• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as current film releases with spiritual significance, and a few bits and pieces on the Bible.

    Tuesday, August 14, 2018

    Othon (1969)


    Of all the films which Huillet and Straub made prior to Moses und Aron, Othon is perhaps the closest. Both films are adaptations set, at least on one level, in the ancient world. Both are located on historic (Italian) sites in the open air, locations that should be right for the subject, but somehow feel at odds with the work which they are adapting. Both works are poetic and have a rhythm and flow to the words and language. Indeed just as Moses und Aron utilises an unusual operatic singing style called sprechstimme which is partway between speech and singing, so the various speeches in Othon have a sort of sung quality.

    The film's proper title is Les Yeux ne veulent pas en tout temps se fermer, ou Peut-être qu’un jour Rome se permettra de choisir a son tour (Eyes don’t want to stay shut all the time, or Perhaps one day Rome will let herself choose at her turn), but is based on the 1664 Pierre Corneille play Othon which played in Louis XIV's court where it's scathing portrayal of back-room political dealings was perhaps best appreciated. Whilst Corneille himself considered one of his best works (though given it came late in his career, that might just have been shrewd marketing), it's one of his less appreciated works. However, it's not hard to see why it appealed to the avowedly political Straub/Huillet nor why they would choose to dedicate it "to the large number of those born in the French language, who've never had the privilege of knowing the work of Corneille".

    The story itself is set in the A.D.69, the year of the four emperors in the final days of Galba's rule. Galba is hesitating over whom to appoint as his heir, the noble, but easily swayed Pison, or the shrewder Othon. Galba's three advisers Lacus, Martian and Vinius can't agree either, mainly because each is scheming to protect their own political future. Aside from the two men's qualities, there are also two potential marriage partners that could swing things one way or another. The emperor's niece, Camille, the only character with royal pedigree loves Othon, but he loves Vinius' daughter Plautine.

    Perhaps what is most striking about the film is its choice of location and the way in which that setting is set to work. Instead of the claustrophobic palace back rooms Corneille's play suggests, Huillet and Straub opted for the open air. Furthermore they chose a terrace on Palatine Hill, the site of numerous imperial palaces overlooking the forum in Rome. Instead of trying to block out the background noise of the modern day city far below they embraced it, experimenting with natural sound which would go on to become one of their trademarks. As a result much of the play is recited against the sound of traffic, wind and bubbling water. No effort is made to make the buildings look as they would have, they look as they do today, but the costumes match with what is considered typical Roman dress.

    The result is somewhat jarring yet it's easy to get lost in the easy rhythm of the words, or in trying to keep up with the House of Cards-like plot, or the gentle lulling sounds of flowing water or distant traffic. It's all helped by Straub and Huillet's beautiful compositions, or the way the actors keep their emotions strictly under wraps. There are no histrionics, evil smirks or heartfelt declarations of love, instead the film refuses to telegraph where it is going even though we know Othon is going to become emperor.

    Interestingly the film minimises Othon's role in his predecessor's downfall, even leading some commentators to think that it does not hold him responsible. Such an assumption is misguided, however. Galba and Pison's assassination is not shown, and as with the rest of the film Othon does not show any kind of emotion - positive or negative - at the news that they have been killed and he is to become emperor. Like the events that occur between the second and third acts of Moses und Aron whilst we have seen much of what has prompted regime change we are left reflecting less on the acts that caused it, than on what happens as a result.

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    Wednesday, August 08, 2018

    The Ten Commandments (1956)


    The paradox of The Ten Commandments is that it is one of the easiest films to mock and parody, and yet it's magnificence is such that whenever discussion arises about the biblical epic, and indeed biblical films in general, it's name is never far away.

    The films more risible moments begin from the very start as, rather than adopting a more conventional opening, director Cecil B. DeMille steps out from behind the curtain and delivers an almost ten minute lecture arguing for his film's historical credibility. There follows around ninety minutes of fictional hokum as DeMille invents a backstory, a cadre of friends and potential foes, and strings them together with such unintentionally hilarious lines like "Oh, Moses, Moses, you stubborn, splendid, adorable fool!".

    And yet, at the same time these scenes also provide some of the film's most stunning moments. Take for example the scene where Moses erects an obelisk as his "brother" Ramsees stands limply by (the phallic symbolism is comically transparent). Yet, despite the fact that Moses completion of the task is never in doubt, DeMille manages to make dramatic and indeed spectacular footage from what is essentially, a construction scene. Thousands toil away in the immense heat of the desert, orchestrated  by one man's extraordinary vision, expertise and dedication to create an extraordinary masterwork - a description that suits both what we see on screen and what is going on behind the scenes.

    Such parallels between DeMille's story of Moses and the modern day abound, not least because DeMille is determined to convert the story of the Exodus into a Cold War parable. DeMille's lecture at the start of the film concludes that "The theme of this picture is whether men are to be ruled by God’s law, or whether they are to be ruled by the whims of a dictator like... Ramsees" even adding "This same battle continues throughout the world today." The film carries this through in almost every respect from the casting of Russian-born Yul Brynner as Ramsees, through to the all American Heston striking a statue of liberty pose in the film's closing shot.

    The film also goes out of it's way to elaborate on the parallels between Moses and Jesus, themselves the results of the Gospel writers' attempts to cast Jesus as a new Moses. As my friend Peter Chattaway observed, almost 20 years ago now, "Pharaoh orders the death of all newborn boys in Goshen, not because he is afraid of population growth, but because a star has prophesied the birth of a deliverer in their ranks". Moses' mother uses the words of the Magnificat when she finally meets her adult son. Joshua calls him "the chosen one". Others talk of how they dared not “touch the hem of his garment”. Moses himself explains his encounter with God at the burning bush in phrases that sound like the Gospel of John, "the Word was God", "his light is in every man" and so on. By reversing what Matthew and the other Gospel writers are trying to do DeMille effectively casts Moses in his own shadow.

    The groundwork DeMille puts in during that opening ninety minutes pays off. The burning bush scene may not have aged well, but the scenes where Moses commands his former rival Ramsees to let his people go are as taut as Bryner's shendyt. Ramsees is still trying to win an old argument, but Moses moved on long ago. All the while the spurned Nefertiri is trying to keep the whole thing spinning in an attempt to hurt the man who spurned her and the one who didn't.

    When the script finally starts to cover the actual biblical story, the spectacle becomes no less impressive. The eeriness with which the Angel of Death's green mist creeps through the Egyptian streets is a fitting climax to the nine plagues which have gone before. The scene of the Israelites leaving Egypt - a scene which actually delivers on the oft used strap-line "a cast of thousands" - deftly manages to combine the sheer scale of the event with the the individual and personal. An elderly man's dying wish here, and young girl and her dolly there, DeMille manages to take these small moments and make us imagine the impact of that multiplied ten thousand times.

    Then, of course, there is the parting of the Red Sea. Film scholars still debate whether or not this version of the tale outdid his earlier silent version from 1923. Either way, both are hugely impressive even in the face of the tidal wave of CGI that dominates special effects today. The two scenes have had such a cultural impact that many today are shocked to discover the Bible actually describes a far more gradual process of the waters parting. So much for the film's repeated line "So let it be written. So let it be done".

    And then, finally we get the obligatory orgy and the arrival of the titular commandments. Given his history DeMille was unlikely to pass up the chance to show scantily clad bodies writhing before the golden bull, but it's actually the sparks flying through the air to engrave the Commandments on the rock face which stick in the memory. As with the crossing of the Red Sea, the scene itself bears little resemblance to the corresponding passage from Exodus, where Moses is at the foot of the mountain with the people by his side, but such is the impact of this film that it's rare to find someone who thinks of either scene like the book.

    The costumes are, of course, fantastic and the immense sets are first class. Heston, Brynner and John Derek's muscles gleam. Anne Baxter purrs, Vincent Price camps it up and Cedric Hardwicke gets to drily deliver wry witticisms. Even Edward G. Robinson, who fell foul of Joseph McCarthy, gets to join in scowlingly dismissing Heston's bright-eyed pronouncements. Meanwhile Elmer Bernstein - a relative unknown at the time - underpins the story with his classical score. Amazingly whilst the film lasts for 220 minutes, it never feels like that long, no doubt explaining why despite the $13 million it cost to make, it made almost ten times that at the box office and no doubt made it's budget many times over in reruns, home video sales and regular broadcasts at Christmas and Easter.

    But perhaps the most significant thing about The Ten Commandments is how it has become the definitive film for so many different categories. Despite decades of westerns and parlour comedies, it's this film that comes to mind when people today think of Cecil B. DeMille. Regardless of Ben-Hur's eleven Oscars, it's The Ten Commandments that is seen as the quintessential Charlton Heston performance. And, of course, it stands as the definitive example of the biblical epic. Few films indeed can claim to be so typical of, and central to, their genre as this. Double Indemnity for film noir. Star Wars, perhaps, for science fiction. Like them it deserves to be put on a pedestal and celebrated, even if we recognise that part of the reason it is so monumental is because time has moved on and we are unlikely to see anything quite like it ever again.

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    Chattaway, Peter (1999) "Lights, Camera, Plagues!: Moses in the Movies" in Bible Review 15:1, February.

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    Saturday, August 04, 2018

    Reflections on the Books of the Maccabees


    As someone who was brought up as a Protestant, I've never really read the Books of the Maccabees in full before. But in preparation for reviewing the 1962 Brad Harris vehicle, Il vecchio testamento (The Old Testament) I've been reading through it in full. It's been an interesting process so I thought I would share some of my reflections, not so much about the text itself, but more about the wider picture.

    The first thing is that it's interesting reading it in the context of the UK political scene at the moment. The main opposition party over here, Labour, has swung to the left and there has been a growing story about the party's perceived anti-Semitism. This involves actions by some individual actions of current and expelled members of the party, but has also come down their decision not to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance's definition of anti-Semitism. It's the kind of story that would have been dead weeks ago, but which has been given legs by the leadership's failure to properly listen to Jewish leaders about their objections and continue on as if they themselves know best. Nevertheless it's interesting reading the book which obviously details horrific anti-Semitic acts and be reminded that this is something that has a long and terrible history. It is not just being pedantic about wording.

    Secondly, I've restricted my research about the film to an absolute minimum whilst I read the book, so to try and read it with as clean a slate as possible. It does mean that I think of Ross and the Holiday Armadillo episode from Friends a little too much, but hopefully I won't be too distracted.

    What it does mean is that I presently have no idea how much of the book finds its way into the film. For those of you that are similarly unaware of the books, they read a little like the Books of Kings. I'm assuming only certain stories from the books will make it to the film, but it's interesting noticing as I read through thinking, "I can't really see that bit translating well" and so on. At the moment however, the bit I'm reading feels really like the bit that will be included. I guess I could be wrong, but I'm struck by how much a certain section of a book I don't really know leaps out as being a more obviously notable section.

    Lastly, I'm again struck by how ignorant Protestants are about the deuterocanonical books. It's one thing not accepting them as scriptural, but surely that shouldn't mean they are ignored. Sadly it seems like many evangelicals, for example, will read all kinds of pseudo-scriptural rubbish, books of visions people have had etc. and never really discuss what are, at any rate, books that form an important part of the context for the Old and New Testament.

    Following on from that I'd encourage church leaders / scholars to set themselves of reading a book from the 'apocrypha' every so often. This is partly for the reason given above, but there's another important reason: it will take you out of your comfort zone and give you the perspective of those who listen/follow you. Most church leaders / biblical scholars have grown up knowing Bible stories, quotes from Paul and so on. As a result the Bible is a comforting and familiar place. But for those people in their churches that have never got into reading their Bibles, let alone those outside of their churches, this is often not the case. Reading the Maccabees for the first time I felt distinctly not at home.

    It's also a chance to revisit how you treat "scripture", how things in the Bible that might otherwise seem weird, or shocking or bewildering in an unfamiliar book, are all too often overlooked due to familiarity or a desire to smooth things out. I'd recommend taking your time, rather than rushing through (this is why, I suppose I've still not finished the task) to maximise the strange sense of familiarity combine with disorientation. If nothing else it might enable you to enjoy a classic Brad Harris Bible film in a way you might not have otherwise.

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    Friday, August 03, 2018

    Machorka-Muff (1962)


    Machorka-Muff was the first project Huillet/Straub were able to complete as their plans for their film on Bach and the film that would ultimately become Not Reconciled were both stuck in production at this stage. Like Not Reconciled it was based on a work by Heinrich Böll, Bonn Diary and concerns the ongoing involvement of prominent Nazi-era figures in the post-war West German establishment.

    Straub had moved to Germany from his native France to escape military service in Algeria and found himself drawn by "the chance to make in Germany a film that no German could make - just as no German was able to make Germany, Year Zero..." (Roud 29). As someone that has spent quite a lot of time researching Rossellini, the connection Straub makes here is one I can appreciate. According to Barton Byg "The remilitarization of West Germany in the 1950s was Straub's 'first political rage', a sign that the country would be prevented from finding its way out of  the wilderness of World War II" (Byg 72).

    The film's opening screen card describes the piece as "An abstract visual dream not a story" and the pair set about distilling Böll's short story with their usual economy. A short piece of narration by Muff is swiftly followed by a dream sequence with the only indicators being his lying down in bed and the obviously unreal nature of the brief sequence that follows. He is then shown plugging in his electric razor the next morning.

    Despite the film' brevity (18 minutes) it still manages to tell the story as three acts. "This concern with rhythm and formal construction is one of the most important elements in Straub's films" (Roud, 37). Machorka Muff has come to Bonn for three reasons: to ingratiate himself, once again, with the German military establishment; to clear the name of a beloved, yet disgraced, superior officer from his days in the Nazi army; and to initiate the building of a military academy. This much is laid out in the film's opening act which culminates in him taking a break from his walk around the city to have an aperitif.

    However, as Muff sits and begins to read the papers the film ominously shifts gear. The natural sound of the first act is replaced by a bombastic and slightly terrifying organ music. This accompanies a montage of newspaper headlines and articles charting the progress of the remilitarisation movement, which are clearly from a variety of newspapers as opposed to just the one that Muff is reading. Within the continuity of the film, then, this montage is "fake" - Muff is not examining a variety of newspapers, just casually perusing the one. However, the clippings shown in this sequence are all genuine cuttings and articles from the time in which the film is set. Whilst Muff, the other characters and the story itself are fictional, the cuttings are, in fact, the only "real" part of the entire film. This use of historical artefacts and bringing together the varies layers of the past would go on to become a regular feature of Huillet and Straub's work.

    Montages of newspaper headlines go back to the silent era, but one of the things that is most interesting about this one is the way in which it quickly moves on from simply the headlines to the arguments in the articles themselves. The articles cite duty, honour to those who died in the German army, morality and democracy in defense of their position, even invoking Jesus and the religious establishment to make their case.

    It's not until the third act when we are finally introduced to the mysterious "Inn". Having been mentioned in the film's very first sentence ("I wanted to call Inn, but decided not to") there are various indicators that she holds some sway. It is she who tells him "the baby's christening is today", meaning that the ceremony for laying the cornerstone of his military academy has got the go-ahead.

    Despite her apparent influence Muff is a little dismissive of her place in society, describing her as "recent nobility, but old family line" before adding, in somewhat derisory fashion, that her family had only become ennobled in Hitler's final two days. This is turned on its head as the final act unfolds and in apparent contrast to what Muff, as the film's narrator, seems to think. We first see her as she arrives in her expensive, open-topped car to pick him up. He bows to kiss her hand and she continues to drive off in taking the dominant position. This seems normal today but would have been notable in the 1950s.

    Inn's influence is also apparent in the scene where Muff is promoted to brigadier general. Whilst he has been napping, she has been orchestrating events leading to the meeting with the government official. And when his promotion is announced, she is the only other person present. Significantly, she helps him on with the jacket from his new uniform.

    Then we get the couple's wedding, accompanied by an unusual low angle shot which captures the pair against the roof of the Cathedral, diminishes the height difference between them and places her more centrally on the screen. Following the wedding we learn that she has already been married seven times before, but that the church is more than willing to annul all her previous marriages in her case. As Inn remarks as the couple enjoy a very brief honeymoon, "This is how I always feel as a bride". Despite her apparently casual attitude to marriage the priest is more than willing to accommodate a couple of such high standing.

    Indeed class is a fairly prevalent theme of the film. In addition to the discussion of Inn and her family, there is also a significant moment in the one of the opening scenes. Whilst Muff is waiting for a meeting in the hotel lobby, Heffling, one of Muff's former colleagues, spies him and the two share a drink. Though initially he is willing to tolerate Heffling, we see Muff pull out a pocket watch during their short moment together. Furthermore when the government representative that Muff is waiting for arrives, Muff places his hand on Heffling's shoulder as if to politely shove him down the hall and out of the door. As Heffling leaves Muff's narration also reveals his true attitude to Heffling describing him as typical of "simple people" and calling his wife him "petit bourgeois".

    Byg also notes the length of time the film spends showing Heffling's drink being brought (77). This is far longer than the time the two men are actually shown together. Once Heffling is dispatched the two discuss the plans for the dedication ceremony and when Muff asks "Will the public swallow it?" the government representative replies "The public swallows everything". What pleases the two most is that they are able to get away with such a celebration of the German military in a democracy, despite the recent history. In a similar way, when Muff delivers his dedication speech towards the end of the film he proudly uses an affectionate name for Hitler that he and his colleagues have been permitted to use.

    Muff's speech is itself fairly significant. Just as the images of the newspapers acting as an official mouthpiece formed the "second act", now Muff's literal mouth is making militaristic arguments in the final part of the film. The speech is shot from an awkward high angle which captures a close up of Muff's gold-braided general's cap in the foreground, his mouth in the middle of the shot and the foundations of the academy in the background. As Muff speaks we see a workman in the background both literally and figuratively cementing Germany's future. The ceremony ends with Muff tapping the top of the foundations with a small hammer - seemingly answering the question at the end of the newspaper montage - "Will Germany be a hammer or an anvil?".

    It's here that the film is at its most satirical. Apparently the satire in Böll's novel is a little more forceful. Straub/Huillet rein it in a little bit, but still allow space for Muff to recount how his former general died from food poisoning after eating a lobster. The most scathing moment is in Muff's proud announcement of the discovery (by Inn - again she is pulling the strings) that Muff's former boss, General Hürlanger-Hiss, had lost more of his men in the war than had previously been thought. The discovery that the loss of life was greater meant that the number who died had now crossed the threshold of what constituted an acceptable retreat. Thus, rather than this greater catastrophe signalling further shame, it actually meant Hiss' reputation could be reinstated, and his memory cherished again.

    The film's closing line, which is also one of the most significant, is given to Inn. As she talks to Muff she tells him "No-one has ever dared oppose our family". As she does so there is a loud crash on the organ and the end credits begin accompanied by more of the heavy-handed organ playing from the newspaper montage. It's another reminder that Muff's rise to power is not, even within the military and the "democracy", down to his own merit but to his new wife's class and position of influence.

    Huillet and Straub were criticised for not making the film more political and, in particular for not caricaturing the former Nazi characters to the same extent that Böll did in the short story. This seems to be because they did not want to let their audience off the hook by giving them the cathartic release of seeing their opponents savaged on screen. Instead Straub reportedly wanted their audience to internalise their anger. Rather than having the characters in the film deal with the gangsters, Straub's hope is to inspire those who watch their films towards political action. Perhaps "the avenger is in the audience" (Delahaye). Seen over 50 years later, modern films have, if anything become even more comnbastic and pre-digested. It's good, then, to be reminded of a subtler form of film which can let its anger about those in power to speak for itself, if only we have ears to hear it.

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    - Byg, Barton (1995) Landscapes of Resistance: The German Films of Daniele Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    - Delahaye, Michel (1966) "Entretien Avec Jean-Marie Straub," Cahiers du Cinéma 180 (July): 52.

    - Roud, Richard (1972) Jean-Marie Straub. New York: The Viking Press.

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    Friday, July 27, 2018

    Sodom und Gomorrha (1923)


    The 1920s saw two men battling for supremacy of the biblical epic, Cecil B. DeMille and the Hungarian Mihaly Kertesz. DeMille went on to make The Sign of the Cross (1934), Samson and Delilah (1949) and The Ten Commandments (1956) to cement his name as the one that will forever be associated with the genre. Yet whilst Kertesz, who went on to change his name to Michael Curtiz, may ultimately have lost the battle, he's generally acknowledged to have won the war. Once in Hollywood, Curtiz made a string of the greatest films ever made including The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) Mildred Pierce (1946) and, of course, the immortal Casablanca (1942). He got to more than keep his hand in with the historical films as well, most notably his work with Errol Flynn, indeed David Thomson claims that "the Errol Flynn picture was really more Curtiz's invention than the actor's" (Thomson 196).

    Of course the move to Hollywood and to Warner's had a major impact on his career - it seems unlikely that his staying with them for around 25 years cannot be solely down to gratitude for them providing him an escape route from the growing Nazi threat. Nevertheless, I can't help but wonder if what really propelled him to greatness was someone sitting him down and telling him to stop making films set several time periods in parallel.

    In addition to his early films Boccacio (1919) and Cherchez la femme (1921), three of the four biblical films in which Curtiz was involved, use this differing time periods motif (here, Noah's Ark (1929) and Korda's 1922 Samson und Delila in which the exact extent of Curtiz's involvement is unclear), only Die Sklavenkönigin (The Moon of Israel, 1924) was solely set in the biblical era. What's strange about these three films is that even though the biblical content is only around 50% of the total running time, all three films are named after the biblical characters, perhaps because the lives of the modern characters reflect those of their predecessors.

    Whilst this approach had been popular ever since D.W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916), Sodom und Gomorrha is probably the most formal structure.1 The historic scenes take place within a dream of one of the modern character who first dreams of events in her own time, then of those in Old Testament Sodom, then of events in Syria, before then returning to the dreamlines in Sodom and the modern day,before final awakening for the film's conclusion. Thus the film has a chiastic structure as shown below:

    Modern day reality
         →Modern day dream pt.1
              →Biblical dream pt.1
                   →Syrian dream (all)
              →Biblical dream pt2.
         →Modern day dream pt.2
    Modern day reality


    Bizarrely, though, at the heart of this structure is neither the modern story nor the biblical story the film is named after, but the Syrian story. Interestingly this chiastic structure is also emphasised by the film's frequent use of an iris shot. Often these shots are static iris shots, which hold for their duration, rather than an "iris in" or an "iris out". The use of the iris is also a nod to the dream element of the film. In the "real" part of the story the iris acts as a predictor/reminder of the up coming dream sequence. In the dream section of the film it is one of the techniques the filmmakers use to both clarify and remind that this sequence is a dream not a (past) reality.

    Of course the film's concentric circles can also extend out one layer further. The darkest area around the iris above is, of course, our real world, now in a fourth time period, but it is this that is true reality, not the film's base layer of reality. And there seems to be an intention, on the surface at least, that this is the kind of film that wants to speak to the viewer at home, too. Throughout the film we have been encouraged to identify with the film's anti-heroine, through a series of visual techniques such as point of view shots and the fact that ultimately we enter her dreams, and when she reconsiders her behaviour in the light of what she has experiences, the film seems to want its audience to do likewise. I didn't really mean to spend as long on that as I have done...and I didn't even get to mention Christopher Nolan's Inception, which works on a very similar chiastic dream premise, though I suspect Nolan hasn't seen Sodom and Gomorrha.

    Sodom's other key identification is of the angel with Jesus. Most obviously, before the people of Sodom and Gomorrah try to kill the angel they tie him up, on the top of a hill, in a cruciform position, and ask him "Wenn Du ein Engel bist - Warum schützt Du Dich nicht?" (If you are an angel - why not save yourself?). There are a handful of other minor references applied both to the angel and to the "youth" from the Syrian section.

    The film's best visual moment is, as perhaps you might hope, Lot's wife (Lia) turning to a pillar of salt (see above). The biblical section of the film plays fairly loose with its source material. This is partly to align with the modern day story, so Lia is more wanton than ever the Bible suggests, in order to align her with the modern story's anti-heroine. The three leading female roles are all played by (Lucy Doraine). Similarly there is only one angel rather than two so that he can correspond more easily to the modern story's priest (similarly both roles played by Victor Varconi). Lastly Lot and Lia do not have daughters as they do in the biblical story, which, again, enables the film to align Lot's wife with the single woman of the modern story.

    The biblical account of Mrs Lot's demise always seems a little harsh. It's one of the places where the judgement of God seems particularly arbitrary and the story seems to be ped(a)lling extra hard to create an explanation. However, whilst here Lia doesn't exactly deserve death, she certainly is no less culpable than her fellow townspeople. In any case, she turns, there's a flash and she is turned instantly to a pillar of salt. The smoke masks the jump-cut, of course, but it's very deftly done and whilst Curtiz's greatest films don't really have a call for this kind of special effect, it demonstrates his ability to masterful execute a powerful visual sequence. It's made all the more effective by the delay between when the intertitle announces what is to happen and the event itself. Fully 3 minutes passes between the announcement of Lia's demise and it actually happening.

    As with many of Curtiz's films the sets are impressive - particularly one expressionist shot up a hill to a set of gallows late in the film which is so typical of the best of German films of the time. More typically though, it's the size and scale of the sets, that impresses as well as the scenes of their ultimate destruction. The scenes of crowds of extras fleeing their impending doom hint at what Curtiz would achieve in Robin Hood and in so many of his other swashbuckling films.

    Of course, such scenes were no longer novel by this point in the 1920s, but one or two moments, the water in Sodom plopping as sulphur begins to rain down, or the smoke billowing through an Astarte's temple, really stand out. The image quality when viewing the film on YouTube make it difficult to see the detail on the sets. One can only imagine how impressive it would be to see a proper print of the film, in good condition on the big screen.

    That said, these scenes, and the film in general, do rather drag and if the film's aim was to get an audience of flappers to reform their behaviour, it seems hard to believe many of them found the harsh, angry priest very appealing. According to Shepherd, the film had spent quite some time in development (217). Given that Curtiz's sense of rhythm, pacing and plot are so perfect in Casablanca, which was still being written as it was being shot, perhaps the problem is that Curtiz had not yet learnt to trust his instincts. Sodom und Gomorrha is notable for the consistency of its structure, but we should be grateful that he would go on to create far better works.
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    1 - According to Shepherd there are various cuts of this film including "the DVD produced by the Filmarchiv Austria (2008) [which] does not contain the 'Syrian episode'" and a 1995 reconstruction (218). Whichever version Shepherd is referring to in his general discussion, it does not seem to be the same version as the one available on YouTube which I also acquired on DVD. For one thing Shepherd calls Lot's wife "Sarah" (219)
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    - Shepherd, David J. (2013), The Bible on Silent Film: Spectacle, Story and Scripture in the Early Cinema, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
    - Thomson, David (2002) The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, LONDON (Little Brown), Fourth Edition.

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    Thursday, July 26, 2018

    A.D. (2015) - Part 9


    This is part 9 of a series of posts covering A.D. episode by episode & are initial impressions not a review. You can read them all here
    Earlier in the year I was blogging the individual episodes of the NBC series A.D. - The Bible Continues (2015) or A.D. - Kingdom and Empire as it was known over here. For some reason, at the time I skipped over episode 9, so I've been meaning to return to fill in the gap ever since.

    The episode starts with Saul escaping from Damascus via a basket over the city walls. The city is in turmoil after Saul has preached at the synagogue. He returns, with Barnabas, to the believers in Jerusalem, who are understandably not that keen to welcome him with open arms. Simon the Zealot is particularly sceptical about the validity of Saul's conversion, but Peter and John are a little more accepting and Peter gives him the kind of one to one meeting that the biblical Paul seemed to find it difficult to realise.

    Meanwhile Gaius has become Caesar and the filmmakers are determined to make sure everyone knows he is a bit loopy. He gets one of his uncle's formerly loyal servants to kill himself to prove his loyalty, and when he announces his plan to erect a statue of his likeness to be placed in the temple, no-one bats an eyelid, even though they fear the worst. Even Gaius' best friend has his misgivings such that Pilate is able to encourage him to get Gaius out of the city. Before he leaves it's strongly implied that he forces himself upon one of the servants - Tabitha - who is comforted by Mary Magdalene. In a later scene we're also introduced to Joanna and her husband Chuza. Joanna is surprisingly upfront about her funding the church, despite her husband's notion that she is insane. And it's her forthright discussion with her husband - for which she credits Jesus giving her permission - that first leads Tabitha to ask "Who is this Jesus?". This seems somewhat out of keeping with Peter and Paul's advice to be submissive to husbands as a form of witness, but it does emphasise Jesus' radical (for his time) views regarding women.

    Meanwhile Caiaphas' wife has heard about Saul's conversion and is appalled by it, so she sets out to find a way to get him killed. Herod's wife on the other hand also sees an opportunity, thinking that Gaius' rise to power will mean that Antipas will be put it charge of the region instead. Caiaphas' men close in on Saul and arrest him. Meanwhile Simon goes seeking Zealots and ends up in a red pill/blue pill scenario (he chooses the red, obviously) whilst Paul kneels in Caiaphas' jail to recite the Lord's prayer.

    I can kind of see why I skipped this one in my earlier reviews. It's not a stand out episode, and there are few striking visuals, set-piece moments, dramatic turns, or portrayals of iconic moments in the story. Instead it's more of a solid piece of ground work for the final three episodes, setting the various plot devices in motion that will run through the rest of the series. I chose the image at the top because Barnabas' role is at its most interesting here. He's still learning to trust Paul here, and he's struggling to know quite how to control this maverick that Jesus has dumped on them to confuse all the disciples cosy ideas about what it means to be his followers. The crucial difference between him and the other is that, despite his misgivings he is convinced Saul's conversion is genuine. As a result, he spends most of the episode trying to broker agreement going between, Paul and the various disciples. A minor role in some way, but in other ways the kind of grappling with a faith that doesn't work out the way you thought it would, to which many will be able to relate.

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    Thursday, July 19, 2018

    Sicilia! (1998)


    Sicilia! (1998) is one of only a few of Straub/Huillet's films from their Italian work to be available in the UK and their last work to gain significant critical attention before Danièle Huillet's death in 2006. Based on Elio Vittorini's "Conversazione in Sicilia" ("Conversations in Sicily" it tells the story of a man returning to his home in Sicily after a fifteen year absence.

    The film opens with a close up of the man's back, his body forming a dark silhouette which immediately contrasts him with his surroundings, the bright sunny port where he has arrived. He engages in conversation with one of the locals about food, employment, family and some of the differences between Sicily and America, where the man has been living. Even for non-Italian speakers, it quickly becomes clear that the characters are not adopting natural speech patterns. This is a common trait in Huillet/Straub films as they seek to prioritise the words of the text they are adapting over the performances of the actors. It also puts a focus on the rhythm and cadence of the spoken words.

    The second scene takes place on a train as the man travels back to his mother's house. Again we see dark silhouettes obscuring a brighter scene, but this time it is two other characters, who are apparently policeman, holding a conversation in the corridor of train, looking out through the open window. The out-of-uniform policeman are complaining about how Sicilians defy law and order to such an extent that not only are they all potentially criminals regardless of their social class, but also that their families are so embarrassed by their chosen careers, that when asked they lie and invent different professions. The use of natural sound (again another critical Straub/Huillet trait) is particularly apparent here as the familiar clackety sound of the train on the rails gives the scene a natural rhythm.

    The action now cuts to inside one of the carriages, where several passengers engage in conversation. As if to prove the policemen's point a man gets up to shut the corridor window because of "the stink". He is referring to the policemen. All the other characters in the carriage know what is meant, except one. Whereas at the start of the scene, it was not immediately obvious which, if any, of the characters in this scene was the unnamed man from the start of the film, now it has become obvious: the man who doesn't understand the comments about "the stink" is the outsider from the start of the film (and whom the film is about) and now we have seen his face. As with many scenes in Huillet/Straub's films much of the scene is shot diagonally.

    The film's relatively unemotional delivery is most striking when the man finally returns home to be reunited with his mother, who he has not seen for so long that he is concerned she won't recognise him. The two talk at length - it's the film's longest scene - and in most other adaptions it would come with emotionally wrought acting and stirring, heartfelt music. Here however the filmmakers leave the emotions to the text, and to the viewer to supply their own feelings and sense of what is unfolding.

    In the final scene the man encounters a salesman who offers to sharpen his knife and proceeds to do so using a device powered by the salesperson's bicycle. As Tag Gallagher has pointed out, the use of the lowish camera angle and the choice of lens initially gives the impression that the two men are far away. However, as the knife is handed over the gap between them is bridged and we realise they are actually far closer.

    As the film was produced many years after Roud's book "Straub" and is not one of the German works examined by Barton Byg, there had not been a great deal of in-depth critical analysis on the film (at least in English) until the two works released in 2016, but it's nevertheless interesting seeing how many of the themes and techniques from their earlier films are carried through to this one.
    =================
    Despite not being, in any real sense, a Bible film, I have included it here as part of my work on Straub/Huillet and their 1973 adaptation of Schönberg's "Moses und Aron".

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    Sunday, July 08, 2018

    The Story of Jacob and Joseph (1974)


    According to the Bible, Jacob was the man who founded the nation that later adopted his pseudonym - Israel - for itself. Yet there has never been a major film made about. There have however been a number of relatively minor films about him from the Greed entry in Louis Feuillade's Seven Deadly Sins series, to Lux Vide's 1994 Bible Collection version starring Sean Bean as Esau. In between, Marcello Baldi and Mario Landi attempted the task in the early sixties, whilst The Greatest Heroes of the Bible incorporated the story into their sweep of the Hebrew Bible in 1979.

    Arguably the most significant take on the story, therefore, is this made for TV special The Story of Jacob and Joseph (1974). As the title might suggest, it's very much a film of two haves distinguished only from films such as Samson and Gideon, by the handful of scenes that the two lead actors (Keith Michell as Jacob and Tony Lo Bianco as Joseph) share together.

    All in all it's actually a fairly decent effort. With the barren desert landscape, some nice compositions and reasonably high production values it's a competently made film bearing a few of the hallmarks of classic 70s cinema and few, if any, significant weakpoints. Moreover, despite the text's tendency to let the story get bogged down in detail, Ernest Kinoy's script manages to keeps things ticking along.

    The film's strongest point is the way it manages to draw out the parallels in the script that might otherwise be lost on modern audiences. In particular, the numerous similarities in the story between father and son - both men are dreamers ,but also seek to deceive. Due to their mothers they are given preferential treatment leading to a rift with their brothers on the one hand, but material gain and prosperity on the other, and eventually forgiveness and reconciliation win out.

    Kinoy's script cuts out various aspects of the original stories without such obvious parallels, the incidents with Dinah and Tamar, for example as well as the story where Jacob wrestles with God and the time Joseph wastes rotting in jail whilst the fickle baker forgets his plight. But these elements are also highlighted by the way director Michael Cacoyannis (Zorba the Greek) shoots corresponding scenes.

    Of particular note in this respect are the shots comprising Jacob and Joseph's dreams (the other character's dreams are not depicted), with the muting of diegetic sounds and flickering light. Both sequences also carry the suggestion that the interpretation of the scenes is somewhat subjective. Jacob in particular claims "God was here. He spoke to me." but the source of this may well just be some children playing high above him (but out of sight).

    The dream sequences are also the film's most significant moments of scepticism towards the supernatural. Dreaming aside, the stories of Jacob and Joseph are relatively free of God's direct action. There are no significant miracles or angelic appearances, only his apparent blessing on his chosen favourites. Jacob's comments are matched later when Joseph correctly interprets his cellmates' dreams. Whilst he initially acknowledges that "Interpretations come from God", but he also explains that he knew the three baskets of bread equated to three because he knew that the third day was "Pharaoh's birthday when all judgements are made". The film leaves open an array of possibilities.

    One other notable piece of pairing occurs, but this time between two women, Rebecca and Potiphar's wife. The film is largely shot using a static camera, but in two places it switches to shaky hand-held point of view footage which suggests the characters' anxiety and disorientation. Whilst Jacob and Joseph's dreams are necessarily subjective, it's interesting that the time the camera most clearly adopts a character's point of view it is in adopting a woman who loves one of the protagonists, but is ultimately left behind by them. No-one ever really asks what Rebecca's life was like once her favourite son was gone and she was left alone with her dying husband and brutish, resentful son. The film doesn't look to provide an answer to this, but these few early scenes do, briefly, direct a bit of light in that direction.

    In similar fashion, I find after watching it I'm left reflecting on the supposed greatness of Joseph's handling of the Egyptian drought. One of the film's most striking images is the long queues down one side of long but relatively narrow street. A seemingly imminent riot is only kept at bay by a meagre company of determined soldiers, their muscles straining to subdue and hold-back a starving crowd armed only with empty food baskets. Josephs rides down the road, surveying the starving mob but only seems to express any interest or concern when he spies his brothers.

    To me Pharaoh's application process for this job always seemed a little suspect, as does the way he somehow finds time to devote a considerable amount of effort, during a major national crisis, to devising overly-complex and somewhat sinister plots to test and punish his brothers. The argument has been made before that Joseph collected all the people's grain (Gen 41:46-49) and then basically used the famine to capture all their money and land and enslave both the Egyptians and those from the surrounding nations (Gen 47:13-21). Both the film and the Bible present these situation, without specifically condemning Joseph, but the chaos on the streets contrasted with Joseph's blinkered focus on his brothers rather than the starving Egyptians is a somewhat unsympathetic portrayal.

    Whilst it's hardly an outstanding entry in the canon, The Story of Jacob and Joseph is a competent effort and perhaps its biggest strength is its effort to remain rational and relatively impartial. It may not have the glitz and spectacle of films such as The Ten Commandments, but it is also relatively free of their agendas and embellishments of the text. And by using filmic techniques to highlight the parallels in the stories it feels like a film made in the service of the text, rather than to pursue their own agendas.

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    Sunday, July 01, 2018

    Why the Film Community Needs to Rethink its Stance on the Biblical Film


    I think it's time film lovers revisited the Bible film.

    I understand their a bad reputation: too often they have suffered from being low-grade propaganda, artistically or morally deficient, or just plain dull. Furthermore, it's been compounded by the way that biblical films have come to be seen as synonymous with biblical epics. It's not hard to see how, as the dominant genre of 50s has fallen from grace, many have thrown the often pompous, overblown, baby out with the subtler, more nuanced, bathwater. But whilst epics form a significant part of the picture, it's important to realise that portrayals of the Bible on film are, in fact, far more wide ranging than the biblical epic.

    Perhaps the most persuasive argument for fans and students of film to take biblical adaptations more seriously is simply to look at the list of directors who have made one. So yes, of course, there's DeMille but there are also such directors as Roberto Rossellini, Jean Luc Godard, John Huston, Alice Guy, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Jean Marie Straub/ Danielle Huillet, Luis Buñuel, The Coen Brothers, Ermanno OlmiMartin ScorsesePhilippe Garrel and Carl Dreyer. Add to that the numerous biblical films in which Orson Welles was involved, and an ultimately unrealised work on Genesis by Robert Bresson and that's quite a list.

    For a large part these directors and the team of filmmakers they represent worked outside the boundaries of the biblical epic. The subject was one for them to adopt, adapt, interpret, uphold or rally against. They are women and men of various approaches to faith, from the passionately devout, through to troubled agnostics and provocatively atheistic and they brought their artistic sensibilities with them.

    So looking at the films I have covered on this site over the years, in addition to the epics, there are also musicals (Jesus Christ Superstar, 1973), comedies (Monty Python's Life of Brian, 1979), neo-realism (Il vangelo secondo Matteo, 1964), horror (Jesus Christ, Vampire Hunter, 2001), surrealism (La Voie Lactée, 1969), materialism (Moses und Aron, 1973) and the avant garde (Lot in Sodom, 1933).

    Furthermore these films also touch on other more wide ranging 'movements' in cinema from silent film (of which I've discussed more than thirty here over the years), queer cinema (Salomé 1922) and pioneering animation (The Miracle Maker, 2000); as well as numerous films such as The Green Pastures (1936) and Golem, l'esprit de l'exil (1992) which quite simply defy classification.

    I should point out that I don't wish to dismiss the biblical epic. You can't run a site like this and not admire DeMille in full flow. I guess I'm just saying that if epics are not your aesthetic preference, then you're in good company because some of the cinema's greatest ever artists have rejected those same aesthetics. So let's celebrate their work, rather than dismiss it for being something it isn't.

    Tuesday, June 26, 2018

    More Old Thoughts on Peter and Paul (1981)


    For a while now I've been meaning to post a few thoughts I wrote down after an early viewing of the 1981 film Peter and Paul, and seeing as Paul, Apostle of Christ was released on DVD and blu-ray last week, this seemed an opportune moment. As with the last time I posted some old thoughts on this film, the thoughts below date back at least a decade so they perhaps don't reflect what I would write about the film today, but I thought it might be of interest to some, and in any case I'm trying to gather up some of the bits and pieces I have written elsewhere on the internet that have subsequently disappeared. It's actually interesting to me how much I have moved on from the kinds of things I wrote then, and how the film then taught me, or helped me understand other things, that I've come to just take for granted in the meantime. These thoughts were originally posted at a discussion forum, so please forgive the change of tone, but (spelling mistakes aside) I wanted to preserve the original as much as possible.
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    I found it interesting that the film stresses the change of name being from the Hebrew Saul to the Roman Paul. I'd never really twigged that that was what went on. It certainly makes more sense of where the name change occurs in Acts, which was something that had always puzzled me.

    I found the stoning scenes quite interesting as well. In Jesus films we never really see one (save Life of Brian of course which doesn't really help factually), only Jesus stopping one. Here we see a few, and there are a few interesting details. In one of them its actually a woman who throws the first stone which I thought was a curious twist on John 8. One thing I've always wondered is how come Paul survived so many stonings. I mean unless you run out of rocks or the stoners have a really bad aim, it's difficult to visualise. And the film did this well. (FWIW I'm sure that at one point the actor who plays Steven is an extra who throws a stone in another scene - irony). Also interesting that in some of the scenes the crowd gets stoned just for being there.

    The way the restrictions get handled is thought provoking as well. I guess going into the film I thought Paul had agreed on certain compromises which he then seems to flout later in his letters. The film takes the view that the Jewish church rejects salvation by faith alone, but agrees with Paul pretty much, but then quickly goes back on it, leading to the argument with Peter and Paul from Gal 2. I presume their version of things sees Acts as airbrushing, or rather consolidating a longer debate into one incident.

    I hadn't realised btw that Silas was being played by Gimli (John Rhys-Davies). And for British viewers the main Juadiser in the film is played by the guy who plays Howard (as in the legendary Howard and Hilda from Ever Decreasing Circles starring Richard Briers)

    The slave girl of Philippi here is "gifted" rather than demonised, and this generally fits with the way the film downplays the supernatural elements of the story. So Pentecost occurs before the film, the visions are restricted to bright lights, Paul's sight is restored but it only looks like some dried skin is soothed or something, the death of Annanias and Saphira is ignored (again, a bible film that cuts out the troubling bits), Peter's escape from jail is an earthquake rather than an angel, the supernatural intervention surrounding the shipwreck is missed out and we just see them washed on to the beach. There are some supernatural elements, but they are generally sidelined. Its particularly interesting then that the film gives us the definition of a miracle as an "event that produces faith"

    As I think I said above one of the things I liked about the film was the way it worked later themes in as if Paul is developing them, or coining them and coming back to them. I particularly liked the way it works 1 Cor 1 in there. (one day I might do a film series / or essay on the use of this passage - it also occurs in The Mission, Three Colours Blue and Four Weddings and a Funeral).

    I was also surprised that Cornellius' vision was absent. It seems to me that Acts really hinges on ch 8-10. The execution of Stephen forces many members of the church to leave Jerusalem and thus take the message further afield, then Paul is appointed to the gentiles and Peter has his vision. This film makes little of the first aspect, and nothing of the last.

    I also thought the dispute between Paul and Barnabas was handled effectively and the whole portrayal of Paul as a great man, but one who is flawed is the films real strength.

    One other thing I though was interesting was how at times the film casts both Peter and Paul as Jesus, through certain scenes / shots that are very reminiscent of Jesus. Peter gets this early on in an upper room, and Paul somewhat later on as he stands silent before Nero.
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    Hope you found this trip down memory lane interesting

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    Sunday, June 17, 2018

    St. John in Exile (1986)


    Somewhere between about ten and twenty years ago, I picked this up, on VHS. I imagined, perhaps purely from the title, that it would be a film or TV series adapting the Book of Revelation in a similar fashion to that to Raffaele Mertes' The Apocalypse (2000), the final entry in Lux Vide's The Bible Collection series. Mertes' film, made its central character St. John (played by Richard Harris), but devoted a good deal of its running time to fairly literal enactments of his prophecies.

    As much as I was curious to see what an even cheesier version of this film looked like I only got around to finally watching it this week. I've trying to fill a few gaps in a list of Bible Films and this was one of the remaining few. But after such a long period of mild anticipation, I must admit I was somewhat disappointed to discover that this was not at all cut from the same cloth as the Harris film.

    For a start, St John in Exile (1986) turns out to be a filmed performance of a live show - a one man play featuring Herbie star Dean Jones at the apostle in his final days on Patmos. Here, however, the disciple is not primarily recounting the visions he has seen - although they do feature, but recalling the full array of biblical material to which John's name has become attached.

    The largest chunk of the film, then, belongs to his retelling of the life of Jesus. There follows a few brief excerpts from the three letters of John, but, in contrast to my initial expectations, very little of Revelation. Jones' performance is fine here, even if it's difficult to imagine the real John being a folksy American farmer. The script nicely breaks up its more intense sections with humour, and the live audience clearly find bits of it hilarious. And there are certainly a few good lines, such as the description of Peter as "a walking bundle of outrageous extremes".

    What works less well however is how the persona Jones creates tallies with the actual texts. "John" is presented as the author of Revelation and the fourth gospel, but doesn't sound like either. In particular, his reflections on Jesus' life don't sound at all like the fourth Gospel. The play is smart enough to recognise the similarity of the synoptics, and even makes sort-of jokes about how unlikely it is that they will ever be bettered, but doesn't really seem to appreciate the form and content of John's Gospel. Jesus as described like Jones talks in shortish synoptic like sayings and stories, rather than the long monologues which form the majority of John. Not dissimilarly, in trying to connect the Book of Revelation to the amiable character Jones creates, it too loses a bit of its power.

    There's clearly a reasonably conservative approach behind all of this. Whilst many scholars question if the Gospel, Revelation and the three letters could really be the work of the same author the belief persist in conservative circles which prioritise the Bible's integrity and the traditions around the Bible over modern methods of literary analysis. Unfortunately, the failure of works like this to fashion a credible composite portrait from the diverse sources, do rather cut away the ground on which they are built.

    Of course the idea that an author cannot write in a variety of styles is hardly compelling, and the character that Jones and his writer Don Berrigan manage to create does feel like a credible "real person". It's just that this person feels far more like the writer of the letters than of the two more famous works. As a result, ultimately it tells us more about modern Christianity than it does about the first-century, and more about the other bits of the Bible than the one that many would have expected.

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    Wednesday, June 13, 2018

    Salomé (1910)


    Incredibly, even before 1910 there had already been seven silent film adaptations of the story of Herodias' daughter including four release in 1908 alone.1 The oldest of these seven, the German film Tanz de Salome dates all the way back to 1902, three years' before Strauss' famous opera was first performed. Given the opera's popularity, it's not entirely surprising that so many films about the subject were released, nor that Blackton, Capellani and Feuillade were among those to give it a go.

    Nevertheless, 1910 saw the release of two more films about Salome: Herodiade a French effort by Alice Guy's former assistant, Victorin Jasset; and this Italian-based film by Ugo Falena. At the time Falena was working for Film d'Arte Italiana, which as a studio was very much back in third place behind Italy's biggest two largest film producers Cines and Ambrosio.

    As should be clear from the above, the film is colourised, presumably by hand, using the stencil method. Though it won't necessarily be obvious viewing the film using the 240 pixel screen above, viewed in the right way the colour is remarkable. In particularly Salomé's red dress is striking and a fairly early example of using stencilled colour as meaning (the scarlet woman) rather than simply to make things more attractive. In particular the procession when Herod welcomes the 'proconsul' Vitellius (and the biblical films of this era loved a good procession) features various Romans wearing leopard skins where the subtlety and variation of the colour fading is remarkable. We often patronisingly think that silent film producers cared less about their products than those commanding armies of CGI artists today, but the degree of skill and care exhibited by the colouring here should put pay to that.2

    The film broadly follows Wilde/Strauss' variation on the New Testament tale. Certain details such as the Baptist being held in a cistern are drawn straight from the play, but it's interesting that in contrast to the play opera the cistern is a subterranean pit opposed to an above ground structure. I'm not sure where this variation originated, but it finds its way into the 1922 Nazimova film adaptation. Two elements of the plot are also added. The first is the visit of Vitellius (presumably the future emperor, though of where he is meant to be procnsul at the time of the story is anyone's guess). The other is a moment where a serving girl spills wine on Herod and is instantly dragged off, tied to stake and stabbed to death by a group of female revellers. Salome's dance occurs immediately after this incident such that the unfortunate woman's corpse is visible throughout Salomé's dance.

    The dance, such as it is, is preceded by Salomé (Vittoria Lepanto) removing her scarlet robe, to reveal seven veils tucked, rather conveniently, into her waistband and ends with the daughter of Herodias throwing herself on the floor at Herod's feet. John's head arrives on the platter, but the footage - at least in the versions I have seen - ends here, so it's unclear if Salomé kisses the Baptist's severed head or not. In addition to Lepanto, the film starred Ciro Galvani as John, Achille Vitti as Herod and Laura Orette as Herodias.

    Aside from the Nazimova version of the film, seven more films centered on Salome would be released before the close of the silent era, the most famous being the now lost Salome (1918) starring Theda-Bara.3



    1 - Dumont, Hervé (2009) L'antiquité au cinéma  p.374
    Available online at http://www.hervedumont.ch/L_ANTIQUITE_AU_CINEMA/#/374/

    2 -Readers wanting to find out a little more about colour in early silent films should read Fritzi Kramer's introduction at her Movies Silently site.

    3 - Dumont ibid. pp.374-375

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    Saturday, June 09, 2018

    Book me to speak!


    If you're interested in what you read here, or even if you're looking for something a bit different for your group / conference / course / church / festival then why not get me to come and speak?

    I've done numerous talks at all of those over the years, on the Bible on film as well as other subjects, but at the moment I'm keen to do more.

    So for a limited time here's my special offer: I will come and speak at ANY location if you're willing to pay for cost of me getting to you (and back!) and any accommodation and/or food that might reasonably be incurred for the trip. If you want to make a gift on top, that's up to you: I can point you towards my preferred charity, or an Amazon wishlist. But other wise free!

    In the past I've taken sessions on specific films, or about depictions of Jesus in film at various levels up to and including undergraduate; I'm published on depictions of David in film, Roberto Rossellini, the history of the Bible on Film and men in movies. In addition to the Bible and Film I've spoken on in before include numerous talks on the Bible and poverty, as well as talks for Greenbelt festival on the Bible and mental health and the problem of violence in the Bible. Most of my talks have been at churches, but I've also spoken at schools, universities and conferences such as Spring Harvest. I also featured on the Channel 4 documentary The Passion: Films, Faith & Fury.

    I'm pretty flexible in terms of subject, and I always bring a creative and interactive approach to my presentations, combining clips, strong visuals and group interaction with speech.

    Obviously this depends on your dates being available and I reserve the right to turn down any bookings, but this is a genuine offer. So long as I'm not out of pocket I won't sting you for more money down the line.

    Still interested? Drop me an email. I'd love to hear from you.

    Saturday, June 02, 2018

    Wholly Moses! (1980)

    Such was the unexpected financial success of Monty Python's Life of Brian that other filmmakers quickly decided to follow suit. With the taboo broken, and most of the objections to irreverent biblical comedies having already been faced down, producers Freddie Fields and David Begelman, the ex-president of Columbia, hastily developed plans for a comic film which would appeal to a similar audience. For Begelman it was also a shot at redemption following his sacking from Columbia for forgery. Teaming up with writer Guy Wood they devised a movie that traced the contours of Python's film, only relocating the story to the time of Moses rather than that of Jesus.

    Wholly Moses shows a staggering lack of originality in this respect. Not only is it a biblical spoof, which also happens to star a famous Oxbridge comedian, but it's a film where the hero's life comes into very close proximity with a famous biblical figure. Whereas Python's Brian is mistaken for the Jewish Messiah, so this film's lead, Herschel (Dudley Moore), tracks the life of Moses. On the day that Moses' parents set him adrift on the Nile, so too does Herschel's father place his son in an ark on the river, only for the baby Moses to nudge Hershel's basket past the princess's palace. As an adult Herschel also has to flee to the desert where he meets Jethro and marries one of his daughters, Zrelda. Shortly afterwards Herschel mistakenly hears a voice from heaven instruct him to set his people free, without realising that the voice's intended target, Moses, is getting the full works around the corner.

    Sadly the one aspect of Life of Brian which the team behind Wholly Moses fail to reproduce is the sharpness of its humour. Not only are its jokes fewer and less pointed, but they are also not very amusing. Moore always seemed somewhat bereft when separated from his comedic partner Peter Cook. His success in 10 the year before was due more to its melancholy romantic elements more than its humour. His other major success, the Jeeves and Wooster-esque Arthur, (1981) owes its success as much to John Gielgud's waspish valet as to Moore's alcoholic millionaire. Here he later reflected that he had "allowed himself to be flattered and 'wet-noodled to death'" (Paskin 203).

    That said, the lack of humour is not so much Moore's fault, as Wood's script. There are perilously few good moments in the script, as evidenced by the fact that Richard Pryor also struggles in his cameo as Pharaoh. Director Gary Weis had a strong track record with comedic material from his time at Saturday Night Live (along with the film's female co-star Laraine Newman), but in his first proper feature film he struggled to pull things together or make the most of the comedic talent at his disposal.

    As the film's problems became apparent various changes were discussed to try and get things back on track. At one point there were plans to add a narrator. Whilst that idea was never fully developed, eventually the filmmakers decided to add modern day scenes at the start and the end of the film. As with Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) the narrative starts and ends on a bus in the desert. Their Moore's language scholar Harvey Orchid, strikes up a friendship with Newman's character Zoey. During an unscheduled stop the pair wander off and stumble across some ancient scrolls telling Herschel's tale.

    Whilst Weis' direction is pedestrian, cinematographer Frank Stanley, who had worked with Moore on 10, does manage to capture some nice scenes of the blue skies over Death Valley. Occasionally the odd bit of slapstick works and fans of DeMille's second version of The Ten Commandments (1956) will appreciate the recycling of it's famous dictum "So let it be written. So let it be done."

    Despite numerous troubles on the set and a critical slating, the film performed impressively during it's opening week, though business quickly trailed off. Orthodox Jewish groups however called it "the most vicious attch on the Jewish religion in the history of the American movie industry" (Paskin 205).  Undeterred, the following year, the Jewish writer and director Mel Brooks featured Moses in a short scene in A History of the World: Part 1, where a butter-fingered Moses drops a third tablet leaving commandments eleven to fifteen smashed on the floor. It's a scene that in seventy seconds manages to conjure up more laughs than Wholly Moses does in over an hour and a half and carved out its place as comedy's most memorable depiction of Moses. Moore struck gold with Arthur, and Begelman went off to be head of MGM. Weis and Wood barely worked in the movies again.

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    Paskin, Barbra (1998) Dudley Moore: The Authorized Biography. London: Pan Books

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    Wednesday, May 30, 2018

    David and Goliath (2015)

    Back in 2013-14 I wrote a chapter for the book "The Bible in Motion" about film portrayals of David (and, by extension, Goliath). There are two problems with committing this kind of thing to paper. Firstly, you will inevitably come across an odd portrayal that you had somehow not discovered before and secondly, the moment you're done, someone releases a new version and your work looks outdated.

    So I must admit that I hardly leapt for joy back in 2015 when I heard that Tim Chey was producing a film called David and Goliath and I must admit that given the David film fatigue I was experiencing, when the trailer came out and looked pretty bad then I decided not to exert the effort needed to try and track it down.

    But then of course Netflix picked it up, their not always entirely effective algorithm suggested it might be my kind of thing and I added it to my list. And there it stayed, at least until last week when I realised it was about to disappear and that I needed to see it before it would cost me good money to do so.

    I have to say my initial hunch was right. David and Goliath is probably the worst Bible film I've ever seen, and, as anyone who knows anything about this subject will be aware, it's a very competitive category. It starts with a script that feels like it was never submitted to serious scrutiny. It's a little unfair to pick on an historical screenplay for anachronistic dialogue, but then I can't remember another film where soldiers talk about their percentage chance of winning, or dismiss those to be executed by saying "Have a nice day". True some films have entirely tried to use modern style dialogue (and probably been praised here for doing it), but here the more modern sounding dialogue clashes with the parts which use epic-movie-speak.

    Elsewhere Goliath's pre-fight challenge to David sounds like a cliche from ringside at the WWF:
    "Your God can't save you little rat...I'll eat your head. Nobody can defeat ME…You coward, you little maggot, you little weasel. I am God, you are nothing. I hate your guts. You moron. I'll show you. I'll destroy you..."
    Is it being contemporary? Is it comedy? Perhaps it's making the point that Goliath was unlikely to have been very articulate, but the film is full of this kind of clunky dialogue. "Let me get this through your THICK, STUBBORN SKULL!" David's brother yells at him at one point, "that man was created to kill people!"

    The problems with the dialogue are exacerbated by acting that is almost universally poor, with the cast seemingly resorting to shouting in almost every scenario from attempting intimidation, to being mildly annoyed. There's also repeated use of time lapse scenery footage, but bizarrely the bright lush scenery used in these sequences neither matches the geography of the action sequences, nor their style.

    To be fair this is a low budget effort, and. given that, some of costuming works quite well, the red cloth and leather tunics worn by the Israelites give a tip of the cap to Rome, whilst still being distinct.

    Usually I like to write positive reviews; flaming films rarely does much to improve the world, and other people do that far better. So I focus on what a film does well, what I learnt from it and so on. I try and understand what the filmmakers were trying to do and write about that. Here, however, it's almost impossible to do that. It does do much well and it's difficult to discern what the filmmakers were trying to do. It doesn't even provide a new angle on the story, or have a strong message - indeed, perhaps most damningly of all for an evangelical, faith-based project, it doesn't even make decent propaganda.

    Having said all that, on going to IMDb to add some quotes from the film, I found that far more people had been there before me and done the same. So some people are clearly not only watching it, but also connect with the movie enough to post the quotes. I don't know whether this is a sign that I'm overlooking the extent to which some people will cherish even films that I think are very poor, or an indication that it's beginning to gain a cult following of the so-bad-it's-good variety. I can certainly see the appeal of the latter option. Now that David and Goliath has disappeared from Netflix I find myself wanting to watch bits again one more time or show them to others. After all, where else can you get to see a giant call his diminutive foe both a rat and a maggot and still fel the need to add "weasel" to the list as well?

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    Saturday, May 26, 2018

    Salomé (1922)


    Alla Nazimova was one of the leading figures of 1920s cinema, not just in her native Russia, but throughout the film-viewing world. Not only was she an actor of some repute but she also wrote, edited, produced and directed. Indeed, whilst her husband Charles Bryant was given the directing credit for Salomé, many consider that Nazimova is, at the very least, worthy of consideration as a co-director. Certainly she, in combination with her friend Natacha Rambova oversaw the film's art-direction and had a hand in the design of the costumes and sets,. The costumes and sets were based on the original drawings Aubrey Beardsley created to accompany Oscar Wilde's play.

    Whilst the film lacks Strauss' music and omits most of Wilde's text, it is very much an adaptation of Wilde's 1891 play, itself drawing on numerous writers and artists stretching back from Flaubert and Moreau all the way to the New Testament. David Thomson records that Nazimova herself called it "a pantomime of the play", and there's a certain appeal to that description (624). Wilde's plot and sense of decadence are clearly at the forefront, much of the film's dialogue belongs to him, and the film retains the occasional Wilde innovation, such as calling John the Baptist 'Jokanaan'.

    Another aspect of Wilde's work that remains is the production's atypical sexuality. Numerous sources testify to Nazimova's lesbianism or bisexual (e.g. Lambert 162), and the result of her bold choices with respect to costume and set design was to create one of the earliest pioneering works of queer cinema. With its androgynous characters, stylised costumes and phallic props, Salomé is perhaps the most camp of all biblical films - a category with no shortage of competition - and it's influence can be seen in an array of subsequent films based on the New and Old Testaments, from 1933's Lot in Sodom, through to more macho efforts such as The Passion of the Christ (2004).

    The visual impact of Navimova's work is breathtaking, with avant garde, art deco, sets and strangely alien-esque costumes. Herod looks like a cross between Bacchus and a circus clown, Herodias like one of Macbeth's witches and Nazimova herself looking like she had just stepped off the set of Metropolis, itself still half a decade from completion.

    But its emotional impact is no less powerful. Whilst there seems very little interest in Ulderico Marcelli's original musical arrangement, contemporary versions of the score are well and truly in abundance. Recent soundtracks such as those by Mike Frank or P. Emerson Williams or The Bad Plus have revitalised the movie bringing it new-found popularity in the modern age.Indeed it's one of the finest examples of Silent film music coming full circle: just as in the early days a movie might be accompanied by anything from a single pianist to a full-scale orchestra, depending on the size of the venue and the grandeur of the production, today live showings feature an inspiring array of accompaniments from canned music on a DVD, through small collectives, right up to 70-piece orchestras.

    In a version of Salomé that I saw recently, Hayley Fohr's drone inspired score combined violin and double bass with drums and manipulated vocals to give an ethereal power to Bryant, Nazimova and Rambova's images. Paul Joyce described it as "a mix of avant rock, post-rock, electronica and trace elements of folk/country" which captures it nicely. The music gave heightened the emotional impact of the film, but it's clear from the fact that this is such a popular film to screen that this is not a two-way street. Even watching the film in silence the power of its imagery is clear.

    Fohr chose to omit the film's intertitles, a decision which proved controversial with some. Watching the film again, this time with the intertitles included, I'm not convinced they move the plot on a great deal, although their design and their use of Wilde's dialogue give them a certain aesthetic pleasure. It would have been better had the missing intertitles simply been cut, rather than replaced with several seconds of black screen. Nevertheless, I'm reminded of the famous dictum of another key director of the silent era, Alfred Hitchcock: "Show, don't tell". If nothing else, Fohr's the wordless approach does underline the film's ability to convey its story and its meaning based purely on its imagery.

    What lies at the heart of all this emotion are the film's themes of desire, rejection and unrequited love. Herod desire's his step daughter oblivious to the pain he is causing Herodias. But Salomé has no eyes for him, only for John, who in turn is too pure for the sultry dancer. Instead Jokanaan gazes only towards the heavens. Meanwhile two of Herod and Herodias' servants (Herodias's unnamed page and Narraboth the Syrian guard) are similarly entangled. The former has eyes only for the moon - which looms large in numerous shots - the latter keeps an overly attached eye on the princess. Salomé is oblivious to both. In a desperate attempt to keep Salomé away from the Baptist, Narraboth takes his own life, but when his body falls at Salomé's feet she barely even notices, stepping over his body to continue her attempt to win a kiss from the prophet (see above). When the princess finally gets her kiss, once Jokanaan's head has been removed from his body, it so enrages Herod that he has her immediately executed.

    Sadly the film's pioneering expression of sexuality proved similarly fatal to its performance at the box office. In addition to its unconventional style, rumours that the film had "employed only homosexual actors" (Anger 163) and tales of on-set debauchery, hurt the film at a time when the industry was still suffering from the fallout from the Fatty Arbuckle scandal. Yet somehow it was this film, rather than some of Nazimova's more commercially successful films that has survived. No doubt this is partly because it became cherished by a community that was still very much living underground in the early 1920s, but perhaps it was also because, in a field where still few, if any, women are known primarily by their surname in the way that many men are, this film, more than any other expressed a purity of artistic vision and single-minded determination to make the film the way she imagined it.

    In addition to Joyce's review, readers may also like to read those by Martin Turnbull and God is in the TV.

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    - Anger, Kenneth (1981 [1975]) Hollywood Babylon New York: Dell Publishing
    - Joyce, Paul (2018) "Under the Moon… Salomé (1923) with Haley Fohr Ensemble, Barbican" at ithankyou. Available online at:
    http://ithankyouarthur.blogspot.co.uk/2018/05/under-moon-salome-1923-with-haley-fohr.html
    - Lambert, Gavin (1997) Nazimova: A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
    - Lindsay, Richard A. (2015) Hollywood Biblical Epics: Camp Spectacle and Queer Style from the Silent Era to the Modern Day, Santa Barbara, California/Denver, Colorado: Praeger.
    - Theophano, Teresa (2002) "Film Actors: Lesbian" at glbtq.com. Available online at
    http://www.glbtqarchive.com/arts/film_actors_lesbian_A.pdf
    - Thomson, David (2002) The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, LONDON (Little Brown), Fourth Edition.

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    Thursday, May 24, 2018

    Judas (2004)


    This review was originally posted on 7th April 2005, and I've been meaning to post it here ever since they deleted all my reviews a few years back. As someone emailed me this week asking about it I thought perhaps now was a good time to do so. I've not revised the text of what I wrote so please don't judge me on it too harshly. And if you enjoy reading it please consider a donation to web.archive.org as without them, you wouldn't be reading it. For another, similarly old, take on this film try Jugu Abraham's review

    It’s funny how you don’t get any Jesus films for a while and then three come along all at once. *Last year's The Passion of the Christ (my review) was preceded by the Visual Bible’s word for word rendition of The Gospel of John. Once The Passion proved to be the surprise hit of the year, US TV network ABC was quick to dust off it’s film Judas, (which had sat unloved on their shelves for a couple of years), and screen it shortly afterwards. It’s quite a surprise, then, to find it released for rent, in the UK – few American TV shows have made it so far.

    Thematically, Judas is similar to Jesus Christ, Superstar, even if its considerably more orthodox in its theology. As the title would suggest, it’s mainly focused on Judas, and how he ended up becoming one of history’s most reviled villains. Interestingly, whereas most Jesus films, except perhaps The Passion, try to whitewash Judas, this film presents a more complex character. It’s true that he ends up becoming a political pawn in a first century Roman-Jewish power struggle, but the character’s manipulative tendencies, uncompromising stance and social awkwardness are clearly shown as factors in his downfall. Yet unlike most other Jesus films, there is a glimmer of hope that Judas finds last minute salvation.

    In comparison to Judas, the flaws of which largely aid the intended portrayal, the depiction of Jesus falls well short. It is unfortunate that Jonathan Scarfe, who plays Jesus, has a similar face and expression to Matthew Lillard’s irritating reality TV D-lister in high school drama She’s All That, but even so, a casting director chose that face nevertheless. What is Scarfe’s fault is that he plays Jesus as a whiny spoilt child who is still to grow up. The turning of the tables in the temple, unusually included at the start (preferring John’s chronology to the Synoptics), is portrayed as a temper tantrum. The "get behind me Satan" incident is shown similarly. Whilst there are few other so direct examples, the "it’s not fair" look and the "if you don’t do what I say I’m going to tell my dad" glare are never far away. Whilst not as bad as Glen Carter’s disastrous, pouting, Jesus in the 1999 filmed for video version of Jesus Christ, Superstar, it runs a close second. If Jesus really was like that, Judas must have had the patience of a saint to put up with him as long as he did. I would have shopped him long before, and spent my 30 pieces of silver on a grandstand seat.

    It is a shame that that Jesus’s role is portrayed so woefully. Judas’ emphasis on Jesus as a miracle worker would otherwise have been a welcome relief to the scores of versions which have focused only on the ‘great teacher’ while marginalising the signs and wonders which the gospels suggest were the key to Jesus’s popularity.

    Like its protagonist, Judas is certainly not all bad. The sets and costumes are fairly impressive, even if you get the impression that this was the only pocket of the Roman Empire where dentistry was flourishing. And the modernising of the dialogue is a worthy effort, even if it fails a few times.

    However, such a weak portrayal of Jesus will undermine any story he features in. Jesus is such a crucial figure in human history that we are only aware of characters such as Judas because of how they impacted his life. So whichever executive consigned this to an early ABC grave prior to its unexpected resurrection as a shameless cash-in was probably right. Leave this at Blockbuster and go watch, the Jesus mini-series, The Gospel of John or Jesus Christ Superstar live on stage instead.


    *Like I said above, this was originally written in 2005, so I left the chronology in to reflect the era it was from.

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