• 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.

    View my complete profile
    Contact me
    Book me to speak









    Friday, April 02, 2021

    Das Neue Evangelium (The New Gospel, 2020)

    © Fruitmarket_Langfilm_IIPM_Armin Smailovic

    "I couldn't do a Jesus film here as Pasolini did" explains director Milo Rau, partway through The New Gospel "without including these real social problems we have and go back to the Gospel and go back to the social revolution for which Jesus stands for in his time." Charged with reworking Pier Paolo Pasolini's Il vangelo secondo Matteo (1964) as part of Matera's stint as the European City of Culture in 2019, Rau initially headed to the ancient southern Italian town imagining a more conventional take on Pasolini's famous adaptation, but things changed when he encountered the improvised migrant settlements around the outskirts of the city. 

    The economic migrants and asylum seekers that stay there were living in severe poverty, often working on the surrounding farms for around four euros a day in stiffling conditions and returning to improvised homes without water or electricity. Rau decided this was the situation that should be at the heart of his multidisciplinary project which not only included documenting the lives of those living in temporary migrant settlements, and casting them in a Jesus film, but also taking part in non-violent marches and protests that sought to draw attention to the issues.

    In the lead role of Jesus, Rau cast African-Italian activist Yvan Sagnet, who was given the Italian Order of Merit in 2016 by Italy's then president Sergio Mattarella. Sagnet first became an activist in 2011 when working as a student labourer he witnessed first hand a colleague passing out due to heat exhaustion. The foreman docked his wages to cover the costs of getting him medical attention. Such practises are not uncommon particularly on tomato and orange farms, which are often mafia run.

    What makes Rau's "utopian documentary" so interesting is the way it juxtaposes Matera's apparent serenity with the struggles of these migrants. It was similar levels of rural southern poverty that attracted Pasolini to Matera in the first place. The lack of development that left the city unspoilt was primarily a sign of poverty. In the years since Matera doubled for Jerusalem in Pasolini's Matthew, it has been used subsequently for a string of other Biblical films including King David (1985), The Nativity Story (2006), Young Messiah (2016), Ben-Hur (2016), Mary Magdalene (2018) and Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ in 2004. But it's Pasolini's film that is very much front and centre here not only in terms of ideology and direct homage but also artistic form. Pasolini described himself as a "pasticheur" cobbling together disparate source material drawn from both "high" and "low" culture.1

    The film continues this tradition, but with a new twist for the 21st century. Careful shot-for-shot reproductions of scenes from Pasolini's 1964 film sit alongside documentary-style making-of footage  that recall his location scouting films such as Sopralluoghi in Palestina (1965) and Appunti per un'Orestiade africana (1970). And in weaving these two elements together Rau recalls Pasolini's tragi-comedic short from La ricotta (1962). It blurs the boundary between documentary and fiction taking "making-of" type footage and blending it back into the mix. In one shot straight out of Pasolini's film Jesus has his head bowed and eyes closed as if having breathed his last. But then teh director says "cut" and Sagnet open his eyes and breathes a sigh of relief as the camera keeps rolling beyond the end of the scene.

    This juxtaposition of contrasting images kicks in early in the film between the first and second proper scenes. One minute of Rau and Sagnet chat as they survey the beauty of Matera at sunset, the peaceful old city bathed in dusky light. Suddenly there's a cut to a roving daytime shot within one of the temporary settlement on the outskirts of the ancient city. 

    While it's the kind of contrast that Pasolini would have loved, the cross-references go far deeper than this. Rau is joined on set by the star of Il vangelo  Enrique Irazoqui, now in his mid 70s and a freeman of Matera, a status he very much appear to enjoy (alongside his role in international chess). Irazoqui fulfils several roles not only does he act as an ambassador for the film within Matera (a fan expresses their admiration for him at one point and he swiftly takes the opportunity to encourage them to come to the shooting later in the day), but also he acts as a coach to Sagnet as well as appearing in the film as John the Baptist - handing over the mantle to his cinematic successor. Moreover Irazoqui also features in the film as his younger self. Two excerpts from the 1964 film are shown firstly as Irazoqui, Rau and some of the other crew watch it from within a tiny cinema, and then later as the film is shown in the open air to a group of the migrants. 

    Rau's New Gospel also incorporates various sections of music from the original - a reminder of how transformative that music is - though interestingly it's the older, classical pieces that Rau retains. The more modern songs from Il vangelo's soundtrack are replaced by other more contemporary songs again an interesting blend of folk and more contemporary African music. 

    These direct references are complemented by more oblique ones Sagnet (out of character) arrives at a fig orchard only to find this time fig trees have been destroyed by hail and rain, rather than by Jesus' curse. And of course Pasolini's original is repeatedly recalled in views of the city (both in precisely matching compositions and 'just' in the background) and in discussions about the project they are undertaking, including that opening scene where Rau and Sagnet discuss Matera's cinematic pedigree. 

    The two also discuss Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004) in this scene, and as with Pasolini's film, numerous verbal and visual references to The Passion follow. Also starring is Maia Morgenstern the actor who played Jesus' mother in Gibson's film. Here she reprises her role re-enacting identical shots, most notably during the crucifixion, but also at times evoking images of Pasolini's mother Susanna in the same role. The other scene that recalls Gibson's film is Judas' suicide where already troubled local children hound him and chase him far from the city.

    In The Passion of the Christ that sequence was one of the most troublingly antisemitic parts of the film. Here the question of race cuts in a different direction. Firstly, the children's faces do not distort (whereas in Gibson's film this perpetuated the children of the devil trope). Secondly, whereas in The Passion the issue of race centred on the depiction of those playing Jewish characters, here the suggestion is the persecution these children dish out is racially motivated. In isolation that could also be read as antisemitic, but the difference is the way the film consistently centres itself on the modern parallels. The film's terrain indicates the children here meant to be Italian not Jewish. 

    There's a similar unease during the scene with Jesus and the crowd before Pilate. Again this is one of the problematic elements in The Passion and here the question of race is at the fore as someone in the crowd racially abuses Jesus for being black. That could be read as indicating that the crowd here was loyal to Rome (is there always more of a sense of this in Italian Jesus films than in those of Hollywood I wonder?), but it could also be read as drawing a sharp divide between the proto-Christians and the Jewish people. Again the way the film persistently invades the historic footage with its modern context throws the focus heavily onto modern interpretations, but, in honesty I'm not entirely comfortable in either scene. But then I suspect I'm not meant to be.

    But perhaps the film's most disturbing scene occurs during an audition for the guards. In what feels like the film's longest shot a seemingly mild-mannered practising Catholic removes his shirt, picks up a whip and beats a plastic chair to within an inch of its life, all the while unleashing a tirade of racial abuse. The film gives little indication as to whether the man is improvising or if these are lines he has been given. Something is unmasked in that moment, but is it an unrecognised acting talent, or an indication of of the strength of racist feelings that exist towards African migrants. The options are so stark that is feels a little reckless to leave them without comment or clarification.

    In a sense, this is just one of many examples of self-perception and reality being out of step. In addition to this actor, and Matera itself (with rich tourists flocking seemingly unaware of the poverty hidden around the city's fringes) we could add the city's mayor. He chooses the role of Simon of Cyrene and is shown pontificating about how a his official role is about servanthood.2 Yet he also represents the town's authorities who are not only failing to act to alleviate the migrants suffering and exploitation, but also exacerbating it. Viable accommodation for the migrants remains empty for years. Meanwhile the mayor's police destroy even the meagre temporary accommodation some migrants had. Having visited one of the improvised migrant settlements searching for people to join his march into the city, Sagnet returns later to find the police have bulldozed it. "Foxes have dens..but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head".

    The film highlights the illegality of some of this activity n(paying below minimum wage for example) and is at pains to point how rules in place to protect migrants and farm workers are either not being applied or actively broken. This is why the first words of Jesus spoken in the film are from Matt 5:17 - "I have not come to break the law but to fulfil it". This seems to be the heart of much of the activism of Sagnet and the others. The rules are in place to protect them. Often what is happening is either neglectful or illegal. 

    The film does manage to end on a positive note, a resurrection of sorts I suppose, as the church manage to provide some space for accommodation and Sagnet is able to celebrate the creation of a mafia-free brand of tomato sauce, but it's set against a backdrop of tragic stories: acquaintances and family members lost at sea, racism facing those who survive, and system that either unwillingly or deliberately works to prevents the many migrants entering the country from thriving. For all its celebration of Italian culture and )religiously inspired?) activism, this is not a film that dishes out easy answers.  

    ==============
    1 - Stack, Oswald (1969) Pasolini on Pasolini. London, Thames and Hudson/British Film Institute. p.28
    2 - When the scene does arrive there is an interesting role reversal here. Ever since Sidney Poitier played Simon of Cyrene in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) he has often been portrayed by black actors, usually assisting a white Jesus.

    Here are some interesting links which I don't have time to embed in the above text just now.

    Labels: , , , , ,

    Thursday, March 25, 2021

    Seven Forthcoming Books on the Bible and Cinema


    I'm aware of seven books about cinema and the Bible being published either this year or next so I thought it would be worth me pulling all their details together into one place. I've contributed to two of them and know the other people involved, so it's an exciting time for publishing in this area. I may revise this post as time goes along and more details become apparent and hopefully I'll be able to review some of these in due course.

    100 Bible Films - Matt Page
    This is obviously going to be the best of those mentioned here (that's a joke) and if you can only afford one, then this is the one to go for ;-)

    I'm covering what I consider the 100 most significant film adaptations of the Bible aiming for a really diverse mix of filmmakers from across 14 decades, 6 continents, with a wide range of beliefs and covering stories from across the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament and the deuterocanonical books. It's written in a more terse style than my rambling blog posts here and will have plenty of images as well as an appendix listing the entries by biblical character.

    It's part of the BFI's "Screen Guides" series and I honestly couldn't be more excited.
    Due: February 2022 [BFI]


    Costuming Christ: Re-Dressing & Re-dressing First-Century ‘Jews’ and ‘Christians’ in Passion Dramas - Katie Turner
    After a number of general books on the subject, it's good to see more specialist volumes staring to be published and so Katie's "Costuming Christ" will be most welcome. Building on her PhD thesis on the "Representation of New Testament Figures in Passion Dramas" Katie's book will look at a subject discuss less than I probably should and with the expert eye of a NT scholar. Katie's perhaps best known for her contribution to the collective volume "Jesus and Brian" called "'The Shoe is the Sign!' Costuming Brian and Dressing the First Century".
    Due: 2022 [T&T Clark]


    Jesus Christ Movie Star - Phil Hall
    "Jesus Christ Movie Star" will explore how Jesus has been depicted by filmmakers from the beginnings of the motion picture industry in the 1890s through the digital cinema of today. Phil is a film journalist / historian who also runs the Online Movie Show podcast and has written nine other books. I sense from some of his tweets and blog posts that he'll be covering some of the less well known international films as well.
    Due: May 2021 [Bear Manor Media]


    Jesus, the Gospels and Cinematic Imagination (revised) - Richard Walsh and Jeffrey L. Staley
    Richard is probably the greatest scholar in this area and the first edition of "Jesus, the Gospels and Cinematic Imagination" (also co-written with Jeffrey Staley) has long been one of my favourite books on the subject. However, it was written for a very different cultural context where DVD was king and before a number of recent Jesus films have been released.

    Richard and Jeffrey's revision, then, is fairly wide ranging, including chapters on two of those recent releases  films, Jezile (Dornford-May, 2006) and Garth Davis' Mary Magdalene (2018) as well as revisiting Alice Guy's Vie de Jesus (1906) and Il Messia (Rossellini, 1975). Moreover there will also be more emphasis on films and film criticism and less on gospel criticism and more attention to location, actors' other roles and directors' other films. 
    Due: Fall 2021
    More info (publisher website)


    Judas Superstar:  Judas Iscariot in Cinema - Christoph Stener
    Having previously covered religious texts (vol.1), Christian art (vol.2) and dark legend / theatre / folklore / caricature (vol.3) in his series on the antisemitic iconography of Judas Iscariot,  Prof Stener arrives at cinematic depictions of Judas for volume IV.

    While Stener is French, there is both French and English version available, The longer French version comes in two parts and covers 137 films over 1200 pages, but there is an abridged English version which discusses 121 films in 192 pages. He analyses each film for its respect for the Bible and qualifies its message either ecumenical or antisemitic.
    Published: Feb 2021 [BoD]
    More info (publisher website)


    T&T Clark Handbook to Jesus and Film - Richard Walsh (ed.)
    Walsh again, only this time he's editing the work of some of the best scholars in the field (and me...). There are 27 chapters broken into two sections. Part 1 covers "The Jesus Film Tradition" while part 2 looks at "Other Jesuses, Christs, Messiahs, Sons of Men…". A lot of those involved also contributed to Walsh / T&T Clark's 2018 book "Companion to the Bible and Film". This should be out already, but mine hasn't arrived yet, so I'm assuming there's been some kind of a delay. 
    Due: Feb 2021 [T&T Clark]
    More info (publisher website)


    Edit:
    Bible and Film: The Basics - Matt Rindge

    I only learnt about this one after making the original post, but Matt Rindge's Bible and Film: The Basics is also due out this July. It joins the list of publication I like to call half-and-half Bible film books, following in the tradition of Baugh's "Imaging the Divine" where the author explores biblical adaptations (Bible on Film) before discussing Christ-figure, allegorical, metaphorical and thematic treatments (Bible in Film). The latter chapters "provide a hermeneutic by which readers can create their own new conversations with the manifold ways that Bible and film interact".
    Due: July 2021 [Routledge]
    More info (publisher website)

    Labels: ,

    Monday, March 22, 2021

    Silent Henri Andréani Films Online

    I've decided to start posting more general Bible film news on here in addition to the reviews. I already post some stuff like this on Twitter, but it's increasingly hard to find stuff there again and it's nice to keep this site ticking over. 

    Over the years I've posted quite a bit about the series of biblical shorts Henri Andréani directed for Pathé in the real golden era for biblical films, 1908-13. However, while many of his films based on the Hebrew Bible have survived, most of them remain locked away in archives. 

    The good news is, though, that three of these films are now available either to watch online or download from Harpodeon for just $5. The three films are David et Goliath (1911) one of its three sequels, Absalom (1912) and Le sacrifice d'Abraham also from 1912. 

    I have seen the first of these films before in the BFI archive's Joye collection and interestingly, this is a different print from the version I saw where the colour was far more impressive. In fact, as there's also a plain black and white version of this film on YouTube and there are also some frames from another version available to view online in the Eastman Museum Collection. then there are at least four extant prints of this film, three of which are in (differently) stencilled colour. I wrote about this film for my David chapter in "The Bible in Motion" as well as a long blog post about it here (which includes a transcript/translation of the German intertitles). 

    As for the other two, however, I've not yet seen them, but I plan to review them shortly. In the meantime you might be interested to read Fritzi Kramer's review of Absalom at Movies Silently. 

    Harpodeon have a number of other biblical silents available as well, including the 1907 Ben-Hur, Judith of Bethulia (1914) and Nazimova's Salomé (1922).

    Labels: , , ,

    Saturday, February 20, 2021

    Histoire de Judas (2015)

    As the cradle of cinema in general, and biblical movies in particular, France's religious films (often featuring long static takes) have travelled from the Lumieres, Pathé Passion plays and Alice Guy, via the likes of Robert Bresson and Philippe Garrel, to find recent expression in works such as Le fils de Joseph (2016) and now Histoire de Judas (The Story of Joseph). Of course this kind of slow, contemplative cinema is hardly unique to France, but the connection between the two is certainly well-established.

    Histoire is a strikingly beautiful film. Director Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche sets his take on the Jesus story in the midst of some remarkable exteriors on the edge of the Sahara Desert. Ameur-Zaïmeche was born in Algeria, before his family moved to France two years later, which is perhaps why he chose to locate the film in the Biskra province in northeastern Algerian and the Roman ruins at Thamugadi in the Aurès Mountains.  While his film is very much anti-epic in style with it's long static takes and its slow pace, in an odd way the breathtaking scenery lends the film some of the same kind of feeling the original audiences might have got from a DeMillean spectacle; one is seduced by the striking images, even though there's an historical unlikeliness inherent in their eye-catching nature. Riccardo Centola sums up well the film's anti-epic style:
    Lo stesso Gesù viene rappresentato volutamente secondo canoni antispettacolari, in atteggiamento quasi sempre meditabondo, a viso semi-coperto, mentre snocciola frasi celebri nel modo meno enfatico possibile.

    Often Jesus' representation is deliberately according to anti-spectacular traditions: in attitude, almost always brooding; his face half covered, while he rattles off celebrated phrases in the least emphatic manner possible. (translation mine).1
    Irina Lubtchansky's cinematography brings a sensuous, materialist quality to the images here. When a woman anoints Jesus with perfume - which we have just witnessed her bartering prized possessions to obtain - you can practically smell the aroma of the oil as it dribbles tantalisingly across Jesus' forehead. As with other films directed by Ameur-Zaïmeche's, the ambient sounds are enhanced giving the impression of a world that endures beyond the confines of the narrative. Elsewhere it's the lighting. In contrast to the bright, colourful exteriors dominated by blue skies and ocre rocks, the interiors opt for more a tenebristic feel. Indeed Ameur-Zaïmeche cites Caravaggio and Rembrandt as the inspiration for these scenes. 2

    Visually Histoire de Judas recalls a number of Jesus films. The anti-epic and desert locales recall Pasolini's Il vangelo secondo Matteo (Gospel According to Matthew. 1964) and Albert Serra's less familiar El cant dels ocells (Birdsong, 2008), but also, to a lesser extent, Le lit de la Vierge (The Virgin's Bed, 1969), although that may be partly due to both films - and perhaps French-language Jesus films in general - typifying the tendency to veer into philosophy. (Indeed, the trial scenes feel similar to those from Jesus of Montreal (1989), for this very reason, and that's only French-Canadian). Surprisingly, the Jesus film to which Ameur-Zaïmeche actually refers to in the press pack is Carl Theodore Dreyer's (ultimately unmade) Jesus of Nazareth.3 However, the most striking piece of intertextuality is with Jesus Christ Superstar (1973). Both films rely on desert locations, even during the trial scenes and both films are set amongst Roman remains which whilst largely ruined nevertheless both feature prominent columns.  

    One other Jesus film that comes to mind while watching Histoire is Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). Both films re-cast Judas as Jesus' closest friend, who knows him even before his temptation in the desert and who remains faithful even after Jesus' crucifixion. Ameur-Zaïmeche's film goes several steps further, however, for here Judas is not even responsible for leading the guards to Jesus.4 Indeed this attempt to "rehabilitate Judas" with a more sympathetic portrayal is the film's main premise.5 The opening scene shows Judas ascending a mountain to retrieve Jesus after his 40-day fast, which has left his master so weakened by the experience that Judas has to give him a piggy back all the way back to Nazareth. Later Judas persuades his former zealot colleagues to arrange for a crowd to attend Jesus' triumphal entry in to the city and he quickly follows his master's lead in destroying the cages and tables in the temple. "No living being deserves to be in a cage" he announces as the people begin to contribute to the carnage.

    However the biggest and most significant deviation from the Gospels surrounds the Last Supper and Jesus' arrest. Earlier in the day Judas witnesses a man from Qumran (who is presumably meant to be an Essene, the group responsible for the Dead Sea Scrolls) writing down what Jesus is saying. Judas knows Jesus is opposed to this (he "distrusts the word that is frozen, and which will inevitably become dogma, a tool of power, an instrument of domination and submission") and so having confronted the man, seeks permission to destroy his writings. And this what Jesus means at the Last Supper when he tells Judas to do what he has to do quickly.

    [SPOILERS]So while Jesus and the other disciples head to Gethsemane (seemingly without the knowledge that Jesus is to be arrested there) Judas heads to Qumran and burns the Essene's writings. However, shortly afterwards the man finds his records in ashes and rushes to confront Judas, stabbing him in the stomach and leaving him for dead. Judas is found and returned. A Samaritan (named so in the credits6) returns him to the city, but by the time Judas awakes and staggers to Golgotha, Jesus has already died on the cross. Judas finds Jesus' recently vacated tomb and unaware of the significance of what has happened lies down 'in Jesus' place' and dies. The shot deliberately evokes Hans Holbein the Younger's "The Dead Christ in the Tomb" (1521-22),7 and is the first film I can think of where Judas dies not by hanging as in Matt 27:3-10, but in a way that more closely relates to the Bible's other description of Judas' death in Acts 1:15-20.[END SPOILERS]

    But the film's inherent sympathy for Judas is perhaps best embodied by the fact that Ameur-Zaïmeche himself plays Judas and that he chose his close friend Nabil Djedouani to play Jesus. (Djedouani is a director in his own right and is also credited by Ameur-Zaïmeche as an Assistant Director, one of a number of cast members to also take roles in the crew - Marie Loustalot cast as Bathsheba, was assistant editor).8

    Ameur-Zaïmeche's five other major films - Wesh wesh, qu'est-ce qui se passe? (2001), Bled Number One (2006), Dernier Maquis (2008), Les chants de Mandrin (2011) and Terminal Sud (2019) - have, to a greater or lesser extent, explored Algerian-French identity, and the accompanying internal and external conflicts. His Berber family moved to France when he was just two, so just as all his other films have primarily been in French, and so too is Histoire. This does seem to have raised a few eyebrows,9  However, whilst it's understandable that a director born in Algeria might seek out Algerian locations to stand in for the Holy Land, as someone who has lived in France since the age of two it's only natural that his film is shot in French. Rather than being a purely Algerian film it's more nuanced and complex than that.

    However, the use of French in an Algerian context does recall the country's suffering under French colonialism. In particular the extended scenes where Pilate (Régis Laroche) and his colleagues - played by a white actors -  interrogate Jesus adds an extra dimension, almost as if they are events from the fringes of the Algerian War. Pilate fears Jesus is a revolutionary and wants to quell the threat to the empire. "Look all around you. Your empire lies in ruins" says Jesus at one point, "it’s in my name that nations will place their hopes".

    That said the tone of the discussion here is decidedly philosophical compared to standard Hollywood fare. It feels like a number of French-language Jesus films similarly pit Pilate and Jesus against one another in a battle of philosophy, though perhaps my impression of that is exaggerated by my love of existential New Wave movies. Nevertheless, both Golgotha (1935) and Jesus of Montreal (1989) feature relatively long sequences where Jesus and Pilate engage in philosophical tête-à-tête. It perhaps also reflects Ameur-Zaïmeche's uses of Roger Caillois' "Ponce Pilate". I have to say I'm not hugely in favour of these kind of portrayals: The more Pilate appears as philosophical, the less he seems like the brute of Luke 13, Philo and Josephus, and the more the blame for Jesus death deflects from him onto the Jewish people. That said, given that Ameur-Zaïmeche's motivation for making Histoire de Judas was to counter antisemitism, it's less of a concern in this case.

    These concerns are also offset by the film's handling of the Barabbas figure. Here he is called Carabas and he appears to have a severe cognitive disability. Pilate has him arrested but the chief priests seeing the injustice appeal to Pilate and persuade him that Carabas is not a threat. By dismantling the way the Gospels place the two men in opposition, and by making distinction (found in Mark 15:6-8) between trying to save Carabas / Barabbas and trying to have Jesus killed this also counters many of the ways that the text has often been presented which reinforce antisemitism.

    However, perhaps the film's biggest weakness is that it's unclear who exactly was driving Jesus' execution. Judas is recast as Jesus' great friend, nowhere near the events in Gethsemane. The priests have some qualms, but don't seem particularly involved and even Pilate seems reluctant. Things kind of fall on one of Pilate's advisers, but it's not exactly convincing.

    Nevertheless, this is an interesting take on the story and one which is beautifully shot. For those who are interested, it's currently available on Mubi along with several of Ameur-Zaïmeche's other films.

    =========

    Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat have also reviewed this film at spiritualityandpractice.com. Moreover Reinhold Zwick has written more extensively on the film in the soon to be published T&T Clark Handbook of Jesus and Film (pp.67-76) edited by Richard Walsh and also containing an essay from me.

    =========

    1 - Centola, Riccardo (2015) "21 MFF Histoire de Judas" at Cinemafrica, 11 November. Available online: http://www.cinemafrica.org/spip.php?article1603 

    2 - Frodon, Jean-Michel (2015), “An Interview with Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche,” in Sarrazink Productions (ed.), Presskit for Story of Judas. Available online: https://medias.unifrance.org/medias/7/42/141831/presse/story-of-judas-presskit-french.pdf

    3 - Frodon, "Interview"

    4 - In Last Temptation Judas does this only after Jesus' emphatic instructions to do so. It's hardly what could be called a betrayal.

    5 - Ameur-Zaïmeche, Rabah (2015) "Director’s Note" in Sarrazink Productions (ed.), Pressbook for "Story of Judas". Available online: https://medias.unifrance.org/medias/44/47/143148/presse/story-of-judas-presskit-english.pdf

    6 - Zwick, Reinhold (2021) "Inculturation and Actualization: Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche’s Histoire de Judas" in Walsh, Richard (ed.) T&T Clark Handbook of Jesus and Film, London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark. p.69

    7 - Frodon, "Interview"

    8 - Frodon, "Interview"

    9 - Not only does Frodon ask Ameur-Zaïmeche about this in the press-pack interview, but both Centalo and Zwick (p.67) have also questioned this decision/choice/move.

    Labels: , , ,

    Saturday, January 30, 2021

    An Anouncement

     
    Apologies to regular readers that it has been so quiet around here of late, but I have been writing my first book. 

    "100 Bible Films" is to be published by the British Film Institute as part of their screen guides series. It's a project I've been dreaming about for 12 years since I came across the series in the BFI's bookshop in London. 

    The text is being peer reviewed at the moment and in the meantime we've been looking at cover designs and so on. While the text is written there's still a lot that needs to happen to make that text into a book. We're currently looking at a publication date of February 2022. 

     I'll be posting more information about the book here and on my Twitter feed as the publication date draws closer. Until then thank you, as ever, for all the support.

    Labels: , ,

    Wednesday, November 25, 2020

    Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

    N.B. My scene guide for this film is here.
    "This film is not based on the Gospels but upon this fictional exploration of the eternal spiritual conflict". So begins the opening titles of Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, a clarification that so many of its critics were seemingly unwilling to accept or understand. Hampered by the campaign against it, the finished film struggled to recoup its costs; meanwhile the American Family Association, the chief group leading the protests, saw an increase in their income for 1988 of around a million dollars (Lindlof, 284).

    Just as Pier Paolo Pasolini saw his film as an analogy of the challenges facing those fighting for equality, so Scorsese and his script writer Paul Schrader see theirs "as a metaphor for the human condition". Just as Jesus agonises over the question of what it is that God wants from him, so Scorsese and Schrader - both from strongly religious backgrounds - continue to wrestle with that central question. Almost thirty years later these questions still trouble them. 2016 saw Scorsese release Silence the story of an emotionally, and then physically, tortured priest in 17th century Japan. The following year, Schrader's First Reformed depicted a minister caught in the midst of a crisis of faith.

    Consequently, Last Temptation's opening image is of Willem Dafoe's Jesus writhing on the ground wracked in emotional agony, and as the film draws to a close almost 160 minutes later, the situation has only worsened. On the verge of an agonising death on the cross, Jesus' has drifted into the depths of his unconscious and become trapped by the lure of an ordinary, domesticated life. It's unclear whether this is a dream, an hallucination, or simply the last fantastical flickers of activity in his brain, but the entire 40 minute sequence occurs between Jesus' cry of "My God, why have you forsaken me", and the final victorious cry of "It is accomplished" just seconds later.

    It's the visual and aural aspects of the transition to this sequence which many seem to miss. As Jesus hangs on the cross, the camera twists through ninety degrees, almost as if Jesus is lying down, the natural sound of the scene is muted and the sun brightens to warm Jesus' face. "It's clichéd" Scorsese would later explain, "but after all, it's a scam, it's the Devil" (Thomson and Christie, 143). These scenes are difficult and uncomfortable precisely because for the first time we experience in ourselves Jesus' disorientation - the bizarre shared life with Mary and Martha, the illogicality of Saul's empty preaching. It's as if, on the verge of death Jesus' mind is flitting about trying to make sense of this his most testing trial.

    Only when he remembers his friends, the disciples, does he return to his senses. The bond of friendship has been a key theme in Scorsese's films, from Goodfellas (1990) to The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) often with a growing sense of fear and that the protagonists are getting in out of their depth. Additionally, much of the film employs Judas in a similar fashion to the "buddy" roles of Raging Bull (1980) and Casino (1995). The filmmakers even cast Mean Streets' Harvey Keitel as Judas. Yet whilst Jesus is emotionally dependent on Judas for much of the film, at various other points he takes on the mantle of the sexually-repressed loner, typified by Robert DeNiro's anti-hero in Taxi Driver. This occurs most notably in the scenes where Jesus faces the devil both in the desert, after his encounter with John the Baptist, and on the cross when he enters into the last temptation itself. Here Judas' role as friend and confidant is taken over by the young girl who is playing Satan. Many of Scorsese's films have been typified by the tension the lead character feels between the women in his life and his buddies. Here the devil removes Judas and the disciples from the temptation and encourages him to marry both Mary Magdalene, and then later Mary of Bethany. Only at the end of the 40 minute temptation do the disciples and Judas burst back onto the scene, make him see Satan's deception and inspire him do the right thing and see his sacrificial death through to the end. Jesus dies victorious and finally at peace. To quote the novel's closing words "He uttered a triumphant cry: It is accomplished! And it was as though he had said: Everything has begun" (Kazantzakis,575).

    At this point in the film the image gets "edge fog" which then gives way to a series of flashing bursts of coloured light and the sound of ululations and church bells. The visual distortion was the result of light accidentally leaking into the canister, but the filmmakers were able to use it to create a modern way of expressing the resurrection. Indeed one of the aspects of this film that makes it stand out from the biblical films that had gone before it was its contemporary use of the camera. The earlier scenes feature a constantly moving camera giving the idea of things being spontaneous, yet also unsettled. Yet as the film moves on we find the scenes with Pilate and the in front of the crowd utilise long panning shots suggesting events are moving unavoidably towards an inevitable conclusion. Elsewhere we see the camera rushing past Jesus as he is pulled into Lazarus's tomb, and towards his destiny and inevitable death.

    The dynamism of that shot is typical of the film's refreshing lack of reverence when people interact with Jesus. Whilst some of the ordinary people he preaches to accept his message, many are unmoved, and others resort to bristling insults. We're used to see Jesus charged with blasphemy, but are unfamiliar with him being accused of madness. When he disrupts a mob stoning Magdalene, someone throws a stone at him. When he preaches about love, people laugh at him. When he is brought to trial, Pontius Pilate (played aloofly by David Bowie) treats him with detached cynicism. Jesus is just another failed messiah that the governor has to dispatch.

    Much of this is carried over from the film's invented opening. Jesus feels God's call and it terrifies him. In an attempt to dispel the voices in his head he makes crosses for the Romans, visits Magdalene in a brothel and ends up in a monastery. God has become another of Scorsese's complex father figures. Even for those who may be uncomfortable with this initial sequence or. indeed, its radical final act, the episodes most reliant on the Gospels have an unprecedented energy about them. Willem Dafoe's Jesus is unpredictable, and possibly unstable, but the energy of his performance is breathtakingly compelling. The sense of spontaneity when Jesus launches into the Sermon on the Plain, his forceful exorcisms and his playfulness when turning the water into wine are all memorable scenes, as are that of his fasting in the desert which has been copied so often in subsequent productions. The scenes are given extra dynamism by the actor's use of thick contemporary American accents and the way by Schrader's fresh paraphrasing of the Gospels liberates them from centuries of church tradition.

    And of course, there's much more that could be discussed about Peter Gabriel's evocative soundtrack, Thelma Schoonmaker's editing, or simply the lighting, pacing, costuming that make Last Temptation such an original piece of work. What's disappointing is that more than thirty years later the film is known more for its controversy than its accomplishments. It's a strange reaction to a film that was made sincerely, and was born out of a desire "to get to know Jesus better" (Thomson and Christie, 120). Perhaps after thirty years it's time for the film to be appreciated for its attempt "to make the life of Jesus immediate and accessible to people who haven't really thought about God in a long time" (Thomson and Christie, 124).

    ==========
    - Lindlof, Thomas R. Lindlof (2008) Hollywood Under Siege: Martin Scorsese, the Religious Right, and the Culture Wars. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky (July 1, 2008).

    - Thomson, David, and Ian Christie (1996) Scorsese on Scorsese. London: Faber and Faber.

    - Kazantzakis, Nikos (1961) The Last Temptation. Translated by Peter A. Bien, London: Faber and Faber. 

    Labels: ,

    Monday, October 19, 2020

    T&T Clark Handbook of Jesus & Film


    T&T Clark Handbook of Jesus and Film

    Edited by Richard Walsh

    Bloomsbury T&T Clark (2021)
    352 pages - Hardback

    ISBN 978-0567686916
    Publication Date: 13/2/2021

    Apologies if things have been quiet round here of late, but I've been working on an exciting project that I'm not yet had to go ahead to talk about in public yet. 

    In the meantime, details have gone up on the Bloomsbury website about the next book to feature a chapter I've written. The "T&T Clark Handbook of Jesus and Film" contains 27 essays by various film scholars discussing Jesus films from all kinds of angles but particularly the Jesus Film Tradition (part 1) and Other Jesuses, Christs, Messiahs, Sons of Men etc. in part 2.

    My chapter is called "Jesus of Cinecittà" and looks at specifically Italian Jesus films across the last 20 years and the distinctive perspectives the country has brought in contrast to Hollywood's Jesuses. I'm particularly excited by some of the contributors to this collection who I have not been published alongside before, including my friend Steven D. Greydanus, though it's also good to once again join some of the most significant scholars in the field.

    The book is already available to order online on the Bloomsbury website where there is also a little more info. However, here is a list of the contents. I have posted a list of the contributions below.

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

    T&T Clark Handbook of Jesus and Film

    Introduction: The Jesus Film Tradition - Richard Walsh, Methodist University, USA

    Part One: The Jesus Film Tradition
    1. Obscure Gospel Elements in Jesus Films - Peter T. Chattaway
    2. “Who Do you Say That I Am?” Responses to Cinema Sequences of the Woman Taken in Adultery - Peter Malone
    3. One Hundred Years of Cinematic Attempts at Raising a Stiff (Jn 11:1-46) - Jeffrey L. Staley
    4. Seeing Differently with Mary Magdalene - Michelle Fletcher
    5. Inculturation and Actualization: Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche's Histoire de Judas - Reinhold Zwick, 
    6. Through Other Eyes: Point of View and Defamiliarization in Jesus Films - Steven D. Greydanus, 
    7. The First Seventy Years of Jesus Films: A Canonical, Source-Critical History - Jeffrey L. Staley
    8. Reading the Gospel(s) in the Dark: The Gospel Effect - Richard Walsh
    9. The “False Syllogism” of Archaeological Authenticity in Jesus Movies - Kevin M. McGeough, 
    10. Jesus of Cinecittà - Matthew Page
    11. Three Revolutionary Gospel Films: By the People, with the People, and for the People - Lloyd Baugh
    12. Jesus in a Modern Contemporary Context - Freek L. Bakker
    13. Miéville, Godard, and Dolto: The Psychoanalysis of Mary and Joseph - Anne Moore
    14. From the New Testament to The Brand New Testament: Moving Beyond “Jesus” Films - Caroline Vander Stichele

    Part Two: Other Jesuses, Christs, Messiahs, Sons of Men…
    15. “Walk[ing] upon that Gospel Highway”: Experiencing Physical Pilgrimages, Places, and People in The Gospel Road: A Story of Jesus - James M. Cochran
    16 Scorsese's Jesus: Christology in The Last Temptation of Christ and Silence - Rhonda Burnette-Bletsch
    17. Obviously, It's a Christ-figure Movie…Or is It? - Robert K. Johnston
    18. Sacred Subtexts and the Biblical Buttressing of Klaatu as a Christ Figure in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) - Anton Karl Kozlovic
    19. Guillermo del Toro's El laberinto del fauno (Pan's Labyrinth) and the Subversion of the Cinematic Jesus/Christ figure - Matthew S. Rindge
    20. Failed Christ Figures in Québec Films - Adele Reinhartz, University of Ottawa, Canada
    21. (Un)Holy Saturday - Tina Pippin
    22. The Bible in the Star Trek Universe (2000-19) - Larry J. Kreitzer
    23. A Modest Proposal for Christ-Figure Interpretations: Explicated with Two Test Cases - Richard Walsh
    24. Messianism and the Horror Film: Transcendence and Salvation in The Mist and Martyrs - Brandon R. Grafius
    25. “It's Alive!”: Frankenstein and His Horrible Fellows as Messianic Figures - Robert Paul Seesengood
    26. Founding the New Old State: Messianic Cowboys on the Frontiers of Europe and America - Ward Blanton and James Crossley
    27. Lars and the Real Girl as a Son of Man Story - George Aichele

    Bibliography
    Index

    Labels: ,

    Thursday, August 27, 2020

    Lamentations of Judas (2020): Podcast

    It's been 11½ years since I last posted on the Bible Films podcast. Podcasting has come an awful long way in that time - to the extent that I'm somewhat embarrassed by the older entries, but I've been wanting to return to it for a long time, and to try a new, more conversational approach.

    So I'm delighted to have just posted a discussion about the recently released Lamentations of Judas a fantastic part drama-part documentary which tells both the story of Jesus and the modern(ish) day story of some of the combatants in the Angolan Civil War. 

    It's a very special film typified by the kind of natural lighting and straw-tinted landscapes that made films such as Timbuktu (2014) and Wallay (2017) so special.

    This time round I'm in discussion with Melanie Pegge most widely known as an artist, musician, but an art psychotherapist by profession. As some of the film's publicity talked about how it was the process of re-enacting the story of Jesus' betrayal that enabled these former soldiers to open up about their experiences and subsequent rejection I thought Mel would bring a fascinating perspective to the film and indeed she does.

    Please have a listen and please, if you could, "like and share" that would be fantastic. My old podcast channel currently only has a couple of votes and, as one of those is a "one-starrer", it doesn't encourage others to give it a chance! You can find it at one of these places:

    Podbean
    iTunes
    Google

    Labels:

    Monday, August 17, 2020

    The Ten Commandments (1923)


    Nearly 20 years ago now I started writing a book about portrayals of Moses on Film. I abandoned it long ago, even the few chapters I had written would pretty much writing from scratch were I to pick it up again, so whilst I've written and reviewed it extensively in the past, I've never actually posted anything here on it, so I figured it was time to remedy that. Much of what follows was written back then so is not my best work, but nevertheless hopefully it's useful.

    Given his reputation today it seems hard to believe that there was a time when Cecil B. DeMille was a leading figure in Hollywood but had not yet made a biblical epic. By 1923 he already had 45 films to his name and only decided to make a film on the Ten Commandments after running a competition to "get the idea for his next picture” .Eight entrants snagged the $1000 prize money, but one stood out for its hookline “You cannot break the Ten Commandments - they will break you".

    DeMille’s and his screenwriter Jeanie MacPherson decided to split the film into two parts, with a Prologue concentrates on the story of the Exodus giving way to a modern morality tale, for the remainder of the filmDeMille and his built and then subsequently buried the massive sets in Guadalupe, Santa Maria in California's Mojave Desert 

    Among the film's many distinctions are that it was amongst the first to use of Two Strip Technicolor. DeMille put it to good use, in particular as a device for highlighting the emotions of the Hebrews as they left the promised land. The use of the Technicolor, the orthodox refugees and the soundtrack at this point make this scene one of the movie’s most enduring.

    Amongst DeMille's motives for the film was perhaps a desire to inject some much needed morality into Hollywood which was in danger of being engulfed by the scandal surrounding (the wrongly accused) Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle. It worked Photoplay, amongst others, described it as "wonderful entertainment and a marvellous sermon” and was said to have inspired large numbers of people to become rabbis, priests and ministers. More significantly the film's opening titles explicitly referenced "the shattering thunder of the World War" arguing that following the Commandments was the only "way out" of the situation happening again.

    The ‘Prologue’ concentrates on the story of the exodus, from the oppression of the Hebrews through to the giving of the Ten Commandments  getting as far as the worship of the golden calf.Just as the confrontation between the Israelites and Moses is just about to reach its climax the story fades and the viewer is transported to the dinner table of a 1920’s mother telling the story to her two adult sons. The younger son, Dan declares the commandments to be “bunk" and sets about breaking as many as he can. This upsets both his fiercely religious mother and his more even-handed brother (who accuses her of using the Bible "like a whip") Of course Dan ultimately gets his comeuppance when a church he has built using shoddy materials collapses and kills his mother. Dan is forced to flee to Mexico with the authorities in hot pursuit, but is caught in a storm, ultimately, like the Egyptians being dashed into the sea.

    DeMille uses lighting effectively elsewhere in the film, most notably within Pharaoh’s palace which despite its grandeur is shot as dark and dingy. It may be filled with reproductions of the treasures of Tutankhamun’s tomb, but by making it seem shadowy and gloomy DeMille further stresses his point.

    DeMille also uses two recurring motifs to tell his story. The most obvious is his use of the tablets which the Ten Commandments are given on. In addition to the actual tablets being seen in the story, as well as appearing as a backdrop to the intertitles on three different occasions their shape is made by light shining on stone.  The first of these is when God is about to reveal the commandments to Moses. Although it is possible that this is linked to the sin of the Hebrews below, it is more likely that it is drawing attention to the motif for use in the second half of the film. When it does occur in the second half of the film it appears to signify God’s impending judgement - firstly before the church collapses on Mrs. McTavish, and just before Dan’s boat crashes in to the rocks.

    The other recurring motif is that of leprosy. The first character in the film to catch leprosy is Miriam who contracts the disease as she worships and caresses the golden calf. She repents to Moses she is seemingly healed. Leprosy enters the film again in the second half where the titles announce that Dan’s smuggled jute has come via a leper colony. A figure is shown escaping from the bags of jute, which turns out to be Sally Lang who infects Dan, who infects Mary Leigh. Sally Lang and Dan are killed as a result of the phobia generated by the disease, but Mary Leigh finds healing and redemption through listening to the words Jesus said to another leper in John’s story.

    DeMille chose his long time friend Theodore Roberts to play the part of Moses, their ninth and final film with DeMille ending the relationship between the two that had stretched back to the days of DeMille’s acting career. Roberts’s Moses is portrayed as a supremely confident man, assured in the certain success of his mission. He first appears striding into Pharaoh's throne room, and is far closer to the prince of the realm that he was brought up as, than the fugitive shepherd he later became.

    However, in seeking to establish the most important feature about the portrayal in Moses it is vital to remember that it is not he who is the biggest star of the film but the commandments themselves (The film is after all named in their honour). By comparison the Moses character operates only as a delivery boy/midwife. Although he seems the most important character once he has delivered the commandments into the world there is little more for him to do than to fade out and watch the decalogue take over. (This interesting device, of creating a character who appears to be the star of the film, only for them to disappear and be superseded by another, was later used to great effect by Alfred Hitchcock in Psycho). 

    For the remainder of the film the other characters play their part but it is the commandments that are the real hero. Ultimately they win out and the strap line that inspired the film (“You cannot break the commandments , they will break you.”) proves its point. When the role of Moses is compared to the prominence of the commandments it becomes apparent that the major role of Moses in this film is that of a lawgiver

    The result of all these elements is that we have a Moses who has nowhere left to go. He is the epitome of wisdom, trust in God. To anyone that does not know the story well he appears faultless, perhaps even sinless. Certainly incidents such as the fit of anger that saw him murder an Egyptian, or the doubts that loomed so large at the burning bush have been excluded from the film to portray Moses in the most positive light possible. What else would be appropriate for the giver of God’s laws?

    Sadly the outcome is a rather one dimensional, whitewashed image of Moses, which despite its no doubt intended piety leaves him lacking any real depth. Except for a momentary look of horror when Pharaoh orders the Israelites to make their bricks without straw Moses constantly stands firm, unswayed by the situations around him. In reality the bible presents us with a very different Moses who when called by God in the opening chapters of Exodus comes up with a string of excuses rather than a confident knowing smile.

    God’s role in the film however, is markedly different. Seemingly absent from the film. The idea of an unseen God is not an unusual one, but as this is a silent film he is also unheard. The only real manifestation of him is as the parter of the Red Sea, and as creator of the fireworks that accompany the unveiling of the commandments. 

    Perhaps one of the reasons for this is that The Ten Commandments fails to see the idiosyncrasies in the way it proposes its remedy. Whilst it highlights God’s law as the solution to the bloodshed of the war, it inadvertently shows God killing thousands of Egyptians in the process. The irony of these deaths (of these nameless, faceless Egyptians) in a film about how God’s law can save us from the horrors of the First World War, is lost. 

    polarisation occurs with Pharaoh's son. When he appears he is clearly a spoilt, objectionable child such that the audience can have very little compassion for him when he dies in the tenth plague. Yet the bible reveals nothing of his character. It would have been equally faithful to the biblical text if the son of Pharaoh had been played by a wide-eyed ‘cute’ child, and yet the death of such a child would be considerably less palatable. Regardless of the character of Pharaoh’s child, the death of the first born children, once stripped of religious triumphalism, is one of the most troubling stories in the bible.

    It is in the second half of the film that God’s implied character shows through the most vividly. 

    “you cannot break the ten commandments, they will break you”.

    Do McTavish’s buildings fall down because he has cheated on his building materials, or because God is punishing him for doing so? The same ambiguity also surrounds the other events in the last scenes of the film. A similar question might be raised regarding Dan’s leprosy.

    It is no until the penultimate scene in the film that DeMille resolves the issue for us. As the Dan’s boat is dashed against the rocks we see a light shining on them in the shape of the tablet motif. Significantly, this is the only incident in the second half of the film that could not be explained away by scientific reasoning, implying that not only did God not prevent Danny’s tragic accident, but that he specifically ordained it. God’s vengeance is meted out and the one who broke all of the commandments appears to be killed for it.

    This path is presumably best illustrated by Mrs McTavish’s other son John, who, as noted above, is something of a Christ figure in the story. On the one hand he is righteous and good, but he is also loving and considerate. Perhaps more importantly for viewers in a post modern age, he is not afraid to speak out when he sees things wrong, challenging both mother and his brother in the course of the film. It is often stated that it is much harder to play a supremely good character than an evil one, and it is to the credit of both DeMille and actor Richard Dix that apart from moments of tweeness John is the most attractive character in the movie.

    If DeMille intended his audience to aspire to John’s character, he perhaps also anticipated that they would best relate to the character of Mary Leigh. Essentially she is the only character in the film whose views change, moving from indifference in the opening scenes to finding forgiveness and healing in the later ones. Although she is mislead at the start of the second half, when she turns to the Christ figure for help she finds God’s grace and forgiveness. DeMille’ then essentially presents his viewers with a choice. Will they chose secularism and modernity, blinkered religious extremism, or aspire to be good, honest and compassionate?

    Labels: ,

    Sunday, July 19, 2020

    Shanti Sandesham - Scene Guide

    I watched the Indian Jesus film Shanti Sandesham (2004) the other day and will be reviewing it shortly. In the meantime here's a quick rundown of the scenes and the equivalent scriptures. Here's how I use citations in scene guides. Please note - the only version of this film I've been able to find does not have English subtitles, so take everything with a pinch of salt. I am however grateful to Freek Bakker's overview which helped me fill in a few gaps (though he omits some scenes from the version I saw).
    Shepherds (Luke 2:8-20)
    Wise Men (Matt 2:1-11)
    Slaughter of Innocents (Matt 2:16-18)
    Jesus' Baptism (Mark 1:1-11)
    [Extra-biblical episode - John confronts Herod]
    Temptation (Matt 4:1-11)
    Calling the 1st disciples (Mark 1:16-20)
    Wedding at Cana (John 2:1-11)
    Call of Matthew (Matt 9:9-13)
    *Healing of Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46-52)
    Healing of the Lepers (Luke 17:11-19)
    Healing of a disabled man (Matt 9:2)
    Clearing of temple (Mark 11:15-19)
    Jewish leaders discuss Jesus #1
    Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-42)
    Pool of Bethesda (John 5:2-16)
    Healing on the Sabbath (Mark 3:1-6)
    Jewish leaders discussion #2
    Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7)
    Calling of the 12 (Mark 3:13-19)
    Lord's Prayer (Matt 6:9-14)
    Feeding of 5000 (Mark 6:34-44)
    *Salome/Death of John (Mark 6:17-29)
    Jewish leaders discussion #3
    [Extra-biblical epsiode - Barabbas & Soldiers]
    House of Mary, Martha & Lazarus (Luke 10:38-42)
    Walking on Water (Mark 6:45-52)
    *Children come to Jesus (Mark 10:13-16)
    Exorcising a demon (Mark 9:14-29) 
    Jewish leaders discussion #4
    Woman accused of adultery (John 8:2-11)
    [Extra-biblical episode: Barabbas attempts to kill Herod]
    Who do you say I am? (Matt 16:13-21)
    *Raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-44)
    Triumphal entry (Mark 11:1-11)
    Jesus confronts the Jewish leaders (Matt 23:1-34)
    Jewish leaders discussion #5
    Magdalene anoints Jesus (Mark 14:3-9)
    Judas agrees to betray Jesus (Mark 14:10-11)
    Last Supper (Mark 14:12-31)
    Foot washing (John 13:1-8)
    Gethsemane (Mark 14:32-50)
    Jesus before Caiaphas (Mark 14:53-59)
    Peter's denial (Mark 14:66-72)
    Judas hangs self (Matt 27:3-5)
    Pilate 1st trial (Mark 15:1-5)
    Mocking (Mark 15:15-20)
    Pilate 2nd trial (Mark 15:6-15)
    [Extra-biblical episode: Barabbas reacts to his freedom]
    *Via dolorosa (Mark 15:20-22)
    Women of Jerusalem (Luke 23.27)
    [Extra-biblical episode:Veronica]
    Simon of Cyrene (Mark 15:21)
    Refuses wine (Mark 15:22-23)
    Crucifixion (Mark 15:21-41)
    Two thieves (Luke 23:39-42)
    Mary and John (John 19:26-27)
    Darkness (Mark 15:33)
    Jesus speaks from the cross
    Jesus dies (Mark 15:34-37)
    Centurion (Mark 15:39)
    Burial & Pietà (Mark 15:46b-47)
    Resurrection (Matt 28:1-4)
    Women at the tomb (Mark 16:1-8)
    Mary sees Jesus (John 20:11-17)
    Jesus appears to disciples (Luke 24:36-49)
    Thomas (John 26:29)
    Ascension (Luke 24:50-53)
    A Few Notes 
    1. As the version I watched was not in English and had no subtitles, I couldn't tell what was being discussed in the 6 or so scenes with Caiaphas and other Jewish leaders. I've not marked these down as "Extra-biblical episodes" because I suspect that they contain elements of Mark 11:18, 14:1; Luke 19:45, 20:19; 22:2; and John 7:32, 7:45; 11:45-57. There are slight variations here and I've excluded the parallel passages in Matthew as they don't add much. Needless to say this seems like a lot more conspiracy against Jesus than we find in the texts. Bakker notes that in one of these scenes "Caiaphas loudly declares his contentment with the death of John the Baptist and proposes to levy extra taxes from all who have been baptised by the prophet" (48).

    2. Similarly, it was difficult to catch how many of Jesus' seven sayings from the cross were included, however, it seems to me that all seven were included, and in the traditional order. Certainly his first words are in response to soldiers mocking; then there are the dialogues with the two men eitehr side of him, and his mother and John in front of him. The nest time he speaks is in response to the skies darkening and would seem to reflect "why have you forsaken me". This is followed by a hosrt cry and something on a sponge being held aloft. Interestingly though this seems to be the soldiers mocking him as he seems unable to actually get a drink - perhaps tying in with the moment just before the crucifixion where he refuses a drink hen it is offered to him (which is hardly ever shown). Lastly he seems to make two more statements - certainly there's a pause and slight change of mood between them, so it seems likely this is "It is accomplished" and "Into your hands I commend my spirit".

    *3. Finally, there are five songs in this film which take up a considerable part of the running time, but also cover several incidents (such as the healings of Bartimaeus, men with leprosy and a disabled man), I've used a* to indicate where these take place, but there's more detail in my review and in Freek Bakker's paper referenced below has a little more detail.

    N.B. This post was edited several times after it was originally posted to add in greater detail.

    =====
    Bakker, Freek (2007) "Shanti Sandesham, a New Jesus Film Produced in India: Indian Christology in Pictures". Exchange. 36. 41-64. 

    Labels: ,

    Saturday, July 04, 2020

    Black Jesus (1968)
    Seduto alla sua destra/Out of the Darkness


    This week marked the 60th anniversary of the Democratic Republic of Congo's independence from Belgium. Belgium's relationship with the Congo has been back in the headlines in recent weeks after recent Black Lives Matter protests resulted in the toppling of statues of former king, Leopold II, who was responsible for 10 millions deaths in the former colony in the late Victorian era. On Wednesday the current monarch, Leopold's descendant King Philippe expressed regret for "painful episodes" and the "injuries of the past".

    Congo's transition to independence is the subject of one of the more explicit Christ figure films, Black Jesus (1968) by Italian director Valerio Zurlini. The title, which was added for the film's American release several years after it originally debuted at Cannes (Kinnard and Davis, 167), puts a strong interpretative slant on the film which was less forceful in the original Italian title Seduto alla sua destra (Sitting at the right hand). However, the original English title Out of Darkness combined with its setting in DRC during Belgian colonialism and its theme of the savage nature of supposedly civilised Europeans closely align it to Joseph Conrad's 1899 novella "The Heart of Darkness".

    Moreover, like other Italian productions of the era, the film was original intended as just one part of a four-segment composite Vangelo '70. The three other segments saw Carlo Lizzani's take on the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Bernardo Bertolucci's adaptation of the barren fig tree and Pier Paolo Pasolini's La sequenza del fiore di carta (The Sequence of the Paper Flower) featuring a man so lost in his bliss that he is deaf to God's calls to respond to the misfortune around him. When Zurlini's material proved to be too long it was recut into a film in its own right, while the original project replaced Zurlini's material with shorter films by Jean-Luc Godard and Marco Bellocchio and was released as Amore e rabbia (Love and Anger, 1969).

    Both the biblical nature of the original project and the film's evolving title give a heavy indication of the allegorical element of the film, but the plot itself is a fictionalised retelling of the death of DRC's first elected prime minister, Patrice Lumumba. Lumumba came to power following his victory in DRC's 1960s elections and the subsequent granting of its independence on the 30th June. Just ten days later Belgium sent in troops to protect its citizens (who were still resident in the country) and, at the start of September, Lumumba was dismissed by DRC's new president. A military coup followed on the 14th September 1960 and shortly after Lumumba was confined to his home. Two months later he left his home to tour the villages in a bid to regain power but was arrested after four days. In Feb 1961 the military government announced his escape and three days later reported he had been killed by villagers, but even at the time this was viewed as a cover up.

    While Zurlini's film named its lead, played by athlete-turned-actor Woody Strode, "Lalubi" the resemblances are unmistakable, even in an era when Lumumba's reputation was still in flux. Originally released just seven years after the events portrayed, the change of name allowed a little room for manoeuvre. As is typical of  Zurlini's work he eliminated "all unnecessary elements, including aspects of the historical and spatial context" (Brunetta, 237). 

    The film opens zooming in on a poster offering a rewards for Lalubi's capture accompanied by the sounds of machine gun, There's a cut to crowds listening intently to Lalubi at night. The script (by Zurlini and Franco Brusati) cleverly combines Lumumba's words with Jesus' Sermon on the Mount and commissioning his followers ("Destiny has chosen the meek to defeat the strong", "Whoever saves food, let him divide it, whoever has plenty, let him give to those who have lost everything"). Various shots of Lalubi rallying in a series of remote locations are intercut with scenes of white soldiers scouring Congolese villages as the reward money offered by the wanted poster rapidly increases. Remote sounds on the soundtrack give way to the sound of violent machine guns, human cries and crackling fires as the soldiers tighten the net around Lalubi. Eventually a Judas figure discloses his master's location to a Colonel in the Belgian army. Up to this point, Lalubi's face has been hidden from us. Now it is shown in close-up, the start of a sequence of three such shots overlaying Lalubi's face first with that of his eventual executioner (as he steps into the darkness), and then by one of Oreste who at this point is unknown to us.

    That final shot in the sequence ends the extended prologue, and moves to the location where most of its action will take place, inside an improvise army base where Lalubi's interrogation and torture will take place. From the start of the film the claustrophobic inside world is contrasted with the apparent freedom of the wide open space outside. There's repeated use of doorways, where the high contrast between the bright sun outside and the silhouettes of those inside signify characters moving from light into darkness. We first encounter Lalubi being forced down a set of steps, as if descending into hell. The shot is taken from the angle of Oreste - a fellow prisoner whose torture prefigures that which Lalubi will receive and who quickly forms a strong bond with Lalubi. Whilst the torture scenes, the most horrific violence is left off camera, conveyed instead by the subjects horrific screams. This is particularly harrowing in the case of Lalubi's screams later in the film which echo through the makeshift prison, terrifying Oreste, whose reactions match our own.

    Indeed Oreste stands in for the audience. Like the majority of the intended audience he is a white Italian and like Lalubi his role is also composite. Historically he corresponds to one of  Lumumba's two colleagues who were also taken into custody, but he also corresponds to one of the two thieves executed at the same time as Jesus. The precise reason he is in prison is unclear but he is drawn to Lalubi/Jesus from the start and rapidly becomes a caring and protective figure for the would be spiritual/political messiah. Later in the film a second "bad thief" is also imprisoned with Lalubi and Oreste. Oreste's name, however also recalls the Greek Hero Orestes and perhaps Aeschylus' trilogy on the subject which contrasts revenge with justice and which Zurlini's friend Pasolini was looking to adapt in an African context.

    The structure of this main section of Black Jesus is fairly simple. Oreste is tortured. Lalubi is brought down an interviewed by the Colonel. Oreste and Lalubi are placed in the same cell and strike a bond with one another. Lalubi is tortured and returned to his cell, Oreste tries to comfort and look after his now battered friend.

    Each of these five scenes is masterfully executed, from the distressed, bleached white crumbling plaster on the walls and enticing diagonal compositions to the dialogue which impresses even in the English language dub. Oreste's interrogation features plenty of low angles and fast editing in contrast to the relatively civilised discussion between Lalubi and the Colonel who offers to release Lalubi if only he will sign a declaration rejecting those who fight to defend him and his cause. 

    This scene, in particular, crackles. Strode does not particularly resemble Lumumba, but he makes for a striking Christ-figure, strong yet polite, sharp-witted and erudite but physically tough. He exudes a calm that never compromises his passion or clarity of focus. His opponent in this scene makes for a world weary Pontius Pilate. In one sense Lalubi is utterly in his power and you don't need to have much knowledge of European oppression in central African countries to know how things are going to turn out. Yet in another sense lacks any power whatsoever over his prisoner, and he knows it. Having seen his halfhearted attempts to bribe Lalubi with his freedom fall flat, he attempts to outwit him. "When white men abandon these countries what happens? I'll tell you. They shed enough blood to overflow the rivers of the Congo" the Colonel argues. "If Africa is like that Colonel, either you never taught us anything, or it would have been better if you hadn't" comes Lalubi's dismantling reply.

    The real strength in the portrayal of the Colonel is the way it decodes the typical portrayal of Pontius Pilate. Despite various sources describing Pilate as a vicious tyrant, he always seems to come out as a compromised everyman. He's weak, but under tremendous pressure. Here the Colonel is the same. An easy figure for the audience to relate to. But the reality is that he is a monster, The colonial racism and white supremacy in the quote above. The willingness to have his prisoner tortured even though he knows it will change nothing. When a senior African figure - presumably modelled on the leader of the military coup and future president Joseph Mobutu - orders him to have Lalubi killed he offers little resistance and passes on the order. He's the kind of man who is happy to have a cosy chat with a victim before getting someone else to do his dirty work for him. 

    Yet for most of this interchange it is only the violence of Lalubi's supporters which is debated. The Colonel blames Lalubi for the deaths of Belgian soldiers, When the prime minister replies "I'm not a man of war and I hate violence", he counters "it ought to be consoling for their mothers to find out that this is the action of men who are 'peace loving'". Lalubi's reply, however cuts to the heart of the issue highlighting these soldiers complicity in oppressing those native to the Congo: "You can tell their mothers their sons died here and not in Belgium."   

    It is here where the film's presentation of Lalubi as an intermediary between Jesus and Lumumba is at its starkest. On the one hand it includes the film's strongest association between its hero and the historical figure of Lumumba. The Colonel quotes Lalubi's words "We're not your monkeys any longer". While these words are widely held to be a rebuke Lumumba delivered to Belgium's then ruler King Baudouin on Congolese Independence Day, there's little evidence he actually said it (Baugh 92-93). The film references this ambiguity, and the broader mythology that built up around Lumumba, by not only having the Colonel say it rather than Lalubi, but also by having Lalubi debunk various aspects of the mythology that is building up around him. Given that this has increased significantly in the years since his death, particularly since the start of the century, the film is almost prophetic in the way it highlights the widening gap between popular perception and historical reality. That such a divide is often claimed between the historical character of Jesus and the 'Christ of faith' seems unlikely to be coincidence. The film implicitly questions the reliability of the Gospels as a source of truth about Jesus. 

    Not dissimilarly at one point the Colonel asks if he is a "witch doctor" based on Lalubi's intuitive feelings about his captor, but Lalubi denies it. There's very little indication of the miraculous or supernatural in Black Jesus and when it does arise it is either directly contradicted, as here, or open to interpretation. Perhaps most striking in this respect is the film's epilogue. Having not only murdered Lalubi, but also the two other prisoners who witness his demise, the soldiers drive on, only to have their path blocked by a small boy dressed in a pristine white sheet. Following their logic to its grim conclusion they fire a machine gun at him as he turns to flee, but he remains unharmed. The soldiers stop shooting and watch him disappear into the background, though whether it is because they "have been transformed by the transcendent mystery of life beyond death" as Baugh claims (110) or simply because the effort to track him down, combined with the a realisation of the immorality of doing so, seems unlikely to be worthwhile.

    Certainly there is a hint of the angelic about this figure. It seems unlikely to be a coincidence that Dornford-May's more well-known African Jesus film Jezile (Son of Man, 2006) also portrays angels as small boys similarly attired. The way he runs into the vanishing point clouded by smoke only enhances that interpretation, but perhaps he to is (partially?) responsible for the truth about Lalubi/Lumumba eventually coming to light, or the symbol of hope for the future for the newly liberated nation. Incidentally this does not appear to be the only influence on Son of Man. The shaved head of that film's Jezile, the shots of murdered villagers by government officials and, most tellingly, the shot of a Pieta composition taking place in the back of a truck all seem to reference Zurlini's film.

    Despite undoubted good intentions, both films also share slightly problematic depictions of sub-Saharan Africa. While both films could be described as presenting an African Jesus both are the product of white, European directors. In Black Jesus it seems significant that despite the known interference and political pressure from Belgium and the US, the character at the top of the power-structure is the African Mobutu figure, who is presented as utterly ruthless and entirely dismissive of the Colonel's qualms. While the Colonel corresponds with the Pilate of popular and artistic imaginations, it is the Mobutu figure who represents the historical Pilate. Lalubi may counter the Colonel's statement that "when white men abandon these countries...They shed enough blood to overflow the rivers of the Congo" but he does not entirely dismantle it and the later ruthlessness of the senior African figure also seems to support the problematic trope that still exists today that in the absence of white rule, Africans turn to bloodshed.

    Similarly whilst the setting of Jezile is never made explicit, numerous factors suggest South Africa, yet it is a South Africa where white colonialism seems entirely absent. West describes the film as "one set in a post-liberation South Africa, with the dream of the 'new' South Africa and its 'rainbow nation' in tatters...one more example of Afro-pessimism" (427). Both films portray an Africa that once given over to black rule has become mired in corruption, chaos and bloodshed, rather than one enjoying the benefits of its freedom and liberation. 

    Furthermore Kinnard and David cite an uncredited reviewer from the Chicago Sun-Times (it sounds like it is probably Roger Ebert) who is concerned about its "dangerous lessons" that "black people have a beautiful nobility...that comes from being oppressed" and the film's suggestion that they "can only maintain this nobility if they remain forever passive" (167-8). Undoubtedly Strode's is a suffering saviour and Lalubi's words in the prologue though his scenes with the Colonel allow him the chance to voice his ethos and mission, in stark contrast to Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004). While there is some validity to these criticisms, it's also worth recalling the way his friend Pasolini was challenged about his stereotypical views of the continent by those he interviewed filming his documentary Appunti per un'Orestiade africana (Notes toward an African Orestes) released two years later in 1970. 

    Despite such concerns overall this is a positive depiction of a subject that remains controversial, that of a Jesus with dark-skinned. Zurlini skilfully emphasises the links between Lalubi and Jesus by his compositions and symbolism which echo so much traditional iconography without slavishly rehashing overt and clichéd poses from famous religious paintings. The precise links between other works are difficult to pinpoint. Nods to Morandi and Mahler are present, but the cinematography and compositions also seem to echo much of the 1960s (white) Jesus films of Ray, Pasolini and Stevens. Moreover it lives on in the later work of Zeffirelli, Dornford-May and LaMarre,

    What is most interesting about the film is the way Lalubi is presented as an intermediary between Lumumba and Jesus. It raises "what-if" type questions without providing easy answers. Might things have been different for Lumumba if he had more closely resembled Zurlini's Prince of Peace? Today Lumumba is celebrated as a symbolic figure and for his oratory, but perhaps if he had succeeded in drawing diverse groups together his leadership may have stood a better chance. At the other side of the Lumumba-Lalubi-Jesus spectrum, the comparison highlights the political element of Jesus' life, which saw him to killed on political grounds (as "King" of the Jews) because he was seen as a political threat. The strength of Strode's performance, and the film in general is that it manages to bring these different elements together in a way that can evoke both a political and a religious optimism while also reminding us that such change rarely happens without determination, compassion and sacrifice.

    ==============
    - Baugh, L. (2011). "The African Face of Jesus in Film: Part One: Valerio Zurlini's Black Jesus." Gregorianum, 92(1), 89-114. Retrieved June 30, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/23582561
    - Brunetta, Gian Piero (2003) The History of Italian Cinema: A Guide to Italian Film from its Origins to the Twenty-First Century. Trans. Jeremy Parzen.  Princeton/Oxford: Princeton University Press.
    - Giordano, Rosario (2020) "The Masks of the Savage: Lumumba and the Independence of the Congo" in Matthias De Groof (ed.) Lumumba in the Arts, Leuven: Leuven University Press. pp.192-206.
    - Kinnard, Roy, and Tim Davis (1992) Divine Images: A History of Jesus on the Screen, New York: Citadel–Carol Publishing Group.
    - West, Gerald O. (2016) The Stolen Bible: From Tool of Imperialism to African Icon, Boston: Brill

    Labels: , ,

    Saturday, June 27, 2020

    The Brand New Testament (2015)

    "God exists. He lives in Brussels. He's a bastard. Horrid to his wife and daughter. We've heard a lot about his son, but little about his daughter." 
    So begins Jaco Van Dormael's The Brand New Testament (2016) an off-beat Belgian comedy that sets the Almighty on a collision course with his only...daughter. Deciding she has had enough of the way her father runs the universe, and egged on by her brother 'JC' (who appears only as a living statue), Ea begins a to try and counteract his tyranny. Firstly she texts everyone the date of their deaths. Then, having managed to escape from the Brussels flat where they all live she asks a gentleman of the street to help her add six new disciples to JC's original twelve, because of her mother's love of baseball and it's teams of eighteen.

    The majority of the film, then, features the testimony of each of these disciples as they talk about their lives  - a brand new testament. There's an unmarried data manager; a beautiful twenty-something with a false arm; a gunman with an obsession with death; a lonely sex-addict; a teenage boy who wants to be a girl; and a lonely housewife played by Catherine Deneuve. Given she is by far the biggest star associated with the film Deneuve's casting is particularly interesting. We're told her character has an incredible depth of feeling in her heart, but she plays the icy blond just as she so often has before. Van Dormael shoots her in pale grey against white backgrounds. Whilst she is perhaps best remembered for her role as a fantasising housewife-turned-prostitute in Buñuel's Belle du Jour (1967), here she hires a young male prostitute, before ultimately settling down with a Gorilla. Buñuel would have loved that, I suspect.

    Other characters also fall in love. God's daughter may not have inherited her father's temperament, but she is certainly capable of working in mysterious ways. The sex addict is miraculously reunited with his childhood crush; the data manager falls for a woman living in the Arctic Circle; the trans teen forms a deep bond with Ea herself. Most strikingly of all, the gunman realises his obsession is not death, but fate. The unfailingly accuracy of Ea's texts inspires him to shoot randomly, knowing he can chalk any resulting deaths down to fate, rather than personal responsibility. When his first shot hits the twenty-something's prosthetic arm the two end up falling hopelessly in love.

    Indeed it's the question of fate that's the main theme here, rather than morality. As the opening narration suggests God does not come out of things very well - a petty, vindictive and abusive bureaucrat who fails to find redemption. But while he and his misanthropic rules provide a few smirks, that side of the story always feels a little like a comedy sketch given too much latitude. Whilst the film has so much empathy for its characters from the margins of society (typified by Van Dormael's characteristic concern for those with disabilities), it has seemingly no compassion for the lonely self-hating deity at it's heart. Van Dormael's God is a "slob like one of us" but without the relatability inherent in Joan Osborne's song.

    Visually Van Dormael's work is perhaps a little less controversial than his theology it also has its idiosyncrasies. It has the look of films like Amélie (2001) though Sight and Sound's Leigh Singer claims Van Dormael did such "whimsical fable"first. The darker moments and accompanying cinematography are also reminiscent of Delicatessen (1991). There's a focus on Christian art that is not only present though the many religious paintings which appear during the film, but also in the frequent use of the kind of tenebristic lighting most of us associate with Caravaggio. Yet this contrasts with other brighter, greyer or geometrically precise scenes elsewhere. Van Dormael contrasts God's oppressively dark and gloomy flat with the liberating breeze and warm light of the outdoors. Similarly the use of religious music throughout adds to this mishmash of the sacred and profane, not least in the song-avatars that Ea discerns for each of her disciples. 

    There are also numerous little quirky visual touches to the film which add to its humour as well as minor, unrelated story lines to keep things ticking over. Realising he will not die for many years a vlogger starts throwing himself from ever higher platforms for the thrill and media attention. Moments such as these not only offset the blackness of the film's darker moments but also conceal further questions about fate and morality. The first time the vlogger's jumps his fall is broken by one less unfortunate than himself, yet he carries on, even as he accumulates several serious injuries. It's no coincidence that the role that Van Dormael gives to himself is as "l'automobiliste qui n'a plus que 0 seconde à vivre" (the motorist who has only 0 seconds to live) who is distracted while driving by the very text message announcing his death.

    Ultimately though the characters find their personal 'salvation' through love and self determination. The film leans heavily into the idea of the Gospels as accounts about personal connection, though there is also an emphasis on the importance of a faith community, growing together.  

    However, sadly the film ducks the more profound questions about fate and determinism and aside from the difference Ea makes to the lives of her chosen six, her work on Earth is arguably not much greater than her father's. He meddles by inventing irksome rules about bread always falling jam side down, or about the other queue always moving fastest; she tweaks the lives of only a handful of followers, to bring them happiness. She's 10 of course, but the film suggests she is done meddling with the world, and that we will be better without her or her father's interference. 

    Perhaps the difference is that Ea seems like one of us. Whereas her father exists in the dark, tucked a way in a huge room with wall to wall filing cabinet, she lives like one of us. Her message, perhaps, is that we can all have a small impact on the lives around us. As endings go, it's nice enough and the time spent getting there was entertaining enough with a few moments of interest. Somehow, however, I had just hoped for a little bit more. 
    =====
    The Brand New Testament (Le Tout Nouveau Testament) is available to stream via the Channel 4 website (in the UK at least) until the 16th July. 

    Labels: