• 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, January 17, 2020

    Good Omens (2020)
    Episode 1:In the Beginning

    There's a surprising amount of biblically themed television on at the moment. Before Christmas Netflix released the one off First Temptation of Christ and they followed it up on New Year's Day with their modern-day series Messiah. The end of 2019 also saw the crowd funded app-release of The Chosen (read more at FilmChat) and now, just two weeks into 2020 and the BBC has broadcast the first episode of Good Omens a quaint comedy drama about the anti-Christ.

    It's usually clear how seriously the BBC is taking a production by the quality of the cast. Here Good Omens stars Neil Tennant and Michael Sheen suggesting this is a fairly high priority in their New Year's schedule. Tennant and Sheen play Crowley and Aziraphale (ever destined to be called "the other one" in our house) an angel and a demon who have been watching the fate of humanity since the Garden of Eden.

    The first episode starts with an introductory monologue delivered very much in the style of the original The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, only it soon emerges the narrator (Frances McDormand, more acting nous) is actually God. Then we're transported to the Garden of Eden, a small green enclave set in the wilderness (see here) where a snake emerges to tempt Eve, who passes the apple to Adam and moments later the two are stepping out into the wilderness.

    Adam and Eve scenes are hardly novel (see my list) but this brief segment is interesting for three reasons. Firstly, because Adam and Eve are both played by actors with African heritage, which will please all those who favour a relatively close alliance between Genesis and current scientific theory, (particularly the theory that Mitochondrial Eve was from Africa). Secondly, because the serpent here is very reminiscent of that in Darren Aronofsky's Noah (2014), particularly because of the way the camera is more concerned with the snake than either of the humans. And then lastly because Eve and Adam leave Eden with the flaming sword. Wait a minute, what?

    The shot cuts to a now-flaming swordless Aziraphale (Sheen) standing on top of the walls of Eden. As he scans the horizon, he's joined by the snake who quickly transforms into the almost human form of Crowley (Tennant). The two get to chatting and it gradually turns out that they are both somewhat ambivalent about their commander's orders and concerned they might have already messed up their special roles. And it's this humanising of the supernatural beings which is the heart of the series. Sheen admits he gave away the flaming sword out of concern for Adam and Eve's welfare. Tennant that banishing them from the Garden was "a bit of an overreaction". "I can't see what's so bad about knowing the difference between good and evil anyway". Sheen worries he did the wrong thing, to which Tennant shares his own concern that he may have done the wrong thing.

    [Ep.1 Spoilers] The two strike up an unlikely friendship, such that when the show fast forwards to just before the present day, they are still friends. The Anti-Christ is about to be born to the wife of a privileged White-House chief of staff. There's a mix-up at the hospital and the baby somehow goes home with the wrong couple. Meanwhile Crowley suggests to Aziraphale that Armageddon is good for neither of them and the two hatch a plan to work together incognito. Crowley's bad influence will be counteracted by Aziraphale's good influence - both will be able to claim they are acting in their employers best interests. Crowley by doing his job, Aziraphale by making the anti-Christ less evil.[End Spoilers] By the end of the episode we are up to the present day, though the period details are deliberately mixed up, presumably to give things a more universal flavour (time-wise at least, the series is stereotypically British)

    It's an interesting premise, with more than a few nods to Peter Cooke and Dudley Moore's Bedazzled (1967). There is some great writing made all the better by Tennant and Sheen's delivery. Part 2 of the six part series goes out next Wednesday at 9pm.

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    Thursday, January 16, 2020

    Messiah (2020): Episodes 4-5

    If the biblical allusions of Messiah episodes two and three were somewhat muted, then the fourth episode is much more upfront. "The Trial" riffs heavily on the discussions between Jesus and Pontius Pilate, most notably from John's Gospel.

    For some the image of a (potential) Christ-figure clad in a state-issued orange jumpsuit, with all the evocations of Guantanamo Bay may be relatively shocking, though it's an association others have made before. In 2006 Irish comedian Abie Philbin Bowman brought his show "Jesus: The Guantanamo Years" to the Edinburgh fringe where it proved such a success that twelve months later it was playing in London's West End and Off Broadway in Boston. Biblical scholars may also be aware of Gwyneth Leech's "Station X: Jesus is Stripped of his Garments" which adorns James Crossley's book "Jesus in an Age of Terror".

    While I get the impression that this will not be the last time that Al-Masih finds himself in front of the authorities, the script itself firmly points towards the connection with the trials before Pilate when Al-Masih's interrogator, CIA agent Eva Geller. When Al-Masih mentions truth, she fires back "Truth? We'll come to the truth" - not a precise use of John 18:38's "Truth, what is truth", but both structure and delivery point firmly in that direction.

    Within the confines of the programme's story, the scene with Eva is only an interview, but this episode also contains an actual trial in front of a judge who (we find out later) knows he is dying. The presidency tries to pressure him into refusing Al-Masih's asylum so instead he grants it. It is unclear whether this is simply because he wishes to resist the tyranny of the President trying to force the hand of the supposedly independent judiciary, or whether it's because he buys Al-Masih's speech about the arbitrary nature of faith, fate and nationhood, but having already delivered a speech in a similar vein to Eva, Al-Masih is clearly going to be making such speeches on a regular basis.

    Al-Masih's release is a great relief to church leader Felix who has been paying for his lawyer. Having been on the verge of torching his own church due to a lack of faith Al-Masih's appearance in the eye of the storm has restored it. Meanwhile, in Texas, crowds are flocking to Dilley the site of this miracle.

    Episode 5 picks up the story of Jibril, following his interrogation by Mossad agent Avrim in episode 3. The two were largely restricted to brief wordless scenes in episode 4: a battered Jibril stumbling through the desert; Avrim drinking and stumbling around being drunk. The Mossad man's superiors managed to catch up with him long enough to suspend him for deleting the footage of his interview with Al-Masih. Towards the start of Episode 5 it emerges Avrim has gone missing only for him to turn up later on buying guns in Texas and heading towards Dilley. Jibril meanwhile finds himself amongst Al Masih's followers on the Israeli border, only they are starting to divide as some lose faith.

    The episode's title is "So that seeing they may not see" - Jesus' explanation in Luke 8:10 of why he speaks in parables - his followers can understand, while those who don't believe won't understand even though they see the same things. And so the pilgrims flock to Dilley, multiply, and a tented community sets up home. Even Al Masih himself has a (private) tent there. But just when it appears that another miracle is due to round off the episode we get the opposite. When Al Masih is called in the hope he will heal a wounded and traumatised dog, he takes Avrim's gun and puts it out of its misery. This is the second indication this episode that this production is not to be a straight Christ figure narrative: at the start of the episode it emerged that Al Masih's court speech in "The Trial" was stolen from a stock exchange hacker. It will be interesting to see where things go from here in episode 6.


    Sunday, January 12, 2020

    Greatest Heroes of the Bible: Abraham's Sacrifice

    It's clear that the stories of Abraham posed a bit of a problem for the makers of "The Greatest Heroes of the Bible" series. On the one hand he is clearly one of the most pivotal characters in the entire Bible and yet they delayed telling his story until season two, and only gave him a single episode, in contrast to Moses and Daniel who got two each (though he did also feature as a minor part in the Sodom and Gomorrah episode).

    Any outward suspicion about this is only confirmed by actually watching it. The narratives about Abraham lack the big screen potential of, say, the Samson cycle, but there is a good deal of material there: the promise of children; his fathering Ishmael; the two texts about him attempting to pass Sarah off as his sister while in foreign lands;the death of Sarah; and, of course, his aborted sacrifice of Isaac. Whilst no filmmaker has really succeeded in making stand-out adaptation of the material, there is at least enough material to fill a 49-minute TV episode. The Bible Collection managed to spin it out to three hours.

    In this case, however, the filmmakers decided otherwise. The incidents with Pharaoh and Abimelech are omitted and instead a fictional conflict with an invented people-group is inserted instead. Early on Abraham accidentally kills the other son of the city people's ruler and the rest of the episode revolves around him seeking revenge, with some assistance from Hagar's uncle. This extra-biblical material takes up the vast majority of the run-time, to the extent that the dramatic moment with a knife on Mount Moriah is given just a couple of minutes. Furthermore, whereas most episodes in this series end with the spectacle of a biblical miracle, here God's moment of judgement is the fictional conclusion of this invented story.(1)

    Of course, it is possible that this additional plot has some sort of basis in some ancient tradition or script with which I am unfamiliar and, even if  not, dramatic licence is not in itself inherently problematic. In this context, however, it seems both unlikely and somewhat out of keeping with a series attempting to provide a relatively conservative affirmation of the Bible's main narratives.

    As is typical of the series as a whole,where the biblical material is used, it tends to be amended to try and place the hero in the best possible light. Abraham is problematic in this situation. The most-well known story (the testing his faith to see if he would kill his son) is almost impossible for modern audiences to relate to, at least as described in the texts, and the tale of him impregnating his slave girl only to send her and her child into the desert with just a bit of bread, some water and some divine well-wishing is not much better. Sarah takes the brunt of blame for the latter here.

    With the former, Abraham remains spatially distant from Isaac the entire time they are on the mountain, until God reveals it was just a test. At the moment Abraham unsheathes his knife he places his own body between him and his son at first, and as soon as he turns round God steps in to give him the all clear. It feels like a significantly more palatable version of the story and certainly not one which will make many think about the text in a more significant manner. Next time around the series picks up with Isaac's son in Jacob's Challenge.

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    Sunday, January 05, 2020

    Messiah (2020): Episodes 1-3

    It's difficult to know what to make of Messiah, Netflix's new political / religious thriller. The only senior off-camera names with which I'm familiar with is executive producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, who were responsible for many of the larger screen Bible productions of the last decade. The three main writers, including series creator Michael Petroni only have a handful of titles to their names (though Petroni did co-write the screen play for 2010's The Voyage of the Dawn Treader), yet the two directors James McTeigue (V for Vendetta) and Kate Woods are much more experienced.

    The story itself begins in Syria, where an unprecedented forty-day storm defeats an ISIS/Daesh siege of Damascus and claiming credit for this "miracle" is a charismatic preacher called Al-Masih (Belgian actor Mehdi Dehbi). The name is perhaps typical of the series itself. For a start, despite the biblical overtones this is also a story centred around the Islamic world. In addition to geographical locations, characters speak Arabic and dress in a way that most westerners would identify as Muslim, even if they are the same clothes that the many Christians in the region would also wear. Then of course there's also a heavy Jewish and/or Israeli angle to the story of as well, notably scenes set in Jerusalem and its environs and passing mention of "the word". Add in the occasional shot of Al-Masih sitting in the lotus position and its clear the production is going to draw on a wide range of religious influences.

    It's not long before Al-Masih has claimed to be the prophet Isa returned and is acknowledged as such by a group of 2000 people who follow him into the desert ("He is Isa returned, the Messiah"), but this is where the story begins to diversify. Al-Masih's actions raise a red flag for the CIA in particular Eva Geller (Michelle Monaghan) who begins to investigate the various goings on.

    Clearly names here have much significance. In particular the use of 'Al-Masih' caused various controversies even before the series began to air. Al-Masih is the Arabic name for the Messiah, but it also has resonances of another character from Islamic tradition, Al-Masih ad Dajjal. Dajjal is a false messiah/evil prophet figure mentioned in the Haddith, about whom Muhammed is claimed to have warned his followers.(1) It is said, he will come to earth and try to lure people into following Shaytan (Satan).Whilst he is largely unknown in white western Christian circles, to many people across the world (and you have to remember Netflix attracts a world-wide audience) Dajjal's name is as common as the word "antichrist".

    Various things happened as a result of this. Netflix was criticised for crassly using a supposedly mysterious name which, for millions, was anything but. For some it was white bias, for others merely just a dumb spoiler, along similar lines as calling a character "Murder McMurderson" (@frankoceanhafiz). There were claims that Twitter accounts pointing this out were blocked, which Netflix strenuously denied. This lead to various Islamic voices, such as the Connotasians podcast, calling for people to educate themselves about the true story of Dajjal and wrestling with the issues of whether this was an opportunity or a threat. Then on Monday, two days before the series was due to be released, The Royal Film Commission of Jordan called on Netflix not to stream the programme in their country, despite some of the footage having been filmed there.

    All of this hinges on the understanding that the names Al-Masih and Al-Masih ad Dajjal are more or less the same, and I'm not convinced they are. More to the point, my understanding of how the series progresses is that this is one of the issues that has not been resolved by the end of the series (2). There's more on this in an article released ahead of the series on the BBC website.

    Other significant names are also apparent, Eva Geller has an obvious connotation of 'Eve', original sin and the mother of humanity, but Geller makes me think of Uri (rather than Ross and Monica) a real life character claiming supernatural powers and a wide (if shallow) exposure. Perhaps I'm reasing too much in. Then of course there's the use of the place name Megiddo, from which we get the word Armageddon.

    So far the series seems subtle and rather slow-paced. This is not necessarily a criticism, indeed given Burnett and Downey's completely over-the-top version of The Bible in 2003 this is a nice surprise. Indeed their trajectory is quite positive. A Jesus film, Son of God (2014, scroll here for brief comments) emerged from The Bible, which wasn't quite as bad and then the sequel A.D. The Bible Continues (2015) got better and better as the series went on. In 2016 they remade Ben-Hur and while the wider, more critical, range of critics that opened them up to were largely critical (including me) it was progress for them. So whilst I'm hesitant to read too much into this on the basis of three episodes, I'm encouraged by the fact that so far the sound isn't hugely distracting and that not every moment of biblical resonance is accompanied by the cinematic equivalent of a giant pointy sign.

    Episode 1 also introduces us to Jibril (the name is an Arabic variation on 'Gabriel') who is to become, at least from the audience's point of view, one of Isa's most prominent followers. There are the scenes of Al-Masih and his followers in the desert which have a particularly strong Jesus vibe, along the lines of the Sermon on the Mount.

    We also learn more about Eva, which only enhances the show's strong Homeland-vibe, she appears to have some mental health issues, including insomnia. Eva is given permission to track Al-Masih and catches up with him approaching the Syrian border with Israel. As Al-Masih crosses the border he is arrested and we're introduced to a further character Avrim, an Israeli agent. His initial interrogation of Al-Masih is turned on its head when Al-Masih begins to probe him about an incident in Mediggo which Avrim thought no-one aside from his friend knew about. When he returns to Al-Masih's cell later, he is gone.

    The story doesn't develop too greatly over the next two episodes. We're introduced to new characters in a new location - Texas, where a family including a preacher father (Felix) and a mysteriously ill girl (Rebecca). Meanwhile Al-Masih turns up at the Temple Mount, there's a scuffle in which a boy is shot, and then Al-Masih miraculously heals him. There's another storm and another miracle in Texas where Al-Masih appears in the eye of the storm, which spreads rapidly. Felix talks to Al-Masih and starts to believe. Avrim arrests Jibril and tortures him.(3)

    I tend to have a bit of a problem writing about modernised takes on biblical stories when they are released on (long-form) television rather than as feature length movies. Part of the problem is that there's too much material and it's difficult to know at the start how strongly the biblically themed material will sustain for. Will it be consist throughout the show, or is it just in the first episode and a half? What happens if it goes dormant for a while only to burst out much further down the line? All of this was a problem with Kings (2009) which is why I still haven't written much by way of my own reflections on it here, in a way that wasn't a problem with A.D. Kingdom and Empire. I knew that there would be enough material to sustain one post an episode. Here, however, I'm unsure, (plus I've been delayed by other projects) so I've decided to tackle a few episodes at a time and see where that gets me. The last two episodes suggest a similar trajectory to Kings but I guess we'll all find out soon enough.
    1 - See Ain-Al Hayat, The Essence of Life by Muhammad Baqir Majlisi, notably chapter 5.
    2 - There are spoilers at this site, but you can learn a few non-spoilery things if you carefully don't look too closely.
    3 - I'm grateful to Ready Steady Cut for their plot summaries. You might appreciate them too.


    Monday, December 30, 2019

    Sopralluoghi in Palestina per Il vangelo secondo Matteo (1965)
    (Scouting for Locations in Palestine for The Gospel of Matthew)

    Those who follow this blog regularly will know I've focused quite a bit on Pasolini's Il vangelo second Matteo (1964) this year, but one thing I'd never watched until today is the documentary he made around the time of the film's release concerning his trip to Palestine scouting for locations. I've heard various people discuss Sopralluoghi in Palestina per Il vangelo secondo Matteo (Scouting for Locations in Palestine for The Gospel of Matthew, 1965) but never actually seen it for myself.

    The documentary is one of a number of Pasolini's minor works that he produced around his five major early sixties films (Accattone, Mamma Roma, La ricotta, Il vangelo secondo Matteo and Hawks and Sparrows) including La Rabbia (1963) and Comizi d'amore (1965) but it's also one of a series of films he made as part of the creative process for films set outside of Italy. In this case it's Palestine for his Jesus film, but around the same time he was exploring India (resulting in Appunti per un film sull'India [Notes for a film on India] eventually released in 1968) and later Appunti per un'Orestiade africana (Notes toward an African Orestes, 1970). Whilst neither of these latter films were actually made Pasolini did release these "making of" style films.

    The jist of the documentary, summarised a hundred times by those discussing Il vangelo is that Pasolini headed out to the Holy Land and found it disappointingly unsuitable for his purposes. Usually it's the modernisation which is cited, but, as it turns out this is far from the only factor. In addition to a film crew, Pasolini is typically accompanied by Don Andrea Carraro, "a Biblical scholar of the Catholic left group Pro Civitate Christiana" (Gordon 2012, 39) and Pasolini is struck by the differences between the two of them. He praises Don Andrea's "absolute, extreme mental order" notes their varying usage of the word 'spiritual'. "When you say 'spiritual' you mean, above all, religious, intimate and religious. For me 'spiritual' corresponds to aesthetics." Perhaps most significantly is Pasolini's observation that he "tended to see the world in Christ's times a little like what was before my eyes here. A rather wretched world, pastoral, archaic, shattered. While Don Andrea always tended to see even in the settings that surrounded Christ a certain dignity."

    The pair start out in the countryside near the Jordan river having found an exceptional panorama in the midst of a long drive through "modern, industrialised" countryside. They take in Mount Tabor ("similar to Soratte") and Lake Tiberias before arriving at Nazareth, "a landscape contaminated by the present." The concept of "contamination" is a regular one in Pasolini, something that had fewer negative connotations to his contemporaries, or indeed to himself later in his life.

    Interestingly when the pair visit the region near Capernaum, Pasolini is struck by "extreme smallness, the poverty, the humility of this place". Given how his final film ended up, it seems that this moment had a significant impact on his thinking. "As far as I am concerned", he concludes a little later, "I think I have completely transformed my imagination of the holy places. More than adapting the places to my mind's eye, I'll have to adapt my mind's eye to the places." Further on he is struck again "What most intrigues me is this panorama, that Christ should have chosen such an arid place so bare, so lacking in every amenity".

    But by now the negative factors of shooting in the region are starting to add up. The modernisation  / transformation of the landscape is important; but Pasolini also cites the lack of scenography and backdrops; and even the fact that it will be difficult to find extras since the people all have such stable employment. Later he complains that "either there is too much poverty...or too much colour...or else, it is excessively modern"

    The next stop - in a village of the Druse Arabs - provides both "a lovely moment", but Pasolini decides the faces of the residents are unsuitable because they "have not been touched by the preaching of Christ". It's here some of the worst of Pasolini comes through as he describes them as "pre-Christian faces, pagan, indifferent, happy, savage." These kind of racist attitudes to non-European people is all too common in these location scouting films, even though Pasolini is seemingly well-meaning he can be patronising or irrationally unobjective.

    This highlights one of the problems running throughout the entire enterprise, namely that neither Pasolini not Don Andrea really known what the Holy Land and its inhabitants looked like 2000 years earlier. The trees that now weep into the Jordan would not even have existed. Various forms of erosion, farming, war, climate change, conquests and land reclamation have all left the ancient landscape largely unknowable, and whilst more recent studies have determined more about the faces of our ancestors, it is not to the level that could be distinguishable in film based on their hearing, or otherwise, of a particular preacher. It's easier to imagine how today's landscape may differ from that of the 1800s, but beyond that is largely conjecture.

    The problem of modernisation is brought into sharper focus with Pasolini's visit to a Kibbutz at Baram, one of many which have "reshape(d) the landscape with absolute modernity". There he talks more to members of the collective, but Pasolini keeps his communist politics to himself. This passage feels a little out of step with the rest of the film so perhaps this is his way of drawing attention to it, but it's hard to tell whether his approval for communal values are outweighing his objections to the modernisation (which is inherent in these Kibbutzim).

    Beersheba follows and then Jerusalem, which Pasolini prefers to Nazarerth, calling it "grandiose" and finding something so "historically sublime in her appearance" that it "cannot but instil the film with a different stylistic identity". Most interestingly at this point (Jesus' arrival in Jerusalem) "Christ's
    preaching, till now solely religious... due to objectively historical events becomes a public and political fact as well as a religious one."

    From there they head to Bethlehem where Pasolini seems to finally admit defeat that he is not going to find "a village which has maintained its integrity through the millennia". "The biblical world appears" he sighs "but it resurfaces like wreckage".

    The film ends in the supposedly nearby location of the Ascension, and with the surprising closing words that the Ascension marks "the most sublime moment of the entire evangelical story: the moment in which Christ leaves us alone to search for him."

    Pasolini is often praised for being a pioneer and visionary, and this and his African and Indian films do seem to have paved the way for the making of documentaries which briefly appeared as extra features on DVD and Blu-ray discs, like them this was released after, rather than before, the main film. It seems likely that streaming may make films like these a thing of the past - at least in this format. Today researchers will typically bring this footage, perhaps just find it on YouTube first. Meanwhile any such visits of key cast or crew are more likely to form pre-publicity than appear afterwards. By today's standards the overall feel of Paolini's film feels like something shot on a phone, but then every so often there is a sublime moment, where the director sees a landscape that inspires him and his artistry shines through. His success with Il vangelo means that, for us too, the lands of the Bible are ever likely to strike us as we expect them to.

    Gordon, Robert S. C. (2012) "Pasolini as Jew" in Luca Di Blasi, Manuele Gragnolati, Christoph F. E. Holzhey (eds.) The Scandal of Self-contradiction: Pasolini's Multistable Subjectivities, Geographies, Traditions, Vienna/Berlin: Verlag Turia + Kant. pp.37-54.

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    Monday, December 23, 2019

    The Nativity (1952)
    (aka The Play of the Nativity of the Child Jesus)

    Those who follow me on Twitter will know that I have been running a Nativity Film Advent Calendar but there's one film that I have owned for about a decade yet have only just seen. Marketed as The Nativity and available on DVD via various Mill Creek collections, I'd always thought it was something akin to a Christmas special for the Living Bible series. As it happens though it's nothing of the sort.

    The production is a made for television Christmas special for Westinghouse Studio One that originally aired on CBS on December 22 1952. Both of the copies I have are even accompanied by Westinghouse's adverts for their own products - themselves historical artefacts, not least because for this exceptional production they have chosen to bookend the film with them, thus leaving the main performance unsullied by commercials. It's also interesting though to hear the technical descriptions of problems viewers might be having with their earlier and/or inferior TV sets which could be remediated by them switching to a Westinghouse one.

    Anyway, the production itself is not so much a TV film as the filmed performance of the medieval style mystery play. The opening titles cite the 14th and 15th century mystery plays of York and Chester, even apologising for the use of archaic language. It's unclear who has welded together these plays, whether this is the work of a much older writer, or whether it's simply that a modern screenwriter has selected the both of them. Certainly the fact that the rhyming patterns seem to vary throughout the production suggest some kind of blending of these two traditions.

    The film is shot in black and white and the dialogue is accompanied by the Robert Shaw Chorale performing ancient carols and choral music in a wonderfully evocative fashion. The combination of the archaic dialogue and the music really conjures the atmosphere of the latest iteration of a long running and much cherished tradition. This is enhanced by the high contrast lighting. The shots seem to exist largely in darkness punctuated only by the occasional shafts of light. Silhouetted figures are everywhere. It's no doubt a technique borrowed from film noir - shroud the cheap sets in darkness, and not only do you avoid the impression of cheapness, but you also lend a great deal of atmosphere.

    As ought to be expected the plot plays it fairly straight. Mary hears she is to have God's child and heads to Bethlehem with Joseph. Angels visit the shepherds in the fields. Three kings arrive in Judea from afar and whilst they stop at Herod's palace for directions, Mary has her child. The shepherd's arrive, followed by the kings, before both the latter and Joseph himself hear God tell them of the threat to Jesus's life.

    What's interesting is where the elaboration in the text lies compared to more modern productions. The discussions and inner lives of Mary and Joseph seem of little consequence, but eloquent verses of poetic praise usher forth from the mouths of the magi, yet somehow this does not feel out of place.

    In a year where I've watched numerous Straub-Huillet films and read and thought a great deal about their concerns with multiple layers of history and the rigorous adaptation of poetry/prose this feels strangely fitting. I don't know of a link between Huillet/Straub and this production's director Franklin Shaffner (who would go on to direct Planet of the Apes (1968) and win an Oscar for his direction of Patton to years later, but the slow long-takes, relying on gradual zooms and pans rather than editing feels reminiscent and perhaps goes back to Bresson and beyond. It's a shame the transfer is rather poor, because I suspect a proper restoration, with sharp images accompanied by crisp sound, might really be something.

    Prior to this Shaffner had already completed a drama called Pontius Pilate (1952) for Westinghouse, which usually appears in the same collections as this programme, so I will have to review that one in the run up to Easter. There's nothing in the synopsis on the back of the DVD to suggest it is also based on 15th century texts, but who knows...


    Sunday, December 22, 2019

    Greatest Heroes of the Bible: Sodom and Gomorrah

    In my review of the previous episode of this series I noted how so many of its instalments tend to shape the narrative into the same essential plot. God's hero is the leader of a small but devoted band of Hebrews who face conflict with the ruling powers of a nearby settlement, whose wicked ways ultimately cause their destruction as God steps in during the final moments.

    If ever a story was set-up to adhere to this formula it was the story of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19). Yet surprisingly, the screenwriters display a certain reluctance to take the most straightforward approach to their task. Part of this is because they combine the story of Lot's clashes with the townspeople with the other main story about him in Genesis, that of his capture by the four kings led by Kedorlaomer (Gen 14). This version has the king of Sodom factoring into his dealings with Lot the threat from this alliance, and the potential for Abraham to intervene on their behalf. Sadly the king's political machinations start to feel a little bit like those from The Phantom Menace (1999).

    Eventually, however, Sodom is visited by the two angels, and Lot's unease with the morality of the city is revealed to be more than just a hunch. Interestingly, though, any mention of the Sodomites attempting to rape the angels is omitted. The sin of Sodom is - as with the other cities in the series to fall foul of God's judgement - more about extortion, exploitation and slavery than about sex. I'm not quite sure whether this is due to a desire to avoid the homophobia that has blighted several key adaptations of this story, or simply because angel rape was deemed an unsuitable topic for an early evening*, mainstream TV series at to make of this.

    The special effects team attempts to go all out here, but leaves the budget too thinly spread. When the angels step into defend Lot from a rather threadbare mob they repel them using rays emanating from their hands, both unnecessary and ineffective. There's no sight of the burning sulphur raining down on the city from on high, instead we're treated to number of different shots of buildings (models?) crumbling and falling apart, with the occasional fork of lightning. Finally Lot's wife turns to look back and is turned to stone in a slow wipe-dissolve revealing a statue which is less a pillar of salt and more like a tomb in a 15th century church, only not nearly as beautifully rendered. The blame placed on Lot's wife never really plays well in adaptations of this story, but here's it's already been preceded by a scene where Lot clearly considers his wife's attempts to integrate with the locals a step too far, and so comes off even worse. All in all not a great version of this story which is, after all, one of the most frequently covered stories in the Hebrew Bible.

    *Incidentally, I came across a scathing review of the first clutch of episodes to air in the New York Times archive which includes describing the scripts as "atrocious, veering between the plastic vernacular and the mock portentous" and ends insisting that the names of creators Charles E. Sellier Jr. and James L. Conway "ought not to be lost to the history of schlock".


    Sunday, December 15, 2019

    First Temptation of Christ (2019)

    Last Christmas Netflix brought us it's first self-produced Bible film - The Last Hangover and it appears to have been enough of a success that they have commissioned (what I suppose must, these days, have to be called) a prequel from the same Brazilian comedy troupe Porta dos Fundos. As with that film, First Temptation is an anything-goes, neo-bawdy comedy which is happy enough to offend anyone who streams it without somehow knowing what to expect. Peter Chattaway describes it as "intentionally blasphemous" noting that he is using the word "descriptively, not pejoratively". In short if you are likely to be offended by this, stay away.

    Those who enjoyed Last Hangover may well find this is an improvement. Whereas Last Hangover felt like a sketch (skit) dragged out for 46 minutes, the structure here is much stronger. Even if the plot goes in a somewhat bizarre direction, it is much more discernible and holds together the jokes and the craziness. It does make it harder to describe, however, without giving away too many spoilers.

    Jesus returns from forty days in the desert to find Mary and Joseph have thrown him a surprise 30th birthday party, but he has brought his own surprise, a friend he has met in the desert. It's one of those set-ups where the pair's romantic attachment is clear to the audience, but goes over the characters' heads. Orlando (played by Fábio Porchat, who played Jesus in the first film) is the epitome of the positive homosexual stereotype. He's the kind of life-and-soul-of-the-party type who the other revellers find eminently likeable and who can enter a room of sheltered types and win them over even before they have realised his sexuality.

    Meanwhile Jesus (this time played by Gregorio Duvivier) is only just discovering his origins for himself. When God turns up unexpectedly for the party ("he said he wasn't coming") there's tension between him and Joseph and the three take Jesus to one side to explain to him his origins. Jesus is confused and disappointed ("I want to specialise in juggling") but things begin to pay off when he realises he can perform miracles. Given the glut of films in recent years showing characters discovering their supernatural powers and then practising, adjusting to and (only eventually) mastering them there is much more comedic potential here than the writers manage to extract. If Spiderman, Harry Potter and various other superhero movies can play these moments for laughs in essentially serious productions then the potential comic seam here seems sadly under-mined.

    Later on Jesus has a vision caused when he drinks Joseph's Glaucoma tea, which spoofs other religious figures though somewhat conveniently Allah has just wandered off for a moment. I imagine some people might get angry at the comparatively more more reverent treatment of Allah, but given the Charlie Hebdo shooting one can hardly blame them.

    It's always difficult to assess the success of comedy in another language. So much humour depends on nuances of language, tone, delivery and referencing that things that are hilarious to a good percentage of people from the original culture may not amuse other audiences at all. For my part, I found the occasional laugh, but couldn't really endorse it on that front. Nevertheless, those who appreciated the original for anything other than it's taboo-breaking chutzpah, will probably enjoy more of the same here. Netflix now have a number of bought-in biblical productions available to stream. It will be interesting to see what will happen if they ever get around to producing a more serious effort of their own.


    Sunday, December 08, 2019

    Greatest Heroes of the Bible: The Story of Noah

    In terms of biblical chronology, this is the earliest story, and whilst the series wasn't broadcast in biblical order - the episode covering the Tower of Babel didn't air for another six months, for example - the first part of it did screen on the series' first day (Campbell and Pitts). The episode is presented as a single/joint episode in the complete box set that was released on DVD a couple of years ago.

    The programme starts with a five minute creation sequence, very much in the mould of Huson's The Bible (1966) but with only a fraction of the budget. Then we are introduced to the main story, with a a certain amount of invented subplot to flesh things out a little. Here it takes what would is looking like the standard plot line for the series. God's "hero" is part of a tiny band of the faithful who take on a larger majority who are indifferent, if not openly hostile, to God. When conflict arises God intervenes in dramatic fashion. I've still got a way to work through the series but most of the episodes I have already reviewed follow this pattern. Slavery is a common motif - almost the defining sin of those who oppose God. As usual the invented parts of the plot are spruced up with biblical language even if it is found in completely the wrong context. "You shall surely die" Noah is warned at one point by the city's Karmir (with echoes of Airplane).

    Here Noah is specifically marked out as a proto-John the Baptist - he even describes himself as a voice crying in the wilderness. Noah is played by Lew Ayres, whose career almost spanned back to the silent era, though he is best known for his role for 1930's All Quiet on the Western Front and for being Dr. Kildare in nine movies filmed in the early 1940s. Ayres, a conscientious objector in WWII cuts a far more sympathetic figure than Russell Crowe in Aronofsky's recent Noah (2014). That said, there is one scene from Aronfsky's film that is very similar to one here, where the people of the local settlement, spurred on by their charismatic if self-obsessed patriarch, attack the ark just moments before the rains come.

    Special effects are somewhat mixed. A now familiar drawn-on bolt of lightning accounts for the city's high priest. Likewise God's voice comes from a billowing cloud. Aside from that the use of (presumably) a miniature ark combined well with footage that shows a torrent rushing through trees, and people slipping off rocks into the water. The effects are rather undermined by other shots and sequencing, however. Noah and his family emerge from the ark into the bone-dry, arid deserts of (presumably) Southern California, looking as if it hasn't seen rain for months, rather than having been under water until recently.

    Ayres does a pretty good job in the lead role, even if he is given some rather pungent dialogue at times. The acting of those who oppose him is pretty hammy, but again, that's emerging as a standard feature of the series as a whole.

    Campbell, Richard H. and Pitts, Michael R., (1981) The Bible on Film: A Checklist, 1897-1980, Metuchen, N.J., & London: The Scarecrow Press.

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    Sunday, December 01, 2019

    Pier Paolo Pasolini: Framed and Unframed

    Pier Paolo Pasolini Framed and Unframed:
    A Thinker for the Twenty-First Century

    Edited by Luca Peretti and Karen T. Raizen

    Bloomsbury (2019)
    273 pages - Hardback
    ISBN 978-101328893

    I will be reviewing this book for the journal "Studies in European Cinema" so I'm currently working my way through it, but there are a few points that might be of interest to readers of this blog that probably fall outside of the scope for the journal, so I thought I would mention them here instead.

    The various essays that comprise the book tackle Pasolini's poetry, novels and public statements as well as his films, so those wanting a more specific focus on Il vangelo secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to Matthew, 1964) and/or religious themes in Pasolini's cinema in general will probably be better getting hold of Naomi Greene's "Pier Paolo Pasolini : Cinema as Heresy" (1990). You can read my comments on that one here.

    There are some interesting mentions of Il vangelo however. Firstly, Ara H. Merjian mentions Pasolini's "legendary desire" to cast the 1950s American 'Beat' poet Jack Kerouac as Jesus (p.38), but this is not something I was cognisant of previously (though I must have come across it at some point). Merjian's chapter deals almost entirely with poetry - it contrasts Pasolini's with the works and experiences of the Beat Generation - so I can imagine it is something that is discussed in those circles quite a bit. The idea is interesting, particularly as Pasolini ultimately went for a neutral unknown actor rather than a "beatnik" whose mere presence may have alienated certain viewers. It's also an interesting example of the concept of "contamination" which I'm increasingly seeing as central to Pasolini's style. (There's a good chapter on the concept - pivotal for the book - by David Forgacs).

    Also interesting is a description of the rather striking cover from Peretti and Raizen's introduction: it's an image by French street artist Ernest Pignon-Ernest "a Pasolinian Pietà in which Pasolini holds a corpse of himself" (p.3). Ernest created numerous versions of this image around Rome some of which were subsequently tagged with graffiti - a symbol, perhaps, of the type of blurring of lines and contamination between high and low art that is typical of Pasolini's work and thinking.

    For those with a strong interest in Pasolini, so far this looks a good addition to a fairly considerable canon. I discussed many of these books and chapters back in May this year, but to summarise: in addition to Green, Pasolini's interviews with Oswald Stack take you direct to the man himself and the book is well worth a read. Meanwhile, "Pasolini Old and New" edited by Zygmunt G. Barański is one of the most cited works of analysis on Pasolini and contains several strong essays.

    This book (i.e. Peretti and Raizen's) is aimed far more at Pasolini's continuing emphasis more than forty years after his death. It's more in depth (obviously) than the chapters in more generic works, and coming from very different place from the other existing single volume works (at least those that I have read), so is probably aimed more at those seeking an in-depth and rounded appreciation of Pasolini rather than simply providing some quick wins for those looking to write about Il vangelo secondo Matteo. I'm very much looking forward to reading the rest of it.

    1. Introduction -  Luca Peretti and Karen T. Raizen
    2. Dirt and Order in Pasolini - David Forgacs

    3. 'Howls from the Left': Pier Paolo Pasolini, Allen Ginsberg, and the Legacies of Beat America, Ara H. Merjian
    4. Filming Decolonization: Pasolini's Geopolitical Afterlife, Luca Caminati
    5. Voicing the Popular in "Appunti per un' Orestiade Africana", Karen T. Raizen
    6. "La rabbia": Pasolini's Color Ecstasy, Nicola Perugini and Francesco Zucconi
    7. Pier Paolo Pasolini's "La Nebbiosa": Teddy Boys and the Economic Miracle in Milan, Scott Budzynski
    8. The Loss of the Separated World: On Pasolini's Communism, Evan Calder Williams

    9. Television, Neo-Capitalism, and Modernity: Pasolini on TV, Damiano Garofalo
    10. From Accattone to Profezia: Pier Paolo Pasolini and Productive Failure, Krzysztof Rowinski
    11. Pasolini and the Anthropocene, Karen Pinkus
    12. Pier Paolo Pasolini's Political Animism, Federico Luisetti

    Unframing Pasolini
    13a. Interview with Willem Dafoe: Pasolini embodied, (conducted by Maurizio Braucci)
    13b. Pasolini Undead, Robert S.C. Gordon
    13c. Pasolini Reloaded, Paola Bonifazio

    List of Contributors



    Sunday, November 24, 2019

    Testament: Joseph (1996)

    As with several of the other entries in the Testament: Bible in Animation series, Joseph is made using the same Russian animation method that was the predominant style in The Miracle Maker (2000). However, whereas The Miracle Maker complemented its use of puppets with hand-drawn animation to represent psychological states of mind such as dreams, here the dreams of Joseph, his fellow prisoners and his pharaoh are merely reported rather than depicted. This preference for a more realist  approach is bold: it prioritises the story's original emphasis on its complex relationships, and Joseph's unlikely rise to power. However, within a decade The Prince of Egypt (1998) and its Joseph prequel Joseph: King of Dreams (2000) as well as The Miracle Maker produced such impressive, spectacular and acclaimed out of dream material that this film does rather suffer by comparison.

    The story's economy is clear from the start - Joseph is about to be thrown into the well, and the characters dialogue naturally summarises the events that have already transpired. Joseph is sold to Potiphar, then refuses his wife and finds himself in jail. The filmmakers draw various visual parallels between well and prison, but Joseph's desperation is short lived: when he correctly interprets Pharaoh's dream he gets assigned the task of saving the country. Joseph again prospers and is eventually able to be reunited with his brothers and, more importantly, his father.

    The expressive nature of the Russian animation really draw out the story's pathos, and makes this version a far more emotionally impacting portrayal of these events than either other animated efforts or even the various acted versions. I think the brevity of this portrayal helps in this respect, as well as the graceful yet sad movements and wide-eyed expressions on the puppets faces. The spectacular nature of Joseph's rise is really only apparent in the one scene (pictured above) when Joseph is first brought before Pharaoh. As much as I appreciate that moment, I can't help but feel that the filmmakers decision to opt for a simpler, more earthy, approach is justified by its ultimately more moving results.

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    Saturday, November 16, 2019

    Greatest Heroes of the Bible: The Tower of Babel

    Of all the entries in "The Greatest Heroes of the Bible" series this is the one that is most clearly in the tradition of the Hollywood Biblical Epic. This is partly because the fundamental core of the story - a spectacular act of destruction of an enormous piece of architecture - is the very essence of the traditional biblical epic where, according to Wood, ultimately the excess of human edifices are spectacularly destroyed in order to demonstrate the nations dependence on God.

    That said, it is also because screenwriter is allowed to take the scant basics of the text (a mere nine verses) and more or less create his story from scratch. And the story he creates is the classic Cold War narrative whereby a ruthless dictator attempts to fashion a monument to his own glory only to be opposed by a humble prophet of God, who sticks out tremendous opposition to be finally justified in his stance by God's intervention.

    Here the king is called Amathar and the prophet Joctan (Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea's Richard Basehart) yet at the beginning they are both simply members of the city's somewhat divided council. Part of the council wants to build a tower; part are opposed to the idea. When Amathar captures a lion using only a net and a dog in the opening scene, he returns home to be appointed by the council as it's leader and gradually he steers his role from a leader of the council, to a king an then ultimately he disbands the council and becomes a dictator.

    What's most interesting about all of this is its contemporary relevance, despite this episode being 40 years old this year. In the US (and to a lesser extent, the UK) there have been accusations of the erosion of democracy and a sense, that was absent from how this was presented in my younger days, that this is something that is facilitated by a sizeable group of the people as much as it is something that an individual seizes. I'll leave assessing the validity of these claims to you, but whether you agree with them or not, it seems undeniable that these are the terms that are being bandied around in certain circles and so it's interesting to see how the path presented in the film corresponds to the concerns being raised about the US's current path. Amathar at first is elected and initially uses spin to get people on his side. Initially he argues building the tower is a way to honour God, and then convinces the people to donate their free time as builders ("do it for free, as a gift"). Once this principle becomes agreed he then increases it, embeds it more in law and begins to turn those who oppose it into enemies of the state. Meanwhile he is also briefing against the council to weaken popular support even for the idea of a council, paving the way for him to remove the very idea of a council.

    All this time both sides are arguing that their path is the one that honours God. Amathar's argument is to build a landmark that honours him and gets as close to him as they can; Joktan attempts to remind the people that the instruction given in the ancient writings of Noah were to spread out to populate the earth. Banding together to build such a monument is not only opposed to that but smacks of arrogance and idolatry. In the midst of all this there is a focus on relationships. Between Amathar and Joktan is the latter's son, Hevet - who starts off in support of Amathar, but eventually comes to side with his father - his fiancé Tova, who always has sympathy with Joktan, even if she is initially cautious about expressing it. not least because of her father, Ranol, who starts as one of Amathar's aides only to switch sides as the dictatorship tightens its grip.

    A key moment in all of this comes, when Amathar's position is portrayed as fundamentally un-American is the moment when he asks the people to "give up their knives, spearheads, axes and anything of metal to be converted into tools to build the tower". Soon after, he tells the people that  "No-one may bear arms", and as if to force home the momentousness of that, the camera hones in on Joktan's horrified reaction. And of course there are accusations of corruption, and those in the king's inner circle profiting from the new administration, and citizens turning one another in ("my spies are everywhere" argues Amathar, just as Ranol flees to join the opposition and is ensnared in a repeat of the opening dog and net scene). Eventually the claim is made that Amathar "thinks he's a god" and he pushes the people too far and loses support. Joktan rallies his forces and they head off for a battle on the tower.

    It's only at this point - a while after the dictatorship has reached it's most oppressive - that God intervenes. Joktan prays "Whatever your will we live only to serve you" and "show them your wrath" and whilst one imagines he might have already made such a plea, it's also presented as a decisive moment. However, it also means that the fall of Amathar is as much as a result of human uprising as divine intervention and begins to feel like God's pyrotechnics are not strictly necessary, which is an odd end point given the basic plot of the story.  That said, ultimately it's a bolt of lightning that accounts for Amathar - a sign of God's judgement on his "vanity" and "arrogance".

    The series is fairly low budget, but the presence of drawn on bolts of lightning (against a blue sky, see above) were fairly well executed for the low budget at the time, and director James Conway relies on a mixture of techniques to convey the moment of judgement. In addition to the animated lightning, there are pyrotechnic explosions, shaking of the camera, and chunks of masonry falling off, with fast cutting between close scenes of imperilled individuals and the bigger picture. However, the tower (which is square based - notably not in the style of Bruegel and Doré) is never really that large, despite the script's protestations to the contrary, so obviously the scene never really creates the kind of spectacle that could be regularly observed in 1950s cinema.

    Bizarrely the closing narration refers to the descendants of Moses, rather than Noah, or Abraham. I'm not sure whether that is just a slip of the tongue/pen, or whether that is trying to link the episode into the series wider basis, but of those that I have seen so far, this is one of the more interesting ones, enjoying the freedom of not being tethered to an in-depth biblical plot.

    N.B. I've written this in something of a rush with quotes written down on a first watch and am unlikely to have time to return to double check them for sometime. Some details in the above, therefore, may well be inaccurate. 
    - Wood, Michael. ([1975] 1989) America in the Movies, New York: Columbia University Press p.173-5

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    Saturday, November 09, 2019

    Blocking and Shot Selection in Jesus of Nazareth (1977)

    Last month I was discussing Franco Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth (1977) and its use of touch to create an intimacy between Jesus and the various characters who encounter him, who are, generally speaking, a stand in for the audience (link here). But the filmmakers look to create this intimacy in other ways as well, most notably through their blocking (placement) of the actors and the selection of shots, and how those shots are conventionally used.

    Whilst Zeffirelli is Italian, in many ways his the editing of his shots is typical of the classic Hollywood style. However, there are a few distinctive features of Jesus of Nazareth that I believe have made a significant contribution. Firstly this is a work made for television. The combination of the regular pattern of advert breaks, combined with the classic Hollywood editing is that each scene tends to land with a certain rhythm. Scenes tend to be a the same length.

    Typical Hollywood editing begins with an establishing shot, but here Zeffirelli has several, practically wordless establishing shots. There might be a shot that partially shows the layout of the room, but this is intercut with some momentary details concerning a key element of the scene. When Jesus is about to heal a man born blind, we see the man being ignored on the fringes of the action in one of the se establishing shots. At Matthew's banquet we see glimpses of the prostitutes that typify the kind of company Matthew keeps (reminiscent of Fellini according to Peter Malone, ). The camera flits to another nearby location, to catch something similar several times giving the audience a feel for the wider scene.

    The next key stage in these scenes is a shot that bridges these wider establishing shots, with the pattern of close-ups that is about to unfold. Sometimes it is a travelling shot, or some sort of zoom, but essentially it wraps up those disparate shots and swoops in towards a close up shot of Powell, or of the scene's main supporting character.

    The main part of these scenes, however is the combination of 'two shots' which capture Jesus and the other character in the same frame with close-ups/mid-shots of Jesus and the "reverse shot" from the point of view of the other character. Sometimes the shots are point-of-view, sometimes they are over the shoulder but the effect is much the same, the two characters are staring deep into the others' eyes This pattern repeats several times: shot/reverse shot occasionally punctuated by a two-shot and eventually, towards the end of the exchange, Jesus actually touches the supporting character. Often the scene ends on one of these three shots (or a reaction shot to what we have just witnessed, as if informing the audience how they should react). At other times though it seems the character is meant to be a stand-in for the audience, placing the viewer starring into Powell's eyes in these intimate moments.

    Watch the two clips in the YouTube video below and you will see what I mean. (The poster has created their own text intro, so the scene starts after 30 seconds)

    If you read my last post on this subject you will also notice the moment Jesus reaches forward and touches him. Again the fact that the film was shot for television rather than for the cinema gives a greater intimacy to these shots - the emphasis is on the characters tightly composed and up close so they show-up on small 1970s TV screens.

    Now this was just a convenient one I found on YouTube and not every element of the above description is in every occurrence, but of the 5-10 instances that have something like this sort of encounter, most adopt nearly all of the elements described above. But Zeffirelli is not creating his own language here, he is using long established patterns, particularly within American financed films. This established grammar is perhaps most familiar from moments of romantic attraction, or between a younger character who is being inspired by a wiser one. It's even occasionally used in situations where the feelings are as strong but negative (i.e. heat) rather than positive. These combinations of shots and placement are used time and again in American film to signify an intimacy, a special connection between the two characters.

    Interestingly there are (at least) two major deviations from this formula. The first is in the encounter with the rich young man. Here most of the camera work is repeated, but his time, Jesus never reaches out and touches the man. He does not become a follower of Jesus. Even more dysfunctional is the frst scene between Jesus and Judas. Here Judas approaches Jesus, but Jesus has his eyes closed and, for almost the entire scene, is perpendicular to Judas rather than looking into his eyes. Here also the touch is emitted. And we all know how this turns out. Having identified the above pattern it seems odd watching these two scenes, as if Jesus is almost intentionally withholding. Perhaps with Judas you could argue  that's fair enough: The scene plays as if Jesus is gaining special knowledge at this point of how his relationship with Judas will pan out. But the scene with the Rich Young Man seems almost unfair - if only Jesus had reached out and touched him. it feels certain that he would have followed him. Perhaps that's just me.

    In any case, perhaps this goes some way to explaining why people still feel so connected with the series. These filmmaking techniques creating intimacy, but backed up by a belief system and regularly confirmed on Sunday mornings and so on, it's not entirely surprising that for some this has formed a long term connection to this film in particular.


    Sunday, November 03, 2019

    Kommunisten (Communists, 2014)

    When Danièle Huillet died in 2006 many wondered what would happen to Jean-Marie Straub. Would he carry on without his wife an career-long collaborator? Thirteen years later it's clear that he did, but in limited fashion. Whilst he has directed numerous short films since Huillet's death, at 70 minutes Kommunisten (Communists, 2014) is the only one to last longer than an hour. It's more than just coincidence, then, that this is the most well known of the films from this latter period and it's actually the first of his that I have seen from this era.

    All of this explains two key features about the film. Firstly, that this is clearly a work very much in Huillet's memory. One of the film's earliest image is a mid-shot of two of figures filmed from behind while they gaze out of an open window (above) as if on the verge of transitioning from the dark material world into the light. It's closing image is Huillet sat alone, still, but not necessarily peacefully, on a hill and is taken from the pair's Schwarze Sünde (Black Sin, 1988). Eventually she says "new world" as she turns her head away. Small highlights the link between the music accompanying the shot  - Beethoven's String Quartet No. 16 - the composer's "last major work before his death" (Small 2019, emphasis mine). The moment could not be more poignant.

    This segues nicely in the second feature of Kommunisten which is that it is largely comprised of excerpts of Huillet and Straub's previous films. Indeed the credits list the five works that are included as follows:

    1. Operai, contadini (Workers, Peasants, 2000)
    2. Trop tôt/Trop tard (Too Early/Too Late, 1981)
    3. Fortini/Cani (1976)
    4. Der Tod des Empedokles (The Death of Empedocles, 1986)
    5. Schwarze Sünde (Black Sin, 1988)

    These lengthy excerpts - the one from Trop tôt/Trop tard is the static, uncut ten minute take outside the factory, for example - are not from the couple's most celebrated works (which I would argue are
    Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach (1967) and 1973's Moses und Aron), but they are amongst some of the best and most memorable shots from the two's work.

    In a way, then, this is an adaptation of their own adaptations, another layer on an historical, multi-layered Schichttorte. Straub essentially takes those previous adaptations, and in typical fashion presents them anew, in a fresh context, but with also a high degree of continuity with his material. It's hard to think of a more appropriate tribute. The  Trop tôt/Trop tard section is the epitome of the pair's, long, static, diagonal takes; the excerpts from Fortini/Cani (1976) typify their slow circular pans. The footage from Der Tod - the "Communist Utopia" passage - embodies Huillet and Straub's politics. The sequence from Operai, contadini is perhaps the strongest example of the unusual, measured style they ask from their actors. In essence, then, it's a summary of their most distinctive traits - their fingerprint distilled down into a single film.

    Before this re-cycled footage, however, Straub adds fresh material in the form of an excerpt of André Malraux's 1939 "Days of Wrath" which concerns "how a man and a woman deal with being separated while the man is in prison" (Fendt 2015). Straub himself plays the off-screen representative of authority, interrogating two onscreen communists (one of whom is bedecked in a glorious Aran sweater - neither of the period of the novel, nor of adaptation, incorporating a look that is part timeless, part from the height of Huillet/Straub's career). The other man gets to return home to his wife and it is he who appears by his wife's side in the image above, "reunited, however fleeting this homecoming may prove to be" (Small 2019).

    However, this shot gives way to one that is almost identical in every respect except that the camera has now panned down to make the woman (not the male narrator) the focus. It's the kind of subtle yet powerful shot that typified the couple's work. Easy to miss, or to fail to notice the intention of the variation. Those who, somewhat unbelievably, criticised the lack of overt politics in the couple's work, fail to realise that theirs is filmmaking in the most nuanced of fashions. Indeed that cut typifies the entire film, Straub moving the emphasis on his career, or perhaps theirs, to her.

    Kommunisten, then, is a tribute to Huillet, but also to the dream of a better world, a dream that so many of those (communists) featured in their work have pursued, and a dream which Huillet herself pursued also. Straub's moving tribute seems like an act of adding his departed wife to this noble canon.
    - Fendt, Ted (2015), "The Dream of a Thing: Straub’s "Kommunisten"", mubi.com Notebook Feature, March 17, 
    Available online - https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/the-dream-of-a-thing-straubs-kommunisten
    - Small, Christopher (2019), "A Straub-Huillet Companion: “Communists", mubi.com Notebook Column, October 8,
    Available online - https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/a-straub-huillet-companion-communists


    Saturday, October 19, 2019

    Operai, contadini (Workers,Peasants)

    Operai, contadini (Workers, Peasants, 2000) find Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet returning to the work of Italian marxist Elio Vittorini following 1998's Sicilia! their first adaptation of his work. The title alone expresses one of the key themes of twentieth century Italian life, the division between the industrial north and the rural south. Particularly in the 1950s and early 1960s many of the peasant farmers migrated northwards to find work in the upper regions of Italy as the economy in and around Milan boomed. Countries are commonly divided between north and south, or (east and west) or between the lower and middle classes, but divisions between classes, not just in terms of attitudes, but also lifestyle, in this manner are particular to Italy.

    Vittorini's novel ("Le donne di Messina") tells the story of a community of workers and peasants in post WWII Italy who come together from all over the nation to form a new community. Rather than locating their film amongst houses and streets, however, Huillet and Straub situate it entirely in the forest. As Tag Gallagher summarises, Straub/Huillet turn the material "into a celebration of a New Eden", most notably a final shot where the action finally pans away from the tight collection of medium and mid-shots to a wide-shot capturing a glint of the horizon in the far distance (2005).

    To achieve this however Huillet and Straub have to end their film in the middle of Vittorini's novel where the attempt to build an idealised community is ultimately unsuccessful. Of course, I say "Vittorini's novel" as if a clearly established single work exists, but as those who have read my review of their other films will be aware, things are rarely so straightforward. Indeed, "Le donne di Messina" exists in several versions rewritten over the fifteen year period between 1948 and 1963.

    Another unusual aspect of Vittorini's work is the variety of perspectives it is told from. Guido Bonsaver observes how "the persona of the traditional narrator is replaced by a polysemy of voices which 'decentres' the narrative act" (2017: 166). Again this is familiar territory for Huillet and Straub (History Lessons springs to mind). Whilst these include a traditional narrator, a "registro" and a journalist, there are also a range of voices from the workers/peasants themselves. In typical fashion Straub/Huillet adopt and formalise this approach, using twelve characters (again raising religious connotations) who deliver their lines with varying degrees of deadpan, and limited movement or use of gestures. The characters give different perspectives on the same material, most notably in a long section where various performers share their experience of the process of making ricotta cheese. In so doing they reverse one of cinema's oldest adages, "show, don't tell".

    For the first time, however, Huillet and Straub's characters hold scripts - though the degree to which they are actually read from varies. Whilst this marks a development for the pair it was interesting to read in Christopher Small's discussion of this film that this is, in fact, an established style in parts of Tuscany. The maggio, is "a dramatic form in which texts are read in a declamatory, highly stylized, and non-psychological style" (Small). Performances are "produced, written, staged, and performed by peasants and for peasants" (Small). It's hard to think of a traditional theatrical style more idealistically wedded to that of Straub/Huillet, and, scripts aside, it is particularly noticeable in the works of their that are either set in Italy, or performed in the language.

    What is also quite striking about the film is the unusual style of the shots. As with other films of theirs, the camera-work relies heavily on very long takes, interspersed with the occasional attention-attracting pan. Whilst the film uses a mix of one, two and indeed three-shots, many of the one shots stand out because of the way they frame their subjects. Whilst the camera's distance suggests a mid-shot, from waist up, and the subject faces it in straightforward fashion, they are not framed in typical fashion: only their shoulders and heads appear within the shot, leaving a larger than usual space above their heads.

    The manner in which the film concludes with so much of the novel still remaining is perhaps because Straub and Huillet already planned to produce a third adaptation of Vittorini's works in Il Ritorno del figlio prodigo/Umiliati (The Return of the Prodigal Son/Humiliated) which continues some of the themes developed here. Indeed discussion of the Prodigal Son has already occurred partway through this film. I'm yet to see Il Ritorno so perhaps I'll save my discussion of that theme until then.

    - Bonsaver, Guido (2017), Elio Vittorini: The Writer and the Written, London and New York: Routledge.
    - Gallagher, Tag (2005), "Lacrimae Rerum Materialized", Senses of Cinema, (37) October. Available online - http://sensesofcinema.com/2005/feature-articles/straubs/.
     - Small, Christopher (2019), "A Straub-Huillet Companion: “Workers, Peasants", mubi.com Notebook Column, September 24, Available online - https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/a-straub-huillet-companion-workers-peasants.


    Tuesday, October 15, 2019

    The Human Touch: Jesus' Hands in Jesus of Nazareth (1977)

    I've been thinking quite a bit about Franco Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth (1977) recently and been doing some close analysis on the shots. I'll write more at a later stage (maybe), but for now, I couldn't help noticing this time around, how in may scenes Jesus is surprisingly intimate with those who are coming, quite literally into contact with him. This is partly something that the camera does - more on that in another post, but also, it's noticeable how often he deliberately physically touches someone.

    These moments are not just casual, irregular moments in the film, they consistently occur at the emotional high point of the scene: the moment when someone is healed; or the moment someone decides to turn their life around.

    I think these are both of the daughter of Jairus, one as he is healing her, then one as if to comfort her afterwards.

    Below is Jesus with Mary Magdalene at the house of Simon the Pharisee. This is the only shot that could be described as a two-shot, but they are common throughout these scenes.

    This last one is (obviously) not Jesus, but two of his disciples, Peter and Matthew. This is from the end / emotional high at the end of Jesus' narration of the Parable of the Prodigal Son at a feast at Matthew's house. The two men, who previously were enemies, are reconciled. It's interesting that they have clearly been learning about this trait of Jesus' and have now started doing it instinctively themselves.


    Saturday, October 05, 2019

    Der Tod des Empedokles (1986)

    On the surface the similarities between Der Tod des Empedokles (The Death of Empedocles, 1986) and Moses und Aron are plain: it's another pre-Christian era adaptation of a revered, unfinished German work. Throughout both works a mountain looms in the background, remote, yet nevertheless seemingly the source of a spiritual force exerting itself on the characters. Of all the films about Moses, Straub and Huillet's take is the one that focuses most squarely on his philosophical side. Here they deal with a philosopher-leader, Empedocles of Akragas, a city in the then-Greek city of Sicily.

    The film's full title is Der Tod des Empedokles, Trauserspiel in Zwei Akten von Freidrich Hölderlin 1978 Oder: Wenn dann der Erde Grün von Neuem Erglänzt (The Death of Empedocles, in Two Acts by Freidrich Hölderlin 1798 or: When the Green of the Earth will Glisten for you Anew), but hidden away amongst those twenty words is a year, 1798. This is significant because Hölderlin's play is not only unfinished but exists in three incomplete manuscripts: The first version from 1798 that Huillet/Straub cover here, the following year he wrote two other attempts, the last of which Straub/Huillet also adapted two years after Der Tod as the rather more snappily titled Schwarze Sünde (Black Sin, 1988). Then in 1991 they completed their final adaptation of Hölderlin's work Die Antigone des Sophokles nach der Hölderlinschen Übertragung für die Bühne bearbeitet von Brecht 1948 (The Antigone After Sophocles' Translation Adapted for the Stage by Brecht 1948).

    But the "Hölderlin films" as they are often referred to are not three works, but seven, because Huillet and Straub created two adaptations of Antigone and four different prints of Der Tod, and not just four different cuts of the same material, but four concurrent versions. The version which has been screening at MUBI is officially known as the Berlin version (as it fist screen at the film festival there) and is distinguished by a lizard which scurries across a step halfway through the film. The version originally intended for a wider (subtitled) distribution is the Paris version which according to Leslie Hill "began more gloomily, before brightening up as the sun came out" (Hill 2012: 143). A third, known as the rooster version, was "completed with a class of students" at Hamburg's Filmhaus and is distinguished by a cock crowing after around twenty minutes (Hill 2012: 143). This is the version that Pummer considers "the most beautiful version, because it has the most contrast and strongest color saturation" (2016: 69). Finally there is the version seemingly not connected with a particular geographic location, but marked by the occasional chirps of crickets on the soundtrack.

    Straub and Huillet's intention here seems to be to ensure that no version "could be considered as more or less authoritative than any of the others" and to avoid having a "privileged master text" (Hill 2012: 143). The different prints do not exists as longer or shorter cuts - each consists of the same 147 shots, each shot from the same position and with the same settings on the camera as the others and the actors perform in the same, typically deadpan, style. The difference, then, is down to what happens in front of the camera, that is outside of their control. Their repeated reliance on natural sound, and on this occasion natural light, means that these elements remain outside of their control, animals can intrude into the material text of the film, lighting can change the mood, the wind can blow or be still. The four variations, then, highlight these more material elements of cinema itself, the sheer variability of the options available to filmmakers. It also emphasises the differences between film and reality. What is recorded by the camera can be reproduced, but is never an accurate reproduction of how things really were.

    Furthermore it also prevents the three versions of Hölderlin's unfinished mourning play from being reduced down into one definitive version. Film adaptations compared to their literary works, particularly unfinished works, are not unlike the comparison between jam and the original. The jamming process involves cutting out the work's most widely appreciated parts and boils it down bringing out certain essentials meaning something is lost, but it is also preserving process which makes the fruit accessible for a far wider audience. Huillet/Straub attempt to highlight the nature of this process - their differing products retain a far stronger connection to the original, as well as highlight the essentially false nature of a film adaptation.

    In particular, making these four variations is also a way of reflecting the tragedy's unfinished nature, just as Hölderlin never made a definitive, official version of his play, so too, in an appropriately manner there is no single authoritative version of this film. Ironically, then, in some ways the mass-circulation of one particular version of the film, as happens when a company like MUBI makes it available for streaming worldwide works against this intention, as does writing about the films on the basis of a viewing of just one version as I have done here. The french Editions Montparnasse are a superb resource for fans of Straub/Huillet, not least because they provide a practically exhaustive collection of all of Straub's work, but they too only include a single version. It's understandable, and my citing of MUBI and Editions Montparnasse is not criticism as such - without them I would not have seen the film - but it does work some way against Huillet and Straub's clear intention to resist a definitive version of the film. Perhaps this is why the pair also adapted Hölderlin's third attempt at the subject just two years later, and in a different but related fashion.

    Hill also highlights the theological links between Moses und Aron and Der Tod, noting how Hölderlin was writing amidst the mental upheaval of the French Revolution - something the author was initially in favour of, and certainly something which appealed to Straub and Huillet's Marxist nature:
    Both took place at a time of upheaval, as one theological edifice, legal framework, political power, or conception of the artwork gave way to another, resulting in an interregnum in which what was at stake was the promise or threat of the future. Both texts, moreover, were stories of sacrifice, (Hill 2012: 148)
    The nature of that sacrifice, however, varies significantly between the two stories. It is unclear in Moses und Aron to what extent those being sacrificed are willing participants. However, in "Der Tod...", the sacrifice is an act of suicide from which his friend Pausanias tries to dissuade him. In Hölderlin's original version, Empedokles' death occurs at the end of the play when he hurls himself into Mount Etna's crater, though it is never explicitly confirmed that this is what has actually happened. This ambiguity is even more pronounced in the film, as it ends on a shot of the top of the mountain which begins with Empedokles speaking. Viewed apart from the rest of the film the natural assumption would be at this point he is still alive, gazing up at the top of Etna as he readies himself for his death. In other words, the "death" mentioned in the film's title never actually occurs during the duration of the film. That said, the discontinuity of the cutting that has been so prevalent throughout the film also questions this.

    The meaning of Empedocles death is no less ambiguous. For Small, "Empedocles dives into the fire in order to vanish into thin air"in order that his fellow citizens would believe by his death "he had been set...on the path to reincarnation" (2019). On the other hand, for Hill Empedocles' death is "in order to reconcile the epoch with itself by way of a spectacular fusion of the finite with the infinite, history with eternity, man with nature." (Hill 2012: 144).

    Two years later Huillet and Straub would return to Hölderlin and Empedocles in Schwarze Sünde (Black Sin, 1988), based on the third version of the play. At only 40 minutes in length and featuring a largely, but not entirely, different cast, the very static camerawork of Der Tod made way for a more varied style. Of particular note are a number of panning shots which, based on their descriptions sound not dissimilar to those in Moses und Aron. Sadly that film is not part of the MUBI retrospective, so it may be a while until I can write about it.
    - Hill, Leslie (2012), “O Himmlisch Licht!”, Angelaki (Journal of the Theoretical Humanities) 17:4, 139-155.
    - Pummer, Claudia (2016), "(Not Only) for Children and Caveman: The Films of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet", in Ted Fendt (ed.), Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Vienna: Synema Publikationen, pp.7-95.
    - Small, Christopher (2019), "A Straub-Huillet Companion: The Death of Empedocles", mubi.com Notebook Column, September 11, Available online: