• Bible Films Blog

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

    Matt Page


    Tuesday, October 31, 2006

    Nativity News vol.13

    Queen Spoo has the latest on the abundance of outreach tools that are being churned out as marketing material, er, material to help Christians engage with the film, as well as a number of youth resources. The most interesting thing here is the list of free, pastor screenings organised by Grace Hill Media as follows:
    * November 2 — Nashville, TN
    * November 2 — Oklahoma City, OK
    * November 2 — Albuquerque, NM
    * November 5 — San Antonia, TX
    * November 6 — Portland, OR
    * November 6 — Charlotte, NC
    I've no idea whether there will be similar screenings in the UK. I'm hoping to find out in the next few days.

    One thing that did catch my eye is the Youthlink session on unplanned pregnancy. From the title I thought it was going to be a fairly bold youth session that used the film as a springboard to discuss the issue of unwanted teenage pregnancy which, as much as many try to deny it, is fairly prevalent at the moment. Sadly no, it's just another look at the material encouraging youth groups to look at the story through Mary's eyes. This is good as far as it goes, but I can't help but wonder which is the more likely scenario for the average church youth group member to find themself in.

    My Nativity Story Central Page has links to all the other posts I've made on the film.

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    Solomon (1997) Scene Analysis

    I reviewed Roger Young's Solomon (1997) last week, so here is the corresponding scene analysis. The film is a fairly comprehensive treatment as it starts before Solomon becomes King (1 Kings 1), and continues on to after his death and the reign of his successor. Since only Solomon's birth is mentioned in 2 Samuel, film covers pretty much all of the historical accounts about Solomon. It also interweaves the narrative of his life with quotes from the three books of wisdom associated with him - Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs.
    Part 1
    [extra-biblical episode(s)]
    Adonijah plans to become king - (1 Ki 1:5-8)
    Abishag selected - (1 Ki 1:1-4)
    [extra-biblical episode(s)]
    Bathsheba informs David - (1 Ki 1:9-35)
    Solomon anointed king - (1 Ki 1:38-53)
    David crowns Solomon - (1 Ki 2:1-9, 1Ch 28:1-21)
    [extra-biblical episode(s)]
    Death of David - (1 Ki 2:10-12)
    [extra-biblical episode(s)]
    Adonijah and Abishag - (1 Ki 2:13-22)
    Deaths of Adonijah - (1 Ki 2:23-25)
    Joab Takes sanctuary - (1 Ki 2:28-34)
    Solomon asks for Wisdom - (1 Ki 3:4-15)
    [10 years later]
    Solomon sets up tribes - (1 Ki 4:7)
    Solomon marries Pharoah's daughter - (1 Ki 3:1)
    Solomon's many wives - (1 Ki 11:1)
    2 women and a baby - (1 Ki 3:16-28)

    Part 2
    Solomon builds the temple - (1 Ki 5:1-6:38, 11:28)
    Dedication of the temple - (1 Ki 8:1-9)
    God appears to Solomon again - (1 Ki 9:1-9)
    Queen of Sheba - (1 Ki 10:1-13)
    [extra-biblical episode(s)]
    Various proverbs - (Pr 6:6; 30:25, Pr 1:7, Pr 7:2, Pr 22:6, Pr 12:1, Pr 11:12, Pr 12:10, Pr 15:1, Pr 17:14, Pr 17:27-28, Pr 6:16-19)
    Sheba's acclamation - (1 Ki 10:6-7)
    [extra-biblical episode(s)]
    Song of Solomon - (SoS 1:2)
    [extra-biblical episode(s)]
    Quotes from Ecclesiates - (Ec 2:8, Ec 1:8-9, Ec 1:13, Ec 1:18, Ec 2:1-26, Ec 3:20, Ec 3:1-22, Ec 8:14-17, Ec 3:11, Ec 6:11, Ec 9:11, Ec 12:1-8)
    Solomon's offering to Ashtoreth - (1 Ki 11:1-6)
    God rejects Solomon - (1 Ki 11:9-13)
    Jeroboam's Rebellion - (1 Ki 11:29-39)
    Solomon tries to kill Jeroboam - (1 Ki 11:40)
    Solomon's death - (1 Ki 11:41-43)
    Israel Rebels Against Rehoboam - (1 Ki 12:1-17)
    As noted above, the screenplay for this film incorporates phrases from three of the books commonly attributed to Solomon. These fall into three self contained sections. The first covering a variety of Proverbs, the second is a single quote from Song of Songs/ Song of Solomon, and the final section is an abridged summary of Ecclesiastes. There are a number of points to make here.

    Firstly, is this self containment neat or lazy? On the one hand it certainly was a lot easier to write this scene analysis than it will be to write one for Peter and Paul. One the other hand it seems unlikely that Solomon would deliver these proverbs in the public, but ad hoc manner he does here.

    This links nicely to my second point - what does this film consider the relationship between the finished books we have and the king who is routinely associated with them? Most scholars would consider it unlikely that he was the author of the final versions of these books as we have them, but would consider them to be at least derived from him in some way. The film cleverly lands in fairly neutral territory in this regard. These works have clearly been associated with Solomon, and he delivers them in semi-formal fashion. Yet, at the same time, they are far from being the finished product. The words used resemble the biblical text closely enough to suggest that perhaps someone wrote them down at a later stage, or that Solomon himself had them memorised and was able to recite them to a scribe/write them down himself at a later date.

    Thirdly, the abridged summary of Ecclesiastes is very neat, and incorporates much of the book, particularly its order and most famous passages, and flows very smoothly. Ben Cross's acting here also makes this scene very effectively. It would certainly form a nice video clip for a bible study group looking at Ecclesiastes. The same could be said for the passage from Song of Songs.

    Finally, whilst the film does very well at depicting Solomon's fall from grace as a gradual process, there is no doubt that the break-up with the Queen of Sheba is displayed as the most significant. It is this event that prompts the words of Ecclesiastes, and sees a significant rift occur between him and his council. This is underlined by the length of time given to this episode (which takes just one chapter in the bible).

    It is always telling with a biblical film how they distribute their screen time. The comparison is made simpler by films such as these which divide into two parts. The material depicted here covers approximately twelve chapters from 1 Kings. Yet the halfway point occurs after only the first few chapters. The chapters where Solomon builds the temple are passed over fairly swiftly, before the film then spends quite some time on the romance between Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (Ch. 10). Admittedly this section is also inflated as this is where the wisdom quotations occur. The film also spends sometime examining the lesser known events of chapters 11 and 12, which is most welcome.

    A couple of further observations. Firstly, the dedication of the temple scene is played down somewhat. In Kings, this dedication is accompanied by a major blood sacrifice ("so many sheep and cattle that they could not be recorded or counted" 8:5), and God responds by filling the temple with a cloud (symbolic of his glory). Here there are neither, although a bolt of lightning does strike as the doors are shut.

    It's also interesting that whilst this is one of the more honest accounts of these events one thing is still glossed over. The role of Abishag here is changed into some form of herbalist, rather than her somewhat more bizarre role as a human hot water bottle in 1 Kings 1:1-4. Whilst the text is clear that "the king had no intimate relations with her", she certainly went into his bed.

    One final alteration to note. In scripture, the arrival of the Queen of Sheba is the next major event after the dedication of the temple, suggesting that the visit is triggered by the dedication (see for example 1 Kings 8:41-43). Solomon's wisdom is in building this temple rather than the case of the 2 women and the baby (what would have happened if neither woman had reacted, or if both had?)

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    Friday, October 27, 2006

    First Few Reviews for Color of the Cross

    I've not yet received a screener for Color of the Cross, and, given today is its opening day, I'm not particularly sure that I will. The first couple of reviews are in though, and they don't sound all that positive. Rotten Tomatoes interprets Stephen Hunter's brief review in The Washington Post as "fresh", but it's really much 50/50:
    This feels like a cramped, TV-style retelling, with small groups of people, no special effects, in some ways almost cheesy.
    This Christ bleeds profusely, but the dramatic impact from the truncating of the story is to make the issue of color more paramount. The image cannot be forgotten, and it matches, in its way, with troubled recollections of lynching photos all of us have seen.
    On the other hand, Variety reviewer Todd McCarthy just plain lays into it.
    But once the revisionist frisson of a black Jesus, not to mention Mary, Joseph and Judas, has worn off, one is stuck with more mundane matters such as story dynamics, visual style and character verisimilitude, much to the misfortune of the audience. Even at a brief 81 minutes (before end credits), this is lugubrious stuff, as LaMarre wearisomely elaborates on the assorted uncertainties of that fateful night;


    But lacking the drama of Jesus' trial and the passion, as well as the substance of his teachings, LaMarre's turgid take has very little to offer dramatically or inspirationally. Except for an unusual late-on sequence in which his Jesus becomes virtually hysterical with fear about dying, the helmer's leading performance is marked by monotonously deliberate elocution.

    Shot around Santa Clarita in rugged terrain north of Los Angeles, the pic consists mostly of close-ups that make no use of natural backdrops, but can't disguise the minimal production values; "crowd" scenes are particularly threadbare and unconvincing. The mostly synthesized score drones on and on under most scenes.

    Given this film is only getting a limited release today (before a wider release on Nov. 10th), and that it's still the middle of the night in the US then I suspect a few more reviews will get added in the next few hours. I'll post them here rather than starting a new post every time.

    Meanwhile various bloggers have reported the film's release without much in the way of film analysis. Some seem to love the concept, others hate it. Most notably, Dan Granados has added speech bubbles to the still at the top of the page

    I've posted a few more reviews of this film here


    Ten Commandments (2006) DVD release

    I had totally missed this piece of new but the ABC TV mini series Ten Commandments, which was first broadcast at Easter this year was released on DVD in September.

    I reviewed the film back then, as well as doing some scene analysis for both part 1 and part 2.

    (Thanks to Tyler Williams for spotting this one)

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    Thursday, October 26, 2006

    Solomon (1997)

    Solomon has always seemed a strange choice of biblical hero. In fact, it’s questionable whether he is a hero at all. Inheriting a large, politically secure kingdom, and in possession of a God given gift of wisdom, he does little more than solve a tricky dispute, build a temple, and impress the queen of Sheba. One could argue for his contribution to literature, but it’s unclear to most scholars exactly how much he had to do with the wisdom books which bear his name. Conversely, his building projects bankrupted the nation’s goodwill, whilst his marrying 700 wives left him spiritually desolate (presumably someone else planned all the weddings).

    It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that there are relatively few films about Israel’s most enigmatic monarch. There’s a collection of early silents of course, plus one or two other minor films such as the one made for the Greatest Heroes of the Bible series, but, for years, King Vidor’s Solomon and Sheba (1959) was the only major film treatment of the story.

    Thankfully, the Bible Collection did decide it was worth covering, and overall they have far outstripped Vidor’s film (which was little more than an orgy scene padded out with a trite storyline).

    Perhaps the major reason for the film’s success is the quality of the acting.
    This has been uneven across the Bible Collection as a whole. Whilst the series has used many well-known actors, these have generally been supported by relative unknowns. Rarely have these unknowns performed as well as they do here. Richard Dillane, Ivan Kaye, and Dexter Fletcher – all with only a handful to TV work to their names at the time of filming – are all impressive in the roles of Jeroboam, Adonijah and Rehoboam. Dillane is particularly good as Jeroboam who rises from labourer to Solomon’s closet confidant, and ultimately his successor.

    The title role is played by Ben Cross, best known for his portrayal of another Jewish hero, sprinter Harold Abrahams in Chariots of Fire (1981).
    Whilst, in real life, it is Abrahams’ counterpart, Eric Liddell, who is best remembered, it is actually Cross’s performance that makes the film so memorable. His burning intensity typifies the drive required of champion sprinters, and his smouldering, glowering stares manage, paradoxically, to leave the viewer both convinced that Abrahams will win whilst fearing that, somehow, he won’t.

    Cross’s portrayal here is similarly complex, perfectly capturing a king famed for his wisdom, but crippled by his folly; loved for his vision, but blinded by love. His first few steps are uncertain, but he quickly finds his stride – the transformation is subtle yet utterly convincing. Later on, Solomon drifts away from his God, but the deterioration is depicted so gradually that it is impossible to work out where is really started to go wrong. At one point, Cross’s Solomon is so charismatic that it almost threatens to undo the logic of the narrative. He makes his case for religious tolerance so convincingly, that any social commentary intended by the filmmakers falls by the wayside.

    But the film has many other strengths besides its acting. Roger Young has been at the helm for a number of The Bible Collection's best efforts including Moses and Jesus, and his direction is generally good here as well. For example, by placing less reliance on dialogue than looks and mannerisms, the Solomon-Queen of Sheba sub-plot is realised far more convincingly than the extra-biblical romances in many of the other Bible Collection films. At the same time, it is let down by being a little overlong. Whilst this was no doubt to emphasise the pivotal nature of this relationship, that is made quite clear by the following scenes, and the two together tend to hammer home the point a little too much.

    What is surprising about these scenes is that they almost entirely eschew quotations from Song of Solomon, in favour of crass, but epic-sounding, dialogue such as "she is my missing arm. No, she is my entire body". Only one line from Song of Solomon stood out - "how much better are your kisses than wine?" Elsewhere, however, the film does a generally good job of incorporating Solomon’s writings into the narrative, thanks to Bradley T. Winter's strong script. The scene following Sheba’s departure, where Solomon recites several portions of the book of Ecclesiastes is particularly effective. There is also a fairly generous helping of proverbs. Thus the film links Solomon to his writings in the following order - Proverbs, Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes - in contrast to Song of Solomon, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes which many favour. But then the Bible Collection series has always been good at taking an alternative look at things, and thankfully on this occasion this strength is more than matched by the strength of the film as a whole.

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    Tuesday, October 24, 2006

    Color of the Cross Interview

    Color of the Cross opens this Friday, and Mark Goodacre has discovered an interview with its exec. producer, director and star Jean Claude LaMarre, who made the film with £2.5 million of his own money. The full article is available at metromix (part of the Chicago Tribune), and goes into some depth. Here are a couple of interesting excerpts
    If Christianity's symbol of all that is good -- Jesus of Nazareth -- is white, what does that imply about black people?

    His movie, LaMarre says, was designed as a refutation of that moral equation. His disciples sit down to a last supper that's a multicultural feast shared by African-American, white, Jewish and Christian actors. On the cross, LaMarre's Jesus cries out to God in Hebrew. Other characters deliver their lines with a roly-poly inflection that, for some viewers, will spark memories of Yiddish-speaking grandparents.
    I think this will be one of the most interesting aspects of the film, and the one that's hardest to work out from all the publicity surrounding this film; how will it handle the race issue? Will it insist Jesus was black, and portray other races (such as white people) as the villains, or will it present a multicultural vision with Jesus having both black and white followers?

    Later on it says this:
    LaMarre chose to center his script on the Thursday of Holy Week. He says that the biblical narrative of what transpired on that day prior to Jesus' capture is tantalizingly thin, allowing LaMarre free rein for his imaginative powers. The resulting script emphasizes the social and political setting of Jesus' ministry.


    Frustrated by the pacifism of Jesus, whose preaching focused on the world to come, Judas becomes estranged, leading him down the road to betraying his master. LaMarre's script is also driven by a love triangle. Judas has a thing for Mary Magdalene, who won't give him the time of day.
    These are two interesting plot details. The article acknowledges that this storyline is used in DeMille's The King of Kings (1927), but of course it's used in a number of other films including Mary Magdalene (1914) and Jesus Christ, Superstar (1973). Judas being a zealot who becomes disillusioned with Jesus's pacifism is also a fairly common version of events.

    What is interesting is that the film focuses on Maundy Thursday. I'm unaware of any film that has done this before, and it certainly whets my appetite for it. It's always nice to see something unusual in this genre. Hopefully though it will, like The Passion, also include a few flashbacks, or similar device so we get to see some of Jesus's teaching. Some of the beatitudes would become very interesting spoken by a black Jesus.


    Nativity Movies

    (A significantly revised and expanded version of this list can now be seen here.)

    With Catherine Harwicke's The Nativity Story coming soon, I've been thinking of looking at portrayals of that story over the years and a conversation with a friend recently spurred me into action.

    Whilst I think that, overall, films about Jesus's life have got the balance between his birth and the rest of his life about right, I'm surprised at how little the story has been filmed as a self-contained story. All films form the bible are stories within a big story, and this gives film-makers unusual liberty as to when and where to begin and end their narratives. For example, the recent One Night With the King starts with an event outside the story it is portraying, but this works because it's all part of a broader narrative. The story of Jesus's life is in fact a number of self-contained stories, hence why Mel Gibson can film the story of his death, just on its own. In fact Gibson adds on the story of the resurrection, so he too ends the film with part of a different story.

    Of course, in this sense the nativity story is a story in its own right as well as a part of the story of the life of Jesus, and the bible story as a whole. Given the huge significance of this story to our wider culture - it's the basis for our society's largest festival/celebration - it's surprising, that the story has been filmed so infrequently in it's own right, rather than as the prologue to the story of Jesus's life. This hasn't always been the case as the list below demonstrates:
    1908 - Edison - The star of Bethlehem - 10 mins - B/W
    1909 - France - The Birth of Jesus - short - hand tinted colour
    1910 - France - La Nativité - short - B&W
    1910 - France - Gaumont - Herod and the Newborn King - B&W
    1912 - US-Thanhouser - The Star of Bethlehem - 3 reeler - B&W
    1913 - US-Selig - The Three Wise Men - 1000 ft - B&W
    1914 - US - Edison - The Birth of our Saviour - 1000ft - B&W
    1921 - Germany - Der Stern von Bethlehem - B&W
    1950 - US-NBC TV - A Child is Born - 30 mins - B/W
    1956 - GB - The Star of Bethlehem - 90 mins (remake of the above)
    1960 - Italy - Herod the Great - 93 mins - colour
    1969 - Czechoslovakia - Hvezda Betlemska (The Star of Bethlehem) - 10 mins - animated colour.
    1978 - US-short - The Small One - 20 mins - colour
    1978 - US-TV - The Nativity - 98 mins - colour
    1979 - Ca-TV - Mary and Joseph: A Story of Faith - 152 mins - colour
    1982 - Italy - Cammina, Cammina (Keep on Walking) - 171 mins - colour
    1985 - France - Je Vous Salue, Marie (Hail Mary) - 97 mins - colour
    1989 - Italy-TV - Un Bambino di nome Gesù (A Child Called) Jesus - colour
    2001 - Italy-TV - Close to Jesus: Joseph of Nazareth - 90 mins - colour
    This list excludes recent cartoon treatments, and also films where the nativity story is only a part of the main story. I was tempted to include Mary, The Mother of Jesus, but whilst about half of that film includes the nativity, really it's a film about Mary's life, rather than just the nativity. For the record it was made in the USA in 1999, and was 88 minutes long.

    So all in all there are 18 films about the nativity. Incredibly, seven of those appear in as many years, in the mid-silent period (1908 to 1914). Since the advent of sound at least half of the remaining films have been made for TV, and only 2 have been made in the US, 1 in Canada, and the rest have come from Europe.

    I have actually seen precious few of these films, partly because they are usually so full of Christmas card tradition it's hard to take all the gloss and piety seriously. The sole exception is Jean Luc Goddard's Hail Mary. I do own a copy of Joseph of Nazareth and so I will be reviewing that within the next month or so. The one I would most like to see is Ermmano Olmi's Cammina, Cammina. I very much enjoyed his version of Genesis, and so would be keen to see his treatment of this one as well. (Edit: Now I have)

    I wrote a few more comments on a selection of these films back when I first heard the news about The Nativity Story.

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    Monday, October 23, 2006

    Nativity News vol.12

    It's probably about time to give a couple of updates on The Nativity Story.

    Firstly, a few more details have been released about some of the books that are being released to tie in with the film. As I mentioned in the last bulletin, Pauline Press are amongst the companies releasing books related to the film. (Pauline Press are a Catholic organisation, seeking to "proclaim Christ in a media world"). They are releasing two books, "The Nativity Story: A Film Study Guide for Catholics", by Rose Pacatte, and "The Nativity Story: Contemplating Mary’s Journeys of Faith", edited by the same. Here are the blurbs for the two films:
    The Nativity Story invites us to explore our faith and to listen for God’s Word in our daily lives, and this film study guide is a wonderful roadmap for the journey. Complete with sections for personal study, for group study, and for whole community catechesis, "The Nativity Story: A Film Study Guide for Catholics" is a practical guide for delving prayerfully into the mystery of our Savior’s birth.

    • Personal study includes questions on Scripture passages and the movie.
    • Group study features questions focusing on themes including: Journeying; Seeking; Prayer; Values and Virtues; and Story and Symbols.
    • Works as a springboard for weekly gatherings from the first Sunday of Advent through Epiphany, including questions that integrate the weekly Gospel reading and the movie.
    It's also keen to stress that the study guide will be useful for both children and adults. The book also contains a few photos from the film, which isn't bad for a 32 page pamphlet at a cost of on $5. The second book is a little more meaty at 160 pages (and a cost of $17)
    Although she is the Mother of God, Mary was a woman who experienced the full range of human emotions: amazement and confusion, fear and exhaustion, tenderness and wonder, tranquility and joy. In this inspiring book, contemporary women ponder Mary’s journeys—both spiritual and physical—and contemplate her growth as a person, a woman, a wife, a mother, a child of God.

    Each of these authors has made a journey of faith that has been enriched or guided by Mary’s example, and they show us how—through our roles and women and men, daughters and sons, wives and husbands, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, professionals and religious—we can find in Mary both a role model and source of insight and encouragement for our own "journeys of faith."
    Both books are released next month (November 1st according to Amazon) and will be available direct form the Pauline store.

    Secondly, Queen Spoo has news that whilst those attending Heartland Film Festival will get to see a few clips of the movie, those keen to see the whole thing, will have to wait until the 9th November when the whole film will be screened at the National Outreach Convention. Screenplay author Mike Rich will be "speaking to the NOC attendees giving insights into the outreach opportunity that the film presents, as well as fascinating, "behind the scenes" stories from the movie and it's[sic] production." There are also rumours of advance screenings for church leaders, journalists etc., although I'm yet to be invited to one myself.

    Finally, Queen Spoo has also noticed that the film's official website is saying the film has been classified as a PG (in the US at least). I can't say that's a big surprise. The film-makers have been keen to stress the family nature of this film from the start. Whilst Jeffrey Overstreet will no doubt be disappointed that the slaughter of the innocents will therefore lack realism, I'm not sure that holds true. Son of Man shot the violence of that scene at a distance, yet it was one of the most chilling treatments of the story I can recall.

    The scene I'm most interested in, in respect of realism, is the actual birth itself. Having recently been through that experience in real life, very few films of any kind have really given it any kind of realism. Even the recent Children of Men which shows the birth, from the, business end (so to speak - I assume this was CGI!) still don't really capture it.

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    Friday, October 20, 2006

    One Night with the King – Scene Analysis

    One Night with the King has been out for a week now, so, having already reviewed the film, I thought it was about time I did a comparison between it and the biblical text. First however, there are tons of reviews for the film, so I’d just like to highlight a few of the ones I’ve appreciated. Steven D Greydanus (Decent Films), G.M.Gretna (LMLK Blog), and Russ Breimeier, (Christianity Today). CT’s Film Forum also summarises 9 other reviews (including mine). If you’re wanting a full range of reviews, then I suggest you check out Rotten Tomatoes where, sadly, the film currently has only scored 19% on the tomatometer.

    Since I’m doing this scene analysis so soon after the release date, I should stress that it will contain SPOILERS throughout, and is really aimed at those who have already seen the movie. If you haven’t I suggest you stick with my review for now. The episodes work out as follows:
    Saul's disobedience - (1 Sam 15)
    [Extra-Biblical Episode(s)]
    Haman's ancestry - (Esther 3:1)
    [Extra-Biblical Episode(s)]
    Vashti refuses to attend - (Esther 1:1-22)
    Hadassah to Esther - (Esther 2:10)
    Esther Seized - (Esther 2:1-8)
    [Extra-Biblical Episode(s)]
    Esther gains Hegai's favour - (Esther 2:9)
    Esther's preparation - (Esther 2:12-14)
    [Extra-Biblical Episode(s)]
    Esther takes Hegai's suggestion - (Esther 2:15)
    [Extra-Biblical Episode(s)]
    Story of Jacob and Rachel - (Gen 29:9-20, )
    [Extra-Biblical Episode(s)]
    Esther chosen - (Esther 2:16-18)
    Mordecai uncovers a plot to kill the king - (Esther 2:19-23)
    [Extra-Biblical Episode(s)]
    Haman plan to kill the Jews - (Esther 3:7-15)
    [Extra-Biblical Episode(s)]
    Esther and Mordecai hear of Haman's plot - (Esther 4:1-10)
    Reading of - (Is 40)
    Mordecai refuses to bow - (Esther 3:1-6/5:9)
    Mordecai honoured - (Esther 6:1-14)
    Mordecai persuades Esther - (Esther 4:11-17)
    Esther's request - (Esther 5:1-8)
    Haman's plot revealed - (Esther 7:1-10)
    Xerses' edict for the Jews - (Esther 8:1-17)
    Mordecai initiates Purim - (Esther 9:18-32)
    The film contains almost all of the episodes recorded in the biblical book of Esther although it compresses some, and greatly expands others. Consider for example the events of Chapter 2. These form only a tenth of the book, but almost half of the film. This means that there us a clear emphasis on the romance aspect of the story. Yet, the romantic aspect of the story may be entirely fictional. We are told Esther is attractive (Est. 2:7), and more attractive to Xerses than the others (2:17) but this alone is not sufficient evidence to support a 21st century notion of romantic love.

    The episodes the film leaves out are significant. The most notable omission is the first half of chapter 9 where Esther asks Xerses for a second day for the Jews to defeat their enemies, leading to 75,000 deaths. The film implies that (nearly) all of the enemies of the Jews are dissuaded from attacking them, whereas this was not the case. Esther’s second banquet is also excluded presumably to simplify the story and make it flow better as a film.

    The order of the events is also changed. In the biblical text Haman initially just wants to kill Mordecai, because of his refusal to bow before him. It is only once he realises that Mordecai is a Jew that he decides to kill them all. Whilst this suggests anti-Semtism in Haman prior to this incident, it also suggests that he was not primarily motivated by his purported Amalekite ancestry.

    There is also a large amount of material added to this story, and particularly the first two-thirds intersperse one biblical episode with one or more extra-biblical incidents. This allows for a heavy degree of interpretation, but it also applies historical background, rounds out the various sub-plots and fleshes out some of the minor characters. It also cleverly weaves the minor figures from the book into larger roles, so Admatha, Memucan (both ch.1) and Hathach (Ch.4) have their roles expanded, and Esther’s reliance on Hathach is put down to their friendship before they were seized. It’s all speculation of course, but is artistically valid even if it is not historically sound.

    Finally, the film contains a number of other biblical references. The most obvious is the inclusion of the story of Saul sparing Agag (1 Sam 15), which features the much-vaunted cameo by Peter O-Toole. The inclusion of the story of Jacob and Rachel (Gen 29) is also fairly memorable. More obscure and, thus, less noticeable passages are also included. When first confronted with the news about Haman’s plot, Mordecai recites Isaiah 40, which, curiously, is chosen instead of the Deuterocannonical prayer of Mordecai. Another citation from elsewhere in the bible is the oft-repeated line from Proverbs 25:2: "It is the glory of God to conceal a thing; but the honour of kings is to search out a matter". There is also a reference to Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, (Dan 3), as well as references to the events leading up to the exile and the fact that some Jews have returned.

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    Thursday, October 19, 2006

    Rossellini Retrospective - Atti and Il Messia

    Ron Reed has news of a Rossellini Retrospective to celebrate the directors centenary which will be visiting a number of major cities. First up is the Cinematheque Ontario which will be showing the retrospective from October 20th to December 10th. It will also be coming to MOMA (New York - November 15 - December 22), Toronto, with London and Los Angeles to follow in 2007.

    Rossellini made numerous great films, many of which are praised for their spirituality, despite the fact he declared himself to be "a complete atheist"1. I've only sampled a few so far, (Roma Città Aperta (Rome Open City), Francesco, Guillare Di Dio (Francis, God's Jester) and Il Messia) but all are firm favourites. Three of his films made the Arts and Faith top 100 (Open City, St Francis, and Stromboli).

    There are two films in the retrospective that specifically deal with stories from the bible. The first is Atti Degli Apostoli (Acts of the Apostles - 1968), which I discussed briefly in last months post on the Jerusalem Council. I've actually never seen this, so I'm hotly anticipating seeing this, although at 6 hours I may need to take a cushion.

    The other is Il Messia, which I have seen several times, and included in my Top Ten List of Jesus films. I like this film a great deal, partly because, like Pasolini's Matthew, the neo-realist touches give the feel a very natural, low key feel. It's also the only film I'm aware of that shows Jesus continuing to work (as a carpenter) after his mission begins. This was actually Roberto Rosellini's last film, and so, sadly, it is not discussed in the sole book I have on Rossellini,"Roberto Rosellini" by José Luis Guarner.

    I imagine that nearer the time the other cinemas involved in this retrospective will post their own details, although Cinematheque Ontario's site is very impressive. Hugo Salas has also written a nice summary of the director's work at Senses of Cinema, as has the BBC's Chris Wiegand.

    1 - Essay on Rossellini Retrospective at Cinematheque Ontario

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    A Couple of Relevant Obituaries - Barr and Huillet

    I've heard the sad news of the deaths of two people relevant to readers of this blog.

    Firstly, the death of James Barr has been widely reported amongst the biblioblogging community. He was 82. I have only read one of his books, "The Scope and Authority of the Bible", (the edition with a still from The Ten Commandments on the front), but it was one of those books which succinctly sums up the things that are intangibly somewhere in your mind, and moves you on to the next level. It was far from his most rigorously academic work, nor his most influential ("The Semantics of Biblical Language" in most people's estimation).

    There are a number of obituaries floating around. I would recommend those by The Times and Tyler Williams.

    Secondly, Doug Cummings's Film Journey has the news that Danièle Huillet has also died. Huillet nearly always worked in partnership with her husband Jean Marie Straub, and whilst not a well known name in general cinema terms were well respected within the more art-focussed film circles. Their ultra-formal, austere cinema was far from easy to watch, but had so much to say. As far as I'm aware they made only one film related to the bible, and adaptation of Arnold Schoenberg's Moses und Aron in 1974. It's a film that has a lot to say, but it totally off the map of most bible films. I only wish I had a better grasp of what it's about.

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    Wednesday, October 18, 2006

    Son of Man at London Film Festival

    Having recently played at the Vancouver International Film Festival, (amongst others), Jezile (Son of Man) is due to play at the London International Film Festival twice in the next week or so. There are two performances lined up. The first is a 3:30pm showing at the Odeon West End on the 21st October. The film will then be repeated in a 9pm showing at Ritzy on the 26th.

    Sandra Hebron has written a nice review of the film on the festival's website. Here's a sample:
    The language is modern, as is the setting, a violent township in the fictional Kingdom of Judea, which could stand in for any African country which has experienced poverty, upheaval, political corruption and ethnic conflict. Little change is made to the basic tenets of The New Testament, and the updating is so successful that there is never a moment when it feels forced. The immaculate conception revealed during an attack on a school; a band of disciples including several women; a Messiah who preaches peace and calls for a handgun amnesty; Judas spying on Jesus with a video camera - all this and more is presented with such verve that we can't fail to be convinced. As in U-Carmen, music is integral to the film's powerful story telling, and once again the vocal talents of actress Pauline Malefane and the company chorus add greatly in richness and spirit.
    My own review is here, and I have also written a scene analysis.

    Tuesday, October 17, 2006

    Ron Reed's Top 5 Bible Films

    Back in April, Peter Chattaway posted his top ten Jesus films, as did I. (A few days later Entertainment Weekly caught onto the trend in time for Easter, and went 2 further with their top 12).

    Another of my bible-film-loving, Canadian friends, Ron Reed has, belatedly, joined in and posted his Top 5 over at his Soul Food blog. Ron's five are: Son of Man, The Passion of the Christ, Last Temptation of Christ, Jesus of Montreal and The Miracle Maker (links are to my reviews). It's a good list, and it's interesting that all 5 are from the last 18 years.

    Ron also mentions my podcast on Jesus of Nazareth, calling my British accent "plummy" (ha!).

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    Monday, October 16, 2006

    Jesus of Nazareth - 6hr Region 2 DVD Out Today

    I've mentioned the DVD release of Jesus of Nazareth a couple of times already, but thought I'd give a bit more detail on the release as today is the release day.

    As I've already noted this "special edition" comes in SteelbookTM packaging, which is a nice bonus - it looks a lot nicer than plastic, and lasts a lot longer than cardboard. There aren't many other extras. This, I believe, is not uncommon for TV series' from 30 years ago - there just isn't that much extra material available to use.

    The main menu is shown below, the two pictures to the right and left change, and the programme's title music plays as these pictures cycle. The episode/scene selection screen is also fairly nicely laid out, and lets you choose between episodes as well as between scenes.
    Finally, I got a question from my first post on this release regarding image quality, which, according to that poster, isn't too great on the existing region 1 release. I don't have anything to compare it by, but I'm pretty pleased with the quality. I've posted a couple of images from the film. If you click on them you'll get the biggest size image I was able to create, and it's in Bitmap format, which I believe is higher quality than the JPGs I usually post. This second one is a more blurred than it looks on screen, I'll try and see if I can get a better image when I have a bit more time.Finally, just a reminder that I reviewed this film for my first ever Jesus Films Podcast.

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    Elijah, A Fearless Prophet

    Having reviewed the Testament - Bible in Animation version of Elijah a couple of weeks ago, I wanted to have a look at 1958's Elijah, A Fearless Prophet.
    Introduction to Elijah & Ahab - (1 Kings 16:29-34)
    Elijah predicts drought - (1 Kings 17:1)
    Elijah and the Ravens - (1 Kings 17:2-6)
    Elijah and Widow of Zarephath - (1 Kings 17:7-24)
    Elijah and Prophets of Baal - (1 Kings 18:1-2, 16-40)
    End of the Drought - (1 Kings 18:45-46)
    Elijah on the mountain - (1 Kings 19:1-18)
    Elijah calls Elishah - (1 Kings 19:19-21)
    Elijah taken to Heaven - (2 Kings 2:1-14)
    The first thing to note is how similar the scene selection is to the Testament version. This is largely because the biblical material on Elijah is fairly small. But it is also noticeable that both exclude the incident with Obadiah, both exclude the incident where Elijah sends his servant to search for the clouds, both omit Elijah's marathon run ahead of Ahab's chariot, and both omit Fire from heaven burning two of Ahaziah's captains. Yet neither show Jezebel or Ahab's deaths (1 Kings 21-22, 2 Kings 9)

    These exclusions are fairly significant in two ways. Firstly, they give Elijah the human qualities that are so central to his character. Elijah's hopes for the ending of the drought as he yearns for even the smallest indicator of its end. Elijah's breakdown and his complaints in 1 Kings 19:4&10 that he is the only prophet of God left, should be seen in this context. Firstly, Obadiah has already told Elijah that he has saved many prophets. Secondly, Elijah hits this low, not only after a major spiritual confrontation, but also following a run from Carmel to Jezreel (which, I believe, is about 20 miles), following a sever drought. It's no surprise given the exhaustion Elijah must be feeling that he hits such a low, and is unable to see things clearly. By excluding these two incidents both films paint his breakdown in a fairly positive light, and indeed, in both scenes Elijah seems neither that shattered or particularly suicidal.

    Secondly, it exorcises the more troubling aspects of the story. The slaying of the prophets of Baal takes place off screen. The incident with Ahaziah's captains is excluded entirely. The grisly death of Ahab despite God's promise to avert the disaster he prophesied earlier. Even the notion of sending a slave/servant up and down a mountain numerous times is fairly offensive to modern sensibilities.

    One additional, minor, similarity is that both films keep the material in the same sequence as the biblical accounts, and truncate it at roughly the same point. That said this film does not include Elijah and Elishah parting the waters.

    In contrast to the Testament film, which used expressionist animation to potray the imposing nature of Ahab and Jezebel, this film downplays their significance. Whilst they are clearly still the prime "troublers of Israel", their appearances are fairly fleeting, and the amount of dialogue both speaks is significantly abridged from the biblical text. The concerns of this filmmaker is much more the person of Elijah, and his role in "fearlessly" following God and doing what he is told.

    Finally, this film really dwells on Elijah dousing the sacrifice on Mount Carmel with water. This is shown in the Testament version, but here it's shown in some detail. Strangely the sacrifice here is totally obliterated, along with the wood and the actual stone altar. Surprisingly, this is actually following the biblical text to the latter at this point.

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    Friday, October 13, 2006

    Medved Heaps Praise on One Night With the King

    A few more bits on One Night With The King.

    Firstly, Michael Medved is interviewed on the One Night With The King official website after he watched the film. He gushes with praise for it, at one stage calling it "the most pro-Jewish movie I’ve seen in many years".

    Elsewhere, Variety is similarly impressed, there's a mixed review at Las Vegas Weekly, and LA Weekly absolutely slates it saying it "plods across the screen with the thudding portent of an earnest Sunday-school lesson". Personally, I found the pacing to be pretty good, with the filmmakers eschewing the temptation to make it three hours just because it's an epic. That said, I would have preferred less emphasis on the love story and more on the closing chapters (which were kind of skipped by), but that's just personal taste.

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    One Night With The King - Review

    "There’s a temptingly simple definition of the epic film: it’s the easiest kind of picture to make badly." - Charlton Heston

    The challenges of creating an epic film are so demanding that most filmmakers have been put off before they have even started. The rise of CGI has made creating epics a little simpler for those with big budgets at their disposal, but without that amount of cash, few independent filmmakers have managed to create pictures that are truly epic in size, scale and scope as well as in story.

    Michael Sajbel’s One Night With the King, out today, is one such exception. Produced on a shoe string by Matthew Crouch, Richard J. Cook, and the screenplay’s writer Stephan Blinn, it’s a far better effort than anyone who watched their previous effort (The Omega Code) would have expected. This is one of the most visually impressive epics in years. Steven Bernstein’s lush cinematography captures the wonder of Jodhpur, India, and transforms it into a beautiful, distant world of long ago. The sweeping, exterior shots are truly awesome. So many bible films are made in Morocco and Italy at present that those locations have become synonymous with the Holy Land. But this story takes place elsewhere, in Persia, and by switching to a new location, the film captures the otherness of this strange land which would have been so different to the Jews who were first brought into exile there.

    The interior shots are no less impressive. Aradhana Seth’s production design, most notably the palace interiors are so vast and impressive they make DeMille’s The Ten Commandments look like a school play. Multitudes of extras inhabit both the interiors and exteriors filling these shots with a life and vitality that CGI struggles to replicate.

    Ultimately though, even the most impressive visuals in the world cannot compensate for poor acting, and it is here that the movie is a little uneven. Certainly the cast list features an array of impressive stars. One can't blame the publicity team for boasting about how their film reunites Omar Sharif and Peter O'Toole for the first time since Lawrence of Arabia. In the end though it's difficult to decide which is more surprising, that O'Toole's appearance is as short as it is, or that Sharif's is so prominent. As one would expect, Omar Sharif turns in a solid performance, as does John Rhys-Davies as Mordecai. But all this would be largely irrelevant were it not also for an impressive debut performance by Tiffany Dupont. With only television work, and one supporting film role to her credit she effortlessly makes the transition to a lead role.

    Sadly, the acting side of things is let down, badly, by poor performances by Luke Goss and Tommy "Tiny" Lister as Xerses and Hagai respectively. Goss is just plain awful. Unsure of his accent, and unconvincing both as a king, and as a lover he spoils almost every scene he features in.

    Lister, on the other hand, is perhaps less to blame for his problems. One of his biggest attribute is his fearsome size, and the producers have done him no favours by trying to cast him against type in an ultra-sensitive, beauty-treatment-loving, girl’s-best-friend type role. Lister may have been able to pull this off had the dialogue he was given not so patchy. "You think a eunuch cannot know love?" and so on. Throughout the film, the dialogue is inconsistent, often being unsure whether to speak in "epic" language, or to use more every day dialogue. At one point the script has Xerses cram both into the same sentence; "know you how many nights I spent counting the stars to take my mind off of you".

    The script is also at fault with the role of Haman. Whilst it cleverly and creatively links Haman, an Agagite, with King Agag, who Samuel slays in the opening act, it fails to flesh out the meaning of all this to him personally. Haman’s revenge becomes another of those long standing secret society affairs, and his character remains fairly one-dimensional. Ultimately, the bible finds some sympathy for him as he begs Esther for his life once his conspiracy is uncovered. But the film makes Haman’s pleas sarcastic, refusing to allow any ambiguity in the character lest the audience might find some sympathy for him, and question his execution. Haman remains, then, a one-dimensional villain, and the deep, throaty voice that James Callis utilises further renders this, somewhat ironically, as a shrill and shallow depiction.

    All in all, One Night With the King is a mixed affair, visually brilliant, and boasting some impressive acting and creative storytelling. For those points alone it certainly deserves to be seen, particularly on the big screen. Sadly, though, it also has its weaknesses. Whilst they are far from fatal they do detract from the undoubted quality of the film as a whole.

    UPDATE: I have now posted my scene analysis

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    Thursday, October 12, 2006

    Close to Jesus: Mary Magdalene

    There’s been so much going on this month, that I’ve been unable to do much reviewing here recently. However, as I have finally got hold of a copy of Abel Ferrara’s Mary (on DVD) then I thought I would start by reviewing the other recent film on the subject, Mary Magdalene from Time Life’s Close to Jesus series


    2006 has been a big year for films about Mary Magdalene. Although technically 2005 (by a whisker), Abel Ferrara’s Mary gained widespread acclaim early in the year as it played at film festivals before enjoying a limited run in theatres. Sadly it never got a proper release in the US and the UK and so few, in the English speaking world at least, have even heard of it. By contrast, the year’s other film about Mary was so hyped up that it was impossible to avoid. Based on a best-selling novel, The Da Vinci Code was always going to be a big deal. Whilst its glimpses of Mary Magdalene are fleeting, it is probably even more influential today, in terms of how people in the west view Mary Magdalene, than the bible.

    As Dan Brown would be keen to point out, history has not always been so kind to her. The earliest film about Mary was made in 1914 (Mary Magdalene). Although it is now lost, it appears that Mary was in love with Judas, but discovers Jesus and becomes his follower. In order to stay close to Mary, Judas also becomes his follower. Thirteen years later, Cecil B DeMille would use a similar plot device in his The King of Kings only in this instance Judas would follow Jesus first.

    Whilst Mary continued to be portrayed in the majority Jesus films, most portrayed her as a prostitute despite the lack of biblical and early Christian evidence for such a position. But apart from that she had the title role only twice more; in the Mexican film Mary Magdalene (1946), and in the Italian film Mary Magdalene (La Spade e la Croce - 1959) starring Yvonne De Carlo (who had played Sephora in The Ten Commandments).

    That is until Lux Vide decided to film four spin-offs from their Bible Collection series. The Close to Jesus series features fictional reconstructions of the lives of four of the more peripheral characters from the Gospels – Thomas, Joseph (of Nazareth), Judas, and Mary Magdalene. These four films effectively sever all ties with the earlier Bible Collection film Jesus. Whereas the role of Mary on that film was played by Will and Grace’s Debra Messing, here the role is taken by Maria Grazia Cucinotta. Likewise Jeremy Sisto has been replaced, by a Danny Quinn. Quinn’s portrayal is halfway between Sisto and Johnny Depp, and is arguably the weakest aspect of the film.

    There is another, important but subtle, distinction that needs to be made between the two films. Whilst there is much in Jesus that is interpretative or fictional, those aspects are based on the historical texts of the gospels. One may disagree with how they have interpreted or extrapolated those texts, but essentially they have tried to fill in the gaps to address modern concerns with a historical figure. Mary Magdalene is quite different in this regard. Not only is there insufficient material to use as a reasonable basis for extrapolation, but the film deliberately avoids the Mary of the gospels. So the biblical scenes which include Mary, her exorcism (Luke 8:2), and her presence at his death (Mark 15:40) and resurrection (John 20:1f) are entirely absent. This contrasts strongly with other made for TV films about these characters, such as 2004’s Judas which attempts to construct a credible series of events leading up to the moment that would assure them of their place in history.

    That is not to say the story here is entirely unwarranted. Whilst the exorcism scene is absent from this film, the minor details in the opening verses of Luke 8 are incorporated. Mary’s closest friends in this film are called Joanna and Susanna. This typifies the film’ approach – the focus is on Mary and her pre-conversion life, but it locates her at other places in the story where the gospels do not, most notably in the court of Herod. Interestingly, Joanna, here, is not the wife of Chuza, manager of Herod’s household, as in Luke’s gospel, (Luke’s inclusion of this detail suggests that she may have been the original source for the more private details of Herod’s dealings with John, such as Mark 6:20). But this detail - one of Jesus’s followers being intimately acquainted with aspects of Herod’s house – has been credited to Mary instead, which allows it to be explored more fully.

    Mary also witnesses various examples of Jesus’s teaching and miracles, in a variety of locations, and the film treats these incidents with varying degrees of respect. For example at times Mary is simply the witness to a piece of teaching or of a miracle. It happens more or less as the gospels record, although obviously interpreted on a visual level. Yet at others Mary’s presence is more intrusive. When, early on in the story, Mary attempts to drown herself she is saved by Peter’s nets as he makes his miraculous catch of fish. Whilst it’s perhaps a playful literalisation of Jesus’s promise to make him a fisher of men, you cannot imagine the gospel writers leaving it out had it truly occurred.

    Such intrusions are rare. What this film does do well is put the emphasis on Jesus’s original audience. In most Jesus films, Jesus is the main character. The very nature of having 12 disciples means that few of them get any real screen time, and too much exploration of their histories would disturb the flow of the narrative. An alternative approach is that taken by the fifties biblical epics which focussed on characters who lives were changed by Jesus. In most cases, however, these characters were changed by Jesus’ actions (particularly his sacrificial death) rather than his teaching. The one exception here is Salome (1953) a revisionist version of the deatjh of John the Baptist which ultimately shows the eponymous heroine being changed by Jesus’s words, and climaxes in the Sermon on the Mount.

    Here, however, Jesus get a far greater screen time than in those fifties films (plus we get to see his face), but the focus of the film is clearly on one specific member of his audience. This allows the viewer to more readily adopt the position of Jesus’s original audience, and understand some of the exegetical subtleties involved through this fresh angle. For example, Mary’s hitherto idyllic life is brought to an abrupt end in the opening moments of the film when her husband gives her a divorce simply because she is barren. This draws attention to the fact that this was permissible at the time (although certainly under review), whilst also preparing the ground for Jesus’s teaching on it, rooted in equality, and limiting its acceptability. But, Jesus’s call to love your enemies fails to have any initial impact on an embittered and vengeful Mary.

    This aspect of the film reaches its climax in the scene where Mary anoints Jesus. It’s a strange episode to choose. Whilst the gospels either leave this woman unnamed (Mark 14, Matt 26, Luke 7) or identify her as Mary of Bethany (John 12), church tradition somehow confused over the differing accounts and the various Mary’s in the gospels, and formulated a mythical Mary Magdalene. This Mary was a repentant, adulteress prostitute saved from a stoning to become Jesus follower, who expressed her gratitude through this dramatic anointing.

    Whilst it is, therefore, questionable whether this story had anything to do with the real Mary Magdalene, the film uses its ahistorical perspective to good effect. This scene, coming near the end of the film, is easily its most powerful. By then we are so well acquainted with this Mary, that her freedom from bitterness, and her emotional response give this oft depicted scene fresh power. There’s also a clever touch here, as one of those outraged by Mary’s actions calls her a prostitute, a nod towards the tradition mentioned above which the film categorically avoids.

    The film ends sometime after the crucifixion as it started, with a Mary bringing someone healing. There’s an interesting circularity here. The Mary of the opening scenes was happy, and sufficiently at peace with herself that she was able to and care for and heal those around her. Her divorce and her subsequent treatment transformed her into an angry, bitter and hurting woman. Renewed and restored by Jesus she is able to return to her initial calling, although this time in his power. In many ways, though, Jesus has only restored the equilibrium, rather than performed a transformation.

    The fact of the matter is that we know precious little about Mary’s life, and I suspect if you asked the makers of this film they would happily admit that this is almost entirely speculation. At the same time, such speculation, if handled correctly, can shed new light on the gospels, and the impact Jesus’s words may have had on his original audiences.

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