• Bible Films Blog

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

    Saturday, May 18, 2019

    Delving Deeper into Il vangelo secondo Matteo - Part 3

    In my previous post in this series I reviewed Barański's 1999 essay "The Texts of Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo". Here I want to look at another key work on the subject, Naomi Greene's chapter "The End of Ideology" from her book "Pier Paolo Pasolini : Cinema as Heresy". Originally published in 1990, three years before even Babington and Evans' "Biblical Epics", it's a text that many of those writing about Jesus on Film turn to. Of the many books about Pasolini, not only is it relatively old, but its title also suggests that Il vangelo will be discussed at length. (Where quote only receives page numbers it is Greene's book to which I am referring.)

    That said, however, the book's main coverage is barely over ten pages (70-80), though there is also several pages of discussion (60-67) on La ricotta (1962), Pasolini's contribution to the collaborative RoGoPaG, which I learn from Greene's book is also known as Laviomoci il cervello (Lets Talk About the Brain). For Greene the two works are very much linked, and she also notes how La ricotta is "Considered one of the high points of Pasolini's cinema" (60). There is also some discussion of Sopraluoghi in Palestina (On the Scene in Palestine, 1964) which she calls "virtually a cinematic afterthought" (70).

    Greene starts by looking at the (potential) tension between those reading the film from a Marxist perspective and those coming it from a Catholic perspective. In general Pasolini managed to appease many of those from both camps, though there were some detractors from his fellow Marxists. In particular Pasolini's depictions of several miracles caused some consternation. Quoting Pasolini's extended 'interview' with Jean Duflot, Greene notes how Pasolini:
    ...defended his portrayal of the supernatural on the grounds that what he called the 'subjective reality' of miracles exists. 'It exists,' he said, 'for the peasants of Southern Italy, as it existed for those in Palestine. Miracles are the innocent and naive explanation of the real mystery which lives in man, of the power hidden within him.' And it was precisely this 'subjective reality' that he sought to convey in Il Vangelo where, he maintained, the life of Christ is seen through the eyes of a 'believer'."
    (Greene 73-74) - with quotations from "Entretiens avec Pier Paolo Pasolini" Duflot (1970)
    Greene, however, is unconvinced that this approach works. For one thing, she suggests that the depiction "was given added credibility by the very fact of being seen. No literary description found in the Gospels can compete with a filmic sequence where Christ walks calmly upon the water or cures lepers of their sores." (73)

    The importance of the images also comes into the following section where Greene claims Pasolini "scrupulously avoids the traditional iconography and cultural echoes" aside from "the costumes
    of the Pharisees and the Roman soldiers, which evoke a specific painter, Piero della Francesca" though she also quotes Pasolini's citation of Duccio and Mantegna (74). Other writers have found a number of other painterly influences, and this raises a few interesting points, particularly with respect to Barański's point that what Pasolini says is not always backed up by the film itself, or indeed with other points he himself has made. For one thing Pasolini has described the film as not being so much as about Jesus, but as about Jesus plus 2000 years of Christian interpretation (Stack 91). (For more on Pasolini's references to paintings see this anonymous blog post). On the other hand, however, Pasolini's film is clearly trying to distance itself from the overall look and feel of renaissance art, and indeed films that have tried to reproduce it such as DeMille's The King of Kings (1927) or The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965).

    Of course, films such as The King of Kings, Ray's 1961 'remake' and the biblical epics of the 1950s were very much part of what Pasolini was targeting in La Ricotta (1963). Greene picks this up noting how the two films "work against traditional representations of Biblical scenes" even so "they do so in almost opposing ways" (75). She points out how in essence whereas "La ricotta reproduces familiar iconography only implicitly to denounce its falsity and distance from reality; Il Vangelo deliberately, and consistently, rejects such iconography" (75). Whereas his earlier films not adapting religious stories adopted elements of Christian iconography, here, "where the subject is mythic and epic" he uses a a more realistic approach (75). Greene nicely describes some of the key, iconoclastic depictions, which include Mary's depiction as a "bewildered young peasant woman" and Salome not as "the erotic goddess of Hollywood films but a graceful, almost timid adolescent" (75).

    In the opening article of this series I mentioned Antonio Gramsci and Greene is one of those authors who discuss his influence on Pasolini. This starts before the section dealing with this film specifically, and is first voiced in a quotation from Pasolini's discussion with Sartre:
    "I have created a national-popular work in the Gramscian sense. Because the believer through whom I see Christ as the son of God is a humble Italian [un personnagio popolare italiano]... seeing the world through his eyes I came close to Gramsci's national-popular conception of art." (Cristo e il Marxismo)
    Pasolini's comments about the "subjective reality" of the miracles very much relate to this and, as is clear, his phrase here about the film being a "national-popular work" is straight from Gramsci. Particularly in Gramsci's "Prison Notebooks" he explores the idea of literature (and beyond) in which the author identifies with the people by sharing their needs and problems. Gramsci perceived a paucity of Italian literature from the subaltern classes (peasants/working class/sub-proletariat, loosely speaking) seeing literature from other nations (e.g. France) or the intellectual class (which he saw as distinct in Italian society) and longed for a literature that reflected that strata of Italian society. In the early sixties we can see how Pasolini attempts to create works of national-popular cinema through works such as Accatone (1961) Mamma Roma (1962) and, of course, Il vangelo.

    Greene returns to this phrase and Gramsci's influence throughout, though noting that Pasolini's faith in it began to disappear around the time of Hawks and Sparrows (1966). It's interesting, in this respect, how a number of "his intellectual friends play those in power" particularly in contrast to the ordinary people who play the more minor roles (176). In Il vangelo we can clearly see Pasolini's desire to bring subalterns to the fore and yet the films also represents something of a failure in this regard. Greene discusses a number of  critics who found fault with the portrayal of the ordinary people in the film calling them "lifeless" and "expressionless" (78). There's also a lengthy and damning quote from Sandro
    "a single scene in which a character from the crowd succeeds in resisting the absolute fierceness of the messiah, not a single frame in which one of them emerges from a perspective which flattens and crushes the multitudes into a sub-human homogeneity." (Petraglia, 61-62)
    Greene finds that in "several respects" such criticisms "are valid" (emphasis hers), finding "little doubt that Pasolini does indeed drain the people of life and vitality" (79). She find this partly due to the "silence of Christ's followers" in the source material and Pasolini's "fidelity" to it, but significantly due also to the way "Pasolini consistently isolates Christ through visual means", particularly the film's use of close-ups. The above image captures this well, Jesus in close up in the foreground with the people some distance behind him in the background.

    Greene's summary to this line of thought has been quoted a few times, but it bears repeating as it's a nice piece of writing and an essential counterpoint to much of the unqualified praise given to the film
    "Christ appears, in fact, as a kind of Biblical intellectual who, despite an intense desire to be 'organically' linked to the people, cannot breach the immeasurable gap between them. One is left to wonder how his mute and passive followers will be able to further his teachings once he himself is gone." (79)
    One final quote, that flows from the discussion of Gramsci and Pasolini's desire to make a "national-popular epic" is a quote from his interview by Marisa Rusconi. Discussing why he chose Matthew's Gospel rather than any of the other three he dispensed with the usual 'stuck-in-a-hotel-room-because-of-the-pope' story and talked about why he thought Matthew was the most suitable for his purposes. "Mark's seemed too crude, John's too mystical, and Luke's sentimental and bourgeois." (Rusconi, 16). It's an interesting, alternative perspective to the usual story and also a nice summary of the four gospels. That said it perhaps says more about each gospel's adaptability, rather than their inherent characteristics. I don't think Matthew's Gospel does a particularly good job of reflecting the lives of the sub-proletariat - either in Jesus' day or in Pasolini's. It's formal structuring and repeated citations seem to have a more scholarly angle. That said, many scholars consider it the oldest extant version of the hypothetical Q source which, according to the theory, underlies both Matthew and Luke. Whilst I'm not sure I buy the theory, the argument could be made that the 'Q' material has more of a Gramscian national-popular feel to it than either of the Gospels that contain it, or the gospels that would follow it.

    "Cristo e il Marxismo: Dialogo Pasolini-Sartre," (1964) L'Unita, December 22, p. 2

    Duflot, Jean (1970) Entretiens avec Pier Paolo Pasolini Paris: Pierre Belfond.

    Greene, Naomi (1990) Pier Paolo Pasolini: Cinema as Heresy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Petraglia, Sandro (197) Pier Paolo Pasolini. Florence: Nuova Italia

    Rusconi, Marisa (1964) "4 Registri al magnetofono"  Sipario 222 (October) p.16

    Stack, Oswald (1969) Pasolini on Pasolini. London, Thames and Hudson/British Film Institute.

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    Tuesday, May 14, 2019

    Delving Deeper into Il vangelo secondo Matteo - Part 2

    Having outlined in my first post in this series the need to take in wider perspectives on Pasolini's Il vangelo secondo Matteo I thought I would now look at some of the other key writings on the film that I have been studying.

    First is Zygmunt G. Barański's "The Texts of Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo" in the book he himself has edited, "Pasolini Old and New". (Page numbers alone in brackets refer to this work) The fact that Barański is established enough to be able to pull together a series of essays on Pasolini and considers of all the Pasolini's films, the one he wishes to cover is Il vangelo gives a certain air to his commitment to the subject. This is important because he main thrust of Barański's argument is that it is a mistake to give too much weight to what Pasolini has said on the subject, as opposed to the filmic text itself.

    Barański starts by noting that "incongruities may be noticed between the finished film and many of Pasolini's statements about it" (282). This is in part because Pasolini began developing this film two years before its release in 1964, during which time he made frequent statements about it to the press meaning that "discrepancies between the film and comments about it were inevitable" (282). However he also finds that many of Pasolini's statements about the film, even after it was completed, do not tally with the film itself. This problem is worsened by the fact that much of the discussion about the film has tried "to integrate Pasolini's comments...with the film itself. The "film has been lost among its interpretations" (282). Barański never actually makes the observation that Pasolini's pronouncements on the film have 'become Gospel', but as a native English speaker, I'm afraid I cannot resist. In particular, as interesting as Oswald Stack's Pasolini on Pasolini is, Pasolini's words there get repeated time after time after time in scholarly discourse, as if authorial intent, or rather authorial claims of intent are the final word on a film's meaning.

    Nevertheless, Barański starts by outlining those very statements, alongside a number of other pronouncements, particularly those around the film's "analogical" approach (Stack, 82); presentation of "the history of Christ constructed out of two thousand years of Christian interpretation" (Pasolini, 33); and, its supposed "fidelity to the original" (284). Barański finds, however that these ideas are in conflict with each other and that "it is difficult to escape the conclusion that he was openly adding to the myriad interpretations of he Gospel" (288). "His diverging pronouncements do seem to fit in with that general intellectual uncertainty which characterized his thinking during the early to mid-Sixties" (288).

    Barański then examines the films structure, including a detailed examination of an example of how "Pasolini fashioned a single new narrative unit by synthesizing...four discrete yet contiguous episodes" from Matthew 11:25-12:21 (292). In particular he notes how the film "is more tightly organized than its source, since it has quite a marked circular structure which the Gospel lacks" (295). He also notes how "Pasolini eliminates Matthew and substitutes himself as a new 'evangelist' and source of information about Christ" even excluding his calling (296). This leads him to another section on Pasolini's "Deletions" from the text (296-300), most notably the miracles which Barański finds "presented as something illogical and arbitrary" suggesting that they are "marginal to Pasolini's view of Jesus"(298).

    I started this series by discussing he film's much vaunted "neorealism" and Barański eventually takes on questions of Pasolini's style, citing "documentary techniques (the sequences in cinema vérité and newsreel style" (303), "unearthed 'home movie'" (304), and a range of "'realist' practices", but also "'expressionistic' stylistic devices" (305). He (Barański) does however consider that the "role of 'analogy' is actually much less evident than might appear from Pasolini's explanations" (304). He summarises as follows:
    "He depicts Jesus according to different stylistic conventions, from the expressionism of the Baptism to the cinema vérité treatment of the trials, and from Neo-realism to his own sacralità frontale. It is as if Pasolini hopes that one or a combination of all these techniques might offer a definitive insight. (310)
    .In Barański's final analysis the film is not the "faithful adaptation" (314) it is considered to be, indeed it "diverges sharply from its source "to challenge its status (314). He finds Pasolini's film is "not so much about Christ as about texts on Christ" (314). "He is adding a new layer to the image of Christ by highlighting the conventionality of his apparently 'realistic' film" (314). Calling it Pasolini's "great Godardian moment" (314) he concludes that the film's "style and structure" (314) articulate that which Pasolini could not at the time.


    Barański, Zygmunt G. (1999) "The Texts of Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo" in Barański (ed.) Pasolini Old and New: Surveys and Studies. Dublin: Four Courts Press.

    Pasolini, Pier Paolo (1983) Il sogno del centauro: a cura di Jean Duflot Rome: Editori Riuniti.

    Stack, Oswald (1969) Pasolini on Pasolini. London, Thames and Hudson/British Film Institute.

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    Friday, May 10, 2019

    Delving Deeper into Il vangelo secondo Matteo - Part 1

    This is a more off-the-top-of-my-head post, so please don't quote me on any of it just yet!
    I've written various pieces on Pier Paolo Pasolini's Il vangelo secondo Matteo (1964) over the years but recently I've been feeling the need to re-examine some of the scholarship about the film. Mainly this is driven by the realisation that whilst many of my favourite works on the subject Jesus on Film raise the issue of neorealism, important things are being omitted. Take, for example, the impact of Antonio Gramsci on Pasolini's films. A quick scan of the indices of Tatum; Stern, Jefford and Debona; Walsh; Baugh; Reinhartz; and others reveals not one mention of Gramsci (though in some cases his would not necessarily be within the work's scope.

    Part of the problem stems, I think, from the distance between those scholars approaching the film from a biblical studies point-of-view, and other writers on Pasolini's cinema, but it also stems from the distance between Pasolini's time and our own, and between Pasolini's location and North America where the above writers all come from. For example, neorealism was very much a mid-to-late 1940s movement. It continued in the the early 1950, but, having never been hugely popular in Italy itself, fizzled out. It proved hugely influential, not least on subsequent Italian cinematic movements, but across the world. By the time Pasolini was directing his Gospel of Matthew it was over, but Italian cinema was entering another vintage period heralded by the likes of Fredrico Fellini, Michaelangelo Antonio and the like. This second period tended also to be in black and white - the most obvious similarity between the two sets of films and the greatest contrast between its American contemporaries, and indeed the cinema that most people today are familiar with. Clearly other aspects were in continuity with neorealism but have since fallen out of fashion and so again, conflating these two distinct periods is somewhat understandable.

    The questions that come back to me are then, firstly to what extent does Il vangelo secondo Matteo exhibit distinctives of neorealsim; and, why does Pasolini do so?

    There is, it seems to me a modern parallel, twenty four years ago Lars von Trier, Thomas Vinterberg and a number of other directors created and swore to uphold Dogme 95's Vow of Chasity. Festen, The Idiots, Italian for Beginners and a host of other films came out adhering to Dogme's rules and for a while the movement was much discussed and influenced all kinds of filmmakers even if they didn't take a purist approach to it. If you've seen Vinterberg or von Trier's more recent work you'll have noticed that they have moved on. Melancholia's special effects were not part of the manifesto. So if a director today was again to take up the rules of Dogme it would be worthy of closer consideration.

    This is essentially what Pasolini does. Il vangelo was released 18 years after Roberto Rossellini's pivotal Roma, città aperta (1946). It could possibly be nostalgic, retro, an homage, a pastiche or something else entirely neo-neorealism) but more needs to be said.

    And so my question is, why? I hope to get into that in a future post. And Antonio Gramsci, because I think he provides some of the answers.

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    Saturday, May 04, 2019

    The Bible (2013) - Part 1*

    I've been writing up reviews for individual episodes The Bible on a sort of ad hoc basis. Essentially, when I revisit one because it touches on something I am researching, I try to write it up then, having only reviewed the series as a whole when it first came out. So now at last I have returned to Episode 1*(by this I mean the first episode if you are looking at the series as ten episodes long, but in some places it aired as five longer episodes, so I guess it's the first half of episode one if that's you).

    The episode, and therefore the whole series, starts with the words of Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech and snippets from various other famous speeches where other famous orators have referenced God and/or the Bible. Many Bible film makers have attempted to give their production gravitas at the very beginning by use of similarish devices - think Cecil B. DeMille's opening lecture at the start of The Ten Commandments (1956) or Orson Welles' authoritative sounding narration at the start of King of Kings (1961). This is a contemporary twist, even as it is rooted in history, it is more recent history, and rather than riffing on ancient artefacts or texts, it adopts an approach more in touch with our age, one awash with soundbites.

    The creation and fall part of the series is perhaps most notable for its portrayal of Satan, which many noted at the time looks remarkably like then then non-conservative president, Barack Obama. This time around, it's even more striking. The makers denied it, of course, but it's hard to escape the feeling that even if this wasn't deliberate, it perhaps betrayed their deeper feelings. Other interesting casting includes the choice of a Scottish actor (David Rintoul) whose Scottish accent lends the role with a sense of connection with the great outdoors and dramatic weather (at the very least, constant rain).

    The Noah segment is startlingly brief, and is ended by a scene which starts with a God shot of Rintoul before zooming out. It's initially rather well done, but then the special effects kick in and it speeds up to reveal the whole globe covered in water. Not entirely convincing special effects and over the top sound effects, are something of a hall mark of this series. We get both here and the passage of time has hardly improved them. The vision of the entire globe covered in water must have played nicely to the programme's conservative viewer base. I can't help but wonder (admittently rather flippantly) whether they ever considered zooming out to show the water covering an earth that was flat...

    The next segment features Abram and Sarai, though here they are called simply Abraham and Sarah from the start. We start with a Abraham praying on a mountain top (using the obligatory helicopter footage) and hearing God call him out. We then cut to Sarah still at home on her knees, also prayin. Only he seems to hear God, however. Is this meant to reflect a reality - Abraham free to go for mountain walks whilst Sarah is stuck at home with the chores, or to legitimise a similar model today? I'm not sure quite how I'd like to see this played out, but I find the filmmakers' vision here disturbing. I suppose there's a chance that's the point, but that's not the impression I'm left with.

    Whilst Sarah is happy to believe her husband, with just a smile to convey her acceptance, Lot's wife is considerably more dubious from the start. I really dislike it when filmmakers stack the deck like this, implying Lot's wife was never really on board with God's plans. It not only makes it so much easier to overlooks the ethical problems of her fate in the text, but it also lays heavy interpretation on it. Lot's (unnamed) wife's fate isn't portrayed as just a momentary lapse, it's the result of her general attitude. Needless to say, she is cast in this negative light in almost every scene.

    Once Lot and his wife split from Abraham and his men, it's Sarah's turn to become the negative foil. Now it is she who mopes grumpily around and here she actively denies she will have a child. She tries to prevent Abraham from rescuing Lot and his clan (in a rare adaptation of that incident, which does cast Abraham in a different light, one that is, usually exorcised from most portrayals of him). When three visitors appear and suggest she will still have a child, she gulps rather than laughs. The three visitors are interesting as the two angels are non-white and the third is clearly meant to be Jesus. I quite want to go back and look at how the camera and the mise en shot indicates this without ever making it explicit.

    Which brings us to the most ill-fitting part of this episode, if not the entire series, namely the scene in Sodom and Gomorrah. It's hard to be even more over-the-top than a text that has a man attempting to buy off a crowd of would-be angel rapists by offering them his daughters instead, but somehow The Bible manages it. The daughters are mere children here and the whole exchange passage (which obviously reflects very badly on Lot, the supposed hero) is dropped. What we get instead is a long and gratuitous scene of armour-clad angels beating up/killing a huge number of male Sodomites, in fairly graphic ways. As I'm sure I have mentioned before somewhere (but can't remember where), the scene lasts far longer than the entire creation sequence, or than the story of Noah. Later Isaac, Jacob and Esau's stories will be, by and large, omitted, yet this imagined scene of violent divine retribution just goes on and on. It's reveals a strange set of priorities. Moreover, do the angels not realise all these people are about to get the burning sulphur treatment? It's hard to think of a moment that typifies the series more, and exposes its claims for authenticity more starkly, than this.

    Ultimately, here Lot's wife's crime could be interpreted as her not trusting Lot, as opposed to not trusting God. For some reason Lot has responsibility for both daughters, rather than both parents taking one each, and so Mrs Lot manages to get a little ahead. She only turns looks back, therefore,  because the other three fall behind. But of course, she has already been deemed guilty by the earlier scenes, so the filmmakers apparently consider that they have done enough to convince the audience that this is somehow justified.

    The last incident in this episode is, of course, Abraham's aborted sacrifice of Isaac, meaning the adult life of Isaac and pretty much everything to do with his two sons Esau and Jacob, the father of Israel, is omitted. It's a reminder that for all it's claims to historical authenticity this is very much a Christian, rather than a Jewish take on the text.

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    Wednesday, May 01, 2019

    Flint Street Nativity (1999)

    It's a bit of a stretch including Flint Street Nativity on this site as it's not really a dramatisation of the Bible as such. Jesus, for example, appears only as a large soft-bodied doll with a grotesque head - and even that falls of partway through. Instead it's the story of a school putting on a nativity play, only the children are all played by a host of TV comedians and actors from twenty years ago. The sets are scaled accordingly and the characters talk like kids, and their teacher is largely confined to just off screen, as a series of disasters and tangled relationships unfurl whilst the parents watch in the dark. Personally I was a little disappointed that it wasn't as funny as I expected. Frank Skinner's Inn Keeper / Herod figure obsessed by the quiz show A Question of Sport providing the most amusing highlights.

    Where things change, however, is in the programme's final act, once the show has come to a calamitous halt. The camera switches from following the kids around to mingling amongst their parents, who are also played by the corresponding actors. Suddenly we get a bit more depth to each child's more quirky behaviours, a glimpse of the stories that have shaped them the way they are. Moments here are genuinely moving, not least for the way it highlights that schools remain a place that children from different backgrounds mix largely unaware of the extent to which their parents are rich or poor, and coping or not coping. And somehow in the midst of that the film finds a note of hope.

    Twenty years on Flint Street Nativity is still remembered by those that saw it at the time, even if those of us that didn't had somehow never heard of it, but in the interim all that has really changed is that some of the actors have faded from view whilst others carry on. That in itself adds an additional air of nostalgia to what was already a nostalgic piece at the time. But it never idealises the trials of childhood and perhaps its biggest strength is the questions it leaves unresolved.

    Friday, April 26, 2019

    Matriarchy and Feminism in Genesis

    I've been looking at the biblical Matriarchs on film and particularly how that is viewed from a feminist perspective. Part of the problem with this starts with the question of who exactly qualifies as a Matriarch in the Bible. For the men it is easy - the Hebrew patriarchs are Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the fathers of the nation. For the women though it is more complicated. The inclusion of Sarai and Rebekah is simple enough, but Jacob had two wives Rachel and Leah., Furthermore, some of his sons were the children of his servants Bilhah and Zilpah, should they be included? And if so what about Abraham's servant Hagar? And then there's the question of Eve, technically she is the mother of humanity itself, but there seems a stronger link somehow between her motherhood and Adam's fatherhood. Should she be included in such a discussion? Should Noah's unnamed wife?

    Like the biblical stories themselves, film adaptations of Genesis have tended to prioritise their Patriarchs over their Matriarchs. Cinema has tended to adopt a male point of view and done little to minimise the inherent sexist assumptions of the text.

    Perhaps the Matriarch, if we can call her that, who has fared least worst amongst the films based on Genesis is Eve, who typically enjoys as much screen time as her husband. That said Eve portrayal is typically no less problematic for two main reasons. Firstly, despite the fact that most theologians would tend to accept a metaphorical interpretation of the story of The Fall, the vast majority of film adaptations literalise it and hence tend to portray Eve as more culpable than her husband. This is frequently intensified by the number of films in which Eve is initially portrayed as the object of the male gaze. Several films emphasise this point further by ensuring the audience's first sight of Eve being via a shot from Adam's point of view.

    The second reason that portrayals of Eve are problematic is their sexualisation of Eve. Whilst Eve's nakedness is found in the text, it is often used as a form of titillation. Eve is typically depicted as a slim, beautiful, young, and often blond woman whose body is almost entirely exposed but for the odd strategically-placed plant. One imagines that pornographic films such as Bible (dir: Wakefield Poole, 1974), do not stray too far from the approach of the more mainstream releases.

    Sarai and Hagar
    In recent years more progressive visions of the women of Genesis have begun to emerge, in contrast to films such as The Bible (dir: John Huston, 1966) which, for example, leaves the text's repeated shaming of the childless Sarai very much unchallenged. One more recent film to draw attention to the problematic portrayal of Sarai in the text is 2003's comic The Real Old Testament (dir: Curtis Hannum) which juxtaposes ancient values against modern ones by relocating the characters from Genesis in the format of a reality TV show (specifically The Real World which has been running since 1992). As there is so little biblical material to define her, Sarai (Kate Connor) naturally channels modern values and thus appears as a more sane, rational character than her more awe-struck and compliant husband or than the egotistical "God". The narrative sticks closely to the Bible, but the camera gives Sarah more time and a fairer hearing than most films she is presented as the wittiest and most attractive character of the three. When God and Abraham talk about circumcising Abraham's entire tribe or sacrificing Isaac, she double-takes or raises an eyebrow to the camera expecting viewers will see the same peculiarity as she does.†

    Sadly the next major portrayal of Sarah, in the TV series The Bible (2013) (pictured) reverts very much to type, unmoved by the fifty years of feminism since Huston's earlier film. Few films seek to understand Sarai, let alone sympathise with her, often depicting her dealings with Hagar in an even poorer light than the texts, for example making Hagar carry heavy loads even when very heavily pregnant.

    However. the portrayal of Hagar is often similarly unsympathetic. Whereas the text says only that she "despised" Sarai, several films show her criticising Sarai to her face for being barren. I wrote more about this in my piece on films about Ishmael a few years ago.

    The intention here consistently seems to be to portray Abraham as decent, sympathetic and essentially good. Unfortunately given that he would have been her social superior. He comes across as weak and controlled by Sarah, rather than the master of his own destiny. The consistently shrewish portrayals of Sarah are bolstered by many films using a voice-over to inform the audience that God has also reassured Abraham that he is making the correct decision. The efforts to beatify Abraham also extend to the portrayal of Ishmael's conception. Almost universally this is depicted as Sarah's suggestion, for example in Abraham (Joseph Sargent, 1994).

    In contrast to Sarai, the Bible portrays Rebekah in marginally more positive light. She hears God for herself (indeed her husband is bypassed) and takes an active role in ensuring the words she has heard from him come to pass. Yet, if anything, Sarah's daughter-in-law Rebekah fairs even worse in cinema and television. Things started well enough, with Henri Andréani making a film for Pathé in which she was the lead character. Rebecca (1913) told the story of Abraham's servant meeting with her at the well in village of Nacaor. She has featured in few films since, however, with Marcello Baldi's Giacobbe: L'uomo che  lottò con Dei (Jacob: The Man who Fought with God, 1963) and Peter Hall's Jacob (1994) being notable exceptions. In both she is shown as the initiator of Jacob's deception of Isaac in order to fulfil his mother's prophecy. In Baldi's film, Jacob view's Esau selling of his birthright for a bowl of soup as "just a joke", but Rebekah has the foresight to see it as a fulfilment of her prophecy. Hall's film further justifies Rebekah's actions by giving her the additional insight that, of her two sons, Jacob would make the better leader of the tribe after her husband death. Giving her the additional insight that Jacob would make a better leader of the tribe than his brother because he is "a man who cares about the tribe", emphasising her wisdom rather than her deception.

    Leah and Rachel
    Unsurprisingly both films also feature Rachel and Leah. The actresses playing the role in Baldi's film looks so physically different that it is hard to imagine they are sisters. Rachel is blonde and fair-skinned, whereas Leah has looks more typical of the region, but also has noticeable hair on upper lip. Given the way that the Bible contrasts Rachel's beauty with her supposedly "plain" sister (Gen 29:17-19), it is not difficult to interpret the differing appearance of these two actresses as reinforcing racist/sexist western notions of perceived beauty.

    One incident that tends to get very little coverage in bilical film is the passage from Genesis 30 dealing with the birth of Leah, Rachel, Zilpah and Bilhah's children. Typically the important and more human, fallible details of the passage tend to get glossed over to produce a mere genealogy on the "sons of Jacob" (when his involvement would have been relatively minor compared to that of the four women). There is an significant amount of potential human interest in this story which rarely gets picked up by dramatists. There's also a slight comic undertone to the text's portrayal of Jacob's wives trading sex with him for the hallucinogenic fertility-aid mandrake plant (Gen. 30:14-17). Only two films depict this incident, the word-for-word adaptation Genesis (director unnamed, 1979), produced by John Heyman for The New Media Bible and The Real Old Testament which makes the most of the peculiarity of the passage. Again the spoofing of both the biblical text and 90s youth culture mean that the incident is played as a bunch of college students getting high, where sex is a far lower ranking commodity than drugs.

    Having died before the start of the film, Rachel is physically absent from La Genèse (Cheick Oumar Sissoko, 1998), yet her absence (along with the 'loss' of her son Joseph) haunts the film, which charts the woes of Jacob's clan later years. Beset by grief, Jacob remains in his tent for much of the film, only being persuaded to leave when relations with the neighbouring tribes come to a crisis point. Unwilling or unable to cope with his troublesome sons and in fear of his brother the tribe is cast into crisis which manifests itself in various ways not least the story of another kind-of-Matriarch Tamar, and her dealings with her husband's father.

    Leah, however, has survived, making La Genèse the only film to depict her but not her sister. It gives voice to the unfair treatment she has received from Jacob. In her opening line she exclaims "I have no husband! My children are fatherless. I have no place in your heart." She is also shown as an active character protesting about the rape of her daughter Dinah by interrupting and disrupting the conversation between Jacob and Hamor, overturning Hamor's gifts and also complaining about her sons failure to respond properly to Dinah's rape.

    Dinah is the subject of arguably the most radical retelling of the Matriarch's stories, The Red Tent (Roger Young, 2014) which not only tells various stories from the latter part of Genesis from her perspective, but also places the other women in the stories at its narrative centre. Dinah describes her mother Leah as "strong and capable and splendidly arrogant" and Zilpah and Bilhah as aunts, rather than mere slaves. At the centre of the story (and it is implied the tribe) is this community of women and their private space, the red tent of the title. It also takes the radical step of making the bridal night swap Rachel's idea, to which Leah acquiesces, unbeknownst to either man. The series over- idealises the way these four women share one husband, however, alternatively it could be read as highlighting the impossible expectation that one woman should embody all qualities: wisdom, beauty and motherhood.

    I've not had a chance to survey all the films based on Genesis for this piece, but I find it interesting how more recent films have attempted to grapple with some of these issues, even as others manifestly have not. There's a challenge at the heart of it all however: given that this was a deeply patriarchal society and the similarly patriarchal nature of the texts, how should these stories be portrayed. Whilst the approach of The Red Tent has its admirable qualities, it does just end up making things a little too cosy. Jacob is a good man and the women generally get on and so the potential issues are glossed over. At the other end of the scale The Real Old Testament is so scathing in its approach it rejects and space for genuine spirituality despite the patriarchal society and assumptions of the times the story occurred in and was written about. La Genese perhaps manages a good balance of the two - the nature of the society is exposed, but that is very much at a human level, allowing the film's finale to still allow for the possibility of a God who may one day right these wrongs.

    †In one of my favourite moments in this film God visit's the couple's tent in the middle of the night whilst Sarai is sleeping, involved much shrugging and mugging for the camera. Later in a camera diary moment she observes "It's like, he invented time…can he tell it?"


    Saturday, April 20, 2019

    Jesus: His Life (2019)

    It's not unusual for Easter to feature a new biblical documentary and 2019 is no exception. This year it's the turn of The History Channel whose latest offering Jesus: His Life begins in the UK tomorrow, having recently completed it's run in the States (for those of you wondering where my coverage has been).

    Jesus: His Life though is a little different in that according to The History Channel's description, it's "part drama, part documentary". They've no doubt used this phrase in preference to "docudrama" because of the confusion surrounding the latter term. Many, for example, applied the docudrama tag to Killing Jesus (2013) even though many queried it's factual basis. The approach here is different again in that it intersperses dramatised sections with talking heads from various scholars and church leaders.

    The series is different to Killing Jesus in another key respect. Whereas that film sought to provide a more sceptical take on the events in the gospels, His Life aims for a more traditional version of the story. For one thing, amongst its executive producers is mega-church leaders and televangelist Joel Osteen and he and a number of other church leaders offer their thoughts in between scholars such Ben Witherington III, Robert Cargill, Shively Smith, Nicola Denzey-Lewis, Candida Moss and Mark Goodacre. That said the church leaders are drawn from wider perspectives than mega-church evangelicalism including Episcopalian Bishop Michael Curry and Roman Catholic Fr. James Martin.

    Such an approach will please some and disappoint others. For example, the opening episode, which tells the story from Joseph's perspective, never raises some scholars' opinion that Joseph never existed. It's possible to do that without derailing the programme's overall thrust. Sceptics will find this makes the series difficult to take too seriously: Conservatives will be pleased that it is more respectful of the Gospels.

    That said, I have only seen the first two episodes and a few clips from the final episode. Everything so far suggests this traditional approach, including shots of the resurrected Jesus. That said two or three of the episodes may present an alternative approach. The series' innovative set-up is that each episode is made from the perspective of a different character in the Gospels (though not Jesus himself). As mentioned above Joseph is the focus of the first episode, with subsequent instalments being based on the perspectives of John the Baptist, the Virgin Mary, Judas, Caiaphas, Pilate, Mary Magdalene and Peter. It's the docudrama equivalent of Jesus Christ, Superstar in that respect I suppose, and just as that film includes more sceptical solos from Judas, Caiaphas and Pilate later episodes may go that route as well.

    This approach goes quite far as well. It is not just that the episodes shown are those that centre on each of the protagonists, and that their perspectives are given by the various interviews, it's also that the characters get to speak in the first person. For example, in the closing scenes of the second 'hour' John the Baptists asks "Did I do enough?". That question also reflects the programme's use of more contemporary language. I think this is one of its strengths. At times it completely works the biblical language in a way that stays true to the original but transforms and enlivens it.

    Jesus: His Life is also interesting visually. For one thing it is lushly shot with real attention played to composition, lenses, filters and lighting, take the above shot of Jesus' time in the wilderness for example. But the costumes, locations and sets are all impressive as well. Again I can't comment on the bigger scenes in Jerusalem towards the end of the series, but certainly it's a very good start.

    But aside from its cinematic quality there are also other notable visual choices. For one the ethnicity of the actors involved is from a wider range of backgrounds than is typically the case, and it generally attempts to give the actors a western Asia appearance. It's also notable that British actor Greg Barnett, who plays Jesus has his hair cropped relatively short. This was an observation that was made in the BBC's 2001 documentary Son of God, but it's rarely been taken up in more dramatic portrayals, even as more recent films have sought to move away from the old blond hair, blue eyes stereotype.

    That said perhaps the most memorable shot from the two parts I watched was the depiction of John the Baptists severed head. It's something that's never really been done well before. There have been some bizarre depictions, but never something as well, um, executed as is the case here. It's all the more gruesome for coming after so little blood up to this point. I wonder how the trial and crucifixion scenes will play out.

    So there are many strengths to this one. If the frequency of new insights it brings are perhaps a little pedestrian, there are many other plus points. The visuals, dialogue and performances are good - so often a let down with this sort of project - and giving each episode its own narrative arc, enables the series to keep up the interest across what is the longest portrayal of Jesus for quite some time.


    Wednesday, April 17, 2019

    Easter UK TV Schedule 2019

    In years gone by I used to post the schedules of any films/productions/programmes that might be of interest to readers of this blog. I must admit I thought I'd done it far more recently than 2011, when the last of my holiday previews posts was. Certainly I've been checking more regularly than that, but admittedly there's not been a huge amount.

    For whatever reason, this year I'm resurrecting the tradition. It turns out there are a few things of interest this year and I somehow found myself in a position both to check out what was coming up as well as having a moment to blog it all. So here goes


    The Robe - BBC2 - Good Friday - 2:35pm
    The first film in the Cinemascope widescreen format in many ways typifies the Biblical epic. There's some magnificent scenes, some moments that are genuinely moving and some unbelievably hammy acting. Newman's score is terrific. Martin Scorsese fondly remembers the impact of the curtain pulling back and back and back. My review is here.

    Androcles and the Lion - Talking Pictures TV - Easter Sunday - 10:30am
    Talking Pictures TV is available on Freeview and deals with classic era films and TV. This is a little tangential for this blog, but we'll let it squeeze in, if only because prior to Life of Brian it was the leading satire of Biblical epics. Plus if you've not hand enough of Jean Simmons and Victor Mature after The Robe here's a chance for another helping.

    Risen - C4 - Easter Sunday - 11pm
    Released only three years ago, Risen will always have a special place in my heart as being the film that brought me to Rome for the first time. Like The Robe it has some good aspects, such as the tension in parts of the first half, but the interest fizzles out part-way through. Worth a watch if you've not yet seen it. My review is here and you can also read a piece I wrote for Peter Chattaway's blog on the filmmakers views of the film.

    Jesus: His Life
    Jesus: His Life is an eight part mix of drama and documentary that has just finished airing in the US (you can read Mark Goodacre's tweet stream here). The series begins here on Easter Sunday and I it seems that it will run an episode a week thereafter. Each chapter tells the story from the point of view of a different character, the docu-drama equivalent of Jesus Christ, Superstar, perhaps. Here's my review.


    Britain's Easter Story - BBC1 - Good Friday 9am & Easter Sunday 9:10pm
    I know very little about this so I'll just quote from the BBC press release. The programme will star "choir master Gareth Malone and gospel choir conductor Karen Gibson. They travel across the UK to explore the stories behind our Easter traditions, looking at how different celebrations have developed over the years, and how music remains a big part of those celebrations."

    Pilgrimage: The Road to Rome - BBC2 - Good Friday - 9pm
    (Final episode, repeats of parts 1 & 2 on BBC2 at Wed 17th at 12:15am and Wed 24th 2:05am on BBC2 respectively, or on iPlayer)
    I really enjoyed last year's Pilgrimage: The Road to Santiago so I was pleased to see them reworking the formula and going for the big one this year. I'm a little slow to the party so I've not yet had a chance to catch the first two episodes. Whether Les Dennis, Stephen K Amos and Katy Brand can provide the humour that Ed Byrne and Neil Morrissey did last year remains to be seen. It will be interesting to see how the dynamic will change without a TV vicar this year.

    Jesus' Female Disciples - C4 - Easter Monday 2:45am
    Last year's Channel 4 documentary, released to coincide with the UK release of Mary Magdalene, gets another outing here. It stars Prof. Joan Taylor (who advise on Magdalene) and Helen Bond (who literally wrote the book on Jesus TV documentaries. My review is here.


    Monday, April 15, 2019

    An Introduction to The King of Kings

    Last week I had the pleasure of introducing Lobster films' new restoration of The King of Kings (1927) at its UK premieré in Bristol Cathedral, courtesy of South West Silents. As it was only a short intro, I thought I'd post it here to supplement my other posts and my podcast on the film.


    Whenever I come to these kinds of events I'm always intrigued as to what specifically attracts people to them. Are we film fans? People of faith? Both? Have we come because of our love of music? Or for something else? It's kind of ambiguity that cuts to the heart of Cecil B DeMille. He could oil up Charlton Heston, put him in chains and tell you that that was Moses, or begin his film about Christ with a woman in a gold coil bra stroking her pet leopard.

    It's easy to deride DeMille's mix of titillation and piety, or see them as being cynical, but for him the combination was very real. As Fritzi Kramer puts it:

    DeMille is an almost perfect split between his flamboyant actress mother and his bookish lay minister father... DeMille's religious beliefs were not exactly in the mainstream but they were from the heart. The conflict between faith and trash was very real for him. He loved both.
    Indeed DeMille was critical of those who proposed more staid portrayals of the Gospels, arguing that "they must have read them through the stained glass telescope which centuries of tradition and form have put between us and the men and women of flesh and blood who lived and wrote the Bible."

    We tend to think of cinema's silent era as time of beginnings, but in fact by 1927 when The Kings of Kings was released it had been around for quite some time. The first Jesus films came out in 1897, meaning they had been making them for 30 years by the time The King of Kings came along. It was DeMille's 51st film, and incredibly whilst today his name is synonymous with the biblical epic, at this point in time he was known mainly for melodramas and westerns. Only one of his previous 50 films had been biblical.

    The film itself was written by one of DeMille's most trusted collaborators, Jeannie MacPherson. In contrast with the majority of Jesus films both before, and, indeed, after, it starts neither with Jesus birth, nor his baptism, nor even at the beginning of Holy Week, but instead it begins as Jesus' ministry is already in full flow. In that sense it's different from any of the Gospels, or the earliest creedal confessions found about him in Paul. As a whole the film blends elements of all four gospels together citing each in the various subtitles, though often wildly out of context. It opens quoting its role in the Great Commission from Matthew's Gospel, focuses its portrayal of Jesus as the healer of Luke's Gospel, whilst its lighting emphasises John's "Light of the World" and it depicts a young boy called Mark, with the implication that it is he who will go on to write the earliest gospel. Our first sighting of Jesus is a famous shot which I won't spoil for those of you who don't know it, but is paired with its opposite at the end of DeMille's Samson and Delilah 22 years later.

    Another DeMille regular was H.B. Warner who played Jesus here, Mr Gower in It's a Wonderful Life. At 51 he remains the oldest actor to play the lead in a mainstream Jesus film, considerably older than the traditional 33. To us he seems a bit paternal but at the time he was hugely more human and approachable than the film Jesuses that had gone before. DeMille insisted Warner remained in character the entire time he was on set, he knew the damage that bad publicity could do to the film.

    The film did cause some controversy, though not for Warner's hardened drinking. Various Jewish organisations were concerned about potential anti-Semitism, for many of the same objections to Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. If it's tempting to dismiss such criticisms out of hand then I think it's worth remembering that the two previous mainstream Jesus films released before DeMille's were both from Germany. The Jews were demonised and squarely blamed for Jesus' death. It's sobering to remember that just as people today picture Jesus as Robert Powell or James Caviezel, the German people in the 20s, 30s and 40s pictured those films when they thought of the gospels. Those anti-Semitic movies contributed to a cultural seachange that led to the Holocaust. After some discussion DeMille made changes and avoided most of those pit falls.

    As a filmmaker DeMille doesn't get the credit he is perhaps due. He reproduces 300 paintings in the film going to huge lengths to perfect the lighting. The shot of the sandstorm as Jesus dies was technically immensely difficult. We'll be able to appreciate the intricacies of the design on the massive sets and the picture is full of memorable images, the expressionistic approach to the miracles. And the experimental use of two-strip Technicolor.

    The film was so successful at the box office that screenings continued for years, well into the sound era. Missionaries took it with them abroad leaving a delighted DeMille to claim that "more people have been told the story of Jesus of Nazareth through The King of Kings than through any other single work, except the Bible itself"

    And what about us? It's easy to dismiss the film for its soft-focus piety or moments of over-the-topness, but it's also a chance to see things in a new light. For theologians it's a chance to let the left brain and right brain to work together, for Christians it’s a chance to view the gospels from someone else's perspectives and notice things that might never have occurred to us on our own. For film fans a chance to reconsider the work or the motives of one of the most pivotal characters in the silent film era. And It's a chance for all of us to look back 90 years, to be enraptured, to be entertained, and to connect to those who have gone before us, and their faith, fears, hopes and dreams of a better world.

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    Saturday, April 06, 2019

    Why "the Crowd who welcomed Jesus on Sunday" weren't "the same as those who rejected him on Friday"

    There's a sermon that you often hear at this time of year on Palm Sunday that goes something like this: "The people who cheered and welcomed Jesus on Palm Sunday were the same ones who jeered and called for his death on Good Friday". It's hugely popular and also hugely problematic. Why? Well there are three main reasons...

    Firstly, because it's inaccurate. Jerusalem in the week leading up to Passover was a very busy place. Josephus, prone to wildly exaggerate, suggests the figure is around three 3 million.1 Writing more recently, Sanders offers his calculation that "the Temple area could accommodate about 300,000 to 400,000 pilgrims, which is a more reasonable figure".2 With such huge figures in play the chances of even a good proportion of the Good Friday crowd being part of those welcoming Jesus on the Sunday is fairly small. The Golden Gate through which Jesus entered was relatively small, and it was located close to his destination, the Temple. Factor in the narrow streets and the packed-ness of the city and the numbers couldn't have been that large. The Bible doesn't tell us how many turned up for Jesus' Triumphal entry, but the biggest recorded attendance at one of his events was 5,000. He'd grown in popularity since then, but even if he drew five times the size of that crowd, he would still be well below a tenth of the numbers that would be in Jerusalem by the time the festival hit its peak.

    Now factor in the logistics of Good Friday. The Bible doesn't tell us much about the space at Pilate's palace in which the crowd gathered. Jesus films love to portray a huge courtyard, packed out with an angry mob, but even in one of the most extreme examples of this - Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004), there are only around 300 (yes, I counted them once). But the space could have been significantly smaller, and quite a bit less full and still qualify as a crowd. A crowded room at a party can almost be single figures. I'm not suggesting the figure is as low as that, but let's bear in mind that any idea of size we have is at best a guess, and at worst just adopting the casual assumptions of Christian art, which has a historical link to ant-Semitism.

    So let's do the maths.

    Let's say Sanders' lowest number is correct, and that six times the numbers of those that fed on Jesus' loaves and fish turned up for his triumphal entry. That would be around a tenth (10%) of the population of Jerusalem who turned up. And let's say that Gibson's vast, cinematically impressive, crowd is coincidentally close to the actual numbers, then, at a very generous estimate, that tenth equates to only around 30 people would have been at both events.

    Now lets look at the other extreme. Let's say Josephus is correct about the numbers in Jerusalem, and also assume that the number turning up om the Sunday was only 3,000, now we're only talking about a thousandth (0.1% i.e. a tenth of 1%) of those present on Good Friday. And if the number in the crowd was only 50, then it's hugely unlikely that even one person was at both events.

    Of course, we know some people were at both events (Jesus for one) and presumably some of his enemies and followers, but the reality is that in terms of the neutral (and this is who the sermon is talking about) perhaps fewer than 10 would have been at both events.

    But were they neutral? well this leads me onto my second point....

    The Crowd were not neutral
    The sermon assumes that the second crown was neutral, or perhaps only nominally in favour. After all, this is what the sermon addresses. That the same fickle observers who joined in the hype of Sunday, changed their minds over the course of the week.

    Those lobbying against Jesus didn't like what they saw on Sunday. Conversely, we're told Jesus' most dedicated supporters either slunk off (in the case of the men) or (in the case of some of the women) were still committed enough to turn up for his death. The only real defector was Judas.

    But it turns out that "the crowd" were not at all neutral. The account is covered at length in all four gospels, and with a great deal of repetition. The problem with this volume of material is that we tend to take in the big picture and skim over the minor details. But they matter, not least because they tell us a great deal about the crowd.

    Mark's gospel is generally considered the oldest and therefore the most reliable when it comes to small details and there's a vital detail in Mark 15:6-8. These are the verses that tells us about Pilate's custom of releasing a prisoner, and they tell us that one of those prisoner's was Barabbas. And then the passage says "So the crowd came and began to ask Pilate to do for them according to his custom" (NRSV). In other words the crown weren't just picked randomly from the street. They certainly weren't there because the wanted Jesus to be killed. (Many have made the point that whilst there was, at times, heated disagreement between the various Jewish factions, the last thing most people wanted was to see another of their own strung up the hated Romans).

    No, Mark is clear that the crowd come because they wanted to persuade Pilate to free Barabbas. This suggests they were probably amongst Barabbas' followers. Jesus was just collateral for them. Better Jesus die than their leader.

    Anti-Semitism and "the crowd"
    There has been a lot of discussion about anti-Semitism is the last year or two. In my experience, Christians, at least in the UK and other westerns English-speaking countries, tend to be horrified by it, but simultaneously somewhat naive about its role in their history. The reality is, though, that anti-Semitism is so wrapped up in Christian history - Passion Plays leading to pogroms; slandering Jewish people as Christ killers; and the reinforcement of these ideas in more creative approaches to telling the story (e.g. Christian art) - that most people don't realise the anti-Semitic traditions that they accept unquestioned at face value.

    Perhaps the most dominant element of anti-Semitism has been the blaming of Jews for Jesus' death. Whilst the majority would probably view it as ridiculous to blame Jewish people today for the acts of the Jews from the first century, they fail to see that this is precisely what has happened again and again throughout Christian history. If each generation is to avoid failing as horrifically as those in Nazi Germany, then each nation and generation need to take a stand against any elements of those myths that have a history of turning into anti-Semitic violence.

    So let me put it plainly. The Jews of Jesus' day did not think as one. They did not act as one. It's not implausible that the majority of them never heard his name during his lifetime. Crucifixion was a Roman act. The New Testament suggest a very small proportion of Jewish people (150 out of 300,000?) had some role in Jesus' death. It's is neither biblically or historically accurate to say that the majority of Jewish people in that era wanted Jesus to die, or that those who may have had some role in it were in anyway representative of their nation for their own generation, let alone their descendants 2000 years later.

    Perpetuating this sermon, that somehow a huge crowd welcomed Jesus on the Sunday and then condemned him on the Friday, does precisely this. Rather than being individuals, or a series of movements or sects, the sermon lumps all the Jewish people of Jesus' day all together and then blames them for Jesus' death. Accept that premise and you are already several steps along the path that can lead to blaming today's Jews and a repeat of the horrific violence of the not too distant past.


    I know this sermon is usually well intended. I know it's meant to cause us to look at ourselves and address our own weaknesses; to encourage Christians to be loyal to their Lord, to stick with him through difficult times; to reflect on the frailties of humanity. But there are other ways to do that. Sadly this sermon rests on a whole range of assumptions that have their origins in anti-Semitism (and bad maths), and have been allowed to grow up unchallenged. It's time for it to stop.

    1 - Sanders, E.P. (1991) The Historical Figure of Jesus, London: Penguin Allen. p.249, (though see Sanders' Judaism: Practice and Belief, 63 BCE-66 CE, London and Philadelphia, 1992 pp.125-8 for a more detailed explanation.)
    2 - Josephus The Jewish War 6.9.3, cross reference with the numbers he cites at an arguably less popular festival in The Jewish War 2.14.3

    Saturday, March 30, 2019

    Silent Bible Film Mystery - #05 Christus (1914/1916)

    Back in 2007 and 2008 I wrote a couple of posts about the Italian Jesus film Christus. At the time there was a bit of a problem with what the date of the film was (was it 1914 or 1916?). As part of my research on Italian Jesus films I've been looking back at this film again, and it turns out that there were two different films called Christus one released in 1914, the other in 1916 or maybe even 1917.

    I guess it's time for another instalment of Silent Bible Film Mysteries.

    Firstly there is some confusion as to who directed which film. The cover of the DVD I have, cites Giuseppe De Liguoro as the director, but the film itself does not name the drector. Other sources cite Giulio Antamoro, with others mentioning Enrico Guazzoni's Quo Vadis? (1913). The film is on YouTube several times but usually attributed to Antamoro.

    It turns out that this mystery isn't quite as mysterious as some of the others in this series. Discussion about a film called Christus is mentioned in a number of sources (Bertellini's "Italian Silent Cinema", Shepherd's "Silents of Jesus", Campbell & Pitts' "The Bible on Film", Kinnard & Davis' "Divine Images" and Adele Reinhartz's "Jesus of Hollywood", all of whom identify Antamoro as the director.

    Pucci (in Shepherd) names De Liguoro as the director of a different film called Christus (200) and even notes the confusion caused by this Grapevine release, which is different from the one I bought from them over a decade ago (207). Both he and Bertellini (134n38) give the alternative title of De Liguoro's film. La sfinga della Ionio (The Sphinx of the Ionian Sea).

    A little googling brought up a bit more information about the De Liguoro film (pictured above). Whilst Rome was fast becoming the film-production capital of Italy, the industry was growing in other regions as well. De Liguoro’s 1914 Christus had been filmed and financed in Sicily. Filmmaking did not start on the Catania side of the Island until 1914 so Liguoro’s film, based on a local legend about a sphinx-shaped outcrop of rocks, was amongst the first shot in the region. It was made under the banner of Etna films, funded by local industrialist Alfredo Alonzo, which targeted their output at the local, upper class market whilst seeking to engage a broader audience (Bertellini, 130).

    The Christus of the title, however, is not Jesus Christ, as you might expect, but the name of a character from an entirely different story set around 1000 B.C. In 2014 an Italian paper ran a series looking back at their community a hundred years previously. You can read the original article in Italian, (or have a look at this translation to English), which includes the following summary:
    "Christus tells the story of the impossible love of the lustful, corrupt, governor of Syracuse Xenia, for the young Christus, in love with the sweet Myriam, with punctual and atrocious death in the flames of a galley (built ad hoc) of the cruel Xenia, while Christus, together with old Gisio, manages to save Miriam locked up in a well. Meanwhile the protagonist, together with old Gisio, succeeds in saving Miriam who had been locked up in a well"
    The article also makes it clear that Alonzo, inspired by Cabiria (1914) earlier in the year pumped a vast amount of money into Etna films, and that this epic was their most costly and spectacular production. In addition to a reputed cost of 300 extras and several major stars there was also the creation of vast sets and a ship for the scenes at sea. Sadly though it seems the film's marketing efforts failed to get any traction, with even the local media underplaying it, and it never broke out to become the European/Worldwide smash that Alonzo/Etna needed to recoup costs.

    The confusion in this case however seems to be limited to Grapevine video and customers like me. Aside from their case and the surrounding confusion there is nothing else linking De Liguoro with a Jesus film called Christus. Whilst Grapevine no longer seem to sell the DVD set I bought they continue to market a film they claim is De Liguoro's Christus, but according to Pucci's endnote the film supplied is Maître's 1914 Life and Passion of Jesus Christ the subject of  Silent Bible Film Mystery #04 (207n1).

    In summary, then, we have two films. The 1914 Christus, also known as La sfinga della Ionio (The Sphinx of the Ionian Sea),was made in Sicily by Etna films with Giuseppe De Liguoro at the helm. Rather than being a Jesus film however, it's a story from 100 years previously, whose hero (played by Alessandro Rocca) is simply called Christus, though it's biggest star was Alfonso Cassini in the role of Gisio.

    Then there is the Jesus film called Christus released two or three years later in 1916/1917 was directed by Giulio Antamoro for the great Cines firm. This is the film I wrote about and which has been covered by the other authors listed above. a version of this film, (labelled correctly) is also available from Grapevine, though the print of the film on YouTube is better if you can hack the fairly occasional subtitles being in Italian. Jesus is played by Alberto Pasquali, and it's worth looking at CineKolossal's page on this film, for the sheer number of screenshots and stills (though they date it 1914 which is seemingly date production began). And it turns out that whilst Antamoro filmed most of the picture, Guazzoni did direct a few shots including part of the ascension scene (Pucci 201).

    Bertellini, Giorgio (2013) “Southern (and Southernist) Italian Cinema” in Bertellini, Giorgio (ed.) (2013). Italian Silent Cinema: A Reader (New Barnett: John Libbey Publishing), pp. 123-134

    Pucci, Giuseppe (2016) "Christus (Cines, 1916): Italy's First Religious 'Kolossal'  by Antamoro and Salvatori" in The Silents of Jesus in the Cinema (1897-1927); ed. Shepherd, David. pp.200-210

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    Monday, March 25, 2019

    Pontius Pilate (1962)

    Ponzio Pilato (Pontius Pilate, dir: Irving Rapper and Gian Paolo Callegari, 1962) is best known as the film in which John Drew Barrymore plays the roles of both Judas and Nazareth, though he is uncredited for the latter. In truth his Jesus is largely shot from the rear (or the side as above) save for two extreme close-ups of his eyes in a manner reminiscent of similar shots in the previous year's King of Kings (Nicholas Ray). There are other similarities with Ray's film, the strawberry-blond hair the vibrancy of the red-robe Jesus wears before Pilate and the lengthy sub-plot involving Barabbas and his zealot troops.

    Like La spada e la croce (The Sword and the Cross, 1958), the film sits somewhere between the Hollywood Jesus cameo epics of the 1950s and a typical American Jesus film. Jesus features a great deal more than he does in The Robe (1953) or Ben-Hur (1959) but the story is still mainly about those associated with his life than he himself. This focus on these minor gospel characters seems to be something Italian producers are far more interested in than their American counterparts.

    At the start of the film it is Pilate who is on trial in front of the Senate, rather than Jesus before the Governor. Pilate (Jean Marais) has been recalled to Rome only to find the emperor who brought him to prominence, Tiberius, has been replaced by Gaius. The charge sheet is fairly lengthy, his disregarding Jewish traditions, his use of the Jewish temple tax to build an aqueduct and a charge that he "massacro un moltitudine di inermi che fuggivano sua ingiustizia" (massacred a defenceless multitude fleeing his injustice). This is all reasonably consistent with the accounts about Pilate we find about Pilate in the works of Josephus and Philo, indeed his acuser's summary that "è comporato come un tiranno dimostrando il suo odio al populo Giudeo" (he has shown tyranny and his hatred for the people of Judea by his governance), is remarkably close to Philo's description of a "merciless" man capable of great "wickedness".

    The historical rooted opening device is not only unusual, but also rather significant in terms of how it frames the rest of Callegari's script. Too often Jesus films have perpetuated anti-Semitism by portraying a weak Pilate being pushed into condemning Jesus by the Jewish people and/or their leaders. The Pilate who we find in these roughly contemporary historical accounts, and indeed elsewhere in the New Testament (Luke 13:1) was a vicious, unpredictable, tyrant, not a thoughtful and impartial philosopher-in-waiting. Framing the story in this way - putting these accusations up front, rather than sneaking them in under the radar, or just ignoring them, has a significant effect on how we view Pilate throughout the film.

    Sadly that historical credibility is rather undermined by the filmmakers next move however as Gaius whips out the sign that Pilate had nailed to Jesus' cross all those years ago and repeats the argument assigned to Caiaphas in John 19 that calling Jesus King of the Jesus amounted to treason, for the king of the Jews was Caesar. (We'll leave aside the unlikeliness of a sign nailed to a cross in a backwater in Galilee finding it's way, 10 years later, to the highest authority in the land). In answer to this, Pilate further heightens the parallels between his trial and Jesus' by remaining silent rather than answering his accusers.

    There then follows a flashback to the incidents leading up to Jesus' execution which comprises the rest of the film, beginning with his arrival in Jerusalem. There's an attack by the zealots leading to the new prefect getting shot in hand with an arrow, a foreshadowing of the blood on his hands for Jesus' execution. Pilate quickly gets up to speed with the varied politics of the locals, from the sympathetic Nicodemus, who we wait to bloom into the character Jesus encounters, but who never quite gets there; to Basil Rathbone's relatively sympathetic and flexible Caiaphas; Gianni Garko's amiable rebel Gionata; through to the zealot hardliner Barabbas. There's also a rich and influential money man Aronne Ec Mezir and his beautiful daughter Sarah (Leticia Roman) whom Pilate falls for and has an affair with early in the picture.

    The main elements of the plot though, do rotate around what the ancient sources, including the Bible, have to say. The construction of the aqueduct found in Josephus (Antiquities 18.3.2) and the troubles Pilate has with it takes up a lot of screen time early on and is always on hand for whenever the filmmakers need a dramatic al fresco Roman-looking backdrop. Not that the film is short of these, the impressive landscapes and the impressive looking sets give this film an epic feel. Another element from history that drives the plot on is the Jewish protestations at the Roman standards which Pilate erected in the temple precinct (Josephus Antiquities 18.3.1). Whilst this incident occurs in a number of Jesus films the version here seems to have influenced Roger Young's Jesus (1999). Faced with a high profile star to play Pilate (Gary Oldman) and the desire to put the blame for Jesus' death closer to Rome's door than Jerusalem's the incident is a great opportunity to put a bluster-filled Pilate in context. Various shots of this incident in Rapper's film also seem to have closish reproductions in Young's.

    What is surprising though, given the opening to the film, is the way that Callegari's script uses these incidents to portray Pilate in a positive light. His desire for the hated aqueduct is to enable better irrigation for the region's poverty-stricken farmers. The eagle standards are only erected because Barabbas is beginning to run riot over Judea. A decisive moment occurs just before the film's halfway point. Pilate's wife Claudia returns to her adulterous husband having heard Jesus' teaching on forgiveness and turning the other cheek and she begins to influence him for the better.

    This moment is contrasted with the following scene where the Jewish Sanhedrin vote to oppose Pilate with violence. They are not aware of the words Jesus has been speaking moments before, but they, too, recite the "Eye for eye, tooth for tooth" passage from Exodus 21:24. Unlike Jesus they accept it rather than refute it. Caiaphas, whose usually towering head wear is a little more practical here, seems to secretly disapprove of this course, and it's unclear what we are to make of the Jewish council voting to fight back in this way.

    At the very least it represents a parting of the way with Jesus' message of peace. Parts of Jesus' teaching are scattered throughout the film. There's an odd moment early on when Gionata's friend Daniel recalls his personal and life-changing encounter with Jesus on, of all places, the Road to Emmaus. Jesus has healed him, and his predicts salvation at the cost of persecution. Claudia hears him speaking on the shores of Lake Tiberias. Later we hear one of his disciples sharing the beatitudes and recounting the story of Lazarus shortly before Barabbas kills him, quoting "turn the other cheek", and sacks the village where he was speaking.

    But whereas the biblical material in the first hour of the film is largely incidental, in the final 30 minutes it forms the primary narrative. Aronne Ec Mezir increases the reward for capturing Barabbas and he finally gets arrested. With him seemingly out of the way, it is the teacher from Nazareth, fresh into Jerusalem and causing chaos in the temple, who becomes the authorities' biggest problem.

    The difficulty is, however, that compared to Barabbas' antics, Jesus' minor disturbance seems very mild in comparison. When one of the Jewish leaders says "il sinhedrio non perdonerà il tuo Nazareno di aver scacciato i mercanti dal tempio" (The Sanhedrin will never forgive your Nazarene for driving the merchants out of the temple) it comes out of nowhere. The next shot sees Aronne Ec Mezir approach Judas and manipulate him to handing-over Jesus. Judas then appears after the Last Supper but doesn't convincingly betray Jesus. Jesus appears before Caiaphas but the high priest has neither the motive nor the passion to hand him over to Pilate. Pilate offers him to the crowd as an almost sarcastic riposte. Barabbas has been terrorising his own people as well as the Romans. He even sees Jesus' eyes reflecting off the water he uses to wash his hands of the affair, and yet still condemns him.

    The crucifixion is interesting for two reasons. Firstly because like Barabbas (1961) it features footage from an actual eclipse, although the shot of the moon/sun is rather unconvincingly spliced in between the footage of crosses on the hill in the dark. This is a tactic the film uses elsewhere - a scene of crocodiles eating the unfortunate losers in a boat-based fight-to-the-death similarly seemed to use stock footage. But the moment of Jesus' death is also interesting because of the scale of destruction due to the earthquake accompanying it. As I have argued before scenes of spectacular destruction are one of the defining characteristics of the biblical epic. However, this is generally for the Hebrew Bible epics and the Roman/Christian epics, the tendency is far less prominent in those films based on the gospels and I can't think of another that has quite the scale of material destruction at this point in the story. As with many epics is implies divine judgement so it's curious to find it occurring at the moment when God's mercy was meant to be being unleashed, rather than his judgement.

    The question though remains: who is the object of this judgement? The film struggles to suggest anyone person or group bore the responsibility for Jesus' death. Given the unfortunate history of Jesus films continuing the tradition of blaming the Jews for Jesus' death it's perhaps not the worst thing in the world for a film to struggle to find anyone to blame.The nature of the film requires a sympathetic Pilate. History, perhaps, requires a sympathetic portrayal of the Jewish population as a whole (and a sympathetic portrayal of Judas in particular). Rapper (who was Jewish) and Callegari really deliver on this - the diverse range of different, generally sympathetic, Jewish characters with their different beliefs and ways of putting those beliefs into action is certainly very worthy even if it doesn't deliver in other areas.

    Ultimately the action returns to the senate, with Pilate standing before the assembly saying he will be judged by "la giustizia del regno dei cielli" (the justice of the Kingdom of Heaven). Like history and, indeed, theology, Pilate's fate is left open ended.

    Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 18.3.2
    Philo, On The Embassy of Gauis Book XXXVIII 299–305


    Friday, March 22, 2019

    Jaël et Sisera (1911)

    Amazingly this short film from 1911 is the only time any part of the story of Deborah (Judges 4-5) has been filmed in any kind of vaguely significant production. For this reason (and a few others) it's been one I've wanted to see for very many years and last week I happened to be at BFI Southbank -  where you can now access the BFI's digital library - and was able to walk in and watch it for free within a minute or two of arriving. If you're passing that way I very much recommend it. A few other old silent films are there to view as well. (For example, three films about Jephthah's daughter from a similar time period are there also).

    Unfortunately, Deborah doesn't get to feature in this film either. Whilst Barak, Sisera, Jael and her husband Heber all get a part, Deborah not only remains off screen, but doesn't even get a mention in the intertitles. In some ways that's not entirely surprising, at only 10 minutes long the film has to trim the story right down and given the success of the biblical-women-slaying-Israelite-enemies-whilst-they-sleep genre (OK,mainly Judith) it's not that hard to see why Pathé and director Henri Andréani prioritised Jael.

    The film starts outside Jael's tent. Things are a little unclear, but Sisera has seemingly conquered the camp because a group of Israelites are chained up, Jael is somewhat subdued and a minute or two into the picture Heber, previously described by an intertitle as being "friendly with Sisera", is brought in seemingly under a certain amount of duress. When nobody is looking Jael gesticulates towards the skies, and then breaks the chains of some of the Isarelites. They then flee to tell Barak about Sisera's location and his army marches our to battle. This opening shot, and indeed most, if not all of the film, is all filmed on location outdoors (as with Andréani's 1911 Caïn et Abel and a number of his other films).

    On hearing the news of Sisera's location, Barak and his troops attack Sisera's camp in various locations, including the scene of the opening shot and one particularly pleasing shot as the Israelites chase Sisera's men up and over a hill. Another scene takes place on what looks like a beach though the intertitles describe God sending a "Kishon Torrent" to help Barak in an interesting dovetailing of Judges 4 verses 13 and 15. The torrent looks more like a lake or a sea, but the location does provide Andréani with a sizeable rock for Sisera's man to scramble upon in a fashion similar to Francis Danby's Painting "The Deluge" (c.1840), which also found its way into Darren Aronfsky's Noah (2014).

    Sisera survives however, and creeps away somewhat stealthily, but Barak nevertheless manages to hunt him down. So it is that Sisera arrives back at Jael's tent and begs her to shelter him. In an echo of the first scene Jael gives Sisera water and he then collapses in exhaustion.Whilst he lies there unconscious she pulls up a large tent peg and drives it through his head (pictured above). The moment is surprisingly brutal. Whilst there's no blood and the action takes place in mid-shot, the repeated violent hammering is rather shocking.

    Moments later Barak's army arrives, only to find Jael has done their work for him. Barak kneels besides Sisera's lifeless body and kisses the hem of her garment in tribute.

    The quality of the print of the film is pretty impressive. I don't know enough about restoration and transfer to be able to tell whether this has been simply transferred to mp4 format or whether some restoration work has been done, but I should point out that the image above was taken rather hastily on my phone from the computer screen and so doesn't at all do it justice. The colour is quite striking, and consistent with Andréani's David et Goliath from the previous year. Particularly memorable is the shot panning up the hill as Sisera's troops seek to escape. As early biblical films goes it's an interesting mix of reliance on the text combined with the odd bit of dramatic licence when it suited the filmmakers, but perhaps most interesting is the use of somewhat shocking violence. Biblical films are well known for sword play, but rarely until the present century have they been quite so violent. Still, if ever a source text justifies such an approach, it's this.

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    Saturday, March 16, 2019

    Fortini/Cani (1976)

    Image result for cani del sinai
    As part of exploring the context of Moses und Aron (1974) I am exploring Huillet and Straub's other films including this one.
    Fortini/Cani (1976) marks the beginning  of a new phase for Straub and Huillet as their first Italian film. Italy had been the subject and location of some of their previous efforts, most notably Othon (1969) and History Lessons (1972), and even some of the funding for Moses und Aron (1974) had come from RAI, but the works themselves had been predominantly German-funded and usually in the German language.

    As a result it becomes the point at which much English language scholarship around Huillet and Straub dries up a little. Roud's book - for over two decades the only English language book on the duo - stops even before the completion of Moses und Aron, the next book in English, Barton Byg's "Landscapes of Resistance" covered only their German period. Whilst I understand Ursula Boser's 2004 "The Art of Seeing, the Art of Listening" is apparently a little more wide-ranging, I've never managed to get hold of it. Ute Holl's "Moses Complex obviously largely focused on Moses und Aron. Recent works such as "Writings" by Sally Shafto, and "Jean-Marie Straub & Danièle Huillet" by Ted Fendt have done something to redress the balance but certainly it feels something like dropping off a cliff edge. For me being able to read about Straub/Huillet's work is such a crucial part of watching with it and engaging in it because you tend to need to know so much in advance.

    The title, as is often the case, is somewhat unusual. The "Fortini" is the Italian writer Franco Fortini; the "Cani" from the title of his book "I Cani del Sinai" (The Dogs of Sinai), although, as the film concedes early on in proceedings "There are no dogs on Sinai". Having worked on a number of historic texts during the 1970s, the filmmakers were keen to return to the approach of some of their earliest work and adapt text by a living author and Fortini was keen to see his work given similar treatment as that of Heinrich Böll, whose work was the subject of Machorka Muff (1962) and Not Reconciled (1965).

    This time, however, the major difference is the appearance of Fortini himself. Fortini appears reading various passages from the work itself. It is left to the audience to decide if this is Fortini appearing as himself, or playing a version himself, or indeed another man of similar age. The lack of clarity on this issue raises a further question of genre: is the film a documentary or something else?

    The "something else" in that question summaries the difficulty of pigeon-holing exactly what the film is. Aside from the the scenes of "Fortini" reading two other types of footage dominate. The first consists of Fortini continuing to read excerpts from the book, but as a voiceover, over various scenes of Italian land and city-scapes. In one particularly striking one, the camera holds static down what appears to be a reasonably typical Italian street. Cars drive up and down, people walk along pavements seemingly going about their everyday business. And then I see it, and struggle to believe that I have not noticed it before; Florence's Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore poking out in the background.

    In attempting to reflect how I missed such an obvious landmark I can only reflect that this is because of how the film up to this point has trained me to watch it, not only in the scenes of Fortini, but also in the third type of footage - the long, slow, almost silent, 360° pans around various  landscapes. Watching these in a cinema is quite unlike watching such images at home on a DVD player. For one thing the there are no distractions. No escapes when otherwise temptation to look away to be distracted might prove irresistible. For another there is the sound, the quietness of crickets in the background, and an audience all holding their breaths. I'm reminded of Kolker's quote about "viewing a film by Straub and Huillet... is essentially an act of watching oneself watch a film" (208). The process is a little like mindfulness, eventually you yield and the rich images, textures sounds are transformative and indeed transportative; they take you to another place. Another quote about Huillet/Straub which I can't seem to shake off is Daniel Fairfax's line about the "sensual role of the material environment in their work". It's the slowness of the panning camera gradually peeling back a little at a time. Because of this you find yourself focusing on the textures of a stone wall, or the expression on a passerby, and somehow missing a cathedral spire poking out magnificently from behind the buildings.

    The beauty of the locale is something of a double edged sword, however. Much of the pans across the countryside are taken in the Apuan alps, the scene of the 1944 Vinca massacre of 162 Italian citizens by Nazi soldiers, though Italian fascists were complicit. At times these are left for silent reflection, but at times they are accompanied by Fortini's commentary. The primary theme of Fortini's book is the Six Day War and Israel's seizing of the Sinai Peninsula which Fortini is appalled by. Fortini, who was no stranger to the issue of anti-Semitic abuse on account of his Jewish father,is particularly critical of the way large swathes of Italian society were supportive of Israel. Fortini argues "that the enthusiasm of the Italian intelligentsia of 1967 for the Israeli course was fuelled by the concealment of the Fascist...complicity in the extermination enterprise and by the burying of the victims on Italian soil" (Rancière 41). As in Moses und Aron and numerous other of their films Huillet and Straub are drawing attention to the ground where blood of earlier generations has been spilt even though it is no longer visible. The quiet beauty of the landscape speaks volumes about our attempts to cover our bloody past when it suits us.

    There is one particular shot that highlight. There are several shots of landmarks and signs in the film commemorating those who have been slaughtered in the one. This particular shot begins on one such obelisk, before commencing a slow 360° pan around the otherwise quiet location, only then to end on the same plaque. Rather than using historic documentary footage, Straub/Huillet use this subtler approach.
    "There are no tortured bodies matching the writers words, but the opposite - their absence, their invisibility. From the terrace where Fortini is rereading his text...the camera slips far away to explore the places where the massacres occurred. In those mute hills, crushed by the sun and deserted villages, only the words of commemorative plaques remember, and say, without showing it, the blood that once stained these oblivious lands." (Rancière  42)
    In addition to the argument from the Fascist past, Fortini also argues that Italian support for the war derived from anti-Arab sentiment. He argues this at length, and on a single viewing it is difficult to be able to competently summarise it (not least as the subtitles left certain sentences untranslated), but essentially resists the accusation that criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic by referencing his own suffering on account of it and by drawing a sharp line between Israel the state and the Jewish people as a whole. That his points here seem so contemporary given the once again apparent problems of anti-Semitism coming from the resurgent far left of British politics. Fortini feels a sense of isolation, marginalised for being a Jew by the wider society, whilst simultaneously marginalised by other Jews for not being sufficiently pro-Israeli,

    There are also allusions to the Hebrew Bible, not least a passage where Fortini talks about reading it in his youth and contrasting "lo scontro esaltante, liberatore, con la scrittura, i Salmi, Giobbe, Isaia, letti e riletti con terrore e rapimento" (the exciting, liberating battle with the Scriptures, the Psalms, Job, Isaiah, read and reread with terror and rapture) with his perceptions of his own faith. There's a lengthy static shot from the balcony in a synagogue whilst various Jewish rituals are undertaken.

    As noted above whilst the footage mainly falls into three categories (Fortini reading, silent nature and Fortini reading over images of nature) other such images do appear. For one thing there is the film's opening image (above) of the book itself, followed shortly afterwards from a close up on its dedication. There are also various cuttings from newspapers from various nations including, of all things, one from the Daily Mail. These shots emphasise Huillet and Straub's rootdsness in texts. The film is an adaptation of "I cani del Sinai", but as with Machorka Muff they are happy to go beyond the one text by incorporating 'contemporary' newspaper headlines and articles which they want to hold up to criticism.

    However the film goes beyond the text in other ways. The screening notes from the showing I attended consisted of Fortini's 1978 "Note for Jean-Marie Straub" that accompanied the 2013 English translation of the book (which rumour has it includes a DVD of this film). In it it is clear that Fortini recognises that Huillet and Straub have brought out things from his work which he himself was not aware of until he watched the film. "Through the gaze of the camera looking at me, I was also able better to understand some formal lessons I had received, across many years" (Fortini). He goes on to explain how the instructions from Straub and Huillet worked by "unweaving the fabric of my thoughts, surpassed them and conserved them" (Fortini). The excerpt ends "From then onwards the words and ideas which, in "The Dogs" still pained me have ceased to hurt me (Fortini).
    - Fairfax, Daniel (2009) "Great Directors: Straub, Jean-Marie & Huillet, Danièle", Sense of Cinema, September. Available online
    - Fortini, Franco (2013) "A Note for Jean-Marie Straub" in Fortini, Franco The Dogs of the Sinai, translated by  Alberto Toscano. Seagull Books
    - Kolker, Robert Phillip (1983) The Altering Eye: Contemporary International Cinema. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    - Rancière, Jacques (2014) Figures of History. John Wiley & Sons

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