• 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


    Monday, April 30, 2007

    Podcast: The Miracle Maker

    It's that point in the month again when I post my latest podcast, and boy did it come around quickly this time! This month I'm looking The Miracle Maker which has recently been released in a special edition DVD. (I'll be posting some notes on the new edition of the DVD shortly.)

    The Miracle Maker is the most recent film I've discussed so far, but one of my top ten Jesus films. The five other recordings are still available to download from the podcast. They are Jesus of Nazareth, Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to St. Matthew), The Greatest Story Ever Told, Jesus of Montreal and Jesus Christ, Superstar.

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    Friday, April 27, 2007

    The Silver Chalice

    I've always been in two minds about whether to watch his film debut The Silver Chalice. On the one hand it's a combination of two of my strongest three film passions – Paul Newman and biblical epics. Yet on the other, the famous story of Newman offering a full page apology for the film in the New York Times1 weighed heavily on my mind.

    Despite Newman dubbing it "the worst film of the fifties", I recently decided to ignore his advice and get hold of a copy.

    Technically The Silver Chalice isn't a bible film at all. It doesn't even contain enough incident from the New Testament to class as a Jesus Cameo film such as Ben Hur or The Robe. It was, however, clearly inspired by (perhaps the financial success of) that latter film. Both productions are sword and sandal epics based on successful novels about a young man becoming a Christian as a result of his pursuit of an early Christian relic. In this case, rather than the robe of Jesus, it is the cup from the Last Supper, and rather than trying to destroy the relic, Basil (Newman) is actually trying to protect it.

    The film was widely panned on its release, and continues to be ridiculed today. Yet I was pleasantly surprised to find that it wasn't quite as bad as I'd been led to believe. Perhaps my expectations had been lowered so greatly that nothing could have been so bad. Perhaps I just find any film in this genre hard to hate. Perhaps I've just seen a lot of films that make it look like a masterpiece. It is undoubtedly poor, but, that said, I can think of a glut of films that I would be keen to avoid ahead of this one.

    Aside from the usual Roman-Christian-film plot of pagan-finds-faith falling for beautiful-Christian-girl, the film also features a couple of notable sub-plots. Basil's travels are supposedly driven by his quest to find the third witness to his adoption (after the other two attempt to disinherit him), but the story fizzles out as the film progresses. Likewise, when Basil is reunited with his childhood sweetheart Helena (Virginia Mayo) a love-triangle plot begins to emerge, but again, it's never really followed through.

    However, worse than this is the way in which the writers seem to just abandon the main plot. Basil's commission to craft a chalice to protect the holy cup is set against the efforts of Simon the Magician's quest to destroy it. Their respective tasks take them both to Rome, home of Simon Peter.

    Eventually the Magician's followers find Peter's house and steal the chalice. Yet anyone thinking this might lead to a thrilling climax will be sorely disappointed. Basil gives up his half hearted chase all too easily, yet Peter doesn't even seem the least bit concerned. Instead the film closes with a ridiculous speech where he prophecies the return of the cup in what is clearly meant to be the twentieth century:
    It will be restored, but for years and for hundreds of years, it will lie in darkness. Where I know not.

    When it is brought out into the light again there will be great cities, and mighty bridges and towers higher than the tower of Babel it will be a world of evil and long bitter wars. In such a world as that the little cup will look very lonely.

    But it may be in that age when man holds lightning in his hands and rides the sky as Simon the Magician strove to do it will be needed more than it is needed now.
    This is probably the worst piece of dialogue ever recorded in a bible film, and that is up against some pretty tough competition. It's a terrible, ill-considered manner in which to end the film, managing to leave the audience feeling cheated even despite the very poor quality of the film up to that point.

    Whilst there's no appearance from Jesus himself, a number of other New Testament characters are used in the story. The chief of which is Simon the Magician from Acts 8:9-24. This story is recounted by Simon himself. It has made him bitter and drives him to want to destroy all Christians and crush the holy cup in Peter's presence. Simon (played by Jack Palance) never gets to confront Peter. He dies after convincing himself that he can fly unaided and falls to his death from the top of a tower. This incident recalls a similar incident in the (non-biblical) Acts of Peter, only with significant variations. In that version of events Simon can fly, but he is brought crashing to the ground after a prayer from Peter.

    The events of the last supper are also recounted. There are also fleeting appearances by Luke, Nero and Joseph of Arimathea, who is the grandfather of Basil's love interest Deborra (Pier Angelini).

    At least some of the criticisms of the film are unfair. For all Newman's self-deprecating remarks about his performance it's not that bad – although certainly not up to the standard of his work elsewhere. The sets are also often criticised, but they actually have a certain charm. Unlike most roman epics this one does not occur in palaces and temples. The drabness of the sets is, in some ways, fitting, and there are a few interesting choices from time to time.

    Finally there are some agreeable moments in Franz Waxman's score. Whilst it doesn't compare to the score he wrote for Rear Window earlier that same year, it's certainly one of the strongest aspects of the film.

    So all in all, Ed Wood fans can rest easy. Silver Chalice doesn't quite live up to its hype.

    Edit 7/1/18 - Richard Lindsay has written a piece on this film at the Pop Theology blog.

    1 – This has also been attributed to the Hollywood Reporter, Variety and just the "trade ads" in general".


    Tuesday, April 24, 2007

    The Church Times - Fifty Top Religious Films

    Leading Anglican weekly newspaper The Church Times has published its Fifty Top Religious Films. It's been put together by a panel of four: Nev Pierce, editor of Total Film; documentary filmmaker Shan Stephens, Gareth Higgins, author of one of the most enjoyable books on faith and film "How the Movies Helped Save My Soul"; and James Abbott, who is the jurist at a number of international film festivals.

    It's a really good list, with much in common with the Arts and Faith Top 100. As always there are a few surprises including the omission of Dreyer's Ordet and anything by Kieslowski's or Ozu, but it's great to see a list that is prepared to cover the full history and geography of cinema rather than limit itself to Hollywood films from the last 30 years. That said I'm really pleased to see Field of Dreams come in at number 23. That film has never made it onto the Arts and Faith list, despite (or perhaps because of) my lobbying on its behalf. What is also surprising is the inclusion of a number of church made films such as The Prodigal (1983).

    As with any good list, there are also a couple of films I'd not really been aware of previously. John Huston's Wise Blood and Nicholas Hytner's The Crucible are both new to me, and there are a number of others which I'm adding to my "to see" list such as Priest, A Man for All Seasons and a number of others. By my reckoning I've seen 36 of these 50 fifty, so still some way to go!

    As expected, there are a number of Bible Films on the list:
    2. The Gospel According to St Matthew
    4. The Last Temptation of Christ
    9. The Passion of the Christ
    15. Jesus of Montreal
    27. The Greatest Story Ever Told
    28. The Prince of Egypt
    33. The Ten Commandments
    34. Jesus Christ, Superstar
    40. King of Kings
    43. Samson and Delilah
    I suppose Ben Hur and The Robe could also be included on the above list. Two I wouldn't have expected to make an appearance are The Prince of Egypt and King of Kings. The former doesn't really offer a great deal in my opinion, and if it was included to give the list a child friendly appeal then I think The Miracle Maker would have been a better option. In contrast, as much as I personally have a soft spot for King of Kings, I don't agree with the article's comment that it "has become perhaps the most acclaimed movie about Christ".

    All in all though, I can highly recommended this particular list, and it's nicely laid out in the PDF version of the file. Worth printing out for future reference at any rate. (Thanks to Gareth Higgins for posting this at his blog).

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    Monday, April 23, 2007

    Series Summary: UK Living Bible

    Over the last 3 months I've been working my way through the UK DVD release of the Living Bible Series. With 12 episodes each of around 15 minutes there's over 3 hours worth of material and I've commented on each episode as I've been going along. I wanted to offer a few overall thoughts however, particularly as earlier reflection have focussed more on the individual scenes than the series as a whole.

    The history of this series is a little complicated, and I'm grateful for the comments WitlessD made on one of the earlier previous posts on this subject which sum things up as well as anywhere I have found. The episodes included here are a selection from the original series which apparently consisted of 26 fifteen minute episodes. The films were originally released on 16mm film. Then in 1982 these were edited and shown on US TV as 12 half hour episodes. I'll be covering this release at some point in the future. The re-release merged episodes and used different titles and so on.

    The UK DVD release returns to the original films and offers them in their original format. On the downside this does mean the quality is fairly poor. This is only to be expected though. The films were relatively rare and at no point does this claim to be a remastered or restored print. It does mean, however, that they come in their original format. They are the same length and have the same introductions and titles as that series. As the starts and ends of episodes are often narrated this is fairly significant.

    What is strange, however, is that the episodes are in such an unusual order. The 12 episodes released out of the original 26 are as follows:
    1. Birth of the Savior (2)
    2. Childhood of Jesus (3)
    3. Thirty Pieces of Silver (18)
    4. Jesus and the Lepers (15)
    5. First Disciples (5)
    6. Jesus at Nazareth and Capernaum (7)
    7. Woman at the Well (6)
    8. Jesus Before the High Priest (21)
    9. Betrayal in Gethsemane (20)
    10. Trial Before Pilate (22)
    11. The Lord's Ascension (26)
    12. The Lord is Risen! (25)
    The numbers in brackets represent the number of that episode in the original series. It's apparent, then, that this release has it's episodes in a muddle. In some places this is fairly insignificant (e.g. the order of episodes 6 and 7 where one is unique to John and the other based on the synoptics). However in places the discrepancy is so glaring it seems amazing that it has been missed. For example, Jesus's appearance before the high priest after is betrayal in Gethsemane, or his ascension after his resurrection.

    Jesus is played by Nelson Leigh who starred in a number of other religious films. Leigh's performance has to be measured against the era in which this series was recorded. Hollywood was still avoiding showing the face of Jesus on the silver screen (out of due deference to the waning Hayes Code). In fact it would be ten years before a major film depicted Jesus - Nicholas Ray's King of Kings (1961). In the meantime they would release a string of films that would only portray Jesus's back or his hand. So such an up close depiction was ground breaking for its time.

    Another issue which impinges on Leigh's performance is the overall quality of filmmaking. These are clearly low budget films and the writing is fairly unimaginative, making only a small amount of effort to understand the events and the characters it depicts. It's also a very literal rendering. Whilst it's happy to vary some of the dialogue (usually for brevity), it rarely offers incidents not recorded in scripture.

    Given all that, then, Nelson Leigh's performance is reasonably impressive. Whilst he offers very little emotion, he does bring some warmth to the character. There's a fatherliness to his Jesus, not unlike HB Warner in DeMille's The King of Kings (1927). Leigh smiles less than DeMille's Jesus, and his performance lacks some of Warner's nuances, nevertheless his performance rings more truly. Sandwiched between the Second World War and the Cold War Leigh's Jesus is about right for the early 1950s.

    Elsewhere the acting is more uneven. Some performances are decent enough; others are hilariously poor. The actors are not helped by having to cover their heads with what certainly appear to have been tea towels, nor does the overall lack of character development in the script give them much to work with. Even so, most of the performances either fall flat or are over acted.

    In a funny way this reflects the more visual aspects of the film. Generally, the compositions are uninspired, and the camera work is fairly static. Occasionally however, something a bit out of the ordinary is tried, perhaps a special effect. When they do, however they feel forced and awkward, particularly by today's standards.

    These criticism are perhaps a little harsh, particularly for an ultra low budget series, filmed just after the end of the war. As a visualisation of the gospel stories they are fairly solid even if they are a little stolid. The individual episodes work better than the film as a whole. Given that, at the time they were produced, few of these events had been re-created in talking film, then even a workmanlike portrayal such as this had a lot to offer. Without understanding that it would be easy to miss their importance, and in addition to this they have a certain charm. View an individual episode as a history piece and you'll probably get the most out of it. Anything else would be unfair.

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    Friday, April 20, 2007

    Update on my other writing

    I've tended to avoid posting links to my writing elsewhere, mainly because I've not wanted to flood this blog with items that are irrelevant to its main purpose. However, I think it's worth including an occasional update on my other writing in case some of the projects that interest me might interest anyone who reads this blog. So here are a list of links to my recent writing for the rejesus blog:
    Film Review: Rocky Balboa

    Tomb Raiders - A look at the Jesus Tomb Controversy

    Film Review: Pan's Labyrinth

    Film Review: Amazing Grace

    My Sweet Lord - Some thoughts about the Chocolate Jesus sculpture

    The Follower - Review similar to my review here about these 3 short films.


    Wednesday, April 18, 2007

    The Guardian on Archer's "Gospel of Judas"

    There have been various sarcastic comments made about Jeffrey Archer's last book "The Gospel According to Judas by Benjamin Iscariot", but The Guardian's digested read might just be the best.

    Quite why anyone would still take Jeffrey Archer seriously is beyond me, even if he is writing with a Professor. It's even possible that Archer's book is inadvertently discrediting the whole "Gospel of Judas" story far more effectively than the host of biblical scholars who have tried to do likewise by tackling it head on.

    (And yes, I know that one is a lost gospel whilst the other is a work of fiction cashing in on it, but still…)

    Monday, April 16, 2007

    Golgotha on DVD

    I discovered last week that Julien Duvivier's Golgotha is now available on VHS and DVD from French site PrinceMinister.

    The site is in French so I have no idea whether there are any subtitles, how reliable the company is, whether they post abroad, and if the DVD has any extras, but I imagine the DVD is Region 2 and the video will be SECAM.

    An English dubbed version is available on VHS (NTSC) from US company Hollywood's Attic.


    Friday, April 13, 2007

    Jesus Film Postponed After Coke Complain

    I've just come across this bizarre story from Variety. An Italian film called 7km From Jerusalem was due to be released on Good Friday. It's difficult to decipher the synopsis that appears on the official website, because not only is it in Italian, but even its Google translation is very unclear. Nevertheless, it appears that the film is about a man who (physically) meets Jesus on a road near Emmaus. Initially the man doesn't believe it when Jesus reveals who he is. Ultimately however, Jesus explains that he said he would return and he sets the man three challenges. This would seem to be the main point of the plot, so it appears that the role of Jesus is at the very least pivotal, but may also be fairly substantial.

    However, what really caused controversy, was the scene where the man offers Jesus a drink of Coke. Despite at least one Vatican insider seeming happy with it (Krystov Zanussi was part of a film festival jury that actually approved it), the soft drinks firm baulked at the inclusion of their product. They requested the scene be cut, and so the release of 7km was delayed at short notice in order to make the relevant cuts.

    The film is based on an Italian book also called "7km from Jerusalem", and stars soap star Luca Ward and Rosalinda Celentano (Satan in The Passion of the Christ)

    Story also covered by Cinnematical.


    Thursday, April 12, 2007

    Book Review: Religion and Film: An Introduction - Melanie J. Wright

    Having previously written "Moses in America" and "Understanding Judaism", Melanie J. Wright has broadened the scope of her work with her latest book "Religion and Film: An Introduction". So far this century there has been an explosion in the number of books written in the area of faith and the cinema this century, and Wright introduces her subject with a critique of the available literature to date. She highlights four significant weaknesses. The first is that much work in this area has been far too apologetic. All too often, faith and film books open by attempting to justify their existence within either serious academia or the Christian publishing industry.

    Secondly, much analysis is overly dependent on narrative, and contains little discussion about the visual aspects of the films being considered. "Could it be that – despite the growing bibliography and plethora of courses - film is not really being studied at all?"1

    In addition to these criticisms, Wright also notes that analysis has been too unfocussed. The choice of films examined by these books has tended to be driven by what appeals to the author, rather than a consensus about which films are particularly significant.

    Finally, this has been exaggerated by a failure to take into consideration a film's reception, by both critics and audiences.

    In answer to these four weaknesses Wright proposes taking a cultural studies approach. This enables greater dialogue between the various specialist disciplines as well as a broader context from which to draw. Noting that writers should not "seek to do everything in an account of a film",2 she reveals that the rest of the book will discuss the films it explores in four areas: "narrative; style; cultural and religious context; and reception".3

    The rest of the book deals with 6 films that are specifically about religion (as opposed to alluding to faith or religion in passing or in some symbolic way). Devoting a chapter to each, then, Wright tackles La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (Christianity), The Ten Commandments (Judaism and Christianity), The Wicker Man (Paganism), My Son the Fanatic (Islam), Keeping the Faith (Christianity and Judaism), and Lagaan (Hinduism).

    In addition to covering a number of major religions, the films selected also enable Wright to expand on particular aspects of the four areas listed above. For example, the chapter on The Wicker Man (1973) is particularly concerned with the way in which the film's reception shaped the film itself. Initially unpopular it was heavily cut, but gaining cult status has allowed fuller versions to be released on DVD.

    Likewise, Wright's chapter on The Ten Commandments (1956) is especially concerned with genre. It is this chapter that is of most relevance to this site, and Wright's previous work on this film has been influential in this regard. Here she tackles autership, the inability of an auteur to control a film's reception, the influence and changing nature of trailers, the Christianisation of this originally Jewish story, the way in which the Cold War influences the film, as well as comparing it to The Prince of Egypt.

    On top of this, the author also comments on the condescending manner that many film critics take to such "spectacle" films. This idea is expanded in chapter VII (Keeping the Faith) which looks at the way popular films are often ignored by film commentators simply because of their popularity. From a cultural studies point of view this is a mistake.

    In a slightly different vein, chapter VIII (Lagaan) discusses the Hindu concept of darsan - "experiencing the presence of the divine through the act of seeing a god or saint".4 This offers a very different religious perspective to much western analysis where artists such as Dreyer and Schrader consider transcendence to be related to austerity.

    Wright closes with a brief consideration of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. By outlining the combination of factors which led to its financial success as well as "the importance of the [audience's] gaze"5, Wright arrives at a significant conclusion to one of the book's frequent questions: "what constitutes a 'religious film'?"6 Citing the "many religious adherents (who) have known all along... that 'religion' is not a 'thing' but a mode of being",7 Wright redefines 'religious film' as a process of exchange between images / sound and viewer activity/perception. Hence, she argues, film is not only something that can describe religion, or that can act as a vehicle for religious experience, but it is something that can be "religion itself".8

    The emphases on viewer activity and the idea that film can be religion itself are most welcome. Whilst this thesis is, of itself, interesting, it also evokes the T.S. Eliot quote "The end of our exploring will be to arrive at where we started, and to know the place for the first time". One suspects many faith and film commentators have known this deep down but have been unable to articulate it. Thankfully Melanie Wright has done so.

    1 - p.22
    2 – p.30
    3 – p.29
    4 – p.151

    5 – p.169
    6 – p.170
    7 – p.172
    8 – p.172

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    Wednesday, April 11, 2007

    Scene Guide - Jesus Christ, Superstar

    Having reviewed Jesus Christ, Superstar via my podcast a couple of weeks ago, I've been meaning to post a scene guide ever since. The film / musical is so well loved that there are plenty of resources for it online, and I'm sure that if I'd looked for long enough I would have found one which does exactly this. It may well have been quicker. The plus side is that I've been able to add times (although these are approximate), song titles, and a few more subtle references than normally. As per my usual procedure I'll continue to preference Mark over the later synoptics where appropriate.
    0:00:00 - Overture
    0:05:30 - Heaven on Their Minds
    0:09:00 - What's the Buzz? - (Matt 6:34; John 14:1; Luke 10:38-42)
    0:11:30 - Strange Things Mystifying - (John 12:3-7)
    0:13:30 - Then We Are Decided - (John 11:47-48)
    0:17:00 - Everything's Alright - (Luke 8:1-3; Matt 6:34; Mark 14:3-9)
    0:21:30 - This Jesus Must Die - (Mark 14:1-2; John 11:49-50)
    1:25:30 - Hosanna - (Mark 11:1-10)
    0:28:00 - Simon Zealotes - (John 6:15)
    1:32:30 - Poor Jerusalem - (Mark 10:45)
    0:34:15 - Pilate's Dream - (Matt 27:19)
    0:36:00 - The Temple - (Mark 11:15-19)
    0:39:00 - Gethsemane/See my eyes - (Mark 1:32-34; Luke 11:29)
    0:42:30 - I Don't Know How to Love Him
    0:46:30 - Damned for All Time / Blood Money - (Mark 14:10-11)
    0:51:30 - The Last Supper - (Mark 14:17-31)
    0:58:00 - Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say) - (Mark 14:32-42)
    1:04:30 - What's the buzz (reprise) - (Mark 14:43-50)
    1:06:15 - The Arrest - (Mark 15:1)
    1:08:15 - Peter's Denial - (Mark 14:66-72)
    1:11:00 - Pilate & Christ - (Mark 15:2-5; Luke 23:6-7)
    1:13:00 - King Herod Song - (Luke 23:8-11)
    1:16:45 - Could We Start Again, Please? - (Matt 16:22)
    1:20:00 - Judas's Death - (Matt 27:3-5)
    1:24:30 - Trial Before Pilate - (John 18:29-38, 19:4-16; Matt 27:24,26)
    1:31:30 - Superstar
    1:36:00 - Crucifixion - (Mark 15:22-27,34; Luke 23:34, 46)
    1:38:45 - John Nineteen: Forty-One - (John 19:40-41)
    1:41:15 - [Empty Cross] - (John 10:11-15)
    1973JCSSRoadtoCross.jpgAside from the opening few songs, Superstar is essentially a Passion play, albeit one set to music. That said, it is also a significant deviation from that genre as most of the action takes place prior to Pilate's decision to execute Jesus rather than from that moment to his death. It is noticeable that the crucifixion is over very quickly in this film, and the road to the cross section is limited to a few brief shots during the title song.

    The film's use of the biblical sources is particularly interesting. As is fairly standard for a Jesus film, the various gospels are harmonised into one telling. Since the libretto holds fairly loosely to the texts this is generally unproblematic, but one exception is the scene where Pilate condemns Jesus - Trial Before Pilate. This draws on John 18:29-38, as well as 19:4-16 and two verses from the gospel of Matthew 27:24,26. This song seems a little overcomplicated as it seeks to explain why Pilate condemned Jesus. It's the one aspect that the 1999 recording of the stage version of the opera does particularly well - explaining why the brutal Pilate we find recorded in history appears to act meekly in the case of Jesus.

    Elsewhere however the film picks out random bits of the gospels to use as throwaway lines in other songs. Typical of this is the priests' discussion of Jesus referring to his miracles, or Judas referring to his teaching. Likewise Jesus's anointing is placed in an entirely new context. One further example of this is the way in which Simon the Zealot is given a far more significant role here than in the gospels. His surname, which may have referred to his past or present beliefs (or may even have been ironic), is used as the basis for a whole song.

    Whilst I've expanded the list of references here there are more I could have included. One of the useful sources in constructing the above information is Stern, Jefford and Debona's "Savior on the Silver Screen". There they include a few verses that I did not, such as the use of Mark 16:8 to refer to the actors getting on the coach in the silence at the end of the film. This hasn't been included mainly because this scene is outside of the historical referencing of the play, and those verse refer to different characters both in person and in function.

    In order to simplify things, the film combines a number of characters. So Pilate's wife is absent and does not, therefore, appear to be warned about Jesus in a dream - all this happens only to her husband. Likewise the various parties opposed to Jesus are brought down to just two leads, Caiaphas and Annas, and a few priests.

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    Friday, April 06, 2007

    Easter TV in the UK

    Unfortunately I've not got time to do a full overview of all the religious TV this Easter, but here are a few of the highlights

    Good Friday
    TCM - 17:10
    The spectacular chariot race is just one of the highlights of this magnificent epic, graced by vast sets, Charlton Heston, and a compelling story. D: William Wyler (1959) - Preceded by short documentary.

    BBC1 - 17:35
    Prince of Egypt
    Animted film of the Moses story.

    Holy Saturday
    TCM - 02:55
    The Prodigal
    Lana Turner plays the sultry temptress who lures a wealthy man into wicked ways in this sumptuous re-telling of the biblical story of The Prodigal Son. D: Richard Thorpe (1955)

    Easter Sunday
    Channel 4 - 21:00
    Secrets of the Dead: Shroud of Christ
    Could the Shroud of Turin really be 2,000 years old? And, if so, does it contain the image of Christ?

    Channel 4 - 22:00
    The Passion of The Christ
    (2004) Mel Gibson's Oscar-nominated film is a dramatic, haunting and visceral telling of Christ's final hours and crucifixion, with James Caviezel as Jesus.


    300 Review

    In our increasingly advertising targeted world, it's no surprise that you can often tell a lot about a film by what is promoted before it starts. Perhaps predictably, 300, the historical epic based on Frank Miller's graphic novel, was preceded by 2 car adverts, 2 computer game commercials, the 3 part Guinness Extra Cold advert (along with a couple for WKD and Smirnoff), and an appearance by Messers PC and Mac. Whilst the Lynx marketing department do seem to have missed a trick, the producers of the new Die Hard movie did manage to slip in a trailer before I could say "please someone, make this stop".

    It's not too long before it's clear that the advertisers have invested their money wisely. The opening scenes show the future King Leonidas as a young boy. As he is dragged away to begin his military training, his mother wails in despair. Her appearance is important, as she is the only woman in the film who will manage to keep her shirt on. Like Sin City before it, the men are men and the women are fantasised sex objects.

    In fairness, shirts in Sparta do seem to have been in rather short supply. Sympathising with their women, Leonidas and his troops fight bare-chested. Whilst there is some evidence that the Spartans fought in knee length boots and their underpants, it seems unlikely that they decided to forgo chest armour, and opt for wax and baby oil instead. It's not hard to see why many critics have called it all rather homoerotic, but they miss the point; Camp is part of the genre. By giving the goodies posing pouches and the baddies piercings, nipple chains and transsexual attendants, the film is simply taking the genre's 'camp' to the extremes it has taken other characteristics to, be it the spectacle, the violence, the size of the armies or the pompous speeches. Besides, Jacques-Louis David painted them fighting naked, and nobody complained about that.

    One of the film's main strengths is sheer energy. As noted above, portentous speeches are all part of the territory, but all too often epic movies get bogged down in them. Here they are used to give the viewer a break from the action, but nobody takes them that seriously. Leonidas yells "no going back", or "freedom", someone gives him the option to surrender, he refuses and it's onto the next fight. The battle scenes are surprisingly short, and punctuating them with these oases of rhetoric gives the film a natural and engaging rhythm.

    The emphasis on "freedom" as opposed to religious ideas means 300 is much more Gladiator than Kingdom of Heaven and more Braveheart than Passion of the Christ. In fact, it's particularly reminiscent of Braveheart: a divided group of tribes threatened by a dominant southern nation, talk of, fight for and die for freedom. Ultimately, the heroes are betrayed and deserted, but after their deaths their example and inspires others to fight again and win, despite being outnumbered. Even King Leonidas (played by Phantom of the Opera's Gerard Butler) retains his Scottish accent.

    Braveheart, of course, was the film that breathed new life into the epic, and 300 follows suit. The 12 years since Gibson modernised the genre may not seem like a long time, but changes have been so dramatic in commercial cinema that it needed modernising again. 300 is not the first epic to try to use CGI, but it is the one that has realised it has far more potential than simply making things even bigger.

    The movie's greatest strength is its visuals. Pretty much every review of the film thus far has mentioned this aspect, and rightly so. The sepia tones, the impressive backdrops, the alternating time lapsing photography, the grotesque characters and the comic book violence all combine to make this a visual feast. The images are bold in every respect, be they the buildings of Sparta or the crowds of soldiers. The colour filters, distorted characters, and voiced-over narration place the story firmly in mythical territory, shifting the emphasis from the facts of the history to its meaning more forcefully than any of the epics which have previously graced the silver screen.

    When critics talked about The Nativity Story killing the epic they clearly lacked Snyder's vision. It's true that dull, pompous or overly melodramatic movies will struggle in the epic genre just as they should in any other genre. But, the energy and the look of 300 have set a new standard in epic films.

    It's too bad that the ambitious artistry is not matched with similarly innovative themes and ideas. 300 is entertainment, impure and simple. As such it is content to give the audience what it wants without challenging them in any way. It seems to be working too. In it's opening weekend 300 broke US box office records for March, and has performed well overseas. Unfortunately, what this audience bears little similarity with the real world. Life is not simply a mix of testosterone and adrenaline. Those who head off to fight wars dreaming of glory have often found that far from being glorious, death is cruel, brutal, messy and desperate.

    Snyder has of course denied that the film should be read in the light of current events, but as 300 is so heavily dependent on Miller's comic book it's largely out of his hands. Whilst it may not have been his intention, he is unable to see past the fact that he shares a common mindset with those who wage war in the name of their freedom. In their world, fighting is valiant and brave. When conflict arises real men take up arms and fight.

    Whilst the violence in Snyder's film appeals to men's dreams of significance, the sex appeals to their feelings of inadequacy. With one notable exception, most of the men who have sex in this picture are grotesque traitors as if the filmmakers are projecting their audience's inner losers. Somewhat more troublingly, whilst the sex is almost always some variety of rape, it is highly eroticised. A drugged up teenage girl forced to have sex with a group of repulsive old men should never be portrayed as sexily as it is here. 300 offers a severely skewed image of women, encourage it's viewers that if you are too much of a loser to have consensual sex there will always be another way.

    It's a disturbing sub-text, which, like Sin City before it, appeals to men's basest instincts and twisted fantasies. It's a pity, because it will be revisited in years to come as the film that re-booted the epic.


    Wednesday, April 04, 2007

    Living Bible - Episodes 11 & 12 (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 11 -The Lord's Ascension
    Jesus meets two women - (Matt 28:8-10)
    Road to Emmaus - (Luke 24:13-33)
    Appearance to disciples - (John 20:19-23)
    Doubting Thomas - (John 20:24-29)
    Beach - (John 21:8-17)
    Great commission - (Matt 28:16-20)
    Ascension - (Acts 1:3-11)

    Episode 12 - The Lord is Risen
    Joseph asks for Jesus's body - (Mark 15:42-45)
    Burial - (John 19:38-42, Mark 15:46-47))
    Request to Seal the Tomb - (Matt 27:62-66)
    Resurrection - (Matt 28:2-4)
    Pharisees bribe the soldiers - (Matt 28:11-15)
    Women Outside the tomb - (Mark 16:1-4)
    Women Inside the tomb - (Mark 16:5-8)
    Magdalene tells Peter and John - (John 20:2)
    Peter and John at the tomb - (John 20:3-10)
    Magdalene sees angels - (John 20:11-13)
    Magdalene sees Jesus - (John 20:14-18)
    These final two episodes reveal similar faults to previous entries, namely that they are the wrong way around. Hence we have the Ascension before the Resurrection. However, taken together, and in the correct order, they do provide the most thorough treatment of the events following Jesus's death committed to film. Even other long treatments of Jesus's life such as Jesus of Nazareth and the Living Christ Series offer only a selection of the events recorded in the gospels. The only other film that really comes close is The Miracle Maker.

    One of the reasons that filmmakers generally pick and choose which events to include is that it is very hard to fit them all together. Indeed in a number of places there either seem to be contradictions or the only feasible harmonisation sounds completely implausible. For example, here we have Jesus and his followers making trips all over the place, in particular the trip to Galilee and back would take a considerable portion of the 40 days from Jesus's resurrection to his ascension.

    The script is fairly clever though in the way it depicts the women at the tomb arriving. It has to gloss over a couple of apparent inconsistencies (such as precisely which women were at the tomb and when), but by having Mary the mother of James, Salome and Mary Magdalene go to the tomb first (Mark), they are able to have Mary Magdalene go and tell Peter and John (John) whilst the others go inside (Matt). It does overlook that fact that Matthew has Magdalene not Salome go inside, and that Luke mentions that Joanna witnessed these events, but generally it holds up rather well.

    There is a great deal of attention paid to the seal that the Pharisees use to seal the tomb. Rather strangely they use a drip of wax and a press as if they were sealing a letter. I have no idea whether this is has any basis in fact, but it seemed rather odd in the way that it was displayed.

    Finally, the portrayals of the Romans and the priests is problematic here. When Joseph approached Pilate to ask for Jesus's body he is in credibly reasonable about it, and is concerned that he might offend Joseph if it appears he is questioning his honesty in seeking for verification of Jesus's death. By contrast the story of the priests bribing the soldiers paints them in a very poor light and they continue to hound Pilate.

    I'll be offering some reflections on this DVD set as a whole shortly.

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    Tuesday, April 03, 2007

    Biblical Studies Carnival XVI

    Over at Novum Testamentum, Brandon Watson has posted the 16th Biblical Studies Carnival.

    Quite rightly it devotes a good deal of attention to the Jesus Tomb film. In years gone by, there would have been a considerable lag between a film such as this being broadcast, and the academic response. Blogs have changed all that, and they have enabled various bibliobloggers to respond quickly when a story makes the news prior to peer review. Whilst some have been upset by this information being released directly into the public domain, Mark Goodacre made some excellent points on this:
    All those things having been said, I think it is unreasonable to expect Jacobovici to have published his case in academic peer-reviewed journals. As he has repeatedly insisted, he is a journalist and a filmmaker and not an academic. It is notoriously difficult for non-professional academics to make it into a peer reviewed journal, all the more so if the case one has might be seen as imaginative or speculative. To turn it around, how often do we academics first publish our results by means of television documentary? If a filmmaker were to complain about our not having gone first to television, we would rightly point out that our access to that medium is limited and that we do not have the requisite expertise and experience to go through that portal.
    I think there are things to be learned by the various blogging academics, one or two were so keen to jump in while the water was hot that they got their feet burned a little. But it's all part of an important learning process. This certainly won't be the last time that a story like this needs a quick response.

    I was pleased that Watson also gave credit to James Tabor for keeping the dialogue going. I don't particularly agree with a lot of what he says, but it is good to see him facing up to the challenges that are being thrown up to his case. Watson has also awarded Tabor the title of "Blogger of the Month".

    Next month's Biblical Studies Carnival XVII will be hosted by Christopher Heard of Higgaion.


    Monday, April 02, 2007

    Latest News on Christ the Lord

    IGN.Com have the latest on Anne Rice's Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt. It doesn't add much to previous stories - the main piece of news is that it will be filmed "on location in Israel this October". I think originally this looked likely to be a Christmas 2007 release, but now that must be out of the question. Whilst it's probable that it will be released sometime in 2009, they may well not wait until Christmas. This story (which is about Jesus at the age of 7) is not particularly tied to a certain point in the year in the way that, say, The Nativity Story was.

    For what it's worth, the next instalment in Rice's series of novels, "Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana" is due out next spring.
    (Hat tip to Peter Chattaway)

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