• 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.

    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:


    Friday, September 13, 2019

    The Bible Onscreen in the New Millennium: New Heart and New Spirit

    The Bible Onscreen in the New Millennium:
    New Heart and New Spirit

    Edited by Wickham Clayton

    Manchester University Press (2020)
    296 pages - Hardback
    ISBN 978-1526136572
    Publication Date: 13/1/2020

    I've been meaning to post about the forthcoming publication of the latest book to feature an essay of mine. "The Bible Onscreen in the New Millennium: New Heart and New Spirit" will feature 14 essays by various film scholars on the biblical epics to have emerged since The Passion of the Christ in 2004. I'm particularly pleased that it's being published by Manchester University Press whose book "Biblical Epics" by Bruce Babington and Peter William Evans is one of the seminal works in this field.

    My chapter is called "The Nativity Re-Born: Genre and the Birth and Childhood of Jesus" and in it I discuss various Nativity films released since The Passion and how they have stayed true to or innovated with the conventions of the genre. As well as the link with MUP it's also pleasing to be contributing to a book compiled with cinema scholars in mind rather than those approaching the theological angle. It's nice to have contributed to both.

    The book is already available to order online. In the meantime, you can read a little more about the book at the Manchester University Press website, and I have posted a list of the contributions below.


    The Bible Onscreen in the New Millennium: New Heart and New Spirit

    Introduction - Wickham Clayton
    Part I: Producing Biblical Film and Television
    1-Battle over the Biblical Epic: Hollywood, Christians and the American Culture Wars - Karen Patricia Heath
    2-Depicting 'Biblical' Narratives: A Test Case on Noah - Peter Phillips
    3-Special Effects and CGI in the Biblical Epic Film - Andrew B. R. Elliott
    4-The Phenomenon of Biblical Telenovelas in Latin America - Clarice Greco, Mariana Marques De Lima and Tissiana Nogueira Pereira

    Part II: Modern Narratives and Contexts in Adapting the Bible
    5-Mythic Cinema And the Contemporary Biblical Epic - Mikel J. Koven
    6-The Nativity Re-Born: Genre and the Birth and Childhood of Jesus - Matthew Page
    7-Convince Me: Conversion Narratives in the Modern Biblical Epic - Chris Davies

    Part III: Critical Readings and Receptions
    8-Controversy And the 'Culture War': Exploring Tensions Between the Secular and the Sacred In Noah, the 'Least Biblical Biblical Movie Ever' - Becky Bartlett
    9-'Can Anything Good Come Out Of Southern California?'* (*Hyperlink to John 1:46): The Christian Critical Reception of Elliptical Jesus Narratives - Wickham Clayton
    10-Examining the Digital Religion Paradigm: A Mixed-Method Analysis of Online Community Perception of Epic Biblical Movies - Gregory P. Perrault And Thomas S. Mueller

    Part IV: Culture And Representation
    11-The Devil and the Culture Wars: Demonising Controversy in The Last Temptation of Christ and The Passion Of The Christ - Karra Shimabukuro
    12-Ben-Her(?): Soft Stardom, Melodrama, and the Critique of Epic Masculinity In Ben-Hur (2016) - Thomas J. West III
    13-The Biblical-Trial Film: Social Contexts in L'Inchiesta and Risen - Fernando Gabriel Pagnoni Berns and Emiliano Aguilar
    14-'Squint Against the Grandeur': Iconoclasm and Film Genre in The Passion of the Christ and Hail, Caesar!


    Monday, September 02, 2019

    Trop tôt/Trop tard Too Early/Too Late

    Trop tôt/Trop tard (Too Early/Too Late, 1981) is Huillet and Straub's other film set in Egypt, only here it is documentary rather than drama. Before getting to Egypt though the film begins in France. The film's opening shot is one of its two most memorable - a six and a half minute rotational pan, (presumably shot from the side of a vehicle) going round and round the Place de la Bastille in France. It's a clear signifier of what is to follow - an exploration of the cycle of revolutions in France and Egypt. There's no doubt a pun here, revolutions of the camera in a film about revolutions. Most of the rest of the film, both the French and the Egyptian segments comprise of a series of long takes, either static, or panning, often in complete circles.

    Whilst this is happening two monologues are read out. Firstly there is a letter by Freidrich Engels detailing the extent of poverty in various villages and towns in pre-Revolution France. Then there are longer sections from the Cahiers de Doléances. These are read out by Huillet herself and is accompanied by images of the relevant locations today. Usually they are peaceful, places where people largely are not and the calmness of the imagery and (as ever, direct) sound belies the grim statistics that are being recited. One notable example is a shot of the side of a rural building upon which someone has graffitied "Les paysons se revolteront 1976" (the countries will revolt 1976) in big red letters. It is at this point that Huillet reaches the passage that includes the film's title, the point being that "the peasants always start the revolt too early and, then when it comes to seizing power, they arrive too late" (Pummer, 2016: 60). Engels was writing on the eve of the 1789 revolution in France.

    In the Egyptian segment, the reading is more recent, the author Bahgat Elnadi reads from the book he wrote with Adel Riffat under the pseudonym Mahmoud Hussein about the overthrow of British colonial powers. The film's most famous shot, is a ten minute static diagonal shot of workers leaving a factory in Egypt. The nature of the shot recalls the Lumière Brothers Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory (1895). The section is considerably longer here, but the parallels between the two segments are apparent. That said there is one stark contrast: whilst the French footage is deserted, the Egyptian footage is peppered with human activity. The camera maintains a discreet distance, in an attempt not to interfere with the world they wish to document; "their respectful distance allows for the anonymous Egyptian peasants and workers to...occupy and traverse the space entirely on their own terms" (Small 2019).This is documentary filmmaking at the opposite end of the spectrum to the vox pop heavy style of our own era.

    There are various similarities with Straub and Huillet's other work here, in particular Fortini/Cani (1978) which similarly accompanies a writer's work with images of the described locations today, but also the long tracking shots of History Lessons (1972) and The Bridegroom, the Actress and the Pimp (1968). And of course, the handful of shots in Moses und Aron (1974) taken in Egypt.

    It's a film that has the ability to create startling reactions. At one point Jonathan Rosenbaum put it on his all-time top ten list for "Sight and Sound". "The extraordinary result of this technique is that one almost feels able to taste these places, to contemplate them – to observe and think about them" (Rosenbaum 1983). Many have looked at Huillet and Straub's films and conclude that nothing really happens. But in fact, the second half of the film is teeming with activity if you observe closely enough, it is just that they keep a respectful distance from us just as they do to the characters who move across the screen. No matter where people are in relation to their camera and their screen, they do not tell us how to act and react.

    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.

    Rosenbaum, Joanthan (1983), Film: The Front Line, Denver: Arden Press.

    Small, Christopher (2019), "A Straub-Huillet Companion: Too Early, Too Late", mubi.com Notebook Column, August 6, Available online: https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/a-straub-huillet-companion-too-early-too-late.


    Saturday, August 31, 2019

    Klassenverhältnisse (1984)

    Klassenverhältnisse (Class Relations 1984) is Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet's only adaptation of the works of Franz Kafka, which is itself a little surprising. It's based on Kafka's unfinished novel "Amerika", also known as "Der Verschollene" or, in English, "The Man who Disappeared". I'm sorely tempted to say that simply navigating one's way through those various titles feels a little Kafkaesque, but I'm aware that doing do is no doubt will prove too irritating for many. Nevertheless various commentators have discussed Huillet and Straub's change of title, which aligns with the Marxist nature of their cinema, yet for Straub "the title is good because this is precisely what the film does not do" (cited in Bösler 2004: 116). As Bösler herself observes "rather than telling us what we will be shown and told, the title Klassenverhältnisse encourages us to look and listen for what there is to see and hear" (Bösler 2004: 117).

    The novel, for those who are unfamiliar with it, focuses on a young German migrant, Karl Rossmann, who is essentially a stand in for Kafka himself. Aside from sharing a mother tongue, age and status in life and the prominent 'Ka' sound at the start of their names, Kafka and Karl also shared difficult relations with their parents. Karl has been sent away to America by his parents and finds himself being shunted around from place to place in search of employment. He is a largely passive figure seemingly unable to control his destiny, instead being manipulated  and oppressed by the vast majority of the figures he encounters.

    Whilst I've written about various of Huillet/Straub's adaptations from novels, this is the first I have actually read and it's interesting watching their always notable adaptation process more closely. As is typical most of the story and the dialogue makes it into the screenplay, but little of the text's elaboration, though the details are largely their to be observed. This contrasts markedly with Welles' adaption of The Trial (1962). Where he tries to capture all the details described so meticulously in Kafka's prose, Straub/Huillet try and limit it to the character's perspective.

    The shots are largely either static diagonal mid shots, or long panning shots, such as when Karl first observes the buildings housing his Uncle's business. Delivery is not-quite deadpan, but certainly muted. This is a development from Moses und Aron (1974) when Schoenberg's use of Sprechstimme (a form of speech halfway between singing and speech) formed something of a launching point. Speech delivery had always interested them and from there on they began to experiment more with language as an 'object' rather than merely a 'vehicle'. In an interview with Hans Hurch around the film's original release, the pair liken their use of language to the works of Bach, or an oratorio. They layer different styles of delivery and even get actors to pause on occasion in the middle of a word.

    The stilted nature of both the delivery and the acting serves to highlight  the handful of moments where sudden violence is done to Karl. This happens three times in particular where someone strikes or grabs part of Karl's head or neck. Each time it's a medium close-up of Karl against a solid object. Each time an arm thrusts suddenly towards him from the edge of the frame and then the pose is held for long enough to observe Karl's discomfort. The owner of the arm remains out of shot. It is not that Karl is necessarily hurt by these 'attacks', but they are nevertheless a shocking intrusion, not least because he offers no resistance as we are trained to expect. These moments are particularly striking because so many of the film's "gestures and actions are performed with a denaturalizing, and at times almost mechanical deliberation, [which] heightens the impact of even the minutest action which does occur" (Bösler 2004, 122). The attacks silence or oppress Karl, a summation of the story's overall oppression of its lead. There is at least one counter shot when Karl is talking to Theresa, one of only two characters who are sympathetic towards him. The framing is similar but her arm only touches his arm and the contact is gentle rather than forceful.

    The film is also deeply concerned about spaces, with the physical blocking expressing the awkwardness of Karl in this oddly ill-fitting and harsh world. It's a world where a young man might find himself sent to the other end of the world for getting a servant girl pregnant, or might loses face with his uncle for accepting a dinner invitation, or even might lose his job simply for stepping away from this post for a minute or to. These little injustices follow Karl around, while the behaviours of those around him get odder and odder. The sequence of shots breaks the Hollywood rules of continuity editing - there are few establishing shots, or master shots summarising the geography of the scenes. Even attempting to place how the scenes relate to each other by cross referencing eye lines, sources of light and so forth is frustrated by Straub/Huillet's shot selection. "Each new shot, however, introduces a variation in camera angle and distance" so that "the viewer's understanding of its spatial parameters" advances as the scene progresses (Plummer 2016: 66).

    A friend of mine, who knows Kafka better than me, says adaptations of his work are always somewhat odd, largely because the quirky nature of the source material attracts unusual filmmakers and inspires then to make bold and creative efforts to justice to the material. For Huillet and Straub it was the only other one of their films to be shot outside of Europe aside from Too Early, Too Late (1981) and sections of Moses und Aron. These include a tracking shot capturing New York's Statue of Liberty. In the book Kafka, famously, gets a detail wrong, (perhaps purposefully) replacing her flame with a sword. It's the kind of detail which adds to the confused dreamy nature of the book, which Straub and Huillet capture so well with their odd and semi-disengaging film.

    Bösler, Ursula (2004), The Art of Seeing, the Art of Listening: The Politics of Representation in the Work of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet", Frankfurt / Berlin / Bern / Bruxelles / NewYork / Oxford / Wien: Peter Lang.

    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.


    Wednesday, August 07, 2019

    Accent Alt Codes for Film Critics

    As someone who is often writing about non-English language films, I am forever trying to find the shortest possible alt-codes for various accents from foreign languages. Various sites are helpful, but none seems to give me everything I want, and frequently they provide a huge list when only a handful are required. So here's a quick guide, which you can either bookmark to remind yourself (as I will), or learn (as I seem incapable of doing) or copy and paste the letters from below. Even so I've given examples of film names /words that use them. Hope it helps.

    Alt+133 - à - as in Cinecittà
    Alt+160 - á - as in Adán y Eva
    Alt+135 - ç - as in François Truffaut
    Alt+130 - é - as in Pathé
    Alt+138 - è - as in Danièle Huillet or mise-en-scène
    Alt+164 - ñ - as in Buñuel
    Alt+148 - ö - as in Schönberg*
    Alt+151 - ù - as in Gesù

    In Word and PowerPoint only
    Alt+0322 - ł - as in Paweł Pawlikowski
    Alt+0347 - ś - as in Kieślowski

    *N.B. However, according to Ute Holl he preferred to use the anglicised version "Schoenberg".

    Wednesday, July 31, 2019

    Is Malick Working on a Jesus Film?
    The Last Planet to include scenes from Jesus' life

    Behind the scenes shot from Terrence Malick's 2012 film To The Wonder showing a multiplicity of crosses
    Various sites are reporting that Terrence Malick, the director of Tree of Life (2011) and The Thin Red Line (1998) has begun filming some kind of movie featuring scenes from the life of Jesus.

    The Last Planet has begun filming in Tor Caldara, Anzio near Rome, at least according to Italian site Corriere Città (City Courier). Filming has taken place both at the nature reserve there and the nearby beach. (There's an overhead shot of the region's coastline here)

    My Italian is still not very good but the jist of what is being said is that the film has "tema storico e religioso" (a historical and religous theme) and will cover various parts of the life of Jesus, including "la rappresentazione di parabole evangeliche" (a representation of the parables from the Gospels). I think some sites have mistranstlated that last bit as "evangelical parables". It's not clear however if this a full dramatisation of the life of Jesus; a drama which covers a wider period of time, but with some scenes featuring Jesus; or a documentary.

    Another Italian site - Studio 93 - also includes a quote from the city's mayor Candido De Angelis "è onorata di essere stata scelta da un regista e artista contemporaneo dello spessore internazionale di Terrence Malick" ([The town] is honoured to be chosen by a contemporary artist and director with the international significance of Terrence Malick").

    Two of Malick's films faetured in the most recent Arts and Faith Top 100 films list, Days of Heaven (1978) and The New WOrld (2005).

    Thanks to Efrain for alerting me to this via the Bible Films Facebook Page.

    Edit: (13/09/2019) More stories have been swirling about this film this week, including the casting of Mark Rylance as Satan, and Son of Saul star Géza Röhrig as Jesus. My friend Peter Chattaway has more details.


    Monday, July 22, 2019

    Your Own, Virtual, Jesus*

    I've been thinking about the two Virtual Reality Jesus films recently. I say "films" but really I question whether JesusVR really fits within what we would call a film, at least in the format it is currently available in. At present, you can download the film as an app from iTunes and, with a fairly cheap 'specialised' headset, watch it from the comfort of your own home.

    When you do, however, you discover that after each scene you are returned to the menu to choose which sequence you would like to see next. It breaks any sense of reality and narrative flow. In some ways it might not be uncommon to how some of the earliest cinema audiences experienced their films. Some theatres will have had multiple cameras and their owners might have spliced together all the different episodes into as few reels as possible, but I imagine that wasn't the universal experience. There are also parallels with the way people tend to experience the Bible as well - in chunks at a time, commonly just a single passage, rather than reading the whole thing through in one go.

    Those things and the way the footage is shot gives JesusVR the feel of a hi-tech museum piece, a bit like a 21st century version of the Jorvik museum, for those who know what that is. The location feels real, as do the costumes, and in a sense it feels like you're their, but there's also something oddly stilted and lifeless about the whole after. I'll discuss that later when I review it.

    Whilst I've not yet seen 7 Miracles I understand it is somewhat different in these respects. There are three main reasons for this assumption. The first is that it recently appeared at the Raindance festival, and there's an interesting piece on that here. In fact, not only did it appear at the festival, it also won the 'VR Film of The Festival' award. This suggests a level of quality above that of JesusVR. Secondly there is also quite a bit of footage to be seen in this vlog review on YouTube and certainly it looks better than JesusVR and solves some of the problems with it's predecessor.

    The third point is the filmmakers claim that this is "the first feature length VR film". What's particularly odd about this is that several of those involved with JesusVR are also involved with 7 Miracles. Enzo Sisti (who helped produce The Passion of the Christ, Aquaman and Life Aquatic) is a producer on both films, 7 Miracles' co-director/producer, Rodrigo Cerqueira, was the VR Technical Director for JesusVR and some of the more technical teams like sets, costumes and make-up, are largely the same. I suppose it might just be a pitch, but it feels like, for them at least, they see 7 Miraclesas doing something that its predecessor. And it's cool, I guess, that Bible films are at the forefront of the new technology, just as they were when the "new" technology was "moving pictures", 120+ years ago.

    The other thing that is reminiscent of 120 years ago is the static nature of the camera. At present the technology does not allow for much camera movement, and because the viewer is "in" the shot, cutting to a different scenes is jarring and disorientating. This in turn tends to lead to mid-length shots and long takes, typically one shot per scene. Films such as the Pathé Passion Plays are often seen as unsophisticated but they are actually just the forerunners of the kind of long-take photography that Bazin championed over half a century later. The Passion plays allowed the viewer to choose for themselves where to focus their attention as the cinematic grammar hadn't yet taken hold. So too it is with the VR films where the viewer can determine for themselves where to look having a far wider space available to them.

    Furthermore, the use of technology, turns out to be fairly radical in terms of cinematic syntax, grammar and, by extension, meaning. By allowing the viewer to have a 360° vision and to decide for themselves where they wish to look, cherished concepts in film studies such as mise-en-scène are largely left redundant. Moreover, ideas such as authorship take a new turn: if the viewer determines where they look at any given moment, then the importance of the traditional gatekeepers of what is included in the frame is diminished. As Collin observes, “the director’s control starts and ends with their initial camera placement – which means the close-up is out, along with pans, tilts, zooms and shallow focus”.

    It will be interesting to see how these aspects develop as the technology improves - something else it might have in common with those early films. Certainly, based on the limited snippets I have seen from 7 Miracles it gets you closer to the action that JesusVR and seems to have overcome some of these problems. Hopefully it will open up new ideas and concepts in things like faith and theology as well as in film theory.

    *Yes, you have correctly discerned a Depeche Mode pun.


    Saturday, June 29, 2019

    2015's French Jesus Film - Histoire de Judas

    I know I will have heard the name of this film - Histoire de Judas - but I'm only just wising up to its existence. Shot in 2015 it's a French production, but apparently filmed in one of the Berber parts of Algeria. As I say, I've not really heard much about this, let alone seen it, and there's not a great deal about it on IMDb. I do know, however, that long-time Jesus films scholar Reinhold Zwick is preparing something on it, though we will have to wait a couple of years to get to read it.
    There is however, a nice write up of the film and director Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche's work in general by Dan Sallitt. Sallitt introduced the film when it played in New York in 2016. Ameur-Zaïmeche was born in Algeria and most of the cast and crew seem to have similar origins. There are a couple of other reviews of it at MUBI, as well as one from Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat who I've crossed paths with before. MUBI also reveal that it was the winner of the Ecumenical Jury prize at the 2015 Berlin International Film Festival.

    In addition, various sites have a short trailer which provides a number of shots. The most interesting of these is what looks to be a triumphal entry scene, only one where Jesus is carrying a donkey foal, rather than the other way round. A major element of the story is the redemption of the Judas character and there seems to be an element of the Judas as a buddy element of Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ.

    Sallitt's review provides the most interesting details however
    One interesting addition that can perhaps be mentioned without spoiling the film is the important character of the madman who impersonates Jesus and functions in the film as his double, and who eventually is the focus of a emotional scene on the site of the crucifixion.
    This sounds a little like Philip Pullman's book "The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ" though not having read it or seen the film I'm hardly in a place to comment. I'll try and dig this one out and report back.

    Labels: ,

    Saturday, June 15, 2019

    Per amore solo per amore (1993)

    Giovanni Veronesi's Per amore, solo per amore (For Love, Only for Love, 1993) is probably best known for featuring a young Penelope Cruz as the Virgin Mary. Yet Cruz is not the only actress to play Mary in the film as it starts while she is barely more than a toddler. This enables the film to focus more on Mary and Joseph than about Jesus, per se, whilst deftly avoiding the question of Mary's Immaculate Conception. Nevertheless, it is the film's portrayal of Joseph that has drawn accusations of blasphemy, though it hardly faced the degree of outrage that films such as Hail Mary (1985) and Last Temptation of Christ (1988) experienced.

    Whilst Maria/Mary starts the film as a little girl, Giuseppe/Joseph is already in his thirties. It's often said that Mary was quite possibly only around thirteen at the time Jesus was conceived. In contrast, Roman Catholic tradition, seeking to uphold belief in Mary's perpetual virginity despite the Bible talking about Jesus's brothers and sisters, has often argued that before his betrothal to Mary, Joseph had already been married, fathered children and been widowed, making him already well into adulthood. Whilst the idea of a middle aged man marrying a thirteen year old seems uncomfortable to us, this has been culturally acceptable in many cultures over the centuries. Personally speaking that makes me uncomfortable enough, and by portraying much as significantly young still when she first meets and is, in some way attracted to Joseph only increases the unease.

    The area of contention is more concerning Joseph's behaviour at the start of the film. When he encounters a thief, Socrates, stealing his water, he initially reacts threateningly, but then takes him in, and the two become life-long friends. Shortly afterwards, Joseph arrives in the village during a stoning, shot, initially, rather strikingly, with a point of view shot from the victim's perspective. In addition to linking with the story of Joseph's son preventing such a stoning later in his life, this device strongly places the viewer on the side of the victim, such that even though she dies, Joseph's attempts at intervention clearly marks him as on the same (moral) side as the audience.

    Shortly afterwards, however, other aspects of Joseph character begin to be revealed. He instantly strikes up a friendship with the young Mary for example, but he also repeatedly visits a prostitute in the village and gets drunk, behaviour in sharp contrast with his traditional image of moral uprightness. Joseph's liberalism clashes with that of the local religious leader, Cleofa, who, in the clumsy assignment of modern categories has a more culturally conservative perspective. It is he who upholds the mob's right to stone an adulteress, yet he also opposes Joseph's behaviour. In an early twist (it's been 25+ years) it turns out that Cleofa is Mary's father, setting the stage nicely for changing attitudes as both men move more towards the positive middle ground between them..

    These establishing scenes occupy the first third of the film, and the film then changes gear as the we leap forward in time and Cruz is introduced as Maria for the first time. It's has clearly been a while since they have seen each other and the wordless alternating point of view one-shots as they are reunited suggest the two simultaneously falling for each other at 'first' sight. There's a lengthy working-out of these feelings however including, Joseph chasing through back streets just to catch another glimpse of Mary, an unusual communal gathering that seems part way between a speed-dating event and a meat market and Joseph wrestling with another would-be suitor of Mary's until he passes out. Eventually, though Joseph makes a big romantic proposal, she accepts, and then he and Mary's father come to an agreement over her dowry

    But then Mary leaves town suddenly and unexpectedly. Because this film is from Joseph's point of view both he and the audience are left in the dark. It gradually occurs to us what has happened because we know the story, but Joseph knows nothing until Mary's father arrives at Joseph's house one night to return the bride-price. Joseph is distraught. What's interesting that we never see the annunciation, with or without an angel, but neither does anyone seem to blame Joseph for the pregnancy (though I might have missed something in the Italian). Eventually, after Joseph decides to continue with the marriage Mary tells him about the message from the angel, but we only experience it as he does. We the audience have to take her word for it just as he does. Just as he's getting used to that he find out that they will also not be consummating the marriage. This is also worked out very much of his point of view. We witness his desire for his wife, and him struggling to come to terms with that. More drunkenness.

    By the time it comes to the biblical part of the story in the final third, the film has reconciled itself to a more conventional ending. Nevertheless, there are a few interesting flourishes. For a start, Socrates accompanies Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. There's also a moment when the three of them encounter crucifixions on the road to Bethlehem, with people stoning those on the crosses. This pairs with the earlier stoning scene and of course the future crucifixion of Mary and Joseph's son and perhaps highlights the link between the people attempting to stone women also being complicit in Jesus's death at the hands of the Romans.

    Another unusual touch is the location for the birth, which takes place under a natural shelter/open cave rather than in a more 'conventional' stable. In particular it's notable that there is no visits from shepherds or wise men, but a sizeable crowd do arrive to gaze at the new baby. And then the family move on with the film mainly having finished.

    First, however, there's a final epilogue, which the film changes to eight years later (from the twelve in P.F.Campanile's source novel). Mary and Joseph and his old friend Socrates are reunited just as Joseph's life is coming to an end. There's a final conversation between the two men, most of which was lost on me, but what is significant is that we see, more or less simultaneously, Socrates washing Jesus' feet, and Mary's feet being washed by her, now, eight year old son. I think there's perhaps an implication here that whilst Joseph has not witnessed angels as Mary has, that nevertheless his own silent guardian (God-figure?) has been with him all along. Certainly this explains how it is that Socrates provides the film's voice over, even though he loses the power of speech very early in the film.

    It's frustrating for me that my listening skills in Italian are still rather poor because I'm fairly sure there is plenty that I am missing. What's clear however is that the film attempts to go beyond the rather limited character of Joseph we find in the Gospels (where he is not much more than a re-embodiment of his dream-responsive, Old Testament namesake) and indeed the saint of church tradition. Whilst some will object to the more unholy elements of that portrayal it's nevertheless an interesting attempt to meld some of the things we do know about that culture with modern notions of love, morality and faithfulness. It avoids being twee without feeling the need to be gritty and there are some nice shots of the Tunisian desert which make the most of the advantages of the widescreen aspect ratio.

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    Tuesday, June 11, 2019

    A Child Called Jesus (1987)

    To those of us used to modern biographies, the paucity of information about the first thirty or so years of Jesus' life seems rather strange. Only half the gospels even mention his birth, and only one mentions any incident that happens to him between infancy and the start of his ministry. At least some of our ancestors shared our bemusement at this. Additional, non-canonical writings spring up in the following centuries such as The Infancy Gospel of Thomas or the Protevangelium of James which different parts of the church treat with varying level of respect or scepticism.

    It's proved a more fertile subject for recent artists too. In the US, 2016's The Young Messiah was itself an adaptation of Anne Rice's earlier "Christ the Lord" series of novels, whilst other films such as Jesus (1999) and La sacra famiglia (The Holy Family, 2006) have also sought to fill some of these puzzling silences.

    Perhaps the most significant of the 'recent' films to explore this period in Jesus' life is the 1987 mini-series A Child Called Jesus (Un bambino nome Gesù). An Italian and American co-production it follows a common practice of dubbing sound back onto the visual footage back in the studio, meaning the American version was dubbed, and not particularly brilliantly. It makes it hard to find a version in better (but still not perfectly) dubbed Italian with subtitles.

    The film starts dramatically in Bethlehem, moments before Herod's soldiers arrive. The film's first words are literally Joseph being told to take Jesus and Mary to Egypt, and in following scene we see an almost distressing pallid Herod being dipped into and out of a huge bath of Arabian mud, fearing the prophecy from Micah 5:2 about a ruler coming from Bethlehem, despite the slaughter he has carried out seeking to prevent it.

    There's a jump forward seven years, but whereas Young Messiah chose around this time to send Jesus and his parents back from Egypt to Galilee, here we find that they have not yet even properly reached Egypt yet, instead they have built a new life in a town on the border between Egypt and what a subtitle calls "Palestine". Director Franco Rossi (who also directed RAI's version of Quo Vadis? two years earlier) captures the uneasy feel of a border town, not least in a scene where a rebel zealot seems to be grooming child soldiers to fight the Romans).

    The comparatively safe life Jesus' family have found there though is about to come to an end, however. Unfortunately a fictional character called Sefir (though he sometimes calls himself Nathan Ben Joab) is pleased to have finally tracked them down. Sefir, who is played by Pierre Clémenti, who once had the role of Jesus himself in Philippe Garrel's Le lit de la Vierge (The Virgin's Bed, 1969), claims variously to be Syrian, or from Qumran, or perhaps to have been one of the original battalion of soldiers that Herod dispatched to Bethlehem.

    Whatever his origins, he is determined to catch up with Jesus and his parents and finish what he started 7 years ago. Firstly he builds an alliance with a Roman commander called Titus Rufus. Then he employs a killer called Chela, who turns up dead when his attempt to bury Jesus under an avalanche of rock fails. Jesus, it is implied, only survives because of his mother's desperate prayers for him. Sefir tries to blame Joseph, but I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to say that this isn't true. For Joseph this is the clear sign of the need for decisive action. Despite recently accepting a lucrative contract making some benches for the local synagogue, he decides to take his family properly into Egypt, to Alexandria.

    It's around this point that we begin to see the first of a number of surprising flashes forward to events during Jesus' ministry. Though it's a little unclear at first as to what exactly Jesus is witnessing these echoes from the future, it gradually that he is experiencing these visions, even if he doesn't know that he himself is the character appearing in them. The first time it's Jesus' question to the disciples "Who do you say that I am"?, but later we will get flashes of his healing Jairus' daughter, the miraculous catch of fish, the Wedding at Cana, Gethsemane and finally his burial. There are also a few indications that some of his later teaching imagery was picked up during his childhood (when a shepherd tells him of his willingness to leave the 99 sheep to find the lost one, for example).

    The other element of Jesus ministry that is foreshadowed here is his supposed rejection of some of the established areas of Jewish practice. At one point surprised at the complexities of lighting a lamp in the correct way he says "If lighting a lamp is complicated it would be easier if people would sit under the moon". Shortly afterwards we see him sizing up a money-changer, as if already wise to the possibility that he might be shortchanging his customers. Most strikingly, when Joseph suggests buying a dove to sacrifice in the temple Jesus objects, saying "but doesn't Almighty God prefer to hear his birds alive, greeting the morning?" What's clear is that Jesus is a strongly opinionated child, who, at least initially, his mother is finds a little troublesome. Gradually through the course of the film she stops chiding him and starts listening and respecting him.

    Much of this could be seen as anti-Judaism, yet the film is very clear about Jesus' Jewishness. As well as constantly showing Jesus, Joseph and Mary in and out of synagogues and temples, essential connections between his family and the other Jews are made in every community they encounter. At one point we see a Jewish religious meeting and witness a reading of the Ecclesiastes 3 passage about the passing of time. Particularly surprising is the scenes where the Holy Family join in with the Feast of the Tabernacles.

    In addition to portraying various Jewish rituals, it also evokes some early Christian, but not biblical, texts as well, most notably an incident found in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas where Jesus creates a bird out of the clay. It's not Jesus' only miracle, however, in another scene, towards the end of the film where Jesus himself is just starting to become aware of his powers, we see him heal a female leper. There's even a suggestion that after Jesus and Mary have been separated from Joseph, after he is thought to have been killed in a fire, that Jesus is involved in reuniting them.

    If the dubbing is the worst element of the film then its visuals are certainly the best, even on the somewhat blurry/grainy copy on DVD. Rossi's camera frames the natural beauty of the locations beautifully, even in its native narrowscreen. It helps of course using some of the same locations as Rossellini used in Il Messia (1975).

    Whilst his interiors are a little less striking there are still some nice looking shots, not least the views of the desert and the film's stunning visual climax. But Rossi also utilises several nice motifs such as using background objects to create halos at various points. Another of his motifs is framing eyes behind/through wooden lattices. This device is used several times, especially of Mary. It's something that could be interpreted almost romantically, an observation my friend Peter Chattaway makes regarding similar framing in The Passion of the Christ (2004).

    However, it's notable that eyes are mentioned a few other times as well. One particularly notable incident hears one of the adults asks Jesus not to look at him with his "puppy dog eyes". In some ways I can't help but wonder if this is a retort to another Italian Jesus-film-maker called Franco. Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth (1977) was famous for Robert Powell's azure, unblinking eyes. Here Rossi voices the concern that eyes can have influential power, though it also enables those feeling its pull to escape them. Perhaps most significant, given the prevalence of eyes in this film are the only words I recall the boy Jesus speaking that are recognisable from the Gospels. Towards the end of the film, Jesus speaks from Matt 6:22 "The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light".

    Ultimately, of course, Jesus, Mary and Joseph are all united and end up back in Nazareth. That's not so much a spoiler as to say simply that whilst the film is almost entirely invention, it does not contradict the specific things the Bible does say about Jesus' childhood. Jesus and his family return home with plenty of time before Jesus gets lost in Jerusalem. It must have been tempting to include that story in this film, but it's to the film's credit that it has strong enough convictions about what it is trying to do that it avoids it. It's perhaps a little overlong and you have to put up with the dubbing, but it poses some interesting questions and serves up some great images as well.

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