• Bible Films Blog

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

    Matt Page


    Saturday, October 28, 2023

    Sansone (Samson, 1961)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Labels: , ,

    Sunday, October 22, 2023

    The Prince of Egypt: The Musical (2022)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Labels: ,

    Saturday, October 14, 2023

    Review: The Book of Clarence (2024)

    The Book of Clarence premiered on Wednesday at the London Film Festival, so while it won't be on general release until January I paid to see it at the festival yesterday and there was even a brief introduction by director Jeymes Samuel beforehand.

    Samuel is best known for his 2022 western The Harder They Fall which told a fictional story based on real life Black characters from the wild west.1 This time around the approach is slightly different. The Jewish characters in the story, including minor roles for Jesus, Mary Magdalene and Jesus' parents are Black.2 The Romans are white.

    Moreover the intention was slightly different too. Whereas with The Harder They Fall, the aim was to create a new story to bring together real historical characters, here he was more focused on capturing the essence of the majority Black areas of London he grew up in.  "I wanted to tell a story around that environment but translate it back 2000 years".3 It's a subtle, but significant difference. This is the 'world' that the real life characters (including Jesus) are inserted into. The film is not intending to recreate historical reality.

    The Book of Clarence and the biblical epics
    Just as important to note is the change in tone and genre. On one level the earlier film was a more serious dramatic film, albeit with occasional moments of humour. However, Clarence is more of a comedy drama. It's not an out and out comedy like Monty Python's Life of Brian (a film to which it be forever compared, nevertheless), but the tone is lighter, zany and more comic.

    Genre-wise Samuel the film is an assured move from one popular 1950s Hollywood genre – the western – to another, the biblical epic.That this is firmly the territory that Samuel (also known as The Bullits) has entered into is clear from the opening 30 seconds which tips the hat to an array of biblical epics in quick succession. The opening shot starts with not three crosses as in most Jesus films, but a sea of them as in Spartacus (1960) and Life of Brian. Then the credits begin Quo Vadis?/The Robe style with gold 3D lettering on richly coloured, cloth-texture background. Then as we cut back to Jerusalem a subtitle tells us, Python-style, the time and place with unusual precision. Moments later we're witnessing a chariot race through the streets that not only evokes The Prince of Egypt (1998) and the 1959 Ben-Hur but the 2016 version too (though that may not be so deliberate). It's so purposefully and precisely executed that it makes the Coen Bros. Hail Caesar! (2016) look like the work of fake fans. The tips of the hat continue as the film progresses. There are two references to The Passion of the Christ late on in the film one of which is hilarious and audacious, the other of which is understated and bold.

    The other aspect of the film which will stand out to Bible film aficionados is its extensive use of Matera in Italy. This was the historic site which Pasolini used for his Jesus film Il Vangelo secondo Matteo (1964) which at the time was neglected and underappreciated, now an UNESCO heritage site and popular location for biblical movies. King David (1985), The Passion of the Christ (2004) and Mary Magdalene (2018) are just a few of the films that were shot there. Here, though, it appears that barring the occasional interior, the entire film was shot in Matera. This gives a far greater feel for the city itself, it's layout and stunning surrounding geography and that gives a sense of continuity to the film itself. It captures the isolated nature of the story itself. A community translated back 2000 years.

    One further way that the film recalls the biblical epics is the way it shifts the action so that Jesus is not the centre of attention but rather a fringe, and in this case fictional, character. Here that character is Clarence (LaKeith Stanfield), whose twin Thomas (also  has already left their ageing mother to follow Jesus. Clarence is hardly a pious moralist, but he's annoyed by this. Now he has to provide for her on his own and having resorted to increasingly desperate measures to find income, including racing chariots against Mary Magdalene, he now finds himself in debt to local boss Jedediah. 

    Faking miracles
    Sensing safety in numbers he tries to join Jesus' followers, but finds his followers unwelcoming, even after freeing the gladiator / slave Barabbas (Lupin's Omar Sy). So he hits on the idea of forming his own mass movement. Believing Jesus to be a fraud, who fakes his miracles, Clarence decides to do likewise. It's not long before his phoney miracles (using his friends as stooges) and his slickly-rehearsed sermons are starting to pay off.

    Much of the discussion about Clarence has been around whether the film disrespects Jesus, not unlike the controversy around Life of Brian 44 years ago. This time around, it's even more clear here that Clarence is not Jesus. The two appear at numerous points in the film and even speak to one another on a few occasions. It also becomes clear that despite his unwelcoming and posturing disciples and Clarence's initial low opinion of him, Jesus does have the power to perform genuine miracles. That might be true of the Jesus of Brian as well but here it's far more clear and explicit than just the claims of an "ex-leper".

    Yet this is hardly a conventional portrayal. It's a quirky comic-drama with fantasy elements such as light bulbs appearing above Clarence's head when he has an idea and various characters floating when they puff on a hookah. The miracles of Jesus we do see are significantly differently to how they happen in the Bible. [Spoilers - select text to read] One happens when a woman, is being stoned and Jesus stops the rocks in mid-air, with a healthy nod to the Matrix. Another, which is shown somewhat misleadingly in the trailer sees him enable Clarence to walk on water. [End of spoilers]. Nevertheless it's clear that Jesus (Nicholas Pinnock) is not a fake messiah, he's the real deal, preaching an important message and walking the walk. He even stands up to the Romans.

    Jesus' parents
    While still hoping to learn how Jesus is faking his miracles Clarence visits Jesus parents, making this one of the few films that show both Mary and Joseph at the end of his life. Interestingly one of the few other films to do this is another Black Jesus film, Color of the Cross (2006). This is perhaps my favourite scene in the film. Alfre Woodard's portrayal of Mary is possibly my favourite of Jesus' mother, certainly once her son has become an adult. It's sympathetic, warm and wise, while also capturing a credible mother-adult son dynamic that few takes on Mary and Jesus seem to manage. She loves him, and so lets him lead his life without feeling encroaching too far into his work.

    Joseph's role (Brian Bovell) plays against that of Mary, interjecting every so often with a cutting contempt for Clarence and his cronies contrasting Mary's compassionate outlook. He gets the film's best lines: "If you were a tool in my carpenter's box, you wouldn't be the sharpest" he sighs as Clarence struggles to grasp that their son is not faking. They even tell him the story (found in both the non-canonical Infancy Gospel of Thomas and the Qu'ran) of Jesus making a clay bird come alive.

    Turning it around
    All of this forms a key part of Samuel's journey to becoming a better person. Yet it's certainly not just Jesus and his parents who push him in this direction. Clarence is also besotted by Jedediah's sister Varinia, who, disliking Clarence's scheme, urges him towards living a more selfless life. As Peter Chattaway has pointed out, in the 1960s version of Spartacus, Varinia is the name of Jean Simmons character.4 It's perhaps not surprising, then, that soon Clarence finds himself using his ill-gotten wealth not to save his own hide, but to buy freedom for all the other gladiator-slaves. 

    Sadly, it's just as Clarence decides to come clean. This does raise a few questions which the film rather skips over. While buying back the slaves is a good and selfless act, that might not be how those he  tricked into giving him their money see it. Secondly gang boss, Jedediah has a remarkably low key change of heart, but then that is perhaps due to the fact that just as Clarence is about to confess that he's not the messiah (just a very naughty boy), then Romans begin tracking down the city's various messiahs.

    Questions of race
    For all the film's humour it nevertheless wants to take on more serious issues too around race, religion and society. As noted above there's a clear dividing line between the Black Jews and the White Romans. Firstly this reinforces, more clearly than any other film, the fact that the Romans and the Jews were different races and both viewed the other as inferior (though this was not primarily about race as such). Part of the reason for this clarity is the almost complete lack of priests, Pharisees, teachers of the law etc. There's a brief tracking shot of a party of (Black) men dressed similarly to Pharisees and priests in other Jesus films, but that's it. It's the Romans that are hunting down messiahs and who execute Clarence and while Jesus' death is still three days in the future, there's not even a shadow of a doubt it will be down to Roman initiative. And given the genre's tendency towards reinforcing antisemitic tropes of the past blaming the Jews for Jesus' death, it's very welcome to see a film steer clear of that so deftly.

    Secondly, before that final part of the film we've already witnessed how patrols of Roman soldiers casually interrogate Clarence and his friends, and indeed Jesus, on the flimsiest of premises. Biblical epics have always been as much about the present as about the past and it's easy to draw parallels between these scenes and the numerous videos of White police officers harassing Black people on the similarly flimsy grounds. 

    The only real exception to the Black Jews / White Romans racial divide is Benedict Cumberbatch's minor role playing someone homeless. There's an extreme close-up of Cumberbatch shortly after the credits clad in grime so thick it's impossible to tell if this is just dirt, or meant to represent some critique of black-face performances. Cumberbatch role stays around the peripheries until [Spoilers - select text to read it] Clarence gives him the money to get a proper wash. When he emerges the salon staff put him in a white robe and now his hair is unmatted and his skin clean and white suddenly we, and the salon staff realise he now looks like Jesus. Suddenly everyone forgets that Jesus walks among them and starts bowing and praising this White saviour. This seems like a bit of a dig about how we have so readily accepted a fake White Jesus (even though we know that is historically inaccurate) even though we know the real Jesus was a person of colour.

    This becomes particularly interesting during the latter stages of the crucifixion where Samuel repeats a long shot from Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, taken behind the cross with Matera in the background. While it's Clarence, not Jesus that's the focus of this shot, nevertheless it feels like it's echoing to Black members of the audience the experience White people had watching The Passion. Meanwhile to White people its a reminder that Black people matter just as much and stand shoulder to shoulder in contexts such as this.[End of spoilers]

    The Book of Samuel
    This is undoubtedly a film that White and Black people will view differently. It's also a film that will resonate differently for those with some kind of faith and those without it. While there are some cursory similarities with Life of Brian, they are two quite different films. In Brian, the humour became more pointed as the film wore on. Here it's almost the opposite. Clarence ends on a more positive note, one that recognises the possibility and importance of change and self-sacrifice. And it does this without being overly saccharin or giving simplistic answers, not least the ambiguity of the final scene which will fuel discussions after the credits have rolled. 

    It's incredibly difficult to do anything in this genre that feels genuinely innovative. Yet The Book of Clarence does that. Not for its use of a Black Jesus surrounded by Black followers, films such as Color of the Cross and Jezile (both 2006) and the TV series Black Jesus (2014-9) have already done that, but as much for its social critique and the way its humour is not generated solely by cynicism. It's not perfect, by any means. Some gags don't quite land and some will struggle with the changes in tone, but nevertheless it's well worth watching, even for those who dislike traditional biblical epics. And for fans of biblical movies or of Samuel's work, it's a must see.

    Indeed, this is clearly a hugely personal film for Samuel. The musician turned director has been mulling this film over since 2003/04 and it shows. My hunch is that in a few years time when he has a string of movies behind him, this will be the one that his fans come back to as best encapsulating his themes and outlook.

    1 - Kelley, Sonaiya (2022) "How ‘The Harder They Fall’ corrects Hollywood’s historical record of Black cowboys", Los Angeles Times, Nov. 3. Available online – https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2021-11-03/harder-they-fall-netflix-jeymes-samuel 

    2 - There's one notable exception , but it comes I won't spoil the 

    3 - Quote from pre-screening introduction by Jeymes Samuel at the Southbank Centre, Royal Festival Hall, 12th October 2023. Words transcribed by me at the time without the chance to play them back so may contain minor errors. I believe Samuel may have misspoke and said 3000 years rather than 2000 years, but as I wasn't certain that was exactly what he said and so as it was clearly his intention I have put 2000 above.

    4 - I was reminded of this connection by Peter Chattaway in this post on his Substack – https://petertchattaway.substack.com/p/the-book-of-clarence-the-world-premiere


    Monday, October 09, 2023

    Film as an Expression of Spirituality: The Arts and Faith Top 100 Films

    Film as an Expression of Spirituality:
    The Arts and Faith Top 100 Films

    Edited by Kenneth R. Morefield

    Cambridge Scholars Publishing
    242 pages - Hardback
    ISBN 978-1527550841
    Publication Date: 02/10/2023

    I've just had a chapter published in this new book which brings together a series of essay on some of the films in the Arts and Faith top 100 lists."Film as an Expression of Spirituality: The Arts and Faith Top 100 Films" features essays by 12 authors some of whom I met on the A&F site over 20 years ago. I was a regular contributor to the forum for a number of years and it was there I met a number of inspiring writers on film including Jeffrey Overstreet and Steven D. Greydanus. Both have been very generous to me over the years and I have learned an enormous amount from them both. So I'm really pleased they both have essays in here. And it's nice for something so permanent to have emerged eventually from all that went into that site.

    My essay is on Pasolini's Il Vangelo secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to Matthew, 1964) and despite studying it and discussing it for all these years I don't think I've ever struggled with writing something as much as I did here. I'm grateful to editor Ken Morefield (whom I also met at A&F) whose support and flexibility got me through.

    It's currently available online via the Cambridge Scholars website where there's a healthy sample available to download as well as a little more information. I've posted a list of the contributions below which hopefully gives you a sense of the films covered. It's priced with libraries in mind, so if you'd like to read it, then perhaps you could encourage yours to get a copy. 

    If you want to find out more about the various iterations of the The Arts and Faith Top 100 Spiritually Significant Films then Ken has put together a great website that brings things together nicely.


    1. Carl Theodor Dreyer and the Problem of Christian Realism – Kenneth R. Morefield
    2. Loving Someone in Darkness: The Silence and Voice of God in the Arts & Faith Top 100 Films –Brian Duignan
    3. Love, Lust, and L’Avventura – Domenic Cregan
    4. Il Vangelo secondo Matteo – Matthew Page
    5. Beyond the Infinite: The Transcendent Vision and Religious Forms of 2001: A Space Odyssey – Aren Bergstrom
    6. Empire and Incarnation in The Mission and Of Gods and Men – Benjamin Sammons
    7. Reverse Rumspringa: Peter Weir’s Witness as “Cultural Kamikaze – Will Underland and Jency Wilson
    8. A Sacrifice of Praise – Evan Cogswell
    9. Right and Wrong?: Binary Opposition in Do The Right Thing – Douglas C. MacLeod, Jr.
    10. To Love and Be Loved in Return: Thirty Years of Discovering Kieślowski’s Blue – Jeffrey Overstreet
    11. Faith, Reason, and Interpretation: Belief and Doubt in The Song of Bernadette and Lourdes –Steven D. Greydanus
    12. Put on the Full Armor of God: Faith and Radicalism in First Reformed – Matthew Spencer


    Tuesday, October 03, 2023

    Giudetta e Oloferne [Head of a Tyrant], (Fernando Cerchio, 1959)

    Not sure why it's taken me so long to watch and review this one before. I've written quite a lot about Judith films and this is, I think, the longest cinematic adaptation of the deuterocanonical book. And while it's known as Head of A Tyrant in the English speaking world, it's an Italian peplum film shot just after the genre exploded with the release of Le Fatiche di Ercole (Hercules, Pietro Francisci, 1958).

    Judith is played by French actor Isabelle Corey who had starred in both Bob le Flambleur and ...And God Created Woman within a few months of one another in 1956. Opposite her Oloferne is played by Massimo Girotti who was still almost a decade away from his most famous performance as the dad in Pasolini's Teorema (Theorem, 1968) screaming into the deserted landscapes of Mount Etna. 

    It's unusual for a peplum film to rest quite so heavily on its performances, and Corey and Girotto do a good enough job of portraying the tensions both of them feel. On the one hand they feel inextricably pulled towards the other, but she is torn between her love of him and the love of her people, he on the other hand knows she might be trouble but chooses to let her into his heart regardless. 
    The plot deviates a little from the story in the Book of Judith. The Assyrians come seeking to make the Israelites surrender. I like the way the town elders aren't really sure why they're being attacked. That seems to fit with the over-the-topness of Nebuchadnezzar's reaction in the text. Despite the reasonableness of the appeal for surrender,some refuse to accept their gods and there are a few who fire a few arrows towards Holophernes which creates conflict.The Bethulians are ordered to give up the would-be assassins or else they will be destroyed. But rather than besieging the town the Assyrians seem to move in. There's no camping at any rate. One other deviation is that Judith's servant, while an active character in the film, does not accompany Judith there.

    The portrayal of Judith is interesting. In the book she's a beautiful widow and both elements seem to have some bearing on the story. I don't recall if anyone mentions that she is a widow. Instead there's much more emphasis on her being a daughter and sister than on being a widow. Her youthful attractiveness is only emphasised when she ingratiates herself into Holophernes' inner court by performing a sexy Salomé-esque dance. 
    Of course the most famous film version of this story is the 1914 one by D.W. Griffith and this is a very different beast. obviously this adaptation is in colour and with sound, not to mention that for modern audiences the quality of the available print is is far greater here. Yet something else feels very different aside from all that. It's campier, for sure. The shortness of the soldiers skirts confirm that. But perhaps it's because director Fernando Cerchio trusts his material a little more, as if knowing that the possibility of violence creates a more engaging experience than the before and after battle scenes in Griffith's film.
    Cerchio puts that colour to good use, particularly the greens and reds in the interiors which complements the costumes. It reflects both the opposition between Judith and Holophernes, but also their similarities, and that a little of each is found in the other. Yet the gaudiness of these tones, particularly in combination, are also unsettling, putting us ill at ease. There's a slight In a Lonely Place vibe here: the chemistry, the tension between conflicting passions, or between head and heart. 

    Here, though, things are different. Holophernes decides time is up for Judith's people. His costume changes to predominantly black as he hopes to force the citizens to surrender the guilty men. Hers is pure red with both the connotations of sexiness and blood. The physical gap between the two widens. Holophernes starts to feel justified in his decision and then he says "Sometimes we have to do things in spite of ourselves that we wish we didn't have to do" and his spell over Judith is broken.

    The beheading scene is particularly good. The sword almost calling out to her like Macbeth's dagger via a quick zoom. Her pose (above) as she hesitates just for a moment before striking, almost as if wishing he would wake-up and stop her. One more notable moment remains as Judith emerges from the building, shot from behind, and holds aloft Holophernes' head, motionless. A lesser director might have strung out the final battle scene here, but her it's rather half-hearted. The decisive blow has already been struck.

    Labels: ,

    Sunday, September 03, 2023

    Is The Book of Clarence Movie Based on the Bible?

    (Edit: my review for this film is now live).
    The trailer for the film The Book of Clarence landed this week and given the publicity for the movie talks about Jesus, a lot of people will be wondering, is the Book of Clarence in the Bible? Is there a Clarence in the Bible and if so where in the Bible is Clarence?

    The answer to all these questions is fairly simple. There isn't a Book of Clarence in the Bible. There isn't even a character called Clarence in the Bible, even if many of the other characters in the film, are mentioned in the Bible or are known from other historical evidence. As far as we know, the movie is not even based on a true story, rather it's an original idea from British writer and director Jeymes Samuel

    Yet, based on what we know so far, it's fair to say that the film will be loosely based on the Bible. Jesus and the disciples are characters in the story doing broadly similar things to the stories about them in the gospels. Characters also recognised in Roman history, such as Pontius Pilate (who looks like he is being played by James McAvoy) will feature as well.

    In this sense, then, it looks like the film will follow a roughly similar path to Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979). Clarence is a fictional character around the fringes of the Jesus story who has some similar  experiences to Jesus and becomes some kind of figurehead. Plus, of course, both films are comedies.  

    So while The Book of Clarence will draw on the stories from the gospels, Clarence himself is a fictional character who is not even mentioned in the Bible.

    If you liked this post you might enjoy:
    > my review of The Book of Clarence (2024)
    > my book "100 Bible Films" (BFI/Bloomsbury, 2022)

    Labels: ,

    Monday, August 28, 2023

    Data Visualization: How Does Pasolini Abridge Matthew's Gospel?

    Click here for larger/better resolution version of the image.

    Earlier in the year I was writing a chapter on Pier Paolo Pasolini's Il Vangelo secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to Matthew, 1964) for a book due out next year hopefully about some of the films from the Arts and Faith Top 100

    The words spoken in the film are almost entirely directly taken from Matthew's Gospel, but not all of the Gospel is included. Many sections are omitted or abbreviated. Moreover, Pasolini rearranges the text so some incidents/ speeches occur in a different place in the film. 

    I made a list of which parts of the Gospels appear in various film many years ago (free download) and Jeffrey Staley and Richard Walsh produced similar but more detailed versions of this information for their 2007 book "Jesus, the Gospels, and Cinematic Imagination" (my review) a completely reworked version of which was published last year. 

    However, I wanted to get a better feel for how Pasolini edits, abridges and rearranges the material and while those resources are useful I wanted to get something more immediate. Given my day job is creating data visualisations, I decided to have a quick go with the data about Pasolini's movie. Jeffrey and Richard were kind enough to allow me to use their research and to provide it in an electronic format. 


    My intention was to plot where the cited/dramatised incidents from the text occur in the film. In order to do this I began by tidying and making a number of amendments to their data. There was the odd error and there was one passage where the wording is used twice in the text and I felt the other verse seemed to be where Pasolini would more naturally be drawing from. I also gave a more detailed breakdown of the Sermon on The Mount and where there was only a time stamp for a section of teaching, I added in specific times. This was a challenge as Staley and Walsh had used a different release of the film than any of mine own.

    Visual elements

    One of the things I wanted to examine was how Pasolini handled the five main teaching blocks we find in the text. Scholars have noted how Matthew concentrates Jesus' teaching into five main blocks and for over a century it has been suggested that this is to associate Jesus and the gospel with Moses and the five books of the Torah. So I shaded these areas in grey. I probably should've mentioned that on the diagram itself, but I couldn't quite work out where to do that and, at least at the time, I was hoping to do an improved version.

    From a data visualisation point of view there is one thing that is particularly unusual about this chart which is that "time" is on the y-axis, whereas nearly always time goes on the x-axis. I decided to do it this way for two reasons. Firstly, because in a sense both axes are a variation on time. The y-axis is time through the film, but really the x-axis represents time to. Perhaps we could call it time spent reading through the gospel. It's not linear or regular time, but it's not totally out of keeping with the convention.

    The second reason, however, was that having plotted it both ways this felt like the more natural choice. While the time through the movie might be more regular, the text is more original. It represents a reality that exists before the film comes and rearranges it. The sense of progress is progress through the text. Similarly, I think the various attempts to plot the time sequence in Pulp Fiction (1994) fail because the people producing them don't want to break the rule that time in minutes/should be on the y-axis. But this is a case of "it depends" albeit in a situation where the convention is dominant.

    Notes on style

    Many of the most popular data visualisations use quite lively colours and style. When that works, it really works and it's no surprise that the ones that are able to leverage colour effectively go on to become the most popular. 

    The downside of this, however, is that people think effective / good data visualization has to have lots of colour. That's not true. Indeed many dataviz experts like Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic advise us to "resist the urge to use color for the sake of being colorful" ("Storytelling with Data", p.117). 

    Here, it felt like colour didn't really have a key role to play. I could perhaps emphasise one particular section, or assign different colours to the type of material, and perhaps that's a job for a future iteration of the visual, perhaps one that is being presented. 

    Instead, I decided to lean in to the lack of colour. The film is of course magnificently and proudly black and white (if you have the colourised abomination you should destroy it before it burns out your eyes and shrivels your soul). Moreover regardless of the excesses appearing on screen, Pasolini kept his titles sparse and plain. 

    So I stuck with black and white, or rather black and light grey. The off-white background is the same hue featured in Pasolini's opening credits, and I used the Galatia SIL font as this seemed like the closest approximation to Pasolini's original font that I could find for free. I'm weighing up doing a couple of other version of these and I'm thinking of doing those using colour and a more modern font. But here, I've essentially tried to reproduce the film's simple aesthetic. It's part of what makes the film so powerful.


    As I've mentioned above I'm still wondering about doing a more advanced version of the above. Ideally I would have liked it to be possible to hover over the dots and see the name and reference to each incident. In terms of tools I tend to use Power BI, but here I used Excel, partly because I didn't think anyone would look at it unless they already had a Power BI account and also because Power Bi doesn't let you use custom fonts. There are a couple of ways round the latter, but the former is a real deal breaker. 

    Annoyingly, though, while the Excel file version of this document does allow you to see some info as a tool-tip, you can't customise it, the way you can in PowerBi. So maybe I'll return to this data if I ever get around to picking up Tableau or Deneb or R or something where I can make the interactivity show online.

    The other limitation is that the quality is not as high as I'd hope. The higher quality version of this image is just over 800 by 900 pixels, but even then the dots look a little pixely in places. I also need to find somewhere to put that note about the darker grey strips being the author's five teaching blocks.

    Did it work?

    The main point I make about all this in the essay is that whereas Jesus has five chunks of teaching, Pasolini essentially reduces this down to two, the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7) and the Olivet discourse (Matt 23-25). However this visualisation doesn't really bear this out. While both sections feel like they take a long time, in reality they only take 5½ and 6½ minutes respectively, only 10% of the film combined. Plus while Pasolini's second discourse includes almost every word from chapter 23, he omits most of 24-25.

    This move from five to two seems really clear from viewing the film, so it's arguably a bit of a failure of the graph that it doesn't really bring that out. In a future version I'd want to itemise the seven woes a bit more. That would create more presence on the chart, but I don't think it will solve the problem. I need to think a bit more about that  – it's why this visualisation won't be appearing in my chapter on it. 

    That said, though, the point of the visual wasn't to reinforce a point I already felt comes through strongly in the film, it was to give me much more of a feel of how Pasolini jumps about in and abridges his source. And in that sense I think it really helps. For example, even with the briefest glance it's clear that Pasolini does not adopt a linear-but-abridged approach to the text. He moves material around. Much easier to see here than by sifting through a list of chapters and verses. I'm considering doing another one of these for The Jesus Film (1979) which takes a similar approach to Luke's gospel. I have no idea whether it jumps around or not.

    There are other benefits. One point I found particularly interesting, is to see what happened to Matthew's second discourse. Pasolini essentially merges it into part of his calling of the disciples sequence. It's a clever move because he manages to not only preserve the "revolutionary" way Matthew has Jesus make a single clear proposition, but also maintain a plausible dramatic narrative in terms of Jesus' growing support. He calls his men, and teaches them, before turning up after just his baptism to a huge crowd on the top of a mountain.

    It also demonstrates that Pasolini jumps back four times in the film, but for decreasing amount of time and material on each subsequent occasion. Also noticeable that the birth and Passion narratives take place in completely straight-forward fashion. It's only the ministry where some things change. But it's also arguable that what Pasolini is doing is jumping forward, rather than backwards. I might need to think a bit more about that.

    Over to you

    Having not only gone to the effort of producing this, I've now spent quite a while creating this blog post about it as well. So needless to say I'd love it not to be all in vain. So feel free to like and share and use if you're using it in classes. Please just keep the attribution to Staley and Walsh as well as mentioning me as its originator.

    More importantly do you have any observations that come from the chart? If so, I'd love to hear them. Please put something in the comments below.

    Labels: , ,

    Monday, August 21, 2023

    Wilde Salomé (2013)

    I've wanted to see Al Pacino's Salomé production for many years despite not being entirely sure what it was. There were seeming two entries on IMDb that seemed relevant and while things are a little clearer there now, originally it was confusing. Was this a filmed play, or a (more standard movie); or was it a documentary. It briefly popped up on Amazon Prime so I bookmarked it to come back to. And then it disappeared. 

    Fortunately, after an absence of 2 or so years (in the UK at least) it's back on Prime again to rent or buy on Amazon. So, ever trying to learn from past mistakes, I snapped it up, watched it and decided I should probably get some initial thoughts down before it disappears again.

    It turns out that what you are buying is in two distinct entities run into one. Firstly there is a documentary called Wilde Salomé from 2011. This is then immediately followed by a filmed version of the play which sits part way between a filmed play and a film. I'll offer a few thoughts on the latter in a future post as it's more the typical focus of this blog, but for now here are a few thoughts on the documentary


    Wilde Salomé is a 90 minute documentary which tracks Pacino's journey in adapting Oscar Wilde's famous play Salomé. Apparently the project has been a long term passion project for Pacino and he tells his story as he tours round various key locations in Wilde's lifetime, in Ireland, the US and in the UK. We also hear from a number of other people Pacino talks to, ranging from one of Wilde's descendants and people like Bono, through to a literal man on the street outside one of Wilde's British homes who, despite being a local resident, had no idea of the location's significance prior to bumping into Al Pacino blocking the pavement there. There's also some footage from Israel/Palestine.

    The travelogue footage is interspersed with extensive excerpts from the filmed version of the play, as well as lots of behind the scenes footage. Pacino trying to bring the production together, rehearsals, passionate discussions about the way a certain aspect should be handled. It emerges that there are three levels to the project which are all being produced in the same five days period: the stage play, which is being performed in from of a paying audience; a separate filmed version of the play which is being shot in the same few days, but entirely separately from the theatrical version; and the documentary itself. 

    There are certainly some interesting details, particularly for those, who like me, can recall only a little about Wilde and are never sure how much of it is true and how much is fiction from productions ranging from comedies such as Blackadder Goes Forth (1989) to more serious biopics like Wilde (1997) starring Blackadder alumnus Stephen Fry.

    The details of Wilde's final years, particularly those of his incarceration in a hard labour prison are pretty horrifying and the more editorial take on "Bosie", is welcome. I picture him as Jude Law, forget his father's codifying of the rules of boxing and can never recall a great deal else.

    Richard Strauss's famous operatic adaptation also gets a mention here -- For some strange reason I struggle to think of Strauss's work as coming after Wilde's. He, or at least his opera, somehow seems like a much more established / accepted work in terms of the British establishment. 

    While there are I'd really have liked a decent discussion of other filmed versions of the play or story. Pacino mentioned first seeing the Steven Berkhoff version in the late 1990s, and there's a little footage from that, but only regarding how it inspired him. And then there's footage from an early silent version and another adaptation shot in the Mojave desert. Fine if you want to skip the 1953 Rita Heyworth version (which not only steers clear of Wilde's play and drops the accent on the "e", but also changes Salome into a heroine who thinks she's dancing to save John the Baptist), but it would be nice to hear his thoughts on the 1922 Nazimova version or Ken Russell's The Last Dance (1988).  Actually I should get round to reviewing that one myself...

    All in all, there are certainly some points of interest, and it does flesh out Pacino's filmed version of the play which follows, but it's not as interesting as might be hoped, partly because, for all Pacino's charisma and enthusiasm, there's very little discipline. Pet passions like this need reigning in and this is hard to do when the obsessive fan making the project is one of Hollywood's biggest ever stars. It's not hard to imagine -- not least seeing the direct way with which Pacino talks to his colleagues -- that no-one really stood up to him to reign him in a bit. 

    But hey, I'm hardly one to talk. And just as I've enjoyed carving out a bit of space on the internet to let my pet passion ramble on untethered, then why shouldn't he? And for a making-of style documentary for a film about strong, irresistible, irrational passions, perhaps that's rather appropriate.  


    Saturday, August 12, 2023

    Jesus' Humour in Bible Movies

    I got a question from a friend asking if I knew of any clips of "Jesus laughing or being funny in any Jesus films" and if seemed like it might be an interesting subject for a blog post. They mentioned The Chosen and I agree it's an obvious starting place, because Jesus' sense of humour is so much more fully developed in that series than any other production that I'm aware of. So maybe we can take that as read, or maybe we'll just return to Jesus' sense of humour in The Chosen because it's quite a topic in itself. Feel free to post any good examples in the comments.

    The Comedy Jesus Films

    An obvious place to start is comedies which feature Jesus as a character. However, in most of the obvious examples, Jesus is played straight, it's the antics around him where characters might be said to joke; or it's the fact that a non-joking Jesus is in an unusual context that provides the humour.

    Take for example Luis Buñuel's The Milky Way (1969). Jesus appears a few times. The first time he is thinking of shaving his beard off. It's a funny scene, but the joke is about quirky juxtaposition. Moments later Jesus is running late – again, a normal element of being human that somehow feels at odds with how Jesus is traditionally portrayed

    I covered 9 films that could be classed as comedic in my book, but most of them were based on the Hebrew Bible. Nevertheless only one of them was written in that style of humour where one of the characters provides humour by saying intentionally funny things (e.g. Jerry in Seinfeld or Chandler in Friends), Hal Hartley's The Book of Life (1998). Here the 'funny' character is Satan even though Jesus (who has come to judge the living and the dead) remains the 'hero', though much of the humour comes from the quirky and surreal world to which Jesus returns.

    Indeed the existing comedy Bible movies are mostly written in that style where the characters themselves play things straight despite the fact they exist in a funny / absurd world / situation or they are the absurd ones. None of these films play Jesus as absurd, though I've not seen much of Black Jesus (2014-19) yet.

    Perhaps the most obvious example of the absurd universe model is the most famous comedic Bible Film Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979). Here Jesus only appears briefly at the start delivering the Sermon on the Mount in traditional fashion. The humour comes from the absurd conversations that happen at the edges of the crowd and then as the film pans out further we discover Jesus may very well be the only sane character in the entire character.

    The other film that might qualify as a comedy Jesus film is Get Some Money (2017) directed by Biko Nyongesa. The original short film of the same name was billed as a comedy about Judas' suicide. As someone not really familiar with a Kenyan sense of humour I found it difficult to relate to the humour – suicide tends not to be played for laughs in Anglo-American culture. Some bits were still amusing though again Jesus himself was not making jokes or wry observations.

    Lastly there's Jesus of Montreal (1989) which, as it is often observed, is not really a Jesus film at all as much as a film about Jesus which leans heavily on allegory. Interestingly Daniel, the character in the film who is portraying Jesus in a play, does have a sense of humour, but that's no something that carries over to his performance of Jesus. So the Christ-figure is funny, but not the Jesus figure. Indeed many of the classic Christ-figure films give their hero a sense of humour, but I'm going to resist going off on that tangent.

    In short, while several films are funny about Jesus, none of those really portray Jesus as having a sense of humour. However, there are several of the more traditional-style Jesus films which do give Jesus a sense of humour, so lets turn to them now.

    Son of Man (1969) 

    Dennis Potter's play, Son of Man was groundbreaking in so many ways, but it was when Gareth Davies adapted it for the BBC that elements of Jesus' humour began to emerge. The actor Davies picked as his lead – Colin Blakely – gives an electric performance as Jesus and his version of the Sermon on the Mount is a particular highlight. There are a few changes to the script. I'm not sure whether Potter rewrote it for the television, or if that was down to Davies, or just the way Blakely delivered the scene. Perhaps a combination of the three, but it's there that a couple of little humorous interjections emerge. The potential is there in Potter's words, but Blakely injects the scene with the impression that not only does his Jesus realise humour is a useful tool, but that he is clearly revelling in using it. "It's easy to love those who love you" says Blakely with perfect comic timing "Why even the tax collector can do that". Later, he admits it would hurt were someone to strike you on the cheek and when Brian Blessed's Peter adds "Yes, especially if I were to do it Master!", Jesus roars with laughter along with everyone else. The signs of Jesus' sense of humour are brief, but very much there.

    The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

    Scorsese's interpretation of the story was different in so many ways from its predecessors that it's hardly a surprise that humour is one of the elements of Jesus' humanity (though perhaps it's a divine characteristic too) which it draws out. In some ways this is surprising as Jesus tends to be very intense and serious in this movie. The first flicker of a sense of humour here occurs in the stoning scene. Jesus is challenging the crowd about their own sin. When Zebedee steps forward claiming he's not done anything wrong, Jesus asks him his mistresses' name. It's meant rhetorically, but when another member of the crowd shouts out "Judith", Jesus raises his eyebrow wryly. At a recent screening, which I introduced, the audience laughed at that moment. 

    Shortly afterwards the disciples arrive at the Wedding at Cana, which Nathaniel (whose cousin is getting married) is helping out with. When the wine runs out Jesus asks what is in the nearby jars. Nathaniel informs him that they're only water – he filled them himself. Jesus suggests he check anyway. Nathaniel is insistent, but eventually gives way, only to discover they are now filled with wine. Nathaniel stares back at Jesus open mouthed. Jesus – in what has become a much used meme, raises his glass with an told-you-so smile.

    There's not much more to it than that, but certainly this was a development, and moreover it's perhaps the only moment in any Jesus production prior to The Chosen where I smile at Jesus' sense of humour. 

    The Visual Bible: Matthew (1994)

    If Scorsese's introduction of a Jesus with a sense of humour was a bit of an innovation then Regardt van den Bergh's Matthew was a revolution. Bruce Marchiano received instruction from his director to play Jesus as a "Man of Joy" (p.72) and inspiration from an 8 year old friend who remarked "Well I sure hope he smiles a lot because Jesus in the other Jesus movies never smiled, and I know that Jesus smiles all the time". Marchiano certainly delivered on that guidance, giving the most joyful, smiley portrayal of Jesus imaginable. Even the passages where it's hard to image Jesus smiling, Marchiano keeps going, for example the 7 woes of Matt 23. He later reflected that "Jesus smiled bigger and laughed heartier than any human being who's ever walked the planet". While it occasionally rankles with an old curmudgeon like me, many have found it life-changing.

    But smiling and laughing are not the same as "being funny" and here van den Bergh and Marchiano were limited by the former's decision to stick to a word for word adaptation of Matthew's text. Yet while Matthew is not the kind of witty text that will instantly have you in stitches, it's important to remember even the deliberate examples of wit we do have from that period do not seem particularly funny to us today. 

    In that context there are one or two moments of humour in Matthew that feel not out of place in that context and the film certainly tries to stress the point that this is meant to be humorous. The most memorable is when it comes to Matt 7:3-5 ("How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?"). This bit of comic exaggeration often cited as an example of humour in the Bible and, as if to underline the point, Marchiano picks up a big piece of wood and holds it against his eye as he delivers the line. It's not the greatest piece of comic delivery, but it does, at least, make the point. 

    Jesus (1999)

    Roger Young's miniseries tries, as much as any previous Jesus film, so show Jesus having a laugh. There's the moment when he and his disciples rush to a water point, desperate for a drink and he playfully splashes them with the water and another similar moment later on. 

    Perhaps the most memorable scene in this respect is when some street performers seek to get the crowd – which Jesus is part of – to dance. Jesus (played by a youthful Jeremy Sisto) is very keen and jumps right up. Thomas (of course!) is less entranced and so Jesus seeks to coax him out of his shell a bit. It plays as funny, but in real life I would hate it if someone tried this. Jesus! You don't need my compliance to validate your own joy at dancing.

    Elsewhere Jesus' style of preaching is more open than in many films. When he preaches he doesn't just get the kind of questions we find in the Bible, also gets heckled, and his reaction is to laugh along. Jesus himself doesn't tell jokes in this film, but he certainly is shown to have a good sense of humour.

    More recent productions

    All of these examples are from the twentieth century. Are there any, more-recent examples? Casting my mind back, I remember Jesus being generally cheery and good natured in films such as The Miracle Maker (2000) and Risen (2016) and perhaps even a little self-depricating in such a way as to suggest he doesn't take himself too seriously. But neither contain laughter, humour or jokes. Meanwhile 2006's Color of the Cross, Son of God (2014), Killing Jesus (2015) and Last Days in the Desert (2016) probably reversed the general trend of getting Jesus to lighten up a bit from his earlier silver screen outings, and presented him as a more serious figure. Likewise other non-English language efforts such as Shanti Sandesham (2004),  Jezile (Son of Man, 2006), Su re (2012) and The Savior (2014) also have a more serious-minded approach. There is are a couple of exceptions and like Son of Man (1969) above, both are from British television...

    The Second Coming (2003)

    In 2003 Christopher Ecclestone, the (then) future Doctor Who, starred as the son of God come back to earth as a working class Mancunian. Northern humour was very much part of the mix. In one scene as he speaks to a vast crown he reminds them of scientific breakthroughs with potentially apocalyptic consequences and asks  "Do you think you're reading for that much power?...You lot?....You cheeky bastards!" 

    The line that most stays with me comes from the end of the first episode. I won't spoil it for those who haven't seen it (it's currently on the Internet Archive), but even twenty years after watching it I could remember the episode's final line. "Well, maybe two".

    Second Coming is far from a conventional Jesus film, and it's notable that this was an ITV production rather than something from the BBC. This is very much a Jesus who jokes, even if he's arguably more intense than many of the others. Moreover this is a Jesus who jokes and uses humour, but doesn't really smile and laugh that much (and when he does it's slightly unnerving).

    The Passion (2008)

    The Passion first broadcast by the BBC in 2008 contains a few humorous notes in its very first scene. Jesus and the disciples are attempting to buy a donkey and its colt and when their business is done the seller realises who Jesus is. Jesus asks him what he's heard and when the seller mentions overthrowing the Romans Jesus replies "Does this look like an army...apart from John and James". Later Jesus uses sleight of hand to inject a bit of humour into "Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar" and also to turn some of his questioners cynicism back onto them. 

    This is also a Jesus who smiles and laughs as well. But the series is also keen to show those around Jesus laughing at the things he says, or more to the point how he says it. When Jesus is told "the elders instruct us" he counters "and you must listen to what they say...just don't do what they do". As Jesus, Joseph Mawle's delivery is good hear, his relaxed delivery and timing make many lines that read straight in the Gospels become funny. That is also due to Frank Deasy's script which rephrases the words from the Gospels making them more lively and immediate.

    Over to you

    That's all of the best examples I can think of, having mulled over this for a week or so. Did I miss any? If so, let me know in the comments below.

    Labels: , , , , ,

    Friday, August 04, 2023

    My Film Commentary for Pasolini's Gospel According to Matthew

    For most of this year I've been writing a chapter on Pier Paolo Pasolini's Il Vangelo secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to St. Matthew, 1964). The chapter is due to go in a book celebrating the Arts and Faith Top 100 “Spiritually Significant” films lists due out sometime 2024-25. I'll post details on that in due course but keep an eye out for it. It's current title is "The Soul of Cinema: Essays on Arts & Faith’s Top 100 Spiritually Significant Films".

    In honesty, that project may have finished me as a writer. There has been just so much written about Pasolini, and the concepts he wrestles with and introduces as an artist are not easy to get one's head around that it was hugely challenging marshalling all the sources and doing them justice, and then trying to cram it down to a semi-reasonable word count (I think mine might be the longest chapter in the book. I'm grateful to the book's editor and brains behind the project, Ken Morefield, for his flexibility & support on that. 

    Having done all that I thought it might be fun to put that knowledge to good use in other contexts. So I was interviewed about the film by John Bleasdale for his "Cinema Italia" podcast which you can get from Acast | Apple | Spotify

    So I've also recorded this feature length commentary track. Here you get to watch the whole film while I discuss various aspects about it's production, meaning, performers, music, etc. It's like a director's commentary, only I'm obviously not the director. The beauty of doing this is that I've added subtitles so you can still follow what's happening. And it's 720px so the visual quality should be pretty decent. Watch the video here.

    It's difficult to know how this will land. I'm an avid consumer of YouTube, but have had quite mixed results even with my own limited content. My most watched video is 3 seconds of John Inman going "I'm free", followed by Harry Dean Stanton singing "Ain't No Grave" in Cool Hand Luke. But in terms of Bible Films material I don't really know why my most successful video comprising of clips from 6 Classic Era Jesus Films has currently got 26,000 views, while one showing clips from 5 Silent Jesus Films has only 345. Similarly I would never have predicted that around 7,000 people would watch my clip from obscure Sardinian Jesus film Su re (2012), but only 64 would watch the pivotal clip from the far better known Jesus of Montreal (1989).

    I suspect this is the least appealing of all of them – after all not many people will have the time to sit and watch/listen to me for over two hours. But I do hope those that do find it an enriching and rewarding experience. I should add that I don't make a penny of these videos, so hopefully there won't be too many ads for household gadgets at crucial moments.


    Labels: , ,

    Sunday, July 23, 2023

    The Shack (2017)

    Ideally, I probably should have watched The Shack (dir. Stuart Hazeldine, 2017) before I finished writing my book. The novel, originally a bedtime story that William Paul Young wrote for his kids and was encouraged to convert into a book, had sold 20 million copies even before the film came out,1 and was certainly big at my old church. The summaries I heard didn't really appeal to me. Then it got a $20million adaptation, and while it made five times that back at the box office, it didn't get released near me. 

    By the time I was writing with real purpose, it was available on DVD, but it seemed to be more of a Christian film than a Bible film. Yes it features Jesus played by an actor from Israel (Aviv Alush), only three years after Robert Savo's The Savior (2014) had first done the same, as well as portraying God as a Black woman (played by Octavia Spencer). Yet while both of these things made me consider it briefly, its story is fictional, not biblical, and even the appearance of the Trinity (rounded off by Sumire as "Sarayu", the Holy Spirit) is ultimately portrayed as something that happens in the protagonist's mind/heart.

    So I decided to pass and I would probably have left it for a good while longer but for the fact someone asked me about it at an academic conference recently. I was presenting on authenticity in biblical films and then also had a hint of a chance of appearing again on BBC Radio 4 talking about Christian movies, so I decided I should really get on with it.

    On reflection, I'm glad I delayed because I hated this film. Indeed I'm fairly stunned to find reviews by some of the Christian reviewers I know (and respect) were lukewarm about it. As a general rule I tend to try not to dwell too much on the negatives of a film. I'm sure The Shack will have profoundly touched, moved and even changed some people, perhaps even help them through their grief. I don't wish to trample on that, so I'll refrain from going into why I think it fails both as entertainment as as an apologetic.2

    In any case, given my mind has a tendency to over-literalise things, perhaps I'm just missing the point. I guess it's trying to be more of a parable, though in terms of form, though, perhaps it closer to the Book of Job. The Shack's protagonist, Mack (played by Sam Worthington) is well and truly brought low. Already a survivor of domestic violence and then having his daughter abducted, raped and murdered, now his marriage is falling apart and he's losing (less literally) his remaining kids as he (understandably) struggles to process his emotional pain. Only then are we given a peek into God's inner circle and the chance to understand the bigger picture: Mack finds himself at a remote cottage talking with personifications of the three persons of the Trinity, and then with the personification of wisdom (Sophia) as well.

    I get that the intention is to portray God-the-parent, God-the-son and God-the-Holy-Spirit as loving and approachable, but I'm not sure this really maps to the kind of Job-esque peek behind the scenes that the filmmakers seem to be attempting. Moreover is Job really a good apologetic in the first place? To me Job is at it's best when it's giving expression to human suffering – suffering we all feel at one time or another, not when it's trying to explain it away. Indeed even the court-scene framing – which many scholars consider later additions – doesn't really attempt to give acceptable justification for why God allowed Job to suffer. Theologically the problem is that The Shack wants to a) given a reasoned explanation for suffering; b) present God as being active, all-powerful, present and intervening in the world; and, c) loving and good and I think you really only get to choose two.

    Octavia Spencer is a decent actress and she deserves better than this. Splitting the trinity into three persons (plus wisdom) really seems to weaken the potential appeal of each and while Spencer's homely, compassionate motherly persona might win over those who believe in God, but that he hates them, the character doesn't really have enough charisma and the homespun wisdom (not something I'm a huge fan of in general) falls a long way short of comparative biblical material (be it from Job or elsewhere). The problem is that personifying God then leaves little room for Jesus. He can show Mack how to walk on water and reinforce the point that both he and God-the-parent are loving, but while there's mention of his own suffering he doesn't even really seem to reflect on his and Mack's shared experience.

    So while it's a most welcome change to see a Black Woman playing God, and an Jewish Israeli playing Jesus they are not really given any decent material to work with. It's not really a Bible film, it's an adaptation of Bible fan-fiction, and a poorly executed attempt at that.

    1. Getlen, Larry, "This man wrote a small book for his family — and it became a bestseller", New York Post. December 27, 2016. https://nypost.com/2016/12/25/this-man-wrote-a-small-book-for-his-family-and-it-became-a-best-seller/

    2. If you want to experience it being dismantled, then plenty of other reviews have done that already, including the podcast "God Awful Movies" (also available on audio only) which spends nearly two hours comprehensively dismantling it – though I find some of their views pretty deplorable.