgins". Here, by the end, they are hoisted on people's shoulders and smeared in blood (which looks perhaps, a little too like red corm syrup). The extend scene's function in the script is to emphasise the people's need for something more tangible in which to place their faith, and the sense of what happens when it does, but I'm not convinced how well this scene works here. Does making these images so inedible not also accuse us of the same offence? Perhaps that is the point.

    As is typical of most stage versions of Schöenberg's opera his unfinished third act is omitted. This means the performance ends with Moses as something of a broken man. Despite his best efforts to communicate to his people the essence of God, in fact, arguably because of it, they have ended up in idolatry, death and mob rule. The unscored final act sees Moses seize power once again and is arguably a more subversive ending. Ending the production after two acts makes Moses seem like a victim, whose lofty ideal has failed, but who remains sympathetic. His very idea of understanding God without resorting to imagery undone by the power of the imagery of the production.

    Two other filmed live versions of the opera have also been released on DVD in recent years. Reto Nickler's 2006 version, performed by the Orchestra and Chorus of the Vienna State Opera dwells on the opulence of its location in the Vienna State Opera House in its opening moments. This contrasts strongly with the appearance of Moses, Aron and the rest of the company, who are costumed in the style of European Jews attempt to escape Nazi-era Germany (as Schöenberg himself was at the point at which he was struggling to complete his opera). Francois-Rene Martin's 2014/2015 version also seeks to harness powerful imagery including huge backdrops of mountain ranges, bright white suits for some of the chorus and the presence of a lone naked woman on the DVD cover. I'm not sure Schöenberg's Moses would have approved.

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    Friday, November 03, 2017

    Martin Luther in Film


    Image from the 1913 film Die Wittenberger Nachtigall

    Somehow the commemorations for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, specifically the German Lutheran Reformation, had almost passed without me realising it. I got there in the end, but it was only when I saw Kevin McLenithan's piece on Luther films for Think Christian, that I realised that of course this is something that I should have thought of doing. There's another good piece on the subject from Stephen Brown in The Church Times: The hero monk of Hollywood.

    I suppose, then, that this is a bit of a copycat job, particularly as I don't have anything like the grasp on the subject matter as I do with the more biblically based hagiopics. However, I do have an advantage over both McLenithan and Brown - I have seen the most recent entry in the, um, canon, the German miniseries Reformation. So here's a whistle stop tour of the cinema of the German Reformation.

    Doktor Martinus Luther (1911)

    No known copies remain of this, the earliest film about Luther which premiered in Berlin in 1911 and was distributed by Deutsche Bioscop-Gesellschaft (Wipfler, 2011: 37). Its eighteen scenes, running to about 600m (20 minutes) emphasised his marriage and family life (Wipfler, 2011: 81). Interestingly the publicity for the film was at pains to stress that the film was "strictly objective - entirely free of attacks on members of other faiths" which suggests that Luther's critique of Cathiolicism might have been somewhat curtailed.

    Martin Luther: His Life and Time (1923)


    Like most of the silent films about Luther this one was made in German and directed by Karl Wüstenhagen, who also took the role of Luther. Unlike those other films, this one placed a heavy emphasis on the reformer's childhood. A reel or so of the film can be seen at YouTube - which originally ran to much longer - which is split between scenes of Luther's childhood and the matyrdom of Jan Hus a century or so beforehand (1415). It's one of the few times one of the other reformers ends up on screen. As Brown observes "who has ever seen a biopic about Calvin, Zwingli, or Knox?" (Brown). The original ran to 1961m - just over 6 reels or around 2 hours, so whilst the available 16 minutes covering Luther's youth may (or may not) be all that remains, it was just a reasonably proportionate introduction to a fuller treatment of his life.

    Luther: Ein Film der deutschen Reformation (1927)

    Hans Kyser wrote and directed this version which, according to this trailer on YouTube is due for a DVD release later this month after a restoration project by the German Federal Archive. Like Wüstenhagen's film, the opening scenes feature Luther's childhood before progressing to the scene where Luther promises to join the monastery if only he survives the thunderstorm in which he finds himself. But beyond his abduction after the Diet of Worms the story does not cover much of Luther's later life despite its 2 hour running time.

    Martin Luther (1953)

    Perhaps the benchmark for films about Luther is this 1953 film starring Niall MacGinnis (available at The Daily Motion). The opening credits stress its "careful research" and the film attempts to bolster that impression in various ways as the film unfolds. A key element in this is the authoritative, dispassionate narration that occurs throughout the film, providing details such as the precise date that Luther nailed his theses to the door, or context such as the fact that the door was "the customary place to post announcements". MacGinnis does a good job as a bullish, and not necessarily particularly likeable Luther and the early scenes do a good job of showing Luther's doubt and crisis of faith that drove him to find the answers that morphed into the driving force behind his work.

    Martin Luther: Heretic (1983)

    Norman Stone directed this television film (available at YouTube) to commemorate another reformation-related 500th anniversary, that of Luther's birth. It starred the ever watchable Jonathan Pryce as Luther, two years before his breakthrough with Brazil (1985). At 64 minutes, it's the shortest of the sound-era films, and the challenge of covering the critical areas of the story with the available time leads to some interesting decisions. The scene where Luther nails his theses to the Cathedral door lasts only few seconds, although in contrast to many versions of the story, it does actually include Luther's narrating some of these theses over a montage of them being printed and distributed. Two years later Stone would go on to make another TV film about another famed Christian author, C.S. Lewis, in his version of Shadowlands. He also directed Man Dancin' which attempted the same Passion Play/Christ figure combination as Jesus of Montreal, only set in Glasgow.

    Luther (2003)

    In all the books I have about historical films, this is the only film that gets a mention, and even then only once in Alex von Tunzelmann's Reel History: The World According to the Movies (History Grade B-, Entertainment grade D). As she points out this film's Luther (Joseph Fiennes) is grumpy not least because "Pope Julius II [is] blinging around town in shiny gold armour" (Von Tunzelmann, 2015: 96-97). Of all the films about Luther's life this is the one with the most impressive cast. In addition to Fiennes there are also turns by Peter Ustinov, Alfred Molina and Bruno Ganz. The production values are high and, for me, it has the most compelling version of the "I can do no other" speech. Fiennes, who starred in last year's Risen, would later summarise his role as "a man who stuck to his beliefs in the face of a massive hierarchy.”

    Reformation (2017)

    Produced by German television company ZDF and screened recently on BBC4, Reformation is a more gritty and violent take than any of the others. The threat of torture hangs behind every scene, and is to the fore in many. The focus here is broader than just Luther with part 2 of the miniseries focusing more on Thomas Müntzer, Karlstadt (who the programme calls by another of his names, Bodenstein) the Peasants' War and the Radical Reformation. Indeed if anything Müntzer comes out as more of a hero than Luther himself, recasting him as a modern fore-runner of modern day equality, daring to take things where Luther feared to tread. The film also places a far greater emphasis on the roles of both Luther and Müntzer's wives. For those in the UK, it's available on iPlayer until 15th November.

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

    Brown, Stephen (2017) "The hero monk of Hollywood" in Church Times, 30 Jun. Online edition available at:
    https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2017/30-june/features/features/the-hero-monk-of-hollywood

    McLenithan, Kevin (2017) "Martin Luther at the Movies" at Think Christian. Available online:
    https://thinkchristian.reframemedia.com/martin-luther-at-the-movies

    Von Tunzelmann, Alex (2015) Reel History: The World According to the Movies, London: Atlantic Books

    Wipfler, Esther Pia (2011) Martin Luther in Motion Pictures: History of a Metamorphosis, Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht

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    Tuesday, October 31, 2017

    Jesus Christ, Vampire Hunter


    Inspired by a line from Thriller, and blazing the trail for a series of films such as Abe Lincoln Vampire Hunter and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Lee Demarbre's Jesus Christ, Vampire Hunter (2001) is an ultra-low budget, B-movie style kung-fu horror comedy musical that gained a solid following and Honorable Mention for the Spirit of Slamdance award. Not one for the devout, the film is not so much a biblical adaptation as a pastiche of snippets from the gospels and translated into a modern day, and often bizarre context. It's undoubtedly blasphemous, but, as Ken Eisner put it, "too silly to offend" (2002). Given that the title tells you more or less all you need to know about the film, and that it's not exactly easy to track down, why go out of your way to see it if it sounds like it might offend you?

    Like many low budget cult hits, what might be considered as cheapness or sloppy craftwork are often a deliberate part of the joke. The bad dubbing references low-budget kung-fu movies of years gone by. The grainy 16mm footage also reminds audiences of films from their youth. The over the top story is a hat-tip to Hammer Horror. The bizarreness of the Santos character will probably be lost on those not familiar with the rather niche Mexican Wrestler fighting supernatural creatures sub-genre (real life masked wrestler Santo starred over 50 such films).

    Indeed there are plenty of other references for film fans to enjoy. The opening shot of road dividing lines flashing past the camera a reminder of Detour (1945) and slew of other nourish B-movies and road trip films. Demarbre cites Russ Meyer as the inspiration behind both the opening  narration and for his opening credit, and plainly Meyer's influence saturates the film, winking at every bold move. There's also an early 70s style dance scene feels like a deleted scene from the similarly named Jesus Christ, Superstar (1973) and as if to ward off accusations of all his references being too  low-brow, there's even a musical reference to François Truffaut's 400 Blows (1959). And of course, one of the leading vampires is called Maxine Schreck, tipping the hat towards the original vampire movie - Nosferatu (1922)

    Whilst it's easy to imagine that the film very much began with the title, there are plenty of biblical references to complement the cinematic ones. Of course, the western vampire myth has it's roots in medieval Christianity, so mentions of drinking Jesus' blood almost come full circle. But the plot is, very, very loosely based around the Jesus story and a number of more direct elements remain. Jesus comes to earth and takes on the forces of evil. Along the way he meets a Judas figure and a Mary Magdalene figure (dressed in a shiny red jumpsuit), before facing defeat and death before a sort of resurrection at the climax. The scenes paralleling Mary anointing Jesus' feet, or the Good Samaritan, might not make for a helpful sermon illustration, but it does suggest the filmmakers have looked to incorporate elements of their source material beyond their leading character's name.

    Some have seen deeper connections. Laurel Zwissler has argued that the film "is essentially a Christian text that presents Christ as a hero much as Jesus' first-century followers did" (Beliefnet). Just as they presented Jesus as a "combination of...past heroes" such as Moses, David and Elijah, "Jesus is Bruce Lee, Shaft, and John Travolta all rolled into one" (Beliefnet). Whilst it's worth emphasising that there's more to the film than just its humour, this does perhaps go a little too far.

    Indeed, perhaps all of the above is an overly serious analysis of a film that is essentially very silly (in the best possible way). It's worth remembering that the other key driver of the plot is an evil doctor harvesting the skin of lesbians after he discovers grafting it onto vampires enables them to go out during the day. Not something that might easily be mistaken for striving for rigorous plausibility. Jesus is only able to save the people of Ottawa by teaming up with the masked Mexican wrestler and making a sign of the cross with a pair of windscreen wipers.

    What I can't quite decide is whether my personal disappointment that Jesus loses his stereotypical beard and long hair early in the film - and his first century-style dress shortly afterwards - is justified. It normalises Jesus and makes the rest of the film a further step away from the character's roots. Yet that somehow limits the film's potential to offend and reminds its audience not to take it too seriously. It's also an indication that the filmmakers are not content just to rely on the one gag.

    Indeed, writer Ian Driscoll's script contains a number of smart lines, many of which are easily missed first time around. Not all of them come off, and the second half of the movie drags a little. Nevertheless, Jesus Christ, Vampire Hunter is an entertaing and, I suppose, unforgettable movie which may not greatly advance the light, but may at least enable to laugh a bit more at the darkness.

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    Beliefnet, "The Superhero for All Times" - undated and uncredited. - Available online at
    http://www.beliefnet.com/Entertainment/Movies/2002/12/The-Superhero-For-All-Times.aspx

    Eisner, Ken (2002) "Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter" in Variety 10 May 2002. Available online at
    http://variety.com/2002/film/reviews/jesus-christ-vampire-hunter-1200549749/

    von Hindman, Jared (2007), "I Bang Chicks in the Biblical Sense" at Head Injury Theatre. Available online at
    http://www.headinjurytheater.com/article77.htm

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    Friday, October 27, 2017

    La Sacra Bibbia/After Six Days (1920)


    With so many silent films lost to the ages, we should be grateful even for those where the remains are only part of what was originally projected. Nevertheless, it's hard not to be a little aggrieved that the print of La Sacra Bibbia (also known as just La Bibbia) that remains is a butchered version edited down for a re-issue. Indeed Sacra Bibbia was reissued at least twice, once in 1929 (as After Six Days) at the advent of the sound era, and once as late a 1946, for which a trailer was put together boasting of a $3 million and promising a cast of 10,000. The film's publicists also made much of the film being shot at the "exact locations" though the artefacts that are shown seem more like modern re-creations than the famous landmarks themselves.

    The version that remains is the 1929 version, edited down from the original and replacing the original (reference free) title cards with an earnest, but dull narration. According to Campbell and Pitts La Bibbia was released as a series of one reelers (1981: 12) and a copy of the original Joseph reel found it's way into the Joye collection and survives in the BFI's archive. The fragment (which I reviewed here) indicates some of what was lost. In addition to the intertitles, the re-issue also cropped the image, disastrously on more than a few occasions.

    What remains, however, is still a testament to what was the strength of the Italian silent epic. It was in Italy that the historical epic was born (Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei, 1908) and for all the attention given to Griffith's Birth of a Nation it was Cabiria that took the epic film to a whole new level. Indeed Griffith is reputed to have admitted Cabiria inspired him to make Intolerance what it was. La Bibbia retains much of the grandeur and spectacle of those films and in its own right contains numerous shots for which it deserves to be remembered.

    The film was directed by Armando Vay and Dr Piero Antonio Gariazzo. These days Gariazzo is better remembered for his commentary than his filmmaking. Bertilini only mentions him for his 1919 book Il Teatro Muto and his expression of a sentiment more widely connected with Alfred Hitchcock, "Whether they are skilled or not, film actors and actresses are like puppets" (Bertilini 2013: 259).

    Unsurprisingly the acting is not particularly memorable, but the compositions and imagery are what really stand out. The earliest scenes give a sense of creation and must have inspired Huston and Dino De Laurentiis' sort-of remake in 1966. Eve appears for the first time as smoke rises from Adam's sleeping body. The two frolic in the garden before embracing and taking a bit out of the forbidden fruit almost simultaneously. Moments later a furtive Cain, dominating the foreground and shooting furious looks directly at the camera forlornly pokes his sacrifice knowing it will fail whilst in the rear of the shot, almost off camera, his brother contentedly carries on.

    The brief scenes of the Ark and are unspectacular, but nevertheless the curve of the unfinished boat's hull and the struts that support it form a pleasing backdrop to shots of Noah and his family. Once the rains come in earnest, however, the images are far more disturbing. First Doré's "The Deluge" is evoked as people desperately climb on a rock hoping for salvation; then a wider shot of dead bodies piled up just above the rising waters as the rains continue to lash down; then finally a double exposure brings the camera closer to some of these, now ghostly, corpses floating away whilst the camera ploughs on in the opposite direction.

    However it's the Tower of Babel that lives longest in the memory. Here's it's depicted as a towering ziggurat, so colossal that it's top disappears into the clouds off the top of even an ultra-wide shot. It both reflects and emboldens Bruegel's famous painting (1563) and Doré's engraving (1865) amongst others, soaring above the seemingly minute people milling about below. Another highlight of these opening scenes is the spectacular destruction of Sodom, as the disastrous angelic visit to Lot ends in brimstone raining down on the city in a whirl of sparks and smoke.

    In contrast to these more eye-catching, spectacular scenes, the Joseph episode neatly emphasises Mrs Potiphar's obsession with him, notably the voyeuristic pleasure she finds secretly watching him. In a darkened foreground she watches him silently through a grill, briefly facing the camera as she bites her bottom lip in ecstasy. The theme of the audience watching someone watching someone else has been replayed numerous times since, another reminder of Hitchcock. When Pharaoh remembers his dreams a matte shot shows cows running above his head, before animated stalks of wheat appear. The section's use of low and high angles to reinforce the power dynamics of the courtroom scene.

    Moses' appearance on the big screen here was possibly the last time before DeMille made his indelible mark two or three years later. The differences are striking. For example rather than carrying around a mighty staff, Moses' rod is more reminiscent of a magic wand. Suddenly it feels like DeMille might have been compensating for something. Moses also has horns in the style of Michelangelo's statue (1513-1515) - just one of a number of ways in which the film's portrayal resembles the famous sculpture, something DeMille made much of when promoting his 1956 remake with Charlton Heston. That said, the crossing of the Red Sea - here portrayed using a rather clumsy matte shot - is not a patch on DeMille's first attempt just a few years later.

    Indeed after such a striking first half the second part of the film is less impressive. Once Moses has installed Joshua as his successor and wandered up the mountain to meet his maker, the remaining footage skips to the story of Solomon, perhaps suggesting that a scenario or two are missing here. Solomon shows his wisdom, threatens to cut a baby in half before being wowed by the Queen of Sheba in a scene full of over-the-top headdresses. Eventually he ends up a pagan orgy with her in scenes strongly reminiscent of the later Solomon and Sheba (1959).

    By then, the film, or this cut of it at least, has rather lost its way and like the Hebrew Bible itself, the narrative thread rather trails off. Nevertheless, there is so much to be appreciated in the rest of the film it is a shame that it has had so little attention,  neither amongst silent cinema fans, nor amongst academics. Even if what we have is only a pale reflection of what once was, La Sacra Bibbia deserves to be better remembered.

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    - Bertilini, Giogio (ed.) Silent Italian Cinema, Bloomington: Indiana University Press
    - Campbell, Richard C. and Pitts, Michael R. (1981) The Bible on Film: A Checklist, 1897–1980, Metuchen, NJ, and London: Scarecrow Press.
    - Gariazzo, Piero Antonio (1919) Il Teatro Muto Turin: Lattes, cited in Pitassio, Francesco (2013) Famous Actors, Famous |Actresses: Notes on Acting Style in Italian Silent Films" cited in Bertilini, Giogio (ed.) Silent Italian Cinema, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, p.259

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    Friday, October 20, 2017

    Greaser's Palace (1972)


    I first heard about Greaser's Palace (dir:Robert Downey, 1972) around the turn of the century on one of of the first websites to cover the Bible on Film, Pete Aitken's Post-fun Adult Christianity. Sadly the site has been defunct for many years now, though you can find it on the Internet Archive, but it's mention of a "zoot-suited Jesus" has stayed with me, such that I've always hoped to be able to find it, but never quite managed it.

    The film is very much a product of its time. It was released in 1972, three years after Buñuel's The Milky Way (1969), a year after Johnny Got His Gun (1971) and the same year as The Ruling Class (1972). The following year would see the release of both Jesus Christ, Superstar and Godspell and all six movies have the same off-kilter feel about them. There was, perhaps, a temporary artistic freedom in the air that allowed for off-beat, irreverent and potentially offensive portrayals of Jesus as filmmakers toyed with Jesus' cultural capital.

    It was a blip. By the mid to late 1980s the church, most notably the religious right in America had got it's act together and was no longer prepared to let artists exercise their freedom of speech unchallenged. The protests over Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ are notorious.

    Greaser's Palace has never quite been popular enough to gain cult status, but it's that kind of film. Jesse (Allan Arbus) parachutes down on the outskirts of an obscure western town wearing a zoot-suit and pink fedora. The town is dominated by the fearsome owner of the town's bar, Greaser's Palace, who on spotting Jesse's arrival marches out in a celebrated long reverse tracking shot that keeps going just as yo expect it's going to end. It's the kind of technical pun that appeals to directors and film critics. Indeed you can hear Paul Thomas Anderson discussing it here.

    Jesse, however, isn't here to save the world, but to meet with his agent. Sure he'll raise Greaser's Son from the dead every time his father kills him, and somehow he even ends up on a cross, but this is not the driven man of social action of so many other films that modernise Jesus. He's on his way to Jerusalem "to be an actor, singer, dancer". Faced with a body of water he not only walks on it, but performs back flips, before disappearing from sight below the water and reappearing on dry land. Even Greaser is impressed by that one. His daughter is less impressed: Jesse is starting to steal her limelight.

    Despite it's intriguing premise, then, it doesn't have a great deal to say (not that it necessarily has to). It's the most overtly comic of the films listed above, and it draws on various types of humour; if the site of the Holy Ghost wearing a top hat and dressed in a white sheet doesn't amuse you, maybe the slapstick of Jesse and Greaser's son trying, and failing, to climb on a donkey will. The occasional moments of 1970s era homophobia and racism probably won't.

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    Tuesday, October 17, 2017

    Hombre Mirando Al Sudeste (Man Facing South-East, 1986)


    Running throughout Eliseo Subiela's Hombre Mirando Al Sudeste (Man Facing South-East, 1986) is a single question: is Rantes (Hugo Soto) suffering from delusion, or is he, as he believes, an extra-terrestrial? The film's locations, muted tones and acting styles makes its world feel enough like our world to make this seem unlikely, but then a handful of scenes show him apparently performing explainable acts, a dash of telekinesis here, a bit of mind-control there. Plus the inmates in his psychiatric hospital are starting to form long queues, just to receive his touch.

    Whilst these two possibilities play out, a third concept arises primarily from Dr Denis (Lorenzo Quinteros), the specialist to whom Rantes has been assigned, namely the parallels between Rantes and Jesus. Denis, who for most of the film is unaware of Rantes's miraculous powers, nevertheless ponders the ways in which he is like Christ and whether he himself is destined to become Rantes's Pontius Pilate.

    The Christ-figure element is emphasised in many ways throughout the film from early shots of Rantes with a prominent crucifix in the background, to the unexplained acts, to the growing following and the arrival, halfway through, of a Magdalene-esque character, Beatriz Dick. Beatriz's surname is an apparent reference to author Philip K Dick who work often involve scenarios "where nothing is quite what it seems" (Cornejo, 2015: 72). Dick (Inés Vernengo) initially describes herself as an evangelist, whilst Rantes calls her her a saint.

    In a pivotal moment in the film Rantes delivers a Sermon on the Mount/Plain style speech during a discussion with Denis:
    If someone suffers, I console him. He needs help? I give it. So why do you think I'm mad? Someone looks at me, I respond. If someone talks, I listen. You've all gone slowly crazy not recognizing these responses. By simply ignoring them. If someone's dying, you let him die. Someone asks for help you look away. Someone's hungry you are wasteful. Someone's dying of sorrow, you lock him up so you don't see. A person who systematically behaves like that who is blind to the victims may dress well, pay his taxes, go to Mass, but you can't deny he's sick. Your world is terrifying. Why don't you look at real madness for a change? Stop persecuting sad people, meek people, those who don't want to buy, or can't buy, all that crap you'd so gladly sell me.
    The film's most enjoyable scene occurs towards the end when Denis, Rantes and Dick attend a public, outdoor, concert and Rantes gets the crowd dancing, before supplanting the conductor and leading the orchestra himself. Footage of this is intercut with that of a joyous riot which breaks out inside the hospital at the same time. The inmates dance and skip round the hospital as if in earshot of the music, which plays on whilst the camera flits between the concert and the inmates. It parallels the triumphal entry into Jerusalem and similarly leads to the inevitable clash with the authorities. From then on Denis is told to administer DRUGS to Rantes and to use electrocution if he becomes catatonic. Rantes's final words are "Doctor why have you forsaken me?"

    Many of these elements will feel very familiar to fans of Miloš Forman's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), but in fact the Christ-figure theme is not the film's primary concern. Indeed it's no coincidence that Subiela's film ends on a darker note. Rantes dies; none of his fellow inmates, or even Dr Denis himself discover self-actualisation. Denis finds a photo of Rantes and Dick (who he decides must be Rantes's sister) from fifteen years before with a third person torn off (though their shadow is still visible. In his satisfaction of solving the puzzle - at least in his own eyes - Denis manages to assuage, to some degree, the unease he felt when challenged by Rantes earlier in the film, and his own guilt at Rantes's death.

    This conclusion is one of a number of things about the film that could easily be seen as unsatisfactory. Why is Denis not more troubled by the death of a patient he has clearly formed a bond with? More to the point why when he spots the pattern of the alcoholic father estranged from his children, is he unable to recognise how it applies to his own life? Why does the film seem to indicate that Rantes has special powers, but then conclude that he doesn't? If Rantes is unable to "feel" the emotional impact of the music as he claims, why is he so clearly moved by it in the concert scene? And what about all of the other strange touches in the film: the couple with sacks over their heads, kissing; the way Dick changes her shoes when leaving the hospital; the open windows and doors; the blue liquid that Dick emits.

    These seeming inconsistencies are not the result of careless filmmaking, but more as a way to draw attention to the film's deeper meanings. Set just after the end of the Argentinian military dictatorship (1976-83), the film grapples with how seemingly rational people could overlook the horrors of the regime. The film treats "Argentina's most recent dictatorship...allegorically with reference to repression in a psychiatric institution" (Page, 2009; 182). At the same time, practices at the hospital "become symbolic of the torture and repression carried out in clandestine military during the 1970s" (Page, 2009: 18). As Kantaris explains, "the political allegory, the religious fable, and the theme of disavowal, are carefully woven into a set of subliminal ciphers which the film uses to convey messages about its own subtexts" (1998).

    Some of these "ciphers" are more obvious than others. The couple kissing despite the sacks over their heads both references René Magritte's painting Les Amants (1928) as well as the hoods used by military's torturers to conceal their identities (Reati, 1989: 32). The open windows and doors also touch on the work of Magritte and other surrealists as a sign of transition and difference between dualities such as reason / madness and rational / irrational (Kantaris). Others though, such as Dick's shoes, remain obscure despite the emphasis the film places on them as a bearer of deeper meaning significance.

    However, the central question - whether Rantes is an alien or not - remains highly ambiguous. The miracles are open to interpretation, shaped both by the audience's pre-conceptions and the generic conventions at play. Something is happening in the café scene, which, in many genres, would certainly be seen as miraculous acts. It's notable that the film was released in 1986, just four years after E.T. and it's interesting to note the similarities and differences between the two films. In both films the titular character believes himself to be an alien, but only in Spielberg's film is it clear he is. Both characters perform miraculous signs and contain Christ-like characteristics. Both are hiding from authorities, whilst transforming the lives of the special, more innocent, lives around them. Both face a form of death though only Spielberg allows for a meaningful resurrection metaphor.

    Nevertheless, Spielberg's film is clearly from the fantastical/optimistic wing of the science-fiction genre where stories are clearly fictional and, as a result, miracles are part of the characteristics. In Subiela's film, other sci-fi conventions are largely absent. The setting feels like the real world and Dick's confession and the old photo that the camera closes in on (referencing another Christ-Figure film, Cool Hand Luke) suggests Rantes is deluded. The conventions of voice-over encourage the audience to trust the narrator, in this case Denis, and this is difficult to overcome despite his failings being clear.

    In other words there is no clear, single, agreed upon answer as to who is sane and rational and who is deluded and irrational. Indeed the possibility remains that Denis is sane even though his behaviour is more irrational than his patient's. There's more than a touch of Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (dir. Robert Wiene, 1920) here in terms of the question of who is sane and who is suffering a delusion, but Subiela goes far further than Wiene did, with the film's denouement tipping the balance back towards ambiguity, rather than revelation. Yet rather than a more typical, vague, ambiguity, here there are two perspectives neither of which satisfactory fits the evidence. Some will see the telekinetic scenes as being clear evidence that Rantes is an alien and that Denis's conclusion is incorrect. Ohers will see the photo as affirming that which is seemingly true of the non-filmic world in which we live - that aliens do not live amongst us and that, therefore Rantes is deluded. To quote Denis' response to Rantes, summarising the dilemma he faces "If you're not loony, I'd have to accept that you're an alien. That would mean I'm the loony".

    There are three points here. Firstly that not only is the film's interpretation determined, by questions of genre, but also the film's genre is, to a certain extent, determined by it's interpretation. If the viewer interprets the miracles to be real and Rantes to be an extra-terrestrial then the film sits, albeit loosely within the science fiction genre. If not then it remains within the more realistic medical drama genre (though the film retains certain surreal elements).

    Secondly, that the willingness, or otherwise, to believe that Rantes performs miracles reflects, to a certain extent, the viewers willingness to accept miracles in real life. Those with a pre-disposition to accept otherworldly explanations may be more likely to accept the miracles at face value rather than interpret those scenes in other ways (e.g. coincidence or Rantes' imagination) and they have to provide an alternative explanation for the photo at the end of the film. But accepting either scenario comes down to interpreting scenes in a certain fashion. The Christ-figure elements here are a destabilising force, making the acceptance or rejection of a particular position more instinctive and entrenching positions more deeply.

    Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it can be argued that attempts to find a coherent answer to what really happened is to miss Subiela's point. There is an irreconcilable conflict not only between Rantes explanation of what is happening and that of Dr Denis, but also between either explanation and a plausible "rational explanation of events within the film" (Kantaris). This points "towards a postmodern reading where nothing is what it seems" (Cornejo 2015: 74) which ultimately questions " the very possibility of conveying narrative and / or truth through either narrative or images" (Cornejo 2015: 76). For Kantaris, the unexplained ciphers or unresolvable tensions the film create a "splitting of belief...[an] almost a necessary condition of any accommodation to life under the military regime in Argentina"(1998). Furthermore "the whole psychiatric institution, can be seen as a displaced representation of that which the Argentine middle classes had attempted to disavow and repress, those extremes of sadistic violence carried out on individuals by the very machinery of state" (Kantaris, 1998).

    The film has gone on to become fairly influential, although in it's translation to US culture almost all of its allegorical power has been lost. K-PAX (2001) was more or less a Hollywood remake starring Kevin Spacey as the patient and Jeff Bridges as the doctor. Shorn of the post-military dictatorship context it lost much of its narrative power, and is reduced to 'heartwarming' moments and trite aphorisms. It also injected a greater moment of hope into its ending as scenes of Bridges reuniting with his son (a young Aaron Paul) are accompanied by Spacey's recalled voiceover offering his advice "to get it right this time around, because this time, is all you have".

    A further, and unlikely, incarnation of the film is in the long running comedy series The Big Bang Theory where a visually similar actor to Hombre's Hugo Soto plays an ultra-rational character Sheldon Cooper whose detachment even from his highly scientific group of friends allows him to commentate on the quirks and irrationalities of everyday life. Here both the Christ-figure element and the post-dictatorship theme have entirely disappeared.

    Nevertheless it says much about the power of Hombre mirando al sudeste that it has had an influence far beyond the borders of Argentina ans Subiela's typical audience. It's release on blu-ray late last year will hopefully enable the original to find a greater audience willing to engage with its unusual style and its deeper themes.

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    Cornejo, Yvonne Frances (2015) The embodiment of trauma in science fiction film: a case study of Argentina Leicester: University of Leicester. Available online -

    https://lra.le.ac.uk/bitstream/2381/32515/1/2014cornejoyfphd.pdf.pdf
    Kantaris, Geoffrey (1998) "The Repressed Signifier: the Cinema of Alejandro Agresti and Eliseo Subiela". In Francisco Domínguez, ed., Identity and Discursive Practice: Spain and Latin America (Bern: Peter Laing Publishers, 2000), pp.157-73.
    Available online - 

    http://people.ds.cam.ac.uk/egk10/notes/repressedsignifier.html
    Page, Joanna (2009) Crisis and Capitalism in Contemporary Argentina Cinema (Durham & London: Duke University Press.
    Reati, Fernando. 'Argentine Political Violence and Artistic Representation in Films of the 1980s'. Latin American Literary Review 17.34 (July-December 1989): 24-39.

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    Friday, October 13, 2017

    A.D. (2015) - Part 3


    This is part 3 of a series of posts covering A.D. episode by episode & are initial impressions not a review. You can read them all here.
    Having ended the last episode with the Ascension, this one begins in Galilee with the rather odd sight of Peter watching his daughter from afar and explaining to John (and therefore us) that he's going to leave her with her grandmother so as not to endanger her by continuing to follow Jesus. It's a bit of a mixed bag as scenes go. On the one hand it's a cute reference both to the episode (Mark 1:29-31 and parallels) where Jesus heals Peter's Galilean mother-in-law and the fact that the gospel writers neglect to ever mention Peter's wife in her own right. The film's take on it - that Peter's wife has died - is not a bad theory.

    The downside of this scene however is the oddness of the way that Peter sneaks off and deserts his daughter, rather than explaining to her what he's doing. Apart from anything Pater's daughter is effectively a grown up and it seems to me, at least, that if you can't even be honest with your daughter - however noble your motives - then perhaps being the head of a soon-to-be major religion perhaps isn't the best role for you? Put it another way various films over the years have been taken to task in some quarters for portraying Peter or Paul in a bad light. Whilst the gospels are fairly honest about some of their mistakes this somehoe juts seems a little off. Fortunately though this isn't the last we see of Miss Cephas. Turns out the moment she discovers he's gone she comes and finds him and joins the disciples.

    Meanwhile the political scheming continues, this time with the introduction of Herod Antipas who is played by James Callis of Bridget Jones and Battle Star Galactica fame. Bible film swots will also recall Callis played Haman in 2006's One Night with the King. It's a piece of casting that does rather provide further evidence for Richard A. Lindsay that Antipas is typically portrayed as a "queer" character (p.105-112).

    The added political/Roman angle was one of the things that made the 1985 version of A.D. a success, but in this series it's less effective. This is partly due to the series' overblown style. The Romans' domination over the inhabitants of Judea has to be rammed home, hence in this episode the recorded events of Pentecost alone are deemed insufficiently dramatic, so they have to be combined with Pilate deciding to strong-arm his way into the temple, and with Jewish freedom fighters looking to attack as well. The conflict ends when, rather ludicrously a Roman soldier corners one of the attackers only to drop his guard and have his throat slit. Perhaps it's a metaphor for western forces in the Middle East or something, but it seems a little silly. That said, it's not even half as silly as the moment when one character starts to re-enact Life of Brian's "what have the Romans ever done for us scene" without even seeming to realise.

    As this series unfolds I'm starting to spot a pattern, in that each episode seems to contain one set-piece special effects moment. In episode 1 it was the earthquake accompanying Jesus' death. In episode 2 it was the ascension. Here it's the coming of the Holy Spirit. In all three cases it seems like these set pieces are meant to impress less committed viewers and keep them engaged, but their execution is poor. Rather than focusing on a single effective moment, the filmmakers stretch it out, spreading the budget too thinly and spending it in places where it's unnecessary. Here the moments inside the upper room are reasonably good, but the external shots of something akin to a comet circling the building before shooting down onto it are both unnecessary and poorly produced.

    What's also strange about it is the lack of effect that this incident has on the disciples. Typically such films portray this incident as the fearful disciples being given their courage, but of course that is, at best, an interpretation. Here however, the disciples are already confident enough and ready to go, they are only holding back in obedience because Jesus has told them they need to wait for the Holy Spirit. It's less about empowering and emboldening a scared and unequipped people, and more a showy way of granting them permission. I didn't like this at first, but it has made me reconsider the passage and challenge my preconceptions, and that is when biblical films are at their best.

    What is less commendable is the way that Peter's speech in front of the crowd is axed. Instead the events are mashed up with the healing of the lame man in Acts 3 and compressed into a single incident. This seems like a mistake, in Acts Peter's initial speech is such a pivotal moment. Speeches don't always make good telly, but even a greatly abbreviated version would have been better value than one of the ponderous fabricated speeches from Pilate, Caiaphas or Herod. Furthermore it means the thousands converting at Pentecost are doing so because they have witnessed a miracle, not because they are persuaded by an idea. Admittedly the miracle in Acts does bring in converts anyway, but I like the idea of people being persuaded by words and ideas, rather than power and spectacle.

    Next time, I'm going to have to try not to be so formulaic with my next review and avoid commenting  every, single, time, on the series tendency to push everything (particularly the violence) to the extreme.

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

    Lindsay, Richard A., (2015) Hollywood Biblical Epics: Camp Spectacle and Queer Style from the Silent Era to the Modern Day  Denver, CO: Praeger

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    Sunday, October 08, 2017

    Noah (2014)


    In comparison to the majority of Bible movies, films about Noah have tended to take a more creative approach to telling the story. Michael Curtiz's 1929 Noah's Ark wraps the main story up in a "modern" day train crash story; thimbles and pipe cleaners lend a distinct charm to Disney's 1959 stop motion short of the same name; and the 1999 TV film, also of the same name, bizarrely combines the story of Noah with that of Lot.

    Darren Aronofsky's Noah (2014), then, is hardly the first film about Noah to take a more creative approach. His is a mythic take, on a story which permeated so many different ancient cultures. Whilst this version is clearly an adaptation of the Jewish version of the story - and whilst Aronofsky himself is an atheist, his Jewish background has clearly been influential - the fantastical approach he has taken with his subject matter works to evoke a story that was known to far more people groups than simply the descendants of Jacob.

    Aronofsky particularly seems to revel in the fact that the Bible is often a strange book, and that few parts of it embody that 'oddness' more than Genesis. Indeed, I don't think you've really taken the Bible seriously until you acknowledge this inherent oddness. Take for example these words from the prologue to the Noah story:
    "When people began to multiply...and daughters were born to them, the 'sons of God' saw that they were fair and took wives for themselves... the 'sons of God' went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them..." (Gen 6:1-4)
    And that's one of the passages that Aronofsky leaves out. Add in those making covenants by dismembering animal carcasses and perambulating between them; Lot sleeping with both his daughters on consecutive nights, and Abraham being just moments away from sacrificially chopping up his only son and you have one weird book. Of course, Genesis is not necessarily endorsing all the  actions it describes. However, all too often people behave as if that the world of Genesis was broadly similar to out own, where people thought, felt and generally acted in a similar manner to the way in which we do today, despite the substantial evidence to the contrary, not least in our main source for these very stories.

    What I most appreciate about Aronofsky's Noah, therefore, is that he grasps, and indeed seems to relish, this strange 'otherness'. The film was over twenty years in the making after a project at school on the subject first caught his attention. The result is probably the first Bible film to feel like a cross between Lord of the Rings, Waterworld and Mad Max. As John Wilson put it, Noah isn't so much an adaptation, as a film that uses Genesis as a "mood board" (Front Row, 2014). The resulting film posses a strangely uneven style which many have disliked, but again this is what makes the film so bizarre and so interesting.

    On the surface of course, it's a biblical epic and some of the scenes that Aronofsky has created here are amongst the very best in the genre. Chief among them are the minutes leading up to the launch of the ark which, on the big screen at least, are spectacular. Noah rescues his son Ham from the descendants of Cain, escapes to the ark whilst the 'watchers' protect the ark from the on-rushing hordes, which culminates in their angelic souls spectacularly beaming back up to heaven just as the waters of the deep break forth lifting the ark up and away.  Clint Mansell's score, quite different from the kind of music he has typically produced for Aronofsky, ratchets up the tension magnificently. It maybe the 21st century, but it nevertheless feels very like the moment the Red Sea parts in the 1956 version of The Ten Commandments.

    But this sequence also contains exactly those elements which feel so very far away from the kind of movie that DeMille and his ilk would ever have produced. The 'watchers' are angels (the Nephilim of Gen 4) who have quite literally fallen to earth, and found as they crashed to earth that the earth, or rather its rock, has clung to their bodies. The resulting 'rock monsters' look like the kind of special effect Ray Harryhausen might have created for Jason and the Argonauts (1963). When they die defending the ark their souls are sucked back up to heaven in great beams of light that feels like something from Independence Day.

    The movie's other breathtaking sequence also illustrates the diverse mix of styles that Aronofsky brings together. Shortly after the launch of the ark, Noah retells his family the story of creation accompanied by a time-lapse-styled montage portraying an evolutionary act of creation with a hint of stop-motion. The sequence ends at the Tree of Life (with all the echoes of Aronofsky's earlier The Fountain) with a glowing snakeskin wrapped around Noah's arm like tefillin straps. Throw in the lunar-esque Icelandic landscape; a cameo from Anthony Hopkins that veers a little too closely to Billy Crystal's turn in The Princess Bride; and Noah's nightmares alternating between blood underfoot and water overhead, and it's not hard to see why many dislike the film's unevenness.

    The unevenness both unsettles viewers and hints at the divergent sources that lay behind the version that is cherished today. It's not that Aronofsky has pinpointed the exact cultural context of the original stories. He hasn't and clearly didn't intended to. But he has created a context where some of the questions that the text raises, and that the story's characters would have had to face, can be explored. In particular the time spent on the ark during the flood, so often skipped over in other versions of the story, turns into a dark psychological drama, as Noah feels inescapably drawn to take The Creator's work to its grimly 'logical' conclusion by ending even his own family line.

    It's a film, then, that takes seriously the nature of the destruction that "The Creator" (as God is called in this version) unleashes during this story - a point that few critics seemed to appreciated. Ironically, many Christians railed against the film's portrayal of Noah as a homicidal maniac, overlooking the fact that of course the number of deaths at Noah's hands are only a fraction of those who drown in the flood sent by God. To assess this film's Noah as a psychopath is something of a miscalculation. Noah doesn't want to kill his granddaughter - and in fact ultimately he cannot - he just believes that this is what his creator is calling him to do. Noah's readiness to follow even the most horrific of his creator's commands brings him into similar territory as Abraham, sacrificing his offspring because he is convinced God wills it.

    As Peter Chattaway has observed, Aronofsky's other films "often dwell on the idea that purity or perfection is impossible, and that the pursuit of these things is self-destructive." (Chattaway 2014). It's not hard to see how the filmmakers unpack similar themes in Noah. Noah's environmentalist perfectionism is such that he rebukes his child for picking a flower; his destructive obsession drives him to almost kill his grandchild. On a physical level the floodwaters have destroyed the world, but there is also huge destruction on an emotional level. Little wonder that the film's epilogue opens with Noah, alone, getting drunk on the beach. Years before this film was released Aronofsky described this as an indication of Noah's "survivor's guilt" (Aronofsky, 2007), but Noah is also continuing to agonise over the questions which dominated the film's third act. Was he was right or wrong to spare Ila's child? Has his 'compassion' ultimately doomed the world to be destroyed by humans all over again? How can he face his family given how close he came to committing such an horrific act? It's no coincidence that Aronofsky framing of Crowe's Noah repeatedly echoes the famous final shot of The Searchers (1956).

    It's here that his daughter-in-law Ila's words help rehabilitate Noah, in the eyes of his family, to himself, and also, to some extent, to the viewer:
    He chose you for a reason, Noah. He showed you the wickedness of man and knew you would not look away. And you saw goodness too. The choice was put in your hands because he put it there. He asked you to decide if we were worth saving. And you chose mercy. You chose love. He has given us a second chance. Be a father, be a grandfather. Help us to do better this time. Help us start again."
    On all three fronts the rehabilitation is only partly successful, such trauma is not easily overcome, but it does manage to leave the film on a positive note, whilst also challenging its audience to re-examine its own environmental credentials. This, then, is a more hopeful ending than Aronofsky's later mother! which suggests that this film's second chance, if it even is only a second chance, is doomed to fail and will ultimately lead The Creator to endlessly destroy and misguidedly restart the world again. Here though, the despair is not yet so overwhelming. Noah may have begun amidst environmental apocalypse (with an implied modern parallel), but it ends still offering us a fig leaf of hope, urging us to act before its too late.

    ===============================
    Aronofsky, Darren (2007). "Just Say Noah" Interviewed by Ryan Gibley for The Guardian, 27 April. Available online - https://www.theguardian.com/film/2007/apr/27/1

    Chattaway, Peter T., (2014) "Flood Theology" in Books and Culture Vol 20 No.3 (May/June 2014)
    Available online - http://www.booksandculture.com/articles/2014/mayjun/flood-theology.html?paging=off

    Front Row (2014) BBC Radio 4, 4 April. Available online - https://soundcloud.com/front-row-weekly/fr-kate-winslet-richard-ayoade

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