• 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


    Thursday, November 30, 2006

    Podcast: Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo

    It's a little later than I'd hoped, but November's Jesus Films Podcast is finally up. This month I'm looking at Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to St. Matthew - 1964) by Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini.

    My first podcast on Jesus of Nazareth is still available to download.

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    Wednesday, November 29, 2006

    Joseph of Nazareth (2000)

    Whilst the number of films about the Virgin Mary could hardly be called excessive, Joseph of Nazareth (2000) is the first film ever to make her husband the central figure. This is no doubt due to church tradition which, whilst it has honoured both Mary and Joseph, has given Mary special reverence. Interestingly, only two of the four gospels include an account of Jesus birth, and their authors choose to tell the story from differing perspectives. Luke's account places Mary at the centre of his prologue. So the narrative starts with a tale about Mary's relatives who will later take her in once Gabriel has told her of God's plan. We are given Mary's responses (immediately, and at length in the words of the Magnificat), detail about the birth where it is she who swaddles Jesus, and later ponders what has happened.

    By contrast, Matthew's account deals with the story from Joseph's perspective. The opening genealogy immediately establishes his credentials, and we are quickly assured of his righteousness. The annunciation is only implied, but Joseph receives no less than four dreams. Joseph is cast then in a heroic role, righteous, not wishing to disgrace Mary, and then cast as the active husband whose faithful and decisive actions rescue their child from peril.

    So, all in all, Joseph's chance to have a leading role is long overdue, and with thirteen bible films already under their belt, the Bible Collection clearly decided they were the people to do it, including it as part of their "Close to Jesus" series.

    Like many of the Bible Collection films, Joseph of Nazareth fuses the biblical narratives with fictional exposition, quotations from other passages of the bible, and relevant extra-biblical history. The latter, as elsewhere, is presented in compressed form, so the deaths of Herod's conspiring sons, occurs at the same time as Mary's pregnancy whereas in reality these events unfolded over a five year period some time before a likely date for Jesus's birth.

    Unlike many of the other Bible Collection films, however, it avoids turning the relationship between Mary and Joseph into some kind of soap opera romance, a smart move which enables deeper emotions to surface. Sadly, other aspects of the film do not fair so well. Joseph just happens to be the best carpenter in the nation, so much so that he is hauled off to do some woodwork for Herod at the same moment the angel is appearing to Mary. The scene where Joseph haggles with a despicable innkeeper is simply terrible. Furthermore, at the moment of Jesus's birth, Joseph just happens to have popped out to collect some firewood. Then there is Joseph dashing over the rocks with baby Jesus to escape one of Herod's soldiers. Fortunately, the soldier in question proves to be a cross between Gollum and Buster Keaton and falls to his death chasing after a ornate necklace Joseph just happened to have to hand. Finally, the incident where Jesus as a boy is left at the temple proves to be so stressful that it leads to Joseph's death, although this may be just his disappointment that the Son of God turns out to be so annoying.

    Added to this is the uneven acting, which is embodied, in particular, in Tobias Moretti's portrayal of Joseph. Moretti absolutely nails some scenes yet seems to flounder in others. Stefania Rivi's Mary is perhaps the best overall performance in the film, but there are far too many at the other end of the scale. Worst of all is the role of Herod's seer, who turns in what is possibly the hammiest performance in any biblical film. It doesn't help that as he is led away to be executed Herod's sycophantic courtiers re-enact the laughing scene from Austin Powers.

    One of the issues that is often discussed surrounding the nativity story is that of Mary's perpetual virginity. Orthodox and Roman Catholic believers hold that those listed in Matt 13:55 were either Jesus's cousins, or Joseph's children from an earlier marriage. The film dabbles in these traditions, but ultimately seems to dismiss them. In the opening scenes Joseph reveals he had previously been betrothed, but tragedy struck before he had married. Similarly, we are introduced to Joses, Simon and Judas, who are Joseph's nephews, but Judas and Joses are killed before the end of the film. Simon survives, but there is no mention of Jesus's sisters, nor the most important of his relations, James, who went on to lead the early church. It's a strange position to adopt, seemingly leaving Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox Christians all unsatisfied.

    It's not all bad however, the opening scenes, and those of the betrothal and the annunciation are believably and sensitively realised. At 37, Joseph considers himself too old for this young Mary, agreeing to marry her more as a favour to her father than anything else. Yet the film makes their relationship believable. There is plenty of love, but not necessarily romantic or sexual love. Joseph is part father figure, part husband, part friend, and part co-parent. It's a complex relationship, and given the very low regards which our culture has for arranged marriages, it would have been far easier for the film to opt simply for a romance driven relationship. Yet it is to the film's credit that it manages such sympathetic depiction of this relationship. It's just a shame that the strength shown in this aspect is marred by so many weaknesses elsewhere.

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    Tuesday, November 28, 2006

    "Jesus of Hollywood" to be published next month

    I've been following the progress of Adele Reinhartz's forthcoming book "Jesus of Hollywood" for sometime now, and was pleased to discover that some more details of the book have now been posted at the Oxford University Press website, and at Amazon. I seem to recall that at one stage this was going to be released at some point next year, but now it seems that publication has been brought forward, to December. I assume that Amazon have some reason for listing the release date as Christmas Day, although that would seem to be an unlikely date.

    Reinhartz has tackled the subject of films about Jesus in lesser detail a number of times before. Her article at the Journal of Religion and Film titled "Jesus in Film: Hollywood Perspectives on the Jewishness of Jesus" was very influential on me personally when I first read it a number of years ago, and she later wrote another article for them on Mel Gibson's film called "Passion-ate Moments in the Jesus Film Genre". She has also wrote "Jesus of Hollywood: From D. W. Griffith to Mel Gibson" for The New Republic, and a chapter with the same name for the book "(Perspectives) On The Passion of the Christ". She has also written a number of books in her own right including "Scripture on the Silver Screen".

    It's always difficult to tell exactly what will be covered by such a book without actually reading it. I'm encouraged by the mention of both Life of Brian and Roberto Rossellini's film (Il Messia), as these are two of my favourite films in the genre. Rossellini's film has been largely ignored, so it is good to see this book redressing the balance.


    Secrets of Mary Magdalene - Documentary

    The phenomenal success of Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code", and the film adaptation earlier this year has led to a new wave of interest in Mary Magdalene. This is no doubt why Hidden Treasures Productions have released their documentary on Mary Secrets of Mary Magdalene onto DVD. It's directed by Rob Fruchtman and features a host of Magdalene experts including Elaine Pagels, Lesa Bellevie, Deidre Good, and Dan Burstein who also wrote the corresponding book.

    Secrets of Mary Magdalene is another docu-drama, built largely around interviews with a host of, mostly female, writers and academics, but also containing dramatised footage to accompany the narrator's commentary. The dramatised footage is fairly well done, although the length of Jesus's hair is a little distracting, and shows episodes from the canonical gospels, footage of Mary leading and teaching, as well as some of the more legendary episodes such as her flight to France.

    Whilst the programme does explore some these legends it certainly keeps its feet on the ground a lot more than either Dan Brown or the authors of "Holy Blood and the Holy Grail". For example, it never gets into fantastical analysis of "The Last Supper" and whilst it covers the theories about The Holy Grail, it moves on fairly quickly.

    The film goes on to discuss the Gnostic gospels and their presentation of Mary as well as social / historical evidence that Jesus would have been married. It also looks at the role of femininity within the history of religion, notably Christianity.

    Unfortunately the documentary loses a bit of credibility with its lax attitude to historical methodology. It builds a little too heavily on "history is written by the winners" scepticism, and offers no real analysis on the historical veracity of the various gospels. Deidre Good starts going down that road at one point, but the film quickly moves on.

    This is a mistake in my opinion. Whilst there are no gospels dating from the time Jesus was alive, Mark, widely accepted as the earliest canonical gospel was written within the lifetime of many of his followers, with the other three reaching their final form in the subsequent 30 or so years. The Gnostic gospels are harder to date, and appear to be written across a longer period. Whilst some scholars claim the the Gospel of Thomas may be contemporary with the canonical gospels, others are significantly late. Antiquity is not definitive proof of historical accuracy, but in general there is a good correlation between the two. This is a crucial issue, which much of the rest of the film's information depends on.

    The DVD contains a couple of significant extra features. Firstly there is a "round table" with six of the experts from the film, where they further discuss some of the issues covered by the film. This lasts for about 50 minutes. There is also an additional, half-hour feature, "More Secrets of Mary Magdalene" as well as a trailer and a scene selection menu.

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    Friday, November 24, 2006

    Lords of Dogtown

    Ever since I heard that Catherine Hardwicke was directing The Nativity Story, I've been keen to catch up on her previous work. And my desire to see Lords of Dogtown was only heightened by seeing her debut film Thirteen, which I reviewed back in July.

    My appetite was wetted further when I discovered Heath Ledger was also involved. Not all of Ledger's choices of role have been sound, but when his films have appealed to me enough to watch them, then he has usually turned in a good performance.

    Lords of Dogtown followed hot on the heels of acclaimed skate documentary Dogtown and Z Boys which examined the lives of the young skate pioneers the Z-Boys who were from Dogtown in Venice, California. Hardwicke's film covers similar material but in narrative form.

    Like Thirteen, and, it appears, The Nativity Story, Lords of Dogtown covers the lives of teenagers growing up suddenly as they deal with issues usually faced by adults. The film starts in 1975 with a group of 4 friends who use skateboarding to escape from largely difficult home situations. They are drawn to the owner of the local surf shop who, seeing a marketing opportunity behind their talents, takes them to a number of skating competitions. The four's new, and unconventional style reinvents skating for a new audience, and it is not long before a skateboarding manufacturers are queuing up offer to them instant fame and fortune.

    In addition to the thematic parallels noted above Lords of Dogtown gives a few other pointers as to what The Nativity Story might be like. Firstly, this is another good quality film by Hardwicke. The performances are excellent, the direction is strong, and the pacing and the script make for an engaging film. Hardwicke started out as a production designer, and the sets and locations here certainly ring true.

    The subject matter here is a little safer than that of Thirteen. The teenagers in question are older, and male so the characters appear less vulnerable, and the scenarios they find themselves in less shocking. This trajectory will, presumably, extend into The Nativity Story. Whilst the threats to the protagonist are no less real, at least this time she is accompanied by a responsible adult.

    FilmChat: The Ten Commandments: The Musical

    I feel like I've been quoting and linking to FilmChat all week! Another new DVD release that might interest Bible film fans is The Ten Commandments: The Musical starring Val Kilmer. Kilmer, of course, voiced Moses in The Prince of Egypt (1998), although his songs were sung by Amick Byram.

    FWIW, my brother Geoff recently wrote his own musical which was performed at Cambridge Community Church at the end of October. I wasn't able to go, but I hear it was very good (although that was from my oh-so-slightly biased parents). FWIW he used stills from The Bible Collection's Moses as part of the set design.


    Thursday, November 23, 2006

    Nativity News vol.16

    I finally get to see The Nativity Story this afternoon, and so thought I would have a last minute hunt for extra information.

    Over at FilmChat there are a number of different pieces on the film since I last blogged about the film.

    Firstly, he notes how there seems to be a move in some quarters to stir up controversy over Kaisha Castle-Hughes' alleged pregnancy. I say alleged because on Saturday I got an anonymous comment from someone claiming both that they were a friend of Castle-Hughes and that she is not pregnant. Make of that what you will. It's unclear from the interview snippets that Peter includes whether or not producers Marty Bowen and Wyck Godfrey are simply going on media reports, or direct information from Castle-Hughes herself. I have no idea how much contact they would have with each other after the film has wrapped, particularly if Castle-Hughes is not contractually obliged to be part of the film's promotional material.

    Secondly, he finds that both Time and Variety are desperately in need of fact checkers. Variety's error actually comes in their (early posted) review of the film, by Todd McCarthy who finds The Nativity Story as disappointing as he found Color of the Cross. Time's article is more of a standard preview affair

    Peter also looks at the age difference between Joseph and Mary in comparison to Marianne and Col. Brandon in Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility.

    Elsewhere Mark Moring has interviewed Oscar Isaac (who plays Joseph) for Christianity Today Movies. As I mentioned a week or two back, prior to this interview there have been very few interviews with the cast for this film, so it's good to her one with one of the two leads.

    There is also an article on the film at the LA Times.

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    Saint Mary Iranian film

    My friend Peter Chattaway recently interviewed Shohreh Aghdashloo at the junket for The Nativity Story (Aghdashloo plays Elizabeth). Along the way, she mentioned an Iranian made film called Saint Mary which neither Peter or I were aware of.

    Peter's done some research and written a post on the film which includes finding the retailers website, which includes a montage of clips from the film. A different selection of clips are available on YouTube in Farsi (with English subtitles).

    One thing Peter doesn't mention is that the film would appear to be primarily based on the Qu'ran. Sura 3 discusses the birth of Mary, including some indications that Israel's deliverer was already expected at that point, and Surah 19 deals with Mary's role in the birth of Jesus. I notice that Aghdashloo declared that "Obviously it's been distorted, it's not the real story" in the interview. I'm not sure whether this is a reference to it being based on the Qu'ran rather than the bible (and if this was the Grace Hill organised event she would have known Peter was a Christian) or just to the fact that padding out either version of the story to fill its incredible 6 hour run time.

    Whilst the original is in Farsi it is available to buy in an English dubbed version in a number of different countries (including the US and the UK). There was also a screening of the film last year, put on by the Islamic Centre of England

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    Wednesday, November 22, 2006

    Marie Palese and Mary Magdalene in Mary

    Spoilers Throughout

    I've been thinking about what to make of the role played by Juliette Binoche in Abel Ferrara's Mary, particularly at the end of the film where she begins to appear in biblical-style dress. Initially I'd just assumed that this was her fully buying into a religious community, but having seen most scenes from the film a number of times now I'm not sure. For example, who is the similarly attired man who pushes their boat out to sea?

    The scene that really got me thinking in this regard is the one between Ted Younger and Gretchen where she stresses how she went to a really deep place in this movie. I also noted how earlier on in the film Marie Palese is seen in 20th century dress, but by the end we no longer see her and hear her at the same time. The last time we see her in modern clothes is as she walks down a dark lane prior to the clip being shown as part of (?) the Ted Younger scene. After this point we either only hear her voice (as in the live TV interview) or we see images of Binoche dressed like she lives in the first century.

    So I've been wondering whether these closing scenes meant to be of the real Mary Magdalene. Is there some implication that Marie Palese is somehow either related to her, or, say, a reincarnation of her, or possessed by her spirit or something along similar lines? Certainly it's something I'll be looking out for next time I watch the film.

    Arnold Schoenberg Play on Radio 4

    This is slightly off the beaten track for this blog, but recently I've been researching information about Arnold Schönberg, the Austrian composer who wrote the (unfinished) opera Moses und Aron. The opera was made into a film by Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub. I've also just started reading Bluma Goldstein's "Reinscribing Moses. Heine, Kafka, Freud and Schoenberg in a European Wilderness" which obviously features a chapter on the work.

    So I was pleased to catch Radio 4's afternoon play on Friday which was a drama about Schoenberg's personal life c.1907-08. I've never been a huge fan of the artistic medium "Radio Play", and this one has hardly converted me, but it's worth listening to if you have some interest in Schönberg. The play can be downloaded from the BBC website.

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    Monday, November 20, 2006

    Nativity News vol.15

    Four brief pieces of news on The Nativity Story all of which are distinctly lukewarm-off-the-press, but worth mentioning for completeness if nothing else.

    Firstly, the premiere is to be staged at The Vatican, which I guess is a far greater seal of approval than the film-makers could possibly have hoped for. Certainly it's a far greater show of enthusiasm than the undignified hushing up of the last pope's alleged statement on The Passion of the Christ "it is as it was".

    Secondly, some Christian reviewers have ignored the usual standard of waiting until a day or two before a film's release before publishing reviews of it. Jeffrey Overstreet is particularly amusing  regarding one of those reviews, (primarily because of one or two bizarre comments). It's better if you read it for yourself than have me hack it down to size. The other has been posted at the In the Open Space blog. I'm not sure what to make of this. Personally I plan to hold my review until the film opens, but at the same time I can't see why church leaders are being invited to watch the film unless they are meant to share their opinions with their congregations and whip up a bit of interest before it is released.

    Then there's another preview piece in Newsweek.

    Finally, Queen Spoo points out that the Moviefone site has 7 clips of the film to view. 

    (By the way, if you're wondering why there aren't any pictures, it's because I'm on holiday for a few days and I'm emailing it in)

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    Thursday, November 16, 2006

    Review - Abel Ferrara's Mary

    Few actors are famous in the way that Juliette Binoche could claim to be. Whilst the people on the street are largely ignorant of both her and her work (save perhaps Chocolat), many of those in the art film crowd know that Binoche’s contribution to a film is reason enough for them to see it. It’s not surprising, then, that much of the publicity and discussion for Abel Ferrara’s Mary has focussed on her, particularly as she is playing the title role. Hence there has been plenty of talk about Binoche’s role as Marie Palese, an actress who is inspired by her role playing Mary Magdalene in a Jesus movie and so heads to Jerusalem in search of spiritual enlightenment.

    However, the star of this imaginary movie, is charismatic actor turned director, Tony Childress (Matthew Modine). It's clear that Childress has also funded and produced the movie himself, in exactly the manner he desired, regardless of the storm of criticism it has attracted. As such, he is clearly fashioned in Mel Gibson’s image. Childress’s film, This is My Blood, may be as unconventional as Gibson’s film was ultra-traditional, but the parallels are clear. When Childress jokes that the reason he made the film was "because that Gibson movie made like a billion dollars" we sense director Abel Ferrara underlining the similarities whilst simultaneously poking fun at the inevitable rush to cash in on the success of The Passion.

    One of the interesting things about the film is that it's hard to tell what sort of film This is My Blood actually is. Indeed, we see very little of it. The opening scene of Mary appears to be lifted straight from Childress's movie, only for the next scene to suggest that this was actually Marie Palese's dream. Later on, a dreamlike shot of Palese gives way to what appears to be another scene from the movie. Since the vocals are introduced first, over the top of this footage of Palese, it initially suggests that this too is only in her mind. Yet this scene is immediately followed by one of a TV presenter informing his audience that they have just witnessed a clip from the actual movie.

    Hence it is difficult to know exactly how much of the movie is shown. At best, only five scenes from the movie are included – and two of these may simply be in Marie Palese's, mind. Of the other three, two are taken solely from the non-canonical, Gospel of Mary. Thus, the only scene from the film that definitely is taken from the Gospels is that of Jesus washing the disciples' feet. And the sound accompanying this clip is not even from Childress's fictional movie, but from an academic explaining how this act demonstrated Jesus's message of love.

    So, the majority of the film remains a mystery. How much is from the canonical gospels? The Gospel of Mary is very short, certainly not long enough to be the basis of a feature film, how greater part does it play, and what does the rest consist of. Furthermore, what are the offensive elements in the film? It is criticised both by some Jewish groups on grounds of anti-Semitism, and some Christians because it departs from orthodoxy. Is it even meant to be a good film? The Jesus it portrays is horribly miscast, but is that Childress's fault or Ferrara's? Interestingly, Childress frequently repeats the message that his critics should see the movie before they offer criticism, yet, in stark contrast to, say, Jesus of Montreal we are given only a fleeting glimpse of it to make up our own minds.

    Childress's movie, however, is only a small part of the overall story. The main story, is about the spiritual journey of Ted Younger, played by Forest Whitaker. Younger chairs a national TV program discussing religious issues for a mainstream audience, grilling various experts from academics to religious leaders. He is deeply ambivalent about his faith, both publicly and privately, and the film implies that this is amongst the reason his show is such a success.

    Ted knows neither of the other two main characters at the start of the film, but when he sees the movie at a press screening, he decides to try and interview them both for his programme. Childress is naturally keen to promote his movie, and agrees fairly readily. Palese, however, has been settled in Jerusalem for a year, and is reluctant to return to anything to do with acting. Younger is only able to get hold of her because he has been having an affair with Gretchen, one of Palese's friends.

    This sparks a series of three phone calls between Ted and Marie. The first begins with Ted trying to get her to appear on his show. Marie is evasive, preferring to turn the conversation around to her recent spiritual insights. Initially, Ted is left unimpressed by Marie's statement that "Jesus helped Mary Magdalene, and s/he’s helping me now". Yet, strangely, when his personal life runs into problems, he finds himself calling her up to discuss them. Younger is clearly in need of redemption. "I’ve done so many bad things" he later confesses and whilst he’s no Bad Lieutenant we see enough of his behaviour to be unable to deny his self-accusation.

    Director Abel Ferrara manages to draw impressive and complex performances from all three actors. Binoche's final scenes are shot without sound, yet convey the process of her finding peace wonderfully. Modine swaggers about with a driven self-importance and yet somehow connects you to his suffering despite his arrogance, and self-centredness. Quite what Ferarra is trying to say by having this character play Jesus is unclear, but it's a fascinating question that in and of itself raises a number of possibilities. Whitaker gets the most screen time and delivers a remarkably nuanced performance which gains greater and greater depth with repeated viewings. His final scene touches on something that is rarely shown in modern cinema taking the narrative deeper when most directors would have been content to have finished. There is also an impressive supporting performance from Heather Graham, as Younger's wife, Elizabeth. Graham plays against type, and this works to great effect.

    All in all, Mary marks a return to form for Ferrara. In addition to an interesting premise, a strong script and a number of excellent performances, he also infuses the film with energy, wit and vitality. At times his tongue seems firmly in his cheek, and yet that never detracts from the film's gravity. Elsewhere, quirky sound and vision editing add a sense of mystery and uncertainty, whilst the cinematography manages to capture the atmosphere of late-night introspection and isolation perfectly.

    Unorthodox theories about Mary Magdalene have gained great prominence in the last few years. Yet most of the discussion has focussed on the history surrounding Mary Magdalene, and the early Christian communities that both developed and were, no doubt, ultimately defined by the Gospel that bore her name. Mary takes things in another, arguably more mature direction, refusing to concern itself with the details of her life after the resurrection, the alleged minimisation of her role in church history, and the suppression of the gospel that bears her name. Instead it suggests that any such community would have been primarily recognised as followers of Jesus, with any identification with Mary being very much secondary. Hence the film ultimately examines how those that have identified with Mary and/or have been inspired by her (whether past, present or future) might impact those around them with the message of the one she followed.

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    Tuesday, November 14, 2006

    FilmChat: A tale of two 80s Bible movies

    The 80s were a fairly thin time for Bible films. Over at FilmChat, Peter Chataway has a piece called A tale of two Bible movies from the 1980s where he compares the box office fates of 1985's King David and 1988's Last Temptation of Christ. Peter's main point is that these were the only two American films to get a cinematic release in the 80s that were based om the bible. (None of the following films fit into that category: (1980) The Day Christ Died, Wholly Moses, (1981) Peter and Paul, (1985) Hail Mary, (1986) Esther, (1986) Genesis, (1988) A.D., The Seventh Sign, (1989) Jesus of Montreal (Jesu de Montreal)).

    Peter also goes onto note how despite the back of a major studio, King David ultimately did worse than Last Temptation at the box office. I do think Peter overlooks some of Last Temptation's bankability factors. Firstly, whilst King David did feature a star (Richard Gere), Dafoe and Keitel were also fairly well known by this point. Secondly, whilst King David had a major studio behind it, nothing sells a movie like controversy (just ask Mel Gibson). All publicity is good publicity etc.. Last Temptation had controversy by the bucket load, and as a result is still well known today whereas King David is all but forgotten.

    Either way, as Peter has pointed out elsewhere, The Nativity Story is not the first Bible film to be released by a major studio in 50 years.

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    More Reviews for Color of the Cross

    I posted links to the first couple of reviews for the black Jesus film Color of the Cross a couple of weeks back, intending to update that post as more reviews became available. However, it took a while before any more reviews appeared to be in circulation, so I've waited until now, and will use this post to quote from a job lot of them.

    Joe Williams, writing for SL Today (St. Louis Today), has this to say:
    ...there is no sense that Jerusalem in 33 A.D. is a melting pot. And temperamentally this Jesus on the eve of crucifixion is not much different from the messiah we've seen in a hundred church productions: serene to the point of spaciness, with hardly a word to say about the world that we actually live in.

    John Beifuss, writing in the Memphis Commercial Appeal also touches on the historical accuracy of the film:
    The movie even eschews trendy Mel Gibson sadism: Writer-director Jean Claude LaMarre -- who also portrays the messiah, here referred to by what is intended to be a more accurate pronunciation of his Hebrew name, Yeshua -- skips right from the arrest in the garden of Gethsemane to the bloodied Jesus' last moments on the cross.


    At other times, the movie veers into camp. An unfortunately undeveloped story element is the portrayal of Judas (Johann Jean) as a violence-prone horndog who is jealous of Mary Magdalene's passion for the Christ. "It's easier to love a messiah than a fisherman," Judas rationalizes about the woman's preference as he pushes the Magdalene (Marjan Faritous) down on a bed. "Fine," she snarls, promisingly. "Would you like a feast your master has yet to enjoy?"
    Elsewhere John Monaghan's review for the Detroit Free Press (Jesus' Skin is Least of the Issues) also reflects on the film's unconventional jump from Gethsemane to Calvary
    ...the first film to depict a black African Jesus is hindered by shoddy production values and so-so storytelling. Say what you will about the rabbis in the film. At least they debate fiercely before throwing Jesus to the Romans. The performances range from LaMarre's understated savior to Johann John Jean's hammy Judas, who won't hesitate to take one of Jesus' followers by force when she resists his advances.

    You might say that by cutting straight from the Garden of Gethsemane to Jesus hanging on the cross, LaMarre is simply avoiding comparison. I'm grateful to be spared the torture of the crucifixion, though it still looks like someone simply misplaced the fourth reel.
    On a more positive note, whilst Kam Williams (Black Film) is unconvinced by the film's claim that Jesus was actually black, he does find the motive for the crucifixion believable, and is impressed by the acting
    Superficially, Color of the Cross reads like a Passion Play except for the fact that Jesus is black, and that he has been rejected by disbelieving rabbis who have a hard time swallowing the idea that of a dark-skinned Messiah. In fact, they routinely refer to him as the black Nazarene, so in this version of the New Testament not only do the Jews crucify Christ, but they’re portrayed as racists to boot.

    Although this ethnic discrimination angle might be factually inaccurate, since if Jesus was a black Jew, his accusers must’ve mostly been black Jews, too, the best thing about Color of the Cross is that it finally furnishes us with a reason for the Crucifixion. It reminded me of the Don Rickles routine in which the comedian wondered how his people could possibly have screwed up Christmas. Now we at least have a theory.

    The storyline aside, Jean-Claude LaMarre charismatic performance as Jesus is what really holds the production together. He receives considerable help in this regard from his capable supporting cast which includes Debbi Morgan as the Virgin Mary, Ananda Lewis as Leah, Akiva David as John, Jacinto Taras Riddick as Peter, and John Pierre Parent as Doubting Thomas.
    Box Office Mojo is reporting that the film has so far only taken $74,496 in the 17 days since its release, after an opening weekend of $25,868 (across 29 theaters, at $892 per theatre average). As I understand it though the plan was for the film to be distributed more widely after the first fortnight, so those figures may increase somewhat over the next ten days or so. I'm surprised that these figures are so low. It's a very interesting premise, even if many of the reviews haven't been that great. I'm still hoping the film gets a release in Europe, because I think there would be a good deal of interest in it over here.


    Friday, November 10, 2006

    Little Children

    My review of Little Children is now up at Open Heaven. Certainly not recommended for everyone, but definitely a film worth seeing.

    Thursday, November 09, 2006

    Nativity News vol.14

    Queen Spoo is doing a bang up job of keeping on top of all the various interviews and articles that are being written on The Nativity Story. I guess it will be pretty crazy on this front between now and the middle of December.

    Leading the charge is Christianity Today Magazine, who have an impressively large online film section. They have another interview with writer Mike Rich (Holy Family Man)and a look at the Music and Marketing for "Nativity" which reveals that the score for the film will be available on Dec. 5. There's also an interview with producer Wyck Godfrey called For Unto us a Film is Born. I'm not quite sure what to make of this part of the interview with Godfrey

    CT: That sounds like one of a number of "God things" you could point to along the way.
    Godfrey: Yes. The probability of being able to pull this off in such a short amount of time is so small that you just start to say, "It's ordained. There's a power behind getting this thing done. And it's not ours."
    At first I was really cynical about this answer, when someone making a film targeted at a Christian audience starts making claims like this I get a bit nervous. I remembered having similar misgivings about some of Mel Gibson's claims in the run up to The Passion of the Christ like his claim that "the Holy Ghost was working through me on this film".1 If film-makers claim that God is behind their film it makes it difficult for anyone to criticise it, particularly those within the church. But then I realised that Godfrey is really only responding to a very leading question from CT, almost as if they desperately want to hear that God is behind the film (Please see the edited note regarding this comment). In that context, Godfrey's answer actually plays things down a little. CT are specific about who is doing what in the film. Godfrey isn't placing any bets.

    There's also a piece on Shohreh Aghdashloo called Getting Biblical: Shohreh Aghdashloo's New Epic Drama in Payvand (a free press Iranian news site). It does make me wonder though at how few interviews etc. there seem to be with the actors in this film. Queen Spoo posted one with Alexander Siddig (Gabriel) 6 weeks ago, but other than this short piece with Keisha Castle-Hughes which was part of a larger piece by Christianity Today (again!) there's been very little. Obviously Castle-Hughes is pregnant now, and presumably is still trying to do her best at school, but it seems strange that, say, Oscar Isaac who plays Joseph hasn't been interviewed, he's hardly a major name, but then who had heard of Mike Rich a year ago?

    There are also a few other overviews of this film. The New York Times gives it a fairly detailed write up in a piece called They Have Seen the Light, and it is Green which includes interviews with Hardwicke, Rich, and producers Wyck Godfrey and Marty Bowen. CNN also mentions as part of a preview of forthcoming Christmas movies Claus. Santa Claus. (And other holiday film stars). There are a few more articles in the Christian press as well. Oscar Isaac is on the front page of Catholic Digest, and there's a brief overview in Christian Post Reporter called "Nativity Story" to hit the big holiday screen.

    There are a couple of marketing developments as well. The poster for the movie has now been released, which is surprisingly different from the promotional images that have been used thus far. The iconic silhouette of Mary, Joseph and donkey up against the skyline is part of the image, but the poster manages to draw attention to various aspects of it without over-emphasising one. Queen Spoo also has a
    link to the German trailer and a few more pictures from the film.

    You can read all my posts on this film from my Nativity Story Central Page.

    EDIT: Having written this post on Thursday I began to regret this part of this post, in particular the phrase "they desperately want to hear that God is behind the film". My regret was solidified when Mark Moring who conducted this interview emailed me to clarify the actual situation as below
      "this is an edited interview, a 10,000-word, 90-minute interview knocked down to about 20% of that. Wyck Godfrey had been discussing a number of "God things" along the way; he had initiated the talk about seeing how God had worked through a number of things."
    For me, that puts the phrase in a very different context, and given that this is a conversation between two Christians, primarily for a Christian publication it's certainly a fair question. So apologies to Mark, and Christianity Today for my hasty appraisal. I usually try to be measured and balanced, and I missed the mark on this occasion.

    1 - Kamon Simpson; The Gazette (Colorado Springs); Jun 27, 2003; pg. A.1

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    Tuesday, November 07, 2006

    Was Q a Redactor?

    Reading The Lost Gospel, Q at the weekend got me thinking about other possible explanations for the shared material in Matthew and Luke. I started to unpack some of these ideas yesterday, but wanted to do so more fully.

    One of the problems I have with the view that Q existed as a deifinitive written source is the fact that no copy of this "lost gospel" has ever been discovered. Of course it can be argued that the same could be said about the Gospel of Thomas until 1945. However, there are to my mind three crucial differences. Firstly, the world has changed a great deal since then. The finds in Egypt and Qumran have greatly increased awareness that there might be other lost documents, and the increase in global communication has made it far more likely that if a copy of this document still exists it would find it's way into circulation.

    Secondly, as far as I'm aware the Gospel of Thomas seems to have been the product of a single community, it's possible of course that it was more widely distributed, but I personally know of no evidence for that (please let me know if you know more on this than I do). On the other hand Q would not only be the product of the Q community, but at least two other communities those of Matthew and Luke. (Some scholars see our understanding of the early church as moving away from the community model, but it still seems to be the dominant model for the time being).

    This brings me onto the third difference. Whereas the Gospel of Thomas may have been considered heretical, and thus its disappearance until 1945 is most likely explained by a purge by the orthodox church, Q was surely acceptable. It contained no heresy and formed a major part of two of the gospels that would eventually become canonical. Whilst it's certainly possible that it may have fallen into disuse, it is unlikely that it would disappear without trace.

    The other problem I have with the existence of a written Q is that not only have we no copy, there seems to be no mention of such a document in early church history. We are aware of a number of texts such as the Assumption of Moses of which we have no copies, but we know about because one of the early church writers referred to them or even quoted from them. But there seems to be no parallel here. Again, given that this document would have been non-heretical it seems strange that its presence is not noted anywhere.

    All of which brings me onto thinking that there may still be another explanation. It would be nice to see the Farrer theory explored in greater detail. One or two writers are taking up the challenge, but the overwhelming majority of scholars seem to be sailing on regardless and building very tall theories on, what seems to me at least, a very unstable foundation.

    So I'd like to suggest another theory about this shared material. Not because I'm necessarily convinced by it, but perhaps because I find it at least as plausible as the Q theory, and hope that in some way it might cause scholars to look afresh at their assumption. I should state for the record that I don't seriously expect to have uncovered the solution to the synoptic problem (my lack of formal training would make that an incredibly arrogant claim and I am not convinced by this theory particularly myself), but I think there is some mileage in explaining it. And as this is a blog, where the whole point is a level of dialogue then I thought I'd voice it as a theory.

    One of the (unverifiable) claims about Q is that is our earliest written gospel. Tom Wright is keen to point out that "gospels" such as Thomas and Q are nothing of the sort, since they contain no announcement about the good news of the kingdom, but that is another issue. The thing is that there is no evidence that Q pre-dates Mark by 10-20 years as Borg suggests. In fact the larger the gap between the composition of Q, and the composition of Mark becomes, the more implausible it becomes that Mark did not know Q.

    If, as it seems fair to suppose Mark and Q write independently of one another then it is surely still feasible that Mark was actually written before Q. I started thinking then about the supposed lack of passion narrative in Q. It seems unlikely, to me at least, that the Q community would have embarked on the process which Borg so eloquently describes if he was just a failed wisdom teacher with a couple of miracles to his name. As I suggested yesterday, the fact that Matthew and Luke chose Mark's passion account does not mean that Q was without one. Q's could have been inferior, or, it's at least feasible that if it was written after Mark, that he knew it and used Mark's passion narrative, just as he had collating the other phrases more generally associated with Q?

    The following portrait then begins to emerge. Mark wrote his gospel first. Both it's novelty, and it's engaging style meant that it became well known relatively quickly, and would long be beloved, ensuring its existence. Then along comes the author of Q, he has been gathering materials for some time, and weaves together a number of different sources into his account. He, perhaps has already accumulated the three types of material in what we call Q, Q1, Q2, and Q3. He has a good source of material about John the Baptist (looking at the material in an isolated form with a fresh pair of eyes, it is clear that Q consists of a great deal of material about John, perhaps one of Q's sources was one of John's followers). And now he has information about his miracles (to which he strangely only had indirect references save the centurion), and he also had some (and only some) of the material that has come to be known as M and L. He brings this altogether, and forms a new gospel.

    Unfortunately Q is not a great writer. Where he incorporates a phrase or saying wholesale it rings true of the original detail, but his structuring, and the way he incorporates the sayings is clumsy. Nevertheless it gains some circulation, and the combination of its strengths and its weaknesses inspire two other writers to try and improve it and produce the gospels known as Matthew and Luke. They are able to do so fairly quickly, as a lot of the work has been done for them. They incorporate some of the oral tradition held in high regard by their communities, and re-work the material to be more in line with the teaching of those communities. Because they are part of larger, more significant, communities, these gospels also quickly circulate occasionally even reaching some places ahead of Q. Because they are better writers most Christians outside of their communities find both Matthew and Luke to be greatly preferable to Q, and so Q drops out of circulation, becomes ignored, and eventually forgotten.

    Some of that no doubt sounds a little far fetched, but I find it hard to think of objections that do not also apply to the generally accepted Q theory. However, there are many that are far more learned than I, and can no doubt provide all sorts of objections, some of which would also not apply to Q. I invite them to do so.


    DVD Release - The Passion of the Christ: Definitive Edition

    Peter Chattaway alerted my attention to the news that 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment are to release a "definitive edition" DVD of The Passion of the Christ in February. Peter notes that there's
    No word yet on whether this will include the original theatrical version of the film, the recut version, and/or some new version. Two years ago, Fr. William J. Fulco said Mel Gibson was preparing a DVD with 15 hours of bonus material, so it will be interesting to see just how much of that material ends up on the new disc; and it will also be interesting to see whether Gibson's recent quest for forgiveness from the Jewish community will be reflected on this disc.
    Peter cited his source as Davis DVD who also say that the DVD will be "a two-disc special edition featuring an anamorphic widescreen transfer, Aramaic Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS Surround tracks and English subtitles". There's a little more info at Word Distribution who list the following details
    *Commentary From Mel Gibson, Theologian Father William J. Fulco, and Music Commentary by John Debney
    *Includes 'By His Wounds We Are Healed: Making the Passion of the Christ' Documentary
    *'The Legacy' Feature-Commentary on the Times and Culture during the time of Christ
    *Deleted Scenes
    * Theatrical Trailers
    *Still Picture Galleries
    *And Much, Much More
    Much, much more sounds kind of vague, I wonder if they will include some of the material that ended up onn the promotional DVDs, and some of the interviews that Gibson did in the lead up to the film's release? I also wonder what will be in the deleted scenes, particularly as, at the time, Gibson gave the impression that these scenes were cut not to cause offence to the Jewish community.

    There's no news whether this is just a North American release of the film, or whether it will also get released elsewhere.

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    Monday, November 06, 2006

    The Lost Gospel, Q

    I read Marcus Borg's "The Lost Gospel Q: The Original Sayings of Jesus" yesterday. I say Borg's but really his role was to be consulting editor and contribute a preface which, somewhat unusually, comes after Thomas Moore's introduction. However, neither man is responsible for the main section of the book - a collation and translation of the various sayings of Jesus that form the hypothetical source known as Q - This work was completed by Mark Powelson and Ray Riegert.

    Whilst I'm not so much of a Q-sceptic as Mark Goodacre, whose two books on the subject are well worth a read, I'm certainly cynical about Q, and the amount of certainty that seems to rest on the hypothesis. So it was with mixed feelings I plucked this book off the shelf. Part of me thought it would be interesting to read all this sayings material in one volume, not to mention reading Borg's preface. On the other hand, bringing all the material into just one volume seems far too confident and final to me.

    For the uninitiated, Q is one of the solutions to what has been called the synoptic problem - the fact that the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke contain so much similar material to one another. It is generally accepted nowadays that Mark's gospel was written first, and the reason that it shares so much common material with the other two "synoptic" gospels is because the writers of those gospels knew Mark's gospel, and based their gospels on it. (There are, some who maintain that Matthew was also the source for Mark, but I'll put that aside for now).

    However, further examination of Matthew and Luke also reveals that there is also a large amount of material that they have in common. Three broad theories have been suggested to explain this phenomenon. Firstly that Luke knew Matthew's gospel, and used phrases from his gospel as well as Luke's as a basis for his gospel. Alternatively, the process could have worked the other way around with Matthew adapting Luke instead. The most popular solution to this theory, however, is that there was a third source, which, (somehow) was lost to such an extent that it wasn't even preserved by being directly referenced in other ancient texts, which both Matthew and Luke used independently, without knowing each other's work. And it is this lost source which has been named Q (after the German word for source "Quelle").

    "The Lost Gospel Q", then, is basically a presentation of a reconstructed version of that source, produced for a wider readership than that which usually dips into books on the synoptic problem. No doubt "The Da Vinci Code" has created increased audience interest for such a book. One does not have to read very far into the book before we find an astounding level of confidence in the composition of this lost source, and its purity in contrast to the canonical gospels. The very first page contains this statement by Moore:
    ...the four gospels are riddled with the interpretations, biases and agendas of their four editors...The Lost Gospel Q, (is) the scholars' best attempt to render the pure voice of the Gospel Jesus
    Now perhaps if Moore was pushed on this he would point out the detail in that statement, but when swept across, as much of the targeted readership would do, then it certainly gives the impression that Q represents a pure voice in contrast to the bias of the canonical gospels. In reality, if Q did exist, it would have reflected the biases of the community behind it, just as much as those of the communities of Matthew, Mark and Luke.

    I also find the confidence behind this composition astounding. Borg's statement on page 17 that "Q contains no passion narrative" is sheer conjecture. All we know is that if Q existed then both Matthew and Luke chose Mark's version. That may be, as Borg contends, because Q had no passion narrative, but it may be that Mark's version was simply better, or at least more suitable to Matthew and Luke's purposes than that of Q. Secondly, there is an implicit assumption that the material unique to Matthew and Luke, named M and L respectively, was also not by definition part of Q. That is all very well when naming sources to explain the model, but when attempting to reconstruct the model, it is a little too certain. How do we know that Matthew and Luke incorporated everything from Q into their gospels? That is certainly not the way they handled Mark, both authors excluded certain sections. So how do we know that some of the M and L material was not in the Q source, but that the other evangelist chose to leave it out either deliberately, because it did not suit their purpose, or accidentally? And, as noted with the passion narrative, how do we know that there are incidents that both writers excluded. Borg notes that the Gospel of Thomas also excludes the death and resurrection of Jesus, but to assume that Q follows this pattern rather than the pattern of the other 4 known gospels is also a bit of a leap. The evidence from the earliest gospels is 4:1 against, and Thomas may not even be that early. Certainly it is the least Jewish of all the gospels which suggests a certain period of time is likely to have elapsed for the gospel of a Jewish teacher to drift so significantly. It is certainly possible that Q had no passion narrative, but the burden of proof would lie on those who deny it on this basis.

    A brief excursus here to return to the staple ground of this blog. Consider the various films about Jesus. Most of them pick and choose biblical episodes as best suits them. Some incidents occur in all, or nearly all films. Others are very prominent in certain films such as the healing of Jairus's daughter in The Miracle Maker, but entirely absent in others such as the Jesus mini-series. Other parts of the gospel, such as the parable of the shrewd manager, are never included (unless the film is a presentation of the entire gospel). Yet all are in the source material. In other places the film-makers clearly prefer one version of an event to another for example where Il Messia locates the clearing of the Temple at the start of the story, as in John, rather than at in Jesus's final week like the synoptics.

    Overall, Borg is a little more cautious than Moore, but the presentation of the actual "gospel" leaves no room for doubt, as it consists solely of the material common to Matthew and Luke, but not found in Mark. The juxtaposition of confident assertion over the nature of Q, and a definitively framed collection of sayings suggests a certainty over Q that is just not fitting a hypothetical source. As a result the books falls halfway between two more sensible positions - either a simple collection of the material that is not in Mark but that is common to Matthew and Luke, or some conjecture based around that common material. If the writers wanted to make all sorts of definitive claims about this gospel it would have been better to include an appendix with a few disputed sayings for the record, and accompanying comments (as we have with all of the canonical gospels).

    The book itself is nicely laid out with a number interesting comments, and is a good introduction to the authors' positions. The use of red text for the words of Jesus is also useful here, as are the notes on translation, and the chart equating the Q sayings to Matthew and Luke. However, as an introduction to Q itself it is so overconfident that it loses a little of its credibility.

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    Friday, November 03, 2006

    Acts of the Apostles (1957 - Living Bible ) Episodes 3 and 4

    Yesterday I started looking at the Acts if the Apostles series made in 1958 by Broadman films, distributed recently as part of a Living Bible Collection. We now come to episodes 3 and 4 which I have already made some comments about in my Galatians vs. Acts post.
    Acts: Episode 3 - Light From Heaven

    1 Tim 1:15 cited
    Stoning of Stephen - (Acts 7:54-8:1)
    Saul Persecutes the church - (Acts 8:2-3)
    Road to Damascus - (9:1-9*)
    God speaks to Ananias - (Acts 9:10-16)
    Paul is healed - (Acts 9:17-19)
    1 Tim 1:15-17 cited
    *This story is actually narrated three times in Acts, in chapter nine as part of the story, and in chapters 22 and 26 as narrated by Paul in two of his speeches. There are slight variations in these three tellings. In Acts 9 a light from heaven flashes around him, Paul falls to the ground and he hears a voice from heaven. The men with him hear the voice but cannot see anyone. Obviously, Paul later claims in his epistles that he did see Jesus. The account in Acts 22 is fairly similar. But in Acts 26, Paul and his men all fall to the ground and the words of Jesus are more extensive. The film combines these accounts, some of his followers drop to their knees, others remain standing, they cower from the light, such that they do not actually see Jesus, and no comment is made about what they actually hear. Finally Jesus's words reflect both those of chapters 9/22 and chapter 26.

    Due to the production's low budget we don't see Jesus either. There is no shot from Paul's point of view unlike, say Paul the Emissary, we only see the light shining on him. In contrast, when Paul is healed by Ananias, we do experience Paul regaining his sight from his point of view. This shot is very reminiscent of the first shot of Jesus we experience in Cecil B. DeMille's The King of Kings (1927).

    It's also interesting that Paul's conversion is summed up at the end of the film as follows:
    At long last he could know from personal experience the forgiveness of sin, and the meaning of salvation which comes through faith and an acceptance of Christ
    This is very much pre- the new perspective of Paul ushered in by Sanders, and it has a very Reformed Church understanding of the differences between Judaism and Christianity.

    Two, quick, final points. Firstly, the Stoning of Stephen is shown in greater detail here than in the previous episode. The series quite often re-cycles previous / extraneous material through flashbacks etc. Secondly, it is very noticeable here that "Jesus" speaks in King James version language, as opposed to the more every day language of the rest of the cast and the narrator.
    Acts: Episode 4 - No Respecter of Persons


    Cornelius hears from God - (Acts 10:1-8)
    Peter’s vision - (Acts 10:9-20)
    Peter at the house of Cornelius - (Acts 10:21-48)
    Peter Explains his Actions - (Acts 11:1-18)
    Romans 10:12-13 cited
    The introduction here paints a fairly broad context for this episode. "Gentiles who wanted to worship the true God of the Hebrew religion were tolerated in the synagogue, but hardly welcomed. A great gulf of pride and prejudice separated these gentile outsiders from the fellowship accorded to the Jewish race." (It's interesting given our society's obsession with "tolerance" how the word is played in it's original, and slightly negative light here. Technically, tolerance implies "putting up with". Interestingly the film mentions "pride and prejudice", a phrase that really became common currency after Jane Austen's novel where being described as "tolerable" is seen as an insult). I'm not sure how correct this opening quote really is, however.

    An interesting comparison is made between Jonah and Peter on basis of their temporary residences in Joppa, and their wrestling with God's instructions. The film doesn't stress that both men are troubled by God's commands because they relate to Gentiles, but it's not hard for anyone who knows the two stories to make this extra jump.

    The film is quite bold in its depiction of Peter's report back to the church in Acts 11. The narrator actually says that "some of the early church were guilty of racial prejudice" hence their attitude to the gentiles. This is quite a strong statement, but, it would be surprising if this was not amongst the motive of some of those that objected to gentiles entering the church. The church is the community of people who are being redeemed, and hence has always contained people with sinful attitudes in their lives.

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    Thursday, November 02, 2006

    Acts of the Apostles (1957 - Living Bible ) Episodes 1 and 2

    Back in September, I covered how the various film treatments of the book of Acts and the ministries of Peter and Paul depicted the dispute surrounding gentile admission to the church. There was one portrayal that was new to me at the time, which I'd been meaning to catch for a while - the Acts of the Apostles series from The Living Bible. This series was filmed in 1957, by a church based group, who also did various Old Testament Characters (incl. Elijah, Ruth and Gideon, and a series on Jesus. Anyway, I'm going to work my way through this series posting comments on a few episodes at a time along the way.
    Acts of the Apostles Episode 1 – Endued with Power

    Ascension recounted - (Acts 1:1-11)
    Pentecost - (Acts 2:1-41)
    Peter heals a beggar – (Acts 3:1-10)
    Peter preaches to the onlookers – (Acts 3:11-26)
    Peter, John and the Sanhedrin – (Acts 4:1-22)
    Apostles heal many – (Acts 5:12-16)
    Apostles Escape from Prison – (Acts 5:17-26)
    Apostles before Sanhedrin – (Acts 5:27-42)
    [Extra-biblical episode - Jewish Authorities persecute the early church]

    As I've mentioned before, this is a very low budget series, and this opening episode makes that clear right from the off. Hence the ascension is not shown, merely recounted by the apostle John. This does have the benefit of leaving a difficult to visualise episode in the viewer's imagination, and focussing instead on the meaning of that event to the first Christians. Similarly, the tongues of fire arriving at Pentecost are kept off camera, yet referred to. What we see instead is the faces of the Parthians, Arabs etc. as they see what is occurring. This is typical, low budget stuff, but it was actually one of the most interesting treatments of this episode I can recall. Usually the effects look a bit hokey, and have to decide whether these "tongues" were an objective reality, as well as a subjective one. Furthermore, it places the focus on the crowd, who generally aren't really considered by these films.

    Whilst the majority of the first five chapters of Acts are covered here, one incident is conspicuous by its absence - the deaths of Ananias and Saphira. This is a bit of a thorny episode causing problems for both those who claim that the cross soothed God's wrath, and those who consider there to be a more notable discrepancy between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New. Actually it's interesting that the text never states that it was God who kills them. Whilst in our culture this seems to be the most obvious reading, it is also possible that either this was just an incredible coincidence, or that they died through fear, or that someone else killed them. Whichever way you go, (early) Christianity doesn't come out of it looking too good.

    Finally, on this episode, the film makes on significant addition. Following on from Gamaliel's speech in Acts 5, the Sanhedrin not only flog the apostles before them, but continue a campaign of persecution against them. Whilst Acts does place the blame for Stephen's death on the Sanhedrin, it suggests that it was this incident that initiated the violence against the church, rather than simply being part of an ongoing campaign. Flogging was very much a form of internal discipline, whilst Saul's later campaign (Acts 8) suggest that the earl church was now considered by some as outside of the acceptable bounds of Judaism. The script for this montage describes what is happening by saying "Physical pain became their test, and lashes of the whip their badges of honour". Nowadays, it's hard not to see this in the light of The Passion of the Christ.
    Acts Episode 2 – A Faithful Witness

    Deacons chosen – (Acts 6:1-7)
    Stoning of Stephen – (Acts 7:54-8:1)
    Persecution of early church – (Acts 8:2-3)
    Philip in Samaria – (Acts 8:4-25)
    Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch – (Acts 8:26-40)
    This episode covers in some depth events that are often excluded from films about the early church, which is mainly because many of these films focus on Peter, or Paul, rather than the other apostles who were also part of the early church. It's appropriate, then, that it starts with the choosing of the seven (Acts 6). It's interesting how these seven are initially selected to "wait on tables", but quickly graduate to bigger things (although this assumes it is this Philip, rather than the disciple found in the gospels).

    Strangely, the narration to the film implies that there were a number of martyrs before Stephen, noting ominously how there were a growing number of widows because of the persecution. However, later on we see Stephen stoned, and there the narrator calls Stephen the first Christian martyr.

    The other major incident here is that of the Ethiopian Eunuch. Here the Eunuch sits awkwardly in a Ben Hur style chariot (how many kinds were there) reading the scriptures whilst his driver takes a break. As the Ethiopian (who is not called a Eunuch in the film, presumably to save awkward questions from curious Sunday schoolers) reads the text before him, both he and Philip quote significantly more of Isaiah's suffering servant passage than Acts records.

    Whilst it's likely that their discussion was longer than Acts records, this is also the reading back into Acts a later Christian association, notably with substitutionary atonement theology. It's interesting that, this is one of seven NT references to Isaiah 53 (Matt 8:17, Mark 15:28, Luke 22:37, John 12:38, Acts 8:32–33, Rom 10:16 and 1 Pet 2:22–24) yet the parts of that passage which support substitutionary atonement are notably absent here (and in the other six, except, possibly, the 1 Peter reference).

    Finally, I always like to observe how New Testament films deals with baptism, and here it is full immersion baptism (with the Eunuch lowered backwards into the water as shown).

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    Wednesday, November 01, 2006

    Hail Mary DVD release

    When I noted at the start of last month what a busy month it was going to be for bible films, I only knew the half of it. I guess October is the prime release month for the Christmas market, and thankfully there still seems to be some association between Christmas and Christianity, so perhaps I should have looked more thoroughly. In any case, in addition to the DVD releases Mary and Jesus of Nazareth, and the release of ABC's The Ten Commandments in September, I've just found out that Godard's controversial updating of the nativity story - Je Vous Salue, Mary (Hail Mary) was released on DVD on the 10th October. There are a number of extras including a promotional funding video which culminates with a plea from Godard himself for money. Like the earlier VHS release, this DVD also includes the film Book of Mary as part of the main feature.

    I've discussed this film briefly on two occasions online, (here and here), though I am yet to give it the full treatment. Jamie S. Rich has written a good piece on both the film, and the DVD presentation at DVD talk, which looks at the film more in the context of Godard's other work, than that of other films covering similar material. It's well worth reading the whole piece, but here are a couple of pieces that I thought were worth quoting:
    Eventually, Joseph comes to trust what Mary is telling him, but not before he whines a lot about not getting any loving. He's not the most compassionate person that could have been charged with the paternity of the Christ child.


    Yet, the professor's lectures tie in with Mary's quandary, a variation on the chicken or egg conundrum: does the soul exist to animate the body, or does the body exist to house the soul? Her body is what she feels is under assault. It's what Joseph wants to get his hands on, it's what God has used to plant his seed. Her soul is ultimately her own, and it's tied directly to her virtue. The greatest pain the Supreme Being has caused her is making people doubt that she has maintained self-control, that she hasn't given her soul over to lust. Despite the anger this causes her, Mary perseveres.

    In the end, though, it's hard for Mary to tell if the price she has paid was worth it. Her son Jésus (Malachi Jara Kohan) has turned out to be a brat, and her husband has gone from adolescent sex fiend to resentful father.
    I have two comments on this review. Firstly the character of Joseph is one of the more interesting of the film. Matthew's gospel simply calls Joseph righteous, although notes how it was only God's intervention that prevented him from calling off the marriage (1:19). It's a vague term in this context, but the text suggests that it was actually because he was a "righteous" man that he wanted to call the marriage off. I guess that some would see the Joseph of the film as incompatible with this "righteous" Joseph. However, Godard's re-contextualising emphasises how both Josephs, prior to their own revelations, are torn between acceptable social norms, and their relationship with Mary. Joseph of Nazareth was righteous, but in a culture where that was the expected norm, even if it led to divorcing your wife for her impropriety. Godard's Joseph is lustful and irresponsible, in a culture where that is acceptable - encouraged even - and here it is propriety that is considered grounds for breaking up a relationship. So the way Godard plays this one is as much a comment on the differences between the two societies, as it is a comment on Joseph himself.

    Secondly, I don't recall thinking that the Jesus of the film was "a brat". Sure he is headstrong and confident, but then he is meant to be God made flesh. One scene that Rich may be thinking of is the one where he gathers a few followers and proceeds to change their names. I tend to think this is more Godard's joke than a serious comment.

    Finally, I find the packaging for this DVD rather strange as the front cover is emblazoned, not with the comment of some film critic praising it, but, with a comment from Pope John Paul 2 saying how hurtful and offensive it is to people. This seems a rather strange move. Whilst many films have used their controversy to improve their marketability, this is usually done by suggesting the film is in some way heroic as if it is fighting censorial injustice or something. I can't think of another case where the marketing does this by gleefully wallowing in the hurt the film caused.

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