• 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


    Monday, May 29, 2023

    Is Another Scorsese Jesus Film on the Way?

    Over the weekend the Vatican's been holding a conference in Italy called "L’estetica Globale dell’Immaginazione Cattolica" (The Global Aesthetics of the Catholic Imagination) and among the more famous attendees were Pope Francis and Martin Scorsese. According to the Twitter feed of organiser Antonio Spadaro the Pope said:

    "This is your work as poets, storytellers, filmmakers, artists: to give life, to give body, to give word to everything that human beings live, feel, dream, suffer, creating harmony and beauty.... Will they criticize you? All right, carry the burden of criticism, also trying to learn from criticism. But still, don't stop being original, creative. Do not lose the wonder of being alive."

    Scorsese was apparently moved by the Pope's appeal and as a result later announced “I have responded to the Pope’s appeal to artists in the only way I know how: by imagining and writing a screenplay for a film about Jesus".

    I'm a bit pushed for time at the moment, but you can read more on this story at Variety and cinematographe.it.

    Should be interesting to see how this film turns out given the general Catholic disapproval of Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ particularly given the Pope's comments above about criticism.


    Sunday, April 02, 2023

    The Chosen (2019) s1e07

    In many ways the seventh episode of The Chosen feels like a season finale. A number of the longer running story arcs, particularly those of Nicodemus and Matthew, seem to reach their conclusion in this instalment. 

    Unusually however, this penultimate episode of season 1, starts back in the 13th century BC. Poisonous snakes are sweeping the Israelite camp and Moses and Joshua are debating the acceptability of fashioning a bronze snake to heal all the snake-bitten Israelites who gaze upon it. Num 21:4-9 is not a passage that has been dramatised very often and it's always nice to see a relatively obscure passage getting covered. Here it's either a metaphor for how breaking the rules/doing the wrong thing can be the right thing to do in exceptional circumstances; or its a metaphor for how unclean things can be used for Gods glory; or its both. The latter seems like it might be a nod to Matthew's pending appointment to join Jesus' disciples; the former might be more of a nod to the difficulties Nicodemus is having in what he's discovering about Jesus. And, of course, amidst Jesus' discussion with Nicodemus in John 3 that Jesus refers to this incident

    This episode is also fairly short and the scenes are fairly long, particularly Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus which lasts for 10 minutes straight – getting on for a third of the episode's run time. After the flashback above and the opening credits a handful of minor scenes slip by. The cosy relationship between Matthew and his supervisor Gaius, as the rather genteel Roman soldier picks up his charge for work; Nicodemus hears news of a new grandchild just as his Roman minder, Praetor Quintus, pops in for a status update; Jesus and his disciples set up a new camp on the outskirts of town.

    While there are other Romans depicted, I'm starting to be bothered about the leading soldiers lack of power and menace. Gaius carries all the threat of a supply teacher; Quintus – channelling elements of Jay Robinson's Caligula in The Robe – implies some sort of threat, but by the end of their scene, it's clear Nicodemus is more scared of his wife than his imperialist superior. And this is a problem. I can't help but recall Suzy/Eddie Izzard's routine about how the Romans didn't just wander in new territories and say "Hello, we are the Romans" in a James Mason voice. There's little to suggest the power dynamic that should be a key element in these scenes. I wouldn't even talk to my manager in the slightly brusque way that Nicodemus does to Quintus and, unless I missed something in my contract, they don't have the power to have me stabbed for being too snippy.

    All this matters because the Romans and the Jews were not on level footing. The Romans were the invading force, backed up by the most feared army in the world. Some will have collaborated more willingly than others, but it's hard to imagine they were this snippy, and the problem is that this implies that Jews were much more heavily implicated in the opposition to, and demise of, Jesus than is likely to have been the case.

    Prior to the meet-up between Nicodemus and Jesus we witness things being orchestrated behind the scenes to make the meeting happen, as if it's an episode of The West Wing where Leo is trying to make a crucial breakthrough in Israeli-Palestian diplomacy. John 3:1 just says Nicodemus "came to him by night". This might suggest secrecy, it could just suggest a busy diary, but here it's not really clear why Nicodemus is being quite so cautious.

    When it finally comes, the conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus is pretty good. I'm sure there is analysis online somewhere that go through, line-by-line, which bits are direct from John, which bits are  paraphrased and which bits are made up, so I've no wish to do that. That said the dialogue broadly follows the order and arguments of the original text, only paraphrased an expanded for clarity and flow for a modern audience. 

    However, it does import this element of the religious leaders being in opposition / a threat to Jesus. Nicodemus explains that his "mind is consumed with what a stir these words would cause among the teachers of the law" and Jesus says "Yes, and I do not expect otherwise... and it has not been received by the religious leaders". Then Nicodemus expands "I just fear you may not have a chance to speak many more of them before you are silenced".

    The Gospels record Jesus debating the interpretation of the Jewish law with other religious groups, including the "teachers of the law" (though that phrase is from the synoptics rather than John which is being used here), and it's clear that he does not always make them see his point of view. Nevertheless in the early pars of the Gospels this is mainly in the form of in-house discussion and debate. It is mainly when the action moves to Jerusalem that we get some of these scribes specifically aligned with the Chief Priests (i.e. the political as much as religious establishment) that trying to silence Jesus becomes an issue.

    Eventually we get the discussion about Moses and the bronze serpent. Jesus uses this as a metaphor for his crucifixion and we get a paraphrase of the famous "For God so loved the world" from John 3:16; but this part of the discussion also imports the idea of sin, right before Jesus speaks those famous words. Nicodemus' reaction then is not so much to be moved by the words that have adorned countless banners, posters, and sandwich boards, but to clarify the bit just before it. "So this has nothing to do with Rome, it's all... about... sin?"

    While up to this point in the conversation the script has tended to expand and elaborate on the original text, now it can't quite see it through to the end of the passage. Jesus paraphrases v17, refers back to the snake and then starts of on v18, but the camera cuts away so the only negative bit on the passage "but those who does not believe, stands condemned already",  the camera cuts away to the nearby disciples, so the last part is muffled. Once the camera returns to Nicodemus and Jesus the biblical part of the discussion is over and the conversation takes a fresh turn, almost as if time has passed in the edit.

    What moves Nicodemus to faith and even tears is not Jesus' words, but his recollection of having seen Jesus acts of healing (specifically his exorcism of Mary Magdalene). Indeed as the conclusion reaches its apex is not Jesus' words, but his actions days before and finally being in his presence.. Jesus asks Nicodemus to join him and gives him a few days. Nicodemus kneels and begins citing Psalm 2:12, only for Jesus to respond with its final line, "Blessed are all who take refuge in him". The scene ends.

    In many ways, the, this scene is a microcosm of the series' whole approach. The words of Jesus are taken, tweaked a little to make dramatic sense, but then those elements are left behind for a more emotional yet fictional encounter. As if words are not enough. In the Bible you sense Nicodemus is drawn in by Jesus' mysteries. Jesus offers him no deadline, no ultimatum and he appears to disappear from view. When he pops up briefly in John 7:50 he's with the chief priests again, though still sympathetic. And then nothing, until John 19:39 when he pops up at Jesus' burial, one of the few that have stuck with him. 

    Here though that's not enough. Nicodemus is drawn in not so much because of Jesus' words – which only seem to confuse him – but because he witnessed a miracle he could only assign to God. And similarly, the overall production seems to recognise that the text itself needs something more emotional and drama-tic, something that comes from encounter.

    If Nicodemus' response to the challenge from Jesus still remains a little ambiguous (with Nicodemus thinking over Jesus' altar call) then the same cannot be said for Matthew and the challenge Jesus offers him in the final scene. Having been similarly fascinated of, but cautious about Jesus for much of the season, Jesus finally shows up at his tax collection booth. 

    The first shot of Matthew is of him in his booth (above), but this is designed in such a way that Matthew is behind bars, as if he is imprisoned. This is highlighted again with the first shot of Jesus in this scene, taken from Matthew's point of view with the bars in shot, to emphasise further this sense of him being imprisoned. The two make eye contact, Jesus walks on knowing Matthew's eyes are following him and simply asks "follow me".

    Peter tries to dissuade him and for once he and his sworn enemy Gaius agree, but Matthew and Jesus are certain. "I don't get it" says Peter. "You didn't get it when I chose you either". "But this is different" retorts Peter, "I'm not a tax collector". "Get used to different" says Jesus with a wry smile. It's a line that has become one of the show's taglines, with a range of t-shirts, hoodies and reusable coffee cups proudly bearing the slogan

    Being a Matthew myself I always notice the little details that Christian tradition has ascribed to Matthew and its interesting to see some of these played out. Firstly I always recall the line William Barclay's Daily Study Bible commentary, "Matthew rose up and followed him and left everything behind him except one thing – his pen" (p.6 in the 2001 version). Here he brings a tablet instead but the ideas the same. "Keep it, you may yet find use for it" says Jesus verbally winking at the camera. When Jesus tells Matthew "We have a celebration to prepare for", Matthew says  "I'm not welcome at dinner parties". "That's not going to be a problem tonight" counters Jesus "you're the host". 

    It's a real zinger of a last line, delivered in pitch perfect fashion by Jonathan Roumie as Jesus. Just compare it, for example, with the same basic set-up in Jesus of Nazareth (1977), which tries a similar thing but falls flat (though, to be fair it leaves its emotional wallop for the conclusion of the whole sequence). I guess I will see, when I move onto the final episode of the season how the obvious tension between Peter and Matthew will play out here, but, with over an hour's running time, I'm kind of curious to see what else gets thrown into the mix.


    Sunday, March 26, 2023

    La ricotta (1963), revisited

    Sixteen years ago now I reviewed Pier Paolo Pasolini's 30-minute short La ricotta (1963), which was released as part of the anthology/portmateau film RoGoPaG. I've changed a lot since then, not least becuase now I've seen all of Pasolini's films – some of them multiple times – and read a lot and spoken about his movies as well. So I thought it was time to revisit this one, as I sat down to watch it in its entirety for the first time in a while.

    Multiple crucifixions
    The first thing that struck me was the multiple crucifixions we find here, all stacked up against one another. Most obviously we have the gaudy technicolor reconstruction of the film within a film – a close reproduction of Rosso Fiorentino's Mannerist "Deposizione dalla croce" [aka "Deposition of Volterra"] (1521) – but this is not the only depiction of the crucifixion in the film with the film, because the scene in which Stracci features stars a Jesus who looks significantly different (there's no long red hair for one thing). In another sense though, Stracci's death is also a crucifixion of sorts. He dies on the cross, perhaps even, one could argue, for the sins of the world, and the final line of dialogue from Welles's director, recalls the centurion at the foot of the cross. Stracci's own final lines are significant too.

    But there is another scene that functions as a crucifixion scene, that is not so widely talked about. as the crew set up one of the shoots for the crucifixion scene we witness Stracci and the actor playing Jesus. While they are lying, nailed to their crosses, on the ground, the camera looks "up" at them as if the shot is taken at from the foot of the cross. Like the rest of the cast and crew the Jesus-actor talks down to Stracci, and their dialogue could be easily construed as just that. However, on closer inspection there's more to it:

    I'm hungry. I'm hungry.
    Now I'm going to blaspheme.


    Just try it and see what i give you.

    A fine Christ you are. You think
    I've got no right to grumble?


    Suit yourself, but I won't take you
    into the Kingdom of Heaven.


    I could be okay in the
    Kingdom of the Earth.

    (The argument moves on to politics)

    This dialogue works as an ironic take on the text from Luke's Gospel. Instead of the thief humbling himself to beg a receptive and willing Jesus for entry into the Kingdom of Heaven, we have an already humbled Stracci talking up his suitability for the kingdom. Meanwhile the Jesus actor is anything but the figure we find in Luke 23. Rather than be gracious and receptive he acts like a petty and mean-spirited gatekeeper.

    Sweary Mary
    Sixteen years I didn't know any Italian, but I started learning around 2013-4 and have been making slow progress since. Enough, at least, to spot the odd thing that you don't get from the subtitles. Here, for example, there's a scene where the actors are trying to capture the deposition from the cross, reproducing the exact poses of another Mannerist, Jacopo da Pontormo's "Deposizione" (1528). Pasolini has studied the history of art, and knew his Mannerism, so he would have know that "its adherents generally favored compositional tension and instability rather than the balance and clarity of earlier Renaissance painting".(1) So Pasolini makes a visual art-joke, demonstrating the "instability" of the composition by having the actors – who have been ordered to hold their poses still, rather than move and act – collapse after a while. This is rather unsurprising given the general messing around that has been occurring on set and taken to be typical of the attitudes that Pasolini seeks to highlight. Most of the actors laugh and see the funny side.

    One person, however, is not impressed. The film's major star, "Sonia, la 'Diva'" played by Laura Betti, is playing Mary, Jesus' mother. While her co-stars laugh-off the whole incident, she is incandescent with rage. Her voice though is not added to cacophony of sounds emanating from the cast at this point, which almost seems to add to her frustration. However, it's clear that one of the words she shouts several times is "basta", the Italian for "Enough!" only here it's probably a bit stronger in Italian than that literal translation. I can't lip read the rest, but I'd love to hear from anyone who can. I do wonder if this was the moment that was the tipping point for those who decided to press for Pasolini's prosecution (that said, Geoffrey Nowell-Smith says, in this piece, "that the real target of the prosecution was not La ricotta at all but the much talked about Gospel". In other words that this prosecution was a shot across Pasolini's bows.

    Accattone and Stracci
    This time around I was struck by the similarities between the title character (I won't say "hero") of Pasolini's debut feature Accattone (1961) and Stracci, the lead character here. Both characters have meaningful names. Accattone means "Beggar" or more colloquially ‘deadbeat’ or ‘grifter’. Stracci means "rags". The meanings of both resonate through their roles. While both are the lead characters, neither of them is a hero – not in any conventional sense at least – or even, really, an anti-hero.

    More importantly for Pasolini was that they were both representatives of the bottom layer of Italian society that he treasured so greatly. For Pasolini it was this strata of society that most opposed neo-capitalism and refused to play by its rules, and was also where the last remaining vestiges of the sacred could be found.

    Pasolini was hugely critical of bourgeois society, and the more I look into his work the more I am convinced he would have hated me and the majority of those who so value his films today. And this is perhaps why I find both Accattone and Stracci so difficult to sympathise with, certainly to understand their actions. Stracci is the more sympathetic. Selling a dog to buy food when you're starving is more understandable than grooming and then pimping out a young girl, but the way Stracci eats to such excess proudly refuses to make him a conventional tragic-hero and imbues the whole film with the sort of comic approach that Pasolini was going for.

    The actor playing Stracci, Mario Cipriani had appeared, uncredited in Accattone and Mamma Roma (1962) and would do so twice more, firstly in "La terra vista dalla luna" his contribution to another composite film Le streghe (The Witches, 1967), then in "Che cosa sono le nuvole?" in another joint film Caprice Italian Style (1968). Franco Citti, who played Accattone, would go on to become one of Pasolini's biggest collaborators, fronting a number of his movies throughout Pasolini's 14-year career.

    The cruelty
    Not unrelated to the above is the cast and crew's treatment of Stracci. This time around I was struck by how unrelentingly cruel it is and how it seems to be generated largely by class hatred. Stracci is never shown as being part of the group or having any form of social acceptance. Sonia's dog is welcome on site, and even catered for, but Stracci's family have to remain at a distance. Even when his costars appear, they smile wave and pass by like the opening characters from the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The scene where Stracci overeats to bursting point is particularly noticeable – everyone goads and bullies him into eating more and more, pitting the desperation of his hunger against his human dignity – but this behaviour occurs elsewhere. Once when Stracci is fixed to the cross, and mentions his hunger, a co-star offers him bites from his sandwich to taunt him before another man pours drink down his throat and he is mocked in every scene.

    I suspect this behaviour is not so much a call to the middle classes to improve their behaviour to other classes as it is to say to the sub-altern/proletarians that "this is how they will treat you if unrestrained"


    While it tends to be Il vangelo secondo Matteo, Teorema (Theorem, 1968) or Salò o le centoventi giornate di Sodoma (Salò or the 120 days of Sodom, 1975) that are Pasolini's most celebrated films, there's a very strong case for La ricotta being his best short film, and his greatest comedy. And while there were often strong objections to his work, and threats of prosecution, I believe it was the only time Pasolini was convicted for one of his films.

    Given its release came at a similar time to the start of the Vatican II Council I can't help but wonder if the timing was deliberately provocative, even for such a mild film by today's standards. Pasolini considered himself an atheist, but one who nevertheless realised the important and varying role the church played in Italian society in general. So while Il vangelo remains the more insightful film about the Gospels, La ricotta speaks with more insight and passion about the role of the Roman Catholic church at just the same time that the institution itself was undergoing major self-examination; and about Italian society in general and its often hypocritical attitudes to religion.

    1- Finocchio, Ross (2003) "Mannerism: Bronzino (1503–1572) and his Contemporaries", Department of European Paintings The Metropolitan Museum of Art website. Available online -  https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/zino/hd_zino.htm

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    Monday, February 27, 2023

    History of the World, Part II coming to Hulu next week

    42 years after Mel Brooks' original comedy film History of the World, Part I was playing in theatres, a sequel series – History of the World, Part II – starts streaming on Hulu next week. The series premieres on Monday March 6, 2023 with two episodes landing each night for four days.

    The longer running format allows for an even wider range of historical characters than the original film's five and the trailer, promises a good variety of historical characters, including the biblical characters Noah, Jesus (played by Jay Ellis, pictured above), Judas and Mary Magdalene.

    IMDb still seems to be filling in the details but it looks like while Brooks exec-produced the series and wrote it (alongside David Stassen) and will also be narrating it, he isn't directing it or playing a lead role. That said the assembled cast is impressive. The eight episodes will feature Danny DeVito, Wanda Sykes, Taika Waititi, Sarah Silverman, Seth Rogan, David Duchovny, The Good Place's D’Arcy Carden & Jason Mantzoukas, Richard Kind (A Serious Man), Brooklyn 99's Joe Lo Truglio, Jack McBrayer (30 Rock) and Lauren Lapkus (Big Bang Theory).

    I found the original movie a bit hit and miss. Moses dropping a third tablet with five additional commandments was a great gag, as was playing him as an exaggerated Jewish stereotype, and there were one or two good gags in the Last Supper section (starring John Hurt as Jesus) and a few others besides, but parts of it really dragged. Indeed this is how I tend to find Brook's movies, I always find myself wanting to like them more than I do. That said, I still haven't seen the producers, and really I should.

    Anyway, I'll hopefully be able to access this and offer a few comments over the next few weeks.

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    Wednesday, February 01, 2023

    The Chosen (2019) s1e06

    My New Year's resolution to do more blogging has taken a big hit of the last couple of weeks, so it's about time I did another episode of The Chosen (see all posts), so let’s crack on. As ever these are scribbled notes rather than a more carefully considered and thoroughly checked piece.

    This week’s episode starts with a man with “leprosy” trying to pass himself off as someone about to become an Essene in order to sell his remaining, valuable assets. To its credit, later on this episode will touch on some of the different Jewish groups in first-century Judea quite a bit, both the Sadducees and varieties of Pharisaism will get a mention later on. Here, however it quickly becomes apparent he is seeking to raise a bit of money to provide what he can for himself (and perhaps his family) as his condition worsens.

    The main part of the episode starts with Matthew and his centurion colleague Gaius nervous about the tax money that has been raised from the miraculous catch of fish in episode 4. A friend with a child who has autism had mentioned to me that Matthew is portrayed here as autistic, and certainly this is the first episode where such traits became much more apparent to me. I think it’s potentially a great angle for the series to incorporate, though much of that will depend on how the character is handled in the remainder of the series.

    The first scene of episode features Jesus and his disciples packing up camp. Jesus tells Simon that he will be going ahead and also advises Simon to go directly to Nazareth ahead of the others in order to look after his family. When we next meet Jesus he and his disciples are on the road where they meet an Ethiopian woman, Tamar (pictured above), who grew up in Egypt. Jesus breaks into what (I presume) is Arabic and soon he and Tamar  are chatting along in the language of their childhoods, leaving everyone else wondering what’s happening.

    This is an interesting development because while there are various reasons to suppose Jesus could have spoken bits and pieces of more than one language, it strikes me that Arabic is perhaps unlikely to have been one of them. If he grew up in Egypt then it’s certainly possible that he picked up enough “Egyptian”, although whether he was in Egypt long enough to pick up other than that of his parents is open to question. Nevertheless, as well as speaking Aramaic he also spoke some Hebrew and possibly some Latin or Greek. So it’s interesting because while this seems not unlikely, it's rarely something that features in the films. I’d have to go back and check The Passion of the Christ to see whether he ever speaks Latin in that film; and it’s one of the few multilingual Jesus films. 

    It also becomes apparent that Herod’s slaughter of the innocents was known more widely as one of the disciples refers to it your friend on learning of Jesus’ childhood abroad. Jesus and Tamar's conversation is broken off, however, by the arrival of the man we met in their opening scene. Clearly some time has passed and in the intervening period his symptoms have got worse. The disciples are horrified. Jesus of course steps forward and heals him. As far as I can recall, this is the series’ first healing. The scene ends with Jesus asking one of his disciples for their spare tunics (evoking John the Baptists’ teaching in Luke 3:11), giving it to the man, then using the phrase “Not too shabby”. Generally, I like The Chosen’s use of modern language, but sometimes it lurches far and the anachronisms leave the series seeming like it’s trying too hard.

    Jesus and the disciples arrive in Capernaum. Simon is reunited with his wife and tends to his poorly mother-in-law. Jesus and the sons of thunder say hello to Zebedee and his wife, who here is called Salome. This is a harmonisation of Matt 27:56 and Mark 15:40 Their friendly chat quickly develops into something more. On the one hand, Jesus begins to work out some of the best stories and sayings that he is to become so well known for as his teacher. For example, he delivers the thrust of the "Parable of the 10 Virgins", only without the kind of vivid imagery we find in the final, codified version. I wasn't sure if this was the deliberate attempt to exclude these ten women – which could be for a variety of reasons, good and bad – or if the idea here was that thought of Jesus starting to work out his teaching and the kind of key messages that will be honed and brought to life through repetition and reworking as he and the disciples go out on the road.

    The other thing that starts to happen is that gradually a crowd starts to gather. It's just one or two people, at first, but soon the crowd has spread right across the street. This results in several different things happening. Firstly, it attracts the attention of the Pharisees. Earlier in the episode we have witnessed the conflict between Nicodemus and his former disciple Shmuel. John the Baptist has been seized, an act seemingly authorised by a Pharisee, and so an indignant Nicodemus, suspecting the reputed authorisation to be untrue, inquires as to who it was, only for Shmuel to admit it. Shmuel is worried about Jesus; Nicodemus is intrigued (famously so). On hearing this, an indignant Shmuel – who bears all the traits of having been radicalised, marches off to do something about it.

    Secondly it attracts Gaius and Matthew. As invented characters go, so far, Gaius is far more reasonable than Shmuel, but nevertheless, he goes along to ensure the peace is being kept. Matthew on the other hand is fascinated, not least because Gaius and Matthew’s boss Quintus, has tried to brush off the miraculous catch of fish as a con job. Matthew though, is convinced something more is going on and eventually he ends up on the roof with some of the children from episode 3 watching events unfurl.

    As things transpire it turns out to be an ideal spot, because of the third thing that happens as a result of this growing crowd. Tamar returns, with a bunch of her friends, including a man who was paralysed as a child. Of course, those familiar with the Gospels can immediately see where this is going. Soon there are foiled attempts by the man’s friends to get closer and then the idea emerges of going in via the roof. Conveniently, the roof already has a large hole in it. Some destruction is required, but nothing as troublesome as I usually imagine. And, sure enough, by the time he’s been fully lowered down, Shmuel has worked his way to the front in time to perform the role of the disdainful Pharisee. There’s an interesting moment when, just before the man stands up he wiggles his toes. It’s a brilliantly vivid visual flourish. Is it also meant to express a momentary (understandable) doubt on behalf of the man who is being healed?

    The shock of the event sees Shmuel summoning Gaius, Gaius bashing on the door, and Jesus escaping via a rear exit. Before he completely disappears though, he stops to catch Matthew’s eye.
    Whilst there are parts of this episode I was less keen on – the desire to show off the diligence of their research is starting to wear a little thin, as is the slightly heavy-footed way they shoehorn in explanations of the wider contest – I also found parts somewhat moving. I do find the human moments of this, particularly those triggered by miracles from above, emotional. I think it’s partly down to the pacing which is really good in this episode.

    This is a busy episode: two healings, a bit of backstory/dramatic licence, a chunk of the Sermon on the Mount/Plain, and a few new followers for good measure. At the start of the episode there’s every reason to think Jesus is an unknown: By the end he has made a major impact, and – in Capernaum at least – events have accelerated, rapidly. Life will never quite be the same again.


    Sunday, January 08, 2023

    Queen Esther (1948)

    About 6 years ago I mentioned that the Gospel Films Archive were hoping to release a DVD of the 1948 Cathedral Films production Queen Esther. It's been a longer wait than any of us expected, but I was really excited this week to get an email from them informing me that the restoration work on the film has finally been completed and it's now available to buy on DVD alongside the 1937 biblical film, Ruth which I'm yet to see1 Here's my brief review of what I think is quite an important work, given the general of paucity of US biblical films in the 20 year prior to its release.

    Esther has often been a popular choice for Jewish and Christian artists working in an array of media over the decades. The patriarchal succession for Israel and Judah meant that biblical queens have tended to only been involved in the royal families by marrying into them, and of those few to get anything more than a cursory mention, often they are seen as having a negative influence rather than a positive one.

    Esther, though, is distinctly different. As a Jewish woman who gets elevated to be a queen in the Persian Empire. Not only does her story have excitement and glamour built into it, but she is also given a heroic role that she can fulfill by being faithful to God. No surprise, then, that during that first big crop of films based on the Hebrew Bible from 1908 to 1913, Esther got her movie debut in 1910 (Esther and Mordecai & The Marriage of Esther) and that by the end of the decade her story had graced the silver screen seven times. 

    Yet by the time Cathedral films released Queen Esther in 1948 it had been almost three decades since her story had been made into any kind of film. As such it's the first Esther film to feature sound and one of the rare American Bible films from the period from the Great Depression to the immediate aftermath of the Second World War.

    Interestingly the film starts in a modern setting with a Jewish family reading the Bible as part of celebrating Purim and using her Jewish name Hadassah. This framing of the story as a Jewish story is quite remarkable given its age, but perhaps just three years after the horrors of the Second World War the resonances between Haman's attempted destruction of the Jews and Hitler's were unavoidable. Indeed when we return to this family at the conclusion of the film the family's patriarch ("Grandfather") reminds them that "throughout the centuries there have been many who have attempted to destroy our people..."

    By the time the story transitions to Ancient Persia then Esther has already married the Persian king, here identified as by the Greek version of his name Xerxes (rather than Ahasuerus). Esther, played by Ottilie Kruger, is also identified as Mordecai's cousin. The opening scene is fictional and, somewhat bizarrely,2 features Mordecai (Richard Hale) explaining to Esther that those who approach her husband without permission risk being condemned to death. There's also an additional episode where Haman (Addison Richards) tries to convict one of Mordecai's associates of stealing from him, only for Mordecai to outwit him. While it remains an implication, it certainly is implied that Haman is acting dishonestly. It also firmly establishes that Mordecai is the kind of brave, forthright, quick-witted person whose character will be used to heroic effect later on.

    Only then do we come across the first biblical episode from Esther 2:19-23 where Mordecai overhears a plot to kill the king, tells Esther who informs one of the kings advisors meaning the plot is foiled. Xerxes (Charles Evans) assumes this is Haman's work, but the official involved makes sure that it's recorded in the annals that it was Mordecai who was responsible for saving the king. But the official continues in his conversation with the scribe. It's clear that even a (presumably) neutral Persian considers Haman a bit iffy.

    It turns out though that really this official should be more concerned about Haman's wife (pictured below) than he himself. Following Mordecai's refusal to bow before Haman, it is she who comes up with the idea to kill all the Jews and then urges Haman to do it. "It's beneath your dignity and rank to avenge yourself against one man. If all the Jews refuse to pay homage, let them all suffer" Later she will also suggest building some gallows for Haman to have Mordecai executed. I'm not sure if this is the impact of film noir and its femmes fatale, but its strange to shift the blame from the villain in the text to another when no motive is particularly apparent.

    Xerxes seems to have a rather laissez-faire attitude to Haman's authority which makes him somewhat unsympathetic. Nevertheless, Mordecai is very positive about his emperor's character, even calling him "Good King" when he is not around, stressing that "the king is not unkind, not unreasonable". Even when Haman's plan becomes apparent Mordecai is unable to blame the king. "It's evident that our good king has been misled". What's interesting is that (thankfully) there's no real attempt to present Xerxes as a romantic figure to whom Esther is drawn, something that is bolstered by the opening of the story being excised. But then in some ways this is because Mordecai is almost more of the focus in this film than Esther herself.

    For a low budget production the sets are pretty good. I can't speak to their authenticity, though as with The Story Esther  (1910) there are suggestions of the bas-reliefs in Haman's house and Xerxes' palace. The exteriors seem pretty good too. Likewise I don't know enough about the costumes of this time and place to be able to pronounce on their authenticity, (Haman wearing trousers) but they do seem to be more distinctive and of better quality than in some of the other releases by Cathedral Films. 

    There's the occasional nice use of the camera too. As many of the shots are fairly static the more dynamic shots – such as the pivotal scene when Esther risks all to request a dinner date with Xerxes and Haman – stand out all the more. The eve of the second banquet finds neither Esther nor Xerxes able to sleep, leading Xerxes to discover Mordecai's heroics meaning Haman's spends the day before the banquet leading Mordecai around the city to be honoured.

    I always feel with the Esther story that the protracted stages with which Esther makes her request doesn't really translate very well dramatically. Here the film takes steps to make that seem less awkward while maintaining the original three-request structure of the original text. The first banquet follows immediately after her shock appearance in the courtroom and is very short: As with the Bible, Haman arrives at the second banquet hot on the heels of his day honouring Mordecai finally arrives. 

    It's interesting, though, how director John T. Coyle has subtly altered the seating arrangement. Esther sits to the left of the frame in both scenes, but in the first she sits next to Xerxes, literally getting him on-side: In the second, now Haman sits between the king and his wife, as if underlining the fact that his schemes threaten to separate king and queen permanently. Esther seizes her moment when Haman proposes a toast to the royal couple's reign "may it be a long, prosperous and happy one", opting out of the toast and then, when pressed by Xerxes, explaining her predicament. Xerxes is angered. Haman exposed. Xerxes orders that Haman and his sons be hanged on their own gallows and promises Esther that he will find a way to save them.

    It's here that the film cuts back to the film's modern book-end. The extent to which the Jewish people fought back (killing over 75,000 of their enemies) is doubly watered down here. Firstly, no scenes of this violence are depicted, but also when instead the "Grandfather" (played, I think, by the same actor as Mordecai) narrates the end of the story his rather child-friendly summary is that  "they defended themselves so valiantly, their enemies were discouraged". 

    For those familiar with Cathedral Films' other efforts, particularly The Great Commandment (1939), No Greater Power (1942), I Beheld His Glory (1952) and Day of Triumph (1954), this film is more or less what one might expect. The story holds fairly closely to the biblical story, with the most significant variations being being the point at which the story dips in and out of the original text, often using some kind of framing device. The costumes and sets look good value for the low budget and the acting is to a better standard than similar church produced films in the era. While, like nearly all Esther films, it makes certain elements of the story more palatable and family friendly, at least it doesn't take things in the opposite direction of making it a love story. And of course the kind of more incisive interrogation of the text that that we might give it today was not remotely on the agenda in 1948.

    What was on the agenda back then is reflection on the Holocaust and it's here where the film is most powerful and creditable. Its framing of this as a Jewish story and a reminder that persecution of Jewish people has been an ongoing aspect of history, not a one off, seems unprecedented to me, even with biblical films from the post-war period. It's even more remarkable given its the product of an unashamedly church-based producers and deserves to be seen more widely.

    1 - I haven't been paid to endorse this film though I did receive a screening link. I don't even make money via Amazon affiliate links: They're just convenient.

     2 - I don't mean that the law permitting this is bizarre, even though it seems so to our eyes, more that it seems odd that Mordecai is explaining this to Esther only after she has married him and that this wasn't covered during the 12 months she was being institutionalized at court.

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    Tuesday, January 03, 2023

    When do subtitles start in The Passion of the Christ (2004)?

    Here's a question from the "you asked, I answer" pile: When do subtitles start in The Passion of the Christ (2004)? 

    This really depends on which version you're watching, but there are subtitles in the opening scene where Jesus is in the Garden of Gethsemane. Sometimes people are caught out because the first words Jesus speaks aren't subtitled. So actually the first line which appear in the subtitles is just "Peter".

    This is when (going by the timer/time bar) the various version have this line:

      - UK 1-disc DVD (2004) – 0h 2m 15s

      - Amazon Prime streaming – 0h 2m 22s

    I'll look to add details from more versions if I find them. If you have access to a different version of the film I'd be grateful if you'd email me or drop something in the comments to let me know and I'll update the post.

    Other Posts on The Passion
    Here are some of my other posts about The Passion of the Christ (2004).

      How The Passion of the Christ Wrong-footed Hollywood
      Caiaphas and Jabba the Hutt in Gibson's Passion
      Text and Interpretation in The Passion of the Christ
      The Passion Without Subtitles
      Film: A New Passion (Preview written prior to the film's release in 2004)

      Bible Films Podcast: The Passion of the Christ (2004)
      My original review: The Passion of the Christ (2004)

    Book me or read me
    If you're interested in Jesus films like this then you might enjoy my book "100 Bible Films" which not only covers around 50 Jesus films, but another 50 that cover the rest of the Bible, going right back to the first still-in-existence Jesus film from 1898.

    You can read more about it here: 100 Bible Films.

    I also love to do talks, podcasts etc. If you're interested in having me to speak drop me a line.


    Saturday, December 31, 2022

    The Story of Esther (1910)

    Back in 2016 (was it really that long ago?) I wrote the first entry in my "Silent Bible Film Mysteries" series, seeking to get to the bottom of three Esther titles that Gaumont released around the early 1910s. The conclusion was that there were two shorter films, The Marriage of Esther and Esther and Mordecai that were released in the US a week apart in June 1910, but at other times and places were circulated as a single film Esther. There was also something of a lament that these films were not available to view outside of (offline) film archives.

    Recently, however, I got notified by John from betweenmovies.com that a composite version of the film could now be streamed from the (online) Gaumont Pathé archives. You have to create an account – which takes a while, perhaps because they are individually verified – but then a composite version of the film is there to view. (BetweenMovies is a great website, by the way, and has some really interesting additional information about these films, including original reviews, press ads, still and some more screen grabs).


    The first thing to notice is that the title version of the film is The Story of Esther. It's plain enough that this is a renaming of the composite material, though perhaps with some additions and subtractions. The production was attributed to Louis Feuillade, and its stars were called "three of the most noted of Paris", "Mademoiselle" Gravier as Esther, Leonce Perret as Ahasuerus and "Monsieur" Legrand as Mordecai. Perret also worked for Gaumont as a director. He was at the helm of at least 292 of their films, including his La Fille de Jephté (1910) which I've discussed before. Mlle Gravier then is presumably Gisèle Gravier who starred in both another of Perret's films, Gisèle, enfant terrible  and another of Feuillade's La prêtresse de carthage the following year.1 I could turn up nothing on M. Legrand.

    The plot remains fairly close to the contours of the biblical text. Vashti has already been deposed before the start of the film, conveniently relieving the film's leading man of the suggestion of impropriety. Instead the opening shot sees an array of young women arrive at the palace as candidates for Ahasuerus' next wife. For most of the shot, though, Mordecai and Esther stand at the front right of the screen facing the crowd. Esther hesitates before entering – and is the last to do so – then Mordecai returns to centre stage and reaches his arms to heaven. 

    After the width of the opening outdoor scene, the indoor scenes move in closer for a more intimate atmosphere. Esther and the other "maidens" are prepared to meet the king and there's a deft iris shot to close the scene focusing on Esther. 

    In the next scene similar camera placement sees Ahasuerus chose Esther from only a handful of women, with everyone else ushered out before the King himself places the crown on Esther's head. Moving Picture World's Rev. W. H. Jackson called this moment "decidedly and extremely peculiar, most unwarranted, and without doubt not faithful to the times and custom".2 I think he may be protesting a little too much. "Without doubt" seems a bit strong given how little was known about the era 110 years ago, even if he is probably right. Historical inaccuracies in Bible movie? Surely not.

    In any case it's noticeable that this scene is not particularly romanticized. Given the lengthy procession of women into the palace, Ahasuerus seems to spend almost no time at all deciding on his new queen and while he picks his bride based purely on looks, there's very little indication that she is attracted to him.

    Jackson was much more favourably disposed towards the wedding banquet scene however which manages quite an impressive depth of field with an advisor front, centre and relatively close while dancers twirl away on the stage at the back of the room. The composition is a little odd – Feuillade doesn't pan or zoom at all in this film – so the advisor is sat facing off screen, but it does leave a gap for Esther and Ahasuerus to process down. This seems to be the climax of The Marriage of Esther and, in honesty, it's more than a little slow.

    It's also noticeable here how the walls reproduce some of the statues and bas-reliefs taken from the Palace of Sargon II (in Khorsabad). While Sargon II pre-dates the era in which the story was set by about 200-250 years, the palace had only been discovered by French archaeologist Paul-Émile Botta in the 1840s and was (and is) prominently displayed in the Louvre. If you compare the scene with this image from the Louvre you can see it's a direct attempt at reproduction.
    A fairly detailed title card leads us into the second half (or Esther and Mordecai) opening the shot above. I've not managed to turn up any association between Esther and the harp, but it makes for quite a striking image. Mordecai warns Esther and the two proceed to foil a plot against her husband in the film's best action scene with Esther and Mordecai saving the king in the nick of time. 

    The same set is also used for the next scene where Mordecai refuses to bow to Haman. The wall decorations here are not immediately identifiable; they look more Egyptian than Babylonian to me. Perhaps they were recycled from another Gumont film set in Ancient Egypt, perhaps even Feuillade's own L'exode (1910), which I've seen but don't have access to in order to check.

    Haman goes to Ahasuerus who gives him the ring from his hand in order to enact his revenge on Mordecai and his people. Interestingly the throne room here resembles Jean Pesne's print/etching of the scene. It's supposedly based on Nicolas Poussin's "Esther devant Assuérus", but, Pesne's image mirrors Poussin's and makes it a good deal lighter such that the detail and architecture is far more apparent. Perhaps Feuillade and his set designers were influenced by one or both of them, perhaps neither. Haman sets off to set the wheels in motion.

    However in the meantime, Ahasuerus discovers that Mordecai had not been honoured, calls in Haman and orders him to put Mordecai on a horse and lead it through the streets announcing his honour. One of my favourite parts of the story is omitted here. In the Bible, the king asks Haman to devise the method of honouring. Haman thinking it is he who is to be honoured is then appalled by to discover his method of honouring himself will now be applied to his hated enemy (Esther 6:6-10). This ironic switch is made all the worse as it is her who has to parade round honouring Mordecai. It also foreshadows the following chapter, with a not dissimilar switch whereby the method of execution Haman has devised for Mordecai will be used to kill Haman instead (Esther 7:9-10).

    The scene of Mordecai's honouring is the film's most interesting in terms of influences. It cleverly combines both Gustave Dore's "Triumph of Mordecai" & Jacques Tissot's "Mordecai's Triumph" with a single static shot that merges the composition of one into the other. On top of this the bystanders wave palm leaves which also recalls Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. While it's appropriation / supersessionism this typological interpretation of Mordecai (as a "type" of Christ) has long been popular with Christian interpreters and so it's no surprise that biblical filmmakers carried on this tradition.

    And then comes the climatic scene with Esther's banquet. the plot abridges the cycle of meals Esther goes through prior to explaining her predicament to her husband and instead cuts to the chase. The composition here is more akin to Rembrant, Lievens, Victors and Armitage than to Tissot or Dore, but it's notable how many depictions of this scene place Haman on the left, but none of the historical artistic takes on this moment capture the dramatic way in which Esther flings her arm out across Ahasuerus to point to the man she is accusing. 

    It's noticeable also that she doesn't faint in contrast to the deuterocanonical passage from Esther 15:7 where she swoons. However Ahasuerus comforts Esther as she sobs which is found in Esther 15:8. Haman begs for is life, is seen and is led away. 

    Haman's grim execution is omitted, but there's a final scene in Ahasuerus's throne room and a final Thanksgiving scene featuring women dancing in the kind of generic SE Mediterranean costumes that dancers are routinely given in this kind of scene. I don't know enough about costumes from this time and place to know if any of them are accurate, but these ones feel particularly orientalising.

    There's little of the additional material from deuterocanonical books, or subsequent Jewish tradition. What's more interesting though is the way that he parts of the narrative that are omitted tend to benefit Ahasuerus, Mordecai and perhaps the never-mentioned God. The grim realities of Harem life are minimised. While Esther's not portrayed as attracted to Ahasuerus, he's made to seem decent enough with physical shows of affection and comfort. His questionable treatment of Vashti is left out as his Haman's execution. Meanwhile, Mordecai's orders which result in over 75,000 gentiles being killed are also not included.

    So while there isn't anything as heinous as the trivialising in the Veggie Tales version, nor the teenage romanticising of One Night with the King (2006) and perhaps a few other recent outings), it is a fairly sanitised adaptation of the story. 

    That said, all things considered this isn't a bad first cinematic screen outing for the Book of Esther. Some of the processions are over long and the characterisation is a little weak, and there's little of the spark that we find in Feuillade's Fantômas just a few years later, but it does have its occasional moments. And it's network of visual references from Assyrian bas-reliefs to Tissot and Dore provide a good deal of interest.
    1 - Gisèle, enfant terrible listed on the IMDb. La prêtresse de carthage listed on p4 of this catalogue of Early films from the collections of the Swedish Film Institute.
    2 - Jackson, W. H. "The Marriage of Esther: A Critical Review by Rev W.H. Jackson" in Moving Picture World, vol 6 Jan-Jun 1910, p.1098. Available online at https://archive.org/details/movinwor06chal/page/1098/mode/2up?view=theater 

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    Wednesday, September 21, 2022

    The Queen of Sheba and Solomon in Three Thousand Years of Longing

    I've been so busy recently that I've not had a chance to do a blog post yet, but, given its recent release, I thought it would be remiss of me not to say, at least, something about Three Thousand Years of Longing which is on the tail end of it's theatrical run.

    The film stars Tilda Swinton as  Alithea, a narratologist, and Idris Elba as a Djinn/Genie who escapes from a bottle she buys in the grand bazaar in Istanbul. Elba's Djinn has been trapped for 3000 years – with only occasional moments out in the open – for 3000 years and is desperate to escape. Alithea however, as a professional in this field, is not only wary of making her three choices, due to the string of cautionary tales which form a cornerstone of her expertise, but also wise  to the opportunity to explore the kind of first-hand information about her specialism which is hard to come by.

    And so the two talk, at length. Indeed, while the trailers and pre-release hype for the movie have focused on the special effects and the fantasy CGI, the story itself is essentially an extended dialogue, just with impressive-looking backdrops and flashbacks.

    One of the earliest flashbacks goes right back to the days of King Solomon, or, more to the point, the days of the Queen of Sheba (played here by Aamito Lagum). It is she, rather than he, that is the focus here. Both the Djinn and Solomon are in love with her but Solomon is able to use his magical musical skills (he's shown playing a fanciful instrument that accompanies Solomon) to win her over and having done so it is he that is the first to trap the Djinn in the bottle.

    The segment – which is only brief – is an interesting mix of the passing mention of the couple in the Hebrew Bible, some ancient non-biblical traditions, other traditional mythical stories and modern storytelling. The queen is, herself, part Djinn, but nevertheless ultimately she chooses Solomon, not the Djinn. What's interesting here is the question of who has the upper hand in the relationship is reversed. In the Hebrew Bible, events take place at his court. The queen comes to him and is just one of the many women he is connected to. Here it is the queen that is in the driving seat. Her court, and she has can choose between Solomon & the Djinn – effectively a choice between her two natures, human and Djinn.

    I suppose that could be viewed as a feminist take on the story, though as the film unfolds her choice seems more and more to be a bad one. He uses demons to help him pass the queens tests and shows cruelty for his rival for her love by casting him into a bottle and then into the Red Sea. Moreover, the Djinn turns out to be loving, caring and compassionate, as well as looking like Idris Elba.

    It's also interesting, then, that to impress Solomon we're told that the queen shaves her legs, and there's a brief shot of (what looked to me like) her incredibly hairy legs – not so much like someone who has run out of Veet, or even like a hairy man's legs, but more like the kind of thick fur that grows on an alpaca's throat. Is this a surrender of her true self to humane/male/western beauty ideals. I'd need to see it again. Those interested in more details might like to read Peter Chattaway's fairly long long write up at his substack.

    I came away from the film quite disappointed though. This may just be down to false expectations – it was a great, enticing, trailer, but it rather mis-sold what the film was about. The CGI work was impressive, but being mainly used in narrated scenes it felt strangely limp. I think it was that the sound was largely non-diegetic, and Alithea never enters into those worlds, so they felt almost hermetically sealed off. He tells what should be incredibly exciting stories, in a dull, almost disinterested, fashion.

    This is compounded by the way the actors deliver their lines. Elba speaks softly, there's care and compassion, but never much passion, he seems strangely inert and the accent he adopts is kind of distracting too. it's too forced. Swinton's accent is no better. Again, perhaps this is just my expectations, but she adopts the kind of thick Lancashire accent, that's usually encountered in a Wallace and Gromit film. It should be perfectly valid, and perhaps this just a reflection of my own prejudice, but it just took me right out of the film.

    All of which feels like a shame because I did enjoy it as well. It is, at the very least, highly original, and the CGI is very good. And there are few quite films about friendship, and love that revolve around two great actors talking. And it's not like I don't have a penchant for films where the emotion is turned right down. Somehow, though, the heart is missing and so like the Queen herself, I'm more taken by Solomon's story than the Djinn's.


    Friday, August 19, 2022

    Join my Italian Cinema Course

    If you're in the Nottingham area you might be interested in coming to a 10-week course on Italian cinema that I am tutoring this autumn at Broadway cinema. The course runs on Tuesday nights, starting at 7pm and will cover "everything" from the earliest Italian silents to the Oscar winners and Netflix movies of the present. Obviously there will be generous helpings of neorealism; auteurs such as Rossellini, Fellini, Antonioni and Pasolini; and pepla, spaghetti westerns and gialli along the way.

    You can get more details from Broadway cinema, ask me any questions, or book a place here


    Sunday, July 31, 2022

    The Blind Christ (2016)

    Christopher Murray's El Cristo Ciego (The Blind Christ, 2016) leaves Netflix tonight after a 5 year run in which it's garnered almost no attention, even among those who should really be most interested. Rotten Tomatoes only lists a single review, in Spanish. IMDb lists a few more, but only one is in English, by the inestimable John Bleasdale, and even then it has the URL wrong. I checked with friends from Arts and Faith and none of them had seen it or even heard of it, despite it feeling, to me at least, like exactly the kind of film that has always fared well in their Top 100 lists. And tonight it sinks without trace, leaving Netflix unlikely to return and still without an English language DVD release.

    To me this feels like a significant error on the part of those interested in the Bible and film. "Sometimes..." the DJ of my current favourite radio show says as he reflects on a great track from the 80s that failed to make the charts "...we got it wrong". This is a film that deserves better even if people don't like it's conclusions, it's undoubtedly worthy of discussion.

    Despite Murray's English-sounding name, both he and his film are Chilean. Murray, interviewed here by Variety, was born in Santiago and graduated from the Faculty of Communication at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, where he is now a professor. While lead actor Michael Silva is a professional, most of the rest of the cast are non-professionals, inhabitants of Chile's Pampa del Tamarugal.

    Even without knowing Murray's affiliations, his understanding of Catholicism is unmissable. The title alone, cut down from the working title "Parable of a Blind Christ",1 suggests as much and it's not long into the film before the centrality of Chile's surviving vestiges of Catholicism becomes apparent. The proportion of the population professing Catholicism has dwindled from 70% in 2006,2 to just 42% last year,3 and there's a sense in which, the buildings remain, and desire for something beyond the people's experience remains, but they only rarely coincide. Like the rest of the film's architecture found in desert villages the churches are crumbling, the priests have gone, leaving the remnants of what was, perhaps, once a thriving community. Poverty permeates almost every shot, yet Murray finds a dignified beauty in that, which never detracts from the sense that these are people who are both desperate for something to happen, yet highly sceptical that it ever will. "God abandons and is abandoned".4

    So when a stranger comes visiting there's a mixture of anticipation and detached cynicism. The stranger is Michael,5 the film's central figure, through whose eyes and voice we witness much of what we're shown and told. The film opens with Michael recalling a story, and there are a lot of those, of a boy who asked his friend to nailed his hands, Christ-like, to a tree , while a waited three hours for a sign. "His sacrifice... attracted God's attention". It's unclear, though, who the boy was and what actually happened. Did Michael himself witness a miracle, or is it just a story, a parable, that so reflects Jesus' often enigmatic way of talking?

    Either way when Michael hears that his friend's cousin, Mauricio, has pneumonia,6 he sets off across the desert to see if he can enable a similar piece of divine intervention. Michael's actions carry a high price. His father immediately tells him that he'll disown him if he goes and when regardless he leaves that night, he encounters similar opposition elsewhere.

    His first port of call is to a desert shrine/grotto where people queue up to partake in the ritual. Michael insensitively says "You only have to pray to God. He's inside you" and tells the story of an artisan, who work became revered so much that he created a sculpture of a volcano so spectacular it unintentionally burned down all his work. When he follows this up by saying "Man's work disappears" and pointing out that the shrine's central "figure doesn't walk or talk" he's forcibly moved away from the shrine, tied to a stake and left there. Eventually a local woman, who's tells him she's a carer for her mother, helps liberate him and he comes to her house and helps bathe and care for her mother. 

    Michael makes many similar statements and tells many such stories. "I don't believe in any religion" he says at one point, "God doesn’t talk to the church he talks to the people. When you’re alone the Christ inside you opens his eyes". Michael, despite what people begin to think, is not that he is special, but that "Anyone can heal. Anyone who realizes they come from God". "All you have to do is believe". "If god is with you you shouldn’t be scared." Phrases like this crop up at regular intervals. There's certainty that typifies many young people of his age, that lacks empathy, or at least awareness of the lives that people have lived

    Yet Michael too wavers in his self-assurance. The audacity of his journey and occasional claims such as "I'm going to heal him" at times contrast with his delivery. When a man asks him to pray for him he suddenly seems to lose confidence at the last minute sensing that God has abandoned him. But it's also around this point in the film that Michael develops his most significant relationships in the film, first with the teenaged Bastian and then with his mother. Bastian idolises him; his mother enjoys his company and shares her story (including a shocking story about Bastian's father – "a fucking psychopath". The evening after an impromptu driving lesson, the two sleep together. 

    That night, in the darkness, a young girl calls him " the Chilean Christ and prays with some folk as they gather round a campfire. It's unclear if it's because of this, or because of what happened with Bastian's mother, but either way Michael leaves before sunrise to resume his travels. This time however he faints in the desert and is rescued by another small community.

    Here there appears to be some sort of functioning faith community, albeit one led – in the loosest sense of the word – by an ex-prisoner who had been handed the reins by the last, rapidly departing, official priest. He attempts to convince Michael to look after the village's tiny chapel (though he questions "who am I?") and he completes some baptisms in a nearby stream. When this meets some opposition he tells the story of a hit man released from prison shoots himself only to find love. And so he undertakes the final leg of his journey. 

    At this point I'm going to raise the [SPOILERS] tag as I want to discuss the end of the film, but don't want to spoil it for anyone that's reading this before watching the film.

    [SPOILERS]When he finally arrives it's clear that stories about him have gone ahead of him and people come seeking miracles. Yet he finds Mauricio not only ill, but in a deep state of depression: "Everything’s happened to me. I sometimes wonder why God keeps me alive. I want to be dead. I don’t want To kill myself. I want him to do it." Yet the number of people who have turned up persuade them that Michael should pray and see if Mauricio will be miraculously healed. The resulting scene is reminiscent both of Andrea Mantega's "Lamentation of Christ" (1480) as well as the climactic scene in Carl Theodor Dreyer's Ordet (1955). 

    [SPOILERS]Yet unlike Ordet, when Michael prays, his friend is not healed. Mauricio tries to reassure Michael (and perhaps himself) by insisting "Your company is enough" but Michael leaves. Having been barefoot for most of the film – perhaps a symbol of his spiritual idealistic naïvete – he slips on a pair of boots – a returns to the prisoner-turned-church leader of the penultimate visit on his travels. Now it is a crestfallen Michael who laments "God has abandoned us". 

    [SPOILERS]But now it's the older man's turn to tell a story, one of a girl hadn't slept for 2 weeks. Jesus was brought in, and goes to consult his father, but hears nothing so tells the girl that God is waiting for her in her dreams. The girl slept. Michael describes it as a con, but the older man explains that God "went away so Jesus would fill the emptiness. Then Jesus went away so we would fill the emptiness". He rings a nearby set of altar bells and further clarifies "Faith is the sound that fills the emptiness". He heads up to the roof, but when Michael follows his new friend has disappeared and he has a vision (perhaps) of the sea.

    [SPOILERS]And so Michael returns, first to his father's house, where a shrine has now bee set up, to reconcile to his father, who himself has been impacted. "You brought faith son" he tells him by way of explanation for the way the streets near his house are festooned with night lights. Perhaps these are types of crucifixion and resurrection scenes, the death of self and the new life that follows.

    [SPOILERS]Finally, Michael returns to the boy and his mother, but like so much of the film even this is left unclear, inviting the view to make up their own mind. It's so typical of the film, it's reliance on the vagueities of story, with their multiple interpretations and invitation to participate.


    What I like about the film is that it consistently refuses to tell you what to think. Is Michael, this "Chilean Christ" a modern version of Christ; Christ himself; a Christ-like figure; or just a deluded, if charismatic, man who has some growing up to do? The character's name, Michael, captures this brilliantly being both the name of God's number two messenger ("angel" means "messenger") and the name Michael itself literally means "Who is like El?" (i.e. God). Or it could just be an ordinary name that remains popular in "Catholic" countries. Did Michael experience the divine when he was younger, or did he just feel like he did after 3 hours in the sun losing blood? How do the people come to believe in him even before he arrives in their village?

    The parallels with the Jesus of the Gospels are certainly there, but interestingly they do not follow the contours of the typical Christ-figure. For one thing there's no cruciform pose, nor are the episodes that are paralleled those that are typically included. The parallels are either with more obscure elements (like Jesus's failure to heal on occasion) or they are more tenuously linked. It raises the question, am I just looking for parallels because of the film's title (The Blind Christ) and how people refer to him within the confines of  the film itself ("The Chilean Christ"). This is, in itself, feels like the medium being the message. It is not just the characters in the story that don't quite know how to pigeonhole Michael, or what to think about the possibility of divine activity.

    And then, of course, there are the stories, which appear regularly throughout the film, often introduced in a way so typical of the Gospels "Let me tell you a story" which chimes with some of the little introductory phrases we find in the synoptics, with their sometimes unclear meaning and their more experiential method of conveying meaning.

    The film is beautifully shot, and moves along at a slow contemplative pace that allows you to savour and immerse yourself in the story. The performances never feel like the work of amateurs, and the genuine concern for the plight of the people of the Pampa del Tamarugal evokes the ghost of neo-realism. Some of the lines of dialogue are hard to unpack and fly past a little too quickly, but that's a minor quibble with a thought provoking, challenging and deeply affecting film.


    1 - An old bio from Torino Film Lab used this name about his "forthcoming project".

    2 - According to the "Encuesta Nacional Bicentenario 2016: Religió" survey, available online: http://web.archive.org/web/20171107025524/

    3 - According to the "Encuesta Nacional Bicentenario 2021: Religió" survey, available online: http://web.archive.org/web/20220121091337/

    4 - It's the film's leading character, Michael, that says this, but it would have spoiled the flow of the review if I've said this there and I don't have the time at the moment to re-write this to fix that.

    5 - See notes on the use of the name "Michael" in 4th paragraph from the end.

    6 - This is the condition as described in the subtitles earlier in the film, but, once revealed, the actual condition seems to be a skin/wasting disease/infection of the ankle.

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    Saturday, July 23, 2022

    Visions of Ecstasy (1989)

    Visions of Ecstasy (1989), a 20 minute short film by UK director Robert Wingrove, was released the year after the Last Temptation of Christ furore and, as such, was always likely to hit the headlines. Wingrove's film was an exploration of the sexuality of Saint Teresa of Ávila, a subject which had interested numerous artists and writers before and caused various controversies. It became the first and only film to be banned in the UK on grounds of blasphemy. When Wingrove appealed to the European Court of Human Rights that his right to free speech was being unjustly curtailed, they found against him and upheld the ban.

    Eventually, though, it found it's way onto DVD in 2012, then onto YouTube and is currently showing on Mubi. It's not a film I'd particularly sought out as it doesn't really have much to do with the biblical narratives – really it's a work of fantasy and imagination inspired by religious figures.

    Seen 20+ years after all the controversy it's hard to know what to make of it. It's very much a late 80s/early 90s British art film, Jarman-esque you could even say (if you don't have a huge number of frames of reference for this kind of work, which I do not). It could be classified as a silent film – certainly there's no dialogue – but the soundtrack by Siouxsie and the Banshees bassist Steven Severin plays a key role in situating the film beyond the realms of reality.

    There are two main scenes, which are intercut, the consistency of Severin's soundtrack blending-together the multiple joins between the scenes. In the first Teresa and another nun (her psyche) kiss, standing up. In the other Teresa clambers upon Jesus, who is lying prostrate nailed to the cross.

    Many claim that it's pornography, but I don't think that carries much weight. Aside from Visions of Ecstasy's religious angle, it's hard to see how this would gain anything more than a 15 certificate. The whole film consists of erotic material, but two-thirds of the characters keep most of their clothes on and the other has his dignity preserved by a historically implausible loincloth. 

    Wingrove has a history of work that has pushed at the boundaries of what certain parts of society have deemed acceptable. His coffee table book "The Art of the Nasty" featured images from the "video nasties" banned in the UK in 1984. Peter Malone notes how in 1999 Wingrove made Sacred Flesh, about "a convent where the superior had visions of Mary Magdalene and discussed sexuality, the Catholic Church, and its attitudes toward sex".1 He's directed various sexploitation/horror films including three in the Satanic Sluts collection. Back in 2013 his website described his work like this:
    I also direct the odd film, get banned for blasphemy, fight censorship, produce books, attempt to write a novel, run a nightclub, shoot pornography, create imagery, flirt with Satanism and have an unhealthy obsession with political extremes.
    It's hard to imagine now, but back in the late 80s there was a lot of political heat around censorship. Last Temptation was a relatively small episode compared to the extent of the column inches spent frothing about video nasties, the pro-gay movement, Madonna's "Like a Prayer" video and whatever else Mary Whitehouse was campaigning about. Wingrove was told by the BBFC that if Jesus had been a statue rather than an actor they would have passed it.2

    Despite the above Wingrove later claimed "Visions didn't set out to offend and the film was about Teresa, it wasn't about Christ. I know how to be blasphemous and offensive and Visions is not what I'd have done had I set out to do that".3

    What I've not really been able to grasp was what Wingrove was intending to do with the film. Looking back, while there are obvious points of comparison with Jarman's The Garden (which came out the following year), it doesn't feel like its cut from the same cloth. The sexuality in Jarman's film feels like it's deeply-felt self-expression. Wingrove's feels more exploitative, not least because Sacred Flesh is typically considered a nunsploitation film. Visions is artfully shot, but I'm not how artistic it is. Perhaps it exists to give erotic pleasure to those who find something sexy in the more visceral/ritualistic elements of Christianity, something which does little for those who don't share that predilection.

    As is often the case in these scenarios, controversial films such as this live on, extending far beyond their actual merit because of the fuss that was made about them. Wingrove says he wasn't deliberately intending to often, and I'm inclined to believe him. Ironically, if Mary Whitehouse and the various other protesters had just let him be, few of us would even have heard about it. 

    1 - Peter Malone, Screen Jesus: Portrayals of Christ in Television and Film  (Lanham/Toronto/Plymouth, UK: Scarecrow Press, 2012), p.245.
    2 - Mentioned in discussion on "Heart Of The Matter - Censorship Debate" (BBC) broadcast in 1996 available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fbUz9lbGhrM
    3 - Mentioned in "Banned In The UK - Visions Of Ecstasy" broadcast (08/03/05) available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QC98HABm5p4