• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.


    Name:
    Matt Page

    Location:
    U.K.












    Saturday, May 18, 2024

    Jone o Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei (Ione or The Last Days of Pompeii, 1913)

    Set, famously, in 79AD, film adaptations of Edward Bulwer-Lytton's 1834 novel "The Last Days of Pompeii" do not usually cross into Bible film territory. However, the 1935 Hollywood version (my review) by the directors of King Kong Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper somehow manages to shoehorn Jesus into the picture and so I'm always keen to see other versions of the story just in case. Plus I'm just a big fan of Roman peplum films anyway.

    So the recent showing of one of the two 1913 Italian versions of the film at Kenington Bioscope's Seventh Silent Film weekend proved irresistible: It ticks all my boxes, as a love of Italian cinema, silent movies and the potential for a biblical character as well.That potential is only slight. In the novel – itself inspired by Karl Briullov's painting "The Last Day of Pompeii" – four characters end up being Christians (after Olinthus converts Apaecides and Glaucus and Ione convert later), but there are no biblical characters from what I recall.

    As it turned out, I was to be disappointed on the biblical characters front: The film sticks in its lane and doesn't even really explore the Christianity angle. Nevertheless I thought I may as well record a few thoughts here while I was at it.

    As I mentioned above 1913 witnessed two Italian versions of the story being made. The more famous one, directed by Eleuterio Rodolfi and possibly Mario Caserini (who was one of the earliest Italian cinema pioneers, directing a stack of Shakespearean and historical films) is simply called Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei (a literal translation) and had been produced by Ambrosio – one of the major film production companies in pre-WWI Italy, based in Turin. You can view it on Wikipedia. The handouts/notes for the day, written by the Italian silent historical film expert Ivo Blom identified this as the original film. Apart from anything, it was Ambrosio who had had success with the 1908 version. Blom explains that 

    "when Ambrosio heard that the rival company Pasquali, their city rival, was going to release an equally ambitious, impressive film on the same subject and launched at the same time, they were seething. Yet not even appeals to the court could stop the release of Pasquali's version which had its premiere in Rome four days after the Ambrosio version". 

    Yet aside from local rivalry, there were other reasons why both companies may have set their hearts on adapting Bulwer-Lytton's novel. Firstly, earlier in the year another adaptation of a 19th century novel based on the mid-first century Roman Empire had enjoyed huge success. To say the 1913 Quo Vadis? was a groundbreaking movie is something of an understatement: it redefined the possibilities of what historical cinema could be, set the bar to a new height in terms of spectacle and grandeur and was celebrated across the globe. So film producers did what film producers tend to do and looked for the nearest bandwagon they could jump on. Ben-Hur was tied up in a legal case, but Last Days was evidently very much available.

    The other key motivation was that Vesuvius (very much the villain of the piece) had erupted again in 1906, killing 100 people and activity began stirring again in 1913 (though not as dramatic) so despite the story being set 1850 years in the past, it had particular modern relevance.

    I've yet to see the Ambrosio version, but, sadly the Pasquali version (directed by Giovanni Enrico
    Vidali and Ubaldo Maria del Colle) was kind of dull. Not knowing the story, it was hard to get much sense of the plot, particularly as the available intertitles were displayed too briefly to be able to read them. I'm not sure if any other prints of the film still exist, but were it to ever get a DVD/ digital release I hope they extend the duration of the title that remain.

    From what I could work out, though, Nydia, a slave/servant with a visual impairment, essentially helps Glaucus and Jone escape the evil (pagan) priest Arbaces (played by Vidali, one of the directors). The individual scenes feel very much like they could have been shot in a early 20th century country house and are fairly pedestrian, but for the fact that Suzanne De Labroy who plays Nydia overacts quite badly.

    There were a couple of shots of the crowd, big shots designed to impress and to showcase the 300 people who purportedly starred in the film, but the camera angles were very unconventional, betraying a sense that they didn't have have enough extras to fill a normal shot and so had to cram the ones they did have into a narrow frame. The production also advertised “100 lions and tigers” and they, along with the wider amphitheatre shots are the highlight, ably abetted by the horses. 

    What I did find interesting, however, is the way the film adopts Maggi’s innovative stumble-past-the-camera shot as seen in both Ambrosio's earlier Last Days (1908) and his later Giuda (1911). It’s not an exact reproduction,  but it certainly seems like a nod. Or was it just a rip-off? Perhaps it was a way to leave audiences thinking they had seen the Ambrosio remake – that seems a little far fetched though.

    Sadly. in contrast with the 1908 film, the climax of the Pasquali film was a little disappointing. Things descended into chaos, but the moment the volcano erupts felt a little sedate. But perhaps that's on me. Perhaps, with a serious volcanic eruption lodged in the collective memory, too great a proportion of the film's potential viewers might object to over-the-top, Hollywood-style, pyrotechnics.

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    For a different (and, lets face it, better) take on the film have a look at the review of my blog-twin Paul Joyce over at his IThankYouArthur blog who reviewed the whole day.

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    Saturday, May 04, 2024

    Noah Adaptations p01: Introduction

    I'm going to start a new series looking at adaptations of the Noah story, which is going to be broader than just film to look at other, earlier, media (including “The Deluge” (1840) by Francis Darby, above). But I'm also going to be looking at adaptation in an era of changed weather patterns and human responses to that, and the idea that adaptation has parallels with recycling. 

    The obvious convergence point -- for those that know me -- is Darren Aronofsky's 2014 film Noah which presents Noah as a passionate environmentalist, whose absolute belief that God shares his passion drives him to almost wipe out his family (and therefore the remaining vestiges of destructive humanity).

    I don't know that I have much more to say about it at this point. but if I have time I'll perhaps compose a super list of Noah films, though given the sheer number of animated takes on this film it might prove tricky to know where to put the cut-off point.

    Also I'm on the hunt for a good reception history guide to Noah (sadly the Wiley Blackwell volume "Genesis Through the Centuries" is still a couple of years away from publication. I'm hoping my access to De Grutyer's "Encyclopedia of the Bible and its Reception" is still valid.

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    Thursday, April 18, 2024

    My Cinema Introduction of The Book of Clarence


    Next Tuesday (23rd April) I'll be introducing a special screening of Jeymes Samuel's The Book of Clarence (2024) at the Phoenix Cinema in Leicester. There are still some places spare so you'd be interested in coming along you can still get tickets here

    Come along, say hello and, if you want, have me sign your copy of "100 Bible Films". 

    It all starts at 7:45pm.

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    Friday, April 05, 2024

    The Chosen (2021) s2e08

    I have been working through The Chosen very slowly, but in order, mainly because I'm trying to write up the episodes as I go. However, as I was running a Jesus in film course last weekend, I wanted to have a look at the way it deals with the Sermon on the Mount so I jumped ahead. So it makes some sort of sense to write some initial impressions now, even if I have more to say when I worked my way through the rest of the episodes in season 2.

    Writing the sermon

    The first point of note is that Jesus and Matthew are now heading off into the hills on writing retreats. I don't know if there's been any build up to this in the previous episodes, but it soon becomes clear here that they are working together on Jesus' big speech – the Sermon on the Mount – which will take place imminently. 

    On the one hand I really like this approach. As much as I love the scene from The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) where Jesus spontaneously bursts into a brilliant rendition of Luke's Sermon on the Plain, I do feel precious few Jesus films have ever really stopped to consider the process behind the formation of these words which seems like a major omission for an artistic process that seeks to reflect on Jesus' life. 

    For what it's worth I find a lot of the scholarship around this fairly lacking as well. On the one hand more conservative scholars argue reasons why it was perfectly possible for Matthew to capture flawlessly the very words Jesus spoke. On the other hand, the more liberal-minded have historically argued Matthew and Luke have a common source which both shape to their particular purposes and that the Sermon is just a composite of bits of Jesus' teaching.
    I'm not opposed to the essence of those theories, but they don't seem very connected to the likely realities of Jesus' ministry. If we take for granted that he had 3 years of itinerant ministry, then that is a lot of time spent speaking in public. Perhaps he never said the same thing more than once and we have only a tiny fraction of his message. But it's long seemed more likely to me that he would have re-used the same speeches again and again, recontextualising them for a new setting and honing them as he went along, much like travelling preachers and stand-up comics do today.

    Secondly, and I do recognise that I've already headed into a major detour here, it's often said that the Sermon on the Mount was just a Matthean literary device to paint Jesus as a sort of Moses figure. Certainly there are plenty of touches of that in Matthew's Gospel, but it's also certainly possible that Jesus saw that angle himself and so decided to do some sort of prophetic action like this himself. After all the basic premise of the feeding of the 5000 was that all these people had followed Jesus to a remote location. The miracle itself naturally attracts scepticism, but I'm not sure that diminishes the likelihood of the preaching event in the first place. And if (on this occasion) people had traipsed up a mountain to hear him preach then it makes sense to think it might be a lengthy sermon just to make it worthwhile for the people who have given up so much time to come to hear him. A quick whizz through the Beatitudes would barely seem worth the effort. Far better to whip out the greatest hits. So while it seems to me unlikely that we have a transcript of Jesus' words that day, it doesn't seem implausible to me that Jesus did do a talk on a mountain and that the text we have is no a million miles away from what he might have said.

    Anyway, I like the idea that Jesus worked on his words, his presentation, his imagery away from the crowd. Perhaps it's my introvert side, or the side of me that occasionally agonises over word choices (before then splurging out something ill-formed and misspelt a few moments later). So I like the way the series shows this, even though there's also something rather Sam Seaborne and President Bartlett-like about the whole thing. 

    Dramatically it's also a great way to put the beatitudes in fresh context and make the audience look at it in a new way. It draws attention to them in a way that would be difficult in a more formal setting, but it also shows how their highly structured format is something of a set-piece.

    Jesus: Live!

    If the writing of the beatitudes opens the episode, then it's the moments leading up to the sermon that end not only the episode but also the series as a whole. I have to say that the way that Dallas Jenkins and his team have portrayed the sermon is quite unlike anything I've ever seen before, or even pictured it.
     
    Broadly speaking, I like being surprised like this, even if I dislike the filmmakers' specific interpretation. Because who's to say I'm right? And what does the filmmaker see that I do not? How do they make me look at things in which I haven't. It seems contrary to expectations, but sometimes the ones you react most strongly against are the ones you most need to see.

    And here I do dislike the overall set up. This isn't how I imagined things. The whole thing feels like Jesus is about to play at a big festival. This starts early on with the disciples handing out (hand-made) flyers and nailing up posters. (I've never seen any disciple or any other follower of Jesus telling people to come, or doing anything to help them find this big event. They all just turn up by magic, don't they?)

    When we arrive at the mount itself the first thing we see is Jesus, back to the camera practising (which I like having wondered about it before), but as the scene unfolds it emerges that we are in a huge backstage area. We're shown the crowd arriving occasionally, but their cut off from the disciples and other followers milling about behind this long curtain. Jesus' preparation is interrupted by some discussion about what he will wear – a rather stereotypical way of enabling the woman to contribute. It takes four of them and even them they can't decide among themselves until one delivers the casting vote and a rather awkward-looking blue sash is employed for the occasion.
     
    All in all though this is the most big-church, evangelical the show has felt yet. It's almost showbiz, certainly there's a sense of hype and anticipation. Eventually Peter comes up to Jesus and tells him it's time (which feels particularly odd). Jesus moves in slow-motion past his followers' grinning encouraging faces, parts the curtain and steps out into the crowd.

    My gut feel, then, is that I like this. It feels commercial and hyped, but it does make me think. You see whether or not I think the Sermon on the Mount was a one off, one of a series of events, or just a literary device to bring a block of his teaching together while comparing him to Moses, I've never really considered that this might have been a big deal for Jesus. I'm very happy with the idea of a human Jesus, but rarely thought about his nerves, his need to prepare, his desire to execute the details well. The possibility that he considered his labouring over the details as important to his success as his miracles.

    Moreover as someone who used to work organising church events, analysing the details, thinking about things from every angle and doing all I can to ensure things are as right as they can be, I'd never thought about the Sermon on the Mount – or any of Jesus' preaching in those terms. For someone whose always been keen to stress Jesus' humanity, I realise I've allowed the religious pattina to remain around how he delivered his teaching. It's not that I favour the Greatest Story Ever Told approach where he stands on a hill everyone remaining completely still as he reads the words out in unexcited fashion. Quite the contrary. I like the more passionate, more ad-libbed portrayals of, say, Dennis Potter's Son of Man (1969). But this relies on a whole assumption that Jesus was the kind of brilliant orator that could deliver a brilliant piece of oratory, just from some half-formed ideas he had in his mind. 
     
    I realise too that I've previously left the disciples out of the picture. Yes I've thought about the people at the back only hearing "blessed are the cheesemakers", but not thought about those close to Jesus on such a monumental occasion. The glow of being close to something remarkable like this, the desire to want to play a meaningful part.

    I'm still not saying this is how I think these events happened. But they have really made me think about the limitations of my own assumptions and my own blindspots and challenged me about my thinking.

    Series finale

    Just as Jesus steps through the curtain (so close to the camera that the lens distorts his features – the closest The Chosen has come yet to Poor Things) – the camera fades to black and it's the end of not only the episode, but the entire season. It's something the filmmakers seem quite pleased with. Sometime after the release of season 3 they released a video called "The sermon so big it took 2 different seasons to tell it..." showing the end of the second series and the start of season 3.
     
    Again this is an interesting decision artistically speaking. Season finales tend to fall into one of two camps: cliff-hangers or neat conclusions (though some attempt both). Putting the break moment before the first words of the Sermon on the Mount is certainly an unusual choice for a cliff-hanger – although, I suppose, options are limited given it's an adaptation of 1st century texts. And given the start of the episode, we certainly know what his first words are going to be once Jesus opens his mouth. I don't imagine people binge-watching the programme will delay going to bed on account of it.
     
    On the other hand, there are clearly a few story lines that are reaching completion here (and a few more would perhaps be more apparent if I'd chosen to review this episode in order) but the tying up of threads from the season in general doesn't seem to be a huge concern.
     
    Instead, then, this series break seems to suggest that this point in Jesus' life is particularly notable. It marks a sea change. In Matthew's Gospel (the only one to contain *the* Sermon on the Mount) only four of 28 chapters have elapsed by this point. But for The Chosen that curtain Jesus steps through marks a transition. Perhaps (and again I need to watch the rest of season 2) this is the point in which he goes from being a successful local preacher to being a nationally recognised figure, of having set his manifesto out on a big stage. The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) contains a similar moment to this, though at a different point in Jesus' ministry: the raising of Lazarus. It's there that we get a sense Jesus has crossed a threshold and we see him literally being pulled towards the grave.

    Judas

    The other major transition in this episode is that we finally meet Judas Iscariot. The show actually does a great job of catching the audience unawares with this. We meet Judas and a colleague as anonymous new characters at the start of the episode. This gives us a great introduction to the character, so we get to know him and like him as a person before his name is revealed as a twist in the latter moments of the episode. Because, of course, everyone knows Judas, and his reputation is unlikely to be the kind of thing the series tampers with too greatly. Why would they? It's a story arc to rival that of Darth Vader's.

    At the same time this Judas has already been involved in shady dealings and shows signs of being easily led. He and his colleague are in the process of exploiting a poor landowner getting him to sell part of his land for significantly less than it's true worth. They have their sales patter worked out so their poverty stricken mark is happy with the deal, but they don't reveal it's true worth. Maybe that's his own fault. No laws seem to have been broken even if it's ethically grey. But somehow, in Judas' mind at least, this has crossed a line. He's no longer happy with what he and his colleague have done. Despite the incomparable wealth he has now realised, something is gnawing at his soul. By the end of the episode he's left his partner (in not-quite crime) and join Jesus' followers.
     
    Shorn of the burden of his reputation, these brief few scenes reveal so much about this interpretation of Judas. Firstly that he is a man with some form of conscience. There are only hints as to what ethically-murky operations he may have been involved in in the past, but he has a conscience and realises how important right-living is to him. He's a good guy (at least in his own mind) and when he finds himself having ended up in more morally suspect waters he sets a new course.
     
    However, it also reveals that this Judas is easily led astray. He and his colleague may not have lied, but their whole schtick is rehearsed and based on using deception to their advantage. Indeed, just like what (we assume) will happen later in the show, Judas has found himself in a situation where someone leads him to morally compromise himself, someone else suffers greatly as a result and when Judas realises this, he's consumed with remorse. Here, he seems to lack foresight about where certain actions will lead him ethically speaking.
     
    Following on from that, the third thing it reveals is that here, Judas' moral weakness is most exposed when there's money involved. This has a complicated history. All four Gospels have Judas being given money for betraying Jesus, and this is something that intensifies as we move from Mark to John. Mark simply records that the chief priests promised to give him money. Matthew introduces the idea that it was for 30 pieces of silver (absent also in Luke) and both include a (different) story about Judas' death, though Luke's occurs at he start of the Book of Acts. John really ramps things up. Having already introduced Judas as "a devil" (6:70) in 12:1-8 we again get the story of the woman anointing Jesus (see my analysis of the multiple significant variations in this story here) only this time the only disciple grumbling that the nard wasn't sold so the money could be given to the poor is specifically identified as Judas and it's revealed that he only said this "because he was a thief" (and so wanted to steal some of that theoretically donated money). These verses then become the soil from which grows the antisemitic stereotypes about Jews and money which have led to so much persecution at the hands of Christians in the past.
     
    So while I like the idea of showing Judas as someone who is attracted to goodness while also being easily led into morally compromising himself, I do wish they'd chosen an scenario that wasn't money related. And I hope that when the betrayal happens, Judas' motivation is going to take into account the tragic history of how these verses have been interpreted in the past. I'm encouraged, at least, by my initial impression that Judas doesn't seem obviously more 'coded' as Jewish than the other disciples (as other Jesus films have done). Perhaps I'll return to that as the series develops.

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    Sunday, February 11, 2024

    Which Bible Films Celebrate a Significant Anniversary in 2024?

    This should really have been a start of the year post, but I'm thinking about possible screenings I could introduce or films reaching significant milestones this year that might be good to write about / talk about at festivals / discuss on podcasts etc. so I thought it would be good to create a (non-exhaustive) list of the main ones.

    100 years (1924) 

    Die Sklavenkönigin (The Moon of Israel, Michael Curtiz)
    Quo Vadis? (Gabriellino D'Annunzio & Georg Jacoby)

    75 years (1949)

    Samson and Delilah (Cecil B. DeMille)

    70 years (1954)

    Day of Triumph (John T. Coyle & Irving Pichel)
    Demetrius and the Gladiators (Delmer Daves)
    The Silver Chalice (Victor Saville)

    60 years (1964)

    Il vangelo secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to Matthew, Pier Paolo Pasolini)
    Saul e David (Marcello Baldi)

    50 years (1974)

    Moses the Lawgiver (Gianfranco De Bosio)
    The Story of Jacob and Joseph (Michael Cacoyannis)

    40 years (1984)

    Samson and Delilah (Lee Philips)
    Second Time Lucky (Michael Anderson)

    35 years (1989)

    Jésus de Montréal (Denys Arcand)
    Visons of Ecstasy (Nigel Wingrove)

    30 years (1994)

    Al-mohager (The Emigrant, Youssef Chahine)
    Genesis: Creation and Flood (Ermanno Olmi)
    Jacob (Peter Hall)

    25 years (1999)

    La Genèse (Genesis, Cheick Oumar Sissoko)
    Jesus
    (Roger Young)
    Mary, Mother of Jesus (Kevin Connor)
    Noah's Ark (John Irvin)

    20 years (2004)

    The Passion of the Christ (Mel Gibson)
    Shanti Sandesham (P Chandrasekhar Reddy)
    Judas (Charles Robert Carner)

    10 years (2014)
    Exodus: Gods and Kings (Ridley Scott)
    Noah (Daren Aronofsky) 
    The Red Tent (Roger Young) 
    Son of God (Christopher Spencer)
    The Savior (Robert Savo)

    I guess there are three that really stand out for me at least. Firstly, the 60th anniversary of Pasolini's Il Vangelo secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to Matthew, 1964). It's a film that has interested me for a long time and one I've written about both here and in print many times, particularly last year when I contributed a (extra-long) chapter on it for Ken Morefield's book "Film as an Expression of Spirituality: The Arts and Faith Top 100 Films".

    Then there's the 75 year mark for Cecil B. DeMille's Samson and Delilah (1949) a film which really kick-started the 1950s revival of classical era historical movies in general and of biblical films in particular.

    The other is the 20 year anniversary of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004). The milestone is much smaller, but the film still looms relatively large in the collective mind and has been quite significant in its impact it's had on what has come to be called "faith-based" films. The experience of that film being released was formative for me -- I learnt so much from the debates and the scholarship that surrounded the movie.

    Anyway, if you're a cinema/church planning on screening any of these films; a festival organiser wanting someone to discuss them; an editor looking for an article on them; or a podcaster who'd like a knowledgeable guest to chat about them, then it would be great to hear from you.

    Lastly, there are obviously a bunch of films I've missed off (some due to debatable dates, but are there any major ones I've not included?). 

    Sunday, February 04, 2024

    Two new biblical shorts announced:
    Jael Drives the Nail and Our Child

    Jael and Sisera (Artemisia Gentileschi)

    Two weekends ago I had the privilege of being a judge for The Pitch film fund, which offers production finance, support and training to filmmakers, particularly those based on stories from Bible. At stake were two opportunities to get £30,000 funding each to make their short film – one for comedy and one for drama. 

    This year we were spoilt for choice and so it's really exciting to know these two films will soon be made, possibly even in the next year.

    Jael Drives the Nail

    The first is Maddie Dai's Jael Drives the Nail a comedy that takes place in Jael's tent in the moments leading up to Sisera's death (Judges 4:17-24). The story has been a long-term favourite of mine and I was so glad to be able to include the only other major treatment of – Henri Andréani's Jaël et Sisera (1911) – it in my book.

    Dai is a New Zealand-born, London-based cartoonist, screenwriter, illustrator and filmmaker, whose cartoons – many of which play with religious/classical ideas – appear in "The New Yorker". As a writer she contributed to the second series of Our Flag Means Death (2023) and wrote the very funny short film Ministry of Jingle (2023) [trailer] which was also her first film in the director's chair.

    Dai's degree was in religious art and hopes to make a feature on the Book of Judith, so expect that to influence proceedings, although The Pitch's announcement promises a "modern dark comedic twist" on the subject, which seems to me a perfect way to approach it. I cannot wait to see the final result.

    Our Child

    I'm also excited to see Anatole Sloan's Our Child, a modernised take on the story of Hagar, Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 16 & 21) relocated to modern day Hong Kong. My favourite take on this story is a comedic one (The Real Old Testament, 2003), so it will be good to see a more serious approach to it, brought into the modern day. Having contributed to an entry for the Encyclopedia of the Bible and its Reception on this subject and written a blog post detailing some of the other takes on it and Sloan's approach seems like an excellent way to approach the story.

    Sloan is of mixed British-Chinese descent and he has explained how his take on the story, which will revolve around a young surrogate mother, will reflect "issues that I saw growing up in East Asia". Sloan has also professed his desire "to draw on the cinematic language of that region".

    Sloan's previous work has been on documentaries, including The Speeches which enabled him to work with an array of household names including Idris Elba, Glenn Close, Woody Harrelson, Olivia Coleman and King Charles III.
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    There's a further snippet about these films at the end of this article in Variety.

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    Sunday, January 28, 2024

    The Chosen (2021) s2e01

    I was hoping, as I sat down to watch this episode, that it might be the kind that I could watch, find a couple of interesting things to say and then dash off a few quick words, content to be moving towards the new season while it still might be fresh. But alas, no. It turns out that this is one of those episodes about which there really is lots to say, partly down to my own quirky interests, partly down to things that I have read fans of the chosen writing about (shout out to anyone from any of The Chosen Facebook forums I've been visiting recently).

    Writing the Gospels

    The episode starts with a number of the leading characters seated and speaking directly to camera. Indeed the first few shots here have an almost documentary vox pops feel about them, like Peter, or Mary Magdalene are experts being consulted by a enquiring, neutral mind. But eventually the shots edge out and we realise they're speaking to a person, not just a camera, who is writing things down, rather than video recording them.

    It's clear that, these shots are set several years after we last left these characters. Peter's beard is a little greyer, as is Thomas' hair and there's talk about them missing Jesus, even while they are still preaching his message. Moreover, the actor playing Big James has changed completely (OK, we've already told that's just a casting change) and one or two of the characters are now displaying large beards.

    One particularly comical such new beard is being sported by Matthew. Matthew relays his details with typically meticulous. "It doesn't need to be precise" interrupts his interrogator. "Why wouldn't it need to be precise...mine will be precise" he says and while at first it seems he simply just means the account that he's giving then and there, to this as yet unseen character, the implication is that he is actually thinking of the Gospel that he has already begun planning. Next up is Mary, whom the interviewer calls "mother" and our growing suspicions are confirmed. It's John, researching his Gospel.

    Then the dialogues begin to flow, in typically Chosen-esque fashion, dripping in traditional belief into contemporary dialogue. John explains he's "not in a hurry to write a whole book", but that he just wants "to get the eye witness stories now. While we're together." "Isn't Matthew going to write something?" Mary counters. "He's only writing about what he saw and about what Jesus told him directly, but I was there for things that Matthew doesn't know about. I was in his inmost circle. He loved me."

    "I prefer to treasure the things in my heart" Mary says recalling Luke 2:19. "You know that if you tried to write every single thing he did, the world itself could not contain the books that would be written." "Hmm" says John "a disclaimer. That's good. I'm going to say that... If I do not write these things down they will be lost to history." (see John 21:25)

    This all feels like a certain line has been drawn in the sand. Up to this point the focus has been on the person of Jesus – even if that aim has been furthered by inventing an entire scene, or even a whole episode. This sequence, though, feels like the first time the series has really tried to assert an evangelical apologetic on its audience. The reliability of the Gospels is being bolstered by presenting them as eye-witness accounts from two of his closest followers. 

    Admittedly this is the traditional view and probably the one that it most common among regular churchgoers. Yet the evidence for it is fairly flimsy. Matthew may have been an eye-witness, but far from the impression given here, he relied on Mark's Gospel for the majority of his account. Neither book identifies their author.Yet there's a certain romance to the idea of Matthew having "left everything behind him except one thing – his pen" [1] and John enigmatically referring to himself as "the disciple whom Jesus loved" as he wrote his Gospel. It plays well in sermons and in the imagination. Indeed variations on these traditions show up in numerous Jesus films and the occasional other New Testament story as well.

    What I do find unusual, though, is that often people who otherwise tend to favour a sola scriptura approach so readily abandon that position when it comes to the authorship of the Gospels. Suddenly what a few early church fathers say about the Gospels' authors seems to outweigh the internal evidence of the texts themselves.

    But I digress. While this opening sequence is a little heavy-handed, it's done with the series' trademark humour and in-jokes for those who know the text well, and it's certainly an interesting way to start the new season.

    Sons of Thunder

    Of course, the introduction with John is not just a device to kick off the whole series, but also an introduction to the episode – titled Thunder – which will give a particular focus to John and his brother James. Indeed it's clear from the opening sequence that it takes place in 44AD, shortly after James' death. "Mother" Mary expresses her concern for John telling him he "needs to mourn big James" and so the sequence forms something of a coda to James' life following Jesus. 

    The change in actor (after Behrad Tarazi left to star in Legends of Tomorrow) is a little unfortunate at this point, but it does, at least, form a good way for us to get acquainted with Abe Bueno-Jallad in the role and for him to establish himself in the role.

    But the initial focus here is John (George Xanthis). The conversation suggests that even though James is about to learn an important lesson in humility, even by 44AD he still sees himself as more important than the others. Of course, on the one hand this aligns with the Gospel of John's use of "the disciple whom Jesus loved" and the typical association of that figure with John son of Zebedee. What really interested me, though, is the way that Mary challenges this as objective truth. When John says "I was in his inmost circle. He loved me." she counters with "he loved all of you. You just feel the need to talk about it more often".

    Just as the opening sequence charts the end of the sons of thunder, so its closing scenes show us how (The Chosen) the brothers got their nickname. Jesus and his followers are still in Samaria after the closing scenes of season one. Photina (the woman the well from John 4) has told the whole village about her encounter with Jesus, so he is spending a few days meeting people, preaching to crowds and evading the disciples attempts to keep tracks on him. 

    Nevertheless, this is Samaria and the episode repeatedly reminds us that Jews and Samaritans hate each other. There are racial tensions, xenophobic grumbling and minor conflicts all culminating in a scene where Samaritans, throw stones, verbally abuse and spit at Jesus, James and John. Enraged, the sons of Zebedee tell Jesus that their abusers "deserve to have bolts of lightning rain down and incinerate them... fire from the heavens".

    Instead Jesus turns his 'fire' on James and John, rebuking them surprisingly harshly for their outburst. "...because a few people, from a region you don't like, were mean to you. That they're not worthy? What? You're so much better? You're more worthy? Well let me tell you something, you're not!". The two hang their heads in shame and apologise. 

    There's a brief silence and then finally Jesus breaks the tension with humour. "You wanted to use the power of God to bring down fire to burn these people up?" He puts his arms around them, jokes again and says "that's what I'm going to call you from now on. James and John, the sons of thunder".

    Humour

    This is far from the only moment of humour in this episode. Indeed when I recently asked a group of The Chosen's fans what their favourite moments of humour from this series were, two of the most frequently cited moments came from this very episode.

    It starts early on with those interviews. Part way through Andrew's recollection about first encountering Jesus, the frame extends a little as Peter clarifies that when Andrew says "John" he means "crazy John" (i.e. John the Baptist). Later we see James and John ploughing a field and one of them does an impression of Jesus (The only other time I can recall this is G.W. Bailey's character in Roger Young's 1999 Jesus).

    There's already some humour in the disciples interactions with each other, particularly the bickering with one another and the jostling for position as to who is the greatest

    But the two incidents that were repeatedly cited were both things Jesus says. The first takes place just after Jesus has praised James and John for how well they have ploughed the field. It turns out the field is owned by Melech, an impoverished Samaritan friend of Photina. Jesus turns up with his friends and some food and invites himself to dinner.

    The conversation continues and Melech eventually confesses to having beaten up a Jew on the road to Samaria. As Melech's account continues it becomes apparent that his story is part of the Parable of the  Good Samaritan. He was one of the men who robbed the story's victim on the road. Personally even in my most conservative days I've never really thought of the parable as a true story. To me it's a fable, a story with a point. So it's strange to see it literalised with actual robbers. Moreover Jesus is able to reassure a guilt-laden Melech (who is literally and emotionally broken by the incident) that the man did not die. "I promise you. He did not die". The link between Melech's physical and emotional problems is emphasised further when Melech wakes up the next day to find his leg  has been healed.

    I'm in two minds about the use of the Good Samaritan story here. On the one hand it seems a bit of a waste to have one of Jesus' best-known miracles reduced to being reportage. Over the centuries, the story's inspired a multitude of selfless acts of kindness and compassion and the absence of this aspect of it seems a bit of a waste. Yet, on the other hand I like the way Dallas Jenkins and his co-writers Ryan Swanson and Tyler Thompson have found a new angle on the parable by telling it from the thieves' perspective. Interestingly Jesus ends up by tying it in with another parable, that of the lost sheep – a story he has already drawn out with a crowd earlier in the day.

    Anyway, less than a minute after Melech's confession has finished Jesus and the disciples get up to leave before it gets to late and Jesus says in deadpan fashion "We never know what sort of men may lay in wait along the side of the road". Then there's a pause. Melech looks crestfallen momentarily onlky for Jesus to crack a smile and asks "Too soon?"

    The second of these scenes occurs in the scene that immediately follows as Jesus and his followers arrive at Photina's house. Welcoming them in, Photina's faux-curmudgeonly husband informs them "One of the rooms is haunted, by my dead grandmother". "Ooh" says Jesus, with a hint of excitement. "I'll take that one!" It's one of those lines that I'm sure some of the show's opponents criticise, but again it's in line with the show's decision to portray Jesus as both the joker of the pack and its leader – a difficult path to tread.

    Thomas and his Father-in-law

    Another subplot in this episode involves Thomas, his fiancée/wife (Ramah) and his (would be?) father in law Kafni. Thomas was not with the disciples when they left for Samaria, indeed we have not seen him since season 1 episode 5 where he was the caterer for the Wedding at Cana. However, he's now decided – at last – that he does want to follow Jesus and so he, Ramah and Kafni head off to find Jesus in a remote spot in Samaria.

    As with Thomas' previous appearance, again we're treated with more telegraphing of his forthcoming and infamous doubt. This time Thomas is caught in indecision about his route. It does seem a bit one-dimensional, but I suppose there is a precedent for this in John's Gospel. There Thomas only opens his mouth three times and on each occasion he seems to put his foot in it.

    Aside from the best -known example we also get John 11:16 where Thomas (bravely) blurts out to his friends "Let us also go, that we may die with him" moments after Jesus has explained (admittedly confusingly) that he's not at risk of getting stoned. Then, three chapters later, he's at it again in John 14:4, completely failing to spot a metaphor when Jesus uses one. (Given my comments about this episode's use of the Good Samaritan, he's perhaps in good company).

    In the three other Gospels Thomas is just one of the unremarkable disciples who make up the numbers. It's only in John that we find him presented as a foolish doubter. This has led some scholars to suggest that this is because the author of John's Gospel is trying to stem the growth of the brand of Christianity that gave us the Gospel of Thomas and so includes these episodes to cast doubt on their key apostle. I only mention this because, in a way, the series perhaps intends to do this too. Those occasional moments when it slips into poorly concealed apologetics (such as the opening sequence, here) all remind us that The Chosen is not intended as simply entertainment, but that, like John 20:31 is created to persuade people to follow Jesus.

    Having said all that, this episode does bring us Kafni (Thomas' father-in-law, of sorts), here highly concerned who is daughter is choosing to follow. There's two things I particularly liked about Kafni's scenes here, and this is the only episode in which he features.

    The first occurs as he, Ramah and Thomas arrive in Samaria Jesus welcomes and suggest they stay the night so he and Kafni can talk in the morning. When Kafni agrees Jesus thanks him, grins and puts a hand on his shoulder. It's just a brief moment but as Jesus does this, Kani just gives a side eye down to Jesus' hand on his shoulder.

    I guess like this because Jesus has already praised Kafni for doing his due diligence about who his daughter drops everything to follow. So Kafni's more reserved nature is legitimised as a good part of his character. Moreover, Jesus is just a bit over-familiar here. I'm fascinated as to what led to this reaction being included. Perhaps I'm just over-analysing it (he says 2½ thousand words into a single episode...) but it seems just a tiny bit against the grain. 

    But what I particularly like is that while Kafni has two reasonable, rational discussions with Jesus, he ultimately doesn't decide to follow him. That might seem a small thing, but Jesus films (and creative adaptations of the Gospels in general) have almost unanimously failed to give us neutral Jewish characters. In most Bible movies Jewish characters either become followers of Jesus, or they are close-minded, blinded by religion and become his opponents. Yet Judea and Galilee were full of such characters. 5000 men (plus women and children) may have been fed that day, but only 120 gathered even after he had been resurrected. 

    That portrayal of the Jewish people who didn't decide to follow Jesus being portrayed as being driven by hatred or other irrational motives have over the centuries, led to antisemitism, particularly given that its these same characters who later become responsible for having Jesus killed. If you're not aware of how church history is riddled with examples of Jewish people being cast as Christ killers and attacked for it, you should really read up on it. 

    So this is exactly the kind of scene that it's really good to see The Chosen include. Kafni is not a future Christian, but he's also not blinded by hate. He's just a diligent father who, for various reasons, hangs onto his own religion rather than deciding to follow Jesus.

    Final Points

    The final section of this film finds Jesus and his followers arriving at the Samaritan place of worship, following the invitation from the village's religious leader. We see the men and women moving to separate sides of the "synagogue" which apparently – and contrary to popular belief – there isn't really much evidence for, certainly not within Jewish synagogues.

    Anyway the final moments of that opening sequence are now about to come to fruition. There John ends the sequence musing with Mary about how to begin his account. He wants to go back beyond Abraham, perhaps even further than Adam, but he's not sure which. And then Jesus stands up and reads from Genesis (one of the books that various Jewish groups and Samaritans agreed was scripture) and the account of creation.

    As he does so the scenes flick between John smiling / crying as he begins to realise that Jesus is part of the Godhead and the future John who realises this is how he should start his own narrative. And as Jesus reads out bits from Genesis 1 we see the John from 44BC narrating  the opening from John 1. It's completely ahistorical, in multiple sense, but it's a deft way to tie up the episode and bring the first entry in the new season to an emotional climax.

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    1 - Barclay, William (1956) The Gospel of Matthew: Volume 1, Edinburgh: St Andrew's Press. Fully revise, third edition (2001), p.6.

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    Tuesday, January 09, 2024

    La Fille de Jephté (Jephthah's Daughter, Henri Andréani, 1913)

    Rob Kranz was kind enough to let me know that copy of Pathé's 1913 film La Fille de Jephté (Jephthah's Daughter, 1913) is available on YouTube. It's not actually the full version, which according to the old Pathé archive site ran to 405m (~30 minutes), but the Pathé Baby version which (on YouTube) runs to only 4m57s.

    Despite it's short running time the film manages to pack in most of the essential elements of the story from Judges 11 with one glaring exception. The Gileadite leaders plead with Jephthah, previously a social outcast, to lead them in a battle with the Ammonites. He accepts and vows to God that if he wins he will burn as an offering the first person to leave his house. When he gets home the first person through the doors is his own daughter, who then submits to her father's sickening vow.

    Two of the most notable omissions are Jepthah's long speech (11:12-28) and his daughter's two months weeping and wandering in the mountains (11:37-40), so it would be interesting to know what was in the 20-25 minutes left on the cutting room floor. Given that the intertitles are fairly long and appear quite often in this print, it's not unreasonable to assume Jephthah's speech may have been included in part, or even at length, likewise with the trip to the mountains.

    However, the really puzzling omission is the actual sacrifice of the daughter, here called Leïla and played by Jeanne Bérangère. According to a rather old page at cineartistes.com Bérangère was a theatre actor before the Pathé's tempted her into cinema where she worked until 1928. She starred (though not as the lead) in Andréani and Zecca's Shakespearean adaptation Cleopatra (1910) among other roles. She was born in 1864 meaning that at the time of filming she was around almost 50, which is probably rather older than we would typically assume the daughter of a warrior to be (Henri Etiévant who played her on-screen father was six years her junior).

    Instead the closing scene features Bérangère kneeling (pictured below) before two handmaidens cover her with a bed-sheet-sized veil obscuring her face from view. This is a fascinating piece of imagery. Shorn of an actual scene of the sacrifice, this acts as a replacement. The veil is reminiscent of the sheets placed on bed placed over dead bodies, but also a simple of way of obscuring her from our view as if she is no longer present, gone but not forgotten. 

    Moreover it could also be read as a comment on the way that the name of her idiotic father has been passed down to us, while she has been obscured from history, forever nameless and therefore, in a way, faceless. An then there's also a sense of holiness, like the veil between the majority of the temple and the holy of holies, or (more pertinently) the veil that Moses wears after his encounters with God in Exodus 34:35.

    As I've mentioned before, films about Jephthah and his daughter are few and far between, but occur mainly in this early silent period around the turn of the decade. Prior to this one (and it's longer sibling)  J. Stuart Blackton made one in 1909 for Vitagraph (which I included in my book) and Léonce Perret / Louis Feuillade did the same for Gaumont in 1910 (there's more on that one at the excellent BetweenMovies, including a writing credit for a certain Abel Gance). That one was also known as The Vow.

    However, 1913 saw not one but two films titled Jephthah's Daughter, as J. Farrell MacDonald produced another 25-30 minute version of the story for Warner (my review). This one was directed by Henri Andréani, whose name I will always associate with melodrama, following David Shepherd's chapter about his work in his monograph "The Bible on Silent Film". Here there is plenty of melodrama, especially from Mr Etiévant as Jephthah. (In addition starring in roughly 66 movies, Etiévant ended up as a director himself taking charge of around 27 films starting that same year, having co-directed La fin d'un joueur (1911) with André Calamettes). 

    One area where Andréani's thumbprint seems clearest is his staging of the battle scene. This large scale scene, featuring a huge crowd of extras looks so similar in composition and camera placing / movement looks so similar to the battle scenes from Andréani's earlier Absalon (Absalom, 1912) that I was convinced he'd simply reused the battle footage from the earlier film. Close inspection reveals this not to be the case. Perhaps he was reusing spare footage he shot on that day, or perhaps he knew how (and, I think, where) he liked to film these shots. Either way it's not hard to imagine that in the fuller version of this movie, the scene is as impressive as it is in Absalon.

    Of course with any Jephthah movie the key issue is not the battle scenes, but how it handles the terrible twist in the story. Do they try and justify Jephthah's actions or excuse it. Certainly the absence of the sacrifice scene itself removes some of the horror of the actual story. This needless death happens off-screen. Moreover the absence of the daughter's last days in the mountains also misses the chance to humanise her and to bring her centre stage. Bérangère becomes a rather peripheral figure. Her father is presented as the hero. 

    Moreover it's he who is permitted a horrified reaction (again allowing the audience to sympathise with him). Bérangère remains placid and unaffected, calmly accepting her awful fate. The one point I will note in the film's favour in this respect is that the intertitles clearly say that Jephthah's vow (Judges 11:31) was made with human sacrifice in mind. Jephthah promises to sacrifice "la première personne" (the first person) that leaves the house, rather than "whatever" as most English translations render it. The NRSV, my preferred translation, goes for "whoever", though as do the two French versions I checked. It's seemingly one of those passages whose translation is largely determined by your prior convictions about what you think happened.

    Perhaps this cut ending where it does leaves such questions open ended, in a similar way to how some argue the sudden ending of Mark might intend to. It leaves. us with questions. Given the vow he has made, what should he do. Would God mind if he broke his vow to avoid such a horrible outcome? So much of Judges plays like a series of cautionary tales, and perhaps this is a good way to translate that sense back into a 'modern' context

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    Sunday, December 31, 2023

    Journey to Bethlehem (2023)

    I was in the middle of teaching my "Italian [Cinema] for Beginners" course when I got to see this, which on top of various other commitments (such as the day job) all rather piled up. So unfortunately, now not only is it also several weeks after this film's limited cinematic run, but I'm still going to have to settle for an "initial impressions" type post rather than something approaching a proper review. Apologies, then, if my recollection is a little sketchy.

    Journey to Bethlehem is the first Bible film to get a wide-ish release in the UK since I finished writing my book at the end of 2020. In that time The Chosen has taken over the world; its parent company Angel Studios have debuted a few other biblical films which have only really screened in the US; and Jeymes Samuel has debuted The Book of Clarence at London Film Festival, even though it doesn't go on general release until January. So it was nice to be in a cinema seeing any kind of Bible film, but particularly a Nativity-themed one as I've had a soft spot for them ever since having a chapter on recent incarnations published a few years ago.

    Tonally, Journey to Bethlehem is very different from the most widely seen live action nativity movie, Catherine Hardwicke's 2006 The Nativity Story. The start of Hardwicke's movie tried to present an authentic context for the story: houses were ramshackle; clothing was plain and rough looking; the food and way of life appeared primitive. There was love, life and joy, though it's perhaps fair to say that Hardwicke's attention to detail did not always equate to historical accuracy, and that the movie strayed to become more schmaltzy as the film went on.

    In contrast, Journey to Bethlehem directed by Adam Anders, wears its sense of razzle-dazzle on its sleeve right from the very start. Its a musical, released in the run up to Christmas. Why would we expect anything else? Any sense of painstakingly trying to recreate a credible version of the past is blown out of the water with an opening number brimming with bright colours, a burgeoning cast of singers and dancers, and swirling camerawork and choreography. This feels much closer to Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) – an obvious point of comparison, I suppose – though more optimistic in tone. It's bold and full of energy and unafraid to break convention or to loose itself from the shackles of historical accuracy.

    Yet for all that, Hardwicke's film certainly seems to have been an influence. Particularly in the early scenes, several of the shots and compositions echo Hardwicke's despite the sharp contrast in styles. Shots of Mary and her friends running in the open spaces around the village, or the lighting and tight compositions inside Mary's family home. Then there's both film's use of the Magi/wise men for comic relief. British viewers will enjoy seeing Omid Djalili (The Infidel) and Rizwan Manji (The Dictator) as Melchior and Gaspar respectively and they are funnier than their slightly lame counterparts in the earlier film. 

    Another similar element to Hardwicke's film is the way it uses King Herod, played with great enthusiasm by a slightly over the top Antonio Banderas, this film's biggest star. In both movies he is set-up as the primary antagonist and features early in the film to add a sort of framing narrative to the events that will unfold.

    The way that Herod relates to one of his sons is also similar. The historical Herod had at least nine sons and five daughters so it's striking that he's shown having such a close relationship with just one of them. Here the son is named as Antipater, Herod's first-born (known as Antipater II) who was one of three sons Herod had killed. Indeed, Antipater was executed for plotting to murder his father, the same year that Herod himself died, 4 B.C. – often seen as the latest viable date for the birth of Jesus.

    While most of the characters are given significantly expanded roles from their counterparts in the Gospels, Antipater most benefits from this as his character is not even in the Bible. I can't help wondering if the use of the name Antipater is connected to one of Herod's more famous (surviving!) sons Antipas, who is the Herod who kills John the Baptist in Matthew's Gospel and tries Jesus in Luke's Gospel. Is this possible conflation deliberate? Antipater here is played by Joel Smallbone, one half of Australian Christian pop duo For King + Country along with his brother, and starred as Xerxes in the 2013 film The Book of Esther.

    All of which brings me onto some of the movie's possible musical influences. Antipater's solo "In My Blood" takes his rebellion against his father in a new direction as Antipater begins to realise what a tyrant his father is, and various comments on the song's YouTube video have noted the similarity in style to the US rock band Imagine Dragons. Elsewhere, even I noticed the similarity between Banderas' solo "Good to be King"and "El Tango de Roxanne" from Moulin Rouge (2001).1

    These points of comparison are hardly surprising. Anders made his name as a writer/producer for the music on High School Musical 3 (2008) and the TV series Glee (2009-2015) as well as working on films such as Hannah Montanna (20012) and Captain Underpants (2017). Indeed he has been nominated for for Grammy's for his work on Glee and other productions. So one would naturally expect  Journey to be very youth-orientated. It's both firmly in line with the modern pop-musical, created by an experienced practitioner, and family friendly as befits this kind of Christmas movie. At the same time the translation of that niche into a first-century climate in an arid climate leaves the lively, swirling choreography of "Mary's Getting Married" feeling as close to Bollywood as to Hollywood.

    Interestingly, Anders also has Bible film credentials to his name having worked on both Evan Almighty (2009) and Son of Man (2014) and it's easy to draw the lines between these films – a contemporary take on one of the Bible's most famous stories and a evangelical attempt to retell the story of Jesus set in the first century – and see how he ended up making a film like this.

    Yet Anders is not afraid to tear up the rule book, and he makes several bold decisions, most of which pay off.  The biggest example of this is perhaps the way the story is portrayed of one of attraction and love between Mary and Joseph. This is not exactly novel, but the relationship between the holy couple is most commonly portrayed as being driven by duty and faithfulness to God. Here it works, in no small part due to good performances between Fiona Palomo (Mary) and Milo Manheim (Joseph). There's great chemistry between the pair in the first scene where they meet. Both are unaware of who the other is. Joseph flirts. Mary rebuffs him on grounds of propriety, while still being a bit flirty in return. Incidentally, Manheim is Jewish and I can't help wondering if he is the first Jewish actor to play the role.

    Another of Anders's bold decisions is his portrayal of the angel Gabriel, performed by Black rapper / singer Lecrae. Anders gives him piercing, azure blue eyes, white stripes of make-up on his face, and ditches the traditional white bed-sheet in favour of a costume that captures both ancient battle and modern glamour. The shoulders, chest and arms of Gabriel's garment is covered with glimmering metallic scales that both seem like armour and sequins. As scales they also seems reptilian a reminder that angels are not simply humans with wings, but something more, and that they have often been depicted very differently from humans, an idea at least flirted with in 2021's Midnight Mass.

    This is also reinforced by the way Gabriel towers over Mary during the annunciation scene. While this is primarily due to Lecrae being 6'5" compared to Palomo's 5'3", the fact that the two occupy such different ends of the normal curve for human height gives the impression that he is significantly bigger than the human characters in general. Yet Manheim's Joseph is only two inches shorter than Lecrae and he never remotely seems to tower over Palomo's Mary in the same way. 

    Another of Anders's interesting decisions is conflating the magi and the shepherds such that ultimately the wise men end up in the fields, along with (only a handful of) shepherds witness together the choir of angels arriving to announce Jesus' birth. There's a debate between some New Testament scholars at the moment as to whether Luke is unaware of Matthew's (magi-focused) version of the Nativity story , or whether he is an simply prefers, changes even, Matthew's version to his own with the shepherds. This choice was probably not inspired by that debate (more likely a way to include the shepherds without drawing focus from the magi), but it's interesting to see them combined (brought back together?) in this way.2

    In the grand scheme of things, however, despite the number of changes to the original texts, I would argue they make little difference to the overall thrust of the story. Indeed while there are one or two interesting divergences, the majority come from translating a couple of ancient texts into a modern pop musical designed for a broad audience.

    As such it makes for a pretty decent piece of entertainment that celebrates the story of the first Christmas and honours the original while repackaging it for a contemporary audience in a way that is rarely achieved. Strangely while I love the opening scenes of The Nativity Story, I think I prefer Journey to Bethlehem overall. At least I might find myself more likely to recommend it. Somehow the fact that it is more consistent makes all the difference. Adam Anders knows the kind of film he is trying to make, goes all out for it and delivers a far better movie than I was expecting. 

    Indeed there's such an obvious sense of (if you'll pardon the pun) glee in Anders's handling of the material, particularly given the movie's high production values.3 It's his first feature film as director and his joy at being able to step out of others' shadows and make the film he wants to is palpable. You really get a sense of his love of colour, his costumes; the energetic way he moves and spins his camera to enhance the choreography, combining drone footage with zooms and pans and close-ups; the moments he stops to show off the landscapes of his chosen locations. This feels every inch like a labour of love and it's hard not to get caught up in such obvious enthusiasm. 

    I'm intrigued to see how is received in the longer term. It's already made back its tiny budget,4 but largely passed under the radar first time around. However, word of mouth and the right streaming platform might make a major difference in years to come. Moreover, on the evidence here, Anders has great potential which might cause future fans to revisit it in years to come. I hope so. I think it does a great job of telling these pivotal and important stories in a way that will make them come alive for future (and present) generations.

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    1 - That said TikToker @montescreations also finds a similarity, a subversion even, of Albert Hay Malotte's "The Lord's Prayer".

    2 - I'm largely persuaded by the Farrer theory, so think Luke knows Matthew, but not quite sure whether he's accessing a separate tradition or making radical changes to Matthew's.

    3 - This despite a low budget, particularly for a historical movie, of just $6 million.

    4 - As of today, thenumbers.com is reporting a $7,350,569 box-office take worldwide from that $6 million.

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    Saturday, December 16, 2023

    30 Million Hours Watching The Chosen

    Netflix just released its annual viewing statistics for the first time. This is naturally very interesting for stats geeks like me, and naturally it wasn't long until I started seeing the figures for various biblical productions.

    Most strikingly, 2023 saw 30.9 million hours spent watching The Chosen on Netflix, 27.6 million in English, with a further 3 million hours spent viewing the series in Spanish. It's perhaps not surprising that Dallas Jenkins' crowdfunded series, which has been running since 2019, was the highest placed biblical show on the list. 

    The English and Spanish versions are counted separately meaning that the The Chosen's 27.6 million hours viewed puts it in Netflix's 728th position for 2023, but given there are 18,215 productions in the dataset, this is a good performance. Darren Aronofsky's Noah (2014) did slightly better, coming in 653rd based on 29.5 million hours – fewer than The Chosen's overall total but higher than the English language version alone.

    Other Bible movies and shows fared less well. Perhaps the biggest surprise was the lowly 1,800,000 hours spent watching Monty Python's Life of Brian (6259th). I'm not sure whether this shows that the film is far less popular overseas than it is in the UK, or that fewer of its traditional fan-base are watching it than before due to it playing the trans character for laughs, or perhaps both. Paul the Apostle of Christ (2018) had 200,000 hours, leaving it at 12,061st place and Davis's Mary Magdalene came in 16,337th and Youssef Chahine's The Emigrant came in at 17,457th despite both gaining 100,000 hours viewed. 

    If Netflix repeat this exercise it'll be interesting to see how The Chosen performs next year, given its fourth series is being released on February 1st. I'm not sure if it will appear on the platform from that date, or whether it will take a little longer.

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    Saturday, October 28, 2023

    Sansone (Samson, 1961)

    I'm writing on, reading about and teaching on Italian cinema at the moment and have a session on the 1950s peplum films in a few weeks, so I thought it was time I watched Gianfranco Parolini's Sansone (Samson, 1961) as I've never seen it before. It was a film that I had looked into a little when I was compiling my book, but couldn't remember all the specifics of why I decided to include I grandi condottieri (Samson and Gideon, 1965). It was practically the only film to cover the story of Gideon and that was all I remembered.

    Turns out that another big factor is that, despite the title, Parolini's Samson has nothing, really, to do with the biblical strongman, aside from the characters' mythical super-strength. As I mentioned in my list of films "about" Samson many of the Italian-produced Samson films from this era "have very little to do with the Book of Judges". 

    Indeed these peplum films all play pretty fast and loose with the original stories of their heroes, even to the extent that the names of the title characters changed from country to country. For example, the strongman hero of Giovanni's Pastrone's Cabiria (1914) – Maciste – was then made the star of many of his own films,[1] such as Maciste nella valle dei re (1960) and Zorro contro Maciste (1963), but these titles were changed in English language regions to Son of Samson and Samson and the Slave Queen respectively.

    In this case, the title in English regions was a straight translation (Samson) but in France it was released as Samson contre Hercule – Samson against Hercules. That would clue most people in to the fact that this is very much a new story spinning off the mega success of Le fatiche d'Ercole (Hercules) three years earlier in 1958, the film which is usually credited with sparking the peplum trend in Italian filmmaking. Hercules does not feature in the Bible. Interestingly, in both English and Italian this character is called Hermes (these days renown as a popular mail delivery service) but not generally regarded as a legendary strong"man" who might be passed off as Hercules (as he was in Spain as well as France). Ironically one of the traits if Hercules in these films is his association with pulling huge chains. Here though, it's Samson (played by Brad Harris, who starred in Il vecchio testamento (1963)) who gets that particular task (see below).

    So in fact the film has nothing really to do with the biblical story. There's no Delilah, lion-wrestling, woman from Timnah, honey riddle or jawbone of an ass, or even a mention of God or the Israelites, just a super-strength hero running around in little more than his underpants. 

    Plot-wise the film is fairly conventional, fitting neatly into the broad plot summary given by Robert A. Rushing in his book on the peplum "Descended from Hercules" 

    A cruel, unjust, and foreign ruler has usurped the throne and oppressed the people. There can be minimal variations in this setup – for example, the unjust ruler may not be foreign but instead may be manipulated by foreign agents; he may be the proper, just ruler, but under a magic spell (cast by a foreign agent); or the unjust ruler may be an evil, seductive (often redheaded) queen – but the basic structure is always the same. Hercules must depose this cruel oppressor and free the people by restoring the legitimate ruler to the throne. The strongman is almost always a disinterested outsider with minimal or no ties to the throne in question; any suggestion that he could be a political threat or represent the forces of instability and anarchy is completely absent.[2]

    Here there is a seductive queen, Romilda (Mara Berni) who is being manipulated by Serge Gainsbourg's "weasel-like" Warkalla who as Barry Atkinson goes on to point out never really convinces you that he "could boss whole legions of hard-bitten soldiers around.[3] Samson and Hermes (peplum regular Sergio Ciani aka Alan Steel) team up along with two of Samson's sidekicks and after seeing off scores of soldiers many, many times, manage to return the kingdom of Sulom to its rightful (boy) king.

    There are a few good moments. Samson's tug of war across a fire-pit with a whole troop of soldiers (pictured above) sticks in the memory. As does a scene where the spiked walls on Samson's cell gradually close in on him (powered by a group of soldiers working a slave-powered mill - similar to that Victor Mature pushes at the end of DeMille's 1949 take on Samson and Delilah). Simultaneously, the mechanism also stretches out Samson's female friend Janine (Luisella Boni). It's tempting to think this scene may have inspired the walls closing in scene from the original Star Wars (1977), but that seems a stretch even if it's impossible to to think of that scene when you see this one.

    Speaking of Janine, there's very little chemistry between she and Samson, or between him and either of the other two significant women in the film, even though he has scenes alone with all three of them. Indeed the only real chemistry seem to be between Harris and Steel. Otherwise it's all fairly lacking in interest. The scenery and cinematography look good though.

    Incidentally, I kept going back and forth about whether to watch this one in the Italian dub or the English one (pepla rarely use live sound and often actors recorded their lines in the own language. There is no "original" version so to speak), and eventually went for the English which paid off. Although Harris gets surprisingly few close-ups or even mid-shots, he does get a sizeable chunk of the dialogue and I didn't find the dubbing of the other characters as troubling as it is sometimes.

    So this isn't required watching for Bible film enthusiasts, but it's a reasonable example of Italian peplum even if it's hardly the sub-genre's finest.

    =====
    1 - Wikipedia currently lists 29 Maciste films (including Cabiria) in the silent era and a further 25 during the 1960s as well as a couple by Jesús Franco in 1973.

    2 - Rushing, Robert A. (2016) Descended from Hercules: biopolitics and the muscled male body on screen,  Indiana University Press, pp.13-4.

    3 - Atkinson, Barry (2018) Heroes Never Die: The Italian Peplum Phenomenon 1950-1967, London: Midnight Marquee Press. p.133 & p.134.

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    Sunday, October 22, 2023

    The Prince of Egypt: The Musical (2022)

    Shot in London's West End, the film of the stage production of the musical of the film is showing in UK cinemas at the moment. It's billing itself with a quote from Stefan Kyrias that "musical theatre doesn't come bigger than this" and even though it's been a hit on the West End where it played to packed out audiences, I'm surprised to see quite such a crowd turn up to see it on a damp Thursday evening in Leicester, with tickets twice the price of watching a standard movie.

    Dreams works' The Prince of Egypt (1998) was a massive hit when it launched 25 years ago. The studio was just starting out, hadn't yet been defined by the Shrek franchise and the promise of The Prince of Egypt was quite something. The blend of traditional hand-drawn animation and restrained-but-tactical use of the emerging CGI made for some spectacular scenery and action sequences. 

    Of course stage musicals, even filmed ones, are a very different medium to cinema and while there was an arena version of Ben-Hur some years ago the director of this musical, Scott Schwarz (son of the film's composer Stephen Schwarz) decided to take things in a different direction. Instead of simply compensating or making-do Schwarz leans into musical theatre's strengths, particularly dance and more expressionistic use of the stage and props. At the same time the stage's backdrops are video projected. 

    Both the choreography and the backdrops produce rather mixed results. The opening number, "Deliver Us!" is strong and merges seamlessly in to "Hush Now my Baby". This ends with an incredible piece of chorography where the dancers reproduce the effects of the waves with incredible grace, energy and unpredictability which is simply astonishing. 

    But then, as with the movie, we're introduced to the adult Moses and Ramses in the chariot racing scene. Yet instead of the whooshing, fast-cut action of the movie, Moses and Ramses are hoisted up by some of their fellow cast members and they bump around occasionally leaning left or right to indicate turning or avoiding obstacles. Compared with the opening number this is a major disappointment. I should add here I know little about stage-musicals or choreography, so if you do know about those things don't listen to me. I'm writing this just as a punter.

    The video backdrops fare likewise, the room with the hieroglyphics, which created such a memorable scene in the movie is decorated entirely differently. This is a wise move because that scene is re-enacted with a mix of minor backdrop motion and (primarily) choreography and it works very well. But the detail of these decorations is nicely executed. At other times if feels much is lost from the days of traditional backdrop being pulled up or down behind the curtain. The changes are smoother, but it feels like the level of artistry has dropped. Also if there's an artistic reason why one of them looked like the screen ratio was wrong (an oval-shaped sun) then it escaped me.

    These are some of the changes the musical (and specifically this production of it) makes to the film. The most notable is a number of new songs which again vary in quality, though they've not had the benefit of a quarter of a century of getting ingrained in my consciousness. There's nothing as instantly transfixing as "There Will be Miracles" (which is still great here), but one or two feel on par. 

    We also lose "Playing with the Big Boys", which I was never particularly enamoured by. This is in part because the twin roles taken by Steve Martin and Martin Short in the movie are condensed into one. Hotep, played with real menace by Adam Pearce also has a greatly enhanced role. Rather than comic relief (although he does produce some, as well as a touch of magic) he's portrayed as more of the power behind the throne. His endorsement of Seti and his father's reign as Pharaoh has proved decisive and can easily be withdrawn. Pearce absolutely makes the most of his build and unsymmetrical features, effortlessly moving between contrasting moods like his voice which performs both some of the lowest notes in the production and some of the highest among the male cast. Apparently he's done Sweeney Todd, my favourite musical, in the past. I wish I could have seen that.

    Another fantastic performance is Christine Allado's as a surprisingly sexy Tzipporah. Exhibiting both fierce and tender sides she is captivating in almost every scene she features in. And again, her role is enhanced from that in the movie where she pretty much disappears once Moses gets God. Here it's her and Miriam that provide Moses emotional support in the latter stages of the film. Aaron is relegated even further into the background. Alexia Khadime's Miriam brings real excellence to her songs, by far the stand-out performer. Luke Brady as Moses are Liam Tamne as Ramses are fine, and their emotional heft grows surprisingly as the film goes on, but it's the supporting characters who really steal the show.

    The other two changes are around the burning bush scene and the plagues. Here again the choreography does a lot of the heavy lifting, but it feels like too much weight is put on its shoulders. The idea of having a chorus of voices speak as the voice of God is theologically and artistically interesting, but somehow feels underwhelming. In similar fashion the plagues rush by, it's difficult to really discern when one ends and the next starts. Perhaps that's not a major issue, and perhaps the intent is to leave the audience experiencing a degree of disorientation to convey the experience of the ordinary Egyptians, but for me it fell a little flat, that is, at least until the final plague.

     The initiation of the Passover and the death of the first-born Egyptians is always a tricky moment in Moses dramas. How much sympathy can you give to Ramses and the ordinary Egyptians without making God seem like the villain? How much joy can the Hebrews experience without minimising the Egyptian suffering? Here the balance is stuck by the women of Egypt walking on stage cradling what look like their now lifeless babies. Then each in turn shakes out the blanket their baby is wrapped in and it cascades down, but the baby is gone. The blanket is laid out of a block before them and they fall to their knees behind it. It's an emotionally powerful scene, and a reminder of the suffering that happens to the ordinary people, and particularly the women and children behind the scenes of this conflict and countless others up to the present day.

    I must admit I was a little caught off guard by the film's emotional impact on me. I sat on the front row of quite a big theatre and could therefore see even very subtle tears from the performers. This was one of the strengths of watching this as a film. I can't imagine most of these tears would be visible for those watching the event live in the theatre. Of course even though the film was shot while the play was being performed to a live audience, obviously the actors knew that it was also being filled. Were the tears part of their method, or a little extra for those of viewing in close-up ion a big screen.

    With a filmed theatre experience like this, it's hard to know where the line falls between the responsibilities of Scott Schwarz as director of the play and Brett Sullivan's as director of the film. Most of the ones discussed so far will be down to Schwarz, but that still leaves an awful lot to Sullivan. 

    Take for one example the one shot that really surprised me. Presumably it was Schwarz's decision for children of Israel to move down the aisle as part of the Exodus, but presumably it was Sullivan's decision to film this in a panning shot from in front of the audience. As the film audience we'd been aware of the live audience throughout, clapping and cheering in between numbers, for example, but the frontal pan revealed something else: they were all wearing covid-masks. This added a major note to the context of the film. We thought the audience were like us. But they weren't. They were those poor people struggling to put normal life back together again after the worst global health crisis of our lifetimes. Our past selves, perhaps attending a public event for the first time since lockdown. Perhaps nervous (as I was in my first post-covid theatre trip) of catching or spreading something. And that this happened at the moment the Israelites also finally received their (real and far more viral) freedom certainly added something.

    That nuance is made all the more interesting given how the filmed-stage musical compares with the original movie. In the original, Ramses acts the way he does because he feels the weight of his father's warning not to be the weak link, but it's nevertheless framed as Ramses' decisions and the theme of personal responsibilities – particularly the different ways that Ramses' and Moses handle them. Here however, it's different. The musical lessens Ramses' responsibilities for his actions by  putting additional pressure on him. His father's warnings not only relate to maintaining continuity with the past, but also to his present situation and his family's future. Seti's dynasty's hold on power is fragile. He and Ramses rely on the political good favour of Hotep and the priests as well as other Egyptian aristocratic families such as that of his wife Nefertari and the people in general. For a while the emphasis shifts from personal responsibility to problematic power structures.

    As anyone who has seen the musical will know [Spoilers: select text to read] faced with hunting down the Hebrews as they flee across the bed of the Red Sea, Ramses decides to let them go free, his kingdom will survive without them. Hotep and some soldiers charge on in ahead, As a result Ramses survives, and lives to rule without Hotep's malign influence. It's interesting how this changes things. Historically we know that Ramses was capable of political spin, but there's no evidence on the Egyptian side that an exodus of slaves did his rule any real harm. Moreover, in the original story Ramses is the representative of Egypt and is the bad guy. Earlier retellings of the story, including the 1998 film, have maintained that, but sought to makes a key element of the story an Anakin→Vader-type narrative. Now we're back to the uncomplicated bad guy again, only this time he's just an Anubis in sheep's clothing.* It's interesting to see how this appears to favour the benevolence of monarchs above that of priests. [End of spoilers].

    Overall, while it seems unlikely those who disliked the original film will be any more taken with this boomeranging adaptation, except perhaps for Sean Cheesman's at times inspired choreography. But for those who loved the original, or who are just intrigued by fresh adaptations of the biblical narratives, then this is certainly an interesting take on the original, both capturing enough of the essence of the original across the change of medium, while also bringing some fresh and distinctive elements.

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