• 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.

    Monday, September 25, 2017

    "The Lions' Den" in Film

    The earliest known occurrence of the story of Daniel in the Lions' Den being adapted for film goes back to Pathé's Daniel dans la fosse aux lions (dir: Lucien Nonguet, 1905). Released within a decade of the invention of cinema it is one of the earliest examples of the spectacular in biblical films, which had been hitherto dominated by passion plays. Not only did the film make use of, the by then increasingly common, double exposure to portray angelic appearances, it also featured people trapped in enclosed spaces with real-life lions.

    The success of this film resulted in a flurry of films about Daniel in the early silent era though only Gaumont's Daniel dans la fosse aux lions (dir: Louis Feuillade, 1908) and Vitagraph's 1913 film Daniel (dir: Frederick A. Thomson / Madison C. Peters) seem to have covered this particular story.

    Surprisingly, from this point on filmmakers appear to have lost interest in the lions' den narrative. It was not until forty years after the Vitagraph film that the story would be brought again to the screen in Columbia's Slaves of Babylon (dir: William Castle, 1953). Even then the film is clearly cheaply made (particularly for a major studio) and Daniel is supplanted as the main character by the fictional Nahum. The brief lions' den scene occurs about halfway through the film and is set during the reign of Nebuchnezzar rather than Cyrus. This is because the film has made Cyrus one of its heroes who is mentored by Nahum and thus rises from a shepherd boy to king. The scene itself sees Daniel, who is wearing a large Star of David pendant, being abused by an angry crowd who jeer and throw stones at him en route to the den.

    Despite the fact that the story has not been adapted a great deal as a standalone film, it has proved to be of more interest for those making a series of films, particularly for television. Daniel featured twice in The Greatest Heroes of the Bible series in 1978-79, including a whole episode being devoted to the story in Daniel in the Lions' Den (dir: James L Conway, 1978). As is typical of the series, it's a tame affair, with an invented sub-plot that makes Daniel appear incompetent, and a very poor special effect used to portray the divine presence that keeps the eponymous hero safe.

    Another extended series to include the episode was the Welsh/Rusian collaboration Testament. The Bible in Animation. The Daniel instalment, directed by Lioudmila Koshkina in 1996, utilises a a story within a story plot structure, told centuries after the events have taken place. It uses an unusual animation style of oil paint on glass form of animation, which gives a rather gruesome appearance to some of the less child friendly moments in the story. The non-realistic animation makes these shots more permissible, yet paradoxically more disturbing at the same time and are particularly effective as the pack of hungry lions tears towards Daniel as the den is sealed.

    Whilst the story of lions' den has not proved popular in the wider culture, recent years have seen far greater interest in animated productions of the story often aimed primarily at a Christian audience. These include Animated Stories from the Bible: Daniel (dir: Richard Rich, 1993), The Beginners Bible: The Story of Daniel in Lions' Den (dir: Gary Selvaggio, 1996), Greatest Heroes and Legends of the Bible: Daniel and the Lions' Den (dir: William R. Kowalchuk, 1998), Veggie Tales: Where is God when I'm S-S-Scared? (dirs:  Phil Vischer/Mike Nawrocki, 2003) and Bugtime Adventures: It's the Pits (Jeff Holder, 2006). All five of these productions originate in America suggesting that the story of Daniel in the lions' den is in an unusual situation. One the one hand it appears to be of little interest to wider audiences, but on the other it seems to be of particular interest to the Christian community.

    Whilst the above titles could be merely suggesting popularity with children, there have also been two recent live action versions of the story the Liken Bible Series' Daniel and the Lions (dir: Dennis Agle Jr., 2006), a product of the Church of the Latter Day Saints; and The Book of Daniel (Anna Zielinski, 2013) by the American evangelical studio PureFlix. The latter film spends the longest amount of time developing the relationship between Daniel and Dairius. It's also the only films to show lionesses joining their male counterparts. Daniel cites the words from Lamentations 3:55-58 as well as various fragments from the Psalms.

    The recent popularity of the story with American evangelicals suggests that this is a story they feel is particularly important them. Given the rhetoric in recent decades about traditional Christian values being under attack it's not hard to see how the Daniel story resonates with this. Daniel (and his friends) represent a beleaguered minority who are under attack from a hostile wider culture, but who, by holding true to their values, ultimately prevail. There's a double persecution metaphor here. Not only do they find the cultures of the Babylonians / Medes / Persians hostile but there is also the more raw and immediate threat of the lions.

    Of course it is precisely for this reason that the phrase "the lions' den" has entered into the wider lexicon as a metaphor for entering a hostile situation. This metaphorical use accounts for the title of Argentinian director Pablo Trapero's Leonera (Lion's Den, 2008) which tells the story of a pregnant woman's incarceration in a state prison (pictured above). Whilst the references to the biblical text are largely limited to the film's title, the sense of fear, hostility, danger, oppression but ultimately survival resonate with the danielic theme.

    The lions' den incident also comprised a significant part of the fifth episode of The Bible (2013) which manages to cover a significant proportion of the Book of Daniel. The lions' den scene portrays a genuinely terrified Daniel who is, rather oddly, clad only in a loincloth. Whilst the series was both produced by American evangelicals and with an eye very much on that demographic, it also sought to appeal to a wider audience, perhaps an indication that the story is finally finding a hearing in the wider culture, and redressing an under representation that has been in effect since the end of the early silent era.


    Saturday, September 23, 2017

    Lot in Sodom (1933)

    As I mentioned on Sunday, last week in Leicester was the British Silent Film Festival which this year had a specific focus on the transition from silents to sound. One of the films screened, as part of the Edgar Allan Poe evening, was The Fall of the House of Usher (1928) directed by James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber. As it is, for some time I've been meaning to write up Watson and Webber's later work Lot in Sodom (1933), so it was useful to see their other film for comparison.

    Relatively little material remains about the life and work of James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber, indeed Webber hasn't even been granted a Wikipedia page. Both men's film careers were short. Aside from these two films together, they also made Tomatoes Another Day (1930) and collaborated on three minor industrial films, but apart they each only made one other film of note, Webber's Rhythm in Light (1935) and Watson's Highlights and Shadows (1938).

    This is enough, however, to count as a significant contribution to the avant garde / early experimental movement of the late twenties and early thirties. Indeed, the film "ran for more than two months in New York, and continued to play in theatres throughout the 1930s and 1940s, becoming in the process probably the most commercially successful avant-garde film of the era" (Horak, 2008: 41). On top of this it's clear to see - with the benefit of hindsight of course - that, for Lot at least they were pioneers in queer cinema in an age when homosexuality was still illegal. Lot's influence on later queer cinema such as Derek Jarman's The Garden (1990), is plain to see.

    As with Usher it's difficult to follow what's going in without prior knowledge of the story, not least because five years after the introduction of talking pictures, Lot in Sodom is still essentially a silent film, available then with atonal music by Louis Siegel and available today with the additional option of an excellent modern soundtrack by Hands of Ruin.

    Both films show a marked similarity of style such as expressionistic sets, superimposed shots, strange camera angles, floating text, kaleidoscopic images and various other experimental techniques. Cuts are often abrubt, and often the connection between the two shots is not immediately obvious. In places the editing is reminiscent of Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera (1929), much of the sets feel like Murnau's Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920). One popular technique is superimposing the same symbolic image onto a shot several times, such as the hammer with which Roderick seals his sister's tomb in Usher arrays of naked torsos here.

    Watson and Webber's film is a loving tribute to two things- an admiration for the human, and predominantly male, form; and a treatise on the formal potential of cinema. The first is hardly revolutionary. the human body has held a fascination for artists since almost as long as art itself. Watson and Webber seemingly took the approach best embodied by Cecil B. DeMille, that of basing a film on a moralistic/biblical story in order to reduce objections to the amount of flesh on display. However, whilst Lot in Sodom ultimately ends with the fiery destruction of it's inhabitants, clearly the filmmakers are rooting for the losing team.

    That impression is underpinned by numerous factors. It's telling, for example that the film is almost halfway through before the angel of the Lord arrives to set the plot in motion. Then there is the contrast between Lot and the Sodomoites, both in terms of looks and of how they are shot. The sodomites are all youthful, dynamic and attractive. In contrast Lot looks like a cross between an Assyrian Bas Relief and an anti-Semitic stereotype. He is comparatively old and unattractive, heavily clothed in contrast to his townspeople and the camera spends far less time lingering on him than it does on his neighbours.

    Furthermore, as Alina Dunbar points out "in contrast to the Angels and the Sodomites, who are nearly always featured in either medium or full-shots, Lot is frequently cast on either the right or the left side of the frame, in such as way as to suggest that he does not have the power to fill the screen by himself." (Dunbar, 2014).

    On top of this, there is also the way that Lot himself seems somewhat conflicted. At one point the film cuts from a shot of Lot in the dark to an intertitle that reads “How long shall I take counsel in my soul, having sorrow in my heart?”, yet, as Grossman observes Lot "never moves his mouth, in defiance of silent film conventions...the film “speaks” through an intertitle while the character remains totally silent, splitting in a surprising way the cinematic soul" (Grossman, 2014).

    As events come to a head, Lot raises his hands to God in desperation, only for the terrifying answer "withhold not even thy daughter"to come back not as an intertitle, but superimposed over the image. An array of Latin phrases follow in similar fashion, as if floating on the screen their meaning unclear: Non Tacta (untouched), Mulier (woman), Templum Est (the temple).

    Given the most famous element of the story from Genesis, it is no surprise to find that this sense of internal conflict also extends to Lot's wife. Eventually the angel (singular) steps in save the day, rays of light shine from his chest and Lot and his wife and daughter escape, but of course Lot's wife turns to look back and is turned into a pillar of salt. Harries makes the case at length that her retrospection here is the result of her "evident curiosity about, and perhaps even sympathy for, this city; it portrays her backward look as punishment for this sympathy" (Harries, 2007: 45). As she undergoes her metamorphosis images including tormented people and the city's temple are superimposed over her as if to emphasise the point that it is her sympathy for the city that is causing her to change, or perhaps causing her to be punished. As an image it's provocative, challenging and one that only unveils the fullness of its meaning on multiple viewings, so typical of the film itself.

    Dunbar, Alina (2014) "Lot in Sodom: Reading Film Against the Grain", CurnBlog May 16, 2014 - http://curnblog.com/2014/05/16/lot-sodom-reading-film-grain/

    Grossman, Andrew (2014) "Tomatoes Another Day: The Improbable Ideological Subversion of James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber", Bright Lights Film Journal November 28, 2014 - http://brightlightsfilm.com/tomatoes-another-day-improbable-ideological-subversion-james-sibley-watson-melville-webber/

    Harries, Martin (2007) Forgetting Lot's Wife: On Destructive Spectatorship. New York: Fordham University Press.  - The relevant section (p.45-54), including numerous stills, is available via Google Books

    Horak, Jan-Christopher (2008) "A neglected genre: James Sibley Watson’s avant-garde industrial films" in Film History, Volume 20, pp. 35–48, John Libbey Publishing

    See also:
    Fischer, Lucy (1987) "The Films of James Sibley Watson, Jr., and Melville Webber: A Reconsideration" in Millennium Film Journal, Fall/Winter 1987/1988, Issue 19, p.40 - this is available here, but I've not been able to gain access.

    Moore, Marianne (1933) "Lot in Sodom" in Close Up, September 10, 1933, p.318 - archived here. Moore worked with Watson and later wrote about the making of the film.

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    Sunday, September 17, 2017

    Daniel dans la fosse aux lions (1905)

    It's been the British Silent Film Festival this week, hosted in my local city of Leicester, so whilst none of the films are (strictly) biblical, it nevertheless seems like an apt occasion to look at some more Silent Bible Films.

    Daniel dans la fosse aux lions is part of Les martyrs chrétiens (dir: Lucien Nonguet, 1905), but it's one of those occasions where it's difficult to know whether one film is being discussed, or three. It seems to have been a tactic favoured for a few years around 1910 (see also the discussion on Gaumont's 1910 Esther and Milano's 1910 San Paolo one).

    The first film in the sequence consists of a lion tamer performing some stunts in the Roman arena, before a cut and we are treated to a procession round the arena featuring two Christians. They bow before the emperor before being strung up on crosses, which largely obscure their bodies from view. In a gruesome finale the lions then tear meat from the crosses moments after a cut has, presumably, switched the bodies.

    This then is the context into which Daniel dans la fosse aux lions is presented - the earliest known adaptation of the story of Daniel in the lions' den being adapted for film. It consists of what appears to be only one shot, although it is at least two, and possibly several more (of course all "shots" in cinema are actually just a series of individual still images displayed consecutively).

    At the start of the film Daniel is lead out and tied to a post, whilst Darius looks down from the very top of the shot, gesturing in Daniel's general direction. Then the gate opens and a lion and lioness enter, the lioness even coming close enough to sniff him. Given the scene that has just been witnessed this would, presumably have been a tense moment for many in the audience. In the opening film the switch is fairly obvious, but here 'Daniel' is clearly real living flesh and blood. Sadly, the tension is then rather wasted by an angel materialising in front of us via via a not particularly impressive double exposure. As the angel disappears, Daniel's chains fall off much to the relief of the still watching Darius. Pausing to give the lions a little stroke he leaves the den via the gates from which he entered. It remains the most daring Daniel in the Lions' Den sequence on film.

    Double exposure was a popular photography trick even before the invention of the movies, so it's no surprise that it was such a popular technique so early in the development of cinema. Conversely, the sight of a man seemingly at the mercy of lions would be a cheaper way for audiences to experience the thrills of lion tamer-type circus skills. Combining both together in this way, probably represents the earliest example of 'the spectacular' in biblical films, which has remained popular in biblical epics through to today.

    The final film in the sequence is Le festin de Balthazar (Belshazzar's Feast) which I wrote about back in 2014.

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    Thursday, September 14, 2017

    Silent Bible Film Mystery - #03
    The First St. Paul Film

    "For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing." - Paul's letter to the Romans 7:19
    I don't really know what Paul meant when he said this; but it at least sounds like something a procrastinator might say. The kind of person who is meant to be working on their book, but instead decides they really need to tell everyone about a new film about Paul, but then before they even start that, finds themselves up in the not-so-small hours leafing through books trying to find out if two, old, silent films are actually just the same film with different titles, or two separate ones...

    So it turns out that the first film about Paul didn't come out until 1910 or thereabouts when two different Western European silent film titles were circulating, both of which were about St. Paul. But there - and granted it is quite a long way down the road - the similarities started to end.

    The one I've known about for a long time was Milano films' 1910 San Paolo (Dramma Biblico), released in the UK as The Life of St. Paul. It was directed by Giuseppe De Liguoro, and according to the BFI archive Rodolfo Kanzler from Adolfo Padovan;sscript. As De Liguoro also took the leading role, it seems churlish not to mention the only other person credited, set designer Sandro Properzi. It ran to 453ft and there's a little bit more about it on p.114 of Giorgio Bertellini's "Italian Silent Cinema".

    The BFI archive holds six prints of the work (although only two are viewable) and a couple of articles from Christmastime issues of The Bioscope, "Some Christmas releases" from page 9 of issue no. 216 (1st Dec 1910) and an untitled article from no. 219 (22nd Dec 1910). The BFI's description is as follows:
    DRAMA. Biblical. Scenes from the life of St Paul the Apostle. The archive holds several versions: Paul, a merchant in Tarsus, hears of a Christian gathering in a pine forest. With a group of followers he attacks the Christians: Jacob the Younger is dragged away to be stoned. On the road to Damascus, Paul is struck blind and hears the word of the Lord asking why he persecutes Him. He is converted to Christianity and his sight restored. Years later Paul enters the Christian catacombs on the Via Appia. He converts Nero's slave girl and a Roman soldier. Paul and the Christians watch Rome burning. They emerge from the catacombs to be arrested by Roman soldiers (453ft). St. Paul is led by Roman soldiers to an execution site. He is made to kneel. [The execution is not shown]. Pilgrims bring flowers and palm leaves to the site (48ft). Note: The Archive also has DER HEILIGE PAULUS (75ft Joye 1925) dated 1910 and consisting entirely of German intertitles.
    As I'm unlikely to stumble across either a print or the Bioscope articles anytime soon. I decided to see if any of the digitised, silent-era, film journals had a picture of it and whilst my search wasn't exhaustive, it did prove fruitless. Except, that is, from the fact that it seemed to uncover an entirely different 1910 Silent Bible film about St. Paul...

    St. Paul and the Centurion (written"Centurian" more than once in Moving Picture World) was produced by Charles Urban's French company Urban-Eclipse, and distributed in the US by George Kleine. This one doesn't appear at all on the BFI site, but it does appear on the AFI site and on IMDb. There doesn't seem to be any record of a French title, however. By this point Kleine was also starting to distribute Italian films as well as French but the AFI lists this as French, as does Jon Solomon ("Ancient World in the Cinema", p.7, though it lists it as 1911). An advert in Moving Picture World featuring the above image declines to mention the film's country of origin.

    An illuminating excerpt from Anthony R. Guneratne's "Shakespeare, Film Studies, and the Visual Cultures of Modernity" (p.141) and an entry from "The Oxford History of World Cinema" detail a little of Kleins involvement in the Italian industry seems to clarify that whilst Kleine distributed Cines and Ambrosio product, he was not involved with Milano, so all things here point towards this being two separate films. It's noticeable also that at 955ft this film is over twice as long as the Italian one above.

    In addition to the above picture there's also a good summary from a July 1910 edition of Moving Picture World.
    Metella, daughter of the Centurion Vicinius, loves one of her lather's slaves, Caius by name. This youth is a Christian and in the habit of frequently visiting the meetings held by them in the hills outside the city walls. Paul has gathered about him a small body of the faithful and preaches to them often in this secluded part of the forest. Metella, encouraged by her natural curiosity as to her sweetheart's secret excursions, one day follows him and learns her first lessons in Christianity. She leaves her hiding place and hastens to her father's palace where she finds Vicinius, her stern parent, in great rage because Caius is absent from his task. Vicinius now orders the slaves to take Caius to a nearby woods and there flog him. After the cruel chastisement Caius is left lying alone in the forest where soon after Metella finds him. She assists her sweetheart to the camp of his friends where she is so impressed by their lives that she accepts the belief and is baptized. When Caius has sufficiently recovered from his punishment he returns to his master and dutifully takes up his work in the household. Soon Vicinius, the Centurion, receives orders from Nero to arrest all the Christians who have been meeting in the hills outside the city. The soldiers are now called together and move upon the Apostle and his little band of followers. Although warned in due season, Paul refuses to flee, but engages in prayer while awaiting the arrival of Vicinius and his soldiers. Caius and Metella join their Christian friends, fully expecting to be imprisoned with them. When the attack is made upon the unarmed worshipers they are astounded to see the soldiers stop with their weapons suspended while they listen to the divine words. Gradually the swords and spears are lowered and the entire company with their leader drop to their knees.
    Whilst it's not impossible that these two synopses are just very different takes on the same film, again it seems likely that they are separate.

    Finally I decided to turn to Herbert Verreth and Hervé Dumont which is probably where I should have started. Whilst neither Campbell and Pitts, nor David Shepherd mention either film, Verreth and Dumont both mention both of them. Indeed Dumont expands the above by suggesting the Italian Sao Paolo comprised of two sub-films, 1. Paolo persecutoredei cristiani and 2. Paolo Apostolo (released in France as La légende de Saint Paul). It's possible that the 75ft, German version of the film in the BFI archive is equivalent to a complete copy of one of these two "sub-films". In any case, Dumont also includes this summary:
    Du persécuteur de chrétiens à Tarse (la lapida-tion d’Étienne) au martyre sous Néron après l’incendie deRome. Tourné dans la banlieue de Milan sur un scénario de l’écrivain Adolfo Padovan. 
    The persecutor of Christians from Tarsus (the stoning of Stephen) to the martyrdom under Nero after the fire of Rome. Shot in the suburbs of Milan from a scenario by writer Adolfo Padovan (translation mine).
    So in the end it turns out that after 15 years of silence, the first two films about St. Paul (one of which came in two parts) were released, in America at least, just 5 months apart. Over the next few years films starring Paul would be released at the rate of at least one a year. Yet over a hundred years later we're still awaiting his big-screen, talking film debut.

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    Saturday, September 09, 2017

    The Bible (2013) - Part 5

    Episode 5 of The Bible (Survival) picks up one of the parts of the book that most adaptations tend to miss, so packed into this episode is both a bit on Jeremiah and a good deal of the Book of Daniel. This is definitely one of the episodes in this series that keeps on track to covering the biblical material without getting waylaid in invented subplots.

    Jeremiah's story is reduced more or less to him turning up in King Mattaniah's court wearing an ox-yoke and telling his monarch to surrender to Nebuchanezzar.  Nebuchanezzar here is played by Peter Guinness, who I've always enjoyed seeing pop up ever since Spender (1991-93). Mattaniah takes no notice of course so it's hardly surprising when just a few moments later we're treated to Nebuchanezzar putting out the king's eyes. By hand. Because, everything in this series, particularly the violence, has to be completely over the top

    Jeremiah is played by Raad Rawi and appears old and shaggy looking, (in keeping with Jeremiah's likely age at this point). Certainly he's nowhere near as hot as Patrick Dempsey, from the 1998 film version, though that film focused far more on the start of Jeremiah's ministry. The contrast is all the greater, then, with the actor playing Daniel. I must admit that when I've read Daniel in the past, it never occurred to me that he might have a six-pack. I suppose I should probably blame the lack of a major-studio produced 50s biblical epic adaptation for that.

    The Daniel section of the film not only includes the Lion's Den scene but also has time to show Daniel's rise to prominence via dream interpretation; Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego surviving the Nebuchanezzar's furnace (thanks to a suspiciously Jesusy-looking angel); and Nebuchadnezzar descent into madness. Guinness isn't quite munching-grass in these scenes, but that's probably because he's already had his fill of the scenery.

    It's not really made clear why on top of being fed to the lions Daniel also has to undergo this trial in just a loincloth, aside from the opportunity to show off the prophet's abs. In any case what the film does do well is to show show a genuinely fearful Daniel, even if we know it will all be okay in the end. I suppose Daniel's near nakedness heightens the sense of his vulnerability. And then the Israelites get to go back to Jerusalem and there's still 7 minutes left to talk about the Romans ahead of the next episode. All in all this is one of the better entries in the series, not only covering a lot of material without getting sidetracked, but by providing one or two genuinely insightful moments.

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    Wednesday, September 06, 2017

    The T&T Clark Companion to the Bible and Film

    The T&T Clark Companion to the Bible and Film
    Edited by Richard J. Walsh

    Bloomsbury T&T Clark(2018)
    Bloomsbury Companions Series
    528 pages - Hardback
    ISBN 978-0567666208
    Publication Date: 19/4/2018

    I'm pleased to announce the forthcoming release of the "T&T Clark Companion to the Bible and Film", which includes a chapter that I have written. Here's a brief excerpt from the official summary:
    The Companion has three parts. First, 'context', focusing on the 'Bible in' specific film genres and cultural situations. Second, 'theory', with a focus on film theory or methodologies and how these can overlap with biblical and theoretical methodologies. Third, 'recent and significant texts', with a focus on which texts and themes have been most important in 'biblical film' and which are currently at the fore. The volume is unique in paying close attention to film genres, and film theory. Each section of the book begins with an extended introductory essay to provide a full overview of the themes discussed and introduced. Another key feature is the inclusion of non-Hollywood films, and films that do not at first glance appear to be 'biblical'.
    My own chapter comes at the start of the book's third section, "Texts" and is called "Can We Try that Again? The Fate of the Biblical Canon on Film".

    There are more details including a full list of titles and authors available from the T&T website, but the names of some of the other authors will be very familiar to those who like to read on this topic. In addition to Richard Walsh, Adele Reinhartz, Jon Solomon, Lloyd Baugh, Rhonda Burnette-Bletsch and David Shepherd have all contributed. Having enjoyed some of James Crossley's work in other areas of biblical studies, I'm also looking forward to his perspective.

    Release is looking like being in April/May next year.


    Sunday, September 03, 2017

    Barabbas (1961)

    There's a common tendency in western thinking to try and find a rational explanation for some of the miracles that we find in the Bible, as if a timely arrival of plagues of locusts here and a psychosomatic condition there, solves everything. One of such theory has grown up around the three hours of darkness said to accompany with Jesus' crucifixion, namely that it could have perhaps occurred at the same time as an eclipse. The link between Jesus' death and Passover (which is determined by a full moon) and the absence of a spring-time eclipse in the possible years of Jesus' death make this unlikely, yet it's nevertheless an interesting theory, and, after the solar eclipse in North America two weeks ago, I thought it was about time I reviewed this one.

    It's unclear whether producer Dino De Laurentiis and director Richard Fleischer bought in to the above theory, but they did find themselves pondering the problem of how to film night as day when they realised they were just days away from a total eclipse occurring just a few dozen miles away. So it was that eighty cast and crew headed up to the northern Italian town of Roccastrada.1

    The decision to shoot during the eclipse was made just 48 hours beforehand, and doing so was uncharted territory. The film's director of photography, Aldo Tonti, working in the dark (both metaphorically and literally) moved the camera so that the Sun shone directly into the centre of the lens, and in the end resorted to taking off any filters, fully opening the lens, and hoping it would all work out.

    Even if not historically accurate, the results are spectacular, comprising one of the earliest film recordings of an eclipse and giving the scene an eerie feel that is far superior to the equivalent scenes in the other biblical epics of the era. Having witnessed the eclipse that crossed the UK in 1999 I can recall the strangeness of the moment which Tonti's work captures so brilliantly.

    The impact of this eerie moment is heightened by Mario Nascimbene's haunting score and by the off-hand way in which the film has treated Jesus up to this moment. Whilst movie audiences were used to films in which Jesus was only a minor character, the lead up to this scene had largely stripped him of any significance. His first appearance in the film is when the camera begrudgingly nudges left to incorporate him around the fringes of the opening shot of Pontius Pilate. The shot begins shooting up a set of steps towards Pilate, emphasising his power: Jesus' almost incidental incorporation in its far reaches emphasises his weakness.

    The shot also positions the viewer as if they are in the crowd (which is routing for Barabbas), thus enabling the audience to associate with him, whilst also making them complicit in his death. Jesus' entrance is made all the more derisory when contrasted with the first shot of the film's anti-hero Barabbas moments later the sole figure sitting up directly into the only beam of light entering his cell.

    That said the film seems to alternate between moments when Jesus is treated in a mundane fashion like an insignificant extra and moments that hint at his divinity. There follows shots are of Jesus being flogged in scenes inspired by Caravaggio's lighting and composition that references Diego Velázquez's" Christ contemplated by the Christian Soul" accompanied by the distorted screams of the crowd. Then as Barabbas he leaves the dark of his prison to come into daylight the first thing he sees is Jesus. This is shown as a point-of-view shot where a dazzling light appears to be emanating from Jesus's himself, but quickly fades as Barabbas's eyes adjust. And these striking visuals are accompanied by high-pitched strings, which are repeated moments later when Barabbas accidentally bumps into the cross because he is looking at Jesus. This is an example of the many "suoni nuovi "that Nascimbene uses throughout the film, "new sounds that seem to inhabit a space between sound effects and underscoring".2

    In one sense Jesus' and Barabbas's paths have separated at this point. Barabbas is free; Jesus is condemned. Yet Barabbas cannot get away from the "prophet". He arrives back amongst his friends only to find his girlfriend has become one of his followers. As he tries to laugh off  his experiences, Jesus passes by his window en route  to Golgotha. When he tries to sleep things off he awakes in an eclipse fearing the light he saw before and the darkness that now envelops him. Quinn's Barabbas is clueless as to what is really happening. Seven years after La Strada Quinn channels much of Zampano here. Barabbas too is a brute whose world is in turmoil after encountering a person whose sheer goodness leaves him dumbfounded. Like the eclipse itself, the light is there and yet somehow Barabbas left fumbling in the darkness, his encounter with Jesus haunting him rather than freeing him.

    The film, already the second adaptation of Pär Lagerkvist's 1950 novel following Alf Söjberg's 1953 adaptation, makes several changes to the text. The "hare-lipped" woman of the novel, who befriends Barabbas, witnesses the empty tomb and then becomes Christianity's first martyr, is here transformed into Rachel, Barabbas's girlfriend. Her death so enrages Barabbas that he goes on the rampage, gets recaptured by the authorities and is sent to the sulphur mines.

    The scenes in the sulphur mines are unusual for a biblical epic. Barabbas is held there for twenty years, the passing of time skilfully laid out through a long montage marking his gradual descent deeper and deeper under the earth until he reaches its bottom level. Eventually he is chained to Sahak, who eventually reveals that he is a Christian. The two fight, and then bicker over Barabbas's name as it emerges that, even after twenty years, it still stirs up hatred in both of them. Barabbas is clearly still disturbed by his brief encounter with Jesus. For Sahak the way in which Barabbas is still haunted by his past is evidence of Jesus' significance. "What other man's death could have troubled you so long? Eventually Barabbas agrees to Sahak scratching a cross on his slave tag, not because he believes, but crucially because he "want(ed) to believe".

    Having somehow escaped a catastrophic collapse of the sulphur mines, Barabbas is taken to the Coliseum to fight as a gladiator, in the film's biggest diversion from the novel. Despite his age and the two decades he has spent slaving in the sulphur mines Barabbas seems impervious to his opponents defeating. Even the sadistic defending champion Torvald, played by a hammy Jack Palance is beaten in a somewhat lucky encounter. Not only is the observation is made five times in the script that Jesus died instead of/in place of Barabbas,3 but there is mounting evidence that Barabbas cannot be killed, as if sentenced to wander the earth unable to make peace with himself.

    Just as Zampano fails to comprehend Gelsomina, so Barabbas fails to understand what God wants of him. Having proved victorious in the arena he seeks out the city's Christians, but even Peter can't help him. Mistakenly thinking the Christians are burning Rome he is arrested in the act of spreading the fire. "Why can't God make himself plain?" he laments when he discovers his error. "Every time I've seen it end up the same way, with torments and dead bodies with no good come of it." Yet Barabbas' misunderstanding and subsequent confession of faith seem to break the spell. As Stephen C. Meyer observes "It is only after proclaiming himself to be a Christian that Barabbas becomes susceptible to death."4

    The film ends, however, on a more ambiguous note. Barabbas finally is crucified, but it is unclear whether his dying words "Darkness. I give myself up into your keeping." are an affirmation of faith or a denial of it. Of all the biblical epics this is the one that leaves itself most open to an existentialist interpretation. The story was remade in 2012 with Billy Zane in the lead role.
    1 - New York Times, 7th October 1962 cited in Joel K. Harris, "Totality, Cinema, and Crucifixion" in Astronomy Magazine, November 1994
    2 - Meyer, Stephen C. (2015) Epic Sound: Music in Postwar Hollywood Biblical Films, Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. p.198.
    3 - Kreitzer, Larry J. (1993) The New Testament in Fiction and Film: On Reversing the Hermeneutical Flow, Melksham, Wilts. Sheffield University Press. p.85.
    4 - Meyer (2015), p.208.
    Full script available at:
    A study guide is also available from:


    Friday, September 01, 2017

    Left Behind (2014)

    So here's an insightful critical opinion: Left Behind isn't terribly good. However, given it's imminent, um, disappearance from Netflix next week (at least in the UK), I realised that whilst I didn't really want to see it. I probably should have.

    That feeling stems, in part, from its curious basis in scripture. For many years the theology behind the "Left Behind" series of novels and subsequent movie adaptations seemed poor. It didn't feel like the same kind of film as one dramatising a story from the Old Testament. But somewhere over the years as my views on the historicity of the Bible has changed and my definition of what I tend to do here (cover dramatic adaptations of the biblical narratives) has crystallised, I've begun to have a nagging doubt that perhaps films such as Left Behind should be something I cover.

    So here I am. And whilst this won't be my mot scholarly or thoroughly written pieces, one of the advantages of having a blog is that sometimes you can just bang out a few thoughts on something without it really mattering.

    Of course it would be easy to turn this into a slate-a-thon, but, that tends not to be the way I do things. And actually there are a few moments in this film that are worthy of comment.

    The first is the moment when the rapture actually happens. The actual moment itself starts not with something bombastic, but simply with a child disappearing from the middle of a hug. Things get pretty ridiculous and turn to action movie hyperbole pretty swiftly with disappearing pilots and bus drivers whose vehicles somehow career along the road for minutes and minutes after the person pressing the accelerator has long since vapourised, but that initial moment is actually fairly well done. Firstly, it's subtle, which allows the focus to be on just one person's emotional reaction. Secondly it's kind of mysterious and takes a split second to soak in, even in a film where you now it's going to happen. Furthermore, rather than relying on expensive special effects it's simply executed, meaning you don't feel the need to figure it out immediately afterwards.

    There's also one good jumpy moment as our heroine investigates the now entirely absent maternity ward. It's unclear to me why all the children disappear, apparently turning back the clock on the concept of original sin and suggesting some kind of coming of age when suddenly you become leave-behindable. It's also unclear where all the staff and parents have gone, though I suspect this is more due to drama than theology, but there's a sudden noise on the soundtrack and a jump cut to a mother and suddenly you realise that you're a bit more caught in the moment than you realised. (I'm slightly red-faced in having to admit this).

    Lastly, I must admit I'm a bit of a sucker for the credits music - a cover version of Larry Norman's "I Wish We'd All Been Ready", perhaps the song that really popularised the phrase "Left Behind". I used to really like Norman growing up, especially the "Only Visiting This Planet" album from which this song is taken, and whilst I was never really over the moon about it's theology, and whilst this is a cover not the original, I must admit I kept it playing through to the end. Heck I'm going to stick it on now whilst I finish typing. After all it's leaving Netflix soon...

    The film is rather different from the original novel. For one thing it's significantly shorter, turning the story into a disaster movie that focuses on a relatively small-but-positive story and it's pay-off in the face of all those other stories which all ended so badly. This is far from unique. It's very much in the mould of films such as Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow  in this respect. It wears it's America-centrism very much on its sleeve. I'm not a huge fan of either of those films, but Left Behind seems poorly paced compared to those efforts. The Rapture happens too far through the film, but not late enough to have given any real heft to the father/daughter relationship at its heart. That said it lacks the hubris and self-congratulatory nature of those other films, perhaps because the potential trauma of a crash landing never seems real, and the disappearance of (surprisingly few) passengers seems somehow more real than those who die when Independence Day's flying saucer wreaks havoc.

    Presumably the fact that the film makes so little progress through the novel means that the filmmakers lack any serious ambition to film the entire series. This is a wise move. Even if the matched the Harry Potter model of one-ish film per book, it seems unlikely that there will be enough of an audience to sustain sixteen such novels. What the makers of this adaptation of Left Behind have done is strip the novel back to that which has the widest appeal, and fashion a film that doesn't sit too uneasily alongside a lot of the mainstream fare in cinemas. I must admit that rather took me unexpectedly.

    Saturday, August 26, 2017

    Daniel in the Lion's Den
    Greatest Heroes of the Bible series (1978-79)

    In contrast to the way in which the story of Daniel has generally been a less popular on film than in general, The Greatest Heroes of the Bible series gave it two episodes out of a total of fifteen/seventeen. The unusual prominence the producers of the series give to it may also be reflected in the fact that it features one of the series' biggest stars, Robert Vaughn, as King Darius. Amongst the episode's other more recognisable faces were two former child stars, Sherry Jackson, from 50s sitcom Make Room for Daddy, and Dean Stockwell, best known to us from roles in Quantum Leap, Air Force One and Blue Velvet, but at the time known for a string of child roles. Indeed Stockwell is one of the few actors associated with the series whose career hit an upward trajectory after their role in it.

    Allotting the story of Daniel (played by David Birney) two episodes rather than one means that this episode, even more than other entries in the series, created a sub-plot to fill out the obvious human-interest shaped holes in the biblical narrative. Here Daniel's rivals are not only jealous that he is higher than them in the hierarchy, but concerned that he has caught them swindling the system. The three advisors (including Stockwell's Hissar) have been substituting cheap building materials for expensive ones and pocketing the extra cash. However, rather than enhancing his role, Daniel's eventual uncovering of the scheme, thanks to a tip off from a Jewish labourer, makes him look weak. The con has been going on for a long time and he, as Darius' chief advisor, has only just noticed. Not only that but whilst he is dithering about what to do about it, his fleet-of-foot rivals manage to convince Darius to create the law that imperils Daniel.

    The series frequently produces special effects that appear sub-par by today's standard, but Daniel in the Lions' Den is particularly culpable in this respect. Aside from the key scene in which an inferior stone lintel cracks at just the right moment to prove right Daniel and his labourer-ally, the angel/light that appears to protect Daniel in the den of lions (above) is really feeble. It seems unlikely to keep a child at bay, let alone a hungry lion.

    But if the episode does anything well it might be the way it suggests many of Daniel's fellow Jewish slaves distrust and even fear him now he has risen to such prominence. It's speculation of course, but it suggestion that 70ish years in exile is enough time for his people to grow affinity on the basis of their place in the social strata rather than race is an interesting one. Given that many Jews decided to stay in the region rather than return home to Judah, perhaps it is correct.

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    Thursday, August 24, 2017

    List of Daniel Films

    Whilst most of the stories from the Bible that get made into films tend to be those which are popular in Sunday Schools, one of the main exceptions is the story of Daniel. Popular in the pews; not so  much in Hollywood. Here's the titles of all the Daniel Films I've managed to find over the years:

    Les martyrs chretiens: Daniel dans la fosse aux lions (Lucien Nonguet[France], 1905)
    Les martyrs chretiens: Le Festin de Balthazar (Lucien Nonguet[France], 1905)
    Daniel dans la fosse aux lions (Louis Feuillade[France], 1908)
    Le Festin de Balthazar (Louis Feuillade[France], 1910)
    Les Sept Péchés Capitaux: L’Orgueil (The Seven Capital Sins: No. 1, Pride (Nebuchadnezzar)) (Louis Feuillade[France], 1910)
    Cast into the Flames (Gaumont[France], 1910)
    The Fall of Babylon (Theo Frenkel[UK], 1911)
    Le Festin de Balthazar (Gaumont[France], 1913)
    Daniel (Frederick A. Thomson / Madison C. Peters[USA], 1913)
    Slaves of Babylon (William Castle[USA], 1953)
    Greatest Heroes of the Bible: Daniel in the Lions Den* (James L Conway[USA], 1978)
    Greatest Heroes of the Bible: Daniel and Nebuchadnezzar* (James L. Conway [], 1979)
    Nabucco (Henri Ronse[France], 1979)
    Nabucco (Renzo Giacchieri[Italy], 1981)
    Belshazzar (Harry Kupfer[Italy], 1985)
    Nabucco (Robert De Simone[Italy], 1986)
    Animated Stories from the Bible: Daniel (Richard Rich [USA], 1993)
    Veggie Tales: Rack, Shack & Benny  ( Phil Vischer/Mike Nawrocki,[USA], 1995)
    The Beginners Bible: The Story of Daniel in Lions' Den (Gary Selvaggio, [USA], 1996)Testament. The Bible in Animation: Daniel (Lioudmila Koshkina[UK], 1996)
    Greatest Heroes and Legends of the Bible: Daniel and the Lions' Den (William R. Kowalchuk [USA], 1998)
    Nabucco (Fabio Sparvoli[It/US/UK/FR/GER/CZ], 1998)
    Nabucco (Gianfranco de Bosio[Austria], 2000)
    Nabucco (Elijah Moshinsky[USA], 2001)
    Veggie Tales: Where is God when I'm S-S-Scared? ( Phil Vischer/Mike Nawrocki,[USA], 2003)
    Bugtime Adventures: It's the Pits (Jeff Holder[USA], 2006)
    Liken Bible Series: Daniel and the Lions ([USA], 2006)
    Belshazzar (Don Kent[France], 2008)
    The Bible: Survival (Crispin Reece; Tony Mitchell; Christopher Spencer[USA/UK], 2013)
    The Book of Daniel (Anna Zielinski[USA], 2013) - pictured above

    Even just a cursory glance of these 30 titles reveals that almost all of them fall into at least one of four basic categories: church-based, animated, silent or opera adaptation. Sadly many of the early, short, silent films are now lost. That leaves a couple of entries from a longer series (Greatest Heroes of the Bible (1978-79) and The Bible(2013)) and the 1953 film Slaves of Babylon.

    I must admit I know very little about Nabucco, Verdi's 1841 Opera which has been filmed at least six different times, or about Belshazzar, Handel's 1744 Oratorio which has been brought to the screen twice.

    I'm about to do a piece on the Lion's Den in film and surprisingly there are significantly fewer films that cover this, given that the story is the most famous of those from the book of Daniel. I suspect this is because many of the films are from the early silent era. Anyway films that specifically cover the Lion's Den scene are:

    Les martyrs chretiens: Daniel dans la fosse aux lions (Lucien Nonguet[France], 1905)
    Daniel dans la fosse aux lions (Louis Feuillade[France], 1908)

    Daniel (Frederick A. Thomson / Madison C. Peters[USA], 1913)
    Slaves of Babylon (William Castle[USA], 1953)
    Greatest Heroes of the Bible: Daniel in the Lions Den* (James L Conway[USA], 1978)
    Animated Stories from the Bible: Daniel (Richard Rich [USA], 1993)
    Testament. The Bible in Animation: Daniel (Lioudmila Koshkina[UK], 1996)
    The Beginners Bible: The Story of Daniel in Lions' Den (Gary Selvaggio, [USA], 1996)
    Greatest Heroes and Legends of the Bible: Daniel and the Lions' Den (William R. Kowalchuk [USA], 1998)
    Veggie Tales: Where is God when I'm S-S-Scared? ( Phil Vischer/Mike Nawrocki,[USA], 2003)
    Bugtime Adventures: It's the Pits (Jeff Holder[USA], 2006)
    Liken Bible Series: Daniel and the Lions ([USA], 2006)
    The Bible: Survival (Crispin Reece; Tony Mitchell; Christopher Spencer[USA/UK], 2013)
    The Book of Daniel (Anna Zielinski[USA], 2013)

    I suspect my piece will also mention the 2008 Argentinian film Leonera (Lion's Den) which isn't a modernisation, but simply uses the way that the phrase "going into the Lion's Den" has passed into popular parlance.

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    Saturday, August 19, 2017

    Book Review: The Silents of Jesus in the Cinema (1897-1927)

    The Silents of Jesus in the Cinema (1897-1927)
    Edited by David J. Shepherd

    Routledge, Taylor and Francis (2016)
    292 pages
    61 B/W Illustrations.
    ISBN 978-415741699

    Whilst regular readers will know that I have mentioned and quoted from this book extensively over the last year or so gave my own opinions on the films it covers in my Silent Jesus Films series, I thought a proper review was somewhat overdue.

    Having established himself as the leading expert on Silent Bible films with his 2013 work "The Bible on Silent Film" David J. Shepherd has edited a book with a more specific focus on the major films about Jesus from the first thirty years of the cinema. The book covers thirteen silent Jesus films in depth, giving a chapter to each apart from the two 1920s German films, Der Galiläer and I.N.R.I. (1923) which Reinhold Zwick covers in a single chapter. Shepherd himself provides a chapter on Alice Guy's La naissance, la vie et la mort du Christ (1906) as well as an introduction and "Final Reflections". The Introduction (pp.1-14) starts with the "ironic" observation of "how early and how frequently Jesus appeared in the cinema of the so-called 'Silent Era'" (p.2) given his reputation as a teacher and the sheer number of his sayings that have been passed down. It continues with a brief historical overview of the portrayal of Jesus across the silent era.

    Before the films themselves, however, there is Timothy Barnard's translation of one of André Gaudreault's contributions to the difficult to obtain "Une Invention du Diable?" (1990), which in this volume's English translation is titled "The Passion of Christ: A Form, a Genre, a Discourse" (p.15-23). Gaudreault considering the very earliest passion play films asks if they are "documentary or fiction?" (p.19) ultimately concluding that they are "neither one nor the other...(but)...overlap considerably" (p.22). The volume from which this paper is taken was a comprehensive collection of the papers from the first international conference of DOMITOR (the International Association to Promote the Study of Early Cinema), the majority of which are in French. Whilst a god deal of it is available on Google Books, the inclusion of an English translation here is much appreciated. It's apt too given many of the papers in the present work originated at an SBL meeting in Amsterdam and an international symposium in Vienna (p.xi).

    The first film to be covered in detail then is La Vie et Passion de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ (1902–05) .The 1902-1905 dating is that given by the chapter's authors Alain Boillat and Valentine Robert and it proceeds to present evidence that the popular DVD version which is usually dated as being 1902-1905 was in fact a new version created in 1907. The version examined in this chapter (p.24-59) then was the second of four passion plays by Pathé (p.27), although both version were directed by Ferdinand Zecca (p.36). Boillat and Robert also examine the earlier film's reliance on Gustave Doré's compositions.

    In between the two Pathé/Zecca films however was the release of Alice Guy Blaché's La naissance, la vie et la mort du Christ (1906) which is covered by Shepherd himself in chapter 3 (p.60-77). Shepherd's main observations here are around the influence of Jacques Tissot's work and, in particular, the film's emphasis on women ("The Gospel According to Alice Guy" as the chapter title has it). This is often done by contrasting the alterations Guy makes to Tissot's compositions or the equivalent scenes in Zecca's films.

    The comparison with Zecca's films is also taken up in the fourth chapter, "La Vie et Passion de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ (Pathé Frères 1907): The Preservation and Transformation of Zecca's Passion" by Dwight H. Friesen (p.78-97). Friesen argues that the two filmmakers had "noticeably different" (p.88) approaches. Compared to Guy, Zecca was "less natural and more constructed" (p.88) not least because of Guy's use of outdoor locations (p.89). Zecca's later film seems "to contest and react" to Guy's film and even "appropriate" from it on occasion (p.89).

    W. Barnes Tatum's chapter on From the Manger to the Cross(1912) (p.98-110) begins with an assertion that in terms of films about Jesus, "(n)o film from the early silent period was more important" (p.98). Given the success of his book "Jesus at the Movies"1 it's hardly surprising that much of the material here is reworked. There is however expanded material on the making of the film and the cast and crew's trip to Cairo and Jerusalem from New York (and in Henderson Bland's case, London) (p.99).

    The next two chapters, Terry Lindvall's "The Star of Bethlehem (Thanhouser, 1912): The Sacred Story from King Herod to the Crib" (p.111-131) and Rhonda Burnette-Bletsch "The Shadow of Nazareth: The Hermeneutics of an Unauthorized Adaptation" (p.132-157) cover two of the lesser known films of the era (though I have reviewed them here and here). Noting that the The Star of Bethlehem "did not receive a uniformly stellar reception" (p.126) Lindvall examines how the film attempted to use special effects and star power2 to bolster its appeal; how the film faced criticism, not least from the "self-proclaimed guardian of the textual and aesthetic orthodoxy of sacred film", W. Stephen Bush; and how director Lawrence Marston defended his film by citing his research and use of experts.

    Burnette-Bletsch tackles The Shadow of Nazareth from a different angle, particularly how the film "not only harmonizes but also substantially rewrites the gospel accounts" (p.133). The film, Burnette-Bletsch argues is a "mediated adaptation" of the gospel narratives" because the evidence suggests it is an "unacknowledged cinematic adaptation" of the 1893 novel "Barabbas: A Dream of the World's Tragedy" by Marie Correlli (p.134). The book had been a "spectacular commercial success" (p.140), indeed Corelli was "the best-selling novelist of her generation" (p.139). The novel drew "upon popular conceptions of Darwinism and Buddhism" as part of a "discussion of the spiritual issues" of the day such her belief in "unlimited opportunity to evolve spiritually" and ultimately "experience spiritual transcendence" (p.143). In contrast, "the film is not concerned with the possibility of redemption, spiritual evolution or transcendence" it "simply uses Jesus and Christian iconography as a culturally shared symbols of a moral universe in which...all of the sinful characters in the film receive the due penalty for their errors" (p.152).

    Pathé's fourth foray into the Passion play tradition is the subject of Jo-Ann Brant's "La Vie et Passion de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ (Pathé-Frères, 1913/14): Pathé’s Inclination to Tell and Maître’s Instinct to Show" (p.158-178). The film not only used the same title as the 1902-05 and 1907 versions, but also maintained a "continuity of appearance" (p.160) with the earlier film. Yet Brant argues that despite the similarities to the 1907 film Maître’s "departures from that film indicate that he has sought to add interest and narrativity...by exploiting deep staging to codify space and by directing our attention away from Jesus to the mise en scène" (p.170). Brant also speculates as to the reasons "why Pathé gave an old look to a new film" (p.161) suggesting that, in part their version had become in some way "authoritative" such that were they "to have departed too radically from the visual canon it had helped to create, it would only have undermined its own hold on the market" (p.162).

    That "old look", however, dated even more quickly than might have been anticipated, with the release of D.W. Griffith's films Judith of Bethulia (1914), Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916), the subjects of Richard Walsh's chapter subtitled "Griffith's Talismanic Jesus" (p. 179-199). Looking primarily at the latter two films as well as Ince, Barker and West's Civilization (1916) he notes how Griffith simply uses Jesus as "a means to hallow some characters, (and) to demonize others" (p.192). "Jesus bathes the truly important characters in Griffith's film and film itself in his cultural sanctity." (p.193)

    The same year that Griffith's Intolerance was being unleashed on the the world, Giulio Antamoro's Christus finally "received initial approval from the censors" (p.201). Giuseppe Pucci's "Christus (1916): Italy's First Religious 'Kolossal' by Antamoro and Salvatori" (p.200-210) covers the film's characters and reception and looks at how the film is divided into three 'mysteries', namely those of Jesus' birth, preaching and passion (p.201).

    Of all the films considered in this book perhaps the ones that have ultimately been the most important are Dimitri Buchowetzki's Der Galiläer (1921) and Robert Wiene's I.N.R.I. (1923). Jesus films shape their audience's perceptions such that whilst it would be foolish to suggest that these anti-Semitic Jesus films led to the Holocaust, they doubtless contributed to the cultural demonisation of the Jewish people. As noted above Reinhold Zwick's contribution to the book covers both these films. "Der Galiläer (Express-Film, 1921) and I.N.R.I (Neumann-Film, 1923): The Silence of Jesus in the German Cinema" (p.211-235) covers far more issues than just the anti-Semitism, but nevertheless in several places it refers to issues such as Der Galiläer's "anti-Semitic stereotypes" (p.217) and the bitter "irony that the anti-Jewishness was evidently seen as fully compatible with the aim of restoring the moral reputation of Germany" (p.224). Zwick charts the two films' journeys from stage/page to screen and the "Image of Jesus Christ" that they create. The latter sections break down into "A Man of Few Words", "A Man of (Miraculous) Deeds" before examining how others in the film see Jesus. Zwick includes two "Scene Lists" in his appendices, the second, for I.N.R.I. compares the differing fragments from archives in Berlin and Gemona.

    Whilst Buchowetzki was working in Germany Carl Theodor Dreyer was directing Blade Af Satans Bog (Leaves from Satan's Book, 1921). "Dreyer had been so impressed by D.W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916)...that it served as a source of inspiration" (p.237) to the extent that it copied its four-differing-stories structure, though it did not intertwine them in the same complicated fashion. "Dreyer was not happy with the first episode of Leaves" calling his portrayal of Jesus "'a bad tailor's dummy of Christ'" (p.243) and deciding to pursue another film about Jesus. Caroline Vander Stichele uses her chapter "Leaves from Satan's Book, Nordisk, 1921) and Dreyer's Script Jesus of Nazareth (1950): The Jewishness of Jesus" (p.236-255) to both examine the original film, but also to compare it to the script that resulted from his dissatisfaction. The script has survived but as Stichele points out "we are left to imagine how he might have directed it. In a sense both are 'silent' for in neither film nor script can we 'hear' the characters."(p.236) Whilst it's an interesting concept Stichele devotes more attention to the latter film even though it is appears, to me at least, somewhat outside the rest of the book's thrust.

    The final film to be covered is DeMille's famous The King of Kings (1927) which is tackled by Vivienne Westbrook (p.256-270). Westbrook's focus is particularly on the film's intertitles and his "editing, abbreviating, elaborating, re-ordering and even combining biblical texts (rather than simply quoting them ) to suit his purposes" (p.269). It's a detailed and careful study that does much to highlight how much silent film evolved in its thirty-year run from primitive title cards announcing the scene in the earliest films, to succinct explanations or lines of dialogue, replete with biblical quotations and background images by DeMille's day.

    Shepherd's "Final Reflections" (p. 271-280) not only provides a neat summary of the chapters that have gone before, but also continues on to Duvivier's Golgotha (1935), the first major film of the sound era. Shepherd makes the point that whilst Duvivier finally had "the capacity to allow audiences...to actually hear for the first time...the words of Jesus", he "chose instead to focus his film on the Passion, in which Jesus has far less to say" (p.276). Golgotha "invites viewers to marvel more at the spectacle of Jesus's silence than his newly audible words" (p.278) just as silent era Jesus films had prioritised spectacle over almost anything else.

    Shepherd's reflections also do a great deal to gather the book's various straws together. One of the undoubted strengths of the volume is the way it brings to light lesser known productions and using them to fill gaps in the previously patchy narrative of the earliest era of the Bible on Film. Inevitably this means that the better known films are covered in a somewhat different manner to some of the more obscure titles, which the authors had to introduce and describe as well as analyse. However, whilst some diversity is clearly essential sometimes it feels like the inconsistency between chapters is too diverse. It's a minor point that will probably only bother those reading the book in a relatively short space of time. Also, the chapter order is occasionally a little odd e.g. Pucci's chapter on Christus would have been better before Intolerance, but that really is a minor nitpick which just goes to demonstrate how well I think of the book as a whole.

    Otherwise, "The Silents of Jesus", is an excellent and most welcome addition to the growing library of books on the gospels on film. Often with multi-authored books such as this one or two essays don't quite meet the mark, but here they are all well worth reading. In addition to the text the wealth of images that are included make many vital points far more clearly than would have been possible without them. Furthermore not only is it packed full of insight and good scholarship, it's an enjoyable book to read, one which shines a light onto a world which we're only just re-discovering.

    1 - Tatum's book is the only book on the subject to gain a third edition, as far as I am aware.
    2 - Yes, I went there. But Lindvall started it.

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    Friday, August 18, 2017

    The Death of Louis XIV (2017)

    Being a fan of Rossellini's The Rise to Power of Louis XIV, a regular viewer of the BBC's Versailles and having previously enjoyed director Albert Serra's El cant dels ocells (Birdsong), I've been keen to see his The Death of Louis XIV for sometime. And then there's that Truffaut box set I just bought, laden with actor Jean-Pierre Léaud's earlier work.

    Unsurprisingly Serra's take on Louis lies far closer to Rossellini's version of the story than the BBC's. The slow, long takes and minimal drama that so typified Birdsong and much of Rossellini's later work is on display again here. The opening few scenes show Louis struggling to be taken even to different locations in the palace. Thereafter, he is confined to his bed as he makes his slow transition from this life to the next. France's leading physicians, and the odd quack, try their remedies in an attempt to fight off the gangrene that has set in, but it's all to no avail.

    Whilst this is undoubtedly one film that doesn't require spoiler warnings, it's interesting to consider, briefly the other ways in which this chapter in history could have been filmed. Rather than confining itself almost solely to Louis' quarters, with him present in almost every shot, another telling of the story could have focussed on the political jostlings going on in and around court; or the reaction in the surrounding kingdoms. Here however the emphasis is almost entirely on Louis, and particularly his failing body. The Sun King is revealed to be as human as the rest of us after all. Death overtakes him as it overtakes us all. In many ways the film is not so dissimilar to The Death of Mr Lazarescu or The Barbarian Invasions, only with a greater audience. The kingdom and the world beyond may be holding its breath, but all that matters is one man's life is coming to an end. It's a story told too in minute detail from a linger shot of a tray of false eyes, to Louis' slowly blackening toes, to the increasing grimness of his servants faces as they gradually begin to realise nothing can be done.

    The film's other notable feature is its lighting and cinematography, which gorgeously recreates the atmosphere of the era's Baroque paintings. Serra, and his cinematographer Jonathan Ricquebourg, manage to strike a delicate balance between the grimness of portraying death in close up and crating beautiful art. It would be easy for one element to overpower the other, to prettify the reality of death, or to cram the film with grotesque imagery. The end result never lets us forget that Louis was both an ordinary person and an exceptional one.


    Thursday, August 17, 2017

    Chasing the Star (2017)

    Having had only the most limited theatrical release back in April, Brett Miller's Chasing the Star comes out on DVD next month, several weeks ahead of Sony's CGI animation The Star hitting cinemas in November. Miller's film is the second in the Quest Trilogy, a series of three films produced by Collective Development and written by DJ Perry. But whereas Perry also starred in the trilogy's opening entry, 40 Nights, here Perry takes a back seat, leaving Garry Nation, Randy Spence and Bello Pizzimenti to take the roles of the magi, and Ralph Lister to play a ripely paranoid Herod. Also starring are Taymour Ghazi and Rance Howard who share the role of Satan.

    Keen eyed observers will have noticed the absence from the above cast list of the names of actors playing Mary and Joseph: The film's most daring move is to skip over the birth of Jesus entirely and just to focus on the stories of the three magi. Such a move does two things. Firstly it steers the film away from the schmaltzy and sentimental moment that so typifies films about the birth of Jesus. This suits Perry and Miller's agenda down to the ground. Just as 40 Nights presented a tougher, earthier Christ, this film aims for a similar aesthetic. A story about the three kings, visiting Herod's palace could present an opportunity for kitsch and bling on an epic scale. Here however, the film roots the Magi more thoroughly in Zoroastrianism than any previous film and it strips down potential gaudy elements to the extent that even Herod doesn't even wear a crown. Like 40 Nights the film is more about psychology than pageantry.

    The second thing such a move achieves is shine a spotlight on a new area. Shorn of the traditional story's natural climax, the film culminates in the magi's final encounter with Gabriel. On a plot level this enables them to escape Herod's traps, but more fundamentally it brings closure to the magi's own stories and a redemption that is not based so much on pilgrimage as coming to terms with the past. There are two other notable films about the Magi, Ermanno Olmi's Cammina, Cammina (Keep on Walking, 1982) and Albert Serra's El cant dels ocells (Birdsong, 2010), but whereas those films were primarily concerned with the journey, Chasing the Star is more about the characters making it. There's an emphasis on dialogue, with a multitude of scenes where the characters just talk to one another. It's a film almost about what happens in-between the gaps in the narrative, than about the story itself.

    This is underscored by the film's irregular timeline. Whilst its primary narrative about the magi's journey to see Jesus moves forward chronologically, it is peppered with flashbacks to the magi's previous lives. All three men have significant issues with their past. Melchior, the eldest, was orphaned at a young age. His younger colleagues had very different experiences with their fathers. Gaspar's father pushed him into the priesthood ("I am my father's Isaac, but with no ram to replace me") with no thought for the feelings of love. Balthazar's wanted to keep him close rather than let his son fulfil his priestly ambitions.

    Given many of writer and co-producer Perry's previous work, it might be tempting to discount the film as just a Christian movie. But that would be a mistake as Chasing the Star avoids the major pitfalls of the typical Christian movie. Instead, as with 40 Nights, there's real filmmaking craftsmanship on display. Miller came into directing having previously been a cinematographer and it really shows in the quality of the image, composition, lighting, filters and overall look of the film. Dennis Therrian's score enhances the film's mysterious feel.

    No less importantly, it avoids the trap of forcing it's "message". In fact it's not even clear that it has 'a message'. It's certainly not a sermon wrapped in an all too thin and transparent veil. The filmmakers don't seem to be pushing an agenda.

    Instead the film is happy to introduce us to its characters and help us get to know them better. It's a story most know from a very young age, but few consider the real people behind it and the choices they made, and the lives they left behind, to try to reach something beyond themselves.

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    Saturday, August 12, 2017

    25 things to look out for on the blog

    I've decided it might be fun to give you a little run down of what the next few months (or maybe years) are going to have to have in stock. I usually resist this kind of nailng your colours to the mast exercise, but sometimes it's quite helpful and I htink now might be one of those times. If I'm ever going to get my book written I should probably get on with it. Plus there are other obligations I have to meet and things I want to cover, not least the three films based on the gospels that are due out before the end of the year. So here's a list of them, either to whet your appetite, or to help you steer clear for a while...

    Firstly there are 18 films

    Joseph in the Land of Egypt (1914)
    Salome (1922)
    Sodom and Gomorrah (1922)
    Samson and Delilah (1922)
    Lot in Sodom (1933)
    The Greatest Commandment (1939)
    Salome (1953)
    Barabbas (1961)
    Il Vecchio Testamento (The Old Testament) (1962)
    I Grandi Condottieri (Samson and Gideon) (1965)
    Jesus, Nuestro Senor (1971)
    Moses und Aron (1973)
    Jacob and Joseph (1974)
    Wholly Moses (1981)
    St. John in Exile (1986)
    Book of Life (1998)
    Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter (2001)
    Noah (2014)
    Chasing the Star (2017)
    Mary Magdalene (2017)
    The Star (2017)

    Then there are three series I'll be continuing to dip into

    The Greatest Heroes of the Bible (1978-79)
    A.D. The Bible Continues (2015)
    Pioneers of African-American Cinema

    Then a few books

    "The Silents of Jesus in the Cinema" - David Shepherd et al.
    "Hollywood Biblical Epics: Camp Spectacle and Queer Style from the Silent Era to the Modern Day" - Richard A. Lindsay
    "Judas Iscariot: Damned or Redeemed" - Carol A. Hebron

    Lastly there's a piece on the Lion's Den that I need to write as well.

    This ridiculous optimist in me likes to think I could get this all done by New Year. More realistically this list is going to take a while to get through and other things will emerge before it's done. Perhaps Christmas 2018 is a more realistic target. Still it's good to have something to aim at...

    Wednesday, August 09, 2017

    Joseph in the Land of Egypt (1914)

    The story of Joseph is one that's never really benefited from a major Bible film, though the Joseph entry in The Bible Collection did win an Emmy back in 1995. For me, this is because the two climaxes to the story - Joseph's elevation to the role of Egypt's second in command, and his reunification with his father - have never been adequately fine-tuned and balanced. The literary version uses Joseph's sudden promotion as something of a mechanism to get the children of Israel into Egypt, the end of a lengthy prologue before the real story of the Hebrews starts in Exodus chapter 1.

    But that doesn't cut it for a movie version of Joseph's life, so films have tended to be caught between the peaking-too-early drama of Joseph's elevation from prison to governor and the actual ending but hard to develop moment when Jacob and his son are reunited. In between the two lies a complicated narrative where the brothers traipse back and forth between Canaan and Egypt, having tests/tricks played on them by their little brother before he finally gets his Dad and full brother Benjamin back by his side. For me, it's this that tends to kill the narrative. It's no coincidence that the most successful dramatisation of the story is Rice and Lloyd-Weber's musical Joseph and his Technicolor Dreamcoat which compresses this final act so that Joseph's elevation by Pharoah and his reunification with his father are in far closer proximity.

    At three and a half reels Thanhouser's Joseph in the Land of Egypt (1914) was relatively long for its day, but is short compared to later versions of the story meaning that whilst most of the to-ing and fro-ing is included, it doesn't take that long overall, even if the love Jacob has for his lost son is largely underdeveloped. This is not helped by the fact that the film's intertitles - in the version that remains on the Thanhouser Vimeo channel at least - tend to be lengthy scriptural quotations rather than something more emotionally stirring. That said, in places the biblical version of the story does contain some good lines, most notably Joseph's "lift up your head" pun when interpreting his fellow inmates' dreams, which the film wisely retains.

    But whilst the dialogue is rather stodgy, the filmmakers do manage to sex things up a bit, mainly in the form of Potiphar's wife. Here, she's a character I feel rather sorry for. The Joseph story is often seen as the climax of the story of the patriarch's Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but this story is a reminder of the other type of patriarchy. Mrs Potiphar is cast as the villain of the piece and the archetype for the seductress attempting to derail the virtuous hero from his quest. It's no coincidence that Potiphar's wife is the last woman encountered in the book of Genesis, forming a matching pair with the first woman of the book, Eve.

    Two points in this regard are particularly interesting. The first is the fact that whilst the wife has tended to be portrayed as am older cougar type, preying on her young buxom servant, here she is very attractive, particularly when compared to some of the actresses that were playing other supposed biblical beauties such as Judith or the Queen of Sheba at the time. She is clearly taken with Joseph right from her first sighting of him in the slave market (above) where she nudges her husband to make sure he buys him.

    The other is later in the film, when she is shamed before Pharoah for her actions. This is a rare insertion into the text, but one that highlights that gulf between her and Joseph that now exists. Joseph is the victor and it is lauded over his former accuser. And this, perhaps inadvertently, reminds us that history, even biblical history, is usually written by the victors. Ultimately Joseph triumphs over Potiphar's wife and accordingly the Bible's account of what happened very much flatters and favours him rather than her (she started it, he resisted, she falsely accused him). It's not inconceivable is it that what really happened was less black and white.

    The other thing that is striking in this film is the use of dream sequences and flashbacks. Whilst this was hardly unknown in cinema at this stage, it was realtively innovative for a biblical film. The first occasion of this is in the dungeon when Pharoah's cup-bearer tells Joseph his dream. The sequence is hardly elaborate, it's a close up of the vine which, after what seems like quite a while, the cup bearer enters to pick some clusters of grapes. Yet the closeness of the shot and the inital absence of humans in it gives it a distinctly different feel from the rest of the film. It feels more credibly dreamy than many of the dream sequences that are produced today, perhaps because it is so simple and primitive.

    Not disimilarly is the moment we witness a flashback which the camera indicates is taking place inside Joseph's head. Again the sequence is simple and Joseph's recollection of his father's love is far from overwrought. Instead the naturalistic, low key acting and the simplicity of the shot are the most emotionally true moment of the whole film. The moment is recalled again in the final shot as with the family reunited Jacob's rests with his son's arm around him as if for all the suffering the pair of them have been through, it's Jacob's that has caused the greatest heartache. The point of the biblical narrative maybe to manouver him into the land of Egypt, but as far as the film is concerned it's a simpler story of a man who is finally reunited with the son he so deeply loved.

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    Thursday, August 03, 2017

    A.D. (2015) - Part 2

    This is part 2 of a series of posts covering A.D. episode by episode & are initial impressions not a review. You can read them all here.
    As I noted in my initial post in this series A.D. doesn't rush straight into the book of Acts in the manner that I, at least, expected. This episode, for example, is the second in a series of only ten, and yet we've still not got into Acts yet - this episode ends with the Ascension. Whilst I imagine the filmmakers had hoped for further series, A.D. - The Bible Continues didn't; NBC cancelled it July 2015 and talk of a new channel which would carry content such as this has not (yet?) emerged. So for now the series looks to be left high and dry in Acts 11.

    This episode is particularly strange in this respect. There's a great deal of weight put on the episode in Matthew 28 with the soldiers at the tomb and an early example of attempting to "control the narrative". Guards are dragged to and forth, examined and cross-examined, beaten and eventually murdered whilst Pilate and Caiaphas scheme. It all becomes a bit tiresome, with the only point of interest the way that Pilate gradually turns from the noble and indecisive-but-thoughtful leader of episode 1 to the throat-slitting, blood-thirsty tyrant he becomes here. Caiaphas eventually becomes appalled by the man he is doing business with, although it will be interesting to see how this turns out when Saul arrives on the scene.

    Meanwhile though Jesus is still around making resurrection appearances. It's strange that some of plays second fiddle to the film's zealous attempts to hammer home Matthew's apologetic concerning the guarding of the tomb, to the extent that it skips over Luke's story of Jesus' appearance on the road to Emmaus. This has proved popular with other filmmakers and has led to some interesting interpretations.

    That said we do get John's story of the appearance on the shores of Galilee. This was the episode's high point for me. The beach that Jesus appears on is busy relative to how it's portrayed in the handful of other films that include this episode, where it is often deserted other than Jesus and the disciples. Given the time of day I think the approach here is a bit more likely and whilst it loses something of the intimacy of a meeting alone, I think it emphasises Jesus being someone who was out among the individual people and like the relatively natural way in which it's portrayed.

    If that's the best scene, it's equally clear which the worst scene and for the same kind of reason. The Ascension is something that is relatively rare, at least as something that is visualised rather than something that happens almost off screen. Relatively few films have portrayed this, though notable depictions include Pathé's Life and Passion of Jesus Christ (1907), where Jesus is hoisted up to painted, hardboard clouds; the Jesus film (1979) where we get Jesus's point of view as the crowd disappears below him; Dayasagar/ Karunamayudu (1978) where Jesus becomes a massive figure against the night sky; and the flashing light disappearance trick of The Miracle Maker (2000). Here it's poorly executed CGI, which will only get worse as the film ages, and took me right out of the film. It's typical of these two series use of special effects - rather than doing something simple their budget could stretch to, they went for something spectacular that it couldn't.

    That said I'm kind of relieved to see the back of this episode's Jesus. Despite hanging around for two episodes the filmmakers haven't given him much to do, other than occasionally turning up smiling. Their interest mainly seems to lie in the fact that he is still around rather than in the person himself. It's not helped by the aesthetics. Whilst the dark-haired Jesus here is better than the blond from the original The Bible (2013) series, his look is far too bearded-Chippendale for my tastes. There's an attempt to roughen him up a little round the edges, but he's all oiled muscles, perfect teeth and shampoo-advert hair.

    However it's not just the visuals that are problematic, some of the dialogue in this episode is particularly poor. "Stay in the water like the eel you are" is one of the finer examples of bizarre phrases that feels neither historical nor modern day. In the opposite corner - dialogue that is meant to sound profound, but is actually pretty empty - was this: "We found nothing...and everything."

    In the next episode I'm hoping we get as far as Pentecost, either way I guess Peter will be the main character.  This is definitely a good thing as Adam Levy's performance so far has stood out in comparison to many of the others, and whilst this should be welcomed as a positive thing, it doesn't look too good if a humble fisherman is outshining the son of God incarnate.