• 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


    Friday, March 30, 2007

    Podcast: Jesus Christ, Superstar

    1973JCSSRoadtoCross.jpgThis month I'm speaking on Jesus Christ, Superstar, Norman Jewison's 1973 film based on Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber's rock opera. Jesus was played by Ted Neeley.

    My four previous entries in this podcast are all still available to download: Jesus of Nazareth, Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to St. Matthew), The Greatest Story Ever Told and Jesus of Montreal

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    Wednesday, March 28, 2007

    Nativity News Vol. 20

    I realised I missed trick on Monday by only including news about the special edition DVD release of The Nativity Story in passing, and not really commenting on the Mark Moring's latest article on the film for Christianity Today.

    The news about the 2nd DVD is not really surprising. I'm amazed by the number of barebones DVDs people buy new even when it's obvious that a special edition will arrive in the not-too-distant future. I'm never sure whether dual release strategies like this are down to cynical industry marketing, or simply the fact that it takes a while to get a decent collection of extras together, and some people want the DVD as soon as possible. That said the official website store only has the single disc edition advertised at the moment.

    Moring's article is primarily about the release strategy for the film. There are comments from both director Catherine Hardwicke and producer Wyck Godfrey. Elsewhere, Christianity Today has been fielding reader's comments on why it performed poorly at the box office. (Thanks to Jeffrey Overstreet for that one).

    Anyway, the story that made me haul out another edition of Nativity News is that Peter Chattaway has produced an audio commentary for the film along with his priest Fr. Justin Hewlett. Chattaway and Hewlett figured that since the current DVD has no audio commentary, and since it's another 6+ months until the special edition will be released, they may as well do their own. It's now available to download (although be aware it's 96MB!). The idea for doing this comes from the great Roger Ebert who way back in 2002 advocated the idea of "Do-it-yourself movie commentary tracks". It's something I'd like to do myself someday, hopefully once I've got used to doing my podcast I can make the transition.

    Finally, back in October, the news broke that the star of The Nativity Story, Keisha Castle-Hughes, was pregnant. Two strange things happened shortly afterwards. Firstly, as the readers comments linked to above verify, a number of Christians decided not to see the film as a result. Secondly, someone commented on my blog that they were a friend of Castle-Hughes, and that she wasn't in fact pregnant.

    Whilst it would have been great to have such a scoop on this blog, it seems fairly certain that the comment was a red herring. As the baby should be due any time now I've done a bit of searching for news, and Celebrity Baby Blog had a picture of her from before Christmas with a very visible bump.

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    Tuesday, March 27, 2007

    More Jesus Film Articles

    I've discovered a number of articles on Jesus in film recently, and have finally added them to my sidebar. Sadly they replace Pete Aitken's pages as the Post Fun website which seems to be no more. I should clarify that these are articles which offer a survey of a number of Jesus films in one article, rather than the numerous articles which discuss a particular Jesus film.

    John J. Michalczyk of the Boston Globe illustrates his article with this collage which I rather like. It dates way back to February 2004, and you have to register to read page 3, but it's a decent overview to the the subject covering all the usual suspects.

    Robert Fontenot at Audience Magazine was also from spring 2004 (i.e. the time Gibson's The Passion of the Christ was released). Fontenot grades 9 films on "Historical Authenticity", "Violence", "Treatment of Jews" and "Overall presentation" - obviously categories particularly relevant to The Passion. It sticks with Jesus biopics and excludes those who deviate significantly.

    Alexandra Alter (Pantagraph) offers one of the few forays into this area by female writers (only 3 of the 15 survey articles I know of are by women). Alter's article starts by previewing some of the forthcoming films looking at religious subject matter, whether reverently or irreverently, before listing 15 Jesus films from the past.

    I almost excluded Kim Paffenroth's Film Depictions of Judas article from the Journal of Religion and Film as it's really about Judas rather than Jesus. But such articles are relatively few and as it's certainly of interest to those studying in this area I decided to include it at the last minute.

    Also from the Journal of Religion and Film is Filming Jesus: Between Authority and Heresy by Paul V. M. Flesher and Robert Torry. Flesher and Torry's comparison between Jesus films and Targum is quite important and I understand that they are going to flesh it out more in their book on the subject due for release this summer.

    The last couple of links are lists rather than surveys. Glenn Patrick Buxton lists 100 different films which are of relevance to The Gospel of John (2003), several of which I've not heard of. I'm not convinced all of them have that much to do with Jesus - Woody Strode's Black Jesus is listed but has very little to do with the historical Jesus. Nevertheless it's good to possibly find Jesus films that I've not heard of.

    Finally, a similarly large number of Jesus films are listed on the Caixade de Fantasia site. About half are accompanied by a thumbnail of the actor playing Jesus, and the films are ordered by Jesus actor's surname which makes it rather difficult to navigate.

    Monday, March 26, 2007

    DVD News - Region 2 DVDs, The Nativity Story, The Prodigal

    One of the monthly highlights of my mail is the MovieMail Catalogue. I know it's main aim is to sell me things, yet I wish that all marketing literature was so well presented and informative. A certain degree of it's appeal is down to it's niche marketing - international and classic cinema. But there's far more to it. It's well written, works hard to be informative, keeps external ads to a minimum, and complements short capsule reviews with the occasional, longer piece on some of cinema's greatest artists. On top of all that it always brings something to my attention that I wasn't aware of previously.

    This month, though, they grabbed my attention even more than usual, devoting a whole page to "The Greatest Stories Ever Told - Films for Easter". There are a 15 DVDs/DVD collections on the page, and I hadn't realised that a number of those titles were about to be released in Region 2 format. In particular, last year I bought region 1 copies of David and Bathsheba (my review), and The Story of Ruth (my review) as they were not available over here at that stage. I was also unaware that the Passion of the Christ: Definitive Edition was due to be released over here as the Director's Edition. All three go on sale today.

    The other thing that caught my eye was The Greatest Stories Ever Told Box Set - an 8 disc set featuring The Song Of Bernadette (1943), The Robe (1953), Demetrius And The Gladiators (1954), The Story Of Ruth (1960), Francis of Assisi (1961), The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), The Bible (1966) and The Passion Of The Christ* (2004). As this product is also released today, I suspect it's this that has been the driving force behind the article in general. *There does seem to be some confusion as to the films included in the collection. Both MovieMail's in print catalogue, and its website list the films as shown above. Amazon, however, includes The Agony and the Ecstasy instead of The Passion of the Christ.

    The other films mentioned by the feature have all been available on DVD for sometime - The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, Jesus of Nazareth, The Last Temptation of Christ and Jesus of Montreal. You can subscribe to the free MovieMail Film Catalogue by going through the registration procedure on the MovieMail website.

    Elsewhere, Peter Chattaway is once again a valuable source of information. We both predicted that despite last week's DVD release of the "extras lite" version of The Nativity Story, a "special edition" would be released fairly soon. So it was not a huge surprise to find out from an article on the Christianity Today Movies website that they are going "to release a two-disc special edition just before Christmas". Anyone interested in that film should definitely read that article. It's something of a post-mortem on why the film failed at the box office. Hardwicke's disappointment is as tangible as the love she so obviously still feels for the project.

    Peter's other discovery is the release of the 1955 epic The Prodigal. Like Peter, I've never seen this film either. It's never been released on DVD, nor, as far as I'm aware, has it been released in any other format in the UK. All that will change when Warner Home Video release it as part of their Cult Camp Classics 4: Historical Epics collection alongside The Colossus of Rhodes (1961) and Land of the Pharaohs (1955). As Peter notes it's the only film to be produced that is about a parable. There are several films that seek to re-tell a parable without any direct reference to its original source, but this one actually pretends to be telling the story that Jesus was referring to in "The Prodigal Son"/"The Forgiving Father" (Luke 15). It's a highly spurious notion of course. Only the most hard-line literalist would consider that when Jesus begins a story with "There was a man who had two sons" he was recounting an event that actually happened. However, I imagine such a comment is to take the film far more seriously than it actually takes itself.

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    Friday, March 23, 2007

    The Follower (2007)

    Christian film-making has a pretty awful reputation. And, generally speaking, it has been pretty well earned. Such cinematic crimes are often defended by bemoaning the low budget. Yet it is fairly rare that the weakest parts of such films are those that could be improved by throwing money at them. If the special effects were lacking, or the costumes were a little shoddy then such flaws would be forgiveable. Skilful actors and good writers, however, depends on a combination of talent and hardwork, yet it is often in these areas where much Christian film-making is weakest.

    It's refreshing then to find a project where both nuanced acting and well honed writing are in good supply. The Follower is a collection of three short films which has been produced by the Saltmine Trust. The three films look at Palm Sunday, Good Friday and Easter Day as if they were told today. Actor and writer Richard Hasnip takes the lead role of Peter and it's through him that the audience experiences each event.

    The first film is Palm Sunday, and it is the simplest of the three. Peter stares down the open road which he and the others used to travel to Jerusalem and he recounts the feelings of popularity and fame that engulfed him that day. The location switches between the road and the inside of a pub and back again. Peter addresses the camera directly interspersing his narration with some wry observations. Despite how greatly many dream of being hailed by a large crowd, "it didn't seem like this was the moment of his dreams." Palm Sunday ends with Peter stating "it only took two words from him to change my life forever."

    In contrast to the first film, Good Friday dramatises a telephone conversation between Peter and a female journalist. Whereas the other two films present a Peter able to offer cool reflections on these events, this film catches him in the emotional turmoil of late Good Friday. Jesus has not yet been resurrected, Peter hasn't even heard of Judas' death. He is scared, angry, depressed and grieving. There are a couple of particularly nice touches such as when Peter tries to pass over his denial of Jesus. The film is shot in a gritty, hand-held camera style reminiscent of the TV show Spooks.

    The final film returns to more direct narration. It is sometime after Easter Day, and Peter recounts both the events of Jesus's resurrection, and their reconciliation on a beach some days later. Shots of Peter in the countryside are interspersed with flashback footage from Easter Sunday. Mary tells a cynical and despondent Peter the incredible events she has witnessed, but he is unmoved. Unmoved, that is, until Jesus appears in the room with them. In arguably the strongest moment of all three films, Peter's head whips around to stare at his resurrected master. The camera freezes to capture his astonishment and joy - an poignant way to show Peter, quite literally, lost for words.

    My only minor quibble is with the soundtrack. Whilst the background music generally gets it about right, the soundtrack, particularly in the second film, is littered with distracting computer generated sounds. Whilst these do notch up the tension, it's somewhat dissipated by overuse.

    Thankfully the films' pluses more than compensate for this minor issue. In addition to strong performances, and sharp writing, James White's camerawork and editing greatly enhance the three scripts. Even well acted, dramatic monologues can be dull if filmed without innovation, yet both the first and final films are fully engaging. But it's the second film where White really triumphs, instilling claustrophobia and paranoia in just the right quantity.

    The other strength of these three films lies in keeping Jesus off camera. The idea of telling the story of Jesus in modern times is hardly new. Neither is the idea of having one of his followers tell the tale whilst he stays off camera. The 50s biblical epics went that route over and over again. What makes these films work, however, is combining these two concepts.

    A modern day Jesus is too distracting. He may look more like us, but we still can't really relate to him. But we can relate to a modern day Peter. The error prone leader of the early church portrayed as one of us is all the more compelling. The makers of these films know that if Peter in all his frailty can follow Jesus, then maybe we can too.


    The Follower is available on DVD or to view online from the Saltmine Trust.


    Wednesday, March 21, 2007

    List of Labels

    Ever since I made the switch to blogging in what was called "Beta", I've been gradually adding labels and planning a time when I could have a page with all the labels in one place. I didn't really want them in my sidebar (as there are already 72!), so I've now placed them in one of my archive pages, and placed a view all labels tag link in my sidebar.

    In time I'll be breaking these down into more manageable categories.

    Tuesday, March 20, 2007

    Not the Messiah (He's a Very Naughty Boy) - Life of Brian: The Musical

    Way back in October, Peter Chattaway posted about Eric Idle's plans to turn Monty Python's 1979 Jesus film Life of Brian into a musical. There have now been a number of articles on this show, which is to be called Not the Messiah (He's a Very Naughty Boy). Playbill reported on it back in October, then Variety covered it last month, and then yesterday Peter linked to The Globe and Mail (although you have to pay for that last article).

    Following the success of Idle's "Spamalot", he is, once again, collaborating with composer John Du Prez. However, according to The Globe and Mail article the show's première will be conducted by Idle's cousin, Peter Oundjian - the musical director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Not the Messiah is due to open at the Luminato Festival of Arts and Creativity in Toronto on June 1st.

    But notably, according to this latest article at least, this production will not actually be a musical. It will be an oratorio (a non-costumed, non-acted, concert performance usually dealing with religious subject matter) and it will use 40 musicians and 4 classical singers. Idle notes how it it unlikely to cause offence as there is no crucifixion scene. It's "good-natured playing with the concept of [Handel's] Messiah" as much as anything else.

    This latest article includes a few interesting quotations for fans of Life of Brian:
    "As Handel's lyricist adapted the Nativity story and the Gospel story," says Idle, "this adapts the story of Brian, a simple boy mistaken for the Messiah, which is his curse." He's talking over the phone from his home in Los Angeles, and the end of that sentence is nearly lost in laughter. The mere thought of Brian Cohen, not-Messiah, still makes him giggle...

    Idle remembers the film's shoot in Tunisia as "the most fun we ever had." Graham Chapman gave up his heavy drinking habit partway through the shoot in order to play Brian (a role that John Cleese had coveted for his own)...
    I love the thought of Idle still giggling to himself at the central concept of Life of Brian almost 30 years later, and it's good to see him exploring more challenging forms and material. I have a lot of respect for artists who continually push themselves and their work in new directions.


    Monday, March 19, 2007

    DVD News

    There are a number of Bible films that have recently been released on DVD which I've yet to pass comment on.

    Firstly, episodes 1 and 2 of the children's animated adventure series Friends and Heroes has been released. Friends and Heroes is currently showing at lunchtimes on CBBC. Initially, the DVDs are to be released through the official website. A Friends and Heroes DVD Club has also been set up for those wanting to get the whole series. The site also includes the release schedule for the remaining episodes, the next of which is released on 14th May. Releases of Series 2 will begin on the 21st January 2008.

    Secondly, one of my favourite Jesus films, the animated film The Miracle Maker, was somehow re-released on the 6th March in a special edition without any of my usual sources or me noticing. That is, until my friend Steven D Greydanus of Decent Films found out. Steven also tipped off Peter Chattaway who has posted some interesting comments about the new DVD at FilmChat. The main extra that this disc has is a commentary with Derek Hayes (one of the directors) and one of the producers.

    Last week, Peter also noted that the release of The Final Inquiry appears to have been delayed - a date is no longer given on the FoxFaith website.

    I have also discussed previously the forthcoming releases of a The Gospel According to St. Matthew (colourised version) (26th March) and The Nativity Story (20th March).

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    Friday, March 16, 2007

    16mm Version of The Last Days of Pompeii (1935) for sale on EBay

    Occasionally I come across these rarities on eBay, and like to pass them on to anyone who shares my interests, but has more disposable income than I. Anyone in that category may be interested to know that there there is a 16mm version of The Last Days of Pompeii (1935) for sale on eBay.

    This is the most famous version of the story, but as I was already aware of several others I thought I'd check the IMDB. There are actually 24 existing productions with the word with at least one film (named simply Pompeii) scheduled for 2008. Not all of these will be directly linked to the events of 79AD (for example Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii), but nevertheless it's a considerable number. There are only 2 films with Herculaneum in the title (and one of those is a documentary). Krakatoa does do slightly better though.

    The most recent Pompeii related film is the BBC's 2003 documentary Pompeii: The Last Day which featured some dramatic footage, and was narrated by F. Murray Abraham. What is notable is that even when not adapting Edward Bulwer-Lytton's novel, as with this documentary, film-makers still prefer Pompeii to Herculaneum.

    Perhaps the next most famous version is the 1959 Italian version of the novel, Gli Ultimi giorni di Pompei starring Steve Reeves. This is actually the only version I believe I have seen, although, since I was very young at the time, I may be confusing it with another version. I'm fairly sure though, that it wasn't the much loved British period sitcom Up Pompeii, starring Frankie Howerd.

    Another, notable version of the story is the 1984 Mini-series Last Days of Pompeii starring Brian Blessed, Ernest Borgnine, Olivia Hussey, Anthony Quayle and Laurence Olivier. It's an impressive cast and has a good following including a dedicated fan site. Sadly it'snot available on DVD.

    Funnily enough, Pompeii itself has always been place close to me heart. My dad visited it when he was young (and before excavations were as advanced as they are today), and he took a good number of slides which made for an exciting show when I was young. I seem to recall taking them into school as well when we were studying the Romans. I was reminded of all this when in my search for images to illustrate this post I came across a German web page with a number of photos of Pompeii.

    Thursday, March 15, 2007

    Faith and Film Critics Circle Best of 2006 Awards

    For a number of years now, I've been a member of the Faith and Film Critics Circle. It's an important group for me to be part of, and as I'm one of the more junior members it's great to be part of something bigger than myself, as well as having a place where there are people of much more experience than me that I can learn from.

    One of the most important things we do is vote on annual awards, the winners of which were announced last Friday and are listed below:
    Most Significant Exploration of Spiritual Issues - The New World
    Children of Men (Runner-up)

    Best Narrative Film - The New World
    L'Enfant (Runner-up)

    Best Documentary - 49 Up / - Jonestown (tie)

    Best Actor - Leonardo DiCaprio, The Departed
    Forrest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland (Runner-up)

    Best Actress - Helen Mirren, The Queen
    Q'orianka Kilcher, The New World (Runner-up)

    Best Supporting Actor - Michael Sheen, The Queen
    Mark Wahlberg, The Departed (Runner-up)

    Best Supporting Actress - Rinko Kikuchi, Babel
    Adrianna Barazza, Babel (Runner-up)

    Best Director - Terrence Malick, The New World
    Guillermo del Toro, Pan's Labyrinth (Runner-up)

    Best Ensemble Cast - Little Miss Sunshine
    The Departed (Runner-up)

    Best Orginal Screenplay - Guillermo del Toro, Pan's Labyrinth
    Peter Morgan, The Queen (Runner-up)

    Best Adapted Screenplay - Todd Field and Tom Perrotta, Little Children
    Iris Yamashita/Paul Haggis, Letters From Iwo Jima (Runner-up)

    Best Cinematography - Emanuel Lubezki, The New World
    Emanuel Lubezki, Children of Men (Runner-up)

    Best Original Score - Clint Mansell, The Fountain
    Javier Navarrete, Pan's Labyrinth (Runner-up)

    Best Film For the Whole Family - Lassie
    Over The Hedge (Runner-up)
    I should add a few notes. Some may wonder why we have included The New World when the Academy classed it as a 2005 film. To be honest we don't really understand why the Academy did this. Whilst a version of this film was screened in a few places in 2005, the version that was finally put on general release was a different cut, and that wasn't seen until January 2006. It makes sense, to us at least, to consider this as a 2006 film. To me, any other approach would reek of exclusivity.

    Secondly, the voting procedure was led by Jeffrey Overstreet(pictured), and Ron Reed. I'd like to thank both of them. Jeffrey has served as chair of the FFCC for a long while now, but recently decided to step down to focus on other projects. Jeffrey's done a great job, and been a great inspiration to me personally, so I'd particularly like to thank him for all his work, and I'm looking forward to his continued presence as a member of the group.

    There's a full list of all the members of the Faith and Film Critics Circle, as well as details of how you can join us at our website. (Thanks to Zac Kincaid for all his work on the website).


    Wednesday, March 14, 2007

    Risen - The Story of the First Easter

    Peter Chattaway posts the news from "Variety" that another film is being made about the first Easter. It will be produced by Ashok Amritraj (Bringing Down The House), and Patrick Aiello from Hyde Park Entertainment and has the working title Risen - The Story of the First Easter. "Variety" continue...
    Hyde Park has hired scribe Paul Aiello to pen the script, which will center on the apostle Peter in telling the story of the time between the resurrection of Jesus and the Pentecost... Risen does not yet have a distributor, although Hyde Park has a deal at Fox...Amritraj said the time is right for faith-based entertainment considering the chaotic state of the world.

    "And then secondly, clearly, I think there is a commercial marketplace and need for movies that have hope and values," Amritraj told Daily Variety. "It's a big deal for us."

    Hyde Park intends to pursue other such projects.
    I must admit that my head is spinning with the glut of films clambering over one another to claim the prize of rightful heir to The Passion of the Christ's throne. Peter lists three. L'Inchiesta / The Inquiry / The Final Inquiry features Hristo Shopov reprising the role of Pilate which he played in The Passion of the Christ. Screen Gems and Tim LaHaye are producing The Resurrection(Peter notes that the release date for this has now slipped to 27th Feb. 2009). Finally, he lists German / Canadian production The Sword of Peter, which I've not got around to blogging just yet.

    On top of all this Peter also noted back in December that The Weinstein Company's Genius Products is due to release a DVD called Resurrection. It's supposedly based on a Max Lucado novel which suggests it will be a re-issue of Resurrection (1999) which Andrea Jobe adapted from a short story by Lucado. (As opposed to the Christopher Lambert one or the one directed by Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal's father Stephen).

    That said, the "Variety" article which this quote comes from does describe it as "picking up where The Passion left off". Either way I'm not sure how much I trust Genius Products. They are, after all, the company who are set to release a colourised version of Pasoloni's Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo

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    Tuesday, March 13, 2007

    Lucifer - Movie Star

    Whilst the devil never quite seems to get the leading role in a movie, he is certainly a frequently used member of the supporting cast in two particular genres – the horror film and the biblical epic. Leaving the horror genre to those better equipped to comment on it I thought I would make a few comments on the portrayal of Satan in Jesus films. Since the main place that the devil appears in films about Jesus is his temptation in the desert, that will be the main focus.

    The earliest silent films didn't really have much room for the temptation scene. The lack of sound meant that dialogue could only be conveyed by using intertitle cards whilst the actors mimed. Wordy episodes like the Sermon on the Mount, or the temptation in the desert didn't really work with these restrictions so such episodes tended to be either ignored, or only dealt with briefly.

    The first major American Jesus film to cover this material was Cecil B. DeMille's The King of Kings (1927). Occurring right at the end of the silent era, DeMille's film started well after Jesus's baptism and temptation, but inserted a temptation into the clearing of the temple scene. Satan takes human form, but his dark attire makes it clear to the audience who he is. He troubles Jesus with a single temptation – to gain the kingdoms of the world by bowing to him. Jesus refuses, and shortly afterwards is able to resist a similar offer from Judas and the mob that accompanies him.

    The portrayal of the devil as a human is actually the standard approach for the Jesus biopics. One film that deviated from this norm was Nicholas Ray's King of Kings (1961), here there is no external figure, we simply hear Satan's voice and see Jesus's reaction. Satan's voice, however, is different from that of Jesus. So whilst this film depicts Satan as internal rather than external , he is still distinct from Jesus as such.

    In a similar manner to DeMille, Pasolini uses a darkly dressed human figure to tempt Jesus in the wilderness. As this film is portrayal of The Gospel According to St. Matthew the conflict between Jesus and the devil uses first evangelist's dialogu almost word for word. Jesus's time in the desert is brief, dealt with matter of factly before Jesus goes about starting his movement. Jesus's rejection of the devil's temptation to gain power aligns well with Pasolini's marxist agenda.

    Arguably the most interesting and thorough portrayal of Satan comes in George Steven's Greatest Story Ever Told. Here Satan is credited as "The Drak Hermit" and played by perennial evil actor Donald Pleasance. As Jesus climbs the crags of the wilderness he encounters the hermit in a cave. The two talk for a while before Satan begins to tempt Jesus. This non-confrontational approach is more beguiling as opposed to the confrontational methods used in other films. Unlike other Jesus films, The Dark Hermit appears later in the film also. At a later stage he tries to encourage the crowd to make Jesus the messiah by giving him a messianic title in their presence. As the story draws to it's climax, the hermit makes two final appearances, near Judas as he contemplates suicide, and stirring up the crowd that condemns Jesus to death.

    The seventies films largely ignored the temptation scene and the corresponding mentions of the devil. This was understandable for Jesus Christ Superstar which was essentially a passion play, but it is strange that such a long, detailed look at the life of Jesus such as Jesus of Nazareth should omit this episode as well. Ironically, this was the time when Satan's popularity in the horror genre was really beginning to come into its own.

    Away from the increasingly materialist west, the 1978 Indian Jesus film Dayasagar developed the tradition in a new direction. Its Jesus was not a human figure, but a far more mythical looking beast, albeit one of a similar height and shape to an adult man. Aside from his appearance, the encounter with Jesus is fairly standard, but whereas film's such as Ray's could be read as denying the reality of Stan, Dayasagar depicts the spiritual realm as equally real as the physical world, and as fully able to interact with it.

    Perhaps the most extensive treatment of the temptation of Jesus is of course Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ. Obviously the film's climax is where the devil (portrayed here as a young, innocent looking girl) tempts Jesus to come off the cross and settle for a normal life. But the film also contains a more standard temptation sequence, and part of Jesus's susceptibility to his final temptation arises because the devil appears differently every time Jesus encounters him/her.

    The temptation scene itself commences as Jesus draws a circle in the dirt and sits in it waiting for God. The devil appears to tempt him in a number of different forms; as a snake with Magdalene's voice, as a lion who sounds like Judah, and finally as a burst of flame with vocals by Martin Scorsese himself. Later on, Jesus is tempted in the Garden of Gethsemane where he appears as John the disciple. The temptations in this film are markedly different from the gospels, focussing more on Jesus's internal dilemma concerning his identity - the movie's major theme.

    A number of more recent films have also examined the temptation Jesus faced in new ways. The animated film The Miracle Maker switched from its standard 3D animation to its more psychological 2D drawing style for this segment of the film. This makes this section more subjective, it also allows for a smooth transition from the desert to the top of the temple, something the gospels never really explain.

    The Jesus mini series (1999) combines most of these elements into its version of the temptation. Satan is actually represented by two different human figures. Initially, we see a attractive woman dressed seductively in red. Then she changes into a man who, like Pasolini / DeMille is dressed in black. In contrast to the sexual seduction suggested (although not voiced) of the female Satan, the male Satan tests Jesus in a more intellectual manner. For example, the temptation to turn stones to bread is in order not just to feed himself, but all the starving of the world.

    Like Last Temptation Satan also appears in the Garden of Gethsemane, again trying to tempt him away from his destiny, but in the process handing Jesus a convenient opportunity to provide an apologetic for modern day faith. Interestingly neither temptation appears to be as challenging as the one that faces him at the start of the film - to marry Mary of Bethany and settle down with her.

    Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ also tries to avoid portraying Satan as one particular gender. Whilst Satan is played by an actress, her feminine characteristics are minimised, her hair and eyebrows are shaved off, and she wears a heavy dark robe. The story only concerns the events of the last 24 hours of Jesus's life, so the temptation in the desert story is not a part of the narrative. Nevertheless, Gibson, like Scorsese and Young before him, allows Satan the chance to tempt Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. This androgynous Satan figure is also the only film by this point that does not try to befriend Jesus and cajole him into sin. Furthermore, as Jesus suffers his fate, Satan mocks him by parodying the Madonna and child.

    The 2006 South African modernised Jesus film Jezile (Son of Man) brings a new twist to the film. Not only does this film feature the first black Jesus, but also the first black devil. The film portrays a defiant political Jesus promoting for non-violence resistance to the forces which oppress his people. Jesus's defeat of Satan early in the film captures his saying about binding the strong man in order to plunder his goods. As a beaten Satan roles down the hill, Jesus has struck a decisive blow in the spiritual realm which will impact the physical world he seeks to change.

    Filmmakers have chosen a variety of ways, then, to portray Satan, but despite this a number of alternative approaches suggest themselves. No film, as far as I am aware has sought to use the voice of the actor playing Jesus to also speak Satan's lines. This move would suggest the reality of the way temptation tends to affect most humans. Additionally, with the exception of Dayasagar, none of these films really explored what Satan, a fallen angel, might actually look like. This suggests there is plenty of scope for creativity in future Jesus films.

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    Monday, March 12, 2007

    Kingsley, Slater, Molina and Gould to Voice Animated Version of The Ten Commandments (2007)

    My review of this film is now up, or you can read all my posts on this film.

    What is it with the Ten Commandments at the moment? Last year saw Dougray Scott and Paul Rhys star in the new TV mini-series The Ten Commandments (2006). Then later in the year, a DVD was released of The Ten Commandments: The Musical featuring Val Kilmer reprising the role of Moses. Now this year we have The Margate Exodus lined up for a summer release, Dekalog spoof The Ten due in August and now another version of the Ten Commandments looks set to hit cinemas later in the year.

    The imaginatively titled The Ten Commandments is an animated feature directed by Bill Boyce and John Stronach and produced by Promenade Pictures. Promenade's official website is still under construction, but there is a profile of the company here. It seems the names behind the company are former Paramount President Frank Yalbans and Cindy Bond who is producing this particular film.

    The Ten Commandments will be the first of six bible themed CGI films known collectively as Epic Stories of the Bible. Curiously, the next entry will go back to the story of Noah with The Great Flood.

    The film has certainly collected some acting talent to provide the voices. According to the IMDb, Ben Kingsley, who played the lead role in 1996's Moses, will narrate, handing on the part of Moses to Christian Slater. Alfred Molina will play the part of Ramsees, and Elliot Gould will provide the voice of God.

    New Zealand Global Talent Community Kea have covered this story mainly looking at the success of of the animators for this project Huhu Studios. According to them at least, this film is based on DeMille's 1956 epic of the same title. Edit: Director Bill Boyce comments below that this film will not in fact be based on DeMille's film hoping instead to "portray a humble, human Moses".

    I'll post more on this as it becomes available.

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    Friday, March 09, 2007

    Friends and Heroes (Review)

    Bible stories have always been a popular target for animators, going right back to Disney's early Noah's Ark short. The new Friends and Heroes series continues this tradition which has had it's fair share of highs and lows. Its approach is relatively novel. Instead of focussing directly on the characters from the Old and New Testaments, the biblical narratives are introduced into a series of stories about the fictional characters Macky and Portia. Macky is a young Jewish Christian living in Alexandria, Egypt, in the first century A.D. He has a chance meeting with Portia, who turns out to be the niece of the governor of Alexandria, Tiberius.

    Whereas some of the more recent animated bible stories, such as Testaments, have been aimed at all the family, Friends and Heroes is pitched specifically at children. Macky and Portia are just a little older than this target audience, and it's easy for children to relate to them and be inspired by their exciting lives. They are brave and resourceful, but they are not superheroes. Children can aspire to be like them rather than simply be entertained by them.

    However, what this series does do well is balance the need to create engaging plots whilst retaining a sense of realism. Locating the story in the first century helps in this respect, as there were hazards facing children then that most children in the 21st century western world are unlikely to come up against. But many of the perils that they and their friends face are not so far detached from those of today.

    A classic example is episode 7, where Macky's sister Leah wanders off and gets lost. But rather than rushing headlong into some far fetched tale, it moves, with perfect pacing, through increasing degrees of danger, maximising the impact of each one. Most children will be able to relate to the fear being lost and being without their parents, and the episode takes time to explore this. But is also moves on to look at forced child labour - unlikely to effect the target audience, but still a reality for many of their contemporaries in other parts of the world. The result is that the episodes are engaging, and exciting, yet at the same time touching and personal.

    Such disciplined, well thought out, pacing is also in evidence in the way that the biblical stories are introduced. Just when the attention spans of the younger audience members might begin to wane, a new story is introduced and, crucially, it's in a new animated medium - 3D CGI. This gear change both draws the audience back in, but also highlights the importance of these stories in their own right. They sit both within and without the Macky / Portia narrative. Important stories in their own right, but tales that should not just entertain, but be digested and applied. As Macky and family are applying them to their situations, it encourages the audience to do likewise.

    Yet thankfully these are not dogmatic, overly moralising cartoons. In times gone by, children's programmes often ended with one of the characters spelling out the moral, in a way that even when I was young felt like it cheapened the programme as a whole. Here the biblical stories are shown, and characters are shown applying them to their lives, but it is left up to the audience what they do with that example.

    From a technical point of view, the 2D animation is of a very high standard. Bright colours and quirky characters are complemented by vivid , smooth animation. The quality of the 3D sections of the show doesn't quite attain such high standards, but it should be borne in mind that 3D CGI is still very much an emerging medium. Whilst the 3D work here is not quite up to the high standards set by Pixar (specifically in The Incredibles) it still works well in the short bursts it is used for. Finally, the music is catchy and the dialogue is generally solid.

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    Teaser Trailer for The Ten

    Things are progressing apace with David Wain's Dekalog spoof The Ten. The teaser trailer is now available to view on YouTube and MySpace. It's unusual trailer for a comedy film in that it doesn't really have any jokes (most comedy trailers these days save you the price of admission by giving away all the best jokes). In fact, were it not for this shot of Winona Ryder with a ventriloquist's dummy you might not even get that this is a comedy at all.

    One moment I particularly liked is the shot of the birds which combines the Egyptian plagues with a touch of Hitchcockian menace. And, for a comedy trailer, viewed on YouTube, the photography looks impressive as well.

    In other news, the release date is now set, it seems, at 3rd August, but the film will be showing at a number of film festivals beforehand kicking off with a screening plus questions session in Texas. Given the likely hostility to the film in that area, they certainly don't seem to be flinching from their earlier position that as someone is bound to get upset they may as well just get on with it. Anyway the festival dates are:
    South By Southwest, Austin - March 10 & 11 (Meet David Wain, Paul Rudd & Ken Marino)
    Cleveland Film Festival - March 24 & 25 (David Wain in person)
    AFI Dallas - March 31 (Ken Marino in person)
    Philadelphia Film Festival - April 5 (David Wain in person)
    Sonoma Valley Film Festival - April 11-15
    Sarasota Film Festival - April 13-22
    Independent Film Festival of Boston- April 25-30
    Indianapolis Film Festival - April 25-May 4
    Berkshire Int'l Film Fest - May 17
    Nantucket Film Festival - June 13-17

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    Thursday, March 08, 2007

    More information on Friends and Heroes

    Following up from last month's post about the new BBC animated adventure series Friends and Heroes, more details have become available, and as the first episode airs in just 4 days (Monday), I thought it was about time I made some more comments. I'll review the episode I was sent as a screener tomorrow.

    First of all the broadcast details(with video plus codes) have been announced as follows:
    Ep 1: Monday 12th March @ 12:00 noon
    Ep 2: Monday 12th March @ 12.30pm
    Ep 3: Tuesday 13th March @ 12.30pm
    Ep 4: Wednesday 14th March @ 12:00 noon
    Ep 5: Wednesday 14th March @ 12.30pm
    Ep 6: Thursday 15th March @ 12.30pm
    Ep 7: Friday 16th March @ 12.30pm
    Ep 8: Monday 19th March @ 12:00 noon
    Ep 9: Tuesday 20th March @ 12.30pm
    Ep 10: Wednesday 21st March @ 12:00 noon
    Ep 11: Wednesday 21st March @ 12.30pm
    Ep 12: Thursday 22nd March @ 12.30pm
    Ep 13: Friday 23rd March @ 12.30pm
    Secondly, it's clear that this project has a good range of talent involved. Gary Kurtz (producer for the original Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back) is named as the "Supervising Producer". Kurtz has been doing animation for the last 15 years. Other established names are composers Karl Twigg and Mark Topham, who have written a number of UK chart hits for bands such as Steps, Five and Westlife.

    It's also really encouraging to see Naomi Jones involved. Jones was involved with the brilliant Testament: Bible in Animation series, as well as The Miracle Maker, one of my favourite Jesus films.

    And then there's Stan Berkowitz who has worked on recent animated versions of Superman and Batman. There are various other names associated with the project, although the only one I really know is Stephen Gaukroger a regular speaker at the Spring Harvest conference over here in the UK.

    Away from the names and back to the project. As mentioned previously this is the first of three series, and the opening episodes introduce the main characters (Macky and Portia) to us and to each other. Macky is from a family of first century Jewish Christians, whilst Portia is the niece of the Governor of Alexandria - Tiberius.

    It's Tiberius's meteoric rise that allows each series to take place in a different city. Tiberius's promotion to leader of the siege of Jerusalem moves the action for series two to the heart of Judea, and finally his move to Rome provides the setting for the third series. So there will be something in this for Roman history buffs too (although how accurate a depiction of Tiberius it will be remains to be seen).

    One final point. The animation will be a mix of 2D and 3D, with the 2D animation making up the majority of each episode, and the 3D being introduced for the sections where the biblical stories are narrated. This is an interesting technique. The use of 3D suggests that these stories are more real than those in 2D, but the way they are narrated stresses the importance of them being stories that are owned and identified with, rather than just stories for the sake of it.

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    Wednesday, March 07, 2007

    Living Bible - Episodes 9 & 10 (UK version)

    (This post is part of a continuing series on the UK release of The Living Bible -See all posts and citation method)
    Episode 9 - Betrayal in Gethsemane
    Judas leaves the last supper - (John 13:30)
    Gethsemane - (Mark 14:32-42)
    Jesus's Arrest - (Matt 26:47-56, John 18:1-11)
    Judas Hangs himself - (Matt 27:1-10, 26:24)

    Episode 10 - Trial Before Pilate
    1st Trial before Pilate - (John 18:28-38)
    Before Herod - (Luke 23:5-11)
    2nd Trial before Pilate - (Matt 27:20-25; Luke 23:13-25; John 18:40; 19:4-16)
    Jesus Mocked and Taken to be Crucified - (Mark 15:16-20)
    As noted previously the episodes in this series are somewhat out of order, hence having just had episode 8 as Jesus Before the High Priest, the story now returns to the Garden of Gethsemane, before jumping forward to the events in front of Pilate and Herod.

    The Gethsemane episode also features one of the more unusual examinations of Judas (pictured) that I can recall. The last supper episodes are not really included, hence there is little examination of his psyche prior to his betrayal that night (although episode 3 offers a good deal on Judas's motives in the run up to the Last Supper). However, once Jesus is arrested the story switches from looking at Jesus's anguish to that of Judas as he realises what he has done. Stranger still, we do not see Judas actually take his own life. The episode ends with Judas climbing a rocky hill, with only the voiceover to explain what he is going to do.

    By including in Episode 10 two "trials" before Pilate, as well as Jesus being taken before Herod the film completes the most extensive sequence of trials in any film I can recall. Jesus is taken before Annas, the Sanhedrin at night, the Sanhedrin in the morning, Pilate, Herod, Pilate, Flogging (no direct comment), Pilate, mocking and then death. This sequence is even longer than in The Passion of the Christ. Interestingly though, whilst Jesus is taken away and returns with marks on his chest, there is no direct visual or audible reference to his flogging.

    These episodes demonstrate the harmonising style of this series taken to its extreme. In addition to the lengthy trial sequence described above, some of the common events that the gospels narrate quite differently find themselves brought together. So the synoptics record Judas as identifying Jesus with a kiss. John has Jesus identify himself with the words "I am he" which cause the soldiers to fall down. Here, Judas kisses Jesus, but before the soldiers can arrest him, Jesus asks them what they have come for, and answers that he is the one they are looking for. We also get both Jesus's speech in the synoptics ("Day after day I sat in the temple teaching,") as well as that from John ("shall I not drink the cup which the Father has given me?"). However, certain details are omitted entirely, such as the fleeing naked man of Mark 14:51-2.

    Likewise, the final trial before Pilate contains elements exclusive to Matthew, Luke and John. The hand washing and the line "his blood be on us and our people" is solely from Matthew. The incident with Herod and Pilate's qualms about releasing Barabbas specifically are solely from Luke, and lines such as "Behold the man!", and the veiled threats to report Pilate to Caesar are from John.

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    Tuesday, March 06, 2007

    Forthcoming Book - Jesus, the Gospels, and Cinematic Imagination

    This is a fairly advanced warning, but I imagine it will interest many of those who have ever found themselves flicking through a Jesus film trying to find the right scene. Richard Walsh ("Reading the Gospels in the Dark") and Jeffrey L. Staley have a new book due out in September 2007 that will make that task a whole lot easier.

    "Jesus, the Gospels, and Cinematic Imagination: A Handbook to Jesus on DVD", summarises eighteen Jesus films available on DVD along with chapter listing, details of extras, a look at the film's genre and socio-political setting, descriptions of the main characters and information on the director. The book concludes with "a harmony of film parallels that lists by hour, minute, and second where each gospel scene can be found on the DVDs".

    A number of parts of the book are available already, with links from Jeffrey L. Staley's home pages to the contents, preface and study questions. The eighteen books to be covered in depth are:
    The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ
    From the Manger to the Cross
    The King of Kings
    King of Kings
    The Gospel According to Saint Matthew
    The Greatest Story Ever Told
    Jesus Christ Superstar
    Jesus of Nazareth
    The Jesus Film
    Monty Python’s Life of Brian
    The Last Temptation of Christ
    Jesus of Montreal
    The Miracle Maker
    The Gospel of John
    The Passion of the Christ
    The authors raise a couple of interesting points in the preface, firstly they explain the problems of using Jesus films in the classroom:
    Jesus films, however, are quite difficult to use in the classroom (and in research) because no easy tool exists for cross-referencing them with the gospels... Generally, we, like other professors, have had to watch entire films in order to find the perfect clip for a class, then note the time that the clip appeared in the film... Our handbook now resolves this problem by providing an easy-to-use list of gospel parallels that tells students and teachers the precise hour/minute/second on a given DVD that the gospel story or scene occurs. We believe that DVD
    Elsewhere they make the point that DVD technology has fundamentally changed the way this kind of clip surveying can happen because not only is it possible to skip to a precise point in the film, but also, unlike video tapes, the timings are unaffected by the speed of the video player and where you start counting from.

    All in all this looks like it will be an excellent resource, and hopefully it will far outstrip my Jesus Film Scene Comparison Spreadsheet, which lacks both timings and scripture references (although it does cover 30 films rather than just 18).

    Please note this image is for illustration purposes only and bears no relation to the official cover


    Monday, March 05, 2007

    The Lost Tomb of Jesus: The Morning After the Night Before

    As I mentioned on Friday I wasn't able to catch the programme on "The Discovery Channel" last night, but fortunately Mark Goodacre did and blogged the whole documentary section by section. It's a pretty comprehensive look at the filmmakers' claim, so I advise you to have a read for yourselves. Mark also has a number of other posts on this story, including a number on the statistical case as well as one where he comments on some of my comments.

    Elsewhere, Peter Chattaway mentions The Body (2001) a dramatic film about a priest investigating a skeleton which may have been that of Jesus. I've not seen the film, and had forgotten it even existed. Peter certainly didn't think that highly of it anyway.

    Then there's Tyler Williams's summing up of The Lighter Side of Jesus’ Tomb, which includes a link to a few comments by one of my favourite cartoonists Scott Adams (Dilbert). That led me to this gem:
    What is up with these buried cities that archaeologists keep discovering? I’m trying to figure out how a city gets buried unless a volcano is nearby. In my house, for example, when the crumbs on the kitchen floor reach ankle height, I start thinking about sweeping. Call me a neat freak if you must, but I wouldn’t just keep eating bagels until I lose the refrigerator.
    What's strange is how people feel the need to offer serious explanations for the questions Adams poses. Boy, does he know his key demographic inside out. For what it's worth, I also can't help wondering if somewhere along the line, Dogbert is involved in this whole "Jesus Tomb" saga.

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    Friday, March 02, 2007

    The Lost Tomb of Jesus

    I've been slightly reticent to post about this film here as firstly, it's been covered in so many other places elsewhere, by people who are far more expert than I, and secondly because I won't get the opportunity to see the film for some time anyway, and by then I imagine that this will all have died down. (My guess is that it will appear at Easter over here, with Channel 4 being odds on favourites to screen it - they did after all show the heavily Tabor influenced The Secret Family of Jesus on Christmas Day this year). I have however posted on it at rejesus where I've tried to restrict my comments to the area of statistics.

    But as I've thought about my approach a bit more over the last couple of days, it's occurred to me that this is a film, and it is about the bible, at least in some sense, and whilst it's not an dramatised / narrative film (although it will undoubtedly contain a great deal of both) but a documentary, it is undoubtedly of relevance to this blog. By contrast there are a number of well known theologians who waded into this early on but have since been big enough to admit they were a bit too overzealous in places (namely Richard Bauckham and Ben Witherington)

    So I'm going to write about the actual film here, which has tended to be buried amongst the discussion about the subject matter, and I might craft another post at a later stage which looks at some of the arguments.

    One thing that is clear is that whilst the filmmakers have not given much thought ot peer reviewing their findings, they have certainly spent a lot of effort into putting together a substantial official website. In addition to all the usual stuff, there's a wealth of clearly and simply laid out pages with attractive design. Likewise The Discovery Channel also has a fair bit of information on the film, as well as some more "news" type pages. The film is first due to air on Sunday, March 4th, at 9 p.m. ET/PT. I would guess it would be repeated several times by Discovery.

    The team that has made the film has been fairly well publicised. James Cameron's (Titanic) name has been all over the news regarding this film, but he's actually only involved as an executive producer, rather than as director. The directing honours go to Simcha Jacobovici (Exodus Decoded) who was also involved with producing and writing. Interestingly he also made James, Brother of Jesus, although I've not been able to find out the conclusions of that documentary.

    A number of theologians and archaeologists are also involved, although it seems that the degree to which they have been involved, as well as the extent to which they agree with the filmmakers conclusions. So James Tabor agrees enough to have reversed some of his previous positions from The Jesus Dynasty, whereas Amos Kloner is standing by his original claim from 1980 that there was not an ossuary in this particular tomb inscribed "James son of Joseph, brother of Jesus". Darrel Bock claims to have seen the script at an early date, but not to really have been involved, and L.Y. Rahmani’s ossuary catalogue seems to have been a key source. John Dominic Crossan's name also appears on the official website, but it's far from clear how closely he has been involved.

    Finally there are a number of other experts involved. François Bovon and Shimon Gibson are also named on the discovery site. In terms of experts from other disciplines, one key "witness" is Dr. Andrey Feuerverger - Professor of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of Toronto. He is the statistician, although it's difficult to know what kind of information he was given to work with. Did it really justify a professor, or did they just need someone with good reputation to lend the project some credibility? Two other credits; Felix Golubev is one of the other producers, and Charlie R. Pellegrino is the other writer.

    Anyone who is desperate to see this and doesn't have access to The Discovery Channel will be pleased to know that the DVD is available for sale already. The programme is also accompanied by a book which is also for sale. Summaries of the deabte are being posted at two of my favourite blogs - Codex and NT Gateway. James Tabor is also advancing the arguments in favour at his Jesus Dynasty blog.

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