• 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


    Wednesday, May 09, 2007

    The Real Old Testament

    It's probably because religion is often taken so seriously that those with a sense of the comical find it such a hard subject to resist. Things have changed significantly in this area over the past 30 years. Back in 1979, Monty Python's Life of Brian faced a storm of protest, and was banned in many areas. These days things are far more lax. A few quick searches on YouTube swiftly reveal what an easy target religion has become.

    Sadly, quantity does not equate quality. Just as Life of Brian was swiftly followed up by the dreadful Wholly Moses, and the fairly weak bible scenes from The History of the World Part 1, so there is little in the current glut of religious comedy that will still be genuinely funny once we have got over that one time taboo.

    Thankfully, Curtis and Paul Hannum's The Real Old Testament is a notable exception. Shot on an ultra-low budget, with improvised dialogue it covers the opening 30 or so chapters of the book of Genesis in the style of MTV's The Real World. In addition to playing 'God' and 'Snake' the brothers also edited, produced and directed the film themselves.

    However, possibly the Hannums' biggest strength is their ability to draw together a group of actors who were sufficiently able to milk the material for all it was worth. Probably the most established star of the film was Sam Lloyd (Ted from Scrubs) who plays Abraham. That said, keen Scrubs fans will also recognise the names of real life husband and wife team Tim Hobert and Jill Tracy who star here as Jacob and Rachel. It's testimony to the rest of the cast, however, that they more than match the performances of these three. Particularly impressive are Kate Connor as Sarai/Sarah and Laura Meshelle as one of Lot's daughters. But it's Curtis Hannum's own performance as a petulant and fickle God which is probably the most memorable.

    It's also the performance most likely to cause offence. This is not a film for those unable to laugh at their faith. If you were offended by Life of Brian then stay away. This is not a film which shows God a great deal of respect.

    That said, the movie will have as many fans within the church, as it will outside it. The Real Old Testament is certainly irreverent, but its offence is tempered by its measured use of scripture. There's very little in the final film which is not from the book of Genesis, and whilst it is portrayed fairly scathingly, at least half of its irreverent tone comes from the original decision to shoot those stories in that particular style.

    The best films about the Bible are those that shed new light on overly familiar texts. The Hannums' film is certainly successful in this regard. By defamiliarising the various stories in Genesis it allows them to be seen in a new way. By filming the Old Testament is such a penetrating modern style, the strangeness of much of what went on in these characters lives becomes unavoidable. It cuts through centuries of religious gloss to the very core of the stories.

    But the biggest strength of the film is that it achieves its primary goal – to be funny. A comedy film can be moving, challenging or pioneering, but if it fails to amuse then it's ultimately a failure. The Real Old Testament is packed with great lines, and subtle performances. It's eminently quotable, and is one of those rare films that gets funnier with multiple viewings. Whether it's calling Sodom and Gomorrah "one of those love it or hate it places", Cain extolling the pleasant virtues of Nod, or Abraham reacting to God's idea about circumcision, the film rarely misses the mark.

    The original The Real World played for several series, in different cities, and it would be great if The Real Old Testament went beyond Genesis and gave other Old Testament books similar treatment. Sadly it's been over four years since it showed at the Slamdance festival, so, unfortunately, that seems unlikely. It's a shame, because as po-faced and fundamentalist Christianity are on the rise, we need more films that show us the biblical absurdities which often go unnoticed.

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