• 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.










    Monday, October 11, 2021

    The Chosen (2019) s1e02

    A couple of episodes in and I must admit, I'm kind of enjoying The Chosen (2019). I have some quibbles, of course, but nothing major so far and it's seeing this Netflix-style approach to the story of Jesus. Part of this is down to the appeal of the opening episodes as a sort of origins story. Even by the end of episode two Jesus is still a peripheral, and therefore somewhat mysterious figure. We know – roughly, at least – how the story is going to turn out, but it's interesting seeing some of the backstory, that simply isn't present in the gospels, being woven together by the writers. 

    But it's also partly because its technical filmmaking is pretty good. The costumes and sets are not necessarily historically accurate, but they are no worse – indeed better at times – than most other films set in the Ancient Near East, and they are of a reasonable quality. Moreover, the lighting, make-up etc. also feel up to scratch. And the length of this episode, which came in at around 35 minutes, suggests that the flexibility with run times is being used to get the pacing right, rather than being lax or self-indulgent.

    As with the first instalment, episode two mainly revolves around three characters. Mary, who has now been freed from her demons; Nicodemus, who is somewhat shocked to discover this; and Simon (not-yet Peter) who we discover in this episode has something of a gambling problem. We witness him gambling at one stage, and there's talk of debts being forgiven, which is rather foreboding.

    But the episode starts in an ancient beauty salon. On the wall there are paintings of women which look as if they are there to demonstrate some of the cuts available. I suspect this is meant to be slightly tongue-in-cheek, an indicator that the production is not going to be as pompous and self-serious as some of its on-screen ancestors. Mary is now working here and it's a tidy way of indicating that Mary has transitioned from being so overrun by demonic forces that even celebratory pharisees cannot help he, to being integrate into ordinary society. She's relaxed and gives an early smile to reinforce the point.

    The episode is called "Shabbat" which not only informs us when it is occurring (and the socio-religious significance of that) but also is a little indicator of its intentions to portray a Jewish Jesus operating within the Jewish world. The episode is fairly light on plot, instead two different Shabbat celebrations are placed alongside one another, as they being prepared and then completed. In one place there is the one in Nicodemus' house, which I have to say is beautifully lit. There's a reading here too from Proverbs 31, which has been special for me since I read it at my Granny's funeral; fifteen years ago. It doesn't often crop up in biblical films.

    Nicodemus' beautiful setting is contrasted with the more humble preparations by Mary. It gradually becomes clear that she is hosting Shabbat with those cast out from society, some people with disabilities as well as James and Thaddeus. It's the kind of gathering that typifies the communal meals at the heart of the early Jesus movement, so it's little surprise when Jesus turns up with the sounds of crickets chirping in the background. It's an interesting scene. Jesus introduces himself as "Jesus of Nazareth" and one of the new characters quips "apparently something good can come from Nazareth". The joke falls flat. but Jesus winks at him to let him know it's Ok. I've a feeling there might be at least one other example of this, but all I can think of is Kevin Smith's Dogma (1999).

    I have a couple of more points about this episode. Firstly, some of the character names such as "Dominus" and "Lilith" seem like they've been chosen as subtle tip-offs to modern audiences rather than necessarily reflecting 1st century likelihood, but I'd need to go back and get a clearer idea of how they are used. Lilith, for example, is used as an alternative name for Mary Magdalene before her encounter with Jesus, but I don't recall exactly how. Secondly, and not entirely dissimilarly, there are a few places where characters explain things to other characters where it feels like this is included mainly for the audiences benefit. Someone mentions the Macabees' victory over Antiochus IV at one point and it feels a little too much like the person receiving the explanation would probably have been aware of this - like telling someone today about the First World War. But again I can't recall the precise details.

    In any case these are minor quibbles and it says a lot about this production that I'm looking forward to seeing where episode 3 goes. Filling in the gaps from Jesus' life is a different challenge to working with more established material so it will be interesting to see how the filmmakers handle that.

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    Wednesday, September 29, 2021

    The Chosen (2019) s1e01

    I've been slow to react to The Chosen. Last year it was difficult to access and this year, while it's been free to view for sometime, I've struggled to find the time amongst all that I'm doing for my book. It's not among the 100 films in my book and given a few conversations I've had recently, part of me does wonder if I should have included it. But only part. There are already a lot of American Jesus 'films' covered.

    It's become increasingly common, perhaps since Last Temptation of Christ (1988) to start Jesus films with a bit of context setting. The Gospel of John (2003), for example, used it to contextualise the anti-Jewish feeling in the narrative. The Bible (2013) was briefer but seemed to want to deflect criticism on opposing fronts. 

    Here it's less remarkable, but I'm struck by the line that the series is "based on the true stories of the gospels of Jesus Christ". Partly this is because of the word 'true' plenty could be written about that alone, but also because, having recently written my book I've had to think carefully about when to say "gospels" and when to say "The Gospels". I have a sneaking suspicion that at some stage they will all be ironed out to be the same, but the nuance I've gone for is "gospels" for any writing about Jesus (e.g. including The Gospel of Thomas), whereas I've used "The Gospels" for solely Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Given this production's solidly evangelical credentials, I would be surprised if they meant to indicate that some non-canonical material is in there, but, if only for me, it rather leapt out.

    My next observation is similarly pedantic and text-based , but a subtitle indicates that the opening scene is in "Magdala 2 BC", featuring a young girl (presumably Mary Magdalene) and her seemingly loving father. They talk briefly about the new star and I'm intrigued about the specificity here. The death of Herod the Great in 4 BC is usually used as a frame of reference for Jesus' birth. Some ignore that (and, largely by implication, just go for 1 AD), others use a period of 4-6 BC depending on how long you think the magi took to arrive in Bethlehem after Jesus was born. 2 BC is kind of at the mid-point of those two dates. Perhaps I'm ignorant as to some tradition surrounding this, but it seems strange to be both so specific and also loosely in the middle. Of course, it's possible that Herod's presence in the narrative owes more to symbolism than historical fact, but again I don't get the impression this is the route the film is going down. Next we know it's "28 years later" and we're in Capernaum where Mary is now a problem neighbour.

    Also in Capernaum, although just for a visit is Nicodemus, here portrayed as a very eminent travelling pharisee and who is arguably the main character in this episode, though we know relatively little about him. There's his conversation with Jesus where we get significant insight into his thinking and his curiosity about Jesus' message. The rest of his story arc is drawn out sparsely but elegantly: four chapters later (7:50) he's publicly arguing Jesus should be given fair hearing, then after Jesus' death (19:39) he's amongst those who bury him. He was a pharisee - which doesn't necessarily indicate wealth or being part of the establishment, in some cases the reverse - and a member of the Jewish courts/council the Sanhedrin, which does and suggests he was an elder. 

    For our purposes The Chosen shows him as very wealthy - we first meet him in a sedan (the carried chair, not the automobile) travelling to his next appointment. He's briefly interrupted by a Roman official and speaks to him more or less as an equal. He's dressed in wealthy garments, high head gear, and with a lot of costuming additions to the Greco-Roman norm which would have been standard in Galilee and Judah at the time (even amongst the Jews). Later we meet other Pharisees who are clothed in similar fashion, so I guess this is going to be one form of othering that we are going to encounter here. Needless to say when the disciples, and then finally Jesus, appear their clothing is much more standard. (If you'd like to know more about this I suggest you keep an eye out for Katie Turner's forthcoming book, or read a summary of it in "Brian and Jesus".)

    We also meet a number of the other leading characters. Peter and Andrew are brawling fishermen skirting the laws about Sabbath observance. In an unusual, but welcome, move we meet Peter's wife who is presented as a real character. Matthew skulks around very much relying on his Roman guard, not so much for protection from actual threats as emotional support. But the two characters who in some ways are at the centre of episode 1 are nevertheless absent for most of it. Mary's presence is felt throughout, but she is largely discussed when she is off screen . There is the occasional glimpse of her - and it's clear that the film is going down the demon-possessed route as part of her story - but, aside from that opening scene, she's not developed as a character. The demons that possess her are so powerful that when Nicodemus tries to exorcise them he flees in terror with a look on his face like The Exorcist's Father Karras. "Souls such as hers beyond human aid" someone or other says ominously shortly afterwards.

    The other character, of course, is Jesus, and he is entirely absent - neither seen nor mentioned until the final few minutes and an encounter with Mary. We know the instant he arrives though because some sort of spooky music starts up. The way the production's first major Jesus scene involves a spiritually tormented Mary is not unique to The Chosen, both The Miracle Maker (2000) and DeMille's The King of Kings (1927) do something similar. Here however Jesus is a little bit creepy. It's not until he switches to King James language ("Thus says the Lord") that he drops the sleazy-guy-on-the-pull act and starts to behave a bit more normally.

    Still episode 1 does plenty to suggest that it will be worth continuing with. The photography is pretty impressive, with the many outdoor scenes allowing plenty of natural light and attractive scenery. There's some interesting camera work too, though it will be interesting to see if this continues to impress throughout the series or whether it starts to wear a bit thin after a few episodes. And the characterisation and acting is pretty good too.

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    Sunday, September 26, 2021

    Dalla nube alla resistenza (1978)
    From the Cloud to the Resistance

    As part of exploring the context of Moses und Aron (1974) I am exploring Huillet and Straub's other films including this one.

    Compared to most of Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub's major works, Dalla nube alla resistenza (From the Cloud to the Resistance, 1992) has had relatively little attention (in English at least). It's barely mentioned in the books of Roud, Byg, Turquety and Busch/Hering, and while, of course Claudi Pummer covers it in Fendt's books, there are also few documents relating to it in the rest of the work, nor in Shafto's Writings.

    Structure-wise the film divides into two halves, The Cloud adapts six segments from Cesare Pavese's novel "Dialogues with Leucò" (1947). The Resistance abridges another of author's novels "The Moon and the Bonfires" (1950). Whereas the first half neatly divides into six, with each section getting its own introductory intertitle and each starting afresh in terms of characters and setting, the second half is more of a single unit with the scenes and characters arranged a little more conventionally (although that is hardly a description that suits Straub and Huillet's filmic style). Of course the title shouldn't really be read as indicating a joining together of two different films. There's a flow throughout the "Leuco" section as ideas of resistance build.

    Geoffrey Nowell-Smith suggests that "the dialogues are more or less self-explanatory and do not require background knowledge of the obscurer by-ways of Greek Mythology". As someone whose knowledge of Greek mythology is largely limited to cultural osmosis and who doesn't quite have Nowell-Smith's intellect, I would have to disagree. The (English translation of the) novel alone caused Publisher's Weekly to note that "Pavese presumes the reader's fluency in the works of Homer, Hesiod and the Greek tragedians" and while the dialogues and the filming of them is interesting and the speeches are peppered with interesting phrasing, it's not easy to catch the overall drift, even after repeated viewings.

    One of the things that is interesting about the film, however, is how, perhaps more than any of their other works, it draws together the threads of the couple's previous work and joins it to their future output. Nowell-Smith recalls Straub himself comparing the film to Not Reconciled and expands on some of the points of similarity. The Ancient World setting is not the only factor which recalls Othon, History LessonsMoses und Aron and Antigone. The light, landscapes, language and literature of Fortini/Cani also springs to mind and the story of a man returning to his home town after living far away for a long time is thematically similar to Sicilia (1998). Particular shots are strongly reminiscent of Workers, Peasants. or The Death of Empedocles.

    Naturally, there's also a link to the other Straub and Huillet films based on Pavese's work. Like the first part of Dall nube, the pair's 2005 film Quei loro incontri (These Encounters of Theirs) draws on "Dialoghi con Lueco", using its final five dialogues. Following Huillet's death Straub directed four further short films also based on Pavese's work Le genou d'Artemide (Artemis's Knee, 2008); Le Streghe, femmes entre alles (The Witches, Women Among Themselves, 2009); L'inconsolable (The Inconsolable One, 2011) and La Madre (The Mother, 2012), 

    The opening scene features Issione (Ixion) debating with Nephele ("The Cloud") who is not quite in the sky, but up a tree. While she is character to be physically highest above the ground, there's already a sense that already the supposed elevation of the gods is not all it's cracked up to be. Many of the other mythical characters in these opening sections have traditionally been seen as divine to a degree, hence the Cloud of the title reached beyond this initial scene. Next Ippòloco (Hippolochus) and Sarpedonte (Sarpedon) talk in a wooden area. The location and the disruptive framing and editing recall a segment in The Death of Empedocles. By refusing to provide an initial establishing shot showing the two in relation to one another, and similarly by not using the negative space in the mid-shots of each character to indicate their relative positions, Straub and Huillet only gradually reveal how the characters are related physically. 

    The most famous sequence from the film (pictured above) is a series of lengthy shots over the shoulders of the mythical king Oedipus and his the priest/prophet Tiresias as they travel on the back of a cart by a pair of white oxen. The road stretches out into the distance ahead of them, but the shot is composed in such a way that at the centre of the shot is the horse pulling the cart and the peasant worker/farmer who is guiding him. The length of this sequence, travelling along a road with the camera looking over the shoulder and ahead, recalls the mildly controversial, and equally emblematic, driving sequences from the pair's Geschichtsunterricht (History Lessons, 1972), also set in the ancient world. Similarly while most of the segment involves Tiresias and Oedipus' discussions about sex, the final shot here ends in a prolonged, meditative silence, allowing viewers, to soak in the gentle background sounds of nature and the trundling along of the ox cart.

    Here however, the inclusion of the working class (hu)man interrupts the space between the two elevated figures and their dialogue and draws focus from them. While it is not quite the final scene in the first part, in some ways it's the segue from the first half of the film into the second. The focus has shifted from the mythical characters of "Dialogues with Leucò" to the ordinary twentieth century proletariat of "The Moon and the Bonfires".

    The other thing that is instantly noticeable about the cart sequence is that it is not one long shot as I had imagined before seeing it, but a sequence of shots. Many (if not all) of the joins between these long tracking (carting?) shots are marked by a slowish fade to black. I suspect this marks an elipsis in the text, but would have to check. Certainly it gives the section a sense of discontinuity. This is a longer journey and it is only part of the conversation that being recorded. Notable then that the sequence ends in the aforementioned near silent shot.

    In the final three dialogues we get two hunters discussing the wolf they have just caught which they believe may formerly have been a man. The surrounding rocks and caves which form the backdrop of this discussion suggests these are stone-age hunters. One shot here evokes Moses and the burning bush - though not Huillet and Straub's depiction of it. Then Litierse (Lityerses) and Eracle (Heracles) discuss human sacrifice and how the blood that soaks into the field is soon forgotten (linking to Fortini Cani)

    Finally, an unnamed father and son discuss historic stories of sacrifice. Two two are shepherds, so not only just human, but solidly working class, rather than kings or prophets. Furthering this move from the divine to the profane, the son is critical of the sacrificial system. His father provides numerous answers, but the son is unconvinced, suggesting that there will be further disconnect between heaven and earth int he next generation. As with the cart sequence (and elsewhere), the scene ends with a moment of silence and there are visual similarities here with the orgy scene in Moses und Aron (1975), not least the short where the son lays a bowl of liquid (here milk; blood in Moses und Aron) on the floor.

    The longest "gap" in the film is not so much a gap in the audio fabric of the film as in the opening half, but in the visuals, towards the end of part two. The second half of the film sees a man ("The Bastard", formerly a foundling) return to his home town having made his fortune in America. Much of this part consists of the man's discussions with his former friend Nuto. Nuto is a communist and describes the events of the fascist period which the foundling escaped by his emigration to America, though Christopher Small notes how many of the villagers "remain quietly loyal to fascism". Yet he also hears stories of the resistance to the Nazis.

    The foundling also befriends a boy Cinto who is from such an unstable family that Cinto is given a knife to defend himself with. Towards the end of the film, things in Cinto's family come to a head as his father kills his wife and burns down the farm with only Cinto escaping. But rather than depicting these horrific, violent acts, or even just showing the person narrating them, Straub and Huillet cut to blackand leave only the description as a voice-over. It's a fascinating way of emphasising the violence without glorifying it or manipulating it to build excitement. The prolonged absence of images is striking, but comes in the opposite spirit to the presentation of violence in conventional cinema. It also recalls the gap Moses and Aron between Acts II and III between which Aron's rebellion has been (violently?) overthrown and now Aron in lying l bound-up on the ground, awaiting trial.

    There's plenty more in the film that repeated viewings would bring out more clearly and I'd be interested to read more about it from someone who is familiar with the books. It's a shame this one has not been given more attention, nevertheless the sources might be of interest.
    ======================

    - Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey (1980) "Dalla nube alla resistenza (From the cloud to the resistance)", Monthly Film Bulletin, January. pp.45-6. Available online:
    https://webapps.cspace.berkeley.edu/cinefiles/imageserver/blobs/5f9725b8-0ecf-434f-a30f/content/linked_pdf:

    - Pummer, Claudia (2016), "(Not Only) for Children and Caveman: The Films of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet", in Ted Fendt (ed.), Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Vienna: Synema Publikationen, pp.56-9.

    - Small, Christopher (2019), "A Straub-Huillet Companion: From the Clouds to the Resistance", mubi.com Notebook Column, July 18. Available online: 
    https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/a-straub-huillet-companion-from-the-clouds-to-the-resistance

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    Friday, August 27, 2021

    Absalon (Absalom, 1912)

    Henri Andréani was just an actor when Pathé's "promoted [him] from within its ranks" to the role of co-director under Ferdinand Zecca.1 At the time the market for 'respectable' material such as biblical films was growing rapidly. Gaumont, Vitagraph and a number of lesser known (mainly Italian) studios had all released films on biblical subjects such that despite Pathé's early Passion Plays, and a handful of New Testament films they were losing ground. Pathé's strategy had been to create/acquire various new 'Art' brands/subsididiaries such as SCAGL (Société cinématographique des auteurs et gens de lettres), Film d'Art and Filme d'Art Italiana 2.

    Having learned from Zecca (who had previously co-directed the 1902-05 Passion Play La Vie et passion de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ, and directed its 1907 remake), Andréani's first solo effort was David et Goliath (1910) before he went on to make films about Moses, Cain and St. Stephen, but he returned to the story of David in 1911 with David et Saül and with La Mort de Saül the following year. 

    Given Andréani's penchant for the Bible's more visually striking acts of violence - Andréani is the only director to have given us Jael driving a tent peg through Sisera's skull, and also gives us Goliath's head on a spike, Cain caving in his brother's head and one of the few versions of Jephthah's daughter - it was only a matter of time before his continued adaptation of the David narratives tackled Absalom. For those unfamiliar with the story, Absalom is one of David's sons who started a rebellion against his father after his half-brother raped his sister. Sadly, he proves to be more of a politician than a warrior and when the battle with his father's forces starts to go against him, he flees into the woods and gets caught in a tree by his hair and is stabbed by David's general Joab.

    The film largely follows this narrative (there's more in the Bible, but, like Andréani I've not gone into all the details. You can read the story for yourself in 2 Sam 13.1–19.8). The main difference occurs at the start. Despite Andréani's apparent relish for grizzly deaths, he omits Amnon's rape of Tamar. Instead Absalom's motivation derives from David choosing Solomon to succeed him even though Absalom is the eldest. This is a bit of conflation. By the time David appoints Solomon, Absalom is long since dead and it is David's next eldest son Adonijah who misses out to Solomon and starts a rebellion. (The scene is covered in Solomon and Sheba (1959) featuring George Sanders as Adonijah).

    In any case, this is the scene with Absalon (also known as A Prince of Israel) begins. The composition strongly echoes that of the battle between David and Goliath in Andréani's earlier film with the low camera, looming figures and the depth of the shot, but the scenery is very different. Solomon is still  child. Absalom cuts a pretty hefty figure. Of all the characters in the Bible none are described as thoroughly as Absalom. Not only are we told that "in all Israel there was no one to be praised so much for his beauty as Absalom"  and that he was without blemish (2 Sam 14:25), but also that he only cut his hair once a year and that it weighed "two hundred shekels" (2 Sam 14:26) – about 2kg according to the Good News Bible. Perhaps the film was meant to be set shortly after that annual trip to the barbers, but it's fair to say this is not how I pictured him.

    However, the casting is interesting for another reason. I think Absalom might be played by Louis Ravet who starred as Goliath in Andréani's earlier film. Meaning he Ravet had pretty much cornered the market in playing enemies of King David. Ravet's is credited in the intertitles to David and Goliath as being from the Comédie Française - the world's oldest active theatre company. Ravet was more or less simultaneously involved in various productions of Racine's "Athalie" at the Comédie Française while appearing in a string of historical films for Pathé, particularly working with Andréani 3. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his build, he also took the lead in Capellani, Zecca and Andréani's Samson (1908).

    In film-making terms Andréani had moved on significantly since the start of his David series. Here there's a little more insight into the motivations of the characters, though not to the extent we find in La Mort du Saul. More significantly we see a far greater cast. There are a number of crowd scenes as Absalom puts himself about gaining popularity while undermining David and fomenting rebellion. perhaps the biggest spectacle here is the battle scene (pictured above). It would be interesting to compare Andréani's crowds with one of its contemporaries Enrico Guazzoni's Quo Vadis? (1912/3) for Cines. Certainly they are more sizeable than those in D.W. Griffith's Judith of Bethulia a year or two later. Andréani also uses a cut to make the start of the battle larger. The result is what looks like a rather odd panning shot. It starts on one set of advancing soldiers, only to pan away to empty space, presumably to enable an invisible cut while the extras move to the other side of the imminent conflict and charge in the other way. Either way the next shot (above) - of soldiers in hand to hand combat looks very impressive, and there's a depth of field on display here which really makes the battle look huge.

    Indeed Andréani's use of the 3D space here is a significant advance on David and Goliath. See for example the shot below of two men sent by David's spy Hushai, peeling off from Absalom's marching forces and cross (the River Jordan?) to warn their King. It very effectively tells the story with the river clearing marking the distance between Absalom's forces and David's spies. Their prominence in the shot reinforcing the fact that these are the good guys. (Though Absalom is portrayed relatively moderately in the film).
    As with many films revolving around an iconic moment 4, a significant part of how it is judged depends on how it handles that moment. Here's it's a little disappointing. This is in part because the first time I remember hearing this story it was Absalom's hair (specifically) that got caught in the tree, rather than just his head as the text says (2 Sam 18:9). I was probably a teenager and the preacher in question was from a free/ independent/ conservative evangelical church and used the story as a warning against vanity. Doubtless the idea that Absalom's fate was an apt punishment for his vanity persists in some circles.

    However, this is to take things quite a way beyond the text. Firstly it only says "head" and there seems to be no connection in the writer's mind between the two. Perhaps the further you get from the story the more appealing the connections seems. As Daniel Lavery points out in this quirky reworking of the story, "if Absalom’s heavy hair were caught in the limbs of the terebinth tree, he would have only to cut it to free himself."5 Moreover, the text has plenty of bad things to say about Absalom, but it doesn't criticise him for being vain, nor does anyone view the accident which led to his execution as being an act of God. 

    In any case, here Absalom's hair is not long enough to get accidentally caught in a passing tree while fleeing a battle, and, as you can see from the .gif below, it doesn't really show him as getting his head caught either. There's an attempt at an impressive stunt. Absalom/Ravet grabs at the tree as his mule goes under it. It must have been fairly difficult, but it never looks anything other than a man hanging from a tree with his arms. It's difficult to know if audiences would have been impressed by this at the time. I suspect not because while movie stunt work, like the rest of cinema, was in its infancy, it was well enough established in the theatre that it's unlikely anyone was as impressed as they would have been by some of Méliès' camera trickery. After he's cut down there's some sort of plait that's left swinging as the soldiers ride on. Was this deliberately included as part of his hair (in which case how did it get caught?) or some part of his apparel? Or was it just part of the stunt that was left, a little carelessly on display afterwards?

    Joab stabs the dangling Absalom ("exactly as stabby as we could wish" in Fritzi Kramer's words) and his men hack him down and carry him to David.6 It works dramatically, but it does mean that one of the few Black characters in the Bible – an unnamed Cushite – is excluded. Having been marginalised in the text by not having their name mentioned, they are cut out of this film adaptation entirely. The final shot shows David morning for his son rather than celebrating the victory, while Joab looks on disdainfully.

    It's interesting how the final shot in many ways mirror the first. David showering affection on one of his son's in the middle of the screen, unaware of the extent to which it is irritating one of those close to him who is shown on the left of the screen demonstrating visible signs of their annoyance. While Joab continues to serve David the incident with Absalom seems to have been the start of a rift between him and David, which led to Joab eventually being replaced as David's commander and David advising his son and appointed successor Solomon to have Joab killed, advice Solomon takes. The film nicely captures that cycle.

    Absalom appears in a handful of films about David, particularly The Story of David (1976), the Richard Gere vehicle King David (1985) and the Bible Collection's David (1997), but they tend to be ruined by terrible wigs failures an a failure to empathise with the character or give him any sense of depth. In a way, this portrayal of Absalom avoids those pitfalls, mainly because even though this is in some ways a continuation of Andréani's David series, the film-makers are happy to make Absalom centre stage. Admittedly, the acting is in that stagey style (which people assume typifies acting in the silent era, even though it doesn't), but nevertheless the film is fairly effective at telling the story dramatically and cinematically and the battle scenes and its use of depth of field is an interesting development in the directors style.

    Readers might also be interested to see Fritzi Kramer's review of Absalom at Movies Silently.

    ==================
    1 - Shepherd, David J., The Bible on Silent Film: Spectacle, Story and Scripture in the Early Cinema (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), p.125.
    2- Abel, Richard, The Cine Goes to Town: French Cinema 1896-1914 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), pp.38-43
    3 - Anon. "Louis Ravet" Wikipedia, France. Available online: https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louis_Ravet
    4 - I know "iconic" is overused, but I struggle to find a suitable alternative. Any suggestions would be most welcome.
    5 - Lavery, Daniel, "Absalom's Death and Death", The Chatner. 11 March 2020. Available online: https://www.thechatner.com/p/absaloms-defeat-and-death 
    6 - Kramer, Fritzi, Absalom (1912) A Silent Film Review", Movies Silently, 8 September 2019. Available online: https://moviessilently.com/2019/09/08/absalom-1912-a-silent-film-review/

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    Wednesday, August 04, 2021

    Silent Bible Film Mystery - #06
    Pre-Griffith Judith Films

    As I've noted before, D.W.Griffith's Judith of Bethulia (released in 1914, though filmed in 1913) was not the first film based on the Book of Judith but the fourth or even fifth. Of the others two are definitely still in existence  Giuditta e Oloferne (1906/1908) [my review] and Gaumont's Judith et Holopherne (1909), directed by Louis Feuillade [my review]. But recently I've been investigating a Judith film, or perhaps two Judith films, from the UK released sometime between 1910 and 1912 going by the title Judith

    The Theo Frenkel Film
    The film more likely to have both existed and been about the biblical heroine is one directed by Dutch director Theo Frenkel (above right). It is listed along with several of Frenkel's other films on page 7 of Jon Solomon's "The Ancient World in the Cinema" (2001) and although the list of films is from 1911-1912 the index clarifies that Judith was 1912. Solomon kindly checked his notes for me but unsurprisingly, all these years later he was unable to determine his source. The IMDb repeats these details, however the BFI database has no entry.

    There's also a mention in "Anzeiger für die Altertumswissenschaft" Volumes 59-61, listing the film as:

    Judith, GB 1911, Regie Theo Frenkel [Regie translates as director].

    This evidence is also backed up by a list I was sent many years ago now by David Wilson, adding that the film was produced by Charles Urban's Natural Colour Kinematograph Co. Frenkel was also known briefly as Theo Bouwmeester during his British years, after his mother, indeed that's the name he is listed under in Brian McFarlane's " Encyclopedia of British Film". There's a good piece on Frenkel at eyefilm.nl though the only thing it mentions about this period is to confirm that he was indeed working for Urban at this point in time.

    Interestingly Tord Larsson, among other sources, mention another biblical film by Frenkel from this era, Fall of Babylon (1911), covering events in Daniel. Indeed it appears from IMDb that he directed numerous films with biblical sounding titles including: Samson and Delilah (1911), Ester: A Biblical Episode  (1911), Herod (1912), The Prodigal Son (1913), 

    Things are further complicated by the fact that Frenkel directed a later film which was also called Judith in 1923, only this was not a biblical adaptation. Whilst it certainly doesn't rule out the possibility that he made a biblical film called Judith in 1912, it does raise the possibility of error. Perhaps Frenkel's 1923 film was mis-dated at some point, or maybe his 1923 film was a remake and neither film was biblical. However, overall I'd say the possibility of this film existing and being about Judith of Bethulia looks fairly probable.

    The Brockliss Film
    The evidence for a British Judith film from 1910 comes down to a single line in an advert in the British Weekly trade publication "The Bioscope" on the 3rd March 1910. In the listings of film's available to exhibitors it simply lists "Judith ... Brockliss    700   B" as shown below.
    The 700 is 700ft (about 10-12 minutes depending on various factors) and the B is one of Bioscope's genres (my term not theirs) standing for "Biblical" which in itself is kind of remarkable as the Bioscope listed only 16 genres at the time. 

    These few details are so scant it's difficult to know how to interpret them, but the Brockliss in question is (the company founded by) J. Frank Brockliss, pictured, left, above. At this stage, Brockliss primarily seems to have been selling projectors - see the puff piece on him in the August 1912 edition of the Cinema News and Property Gazette. However, according to Jan-Jun 1912 copies of The Implet (produced by US company Imp Films) he was also an agent distributing (Imp's) films and it seems he imported films into the UK to sell to exhibitors. 

    Three possibilities come to mind. Firstly, this could (as I thought initially) be a film in its own right, probably British. I can't rule that out, but it seems unlikely to me given the available evidence. It's also possible, given what I've written above that this film was the same as Theo Frenkel's 1911/1912 film Judith. I can't be 100% certain that film even existed, and in any case, this is (at least) a year before Frenkel's film is usually dated. The fact that Brockliss imported films from overseas, rather than distributing home-grown talent also seems significant.

    For me, a third possibility seems most likely: that Brockliss was actually distributing the 1909 Gaumont film Judith et Holopherne. The Cinema News and Property Gazette article tells us that he already distributed Méliès' films in the UK and that he had other French producers signed up. Secondly at the end of March 1910 an almost full page advert for Gaumont's film appeared in The Bioscope and, in contrast to the French title it was simply going under the name Judith in the UK. While it looks like they were distributing the film themselves, that doesn't rule out Brockliss promoting the same film three weeks before on the 3rd of March. Perhaps they ultimately decided not to do business together. 

    The full page ad also gives Gaumont's release date was April 20th again this is the right kind of time-frame. It does raise the question as to how Brockliss was already showing it on the 10th March, but as the Bioscope was more of a trade publication, perhaps this was a pre-screening for exhibitors. The other minor problem with this theory is that Brockliss' 700 feet is considerably less than the Gaumont advert's 960ft, but given that lengths of cuts varied, this is not insurmountable.

    Whilst the BFI database/collections does have an entry for this title which notes Brockliss's involvement, it refers directly to the same Bioscope advert as I have and has no other details, so so it seems quite likely the database entry is based on the advert. It does, however, also list the Gaumont film under the title Judith rather than the fuller French title, confirming that this was the name it was known by in the UK. There's no entry in the IMDb for this film and I could find no other verification.

    ---------

    So it's hard to be 100% confident that either film actually existed, but if you put a gun to my head I'd say the Frenkel one did, but Brockliss was just promoting the Gaumont film in the UK, quite possibly before either he or they decided to part company.

    As an aside, in the process of investigating all of this I also made a few discoveries. For example, I've known for a while that several early silent film periodicals are available to view via the Internet Archive (yet another reason to donate to them), and that you can search for key words in the scanned in versions, this tends to take a while for many files (some of which contain over a thousand pages. However, if you scroll down you can get a text file version of these files which are so much easier to search and then cross compare. Searching "Moving Picture World" (in the combined book of the first six months of 1910) yields a rave review of the Gaumont Judith film (p.552) by T. Ruth. There's also a run down of the plot of the Book of Judith for "lecturers and exhibitors who may not be in a position to readily refer to the Apocryphal books of the Bible" (pp. 699-701). 

    ==========
    Larsson, Tord (2017) "The New Testament in Film" in Ilona Nord, Hanna Zipernovszky (ed.), Religious Education in a Mediatized World (Kohlhammer: Stuttgart). p.40.

    Jon Solomon The Ancient World in the Cinema (New Haven: Yale University Press, [1978] 2001).

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    Monday, June 21, 2021

    Cover Art For My Book

    As I mentioned back in January, I have a book due out next year - "100 Bible Films" which I'll be mentioning more of as the publication date draws in. For now, though, I'm delighted to share with you the cover art.

    The book is part of the BFI's "Screen Guides" series so much of the look is determined by that, but I recently got hold of a hard copy of Barry Keith Grant's "100 Science Fiction Films" and it made me very excited it's so beautifully designed. The book is roughly 20cm sq. and has lots of nice pictures in as well as the discussion about each film. I'm pleased with the use of Aronofsky's Noah (20140, it's both one of th emore thoughtful Bile films in recent years and one of those I've enjoyed the most.

    Anyway, apologies there's not been much content from me recently but I'm working on the finishing touches. Normal service will resume shortly...

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    Monday, May 24, 2021

    The Egyptian (1954)

    I've been meaning to write up my notes on  Michael Curtiz's The Egyptian (1954) for a while now, not because it's a Bible film (it isn't), but because there are, nevertheless, numerous overlaps with the Biblical epics which at the time (1954) were in full flow.

    Firstly there's a lot of overlap with the cast and crew - and what a cast/crew it is. Director Michael Curtiz had been involved in four silent biblical epics (directing Sodom und Gomorrha (1923), Die Sklavenkönigin (The Moon of Israel, 1924) and Noah's Ark (1929) and being involved with Alexander Korda's 1922 Samson und Delila though the exact extent of his involvement is unclear). Lots of the crew came more or less straight from The Robe (1953) as did stars Jean Simmons and Victor Mature. Then there's Peter Ustinov who played Nero in Quo Vadis? (1951)'s and Edward Purdom who would go on to star in The Prodigal the following year. And to top it all Alfred Newman - who scored several biblical films, including The Rove - here teams up with Bernard Herrman. Having just one of those great composers on the soundtrack would be impressive, but both? I'd be interested to read a bit more about that incredible combination.

    The main story / theme here is the rise of monotheism under Akhnaten - a story I first encountered via Philip Glass' 1983 opera "Akhnaten".  Akhnaten (originally know as Amenhotep IV) was an Egyptian pharaoh from the 14th century BCE who abandoned polytheism in favour of a much greater focus on one god in particular, Aten the sun god. But his religious reforms failed and his compatriots reverted back to their traditional faith after his death, removing most of the evidence of his reforms. 

    Due to the timing of these events, many have speculated about potential links between the temporary cult of Aten and Moses' restoration of YHWH worship, not least because of significant similarities between the Hymn of Aten and Psalm 104.

    Given all this; as well as the way biblical epics had performed at the box office over the past five years; the aforementioned similarities in cast and crew; and a story focusing on a time and place in close proximity to parts of the Bible, it's hardly surprising that are numerous allusions to the Bible and, more specifically, the biblical (epic). These begin from the very start when the Purdom's physician Sinuhe describes how he was pulled from a basket on the Nile when he was young. Interestingly he makes this sound fairly common place, but still this is a clear klaxon from the film-makers to be on the look out for more biblical allusions.

    While Purdom is the lead, the film's biggest star is Victor Mature's Horemheb, who begins as Purdom's friend. It's not long before Mature is defeating a lion recalling not only the Biblical account of Samson and the Lion (Judges 14), but specifically a now infamous scene in DeMille's Samson and Delilah (1949) where Mature and his stunt 'double' between them wrestle a real lion and a fake one. This time there's no wrestling (even the first time, Mature was understandably not terribly keen) Horemheb relies on a bow and arrow. Shortly afterwards another interesting piece of intertextuality emerges: Mature is a Cheesemaker, a profession it's impossible to hear about these days without thinking of Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979). Any influence is the other way here and quite possibly unintentional by the Pythons (I struggle to believe it's nothing but coincidence, though that is possible). Nevertheless, as soon as this is revealed it's hard not speculates as to whether he is also the manufacturer of other types of dairy products.

    Sinhue and Horemheb happen across Akhnaten in prayer and manage to save his life and as a result the two get promoted into his service. Sinhue as his physician and Horemheb into the army where he eventually becomes a general. It's not long however before it becomes clear that the barmaid at the inn where the two friends celebrate their successes (Jean Simmons as Merit) has very much taken a shining to Sinhue. Sinhue is good natured and builds a friendship with Merit, but he is smitten instead with Babylonian courtesan Nefer (Bella Darvi), who openly admits loving her will ruin him and so she does. Again this is one of the classic tropes of biblical epic - the "good" man is so tempted by exotic/erotic woman that he ignores the honourable sensible woman who quietly adores him and, as a result, stumbles into ruin.

    However, it turns out that Sinhue is not really that good. [SPOILER] When he realises that Nefer has not only taken his money and slept with his best friend, and his now rejecting him, he tries to murder her, making him a pretty grim "hero". The film and other reviewers don't seem overly bothered by that, but it's a pretty inexcusable act of 'domestic violence'.[END SPOILER] Why Merit still wants to have anything to do with him is beyond me.

    The parallels with between the Aten worshippers and Christians comes in more in the second half, particularly around the use of "the cross" as it is frequently called (though technically it's Egyptian cross/hieroglyphic/cross with a loop, the ankh). These elements peak in the final few scenes. Jean Simmons character Merit turns into a Mary figure. Not only is there similarity in names, but Merit seemingly remains a virgin but mothers a son, is pure-hearted, dresses in pale blue, is seen with a donkey and devoutly follows Aten.

    Meanwhile Akhnaten - who is portrayed as being mad for most of the film - realises as he dies that he was on the right track but didn't go far enough. Both him and Purdom get final speeches anticipating Christianity's one god/Prince of Peace. Yet there's no mention of Hebrew/Jewish religion. And then there are the final titles which - just in case anyone missed the film's 'subtle' implications - mentionsthat these events happened 1300 years before Jesus Christ.

    Aside from the Bible/biblical epic parallels there are a few other interesting points. There's an interesting detail about the invention of iron being a key advance in military technology which few films (I recall) from this era mention. The history here is fudged to a degree to make this point.

    Also, the visual similarity of the sets to DeMille's 1956 The Ten Commandments (which was still in the early stages of production) is striking. In the 1920s Curtiz and DeMille had this mimetic rivalry each both copying and vying to outdo one another with their biblical films. Here, 30 years later, there's so much about the look of this film that is very similar to what DeMille would do two years later. According to archivist James Harrison this is not entirely coincidental. DeMille really admired the look of Curtiz's film, to the extent that when "Fox lost so much money" on it and decided "to sell what they could to other productions", "DeMille nabbed it nearly all of it."

    Harrison also notes that the film "was panned by most of the critics. Even Variety, who were fans of Zanuck, thought it was a miss fire by him". As a result Fox stashed it in their vaults, described Alan Rode as ‘an embarrassing instance of excess’."

     The sets and costumes are great - I can see why DeMille was so keen to re-use them - , but plot-wise the film is a mess and eventually it runs out of steam. Purdom lost my sympathy after the incident and as a result it became hard to care for him as thew film takes ever more preposterous turns. Nevertheless, it's interesting to see what is more or less a biblical epic that is neither based on the Bible nor on the direct aftermath of Christianity.

    There's another write up of this film at Roderick Heath's blog and you can read a great deal more in Alan Rode's biography of Curtiz cited below.

    =========

    Rode, Alan K. (2017) Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film, The University Press of Kentucky.

    Saturday, May 01, 2021

    Superbook: Nehemiah and the Walls of Jerusalem (1982)

    A while ago I wrote about the Japanese Anime Bible series Tezuka Osamu no Kyuuyaku Seisho Monogatari (In the Beginning, 1992) and I ended it with a passing mention of "Brasilian anime series called 'Superbook'". That was based on a translation of this site, but revisiting that again made me realise that was wrong. I'm not sure if the translation has improved or whether I just mis-read it, but at the moment it's translated "Perhaps the best known Christian anime in Brazil is Superbook (Anime Oyako Gekijo)". 

    In fact it turns out that this series was also a Japanese production made in conjunction with CBN, first broadcast in 1981. It was produced by Tatsunoko Productions who were set up by anime pioneer Tatsuo Yoshida and his two brothers Kenji and Toyoharu and are probably best known for their work on Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995-96). It was directed by Masakazu Higuchi (The Real Ghostbusters (1986)). The series ran for two 26-episode series in 1981 and 1982 was rebooted with CGI for CBN in 2011 with five series having been produced so far.

    According to Wikipedia, the original version of the Nehemiah story was broadcast on 11 March 1982 (the series having begun in October 1981). As with the series usual format, Chris Peeper (Sho Asuka in Japanese), Joy (Azusa Yamato), and Gizmo the clockwork Robot (Zenmaijikake) travel back in time via Chris' titular Superbook - a magic Bible. Chris is grumpy because he has to help build a fence and well you can probably see where this goes.

    The trio arrive back in the 5th century BC and immediately bump into Nehemiah's opponents Sanballat and Tobiah who accuse them of being spies and start to attack them. In contrast to other portrayals of Nehemiah, here he arrives on a horse and flanked by soldiers - much more aligned with the power Artaxerxes has invested in him.

    When they arrive back in Jerusalem Nehemiah brings his 20th century guests up to speed on the recent history of Jerusalem as he ponders his next strategy. The next day his speech inspires the crowd to pick up their tools to rebuild the city wall, despite Sanballat and Tobiah's attempts to discourage them. Foiled at this the Tobiah and Sanballat arm a party of soldiers to attack those working on the walls and are only repelled when the Jerusalemites fire arrows back at them. This goes rather beyond the text where the threat of attack is sustained, but never quite seems to go all the way (Neh.4).

    Interestingly the film also includes the incident where Sanballat and Tobiah bribe the house-bound Shemiah into suggesting Nehemiah should hide in the temple - as part of a relatively sophisticated plan to then discredit him. It  fails, of course, and so the film ends on the Jews celebrating the completion of the wall. This enables the film to avoid Ezra and his purging of gentiles from the city altogether, but it also means the film has a fairly good narrative arc - better than the book which peaks a little later, but then gets bogged down in the details. 

    The animation is fairly good - it's no Studio Ghibli, but is fairly well executed and the robot figure - while obviously totally anachronistic - lends the series a suitably Japanese 80s vibe. It's the most prominent gimmick of the dramatic devices that put 20th century kids alongside biblical figures, but it's has its own charm. It never feels like the team behind it are desperately trying to cling on to their audience's attention as other kids Bible series do at times and the storytelling is reasonably competent while capturing the spirit of the original. Speaking as someone who has never really enjoyed the Book of Nehemiah, this ranks as a decent effort to dramatise a somewhat stodgy text.

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    Sunday, April 25, 2021

    Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? (Pedro Costa, 2001)

    Regular readers will know that, owing in part to my fascination with Moses und Aron (1975) I like to write about the work of the film's directors Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet. At the risk of pushing things even further I recently got a chance to watch Pedro Costa's documentary Où gît votre sourire enfoui? (Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?, 2001) shot in the editing suite as Straub and Huillet worked on their 1999 film Sicilia!

    Naturally this is a film that I have wanted to view for a while, not least because Jean Luc Godard called it "the best film ever made about film editing" (see this video), so the fact that it you can currently stream it from Grasshopper/Projectr.tv. was great news for me.

    As you might expect the film reflects much of its stars' trademark style: diagonal shots and long takes captured with a fixed and seemingly impassive camera. If you count film as a text, then one could even go further and note that the passage of Elio Vittorini's novel "Conversazione in Sicilia" into Huillet and Straub's film and then into Costa's documentary is typical of their multi-layered adaptations. Indeed much of the running time is given over to close-ups of that 'text', primarily shot from the screen in the editing suite. Brief excerpts play and then are re-wound, forward and back until the subtitler gives up translating and we wait while one of them pinpoints the frame they were trying to find.

    The subtleties revealed by this are immense. Seemingly insignificant details, the slackness in a wrist, the bow of a head, a branch flitting about in the background are highlighted and debated as the pair seek to solve the problems they cause. As someone without any experience of what happens in the editing room it's hard to know if this is typical or not. Perhaps if Costa had set up shop with Scorsese and Schoonmaker the same level of exacting precision would have been captured, but it seems unlikely that the rigour on display here is typical. It's perhaps all the more surprising because of the length of the typical shot in a Straub-Huillet film. One wonders about the number of shots it has taken to even taken them to get this far.

    Yet if Costa's film bears many of the marks of its subjects' style then one key difference is the way in which the dialogue is delivered. In many Huillet-Straub films it is deliberately very mannered and forced. There's an emphasis on rhythm and cadence of the language (which gets mention at one point here). Yet the dialogue here is quite the reverse. I don't know for a fact how Costa shot it but all the indicators point towards it simply being their natural dialogue. And what dialogue it is! Much of it is the back and forth of a married couple who are closing in on 40 years of working together. They bicker and chide, but never with anger, or to cause offence - these conversations feel well worn, familiar, perhaps even comfortable. Huillet (as the primary editor) is trying to focus on the task in front of her and Straub injects with something unrelated. Or he messes with the light. Clearly these discussions have happened many times before and so you sense so much about the strength of both their relationship and the nature of couples who have been together for so long. She knows how he is: he wouldn't object to changing but just cannot Time has mellowed their little conversations, and in any case there is a film to make.

    In between this domestic banality there is a masterclass in film philosophy and practice. Straub talks about this similarities between editing a film and a sculptor working with marble. Just as the sculptor has to work with the veins in the raw material so must they. Elsewhere Straub, in the words of John Dickson "can’t help telling stories about Bunuel, Ray, Chaplin, and Eisenstein, as he paces in and out the door of their editing room, which might as well be the portal to another world".(1) 

    That portal effect (see above) is one Costa creates by his immersion of the camera in the dark recesses of the editing suite. There are no establishing shots, introduction or pre-suite interviews. The film starts in the editing room and remains there except for a few scenes where the pair present the show to an audience. The camera moves position, occasionally someone even turns on the light, but it's a film of warm shadows and silhouettes. The filmmakers are present, usually on camera (unless Sicilia! is), but only rarely in such a way to be able to capture their features. Instead we capture their essence. Their warmth and humour, but also their focus, particularly Huillet's who keeps the more restless Straub on course.

    I'd like to go into more detail, but am both pushed for time and my three-day ticket has expired. I'm aware that Costa's role is pivotal. As Jean Pierre Gorrin asks "What did he do to give us the Straubs with such vitality?"(2). But I'm also short of time and the chance to re-watch it. But the film has been written about else where (in addition to Dickson and Gorrin) and those reviews do enough to re-kindle my memories.

    It would be easy to dismiss this as a film about insignificant details, and, as with many of Straub, Huillet's films it can seem paradoxically dull and engorssing. But it's a film that stays with you. Its words and images. Having never heard Huillet and Straub talk before it's fascinating to see them move, speak, discuss and work, and to see the relationship between them. For that along it will be memorable, but it also captures so much of their spirit. In a wonderful final shot the two approach the theatre inside a cinema where Sicilia! is playing. Outside in the red velvet lobby Huillet continues up the stairs to the projection booth, but Straub stays behind as the music drifts out from inside. He sits on the stairs as if soaking in the moment. In one sense he seems to revel in having a solitary moment left to his own devices. But in another he seems alone and bereft without her. Like so much that has gone before its a moment that seems to encapsulates their relationship perfectly.

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

    1 - Dickson, John (2017) "Pedro Costa’s WHERE DOES YOUR HIDDEN SMILE LIE? (Documentary Revival)" in Cine File: Cine: List (Friday July 21 -  Thursday, July 27). Available online: https://www.cinefile.info/cine-list/2017/7/21/-friday-july-21-thursday-july-27-

    2 - Gorrin, Jean Pierre (2016) "Nine Notes on Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?" in Ted Fendt (ed.)  Jean-Marie Straub & Danèle Huillet, Vienna: Synema Publikationen, p.156.

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    Wednesday, April 21, 2021

    Nehemiah: The Joy of Jehovah Is Your Stronghold (2020). Parts 1&2

    Nehemiah  is a rather overlooked biblical character. Not only has he been almost entirely ignored by filmmakers, but 18th and 19th century operas and plays; novelisations; picture Bibles and Christian art have been significantly less concerned with his story than that of earlier characters from the Hebrew Bible. Even those reliable staples of Victorian-era Christian Art - James Tissot and Gustave Doré only produced a handful of works between them, such as Doré's "Nehemiah Inspects Jerusalem's Walls" and "The Rebuilding of the Temple" Tissot's "Nehemiah and the King" and "Nehemiah Sees the Ruins of Jerusalem.

    So it's something of a surprise to discover that last year (of all years!) the Jehovah's Witnesses made what appears to be the first significant screen adaptation of the story. Nehemiah: The Joy of Jehovah Is Your Stronghold (2020), split into two parts, covers most of the material in Nehemiah, before delving into the Book of Malachi in towards the end of part two. That in itself is an unusual choice, but it's even harder to fathom given the film's treatment of Ezra. 

    The precise relationship between the two men is somewhat unclear. In the popular imagination, however, they are often seen as more-or-less contemporaries, not least because partway through the book of Nehemiah, Ezra pops up to read the law to the people - a moment that's pivotal to the text as a whole. Scratch the surface, though, and there are reasons to think this passage was inserted at this point in the text for thematic emphasis, rather than historical verisimilitude. It's hard to establish a smooth chronology and as a result some scholars see Ezra as preparing the way for Nehemiah's work, others see them as more or less contemporaries, while still others seeing his reforms as coming significantly after Nehemiah's.

    The film begins with a prologue that gives more or less the traditional chronology,1 and goes on to call Ezra as "a man who had come before" Nehemiah, and show that he was still around to read out the law the marketplace at the start of part two. But both men are still young and therefore contemporaries, so the decision to sideline Ezra, to the extent that he doesn't even feature in part 1, but gives such prominence to Malachi is an interesting decision. 

    This is probably an attempt to downplay the racist messages which are found in both Ezra and Nehemiah, but are largely attributed to Ezra. The film largely summarises Ezra's policy of wide-scale divorce foreign wives (Ezra 9-10) and dispelling foreigners from Jerusalem (Neh 13:3) as responding to a single misdeed, "divorcing our wives to marry foreign women" which is the most (still not that) palatable part of his policy. Later Nehemiah speaks out those who have divorced their Jewish wives to marry those from other tribes.

    The inclusion of the Malachi material takes up a sizeable portion of part 2 and allows the portion on tithing to be included. It's worth remembering at this point that this film is a teaching aid produced by a worldwide denomination - as indicated by a preacher at the start of the film - and the film includes one of the passages that is used, in various forms of Christianity, to promote the idea that 10% of church-members' income should be given to the church.

    I first watched this film a month or so ago and in the meantime the issues I've reflected most upon are to do with the sets and lighting. Even the "distressed" sets have the feel of being brand-spanking new.This is somewhat contrary to most 21st century epics, where the trend has generally been to portray all biblical era sets as being old-looking and rundown. The increasing popularity of Italy's medieval town Matera as a location is both a cause and an effect in this respect. 

    While I must admit I love the look of Matera, and that aesthetic, at the same time it's also something of a construct. As much as the buildings we see on screen represent something from the past, that does not mean they would have been old at the time of the story. Indeed, at some point, all buildings were new. Modern cities tend to feature architecture of various ages and while we might hypothesise that certain cities after a recent razing might be more homogeneous, or that the time range might be narrower due to lower standards of expertise, even those assumptions can be challenged. For example, some buildings from this era still stand today - hardly indicative of shoddy craftsmanship. Of course, what's particularly interesting in the case of Ezra-Nehemiah is that it literally is a story about a building project to redevelop a city. Certainly by the point in the film by which the building work is completed it's not unreasonable for buildings to be looking pristine. 

    That said, I'm just as bothered by the 'before' scenes (see enlarged version of the above photo). The filmmakers have attempted to make Jerusalem's walls seem damaged by a siege and 70 years of ageing, but the city still seems sterile and fake. I'm reminded of DeMille's hurriedly instructing his team on The Ten Commandments (1923) to grab bits of seaweed at the last minute so that the sea bed would look genuine when the waters parted. Struggling to put my finger on what exactly was wrong in this respect I asked Twitter and I'd like to thank the people who were kind enough to reply.2 They confirmed that the lighting was the biggest problem as well as pointing out a few other issues (such as CGI integration, post-production work and the costumes). 

    Given this is a relatively low budget film it is perhaps unfair of my to hone in on this, but it does take me right out of the film: I'm never able to buy into the world that is portrayed as being real rather than a bunch of actors on a set. Instead I find myself asking question that would never normally occur to me.3 As I prefer to keep my focus on the positive aspect of a film and the points of interest it raises, I'll refrain going into the film's various other problems such as the acting and the dialogue.

    While the film is wary of wandering away from the biblical text too much it does include a number of invented figures so the audience can experience the events from there perspective. Peleth and Imma  are a Jewish couple who originally came to Jerusalem with Ezra along with another man Raham to whom they are now in debt. (The names Peleth and Raham both feature much earlier in the Biblical chronology, but not in Ezra-Nehemiah).4 Imma and Peleth follow Nehemiah (and, by implication, God) faithfully while Raham grows to question Nehamiah's plans as well as trying to convince Peleth to sell his daughter into slavery to pay off the debt Peleth owes him. Peleth later divorces his Jewish wife to marry a Moabite.

    These fictional episodes run alongside the biblical episodes which did highlight to me various incidents that I otherwise didn't recall. The celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles (Neh 8:13-18) towards the start of part 2 is portrayed in a fairly vivid fashion which makes it stand out more compared to the six verses in the text. Though perhaps it won't be quite as memorable to those who have not seen Ushpizin (2004).
    Similarly the incident where, Tobiah, one of Nehemiah's main opponents talks his way into getting a room in the temple (Neh 13:4-9).

    While the film is artistically and dramatically weak and is very selective in its presentation of the original book's most problematic area, it is the only significant attempt to adapt the book of Nehemiah - at least that I know - and so will doubtless be of interest to many seeking a dramatised version of these stories. I may post a scene guide, but for now you can view or download the two parts of this film here:

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    1 - This is usually that the first Jews return in 537BC; the restoration of the temple is completed in 515 BC; Ezra returns in 458BC and Nehemiah leaving for Jerusalem around 445BC. However the film does not give a date for Ezra and moves Nehemiah up to 455BC. The JW's New World Translation agrees with most other translations that Nehemiah 2 starts in the 20th year of Artaxerxes (465-424BC).
    3 - Why has no-one taken the rubble for their own building projects as was common? Is that how we would expect walls to fall in this circumstance? Why have the fallen stones weathered so much more than the stones? These are pedantic questions, I know, but the come from pulling at the thread of "why does this world not seem genuine?". 
    4 - Peleth is named as the father of one of those who complain in Num 16:1 alongside Dathan who alone tends to be the token dissenter in Moses adaptations, Presumably he is also father of the Pelethites mention in various lists in Samuel Kings and Chronicles. Raham just gets a single mention in 1 Chron 2:44. Interestingly the filmmakers do not use the names of those listed as returning with Ezra in Ezra 8 as they are only the heads of clans and, I imagine, they wanted to show the experience of ordinary people like the Witnesses for whom the film was intended.

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    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.  

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    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.

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