• Bible Films Blog

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

    Sunday, July 19, 2020

    Shanti Sandesham - Scene Guide

    I watched the Indian Jesus film Shanti Sandesham (2004) the other day and will be reviewing it shortly. In the meantime here's a quick rundown of the scenes and the equivalent scriptures. Here's how I use citations in scene guides. Please note - the only version of this film I've been able to find does not have English subtitles, so take everything with a pinch of salt. I am however grateful to Freek Bakker's overview which helped me fill in a few gaps (though he omits some scenes from the version I saw).
    Shepherds (Luke 2:8-20)
    Wise Men (Matt 2:1-11)
    Slaughter of Innocents (Matt 2:16-18)
    Jesus' Baptism (Mark 1:1-11)
    [Extra-biblical episode - John confronts Herod]
    Temptation (Matt 4:1-11)
    Calling the 1st disciples (Mark 1:16-20)
    Wedding at Cana (John 2:1-11)
    Call of Matthew (Matt 9:9-13)
    *Healing of Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46-52)
    Healing of the Lepers (Luke 17:11-19)
    Healing of a disabled man (Matt 9:2)
    Clearing of temple (Mark 11:15-19)
    Jewish leaders discuss Jesus #1
    Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-42)
    Pool of Bethesda (John 5:2-16)
    Healing on the Sabbath (Mark 3:1-6)
    Jewish leaders discussion #2
    Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7)
    Calling of the 12 (Mark 3:13-19)
    Lord's Prayer (Matt 6:9-14)
    Feeding of 5000 (Mark 6:34-44)
    *Salome/Death of John (Mark 6:17-29)
    Jewish leaders discussion #3
    [Extra-biblical epsiode - Barabbas & Soldiers]
    House of Mary, Martha & Lazarus (Luke 10:38-42)
    Walking on Water (Mark 6:45-52)
    *Children come to Jesus (Mark 10:13-16)
    Exorcising a demon (Mark 9:14-29) 
    Jewish leaders discussion #4
    Woman accused of adultery (John 8:2-11)
    [Extra-biblical episode: Barabbas attempts to kill Herod]
    Who do you say I am? (Matt 16:13-21)
    *Raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-44)
    Triumphal entry (Mark 11:1-11)
    Jesus confronts the Jewish leaders (Matt 23:1-34)
    Jewish leaders discussion #5
    Magdalene anoints Jesus (Mark 14:3-9)
    Judas agrees to betray Jesus (Mark 14:10-11)
    Last Supper (Mark 14:12-31)
    Foot washing (John 13:1-8)
    Gethsemane (Mark 14:32-50)
    Jesus before Caiaphas (Mark 14:53-59)
    Peter's denial (Mark 14:66-72)
    Judas hangs self (Matt 27:3-5)
    Pilate 1st trial (Mark 15:1-5)
    Mocking (Mark 15:15-20)
    Pilate 2nd trial (Mark 15:6-15)
    [Extra-biblical episode: Barabbas reacts to his freedom]
    *Via dolorosa (Mark 15:20-22)
    Women of Jerusalem (Luke 23.27)
    [Extra-biblical episode:Veronica]
    Simon of Cyrene (Mark 15:21)
    Refuses wine (Mark 15:22-23)
    Crucifixion (Mark 15:21-41)
    Two thieves (Luke 23:39-42)
    Mary and John (John 19:26-27)
    Darkness (Mark 15:33)
    Jesus speaks from the cross
    Jesus dies (Mark 15:34-37)
    Centurion (Mark 15:39)
    Burial & Pietà (Mark 15:46b-47)
    Resurrection (Matt 28:1-4)
    Women at the tomb (Mark 16:1-8)
    Mary sees Jesus (John 20:11-17)
    Jesus appears to disciples (Luke 24:36-49)
    Thomas (John 26:29)
    Ascension (Luke 24:50-53)
    A Few Notes 
    1. As the version I watched was not in English and had no subtitles, I couldn't tell what was being discussed in the 6 or so scenes with Caiaphas and other Jewish leaders. I've not marked these down as "Extra-biblical episodes" because I suspect that they contain elements of Mark 11:18, 14:1; Luke 19:45, 20:19; 22:2; and John 7:32, 7:45; 11:45-57. There are slight variations here and I've excluded the parallel passages in Matthew as they don't add much. Needless to say this seems like a lot more conspiracy against Jesus than we find in the texts. Bakker notes that in one of these scenes "Caiaphas loudly declares his contentment with the death of John the Baptist and proposes to levy extra taxes from all who have been baptised by the prophet" (48).

    2. Similarly, it was difficult to catch how many of Jesus' seven sayings from the cross were included, however, it seems to me that all seven were included, and in the traditional order. Certainly his first words are in response to soldiers mocking; then there are the dialogues with the two men eitehr side of him, and his mother and John in front of him. The nest time he speaks is in response to the skies darkening and would seem to reflect "why have you forsaken me". This is followed by a hosrt cry and something on a sponge being held aloft. Interestingly though this seems to be the soldiers mocking him as he seems unable to actually get a drink - perhaps tying in with the moment just before the crucifixion where he refuses a drink hen it is offered to him (which is hardly ever shown). Lastly he seems to make two more statements - certainly there's a pause and slight change of mood between them, so it seems likely this is "It is accomplished" and "Into your hands I commend my spirit".

    *3. Finally, there are five songs in this film which take up a considerable part of the running time, but also cover several incidents (such as the healings of Bartimaeus, men with leprosy and a disabled man), I've used a* to indicate where these take place, but there's more detail in my review and in Freek Bakker's paper referenced below has a little more detail.

    N.B. This post was edited several times after it was originally posted to add in greater detail.

    Bakker, Freek (2007) "Shanti Sandesham, a New Jesus Film Produced in India: Indian Christology in Pictures". Exchange. 36. 41-64. 

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    Saturday, July 04, 2020

    Black Jesus (1968)
    Seduto alla sua destra/Out of the Darkness

    This week marked the 60th anniversary of the Democratic Republic of Congo's independence from Belgium. Belgium's relationship with the Congo has been back in the headlines in recent weeks after recent Black Lives Matter protests resulted in the toppling of statues of former king, Leopold II, who was responsible for 10 millions deaths in the former colony in the late Victorian era. On Wednesday the current monarch, Leopold's descendant King Philippe expressed regret for "painful episodes" and the "injuries of the past".

    Congo's transition to independence is the subject of one of the more explicit Christ figure films, Black Jesus (1968) by Italian director Valerio Zurlini. The title, which was added for the film's American release several years after it originally debuted at Cannes (Kinnard and Davis, 167), puts a strong interpretative slant on the film which was less forceful in the original Italian title Seduto alla sua destra (Sitting at the right hand). However, the original English title Out of Darkness combined with its setting in DRC during Belgian colonialism and its theme of the savage nature of supposedly civilised Europeans closely align it to Joseph Conrad's 1899 novella "The Heart of Darkness".

    Moreover, like other Italian productions of the era, the film was original intended as just one part of a four-segment composite Vangelo '70. The three other segments saw Carlo Lizzani's take on the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Bernardo Bertolucci's adaptation of the barren fig tree and Pier Paolo Pasolini's La sequenza del fiore di carta (The Sequence of the Paper Flower) featuring a man so lost in his bliss that he is deaf to God's calls to respond to the misfortune around him. When Zurlini's material proved to be too long it was recut into a film in its own right, while the original project replaced Zurlini's material with shorter films by Jean-Luc Godard and Marco Bellocchio and was released as Amore e rabbia (Love and Anger, 1969).

    Both the biblical nature of the original project and the film's evolving title give a heavy indication of the allegorical element of the film, but the plot itself is a fictionalised retelling of the death of DRC's first elected prime minister, Patrice Lumumba. Lumumba came to power following his victory in DRC's 1960s elections and the subsequent granting of its independence on the 30th June. Just ten days later Belgium sent in troops to protect its citizens (who were still resident in the country) and, at the start of September, Lumumba was dismissed by DRC's new president. A military coup followed on the 14th September 1960 and shortly after Lumumba was confined to his home. Two months later he left his home to tour the villages in a bid to regain power but was arrested after four days. In Feb 1961 the military government announced his escape and three days later reported he had been killed by villagers, but even at the time this was viewed as a cover up.

    While Zurlini's film named its lead, played by athlete-turned-actor Woody Strode, "Lalubi" the resemblances are unmistakable, even in an era when Lumumba's reputation was still in flux. Originally released just seven years after the events portrayed, the change of name allowed a little room for manoeuvre. As is typical of  Zurlini's work he eliminated "all unnecessary elements, including aspects of the historical and spatial context" (Brunetta, 237). 

    The film opens zooming in on a poster offering a rewards for Lalubi's capture accompanied by the sounds of machine gun, There's a cut to crowds listening intently to Lalubi at night. The script (by Zurlini and Franco Brusati) cleverly combines Lumumba's words with Jesus' Sermon on the Mount and commissioning his followers ("Destiny has chosen the meek to defeat the strong", "Whoever saves food, let him divide it, whoever has plenty, let him give to those who have lost everything"). Various shots of Lalubi rallying in a series of remote locations are intercut with scenes of white soldiers scouring Congolese villages as the reward money offered by the wanted poster rapidly increases. Remote sounds on the soundtrack give way to the sound of violent machine guns, human cries and crackling fires as the soldiers tighten the net around Lalubi. Eventually a Judas figure discloses his master's location to a Colonel in the Belgian army. Up to this point, Lalubi's face has been hidden from us. Now it is shown in close-up, the start of a sequence of three such shots overlaying Lalubi's face first with that of his eventual executioner (as he steps into the darkness), and then by one of Oreste who at this point is unknown to us.

    That final shot in the sequence ends the extended prologue, and moves to the location where most of its action will take place, inside an improvise army base where Lalubi's interrogation and torture will take place. From the start of the film the claustrophobic inside world is contrasted with the apparent freedom of the wide open space outside. There's repeated use of doorways, where the high contrast between the bright sun outside and the silhouettes of those inside signify characters moving from light into darkness. We first encounter Lalubi being forced down a set of steps, as if descending into hell. The shot is taken from the angle of Oreste - a fellow prisoner whose torture prefigures that which Lalubi will receive and who quickly forms a strong bond with Lalubi. Whilst the torture scenes, the most horrific violence is left off camera, conveyed instead by the subjects horrific screams. This is particularly harrowing in the case of Lalubi's screams later in the film which echo through the makeshift prison, terrifying Oreste, whose reactions match our own.

    Indeed Oreste stands in for the audience. Like the majority of the intended audience he is a white Italian and like Lalubi his role is also composite. Historically he corresponds to one of  Lumumba's two colleagues who were also taken into custody, but he also corresponds to one of the two thieves executed at the same time as Jesus. The precise reason he is in prison is unclear but he is drawn to Lalubi/Jesus from the start and rapidly becomes a caring and protective figure for the would be spiritual/political messiah. Later in the film a second "bad thief" is also imprisoned with Lalubi and Oreste. Oreste's name, however also recalls the Greek Hero Orestes and perhaps Aeschylus' trilogy on the subject which contrasts revenge with justice and which Zurlini's friend Pasolini was looking to adapt in an African context.

    The structure of this main section of Black Jesus is fairly simple. Oreste is tortured. Lalubi is brought down an interviewed by the Colonel. Oreste and Lalubi are placed in the same cell and strike a bond with one another. Lalubi is tortured and returned to his cell, Oreste tries to comfort and look after his now battered friend.

    Each of these five scenes is masterfully executed, from the distressed, bleached white crumbling plaster on the walls and enticing diagonal compositions to the dialogue which impresses even in the English language dub. Oreste's interrogation features plenty of low angles and fast editing in contrast to the relatively civilised discussion between Lalubi and the Colonel who offers to release Lalubi if only he will sign a declaration rejecting those who fight to defend him and his cause. 

    This scene, in particular, crackles. Strode does not particularly resemble Lumumba, but he makes for a striking Christ-figure, strong yet polite, sharp-witted and erudite but physically tough. He exudes a calm that never compromises his passion or clarity of focus. His opponent in this scene makes for a world weary Pontius Pilate. In one sense Lalubi is utterly in his power and you don't need to have much knowledge of European oppression in central African countries to know how things are going to turn out. Yet in another sense lacks any power whatsoever over his prisoner, and he knows it. Having seen his halfhearted attempts to bribe Lalubi with his freedom fall flat, he attempts to outwit him. "When white men abandon these countries what happens? I'll tell you. They shed enough blood to overflow the rivers of the Congo" the Colonel argues. "If Africa is like that Colonel, either you never taught us anything, or it would have been better if you hadn't" comes Lalubi's dismantling reply.

    The real strength in the portrayal of the Colonel is the way it decodes the typical portrayal of Pontius Pilate. Despite various sources describing Pilate as a vicious tyrant, he always seems to come out as a compromised everyman. He's weak, but under tremendous pressure. Here the Colonel is the same. An easy figure for the audience to relate to. But the reality is that he is a monster, The colonial racism and white supremacy in the quote above. The willingness to have his prisoner tortured even though he knows it will change nothing. When a senior African figure - presumably modelled on the leader of the military coup and future president Joseph Mobutu - orders him to have Lalubi killed he offers little resistance and passes on the order. He's the kind of man who is happy to have a cosy chat with a victim before getting someone else to do his dirty work for him. 

    Yet for most of this interchange it is only the violence of Lalubi's supporters which is debated. The Colonel blames Lalubi for the deaths of Belgian soldiers, When the prime minister replies "I'm not a man of war and I hate violence", he counters "it ought to be consoling for their mothers to find out that this is the action of men who are 'peace loving'". Lalubi's reply, however cuts to the heart of the issue highlighting these soldiers complicity in oppressing those native to the Congo: "You can tell their mothers their sons died here and not in Belgium."   

    It is here where the film's presentation of Lalubi as an intermediary between Jesus and Lumumba is at its starkest. On the one hand it includes the film's strongest association between its hero and the historical figure of Lumumba. The Colonel quotes Lalubi's words "We're not your monkeys any longer". While these words are widely held to be a rebuke Lumumba delivered to Belgium's then ruler King Baudouin on Congolese Independence Day, there's little evidence he actually said it (Baugh 92-93). The film references this ambiguity, and the broader mythology that built up around Lumumba, by not only having the Colonel say it rather than Lalubi, but also by having Lalubi debunk various aspects of the mythology that is building up around him. Given that this has increased significantly in the years since his death, particularly since the start of the century, the film is almost prophetic in the way it highlights the widening gap between popular perception and historical reality. That such a divide is often claimed between the historical character of Jesus and the 'Christ of faith' seems unlikely to be coincidence. The film implicitly questions the reliability of the Gospels as a source of truth about Jesus. 

    Not dissimilarly at one point the Colonel asks if he is a "witch doctor" based on Lalubi's intuitive feelings about his captor, but Lalubi denies it. There's very little indication of the miraculous or supernatural in Black Jesus and when it does arise it is either directly contradicted, as here, or open to interpretation. Perhaps most striking in this respect is the film's epilogue. Having not only murdered Lalubi, but also the two other prisoners who witness his demise, the soldiers drive on, only to have their path blocked by a small boy dressed in a pristine white sheet. Following their logic to its grim conclusion they fire a machine gun at him as he turns to flee, but he remains unharmed. The soldiers stop shooting and watch him disappear into the background, though whether it is because they "have been transformed by the transcendent mystery of life beyond death" as Baugh claims (110) or simply because the effort to track him down, combined with the a realisation of the immorality of doing so, seems unlikely to be worthwhile.

    Certainly there is a hint of the angelic about this figure. It seems unlikely to be a coincidence that Dornford-May's more well-known African Jesus film Jezile (Son of Man, 2006) also portrays angels as small boys similarly attired. The way he runs into the vanishing point clouded by smoke only enhances that interpretation, but perhaps he to is (partially?) responsible for the truth about Lalubi/Lumumba eventually coming to light, or the symbol of hope for the future for the newly liberated nation. Incidentally this does not appear to be the only influence on Son of Man. The shaved head of that film's Jezile, the shots of murdered villagers by government officials and, most tellingly, the shot of a Pieta composition taking place in the back of a truck all seem to reference Zurlini's film.

    Despite undoubted good intentions, both films also share slightly problematic depictions of sub-Saharan Africa. While both films could be described as presenting an African Jesus both are the product of white, European directors. In Black Jesus it seems significant that despite the known interference and political pressure from Belgium and the US, the character at the top of the power-structure is the African Mobutu figure, who is presented as utterly ruthless and entirely dismissive of the Colonel's qualms. While the Colonel corresponds with the Pilate of popular and artistic imaginations, it is the Mobutu figure who represents the historical Pilate. Lalubi may counter the Colonel's statement that "when white men abandon these countries...They shed enough blood to overflow the rivers of the Congo" but he does not entirely dismantle it and the later ruthlessness of the senior African figure also seems to support the problematic trope that still exists today that in the absence of white rule, Africans turn to bloodshed.

    Similarly whilst the setting of Jezile is never made explicit, numerous factors suggest South Africa, yet it is a South Africa where white colonialism seems entirely absent. West describes the film as "one set in a post-liberation South Africa, with the dream of the 'new' South Africa and its 'rainbow nation' in tatters...one more example of Afro-pessimism" (427). Both films portray an Africa that once given over to black rule has become mired in corruption, chaos and bloodshed, rather than one enjoying the benefits of its freedom and liberation. 

    Furthermore Kinnard and David cite an uncredited reviewer from the Chicago Sun-Times (it sounds like it is probably Roger Ebert) who is concerned about its "dangerous lessons" that "black people have a beautiful nobility...that comes from being oppressed" and the film's suggestion that they "can only maintain this nobility if they remain forever passive" (167-8). Undoubtedly Strode's is a suffering saviour and Lalubi's words in the prologue though his scenes with the Colonel allow him the chance to voice his ethos and mission, in stark contrast to Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004). While there is some validity to these criticisms, it's also worth recalling the way his friend Pasolini was challenged about his stereotypical views of the continent by those he interviewed filming his documentary Appunti per un'Orestiade africana (Notes toward an African Orestes) released two years later in 1970. 

    Despite such concerns overall this is a positive depiction of a subject that remains controversial, that of a Jesus with dark-skinned. Zurlini skilfully emphasises the links between Lalubi and Jesus by his compositions and symbolism which echo so much traditional iconography without slavishly rehashing overt and clichéd poses from famous religious paintings. The precise links between other works are difficult to pinpoint. Nods to Morandi and Mahler are present, but the cinematography and compositions also seem to echo much of the 1960s (white) Jesus films of Ray, Pasolini and Stevens. Moreover it lives on in the later work of Zeffirelli, Dornford-May and LaMarre,

    What is most interesting about the film is the way Lalubi is presented as an intermediary between Lumumba and Jesus. It raises "what-if" type questions without providing easy answers. Might things have been different for Lumumba if he had more closely resembled Zurlini's Prince of Peace? Today Lumumba is celebrated as a symbolic figure and for his oratory, but perhaps if he had succeeded in drawing diverse groups together his leadership may have stood a better chance. At the other side of the Lumumba-Lalubi-Jesus spectrum, the comparison highlights the political element of Jesus' life, which saw him to killed on political grounds (as "King" of the Jews) because he was seen as a political threat. The strength of Strode's performance, and the film in general is that it manages to bring these different elements together in a way that can evoke both a political and a religious optimism while also reminding us that such change rarely happens without determination, compassion and sacrifice.

    - Baugh, L. (2011). "The African Face of Jesus in Film: Part One: Valerio Zurlini's Black Jesus." Gregorianum, 92(1), 89-114. Retrieved June 30, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/23582561
    - Brunetta, Gian Piero (2003) The History of Italian Cinema: A Guide to Italian Film from its Origins to the Twenty-First Century. Trans. Jeremy Parzen.  Princeton/Oxford: Princeton University Press.
    - Giordano, Rosario (2020) "The Masks of the Savage: Lumumba and the Independence of the Congo" in Matthias De Groof (ed.) Lumumba in the Arts, Leuven: Leuven University Press. pp.192-206.
    - Kinnard, Roy, and Tim Davis (1992) Divine Images: A History of Jesus on the Screen, New York: Citadel–Carol Publishing Group.
    - West, Gerald O. (2016) The Stolen Bible: From Tool of Imperialism to African Icon, Boston: Brill

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    Saturday, June 27, 2020

    The Brand New Testament (2015)

    "God exists. He lives in Brussels. He's a bastard. Horrid to his wife and daughter. We've heard a lot about his son, but little about his daughter." 
    So begins Jaco Van Dormael's The Brand New Testament (2016) an off-beat Belgian comedy that sets the Almighty on a collision course with his only...daughter. Deciding she has had enough of the way her father runs the universe, and egged on by her brother 'JC' (who appears only as a living statue), Ea begins a to try and counteract his tyranny. Firstly she texts everyone the date of their deaths. Then, having managed to escape from the Brussels flat where they all live she asks a gentleman of the street to help her add six new disciples to JC's original twelve, because of her mother's love of baseball and it's teams of eighteen.

    The majority of the film, then, features the testimony of each of these disciples as they talk about their lives  - a brand new testament. There's an unmarried data manager; a beautiful twenty-something with a false arm; a gunman with an obsession with death; a lonely sex-addict; a teenage boy who wants to be a girl; and a lonely housewife played by Catherine Deneuve. Given she is by far the biggest star associated with the film Deneuve's casting is particularly interesting. We're told her character has an incredible depth of feeling in her heart, but she plays the icy blond just as she so often has before. Van Dormael shoots her in pale grey against white backgrounds. Whilst she is perhaps best remembered for her role as a fantasising housewife-turned-prostitute in Buñuel's Belle du Jour (1967), here she hires a young male prostitute, before ultimately settling down with a Gorilla. Buñuel would have loved that, I suspect.

    Other characters also fall in love. God's daughter may not have inherited her father's temperament, but she is certainly capable of working in mysterious ways. The sex addict is miraculously reunited with his childhood crush; the data manager falls for a woman living in the Arctic Circle; the trans teen forms a deep bond with Ea herself. Most strikingly of all, the gunman realises his obsession is not death, but fate. The unfailingly accuracy of Ea's texts inspires him to shoot randomly, knowing he can chalk any resulting deaths down to fate, rather than personal responsibility. When his first shot hits the twenty-something's prosthetic arm the two end up falling hopelessly in love.

    Indeed it's the question of fate that's the main theme here, rather than morality. As the opening narration suggests God does not come out of things very well - a petty, vindictive and abusive bureaucrat who fails to find redemption. But while he and his misanthropic rules provide a few smirks, that side of the story always feels a little like a comedy sketch given too much latitude. Whilst the film has so much empathy for its characters from the margins of society (typified by Van Dormael's characteristic concern for those with disabilities), it has seemingly no compassion for the lonely self-hating deity at it's heart. Van Dormael's God is a "slob like one of us" but without the relatability inherent in Joan Osborne's song.

    Visually Van Dormael's work is perhaps a little less controversial than his theology it also has its idiosyncrasies. It has the look of films like Amélie (2001) though Sight and Sound's Leigh Singer claims Van Dormael did such "whimsical fable"first. The darker moments and accompanying cinematography are also reminiscent of Delicatessen (1991). There's a focus on Christian art that is not only present though the many religious paintings which appear during the film, but also in the frequent use of the kind of tenebristic lighting most of us associate with Caravaggio. Yet this contrasts with other brighter, greyer or geometrically precise scenes elsewhere. Van Dormael contrasts God's oppressively dark and gloomy flat with the liberating breeze and warm light of the outdoors. Similarly the use of religious music throughout adds to this mishmash of the sacred and profane, not least in the song-avatars that Ea discerns for each of her disciples. 

    There are also numerous little quirky visual touches to the film which add to its humour as well as minor, unrelated story lines to keep things ticking over. Realising he will not die for many years a vlogger starts throwing himself from ever higher platforms for the thrill and media attention. Moments such as these not only offset the blackness of the film's darker moments but also conceal further questions about fate and morality. The first time the vlogger's jumps his fall is broken by one less unfortunate than himself, yet he carries on, even as he accumulates several serious injuries. It's no coincidence that the role that Van Dormael gives to himself is as "l'automobiliste qui n'a plus que 0 seconde à vivre" (the motorist who has only 0 seconds to live) who is distracted while driving by the very text message announcing his death.

    Ultimately though the characters find their personal 'salvation' through love and self determination. The film leans heavily into the idea of the Gospels as accounts about personal connection, though there is also an emphasis on the importance of a faith community, growing together.  

    However, sadly the film ducks the more profound questions about fate and determinism and aside from the difference Ea makes to the lives of her chosen six, her work on Earth is arguably not much greater than her father's. He meddles by inventing irksome rules about bread always falling jam side down, or about the other queue always moving fastest; she tweaks the lives of only a handful of followers, to bring them happiness. She's 10 of course, but the film suggests she is done meddling with the world, and that we will be better without her or her father's interference. 

    Perhaps the difference is that Ea seems like one of us. Whereas her father exists in the dark, tucked a way in a huge room with wall to wall filing cabinet, she lives like one of us. Her message, perhaps, is that we can all have a small impact on the lives around us. As endings go, it's nice enough and the time spent getting there was entertaining enough with a few moments of interest. Somehow, however, I had just hoped for a little bit more. 
    The Brand New Testament (Le Tout Nouveau Testament) is available to stream via the Channel 4 website (in the UK at least) until the 16th July. 


    Saturday, June 20, 2020

    Samson dan Delilah (1987)

    Bible films are acts of adaptation and invention. Sometimes filmmakers try and stick as closely as they can to the original text. Sometimes they are happy to strip away all but but a story's essential points in the service of exploration or entertainment. Samson dan Delilah, by Indonesian director Sisworo Gautama Putra, is a film which very much falls into the latter category.

    The success of the Italian film Hercules (1958) led to a string of peplum films being made which traded on the names of a mythical strong men. Hercules, Goliath, Odysseus and Samson all ended up appearing in films which borrowed their names, but very little else from their original stories. Indeed there were several occasions when films bore Hercules' name when released in Italy, were re-titled and repackaged as films about Samson when they were re-dubbed and re-released further afield.

    Putra's film is doubtless influenced by pepla such as Samson and the Sea Beast (1963) or Samson and the Pirate (1964). Indeed, just as Hercules cast an American bodybuilder as the mythical strongman (Steve Reeves), so too Samson is played by Paul Hay, an Australian whose muscular credentials are laid out, somewhat oddly, during the opening credits. As with those films, the hero battles fantastical foes such a very unconvincing Cyclops - whose pointed shield grinds against Samson's naked torso without a scratch. Shortly afterwards Samson steals another attacker's sword/axe and slices him in two from top to bottom, only to see the two halves reform, like something from Terminator 2 (1991), and for him to redouble his efforts. Even when, moments later, Samson slices clean through his waist, his attackers legs continue to kick him. The cartoon gore, which is not in short supply, is a hangover from Putra's better known work in horror.

    The film's most obvious innovation is the introduction of several elements of the kung-fu/martial arts film. The choreographed fights, the exaggerated foley work and poor dubbing are strongly reminiscent of the late seventies 'shenmo' TV series Monkey or the films produced by the Shaw brothers. The fight scenes in Samson are not particularly well executed but they are entertaining nevertheless, though perhaps because of their sheer over-the-topness, rather than in spite of it. 

    Yet in contrast to the pepla, Putra's film sticks more closely to the biblical material. Samson's affair with Delilah (played by Indonesian horror queen Suzzanna), her betrayal of him and his subsequent blinding and enslavement are all included. Also like the account in Judges Samson regains a little of his former super-strength, although bizarrely the film also has him regain his site after a woman rubs her breasts in his face, and finishes by him destroying his captors' temple destroing both himself and his enemies.

    There are other similarities too. The key to Samson's strength still lies in his uncut hair.  He exists in a world where he belongs to an invaded and oppressed people. Like the biblical character, his motive is as much about revenge as fighting injustice, indeed the film's title for its release in France was La Revanche de Samson (The Revenge of Samson). Adaptations of his story often overlook this thirst for revenge. Yet in one scene Samson is prepared to give himself up, as per Judges 15:9-17 in order to stop the ruling regime's soldiers attacking the villagers (only for him to escape again later). 

    However, arguably the most interesting deviation from the biblical text is the time and place where the story is situated. Instead of Israel around 1000 B.C. the film relocates the story to colonial Indonesia in the early 1800s. The soldiers who plot to destroy Samson are white Europeans wearing tall hats and smart, full length, powder-blue coats as if picked from a Quality Street tin or a Jane Austen novel (1). While in this case they are Dutch, they stand for the dark, still glossed-over era of European history - our brutal invasion, colonisation, repression and rule of countries across the world. Putra and those from former European colonies doubtless experience this film from white Europeans like myself - a painful reminder of a shameful era in our history that refuses to provide an easy way out.

    It's perhaps these elements that mean whilst hardly a work of great artistry, Samson dan Delilah is worth viewing. The action sequences and a food-inspired love scene between the two leads make for a trashy, rather than profound, adaptation of the biblical stories, albeit one that has it's own oddly entertaining appeal. Yet at times it manages to rise above all that to remind us that while Samson stood on the side of the oppressed often those claiming to be on the side of his god, have not.

    There are some other reviews, plot outlines and screen grabs of this film at Ninja Dixon, Backyard Asia, Ballistic Bullets and DevilDead.

    *Quality Street are a UK brand of chocolates who for for about 80 years have sold their products in decorated tins such as these.


    Sunday, June 14, 2020

    Assassin 33 A.D. (2020)

    After all the campaigns and protests about Life of Brian (1979), Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Jerry Springer: The Opera (2005) it turns out the most sacrilegious Jesus film of all time is not one made by sceptics in search of a quick buck, but by conservative Christians. Assassin 33 A.D. is a piece of well-intended Christertainment so jaw droppingly wrong-headed, it's a miracle no-one stepped in to stop it. Yet I cannot stop thinking about it. After all, how many movies can there be which have the sheer audacity to send terrorists back in time to assassinate Jesus?

    The "Christian movie" elements of the film are most pronounced at the start. Brandt (Donnny Boaz) and his wife (played by reality TV star Heidi Montag) are in the process of relocating so he can start a new job when a juggernaut ploughs into their car. Montag and the couple's children all die,but Brandt somehow survives. Shortly afterwards we see Brandt, channelling as much Scarlet O'Hara as he can muster, growling "I am not your guy anymore" towards the sky, but somehow you get the sense his mustering is only going to last for the next 90 minutes or so.

    The next scene cuts to two new characters in  a university lecture hall - an increasingly popular location for Christian movies. Here, though, the location is more about flirting than creating of flimsy straw men, (c.f. God's Not Dead) notably between socially-awkward-though-not-in-a-loveable-way Ram Goldstein (Morgan Roberts) and fellow scientist Amy Lee (Isla Levine). The two are competing in a test, run as part of the assessment process for a highly paid tech job, which it turns out is the same mysterious company that Brandt has started working for as Head of Security. Despite Ram's awkwardness, and his outspoken scepticism about Amy's beliefs, the two somehow get together and, having both passed the test, they end up working together on a project to create a matter transfer device. Three months later and not only have the team all but completed the teleporting machine, but Ram also realises that a few extra lines of code mean it can also double as a time machine.

    Such a discovery is immensely pleasing to the couple's secretive employers who turn out to be Islamic terrorists. On discovering Ram's new invention their boss Ahmed decides the best way to use it is to go back in time to "eliminate Jesus before the resurrection", thus "effectively dismantling Christianity" and "correcting the greatest deception of all time". No-one asks how putting a bullet in the saviour's brain will prevent rumours about Jesus' resurrection spreading any more than when he was crucified by the Romans, so Brandt and his team are dispatched to Gethsemane with machine guns and body armour.

    What follows is a complex mess of tangled timelines, alternative realities, eccentric theology and convenient plot devices. Assassin 33 A.D.'s unusual combination of genres (sci-fi and biblical epic) mean that it's uniquely able to manoeuvre out of any narratorial tight spots with recourse to either pseudo-scientific babble ("time doesn't change instantaneously, it has to re-write itself") or theological clichés ("God works in mysterious ways" is actually uttered at one point). The scientists and Brandt's SWAT team jump back and forth between both the ancient and recent past resulting in several different Jesus timelines. 

    Aside from this offering a novel solution to the synoptic problem, Jesus eventually reveals that these events are all part of God's plan. Freshly resurrected, he appears to Amy in the garden and tells her the Parable of the Lost Sheep where the shepherd is happy to risk ninety-nine sheep in order to save the hundredth. The choice of this one parable combined with the odd timing - given he is also meant to be meeting Mary Magdalene at any minute - seems to suggest this is meant to be the whole message of the film. Brandt is the missing sheep and all the time travel, plotting and redundant timelines just turns out to be God's unnecessarily over-complicated plan to shepherd Brandt back into the fold. 

    Unfortunately, the problems with the film go further than simply its theology or implausibility. Despite the filmmakers seemingly wanting to do the right thing in terms of ethnicity, racial prejudice crops up repeatedly. The science team may tick the right boxes diversity-wise - Simon, an African American; Felix, a Latino; Amy, a white Christian; and, in Ram, a Jewish atheist - yet their portrayals lapse all too easily into racial stereotypes. Despite being a top scientist, Simon is portrayed as being lazy and goes round telling his colleagues to "chill out" and "be cool". Ram is overly proud. Felix corresponds to the Hispanic stereotypes Berg has classified under "The Male Buffoon" ("simple-mindedness", "failure to master standard English" and "childish regression into emotionality") typified by his bizarre cuddling of a toy penguin even in a science lab (184).

    Then, of course, there is problematic portrayal of the Muslims in the film all of whom are Islamic terrorists. Again it feels like the filmmakers do try to circumnavigate the potential problems. One of the terrorists does question their mission. Jesus is Islam's second most holy prophet, shouldn't he be respected? Likewise, later Felix asks why Muslims would act this way, leading Ram to explain that "they wouldn't, but Ahmed's part of an extremist group". Nevertheless, these instances do little to balance out the uneasy way Ahmed, "the world's most famous refugee", is leading a bunch of homegrown terrorists in acts of 'Jihad'.  Of course, "Islamic terrorism" has been a staple feature of Hollywood dramas for a quarter of a century, so it perhaps seems a little churlish to object now, but there's something particularly uncomfortable about the way things are portrayed here, perhaps because of the film's strong Christian affinities. 

    In many ways the filmmakers' uneven handling of ethnicity typifies the film's uneven contradictions. From a theological angle Laura Robinson describes is as being "both thoroughly sincere in its obvious love for Jesus, and also the most blasphemous thing ever made by filmmakers". Moments such as the one where Simon and Jesus are discussing The Passion of the Christ and trade lines from The Terminator (1984) jar with heavy themes such as terrorism, salvation and determinism. Minor players in the Gospels have their places filled by time travellers. Occasionally an interesting idea crops up, but somehow each and every one is fumbled. At times I found myself mulling over how a particular problem might have been solved by cutting a line here or a scene there, only to be struck, once again, by the sheer abundance of its problems. Worse still, even were they all to be fixed, doing so would only strip the film of its vagarious charm.

    The result of all this is a movie that feels destined to be a cult classic. It's a film so bad, it shoots right past 'good' without drawing so much as a breath. In many ways, it's truly something which could only be conceived in Trump's America, with a theology so muddled it has God go extraordinary lengths to reverse a crisis of faith, rather than prevent a simple accident. It's "faith-based" story finds its greatest threat in a naturalised citizen who arrived escaping terrorism as a child, and features a white man in riot police gear shooting a peaceful, unarmed, Middle-Eastern, protester in the head at point-blank range. It thinks diversity is important, but can only conceive of others via racial stereotypes.Having toured the festival circuit for years seeking a big distributor it was eventually released in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic. Somehow, that could not be more fitting.

    If you'd like to read more about this film I recommend the various threads about it on Twitter from the NT Review Pod's Laura Robinson, Jeremy Thomas parts one and two and Nathaniel Ralstin (@Hoosier 2012). Robinson also discusses it in episode 91 of the NT Pod.
    Berg, Charles Ramírez (2011) "Hispanic Stereotyping" in Richard Delgado, Jean Stefancic (eds.) The Latino/a Condition: A Critical Reader, Second Edition. New York: New York University Press.p.183-188

    - For a time this film was known as Resurrection Time Conspiracy and Black Easter Resurrection.

    Saturday, June 06, 2020

    Nollywood Jesus: Our Jesus Story (2020)

    The Nigerian film industry, often dubbed Nollywood, is one of the largest in the world. Reliable statistics are not that easy to come by, but UNESCO claim that in 2009 it produced more films than any other nation on Earth except India and it's been claimed that, in 2013 at least, the Nigerian industry is/was third in terms of revenue behind India and the US, largely off the back of strong home video sales. So given that around 45% of the country's 191 million people are Christian, I've long wanted to do a little digging to find out about any biblically themed Nigerian films.

    As, it turns out I didn't need to search very long or very hard. There are a number of titles, which I'll investigate more closely in future posts, but among them is a film which premiered in March this year. Our Jesus Story has been produced by Ojiofor Ezeanyanche's O.J. Production and was directed by Tchidi Chikere. Chikere has over 100 films to his credit (though IMDb does not yet list a lot of them, including Our Jesus Story).

    There's a trailer up on YouTube, from which it looks like the film mixes ancient and modern imagery - the trailer's opening scenes feature men dropping from trees and firing rifles, but in other places the costumes more closely resemble first century Judea. Precious 'Mamazeus' Nwogu reads the trailer as establishing "a plot twist of ritual killings and a story of a Christian missionary trying to fight the system". 

    Four, things stand out to me from the trailer. Firstly, that aspects of Nigerian culture will be in the foreground, which will make for fascinating, and hopefully challenging, viewing. That ties in a little to the second point, namely that the supernatural looks to be a prominent element of the film. We're shown Lazarus raising and at least two instances of lightning/electricity type effects. Thirdly, given the masses of footage circulating on social media in the last week of authority figures violently assailing, unarmed black men, the footage of Jesus screaming in agony as he is beaten and crucified feels particularly visceral.

    Finally, the start of the trailer features a number of Jesus' quotes about relational division. Jesus tells the women of Jerusalem to "weep for your daughters" and this is followed up by the quote "I've not come to bring peace but the sword". This is followed by a moment from one of the subplots where a man acknowledges his father, and the father replies "So you have come back here to challenge me".

    There's also a news report from the Première on March 26th including an interview with Frederick Leonard who plays Jesus. Perhaps the most interesting part of it is when he recalls being asked what he found most challenging about the role and he replies that it was "the fact that he's very soft-spoken, very meek, yet very authoritative, very strong, very stern, and very direct. So how do you portray all of those emotions without coming off as brash? It took a lot of work." From the snippets of Leonard's work in the trailer it looks like a really good portrayal.

    I'm hoping to be able to review this film, but as Nigeria went into lockdown just a few days after the première I imagine the film has not yet even had a proper release.

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    Thursday, June 04, 2020

    Antigone (1992)
    Die Antigone des Sophokles nach der Hölderlinschen Übertragung für die Bühne bearbeitet von Brecht 1948

    Antigone is Huillet and Straub's final film set in the ancient world. Indeed, not only is that when the story is set, but the entire film is shot within the ancient Greek theatre in Segesta, Sicily. The location instantly recalls 1975's Moses und Aron, the majority of which is shot in the Alba Fucens amphitheatre in southern Italy. Antigone is Straub and Huillet's most visually similar film to Moses und Aron. In addition to the ancient white bleachers and stones, the distant mountains in the background, and the light from blue Italian skies, there is the use of the fixed camera - a technique that was used for significant chunks of the earlier film, but for the entirety of Antigone. While the camera is sometimes positioned high up, and a variety of focal lengths and compositions are used, all the scenes are shot from the one position. I'm tempted to call it stage right because while the action (such as it is) takes place on either side of the camera, a row of large stones runs down the middle of the theatre. Behind those stones there are really only a group of four elders. Occasionally a character crosses the line of stones, but otherwise the elders stand there almost motionlessly in front of the ancient bleachers, the empty stands suggesting both the remoteness of the king, Creon, and the elders' role as representatives of the absent people.

    Part of the reason the people are absent is that the men are at war with Argos. As king of Thebes, Creon is not at the battle and is detached from his people - unable to empathise with their suffering, read the mood of his troops, or sense the way the battle is going. "He orders victory before victory is assured and turns weapons against his own troops to drive them into hopeless battle" (Byg, 220). When Princess Antigone's brother (Polyneices) deserts, Creon orders him to be killed. Antigone resists his tyranny to the point that she is also sentenced to death. Creon presses on with the assault on Argos, but his campaign is struck by a series of calamities as the battle is lost; his sons die; and then the men, women and children of Argos instead turn, attack and indeed conquer Thebes.

    In addition to the location, the camera work and the static group of elders, there are several other links with Moses und Aron, though mainly those typical of Huillet and Straub's distinctive style. Shots are largely long takes which are largely static, but occasionally the camera pans well over 90°, almost whizzing by. Both films are adaptations of mid-20th century German works, themselves based on iterations of ancient sources. The film's full title in this respect, which translates as "Antigone of Sophocles After Hölderlin's Adaptation for the Stage Edited by Brecht in 1948" particularly draws attention to the literary stages of development the story we are witnessing has gone through - an event in the past recounted in its time and then adapted again and again by Sophocles, Hölderlin, Brecht and nowStraub/Huillet, each who bring their own themes to it.

    In  both works themes of truth and its inaccessibility are to the fore - Moses senses it but finds it impossible to transmit without distorting it; distortion of truth takes place in Antigone also as Creon prefers to believe a lie rather than listen to, or witness the truth. In both, Moses/Creon's acts of violence take place off-screen, as if merely the inevitable conclusion of the exchange of words we witness.

    A further similarity is the manner in which most of the actors deliver their lines with relatively little expression, though Werner Rehm's performance as Creon stands out in marked contrast. Byg praises his nuanced performance as "a picturebook version of a hammy, provincial actor" which corresponds to "the professionalism of power" (222). In contrast, Astrid Offner - the amateur actor who plays Antigone - gives a subtler performance which is nevertheless utterly compelling in its steely determination. Whilst the reasons for the dramatic turn of events off screen seem largely due to Creon's hubris, arrogance and failure to listen, such is the power of Offner's performance, that it's difficult to escape the feeling that Antigone's defiance has somehow called all this disaster down upon him in judgement.

    The actors' static poses, unmoving shoulders and with feet which typically remain rooted to the ground, bring a surface calm to proceedings that only focuses attention on the forcefulness of the spoken word. As a result, on the few occasions when characters are not static, it is suddenly quite shocking. The strongest example of this is when a messenger, having spoken out his message, drops dead, the onscreen death, not least because despite the numerous deaths that occur during this story, it is the only one actually shown on screen. Many movies these days show unending action and violence, but have little of any value to say about it. In contrast, Antigone refuses to distract or entertain its audience with on-screen violence. The violence takes place off screen, indicated only by the actors themselves leaving the frame of the camera shots. "Axes, axes" cries Creon as he heads off to save his son. Moments later he re-enters the ancient theatre carrying his son's bloodied robe.

    As the play reaches its terrible climax, Creon leaves the theatre once again, the camera pans once again, coming to rest on a distant Sicilian mountain, entirely unaffected by the human drama that has been unveiled. But Straub and Huillet are not done. The film cuts to a closing quote from Brecht in 1952, during the Korean War and surely with one eye on the Second World War in the rear view mirror: "For humanity is threatened by wars compared to which those past are like poor attempts and they will come, without any doubt, if the hands of those who prepare them in all openness are not broken".

    The quote is accompanied by the sound of helicopters, recalling not only a line from the play about "the whirr of birds above" but also the war-as-entertainment newscast footage from the first Gulf War which concluded just a few months before filming began. But the helicopter sounds also recall Bernd Alois Zimmermann's opening music - which integrates phrases from Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" - and combines with them to evoke Apocalypse Now (1979) and Vietnam. There's a parallel, then, between this portrayal of the war of the Ancient Greeks, and the American Empire of our own day. Antigone defiant stand against tyranny seems to halt Creon's kingdom and imperial designs in their tracks. Huillet and Straub bid that we do likewise in our own day.

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


    Tuesday, May 26, 2020

    Cézanne: Dialogue with Joachim Gasquet (1990)

    Painters have been a popular subject for filmmakers, going as far back as Pathé's 1910 film about Murillo (L'Orgueil) and Giulia Cassini-Rizzotto's 1919 Leonardo da Vinci, not least because of the connections between the two art forms.1 It's hardly surprising, then, that Huillet and Straub - whose films revolve around adapting the work of artists from all kinds of art forms - would eventually create a film about a painter, and in their own idiosyncratic fashion.

    As their subject they chose Paul Cézanne, an artist who, at least in the eyes of Benoît Turquety, shares their passion for "objectivity" and "impersonality" 2. As with so many of their films Cézanne (1990) straddles the gap between adaptation and documentary. Whereas most 'films about painters' have tended to be either biopics or documentaries Straub and Huillet take a different approach, combining scraps of biographic material with images of his finished paintings as displayed in galleries. Throughout words from Gasquet's conversations with Cézanne are read out, with Huillet speaking Cézanne's words and Straub occasionally posing one of Gasquet's questions.

    The resulting film has the feel of a cinematic scrapbook. In terms of the rest of their body of work it perhaps bears closest resemblance to Introduction to Arnold Schoenberg's 'Musical Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene' (1972). As with that film Cézanne features photographs, actors reading others words in lengthy excerpts as if standing-in for the original orator, seemingly unconnected film footage and shots of landscapes. Turquety divides the film into two.3 The first half overlaying photographs of the artist with words purportedly from his conversation with Joachim Gasquet; a shot of Cézanne's "La vieille au chaplet"; excerpts from their own Death of Empedocles (1986); and Renoir's Madame Bovary (1933) and long takes of country scenery including Mont Sainte-Victoire. The second features shots of nine more of Cézanne's paintings in their present locations, finished off by a shot of the gated area where his Paris studio was situated.

    Here is the full sequence of  the film's 75 shots:

    - Opening credits on white then on black.
    - Two distant panning shots of Aix-en-Provence. Quiet ambient noise.
    - Still photo of Cézanne accompanied by recollection of the conversation by Joachim Gasquet
    - Painting 1. "La vieille au chaplet" (1895-6)
    - Excerpt from Madame Bovary (Jean Renoir 1933) - 50 shots.
    - Static shot of Mont Sainte-Victoire
    - Excerpt from The Death of Empedocles (Straub/Huilllet, 1986) comprising five static shots taken on the slopes of Mount Etna - featuring Andreas von Rauch reading words from Hölderlin's play.
    - Static shot of Mont Sainte-Victoire, eventually panning right
    - Three still photos of Cézanne
    - Static shot of Mount Etna, from Death of Empedocles.
    - Painting 2. Still Life with Apples and Oranges (1895-1900)
    - Painting 3. Montagne Sainte-Victoire (1890)
    - Painting 4. Le Mont Sainte-Victoire vu des Lauves (1904-1906)
    - Painting 5. Rochers et branches à Bibémus (1895-1904)
    - Painting 6. La Montagne Sainte-Victoire, vue de Lauves (1905)
    - Painting 7. Apples, Bottles, Chair Back (1902-1906)
    - Painting 8. Les Grandes Baigneuses (1894-1905)
    - Painting 9. The Gardener Vallier (1906)
    - Painting 10 Femme nue debout (1895)
    -Gate to Cézanne's Paris studio . Quiet ambient noise.
    - End credits on black.

    Introduction to Arnold Schoenberg is one of my favourite Huillet-Straub films, in part because it manages to be so rhetorically passionate, despite rigorously striving for  objective neutrality. You have to know enough about how they handle the material to be struck by it, but once you do it's incredibly powerful. Here's the subject is clearly less emotive, but I do like films such as Cézanne, Introduction and their 1968 film The Bridgegroom, the Actress, and the Pimp which approach the same theme by collaging different types of visual and aural material. The artists featured in these two films, Schoenberg, Cézanne, Renoir, Hölderlin and Flaubert all shared a similar approach to their art - an 'objectivist' approach as Turquety would explain it.

    There are also obvious similarities with the pair's later A Visit to the Louvre (2003) which not only features numerous shots of paintings, but also includes dialogue which Joachim Gasquet noted down from his conversations with Cézanne. Thematically there are similarities too - Huillet's concern with how paintings are displayed in museums and galleries looms in visit to the Louvre and Cézanne seems to have been conceived, in part, from Straub and Huillet's experiences of visiting these paintings in galleries around the world as they toured with Moses und Aron (1975). Huillet railed against the "horrible...madness" of making them "invisible" by hiding them behind protective glass.4 Elsewhere Straub talked about paintings being "prisoners of a museum".5

    It is perhaps because of this that the film makes so much of framing. It is perhaps best known for the manner in which it displays the ten paintings by Cézanne. Whilst the majority of them are in landscape format, meaning it would have been easy for Huillet and Straub to crop out the galleries' frames, they not only include them, but also include a little of the museum's wall. This is partly out of a sense of objectivity and respect for Cézanne's original compositions and framing. Nonetheless, at times they do not even centre the canvas in the precise middle of the frame - clearly a deliberate act for such meticulous filmmakers. This presentation draws attention to the paintings imprisonment and how paintings created to capture and reflect light are now trapped inside under artificial lights. It also distorts perspective, "the film-frame makes every painting the same scale, their relative sizes are equalized, even if they are actually very different".6

    But by this point 'framing' has already been introduced as a theme in various different ways. Böser notes how in the excerpts of Renoir's film "a dominant stylistic feature of the film are secondary apertures, frames within frames which frequently establish shot compositions of a pronounced symmetry" noting also "double framing" and "prominent vertical or horizontal lines".7 Then there is the moment in their own film when Empedocles stands up with the result that his head is no longer in the frame as if he is breaking out of the frame.

    It's significant as well that before encountering these photographed paintings inside, the film starts and ends with exterior shots. The first of these are of the place of his birth; the last of where he lived, and worked, in the last days before his death. "The film is thus bookended by the two geographic locations central to the painter's life"8. Indeed he worked on painting 9, "The Gardener Vallier" (1906) on the day of his death. These shots are accompanied only by the natural ambient sounds which are so central to Straub and Huillet's broader body of work. As the film cycles through the paintings the frames begin to lose their hold, first paintings appear not in a visible frame (no's 6 and 7); then a framed painting appears but accompanied by natural sounds, the like of which cannot be heard from within the central London gallery where it resides; then the painting of "The Gardener Vallier" on an easel worked on the day before he died - as if capturing at the moment of his death; finally we have an unfinished painted over sketch, a painting where Cézanne is still attempting to capture the light on, and the fire below, the surface. These are two themes Cézanne/Huillet's "narration" touch on. Elsewhere, referring to Mont Sainte Victoire we hear "these hunks of rock were made from fire, and there is fire in them still."

    That penultimate shot of "The Gardener Vallier" gets increasingly meaningful the more you probe.  It is one of nine attempts at the character by Cézanne late in his life (six oil paintings and three water colours) and the film lends them, and itself, an air of melancholy by Cézanne/Huillet reflections which end with "c'est effrayante, la vie" (life is terrifying). Gasquet himself discusses these works - though not in one of the passages in the film - claiming that when the old gardener failed to show up for sittings, the artist modelled for himself, setting himself up in front of the mirror.9 This corresponds, in a way, to the relationship between the first painting displayed in the film - "La vieille au chaplet" (Old Maid with Rosary) - and the ensuing clip from Renoir's Madame Bovary. As the painting is displayed 'Cézanne' discusses how the inspiration for the painting - notably its colours - came from Flaubert's novel.

    In many of Straub and Huillet's films there's a fascination with texts and layers of history. Here things are simpler than with their works set in the ancient world, but the use of Gasquet's recollections is one way in which this surfaces. There is the original conversations between the two men; Gasquet's subsequent recording of them much later; and then Huillet/Straub's selection, abridgement and performance of them. Like anyone Gasquet's words are prone to the loss and distortion of the memory of these events, and the possibility of deliberate embellishment or fabrication. Gasquet's words 'frame' our impressions of Cézanne and their unreliability highlight the inaccessibility of the past. In a similar fashion, even our impression of Cézanne's art is limited and distorted by their being filmed, variations in colour, lighting, grain and perspective all change how the viewer sees the paintings.

    That this film was originally commissioned by a gallery to accompany an exhibition of a selection of the artists works, only adds a further interpretative layer.10 It reflects that is so central to Moses und Aron - the tension between a purity vision and the impossibility of communicating it more widely without reducing or distorting it. "As the institutional guardians of art, such institutions may be viewed to exert a tangible impact on our experience of the exhibits in their care and possession".11 Also as with Moses und Aron (as well as Class Relations (1983) and others) Huillet and Straub's interest in unfinished or incomplete works again resurfaces with inclusion of some paintings that Cézanne had not yet completed, testifying to the ragged edges and reality of artistic process and thought. Even the film itself exists in two versions the French version I have discussed here (and which is available on YouTube) and a German version which is twelve minutes longer.

    Sadly, the gallery that commissioned Cézanne, Musee d'Orsay, declined to show it in the end saying it was "not an educational film, but an auteur's film".12 Yet despite such a poor initial reception, Cézanne has gone on to become one of their most analysed latter works (at least among English language texts) given more serious consideration than their more popular films from the final third of their career. Thirteen years later Straub and Huillet would return to Cézanne, again through the recollections of Gasquet, in their 2003 film A Visit to the Louvre only this time the focus was the works of other artists such as Courbet, Tintoretto and Veronese with Julie Koltaï giving voice to Cézanne's thoughts on their work.

    1 - Rizzotto was an Italian actress who turned to directing after the First World War. There's a great write up on her here by Alessandro Faccioli, Marzia Maino. As well as tipping me off about this, Michelle Facey also mentioned two 1911 Italian documentaries on Leonardo. Thanks to Roland-François Lack for the tip-off about L'Orgueil.
    2 - Turquety, Benoît (2020) Danièle Huillet, Jean-Marie Straub: "Objectivists" in Cinema, (Translated by Ted Fendt), Amsterdam:Amsterdam University Press.
    3 - Turquety. p.207
    4 - Huillet, Danièle (2016) "Quite a lot of Pent-Up Anger" in Straub, Jean-Marie and Danièle Huillet, Writings, translated and edited by Sally Shafto with Katherine Pickard. New York:  Sequence Press. p.229-231.
    5 - Chevrie, Marc (1989) 'Jean-Marie Straub et Daniele Huillet: Entre Deux Films', Cahiers du Cinema, (418) April. p.64. Cited in the catalogue for the 2019 BFI/Goethe Institute retrospective.
    6 - 
    Turquety. p.209.
    7 - Böser, Ursula (2004) The Art of Seeing, the Art of Listening: The Politics of Representation in the Work of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang. p.173-4
    8 - Shafto, Sally (2012) "Artistic Encounters: Jean-Marie Straub, Danièle Huillet, and Cézanne" in Angela Dalle Vacche (ed.) Film, Art, New Media: Museum Without Walls? London: Palgravce Macmillan. p.216.
    9 - Cited in Platzman, Steven (2001) Cézanne: The Self-portraits. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. p.190.
    10 - Böser, p.188.
    11 - Böser, p.188.
    12 - Raymond, Jean-Louis (1995) 'Rencontres avec Jean-Marie Straub et Daniele Huillet, Le Mans' in Rencontres: Jean-Marie Straub et Daniele
    Huillet, in Bruno Tackels (ed.) Strasbourg: Limelight. p. 33.


    Sunday, May 10, 2020

    Os Dez Mandamentos: O Filme (2016)

    A few weeks ago I mentioned a series of biblical telenovelas from Brazil which typically ran for dozens of episodes for each biblical story. The Moses series - Os Dez Manadmentos ran from 2015 delivering an incredible 243 episodes by the time in ended in 20161 and was even covered in The Guardian. According to UOL the series had an audience of 144 million. At some point, the producers Rede Record decided to create a film version of the series that could play in cinemas. Then came reports of sold-out shows, but half-empty theatres,2 presumably due to over-enthusiastic church leaders buying up tickets to give them away - a strategy used widely with The Passion of the Christ (2004)?

    There's an extra layer of intrigue here as well. A significant majority of RecordTV is owned by billionaire Edir Macedo, the bishop/leader of Brasil's biggest church network Universal Church of the Kingdom of God. Macedo has been charged with various crimes, but, importantly, has never been found guilty. At the time Brazil's largest TV news website Notícias da TV reported UCKG services heavily promoting the film and encouraging people to give money to buy tickets for others. If Macedo were to have used his pulpits to promote his own business interests then that would seem to be something of a conflict of interests. Either way, the film took 116 million Brazilian dollars at the Brazilian box office in the end, making it the highest grossing home-grown film for 2016, taking only a little less than the film which topped box office sales in Brazil overall that year, Captain America.3

    The film itself largely recycles material from the TV show, which is hardly surprising given that so much material was available. Having not seen the original series I don't know if any new footage was shot, or if the film's framing narrative - which has Joshua recall the events that have happened as the Hebrews prepare to conquer the Promised Land - was a new device for the film, or was carried over from the series. Either way the film soon flashes-back to the Egyptians murdering Israelite baby boys, and only rarely returns to the Joshua scene.

    However, this framing device fundamentally alters the message of the Moses story. Instead of being a story of gaining freedom from oppression and slavery, it becomes about God's "promise to our people that we would become a great nation". There's echoes here of Macedo's 2008 book "Plan for Power: God, Christians and Politics" where he describes God's "great national project" for Brazil. "To be an Evangelical in Brazil is like being a foreigner in Egypt at the time of the Pharaohs...Moses’ mission was to liberate the people of Israel, recover their citizenship and guide them to possession of their own kingdom".4

    Moses' father Amram is shown as a slave, but one who can slip away to attend to Moses' mother Jochebed when she goes into labour - an interesting take on how we typically imagine slavery. Interestingly, the first shot of the Hebrew slaves is a "God shot" looking directly down on a team of slaves dragging a huge statue of the Pharaoh. When Moses' basket ends up in the arms of Pharaoh's daughter, Miriam's suggestion of a Hebrew wet nurse results in Moses being allowed to return to his parents, but then, when he is around five years old, we're showed him wrenched away from his mother and returned to the princess.

    And so Moses grows up in the palace, very much one of the royal household. He is aware he is adopted, but not that he is Hebrew. Indeed as with the three most famous Hollywood versions of the the story, Moses' young adulthood is closely connected to that of Pharaoh's future heir Ramesses.5 As with The Prince of Egypt (1998) and Exodus: God's and Kings (2014) the two men are close friends. There are plenty of nods to these films as well. In one scene Moses and Ramesses fight alongside one another in battle with strong echoes of the 2014 film. Moments later Moses unrolls a scroll bearing hieroglyphics that look like they were practically peeled off the walls of the set of Prince of Egypt.

    In contrast to those films, however, certain elements of the film's style are very different from the aesthetics of America and Europe. Some of these are questions of convention rather than a universal measure of quality that is, um, set in stone. There's frequent use of slow-motion, time-lapse sequences, and montage, often in combination. The film's colours will also not be to everyone's taste. Likewise the reliance on melodrama - for example, when Moses re-enters Pharaoh's throne room after a forty year absence his wife drops her goblet and a slow-motion shot captures the wine spilling all over the floor. But two faults in particular plague this production (sorry the puns will stop shortly). Firstly, the film's CGI backgrounds are often blended poorly with live-action footage of the actors. On a small screen it looks bad, so I can only imagine how it would seem in a cinema. Secondly, the lighting, particularly for the interiors, looks off.

    Much of this is because the film is an edited down version of a much longer show filmed in a typical soap-opera style. To record so much material in a short space of time (and cheaply) fixed, even, lighting is used for an entire scene rather than varying the key, fill and back lighting each time the camera moves. It also accounts for the overly melodramatic moments in the production. And, of course, the reduction of such a volume of material into a mere two hours goes partway to describing the heavy reliance on montage. At times a brief montage feels like highlights of entire episodes' worth of footage, such as the sequence of Moses' courtship of Zipporah. Likewise, towards the end of the film, the incidents between the Sea of Reeds and giving of the Ten Commandments - so often omitted entirely - are presented in a 90-second montage featuring the sweetening of Marah's bitter water, the provision of quails and manna, and the victory over the Amalekites. Similarly it occasionally feels like the cuts have been a little too abrupt.

    At times the filmmakers rely on the audiences familiarity with the text. Indeed, perhaps we should say 'texts', as viewers who either know the original telenovela, or who are familiar with The Ten Commandments (1956), The Prince of Egypt and Exodus: God's and Kings will have more idea than those who only know the first few chapters of the Book of Exodus. I kind of like the way the telenovela draws heavily on the three Hollywood films, but in being abridged in this fashion it also leaves fleeting traces of the fuller work. There's a whole subplot, I'm sure, around the palace servant who overhears Moses confessing his killing of the Egyptian to Ramesses and then informs the king, but all we see is a brief shot of her listening through a crack in the door.

    This hint of intertextuality contrasts with the film's attitude to the text of Exodus itself. Whereas scholars have long asserted that the "finished" form of Exodus was concocted several centuries after Moses using several pre-existing sources, here we see Moses writing Genesis and the start of Exodus. Aaron looks on admiringly and he is even more impressed when Moses' starts predicting what the finished text will say about the (still future) events of the Exodus. It's a strange inversion of the biblical angle on the teaming up of Moses and Aaron. In the Bible Aaron is brought in to compensate for Moses' poor vocal skills: here he is impressed by his brother's impressive oration. This is perhaps typical of the film's highly idealised and sexualised Moses figure, played by the Guilherme Winter. In The Ten Commandments, for example, Charlton Heston loses all sense of his earlier sexual availability once he encounters God; here Winter continues to smoulder long afterwards.  Moreover, he is also more active and virile than his cinematic predecessors. I can't recall another Moses who runs after his commissioning at the Burning Bush, so it's particularly striking towards the end of the film to see him sprinting back to urge his people through the walls of the Red Sea, with shouts of "Vamos!"

    It's a sign of how greatly CGI has revolutionised visual effects that the Burning Bush scene is barely worthy of comment. Back in 1957 this scene - modest by comparison with its equivalent in this film - was much discussed and ultimately the only Oscar which DeMille's film won was for Visual Effects. Here the scene is fine, its just perfunctory rather than profound, spiritual or moving. Perhaps this is highlighted by the reception Moses gets when he first returns to Egypt. Ramesses, now Pharaoh, welcomes him with open arms, as do the rest of his former family. As Moses explains to Aaron later "it was really hard to see the happiness and love they showed me". Only Ramesses' son Amenhotep seems to take exception to Moses, glancing dismissively at him and questioning the poverty of his clothing. In fact the costuming is really on point here. Even before Moses enters the palace there's a stark contrast between the pristine and luxurious Egyptian costumes and the shabby, well-worn outfits of Moses and his brother. I don't recall Moses ever seeming so out of place in the palace.

    Despite the warmth of Ramesses original welcome his attitude quickly seems to change, seemingly without a great deal of motive. This is not a problem the Bible - which often doesn't explain the motives of its characters and, in this case, never contends that Ramesses and Moses even knew each other - but having built a great deal of affection between the two men (including Moses saving Ramesses' life) the change of heart rings a little false. It's perhaps a casualty of having to abridge the original footage so drastically. The subtlety of the gradual deterioration in the two men's relationship left on the cutting room floor. Obviously things only deteriorate further once the ten plagues arrive.

    If the first half of the film was typified by its soap-opera origins, then the second half, once Moses returns to Egypt, is far more dominated by effects and CGI. While the Burning Bush scene was somewhat underwhelming, the plagues are depicted much more successfully. Clearly a great deal of thought, planning and money was sent on this section which is apparent from the first plague. The water turning to blood provides the film with two of its most arresting images. Firstly, Pharaoh's wife caught swimming in a pool comes up for air literally covered head to foot in blood. Moments later her husband dips his hand in water only for them to emerge covered in blood. Both elements draw on horror tropes and the metaphor with the latter is made more effective due to the shot foregrounding Pharaoh's bloody hands in front of his horrified face. The grossness of the plagues is similarly reinforced with all ten being depicted, and particularly the infestations of frogs, lice, flies and locusts. Meanwhile a great deal of the budget seems to have been spent on the seventh plague. The "making of" documentary on the DVD largely concerns itself with this scene emphasising the "flashing fire" within the hail, causing some fairly spectacular, if a little over the top, footage. Finally, the death of the firstborn is shown, not by a creepy green mist as in 1956, but by streaks of bright white light, which prove no less terrifying. The terrible inevitability of what is happening is brought home by showing the moments leading up to Amenhotep's death. The film has stacked the pack somewhat by making Amenhotep seem unlikable, but those present have heard Moses' words. Their surface scepticism quickly dissipates as they see the streaks of light encircling them. There's a moment of fleeting defiance before the sheer inevitability of the situation reaches its grim conclusion.

    Following the plagues, where thousands of frogs and swarms of locusts filled the screen, we get grand exodus scenes intended to look as if millions are leaving 6. The newly liberated Hebrews quickly encounter the pillars of cloud and fire, the latter of which is particularly well-rendered. Likewise, the path through the Red Sea looks very impressive. Miriam makes an interesting comment here about the sea-bed: "its dry". This rather sums up this film's approach to the miraculous parts of the texts. Various productions from the 1956 The Ten Commandments onwards have attempted to try and give some scientific plausibility to the supernatural elements. The 1975 mini-series Moses largely minimalised the plagues, for example, while Exodus/: God's and Kings brought in a sceptical expert to provide an explanation. This follows a similar explanation in DeMille's film where Rameses 7 gives the following monologue:
    ...word came of a mountain beyond the Cataracts which spewed red mud and poisoned the water. Was it the staff I gave you that caused all this? Was it the wonder of your god that fish should die and frogs should leave the waters? Was it a miracle that flies and lice should bloat upon their carrion and spread disease in both man and beast? These things were ordered by themselves, and not by any god.
    Here however, not only is there no attempt to rationalise these supernatural acts, it intensifies them and links them to Moses' pronouncements. When Exodus 14:16 refers to "dry land" it's usually understood as idiomatic, rather than literal as Miriam's words stress here. The film is robustly and unapologetically Pentecostal in its approach with a strong emphasis on Christianity, miracles and prosperity. This is taken a step further in the words used in the supposedly Jewish Passover Seder which stress phrases about "redemption through the lamb".

    This Christianisation of the text is, of course, something that also typifies DeMille's two versions of the story, and as the film progresses, DeMille's approach becomes more and more dominant (not least because The Prince of Egypt and Exodus: Gods and Kings more or less finish after the Red Sea). The scene where Moses receives the Ten Commandments is hugely reminiscent of DeMille. Tongues of fire engrave the rock with the words of the Decalogue - indeed a flaming hand stretches out to touch the rock as the first words are inscribed - and all ten are read out in full. One difference, however, is the way the giving of the different commandments here is inter-cut, perhaps interrupted, by scenes of the people worshipping the golden calf. DeMille's film maintained the purity of the moment. Here following God is contested, an ongoing battle.

    Indeed once Moses returns and orders those 'faithful' to God to rally round, the film then starts to return to the footage of Joshua at the start. The Joshua footage is interspersed with that of Levites surreptitiously killing those who had not sided with Moses; of the people walking purposefully across the desert; and the 120 year old Moses writing a few final words 8. The words Joshua speaks become more clearly recognisable as those from the first and last chapters of the Book of Joshua, "Are we going to submit to God or our own pride?" he shouts fiercely, daring anyone to defy him.  The film increasingly resembles Braveheart (1995) as it draws to a close with the words "Now is the time to conquer what is ours", seemingly regurgitating the words from Macedo's book.

    As treatments of the Book of Exodus go I enjoyed this one more than I expected. The lighting and the attempts to blend actors into CGI scenes occasionally let it down, and I must admit that I'm not a fan of the multiple slow-motion montages that recur throughout the film. Nevertheless, for those who know the story it gives a reasonably coherent version of events, even if the characterisation is a little flat in places. This is somewhat ironic as the telenovela is largely based on building back stories for all the characters. Where this lets the film down is in the portrayal of the Egyptians. It's not unusual for a Moses film not to sympathise with them, but the scene of the bodies of hundreds of soldiers floating face down in the Red Sea passes without comment, despite being such an arresting image. Perhaps it could be argued that this tones down the text of the Bible, where Miriam sings a whole song celebrating the way in which "Horse and rider have been thrown into the sea" (Ex 15:21). Where this becomes problematic is the way in which the film's validation of Joshua seems to align with Macedo equating his non-Evangelical countrymen with the Egyptians. Sadly, the film's dehumanisation of them (not to mention of the non-faithful Hebrews) casts a shadow across an otherwise interesting project.

    1 - IMDb. Other sources cite 150 or 176 episodes.
    2 - http://cinema.uol.com.br/noticias/redacao/2016/01/28/os-dez-mandamentos-estreia-com-lugares-vagos-em-sessoes-esgotadas.htm - Retrieved from web.archive.org
    3 - According to Brazilian Film database Filme B. This is roughly $20 million.
    4 - Cited and translated in Zaitchik, Alexander  and Christopher Lord (2019) "How a Demon-Slaying Pentecostal Billionnaire is Ushering in a Post-Catholic Brazil" in The New Republic, Feb 7. Available online: https://newrepublic.com/article/153083/demon-slaying-pentecostal-billionaire-ushering-post-catholic-brazil.
    5 - I find no direct traces to DeMille's original The Ten Commandments (1923) and, of course, one of the other screen adaptations of the Moses story might also have exerted some kind on influence on the filmmakers.
    6 - In the "making-of" DVD the filmmakers refer to the 600,000 men referred to in Exodus 12:37 (and they stress that this is not counting the women and children).
    7 - This is how the credits to the 1956 film spell his name. The credits for this film use Ramsés, so I have anglicised this as Ramesses (as per Wikipedia and my own natural inclination towards Ramsees). Others uses Ramses. Exodus: Gods and Kings uses "Rhamses".
    8 - Earlier we see him writing Genesis and the beginning of Exodus.

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