• 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.

    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.


    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.

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    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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    Tuesday, May 28, 2019

    Delving Deeper into Il vangelo secondo Matteo - Part 6

    Peter Bondanella's "Italian Cinema" is the standard set text for the subject in the English language, as evidenced not only by the multiple copies in the university library, but also by the fact that it is now into its fifth version. The book was originally published in 1983 as "Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present", with revised editions occurring at regular intervals until 2009 when it was significantly expanded and retitled simply "A History of Italian Cinema". The edition numbering went back to one and chapters covering the silent and fascist periods were added to the start of the book, as were several others throughout, including one on the "Sword and Sandal Epic". A 'second' (i.e. fifth) edition of the work was published in 2017. My budget doesn't stretch that far however, so I only own the third edition, which was subtitled "From Neorealism to the Present". However, since the relevant passage from the latest edition is available via Amazon's "look inside" feature, I'll be quoting from both. They are broadly the same (though the relevant passage starts much later at p.289), but there are a couple of choice variations which allows me to pick which I prefer.

    One such variation occurs in the opening sections. The older version more or less begins with "Pasolini's works reflect a unique and idiosyncratic combination of Gramscian Marxism and linguistic theory" (2013: 178) whereas the current version notes how Pasolini's five films from the early to mid sixties "all build upon neorealist tradition but embody a very different style of filmmaking, one indebted far more to Marxist ideology and Pasolini's own eccentric theories abut the lower classes in Italy than to the ideas contained in the neorealist classics" (2017: 178-9). That two fantastic summations for the price (!) of one, both of which fit Il vangelo secondo Matteo like a glove.

    Bondanella then goes on to give a broader introduction to Gramsci which I think readers will find useful.
    "Modifying the traditional Marxist view that economic conditions directly determine ideas, Gramsci offered his concept of cultural 'hegemony': social classes exercise hegemony over other classes first through the private institutions of civil society(schools, churches, journals, films, books) rather than through those of political society, and they more often obtain this hegemony through reason and common consent than through force. In order for the Communist Party to become a ruling class, the working class it represented would first have to establish its legitimacy as a dominant group by winning cultural hegemony within Italian culture." (2003: 178)
    As discussed in part 4 which looked at Marcia Landy's work, "Gramsci was especially interested in the southern peasants of Italy" (2003: 179). Pasolini uses the term 'sub-proletariat' to "underline their agrarian and preindustrial origins" in contrast to industrial workers in the North (2003: 179). Il vangelo "reflects Pasolini's fascination with this almost unknown stratum of Italian society" in many ways their appearance is much more notable and striking than in most Jesus films (2003: 179).

    Bondanella then goes on to examine Pasolini's own writings on cinema theory which he considers "one of the most original contributions to film theory in Italy" (2017: 290). Again, I'll quote at length.
    "His basic contention was that the cinema expressed reality with reality itself - an idea certainly born of neorealist cinema - and not with separate semiotic codes, symbols, allegories, or metaphors. Furthermore, Pasolini claimed that film's reproduction of physical reality was essentially a poetic and metonymic operation. The poetry of the cinema conserves not only reality's poetry but also its mysterious, sacred nature, and in its most expressive moments, film is both realistic and antinaturalistic. (2017: 290)
    At the risk of committing academic suicide, I'm not sure I fully grasp everything that Bondanella is saying here, but with Il vangelo we can appreciate how in the way it both does and does not represent the reality of the events of the Gospels it somehow offers something more transcendent.

    Whilst it is clear that, inevitably, Pasolini had been greatly influenced by neorealism, as was noted in part 5 of this series, he was also aware of its limitations. In particular he "rejected the tendency towards naturalism present in some neorealist styles" (2017: 291). This is particularly interesting with respect to due to Il vangelo since Bondanella considers that this rejection of certain aspect of neorealism is due to "his preference for the religious and sacred approach to reality" (2017: 291). For Bondanella, Il vangelo and Pasolini's other early sixties films "pay homage to neorealist style yet also assimilate it, rejecting some aspects of it in order to create a highly personal style with a very different vision of the world" (2017: 291).

    Pasolini described himself as a "pasticheur" mixing "the most disparate stylistic material" (Stack, 28), and Bondanella describes how he does this "in unusual combinations", for example juxtaposing "the most sublime examples of official 'high' culture with the humblest elements from 'low,' or popular culture" (2017: 291). For example, in Il vangelo Bondanella notes how the "faces of subproletarian characters evoke scenes from early Renaissance masters" (2017: 291). This tendency for pastiche becomes most pronounced in the last film of the 'series', 1966's Uccellacci e uccellini (Hawks and Sparrows), though it is also very apparent in La Ricotta where the mix of kitsch colour footage (evoking historical artworks) clashes with Pasolini's own, preferred (at this stage) black and white footage, as well as with trick photography such as the sections of the film featuring sped up footage. Bondanella's comments on Uccellacci e uccellini later on note the part of the film where the crow - who Bondanella considers "functions as Pasolini's alter-ego) - exclaims "The age of Brecht and Rossellini is finished" (2003, 184).

    Pasolini himself often used the terms "contamination and mixture" to describe his use of pastiche (Stack, 28) which implies both a similarity and a difference between them. Whereas the terms pastiche and mixture suggest no single elements is dominant, "contamination" suggest an overall material with other, somewhat opposite materials introduced to radically alter its character. With Il vangelo Bondanella notes how Pasolini is "'contaminating' the traditional biography of Christ with the epical-religious qualities he believes the Italian subproletariat retains" (2003: 182). This perhaps goes someway to explaining Pasolini's switch during the initial phases of filming from the "reverential" style he used in Accatone to the more "varied" style he uses here (Stack, 84). Pasolini contaminates Matthew's Gospel with the various analogies to 'modern' day Southern Italy. This explains his choices in terms of locations, faces, music and costumes. Bondanella sums this up nicely:
    "Herod's soldiers dress as if they were fascist thugs; Roman soldiers wear costumes that resemble those worn by the Italian police; the flight of Joseph and Mary into Egypt recalls photographs of civilians fleeing over the Pyrenees after Franco's victory in the Spanish Civil War."
    Bondanella makes some nice comments on the film's use of the camera as well. "Nothing about The Gospel is more striking than its editing and sense of rhythm, for it is with a continuous process of rapid cutting and the juxtaposition of often jarring images that Pasolini forces us to experience the life of Christ through a novel perspective." (2003, 182) Calling Pasolini's Christ "an almost demonic and relentlessly dynamic figure" he notes how Satan is "dressed in the manner of a priest" (2003, 183). "A number of different camera styles are employed, ranging from rapidly edited scenes using extremely brief shots to very long takes and to those photographed with a hand-held camera from a subjective perspective. (2003, 183-4).

    I had not originally planned to cover Bondanella's book. Given the breadth of it's scope I didn't expect it really to give me the depth I was after. Furthermore, the number of similar works that have sprung up in its slipstream (not least the BFI's "The Italian Cinema Book" (2013) which Bondanella edited) means that the sheer volume of works which one could consult are overwhelming. However, as the above will hopefully demonstrate, Bondanella is so insightful that in the end I had to resist the urge just to copy out the entire text. As it is I think I have just one more scholar to visit before trying to draw this discussion to a close.


    Bondanella, Peter (2003) Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present. New York/ London: Continuum.

    Bondanella, Peter and Pacchioni, Federico (2017) A History of Italian Cinema. New York/ London: Bloomsbury.

    Stack, Oswald (1969) Pasolini on Pasolini. London, Thames and Hudson/British Film Institute.

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    Saturday, May 25, 2019

    Delving Deeper into Il vangelo secondo Matteo - Part 5

    I've been intrigued by P. Adams Sitney's book "Vital Crises in Italian Cinema" for some time, but only recently managed to find a copy to read the interest stems in a large part from the fact he looks at mainly at only a few directors, but those selected map nicely to my list of favourites. There are significant sections on Rossellini, De Sica, Visconti, Antonioni and Pier Paolo Pasolini. Furthermore, the book's opening few pages (free for Kindle) start by discussing some of Pasolini's ideas, including this passage, quoted on page 1, which inspired the book's title:
    "Neorealism was not a regeneration; it was only a vital crisis, however excessively optimistic at the beginning...Now the sudden withering of neorealism is the necessary fate of an improvised, although necessary superstructure: it is the price for a lack of mature thought." (Fellini, 231)
    Now for a director who is often talked about as practising Neorealism, writing before the period in which he was supposedly making "neorealist" films (1957, though the essay does not seem to have been published until 1965 alongside Fellini's script for the film), this is a fairly significant criticism. However, as I mentioned in the opening article in this series, the neorealist movement was actually fairly short lived. Whilst it's influence undoubtedly lived on, and it's influence is clearly visible in the films Pasolini made in the early 1960s, it was mainly limited to the decade following the end of the Second World War. Certainly, the above quote suggests that it was unlikely that Pasolini would then go on to make a series of films that he would consider to be neorealist. Indeed after some other initial comments, Sitney devotes the final part of his introduction to a more in-depth look at Pasolini's Uccellacci e uccellini (Hawks and Sparrows, 1966) which Sitney describes as "an elegaic essay on the sociology and iconography of neorealism" (15).

    Before that, however, he makes a number of interesting comments about Pasolini. Firstly he praises "his recognition of continuity between filmic iconography and that of the history of painting (which he studied under Roberto Longhi), and his locating a context for ambitious cinema in contemporary literary phenomena)" (11). Clearly this is particularly relevant for Il vangelo secondo Matteo (The Gospel of Matthew, 1964) which deals with a subject that is not only a literary adaptation - and one that largely limits itself to the words from one particular literary source - but also a subject that has been central to the history of painting. Indeed, shortly afterwards Sitney is discussing the iconography of Italian cinema and notes "By far the largest pool of such iconographic images have their source in the painterly tradition of Italy. The conventional visual code of the Church prescribed the representation of Christ and the narrative events of the Gospels" (12). Sitney, then, appears to agree with Marcia Landy (see part 4) that Pasolini does reference historical artworks on the subject. Furthermore, Sitney argues Pasolini's referencing of these historical works is made with a specific intention in mind, to point to the way that the iconography of Italian cinema is in "continuity" with historic paintings and other works.

    This is something that Sitney views as inevitable with Italian film in particular. He notes how such "icongraphical representation so permeates Italian life that it is not surprising to find it central to narrative cinema" (12). In looking for contrasts between Italian Jesus films and their American counterparts this is a key observation: Italian culture is soaked in a biblical iconography to an extent that quite unlike, and indeed beyond, that of the United States.

    Sadly, Il vangelo barely gets discussed at all. What Sitney does do, however, is highlight the centrality of Christian iconography in his other major films of the time, specifically Uccellacci e uccellini, Accatone (1961) Mamma Roma (1962) and La Ricotta (1963). Indeed Sitney notes how "Pasolini’s obsession with the via crucis dominates all his early black and white films" (172). Clearly, in certain ways, Il vangelo is the culmination of this. Crucially, however, "this obsession is not a measure of his piety, but almost the reverse, that is, the ground from which he argues with the church and with the Italian tradition, from the perspective of a self-proclaimed 'heretic' or...a prophetic rebel (172).

    This, I think, is a crucial point and again one that is sometimes overlooked in discussion of Il vangelo, no doubt because of some of Pasolini's own statements which appear to the contrary. I think there is sufficient material on this to merit a piece on its, so I will pick this idea up in a future post.


    Fellini, Federico (1965) Le notti di Cabiria. Modena: Cappelli.

    Sitney, P. Adams (2013, 1995) Vital Crises in Italian Cinema: Iconography, Stylistics, Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press

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    Wednesday, May 22, 2019

    Delving Deeper into Il vangelo secondo Matteo - Part 4

    Having introduced this series in part 1, and covered the analysis of Zygmunt Barański and Naomi Greene in part 2 and part 3 respectively, I now want to turn to Marcia Landy and her work on Antonio Gramsci. In fact, Landy only deals specifically with Il vangelo secondo Matteo fairly briefly, but it comes a a crucial point in her broader argument, but it feels so fresh and insightful that it's worth going through the broader material that brings her to that point.

    Landy's book, simply titled "Italian Film", begins in the silent era and carries on through to the present day, but it takes a chapter, following on from one on neorealism (121-148) to look at "Gramsci and Italian Cinema" (149-180). She starts by quoting David Forgacs observation that even at the height of neorealism, "films by directors associate with neorealism in the widest sense accounted for...less than a third" (Forgacs 117), noting that whilst they were successful abroad they typically flopped at their domestic box office.

    Landy identifies five reasons for "their demise", "(a) the return of Hollywood products, (b) the ongoing intervention of the Roman Catholic Church through censorship, (c) the consolidation of power by the Christian Democrats, and (d) the economic encouragement and support for films that promoted 'positive' images of Italian life" finally (e) filmmakers questioning the "constraints of neorealism, seeking forms of cinematic expression that...addressed the advent of consumer society and reexamined the political role of culture (149). [letters in brackets mine]

    This newer movement of the late 1950s/early 1960s is particularly significant in this respect because "the preoccupation with cinematic style and the reintroduction of historical subjects became a source of investigation for many of the filmmakers who were, in greater or lesser ways, influenced by Gramscian thinking" (149). For Landy "no other figure's ideas play such a large role in the development of the post-World War II Italian cinema" than Gramsci and she specifically cites his influence on Pasolini amongst others (149).

    It must have been hard enough for Landy to condense Gramsci's ideas down to the few pages she does here, but it's even harder for me to boil it down to something even smaller now, but here goes. A key concerns for Gramsci was the transfer of knowledge and ideas and he was concerned to see that the 'subaltern' (lower working class/peasants) learnt the critical skills to move away from 'common sense' towards 'good sense' which was at the opposite end of the spectrum to folklore.

    He saw the need for the subaltern not only to see "institutional reform" (151), but also to develop its own intellectuals (as opposed to those propping up the state) and see cultural change that would empower subaltern groups not least by studying folklore and national myths. Having grown up in Sardinia Gramsci was particularly concerned with the tension between the industrial North and the rural south, noting the lack of "unity between the workers in the North and the peasants in the South" (152).

    The role of intellectuals is particularly interesting as those aligning with the state were often "perpetuating the status quo and obstructing the creation of new intellectual strata and hence new social forms" (152).

    For me (and not necessarily Landy), this gives a new angle on Pasolini's portrayal of the pharisees and teachers of the law who are portrayed as much as intellectuals as anything else in Il vangelo. Certainly they prop up Rome (the status quo) but their intentions are not necessarily bad. And of course, many of the intellectuals in the film are played by Pasolini's friends, a level of self examination on a par with Orson Welles' damning portrayal of the director in La ricotta (1963).

    Whilst Pasolini's Jesus is in many ways portrayed as subaltern, in many ways he is distinct from the peasants amongst whom he spends his time. This is partly because of his good looks and cleaner appearance, but also, as noted in the third entry in this series, because of the way Pasolini's camera isolates him from them. So Jesus can be read as either an intellectual who has arisen from the subaltern, or perhaps as a Gramsci/prophet type figure, apart from the ordinary people, but seeking to raise up intellectuals to rethink and to challenge their myths and folklore.

    For the Italians, particularly those from the South at the time the film was made, a key element in their national myth and folklore was the Risorgimento (unification) of the country under Garibaldi. Landy discusses Visconti's Il gattopardo (The Leopard, 1963) which I have seen, but don't recall a great deal of, and also Blasetti's 1860 (1934), which I have not, but it leads me to think of another Garibaldi film which strangely Landy does not cover given the discussion of it in the context of neorealism (perhaps because of a lack of availability in 2000 when she was writing), Rossellini's Viva l'Italia! (1961). For me, the abiding image of this film, released only a few years before Pasolini's Il vangelo, is that of Garibaldi charging round the countryside in his revolutionary zeal. Is there a parallel to be drawn with Pasolini's similarly fast-paced protagonist? Now I've noticed it, I'm finding it hard to ignore.

    Landy notes how films such as Il gattopardo which are set in the past often "pick up the Gramscian concern to analyze the persistence of past forms of belief and action in the present" (153). Whilst this is not written with Il vangelo in mind, it is not difficult to see how it also applies. For Pasolini the myth defining event of the past he is concerned with in Il vangelo is not as recent as the Risorgimento, or the overthrow of Mussolini, but nonetheless influential on Italian society at the time he was making it, and his "analogical approach" to the Gospel of Matthew (Stack, 82).

    Having examined various other filmmakers, Landy arrives at Pasolini by saying his cinema "offers a perspective on modernity and capitalism from the vantage point of subaltern groups" (173). She notes however that he was trying to re-contextualise Gramsci's ideas in a new economic, political and cultural context, but also his "ongoing preoccupation with...relations between high and popular culture" (173). "His complex portrait of the world in his writing and films entailed mixing styles, disrupting expectations, challenging clichés, and offending audiences" (173-4). Whereas neorealism tended to assume its images could only be interpreted one way, Pasolini "drives a wedge of difference into neorealist plenitude. Accatone makes the image the site of an ambivalent decoding." (Viano 71)

    Landy's point is that as with Gramsci, "in Pasolini, one must find the difference in the usual assumptions of commonality and sameness" (174, emphasis mine). As a result "there are no unified narratives in his films, just different histories, affects, beliefs, and actions - fragments of a world torn from familiar contexts. There is...a blurring of the lines between fiction and 'the real', a preoccupation with theatricality,...allusions to other works of art,...the constructed, not essential and absolute, nature of the image" (175). "They adhere to the Gramscian notion of...the importance of demystifying common sense, cliché, and habituation" (175) Note here the use of "common sense" is that as defined above, the midpoint between folklore and good sense. To a certain extent this turns the understanding of Il vangelo as reverent on its head. The aim is to present a gospel of the people, demystified, so that the subaltern class will re-examine the role of the religious faith in Italian society and see how its current position is holding them as a group, back.

    Landy's specific discussion of Il vangelo is only around 400 words and follows on from her discussion of Accatone and she notes that "the film again creates a portrait that conforms to Gramsci's emphasis on questions of leadership and the role of intellectuals" (178). She disagrees however with Greene's claim that the film "scrupulously avoids the traditional iconography and cultural echoes" (Greene, 74). Indeed Landy finds that it ties episodes from the Gospels "to images of Renaissance painting..., earlier cinematic versions of the life of Christ, and the Sicilian landscape" (178). The point of this is "to link the past to contemporary history...The critical and political role of religion as the common sense of subaltern groups is central" (178).

    Her conclusion, though, is that "Il vangelo seems to offer a last gasp in his films of the Gramscian emphasis on the need to create 'a national-popular culture'" his later films would "express an increasing discomfort with Gramscian conceptions of cultural politics" (180).


    Forgacs, David (1990) Italian Culture in the Industrial Era: Cultural Industries, Politics, and the Public. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

    Greene, Naomi (1990) Pier Paolo Pasolini: Cinema as Heresy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Landy, Marcia (2000) Italian Film. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Stack, Oswald (1969) Pasolini on Pasolini. London, Thames and Hudson/British Film Institute.

    Viao, Maurizio (1993) A Certain Realism: Making Use of Pasolini's Film Theory and Practice. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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    Saturday, May 18, 2019

    Delving Deeper into Il vangelo secondo Matteo - Part 3

    In my previous post in this series I reviewed Barański's 1999 essay "The Texts of Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo". Here I want to look at another key work on the subject, Naomi Greene's chapter "The End of Ideology" from her book "Pier Paolo Pasolini : Cinema as Heresy". Originally published in 1990, three years before even Babington and Evans' "Biblical Epics", it's a text that many of those writing about Jesus on Film turn to. Of the many books about Pasolini, not only is it relatively old, but its title also suggests that Il vangelo will be discussed at length. (Where quote only receives page numbers it is Greene's book to which I am referring.)

    That said, however, the book's main coverage is barely over ten pages (70-80), though there is also several pages of discussion (60-67) on La ricotta (1962), Pasolini's contribution to the collaborative RoGoPaG, which I learn from Greene's book is also known as Laviomoci il cervello (Lets Talk About the Brain). For Greene the two works are very much linked, and she also notes how La ricotta is "Considered one of the high points of Pasolini's cinema" (60). There is also some discussion of Sopraluoghi in Palestina (On the Scene in Palestine, 1964) which she calls "virtually a cinematic afterthought" (70).

    Greene starts by looking at the (potential) tension between those reading the film from a Marxist perspective and those coming it from a Catholic perspective. In general Pasolini managed to appease many of those from both camps, though there were some detractors from his fellow Marxists. In particular Pasolini's depictions of several miracles caused some consternation. Quoting Pasolini's extended 'interview' with Jean Duflot, Greene notes how Pasolini:
    ...defended his portrayal of the supernatural on the grounds that what he called the 'subjective reality' of miracles exists. 'It exists,' he said, 'for the peasants of Southern Italy, as it existed for those in Palestine. Miracles are the innocent and naive explanation of the real mystery which lives in man, of the power hidden within him.' And it was precisely this 'subjective reality' that he sought to convey in Il Vangelo where, he maintained, the life of Christ is seen through the eyes of a 'believer'."
    (Greene 73-74) - with quotations from "Entretiens avec Pier Paolo Pasolini" Duflot (1970)
    Greene, however, is unconvinced that this approach works. For one thing, she suggests that the depiction "was given added credibility by the very fact of being seen. No literary description found in the Gospels can compete with a filmic sequence where Christ walks calmly upon the water or cures lepers of their sores." (73)

    The importance of the images also comes into the following section where Greene claims Pasolini "scrupulously avoids the traditional iconography and cultural echoes" aside from "the costumes
    of the Pharisees and the Roman soldiers, which evoke a specific painter, Piero della Francesca" though she also quotes Pasolini's citation of Duccio and Mantegna (74). Other writers have found a number of other painterly influences, and this raises a few interesting points, particularly with respect to Barański's point that what Pasolini says is not always backed up by the film itself, or indeed with other points he himself has made. For one thing Pasolini has described the film as not being so much as about Jesus, but as about Jesus plus 2000 years of Christian interpretation (Stack 91). (For more on Pasolini's references to paintings see this anonymous blog post). On the other hand, however, Pasolini's film is clearly trying to distance itself from the overall look and feel of renaissance art, and indeed films that have tried to reproduce it such as DeMille's The King of Kings (1927) or The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965).

    Of course, films such as The King of Kings, Ray's 1961 'remake' and the biblical epics of the 1950s were very much part of what Pasolini was targeting in La Ricotta (1963). Greene picks this up noting how the two films "work against traditional representations of Biblical scenes" even so "they do so in almost opposing ways" (75). She points out how in essence whereas "La ricotta reproduces familiar iconography only implicitly to denounce its falsity and distance from reality; Il Vangelo deliberately, and consistently, rejects such iconography" (75). Whereas his earlier films not adapting religious stories adopted elements of Christian iconography, here, "where the subject is mythic and epic" he uses a a more realistic approach (75). Greene nicely describes some of the key, iconoclastic depictions, which include Mary's depiction as a "bewildered young peasant woman" and Salome not as "the erotic goddess of Hollywood films but a graceful, almost timid adolescent" (75).

    In the opening article of this series I mentioned Antonio Gramsci and Greene is one of those authors who discuss his influence on Pasolini. This starts before the section dealing with this film specifically, and is first voiced in a quotation from Pasolini's discussion with Sartre:
    "I have created a national-popular work in the Gramscian sense. Because the believer through whom I see Christ as the son of God is a humble Italian [un personnagio popolare italiano]... seeing the world through his eyes I came close to Gramsci's national-popular conception of art." (Cristo e il Marxismo)
    Pasolini's comments about the "subjective reality" of the miracles very much relate to this and, as is clear, his phrase here about the film being a "national-popular work" is straight from Gramsci. Particularly in Gramsci's "Prison Notebooks" he explores the idea of literature (and beyond) in which the author identifies with the people by sharing their needs and problems. Gramsci perceived a paucity of Italian literature from the subaltern classes (peasants/working class/sub-proletariat, loosely speaking) seeing literature from other nations (e.g. France) or the intellectual class (which he saw as distinct in Italian society) and longed for a literature that reflected that strata of Italian society. In the early sixties we can see how Pasolini attempts to create works of national-popular cinema through works such as Accatone (1961) Mamma Roma (1962) and, of course, Il vangelo.

    Greene returns to this phrase and Gramsci's influence throughout, though noting that Pasolini's faith in it began to disappear around the time of Hawks and Sparrows (1966). It's interesting, in this respect, how a number of "his intellectual friends play those in power" particularly in contrast to the ordinary people who play the more minor roles (176). In Il vangelo we can clearly see Pasolini's desire to bring subalterns to the fore and yet the films also represents something of a failure in this regard. Greene discusses a number of  critics who found fault with the portrayal of the ordinary people in the film calling them "lifeless" and "expressionless" (78). There's also a lengthy and damning quote from Sandro
    "a single scene in which a character from the crowd succeeds in resisting the absolute fierceness of the messiah, not a single frame in which one of them emerges from a perspective which flattens and crushes the multitudes into a sub-human homogeneity." (Petraglia, 61-62)
    Greene finds that in "several respects" such criticisms "are valid" (emphasis hers), finding "little doubt that Pasolini does indeed drain the people of life and vitality" (79). She find this partly due to the "silence of Christ's followers" in the source material and Pasolini's "fidelity" to it, but significantly due also to the way "Pasolini consistently isolates Christ through visual means", particularly the film's use of close-ups. The above image captures this well, Jesus in close up in the foreground with the people some distance behind him in the background.

    Greene's summary to this line of thought has been quoted a few times, but it bears repeating as it's a nice piece of writing and an essential counterpoint to much of the unqualified praise given to the film
    "Christ appears, in fact, as a kind of Biblical intellectual who, despite an intense desire to be 'organically' linked to the people, cannot breach the immeasurable gap between them. One is left to wonder how his mute and passive followers will be able to further his teachings once he himself is gone." (79)
    One final quote, that flows from the discussion of Gramsci and Pasolini's desire to make a "national-popular epic" is a quote from his interview by Marisa Rusconi. Discussing why he chose Matthew's Gospel rather than any of the other three he dispensed with the usual 'stuck-in-a-hotel-room-because-of-the-pope' story and talked about why he thought Matthew was the most suitable for his purposes. "Mark's seemed too crude, John's too mystical, and Luke's sentimental and bourgeois." (Rusconi, 16). It's an interesting, alternative perspective to the usual story and also a nice summary of the four gospels. That said it perhaps says more about each gospel's adaptability, rather than their inherent characteristics. I don't think Matthew's Gospel does a particularly good job of reflecting the lives of the sub-proletariat - either in Jesus' day or in Pasolini's. It's formal structuring and repeated citations seem to have a more scholarly angle. That said, many scholars consider it the oldest extant version of the hypothetical Q source which, according to the theory, underlies both Matthew and Luke. Whilst I'm not sure I buy the theory, the argument could be made that the 'Q' material has more of a Gramscian national-popular feel to it than either of the Gospels that contain it, or the gospels that would follow it.

    "Cristo e il Marxismo: Dialogo Pasolini-Sartre," (1964) L'Unita, December 22, p. 2

    Duflot, Jean (1970) Entretiens avec Pier Paolo Pasolini Paris: Pierre Belfond.

    Greene, Naomi (1990) Pier Paolo Pasolini: Cinema as Heresy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Petraglia, Sandro (197) Pier Paolo Pasolini. Florence: Nuova Italia

    Rusconi, Marisa (1964) "4 Registri al magnetofono"  Sipario 222 (October) p.16

    Stack, Oswald (1969) Pasolini on Pasolini. London, Thames and Hudson/British Film Institute.

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    Tuesday, May 14, 2019

    Delving Deeper into Il vangelo secondo Matteo - Part 2

    Having outlined in my first post in this series the need to take in wider perspectives on Pasolini's Il vangelo secondo Matteo I thought I would now look at some of the other key writings on the film that I have been studying.

    First is Zygmunt G. Barański's "The Texts of Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo" in the book he himself has edited, "Pasolini Old and New". (Page numbers alone in brackets refer to this work) The fact that Barański is established enough to be able to pull together a series of essays on Pasolini and considers of all the Pasolini's films, the one he wishes to cover is Il vangelo gives a certain air to his commitment to the subject. This is important because he main thrust of Barański's argument is that it is a mistake to give too much weight to what Pasolini has said on the subject, as opposed to the filmic text itself.

    Barański starts by noting that "incongruities may be noticed between the finished film and many of Pasolini's statements about it" (282). This is in part because Pasolini began developing this film two years before its release in 1964, during which time he made frequent statements about it to the press meaning that "discrepancies between the film and comments about it were inevitable" (282). However he also finds that many of Pasolini's statements about the film, even after it was completed, do not tally with the film itself. This problem is worsened by the fact that much of the discussion about the film has tried "to integrate Pasolini's comments...with the film itself. The "film has been lost among its interpretations" (282). Barański never actually makes the observation that Pasolini's pronouncements on the film have 'become Gospel', but as a native English speaker, I'm afraid I cannot resist. In particular, as interesting as Oswald Stack's Pasolini on Pasolini is, Pasolini's words there get repeated time after time after time in scholarly discourse, as if authorial intent, or rather authorial claims of intent are the final word on a film's meaning.

    Nevertheless, Barański starts by outlining those very statements, alongside a number of other pronouncements, particularly those around the film's "analogical" approach (Stack, 82); presentation of "the history of Christ constructed out of two thousand years of Christian interpretation" (Pasolini, 33); and, its supposed "fidelity to the original" (284). Barański finds, however that these ideas are in conflict with each other and that "it is difficult to escape the conclusion that he was openly adding to the myriad interpretations of he Gospel" (288). "His diverging pronouncements do seem to fit in with that general intellectual uncertainty which characterized his thinking during the early to mid-Sixties" (288).

    Barański then examines the films structure, including a detailed examination of an example of how "Pasolini fashioned a single new narrative unit by synthesizing...four discrete yet contiguous episodes" from Matthew 11:25-12:21 (292). In particular he notes how the film "is more tightly organized than its source, since it has quite a marked circular structure which the Gospel lacks" (295). He also notes how "Pasolini eliminates Matthew and substitutes himself as a new 'evangelist' and source of information about Christ" even excluding his calling (296). This leads him to another section on Pasolini's "Deletions" from the text (296-300), most notably the miracles which Barański finds "presented as something illogical and arbitrary" suggesting that they are "marginal to Pasolini's view of Jesus"(298).

    I started this series by discussing he film's much vaunted "neorealism" and Barański eventually takes on questions of Pasolini's style, citing "documentary techniques (the sequences in cinema vérité and newsreel style" (303), "unearthed 'home movie'" (304), and a range of "'realist' practices", but also "'expressionistic' stylistic devices" (305). He (Barański) does however consider that the "role of 'analogy' is actually much less evident than might appear from Pasolini's explanations" (304). He summarises as follows:
    "He depicts Jesus according to different stylistic conventions, from the expressionism of the Baptism to the cinema vérité treatment of the trials, and from Neo-realism to his own sacralità frontale. It is as if Pasolini hopes that one or a combination of all these techniques might offer a definitive insight. (310)
    .In Barański's final analysis the film is not the "faithful adaptation" (314) it is considered to be, indeed it "diverges sharply from its source "to challenge its status (314). He finds Pasolini's film is "not so much about Christ as about texts on Christ" (314). "He is adding a new layer to the image of Christ by highlighting the conventionality of his apparently 'realistic' film" (314). Calling it Pasolini's "great Godardian moment" (314) he concludes that the film's "style and structure" (314) articulate that which Pasolini could not at the time.


    Barański, Zygmunt G. (1999) "The Texts of Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo" in Barański (ed.) Pasolini Old and New: Surveys and Studies. Dublin: Four Courts Press.

    Pasolini, Pier Paolo (1983) Il sogno del centauro: a cura di Jean Duflot Rome: Editori Riuniti.

    Stack, Oswald (1969) Pasolini on Pasolini. London, Thames and Hudson/British Film Institute.

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    Friday, May 10, 2019

    Delving Deeper into Il vangelo secondo Matteo - Part 1

    This is a more off-the-top-of-my-head post, so please don't quote me on any of it just yet!
    I've written various pieces on Pier Paolo Pasolini's Il vangelo secondo Matteo (1964) over the years but recently I've been feeling the need to re-examine some of the scholarship about the film. Mainly this is driven by the realisation that whilst many of my favourite works on the subject Jesus on Film raise the issue of neorealism, important things are being omitted. Take, for example, the impact of Antonio Gramsci on Pasolini's films. A quick scan of the indices of Tatum; Stern, Jefford and Debona; Walsh; Baugh; Reinhartz; and others reveals not one mention of Gramsci (though in some cases his would not necessarily be within the work's scope.

    Part of the problem stems, I think, from the distance between those scholars approaching the film from a biblical studies point-of-view, and other writers on Pasolini's cinema, but it also stems from the distance between Pasolini's time and our own, and between Pasolini's location and North America where the above writers all come from. For example, neorealism was very much a mid-to-late 1940s movement. It continued in the the early 1950, but, having never been hugely popular in Italy itself, fizzled out. It proved hugely influential, not least on subsequent Italian cinematic movements, but across the world. By the time Pasolini was directing his Gospel of Matthew it was over, but Italian cinema was entering another vintage period heralded by the likes of Fedrico Fellini, Michaelangelo Antonio and the like. This second period tended also to be in black and white - the most obvious similarity between the two sets of films and the greatest contrast between its American contemporaries, and indeed the cinema that most people today are familiar with. Clearly other aspects were in continuity with neorealism but have since fallen out of fashion and so again, conflating these two distinct periods is somewhat understandable.

    The questions that come back to me are then, firstly to what extent does Il vangelo secondo Matteo exhibit distinctives of neorealsim; and, why does Pasolini do so?

    There is, it seems to me a modern parallel, twenty four years ago Lars von Trier, Thomas Vinterberg and a number of other directors created and swore to uphold Dogme 95's Vow of Chasity. Festen, The Idiots, Italian for Beginners and a host of other films came out adhering to Dogme's rules and for a while the movement was much discussed and influenced all kinds of filmmakers even if they didn't take a purist approach to it. If you've seen Vinterberg or von Trier's more recent work you'll have noticed that they have moved on. Melancholia's special effects were not part of the manifesto. So if a director today was again to take up the rules of Dogme it would be worthy of closer consideration.

    This is essentially what Pasolini does. Il vangelo was released 18 years after Roberto Rossellini's pivotal Roma, città aperta (1946). It could possibly be nostalgic, retro, an homage, a pastiche or something else entirely neo-neorealism) but more needs to be said.

    And so my question is, why? I hope to get into that in a future post. And Antonio Gramsci, because I think he provides some of the answers.

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    Saturday, May 04, 2019

    The Bible (2013) - Part 1*

    I've been writing up reviews for individual episodes The Bible on a sort of ad hoc basis. Essentially, when I revisit one because it touches on something I am researching, I try to write it up then, having only reviewed the series as a whole when it first came out. So now at last I have returned to Episode 1*(by this I mean the first episode if you are looking at the series as ten episodes long, but in some places it aired as five longer episodes, so I guess it's the first half of episode one if that's you).

    The episode, and therefore the whole series, starts with the words of Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech and snippets from various other famous speeches where other famous orators have referenced God and/or the Bible. Many Bible film makers have attempted to give their production gravitas at the very beginning by use of similarish devices - think Cecil B. DeMille's opening lecture at the start of The Ten Commandments (1956) or Orson Welles' authoritative sounding narration at the start of King of Kings (1961). This is a contemporary twist, even as it is rooted in history, it is more recent history, and rather than riffing on ancient artefacts or texts, it adopts an approach more in touch with our age, one awash with soundbites.

    The creation and fall part of the series is perhaps most notable for its portrayal of Satan, which many noted at the time looks remarkably like then then non-conservative president, Barack Obama. This time around, it's even more striking. The makers denied it, of course, but it's hard to escape the feeling that even if this wasn't deliberate, it perhaps betrayed their deeper feelings. Other interesting casting includes the choice of a Scottish actor (David Rintoul) whose Scottish accent lends the role with a sense of connection with the great outdoors and dramatic weather (at the very least, constant rain).

    The Noah segment is startlingly brief, and is ended by a scene which starts with a God shot of Rintoul before zooming out. It's initially rather well done, but then the special effects kick in and it speeds up to reveal the whole globe covered in water. Not entirely convincing special effects and over the top sound effects, are something of a hall mark of this series. We get both here and the passage of time has hardly improved them. The vision of the entire globe covered in water must have played nicely to the programme's conservative viewer base. I can't help but wonder (admittently rather flippantly) whether they ever considered zooming out to show the water covering an earth that was flat...

    The next segment features Abram and Sarai, though here they are called simply Abraham and Sarah from the start. We start with a Abraham praying on a mountain top (using the obligatory helicopter footage) and hearing God call him out. We then cut to Sarah still at home on her knees, also prayin. Only he seems to hear God, however. Is this meant to reflect a reality - Abraham free to go for mountain walks whilst Sarah is stuck at home with the chores, or to legitimise a similar model today? I'm not sure quite how I'd like to see this played out, but I find the filmmakers' vision here disturbing. I suppose there's a chance that's the point, but that's not the impression I'm left with.

    Whilst Sarah is happy to believe her husband, with just a smile to convey her acceptance, Lot's wife is considerably more dubious from the start. I really dislike it when filmmakers stack the deck like this, implying Lot's wife was never really on board with God's plans. It not only makes it so much easier to overlooks the ethical problems of her fate in the text, but it also lays heavy interpretation on it. Lot's (unnamed) wife's fate isn't portrayed as just a momentary lapse, it's the result of her general attitude. Needless to say, she is cast in this negative light in almost every scene.

    Once Lot and his wife split from Abraham and his men, it's Sarah's turn to become the negative foil. Now it is she who mopes grumpily around and here she actively denies she will have a child. She tries to prevent Abraham from rescuing Lot and his clan (in a rare adaptation of that incident, which does cast Abraham in a different light, one that is, usually exorcised from most portrayals of him). When three visitors appear and suggest she will still have a child, she gulps rather than laughs. The three visitors are interesting as the two angels are non-white and the third is clearly meant to be Jesus. I quite want to go back and look at how the camera and the mise en shot indicates this without ever making it explicit.

    Which brings us to the most ill-fitting part of this episode, if not the entire series, namely the scene in Sodom and Gomorrah. It's hard to be even more over-the-top than a text that has a man attempting to buy off a crowd of would-be angel rapists by offering them his daughters instead, but somehow The Bible manages it. The daughters are mere children here and the whole exchange passage (which obviously reflects very badly on Lot, the supposed hero) is dropped. What we get instead is a long and gratuitous scene of armour-clad angels beating up/killing a huge number of male Sodomites, in fairly graphic ways. As I'm sure I have mentioned before somewhere (but can't remember where), the scene lasts far longer than the entire creation sequence, or than the story of Noah. Later Isaac, Jacob and Esau's stories will be, by and large, omitted, yet this imagined scene of violent divine retribution just goes on and on. It's reveals a strange set of priorities. Moreover, do the angels not realise all these people are about to get the burning sulphur treatment? It's hard to think of a moment that typifies the series more, and exposes its claims for authenticity more starkly, than this.

    Ultimately, here Lot's wife's crime could be interpreted as her not trusting Lot, as opposed to not trusting God. For some reason Lot has responsibility for both daughters, rather than both parents taking one each, and so Mrs Lot manages to get a little ahead. She only turns looks back, therefore,  because the other three fall behind. But of course, she has already been deemed guilty by the earlier scenes, so the filmmakers apparently consider that they have done enough to convince the audience that this is somehow justified.

    The last incident in this episode is, of course, Abraham's aborted sacrifice of Isaac, meaning the adult life of Isaac and pretty much everything to do with his two sons Esau and Jacob, the father of Israel, is omitted. It's a reminder that for all it's claims to historical authenticity this is very much a Christian, rather than a Jewish take on the text.

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    Wednesday, May 01, 2019

    Flint Street Nativity (1999)

    It's a bit of a stretch including Flint Street Nativity on this site as it's not really a dramatisation of the Bible as such. Jesus, for example, appears only as a large soft-bodied doll with a grotesque head - and even that falls of partway through. Instead it's the story of a school putting on a nativity play, only the children are all played by a host of TV comedians and actors from twenty years ago. The sets are scaled accordingly and the characters talk like kids, and their teacher is largely confined to just off screen, as a series of disasters and tangled relationships unfurl whilst the parents watch in the dark. Personally I was a little disappointed that it wasn't as funny as I expected. Frank Skinner's Inn Keeper / Herod figure obsessed by the quiz show A Question of Sport providing the most amusing highlights.

    Where things change, however, is in the programme's final act, once the show has come to a calamitous halt. The camera switches from following the kids around to mingling amongst their parents, who are also played by the corresponding actors. Suddenly we get a bit more depth to each child's more quirky behaviours, a glimpse of the stories that have shaped them the way they are. Moments here are genuinely moving, not least for the way it highlights that schools remain a place that children from different backgrounds mix largely unaware of the extent to which their parents are rich or poor, and coping or not coping. And somehow in the midst of that the film finds a note of hope.

    Twenty years on Flint Street Nativity is still remembered by those that saw it at the time, even if those of us that didn't had somehow never heard of it, but in the interim all that has really changed is that some of the actors have faded from view whilst others carry on. That in itself adds an additional air of nostalgia to what was already a nostalgic piece at the time. But it never idealises the trials of childhood and perhaps its biggest strength is the questions it leaves unresolved.

    Friday, April 26, 2019

    Matriarchy and Feminism in Genesis

    I've been looking at the biblical Matriarchs on film and particularly how that is viewed from a feminist perspective. Part of the problem with this starts with the question of who exactly qualifies as a Matriarch in the Bible. For the men it is easy - the Hebrew patriarchs are Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the fathers of the nation. For the women though it is more complicated. The inclusion of Sarai and Rebekah is simple enough, but Jacob had two wives Rachel and Leah., Furthermore, some of his sons were the children of his servants Bilhah and Zilpah, should they be included? And if so what about Abraham's servant Hagar? And then there's the question of Eve, technically she is the mother of humanity itself, but there seems a stronger link somehow between her motherhood and Adam's fatherhood. Should she be included in such a discussion? Should Noah's unnamed wife?

    Like the biblical stories themselves, film adaptations of Genesis have tended to prioritise their Patriarchs over their Matriarchs. Cinema has tended to adopt a male point of view and done little to minimise the inherent sexist assumptions of the text.

    Perhaps the Matriarch, if we can call her that, who has fared least worst amongst the films based on Genesis is Eve, who typically enjoys as much screen time as her husband. That said Eve portrayal is typically no less problematic for two main reasons. Firstly, despite the fact that most theologians would tend to accept a metaphorical interpretation of the story of The Fall, the vast majority of film adaptations literalise it and hence tend to portray Eve as more culpable than her husband. This is frequently intensified by the number of films in which Eve is initially portrayed as the object of the male gaze. Several films emphasise this point further by ensuring the audience's first sight of Eve being via a shot from Adam's point of view.

    The second reason that portrayals of Eve are problematic is their sexualisation of Eve. Whilst Eve's nakedness is found in the text, it is often used as a form of titillation. Eve is typically depicted as a slim, beautiful, young, and often blond woman whose body is almost entirely exposed but for the odd strategically-placed plant. One imagines that pornographic films such as Bible (dir: Wakefield Poole, 1974), do not stray too far from the approach of the more mainstream releases.

    Sarai and Hagar
    In recent years more progressive visions of the women of Genesis have begun to emerge, in contrast to films such as The Bible (dir: John Huston, 1966) which, for example, leaves the text's repeated shaming of the childless Sarai very much unchallenged. One more recent film to draw attention to the problematic portrayal of Sarai in the text is 2003's comic The Real Old Testament (dir: Curtis Hannum) which juxtaposes ancient values against modern ones by relocating the characters from Genesis in the format of a reality TV show (specifically The Real World which has been running since 1992). As there is so little biblical material to define her, Sarai (Kate Connor) naturally channels modern values and thus appears as a more sane, rational character than her more awe-struck and compliant husband or than the egotistical "God". The narrative sticks closely to the Bible, but the camera gives Sarah more time and a fairer hearing than most films she is presented as the wittiest and most attractive character of the three. When God and Abraham talk about circumcising Abraham's entire tribe or sacrificing Isaac, she double-takes or raises an eyebrow to the camera expecting viewers will see the same peculiarity as she does.†

    Sadly the next major portrayal of Sarah, in the TV series The Bible (2013) (pictured) reverts very much to type, unmoved by the fifty years of feminism since Huston's earlier film. Few films seek to understand Sarai, let alone sympathise with her, often depicting her dealings with Hagar in an even poorer light than the texts, for example making Hagar carry heavy loads even when very heavily pregnant.

    However. the portrayal of Hagar is often similarly unsympathetic. Whereas the text says only that she "despised" Sarai, several films show her criticising Sarai to her face for being barren. I wrote more about this in my piece on films about Ishmael a few years ago.

    The intention here consistently seems to be to portray Abraham as decent, sympathetic and essentially good. Unfortunately given that he would have been her social superior. He comes across as weak and controlled by Sarah, rather than the master of his own destiny. The consistently shrewish portrayals of Sarah are bolstered by many films using a voice-over to inform the audience that God has also reassured Abraham that he is making the correct decision. The efforts to beatify Abraham also extend to the portrayal of Ishmael's conception. Almost universally this is depicted as Sarah's suggestion, for example in Abraham (Joseph Sargent, 1994).

    In contrast to Sarai, the Bible portrays Rebekah in marginally more positive light. She hears God for herself (indeed her husband is bypassed) and takes an active role in ensuring the words she has heard from him come to pass. Yet, if anything, Sarah's daughter-in-law Rebekah fairs even worse in cinema and television. Things started well enough, with Henri Andréani making a film for Pathé in which she was the lead character. Rebecca (1913) told the story of Abraham's servant meeting with her at the well in village of Nacaor. She has featured in few films since, however, with Marcello Baldi's Giacobbe: L'uomo che  lottò con Dei (Jacob: The Man who Fought with God, 1963) and Peter Hall's Jacob (1994) being notable exceptions. In both she is shown as the initiator of Jacob's deception of Isaac in order to fulfil his mother's prophecy. In Baldi's film, Jacob view's Esau selling of his birthright for a bowl of soup as "just a joke", but Rebekah has the foresight to see it as a fulfilment of her prophecy. Hall's film further justifies Rebekah's actions by giving her the additional insight that, of her two sons, Jacob would make the better leader of the tribe after her husband death. Giving her the additional insight that Jacob would make a better leader of the tribe than his brother because he is "a man who cares about the tribe", emphasising her wisdom rather than her deception.

    Leah and Rachel
    Unsurprisingly both films also feature Rachel and Leah. The actresses playing the role in Baldi's film looks so physically different that it is hard to imagine they are sisters. Rachel is blonde and fair-skinned, whereas Leah has looks more typical of the region, but also has noticeable hair on upper lip. Given the way that the Bible contrasts Rachel's beauty with her supposedly "plain" sister (Gen 29:17-19), it is not difficult to interpret the differing appearance of these two actresses as reinforcing racist/sexist western notions of perceived beauty.

    One incident that tends to get very little coverage in bilical film is the passage from Genesis 30 dealing with the birth of Leah, Rachel, Zilpah and Bilhah's children. Typically the important and more human, fallible details of the passage tend to get glossed over to produce a mere genealogy on the "sons of Jacob" (when his involvement would have been relatively minor compared to that of the four women). There is an significant amount of potential human interest in this story which rarely gets picked up by dramatists. There's also a slight comic undertone to the text's portrayal of Jacob's wives trading sex with him for the hallucinogenic fertility-aid mandrake plant (Gen. 30:14-17). Only two films depict this incident, the word-for-word adaptation Genesis (director unnamed, 1979), produced by John Heyman for The New Media Bible and The Real Old Testament which makes the most of the peculiarity of the passage. Again the spoofing of both the biblical text and 90s youth culture mean that the incident is played as a bunch of college students getting high, where sex is a far lower ranking commodity than drugs.

    Having died before the start of the film, Rachel is physically absent from La Genèse (Cheick Oumar Sissoko, 1998), yet her absence (along with the 'loss' of her son Joseph) haunts the film, which charts the woes of Jacob's clan later years. Beset by grief, Jacob remains in his tent for much of the film, only being persuaded to leave when relations with the neighbouring tribes come to a crisis point. Unwilling or unable to cope with his troublesome sons and in fear of his brother the tribe is cast into crisis which manifests itself in various ways not least the story of another kind-of-Matriarch Tamar, and her dealings with her husband's father.

    Leah, however, has survived, making La Genèse the only film to depict her but not her sister. It gives voice to the unfair treatment she has received from Jacob. In her opening line she exclaims "I have no husband! My children are fatherless. I have no place in your heart." She is also shown as an active character protesting about the rape of her daughter Dinah by interrupting and disrupting the conversation between Jacob and Hamor, overturning Hamor's gifts and also complaining about her sons failure to respond properly to Dinah's rape.

    Dinah is the subject of arguably the most radical retelling of the Matriarch's stories, The Red Tent (Roger Young, 2014) which not only tells various stories from the latter part of Genesis from her perspective, but also places the other women in the stories at its narrative centre. Dinah describes her mother Leah as "strong and capable and splendidly arrogant" and Zilpah and Bilhah as aunts, rather than mere slaves. At the centre of the story (and it is implied the tribe) is this community of women and their private space, the red tent of the title. It also takes the radical step of making the bridal night swap Rachel's idea, to which Leah acquiesces, unbeknownst to either man. The series over- idealises the way these four women share one husband, however, alternatively it could be read as highlighting the impossible expectation that one woman should embody all qualities: wisdom, beauty and motherhood.

    I've not had a chance to survey all the films based on Genesis for this piece, but I find it interesting how more recent films have attempted to grapple with some of these issues, even as others manifestly have not. There's a challenge at the heart of it all however: given that this was a deeply patriarchal society and the similarly patriarchal nature of the texts, how should these stories be portrayed. Whilst the approach of The Red Tent has its admirable qualities, it does just end up making things a little too cosy. Jacob is a good man and the women generally get on and so the potential issues are glossed over. At the other end of the scale The Real Old Testament is so scathing in its approach it rejects and space for genuine spirituality despite the patriarchal society and assumptions of the times the story occurred in and was written about. La Genese perhaps manages a good balance of the two - the nature of the society is exposed, but that is very much at a human level, allowing the film's finale to still allow for the possibility of a God who may one day right these wrongs.

    †In one of my favourite moments in this film God visit's the couple's tent in the middle of the night whilst Sarai is sleeping, involved much shrugging and mugging for the camera. Later in a camera diary moment she observes "It's like, he invented time…can he tell it?"