• 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, July 30, 2007

    Ingmar Bergman Dies Aged 89

    Just Heard from The Guardian that legendary Sewdish Director Ingmar Bergman has died aged 89. He was one of the few directors in the history of film making that genuinely deserved the label "legend", making films for over half a century, continuing to direct films into his 80s with 2003's Saraband.

    Obviously Bergman never made a Bible film as such, yet spiritual issues were never far away from the heart of his films, and he occasionally ventured into direct discussion about stories form the Bible such as his discussion of the crucifixion in Winter Light. His most famous film The Seventh Seal (1957) also touches on a great many biblical themes.

    I've been a fan of that film for a long time, but it was one of the other films he made that year that really captured my attention. Wild Strawberries (my review) contained some incredible, memorable, beautiful yet melancholy images. I have a clearer print of the image above in my copy of Stig Bjorkman, Torsten Manns, and Jones Sima's Bergman on Bergman: Interviews With Ingmar Bergman which I could spend hours looking at.

    Given how many of those involved in making films die so young, it's almost ironic that Bergman, whose films were, at times, almost obsessed about death, lived to such a grand old age. Sadly, death has finally won its game of chess.


    Friday, July 27, 2007

    Son of Man Finally Nearing Cinematic Release

    I spent quite a bit of last year tracking the progress of the excellent Jezile (Son of Man) (my review). Despite winning such critical acclaim, including high praise from Roger Ebert, it's struggled to find the distribution that it's due.

    There's light at the end of the tunnel, however. Earlier in the week I spoke to one of the reps at Spier Films who told me that the film will be reaching cinemas (in the UK at least) either in the run up to Christmas, or just before Easter. So, I guess, now is a good time to sign up to the email list on the official website to get details nearer the time.

    The rep also told me that the film now has it's own MySpace page which includes a clip of the film's opening scenes.

    Blog Changes

    I've finally got around to tidying up my sidebar, as well as adding a better way of indexing labels (as I now have 94 !) So I've added 4 new pages which breakdown the list of all labels into those for Jesus films, Old Testament / Hebrew Bible films, and New Testament film labels as well as a list of
    labels by the biblical character's name (e.g. all films on Paul).

    I've then added a new sidebar section for labels (which includes links to those new pages) as well as splitting up the rather unwieldy "Out now and coming soon" section into two (and again trying to base it around labels where possible). Hopefully this will make this blog somewhat easier to navigate.

    Wish there was a quick way to do this, but for now I'll have to keep doing it the long way (and try not to add any more labels!)

    Thursday, July 26, 2007

    Ron Reed on Book of Life

    Last week I mentioned Ron Reed's posts on Barabbas, Ben Hur and The Big Fisherman. Well now Ron has written a nice review of Hal Hartley's Book of Life. It's one of very my favourite Bible related movies, which, unfortunately, was ineligible for my Top Ten List of Jesus Films as it's set in the present day.


    New Book - "The Bible on the Big Screen" Due Out Next Month

    It's been a couple of years since I first caught wind of the news that Stephen J. Lang was writing a book on Bible films. In fact it had been quiet on that front for so long that I assumed that the project had come to a standstill. Not so it would appear, "The Bible on the Big Screen: A Guide from Silent Films to Today's Movies" is due for release on the 1st August. Here's what the publishers (Baker Books) say in their blurb:
    Author: J. Stephen Lang
    Edition: Paperback
    Price: 14.99
    Dimensions: 6 x 9
    Number of Pages: 304
    Publication Date: Aug. 07

    Description: Your gateway to every Bible movie ever made!

    Hollywood has been producing movies based on Bible stories since 1897. Starting with grainy, silent, mini-Passion stories and moving on to The Passion of the Christ and beyond, bestselling author J. Stephen Lang takes you through the blockbusters and the busts.

    More than just a catalog listing, "The Bible on the Big Screen" gives movie buffs film credits, running times, and release dates. It answers intriguing questions about motives for making the movies, offers critics' reactions, and provides much more insider information. The book is also richly illustrated with film stills from favorite movies.

    Author Information: J. Stephen Lang is the author of nearly thirty books, including the extremely successful Complete Book of Bible Trivia, which has sold over 600,000 copies.

    Endorsement: "Lang has given his readers a fascinating history. It is engagingly told by someone who is at one and the same time generous of spirit, biblically faithful, and culturally attuned."--Robert K. Johnston, author of "Reel Spirituality" and co-author of "Finding God in the Movies"


    Tuesday, July 24, 2007

    Evan Almighty Review

    It wasn't until the unexpected success of The Passion of the Christ in 2004 that Hollywood really started to sit up and take notice of the market for religious themed films. Tom Shadyac, however, was way ahead of them. Shadyac was the producer and director of 2003's Bruce Almighty, a film that opted for the unlikely combination of comedy and theodicy. Given that studios now seem to be giving the green light to seemingly any religious film project that comes its way, it's not too much of a surprise to find Shadyac given another bite of the cherry.

    Four years can be a long time in Hollywood, and in the period since Bruce Almighty, the star of that film, Jim Carrey, seems to have started to fade, whereas his sidekick, Steve Carrell, is very much on the ascent. Whilst his work on Anchorman, The 40 Year Old Virgin and the US version of The Office hasn't been to everyone's liking, Carrell has become a star in his own right. The producers of this film can't have been too disappointed, then, when Carrell agreed to take the lead role in Carrey's absence.

    Carrell reprises his role as Evan Baxter, (the newscasting nemesis of the original film's Bruce), who is promoted in the film's opening scenes to the post of senator. It's an awkward start that begs the question as to why such a change was required. Was the script originally conceived without Carrell? Were the senatorial scenes considered too humorous or too critical to allow Baxter to remain a newscaster?

    In any case, the film quickly leaves any trace of Baxter's previous life behind him and submerges itself in its new narrative. The Baxter's move into their huge new home, Evan starts his cushy new job, and one by one we're introduced to a whole new cast, including his wife Joan (...of ark, geddit?) and his three sons (who are not called Shem Ham and Japheth in case you were wondering).

    Life as a senator starts off very positively. Even before Evan's first day he is given a swanky office courtesy of leading senator Congressman Long, who wants Baxter's support for his controversial bill. God however as other ideas, and, once again takes the form of Morgan Freeman to get Evan's attention.

    God's plan is to get Baxter to build an ark, which leaves him a huge variety of ways to announce his message. So there are personal appearances, frequent recurrences of Gen 6:14 ("Make thee an ark of gopher wood"), pairs of animals tracking him to work, and facial hair that won't go away.

    Anyone familiar with Tim Allen's The Santa Clause franchise will no doubt spot the similarity. Indeed there is a significant amount of "borrowing" in this film, which, strangely, doesn't seem to reference the original works all that often. Take for example the scene where a flock of birds all simultaneously swoop into the office of a terrified Evan and then proceed to attack him.
    It's straight out of Hitchcock's The Birds, yet there's nothing that could be considered an actual tribute to the original. None of Hitchcock's memorable shots is reproduced, nor is there any other kind of reference - visual or otherwise.

    There are numerous places where this film draws on others. For example, perhaps the major theme of the film is about following the supernatural revelation given to you, the difficulties of convincing those you love that it's validity, and carrying on in with your calling in spite of the jeers of your neighbours. It's actually very well executed, and surprisingly touching for a slapstick comedy. But I couldn't help wondering whether the main reason that I loved these scenes was because of the powerful effect Field of Dreams has on me.

    Even though Bruce Almighty was, in many ways, an updated version of Goerge Burns's Oh God, it felt fresh and original. Whilst it's not one of the all time great films, it's still pretty good, and combining comedy with more serious spiritual issues made it relatively novel. In contrast Evan Almighty either falls back on re-treading those same ideas, or those from other films. Whilst it's certainly a long way from a bad film, at its best it's merely entertaining.

    That's not to say there aren't some standout moments. This is apparently the most expensive comedy ever made and it boasts some pretty impressive visuals. The scenes of the animals approaching the ark far surpass anything produced by previous films about Noah, particularly the scenes with the animals. Similarly impressive are the climatic final scenes.

    But what kind of God does Evan encounter? Both this film, and the original portray a God who is down to earth, laid back, likeable, has a good sense of humour, and who is powerful, but chooses to involve his people. Here, as with the first film, God is brought into the film by a human request. Evan may not get the answer to prayer he was expecting, but, as God points out, he was the one who wanted to change the world.

    Interestingly Freeman's God is far more the God we see revealed in Jesus than the God of the original flood story. When Evan questions his motives he replies "let's just say that whatever I do I do it because I love you". It seems to contrast with his prediction of a flood, but ultimately he's shown to be true to his word. Perhaps the most significant aspect of the God of the Almighty franchise is that he's a God who prefers to work through his people. While he may laugh at their plans, and use their prayers as an opportunity for growth, he longs to make the world a better place primarily by relying on "one act of random kindness at a time".

    Despite such a positive portrayal of the one, true, Almighty the way much of the Christian media has clamoured to promote this film, regardless of its quality, is rather disappointing. Overall, it's a great film for Christian families to take their kids to, an interesting enough film for adults of faith, and just about entertaining enough to be worth the entry fee. It seems unlikely, however, that a run-of-the-mill comedy such as this would inspire anyone to a new, or more profound, faith.


    Monday, July 23, 2007

    Criterion Release Buñuel's The Milky Way (La Voie Lactée)

    Luis Buñuel's controversial religious film The Milky Way (La Voie Lactée) is finally coming to DVD in it's own right, and the good news for fans is that it will be given the Criterion Collecction treatment. Previously the film has only been available to view as part of the Luis Buñuel Box Set. DVD Beaver a good selection of screen grabs from that release.

    The Criterion Collection DVDs tend to be a bit special and this film is no exception not only featuring a new, restored high-definition digital transfer, and an improved subtitle translation, but a host of extras including an introduction by screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, a video interview with film scholar Ian Christie, the documentary Luis Bunuel: Atheist Thanks to God the original theatrical trailer and a booklet of essays.

    I'm due to see the film for the first time before the DVD release on the 21st August, so I'll reserve my comments until then. Meanwhile there's a brief synopsis for this film which was also discussed both in Campbell and Pitts' "The Bible on Film" and Kinnard and Davis's "Divine Images".
    The Milky Way (La voie lactee) daringly deconstructs contemporary and traditional views on Catholicism with ribald, rambunctious surreality. Two French beggars, present-day pilgrims en route to Spain's holy city of Santiago de Compostela, serve as Bunuel's narrators for an anticlerical history of heresy, told with absurdity and filled with images that rank among Bunuel's most memorable (stigmatic children, crucified nuns) and hilarious (Jesus considering a good shave). A diabolically entertaining look at the mysteries of fanaticism, The Milky Way remains a hotly debated work from cinema's greatest skeptic.
    One piece of Jesus Film trivia associated with this film is that Claudio Brook (who plays the bishop in The Milky Way), also played Jesus in the Mexican Jesus Film Jesús, Nuestro Señor which was released at about the same time (and which I'm also due to release shortly.

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    Friday, July 20, 2007

    Ron Reed on The Big Fisherman, Barabbas and Ben Hur

    My friend Ron Reed has just posted reviews of three biblical epics - The Big Fisherman, Barabbas and Ben Hur. Ron has a great way with words and has the benefit of having seen The Big Fisherman which I've never had the chance to see. It would have to be good to be an improvement on Barabbas. Ben Hur may have a larger number of Oscars, but Barabbas is the superior film in my opinion.

    Speaking of reviews by friends of mine, Peter Chattaway has also had his third article on Evan Almighty published.

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    Thursday, July 19, 2007

    Nigel Stafford-Clark on the BBC's The Passion

    See all posts on this film
    I've already written a couple of posts about the BBC's planned Easter drama The Passion which is due to air in Holy Week 2008. Earlier today I stumbled across an MP3 of an hour long interview with the producer of this series Nigel Stafford-Clark, which was recorded just a few weeks ago at the 2007 Churches Media Conference.

    Pleasingly the interviewer is incredibly disciplined and just lets Stafford-Clark (Bleak House) talk, and, as a result, Stafford Clark's very forthcoming. Sadly he's unable to reveal the identity of the actor chosen to play Jesus, but otherwise even I am left with very few questions at this stage.

    The series is due to run as six half-hour episodes airing nightly in Holy Week. Stafford-Clark is passionate about locating the story in its correct historical context (I picked up a few things along the way) and seems keen to avoid any kind of anti-Semitism. And whilst some well-known actors will be involved they will tend to play those characters who were well known at the time (like Caiaphas and Pilate) rather than Jesus and his disciples.

    All of which sounds fascinating, particularly as filming doesn't start until August. It's meant to be a two month shoot in Morocco. Coincidentally, I'm going on holiday there in October, so hopefully I'll be able to catch some of the buzz from the end of filming.

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    Tuesday, July 17, 2007

    Are the Dardenne Brothers Making a Film Called A Jew Named Jesus?

    Ron Reed is turning out posts at his blog at an incredible sped at the moment, and the really galling part is that there so well written! Amongst the articles that Ron has posted recently is a summary of supposedly forthcoming projects which includes films I've covered elsewhere such as Christ The Lord: Out Of Egypt, The Final Inquiry, Mary, Paradise Lost, The Resurrection, and Risen: The Story Of The First Easter. However, he also includes this intriguing quote from Doug Cummings:
    "in his newly published diary, Luc Dardenne mentions a couple of times that he and Jean-Pierre are thinking about making a Jesus film. I don't have it with me at the moment, but he writes something like, 'this would not be the story of his life, but a snapshot of his reality; the faces, places, bodies, and interactions of his world' or something like that. He insisted they'd shoot it in Israel."
    I've not been able to find the source of this quote, or much information about this project other than a tentative title - A Jew Named Jesus. There is apparently some information about this project in their published diary, which has been out since at least 2005.

    I'm fascinated by this news (and surprised I'd missed it before). The Dardenne brothers are incredible film makers and it would be great to see them have a go at the material. Some might argue that they have already visited this material at least once in Le Fils (my brief review). That said it's also a marked departure from their other films, which are generally set around the peripheries of everyday modern life.

    I'm reminded of two other great film makers who wanted to make films about Jesus. The first is Carl Dreyer. Both have produced a number of landmark films many of which are deeply spiritual. There are certain similarities in their styles of film making, and obviously they both work outside the Hollywood mainstream. Like the Dardennes, Dreyer also wanted his film to emphasise Jesus's Jewishness. Sadly Dreyer's dreams were never fulfilled.

    The other is George Stevens. Like the Dardenne brothers he had already made a critically acclaimed film who's central character is a Christ figure (Shane). Stevens succeeded where Dreyer failed and managed to bring his Jesus film to the big screen. But The Greatest Story Ever Told was roundly criticised, and not a few commentators have noted that having made one masterful telling of the Christ story he shouldn't have attempted to revisit the material.

    Hopefully the Dardennes will manage to avoid the pitfalls of both Dreyer and Stevens. Watch this space.

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    Monday, July 16, 2007

    Noah's Ark (1999)

    The next of the films about Noah that I'd like to look at it Noah's Ark (1999), which, at almost three hours, is the longest screen treatment of the story of the flood. That said, it feels much, much longer. In fact, the three hours pass so slowly that you begin to wonder if the 40 days of rain may have actually passed far more quickly.

    As a TV film it was unlikely ever to be a classic, but the movie's current 3.6 rating on the IMDb is, perhaps, not even as damning as it deserves.

    The film's sole strength seems to be that it's willing to take risks, be innovative and creative and that it's free to deviate from the original story. Unfortunately, these liberties also form the film's biggest weaknesses. The start of the story sees Noah spending time with Lot (his great, great grandson according to Genesis) in Sodom and Gomorrah. They and their families narrowly escape getting buried in burning sulphur as God opts for a piping hot appetizer to accompany his revenge (which is, of course, best served cold - ba dum cha!).

    Unfortunately, things don't quite work out as God's planned them. We never discover whether the flood was localised or global, but it seems even a number of Noah's neighbours manage to escape. Did I mention that they have become proto-techno-pirates? To borrow from my comments elsewhere about this monstrosity...
    Its attempt to weave futuristic elements into a pre-historic myth backfires more spectacularly than a seventies Robin Reliant. The bizarre futuristic elements evoke Kevin Costner’s mega flop Waterworld. Had that film been a success, this, at least, could be called a "cheap cash in". But as Waterworld was actually a complete commercial disaster, so even that cannot have been the driving factor. Similarly terrible is a ludicrous attempt to pass off an idiotic amalgamation of the stories of Lot and Noah with the ridiculous off-hand comment that “by the time they finish the story of Sodom and Gomorrah they will probably say we weren't even there."
    Whilst none of the cast are major stars, Jon Voight, F. Murray Abraham and James Coburn are all well known actors with reasonably good reputations. So what, on earth, possessed them to get on board with this stinker? As it happens they are unable to rise above the dross that surrounds them. The only plus point which they'll have been able to take away from the experience is that at least they were not as irritating as the actors playing Shem Ham, Japheth and their wives.

    So all in all, if you're looking for a film about Noah that has even one of the qualities of being interesting, inspiring, challenging, biblically faithful, well acted, deftly scripted, humorous, beautiful, complex, entertaining, or even just plain watchable, then you're strongly advised to skip this one. And if all you're after is a tediously long, tacky, overblown film about a big boat, a lot of water and a terrible disaster then you'd probably be better off re-watching Titanic.


    Friday, July 13, 2007

    Noah's Ark (1959)

    I'm seeing Evan Almighty on Wednesday so I figured it was about time I made some more entries in my Films About Noah series.

    Noah's Ark is the 2nd of Disney's three takes on this story (the others being Father Noah's Ark (1933) and the "Pomp and Circumstance" sequence from Fantasia 2000 (1999), and with a running time of around 20 minutes it's the most extensive of the three. In contrast to the other two films it's made with stop motion animation using every objects such as pipe cleaners, corks and thimbles as well as the fabrics that predominate.

    It has a number of things in common with one or both of those other films. Firstly, there is a great deal of humour in all three films. Here we see the usual slapstick escapades from Noah and his sons as they construct the ark. There are also jokes based on the distinctive characteristics of the various animals again. Here we have a penguin wearing a morning coat, and minks dressed in mink.

    Another similarity is that film is also largely accompanied by music, the music here is perhaps the most "kidsy", with simple harmonies and a modernish feel. Some of the music here is used to provide entertainment whilst on board the ark. In this version of the film, unfortunately, this sequence goes off on tangent getting overly concerned with the marital strife between Mr and Mrs Hippo.

    Another way that this short resembles the others is with the way it handles the biblical material. None of the three films really deal with this story as the outworking of God's judgement. The people who are left behind to drown never enter the picture, and whilst all three films delight in the animals who survive the flood there's no mention of those that didn't make it.

    Finally, Shem Ham and Japheth are again present and, as with the first film whilst they all have different coloured hair, they share their colouring with their spouses.

    There are lots of novelties in this film as well, however. For a start the animation itself is resourceful and creative. The use of everyday objects gives it an endearing quality, which draws attention to the medium as well as the story.

    There are a couple of very interesting shots in this film as well. The film starts and ends with God-shots. The first is a fairly conventional movie God shot – an overhead view of the land in which Noah lives – near enough for it to be clear what it is, but far enough away so that it couldn't be the point of view of any other character. This shot is confirmed as being God's point of view when it is reproduced immediately after God has finished giving Noah his mission. The closing God shot is entirely different. It's a view of the whole globe.

    The use of these shots indicate God's presence in this film which is perhaps more prevalent here than in the other two – particularly as we hear God give Noah his mission. There's also a few interesting dissolves, notably during the montage in which the ark is built.

    One of the other strengths of this film are the various backgrounds it uses. These nicely complement the action whilst also emphasising the different locations. The area where Noah lives is mainly shot against a plain blue background, and several of the shots (including the opening ones are shot with blue filters). But once Noah and his sons go out to gather the animals the background become much more diverse and interesting.

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    Thursday, July 12, 2007

    Moses the Lawgiver - Review

    In many ways Moses the Lawgiver is Jesus of Nazareth's forgotten older brother. Both are made for TV productions by Lew Grade's ITC Entertainment. Both have Italian directors, were written by Anthony Burgess and feature impressive star casts. The photography in the two productions is strikingly similar, and both films even had a glossy illustrated novelization to sit on the nation's coffee tables.

    Given the many similarities, it's surprising to see how differently the two films have fared since their initial release. For many people Jesus of Nazareth is the definitive portrayal of the life of Christ – even those who have never seen it would identify Robert Powell's bearded face and piercing blue eyes as being Jesus. It was a role that made him a household name. It was the role he would always, henceforth, be identified with.

    In contrast Moses the Lawgiver had chosen an existing star – Burt Lancaster – to play Moses, with his son Willliam playing Moses as a younger man. Ironically, it was Lancaster who Cecil B. DeMille had in mind when he began his hunt for the man to play Moses in his version of the story - The Ten Commandments - almost twenty years earlier. Initially Lancaster's presence made the series a success, so much so that the green light was given for Franco Zefferelli to make his famous Jesus biopic.

    Thirty years on, however, Moses the Lawgiver is almost forgotten. There is a mound of information, analysis and reviews of Jesus of Nazareth, but Moses is mentioned only very rarely, and, even then, only in passing. Director Gianfranco De Bosio made just 4 more films over the next 20 years and today he doesn't even seem to merit a Wikipedia page. The last decade has witnessed a number of new movies about the Exodus, and on each occasion the film makers talk about showing a more human Moses, perhaps even unaware of De Bosio's film.

    So it's pleasing, then, that Moses the Lawgiver has finally been released, uncut, on DVD, because in many ways it's the more interesting film. For all it's strength's Jesus of Nazareth is a fairly unimaginative telling of the life of its hero. Complexity, challenge, doubt and struggle are largely sidelined to make way for Powell's slow delivery, Zefferelli's admittedly beautiful iconography, or just more shots of those azure blue eyes.

    DeBosio's film, however, is altogether deeper. Whereas God is made man in Jesus, here he is largely off screen. His words are mediated only through Moses. Even the viewer only hears him speak in Lancaster's voice. His (miraculous) actions are shown through subjective point of view shots, or meet, shortly afterwards, with a rational explanation.

    In other places De Bosio toys with the idea of myth. We witness the staff turning into a snake when God first address Moses, but it's a sign that Moses never gets to perform. Once inside the palace Pharaoh seems to anticipate what Moses is about to do and he disparages it before his cousin gets the chance. Elsewhere Pharaoh lists and refute exaggerated claims about Moses which are, apparently beginning to circulate. They far exceed anything Exodus has to say about Moses.

    Later in the film the visuals suggest contrasting versions of what really happened. The shots of the people crossing the Red Sea switch between huge waves and remarkably shallow water. Whilst some of this can be accounted for by the low budget, that explanation alone is certainly not adequate. Furthermore, the closing scenes seem to portray Moses dying twice. Initially Moses seems to have died in his tent in the same ordinary way that his siblings died before him. But then, Moses ascends the mountain overlooking the Promised Land and then lays down to die in the manner described at the end of Deuteronomy.

    However, this is not purely modernist cynicism attempting to unstitch this great story. "Scientific" explanations for certain events may be voiced, but they are not entirely convincing. DeBosio refuses to give viewers (of any persuasion) the option of simply sitting back and having their viewpoint reinforced. He constantly challenges his audience to wrestle with the data and make sense of it.

    Take, for example, the scenes where God's punishment is meted out. As a group of men picking firewood on the Sabbath are condemned to death, we sense Lancaster's struggles. Is he torn between his own feelings and God's will? Struggling with his own conscience? If Moses is making all this up why does he seemingly act against his own sense of right and wrong. If he's following God's orders, why do they seem harsh to him? If God is simply such a harsh God, then why is such compassion evident elsewhere in the film?

    To present such delicate balance and such moral complexity in a film requires a great deal of skill, and it's a credit to DeBosio, Burgess, Lancaster, and no doubt many others that they manage hold it all together so remarkably.

    Not all aspects of the film are handled quite as impressively. The series is a fairly low budget affair, and at times it really shows. In some cases this is the film's deliberate choice of aesthetic. As Lancaster explains in the DVD's bonus interview feature, the costumes are meant to look coarse, simple and inferior. The Israelites were slaves freed from poverty so they "deliberately tried to make it primitive", and it works well. At other times, though, things just look cheap, particularly the Egyptian sets and costumes. Admittedly DeMille style opulence is probably equally unlikely, but, as a result, the scenes in Pharaoh's court are probably the film's weakest.

    The other weak point of the film is the acting in some of the crowd scenes. A great deal of this film is taken showing the opposition Moses faced from his people. Whilst some of this is crystallised into the complaints of a single figure Dathan (Joseph Shiloach), much of the moaning comes from the non-principals. As is often the case with such Bible film heckling it fails to convince, no doubt because the extras don't speak English so the voices are dubbed later.

    Aside from those scenes, there are a number of good performances. In addition to Lancaster's own, as commented on above, Anthony Quayle (Lawrence of Arabia, Anne of the Thousand Days) as Aaron, and Ingrid Thullin (Wild Strawberries) as Miriam carry the series well. And you sense Lancaster would have been proud of the way his son William Lancaster played Moses as a young man.

    Overall, then, Moses the Lawgiver is well worth watching. The few weaker aspects can easily be forgiven for the way in which it probes the Biblical accounts of Moses and the Exodus and compares them with modern understandings of the story. By playfully juxtaposing the supernatural with the rational, it refuses to allow viewers to take a comfortable position.

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    Wednesday, July 11, 2007

    Christian Themes in Dr. Who

    As a child I adored Dr. Who. I read a ton of the books, dreamt of having a sonic screwdriver, and even wrote to Jim'll Fix It to see if I could get to meet my favourite Dr. - Peter Davison. When, in one climatic episode, the Dr.'s assistant Adric was killed (to save the others IIRC) there were tears. I was inconsolable.

    I enjoyed the Colin Baker and Slyvester McCoy eras too, although never as quite as much. Baker always seemed coarser than Davison (and this was before he was sacked for growing a beard) and by McCoy's time it was more something I watched for my younger brother's sake.

    Then there was a long gap and by the time Paul McGann and Christopher Eccleston stepped out of the TARDIS I had lost all but a modicum of curiosity, and was without a TV to satisfy any remaining interest. I could imagine Eccleston being good, however. He always was.

    Then, before I'd had time to really get used to the idea he'd gone too and we were onto David Tennant. A Christmas Day special finally gave me the chance to catch a glimpse of the latest incarnation – albeit the end of the episode. I have to admit though I was unimpressed and found Tennant's acting melodramatic at best and in places it was just plain awful.

    It seems I'm in a tiny minority however. With Tennant at the helm, and writer Russell Davies on board, the series has gone from strength to strength, topping the ratings, winning a cabinet full of awards and even spawning a spin off series. This week's been no less uneventful. On Monday the Guardian's list of the 100 most powerful media people included both Davies and Tennant at a staggering 16 and 24 respectively.

    Then yesterday it made it onto Mark Goodacre's New Testament Gateway. Mark's been a fan for a long time, but has posted an interesting piece on some of the Christian themes that have surfaced particularly in this last series (spoilers):
    The subtlety of that imagery from those (previous two) episodes did not prepare me for the remarkably blatant Christian imagery of the final episode, The Last of the Time Lords, a classic good versus evil, super-hero / super-villain match-up between the Doctor and the Master with a clustering of themes that have raised a few eyebrows, defeating evil through "faith and hope", "prayer" (the Master's terms), Martha travelling the world to tell the good news of how the doctor has often saved people without their realizing it, and the Doctor rising from humiliation to defeat evil, and forgive its perpetrator
    All of which sounds very interesting. One could argue that Adric's sacrifice for others, Baker's beard, and Eccleston's lead performance in Second Coming (2003) constitute a continuing relationship between Dr. Who and Jesus, but that would probably be pushing things a little too far. It's also notable that the Dr., like (say) Superman, is a "man" come down from the heavens to save humanity.

    It's something that's been said before, for example by Sylvester McCoy. I'm not sure it's enough to make me go out and hire the DVDs, but it's certainly something I'll bear in mind should I ever find myself in front of the repeats on Telly.

    Monday, July 09, 2007

    The Ten - Updated Website and Poster

    The official website for The Ten has been given a new look. There are a few new photos, including at least one that suggests that the film might push things a little too far. That said, there's enough in all the promo material to suggest it won't so I guess I'll have to wait until I've seen it. I'm still hoping that the film has something really good to offer (other than laughs for some at the offence of others).

    There's also a new poster for the film (right) which contains the film's new tagline "If He'd meant the commandments literally He'd have written them in stone."

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    Friday, July 06, 2007

    Chattaway on Noah Films

    I've been meaning to post this all week, but I've been a bit pushed for time, and now most people have probably seen this already. Nevertheless, for those of you who haven't yet had the pleasure, then BC Christian News has published a brief article by Peter Chattaway on film portrayals of Noah. It's part of BCN's look at Evan Almighty.

    Peter discusses the following films:
    Noah's Ark (1928)
    Father Noah's Ark (1933)
    Green Pastures (1936)
    Noah's Ark (1959)
    The Bible: In the Beginning (1966)
    In Search of Noah's Ark (1976)
    Genesis: Creation and the Flood (1994)
    Noah's Ark (1999)
    Fantasia 2000 (1999)
    I've seen all of these except In Search of Noah's Ark (1976), which, to be honest doesn't tempt me much. I'll be writing about the ones I've not yet covered on this site (i.e. those not linked to above) soon, although I have reflected on the penultimate two films (plus one or two others) in my article on Genesis films.

    There are two films that Peter didn't discuss. One is from the Testament: The Bible in Animation series. It's the only one of that series I've yet to see, but as I recently bought a copy on DVD I'll be blogging it shortly. The other is from the 1970s Greatest Heroes of the Bible series called The Story of Noah. That's one I've not seen, although judging by the others in the series it's unlikely to be either well produced or particularly insightful.

    Peter's also had his article on Evan Almighty director Tom Shadyac published in the same issue of BCN.

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    Thursday, July 05, 2007

    St Peter (2005) DVD release (Starring Omar Sharif)

    Omar Sharif starred in two of last year's Bible Films - the cinematically released and the TV series and I've just caught wind of a third Sharif Bible film released in March of this year (although produced in 2005). St. Peter is another Bible film from the seemingly inexhaustible Lux Vide (who brought us The Bible Collection) and stars Sharif in the lead role. Here's the blurb from the press release:
    As a dedicated follower of Christ, Peter spreads the message of the Christians across the land, often staying only a few steps ahead of those determined to persecute him. As tensions between the Christians and Romans grow, the apostles lose St. Paul to crucifixion. On the road to Damascus, Peter comes face to face with a stranger, who shows him that he must put himself on the cross, for only martyrdom can bring peace to Rome.
    Back in 2005, there was a report in The Guardian about this film. Sharif's comments had apparently led an al-Qaida linked website to advise its readers to kill him. Sharif converted to Islam in the 50s, but said playing Peter was "so important for me that even now I can only speak about it with difficulty. It will be difficult for me to play other roles from now on". He also claimed "to hear voices" during filming.

    Peter Chattaway has just reviewed the film for BC Christian News. It appears it's a mix of Acts of the Apostles and Quo Vadis? and whilst he finds Sharif as the 30 year old Peter unconvincing he does praise "the sensitivity of his performance".

    It'll be interesting to compare this film with St. Paul (known as Paul the Apostle in the US) which I made a few brief comments about in my post on Galatians vs Acts in Film.

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    Wednesday, July 04, 2007

    Atti Degli Apostoli (Acts of the Apostles)

    When reading Acts of the Apostles in the Bible, it's easy to forget that the events it describes took 30 years to unfold. Aside from the prologue Luke's gospel spends 24 chapter on the events of just 3 years, and the immediacy of his writing style changes little between parts 1 and 2 of his story about Jesus and his followers.

    Films about Acts have tended to reinforce the speed with which we perceive the events occurred. With 28 chapters to cram into just a few hours it's difficult to carve out the space to show time ebbing along.

    Rossellini's Atti Degli Apostoli (1968), however, bucks the trend. Whilst including a great deal of the biblical material (only chapter 19 and 24 are completely omitted), it still manages to convey the slowness of the process which led to Paul's arrival in Rome.

    Rossellini does this by utilising a number of different techniques, many of which pull against the epic film genre. Large crowd scenes are kept to a minimum, as are on-screen depictions of miracles (although there are examples of both, particularly at the start of the film). Acts' many sermons are delivered in a low key style rather than converted into the kind of rousing speech that is so typical of the epic. Further more, most of the apostles' evangelism consists of one on one conversations, or talks in front of small groups, perhaps in a remote synagogue. The production opposes the epic in other ways, for example, it usually underplays the hero's persecution and refuses to import romantic sub-plots.

    There are a number of other ways in which the film creates this more leisurely pace. Firstly, Rossellini punctuates his action with moments where nothing is really happening. There is space in this film, often at the start or the end of a shot. In some ways these moments of space are unnecessary; but in other ways they are the very essence of the film.

    There's a masterful shot at the start of the seventh episode1 which starts with a close up of a deserted dust track. The shot ever so gradually widens as the camera pulls back, eventually incorporating Paul and Barnabas as they trek up the road to Pisidian. It's one of many examples of Rossellini's Pancinor zoom technique – the long shots which zoom in and out drawing attention to various parts of the scene but keeping them connected to the larger whole. Here it starts with the emptiness of a remote path and then locates Paul and Barnabas on it. The shot as a whole tells the story of a long quiet walk along a deserted road.

    Prior to this point in the film the action has centred around a busy Jerusalem, with only brief forays into the outside world. But from here on in, Paul becomes the main protagonist, and he and his companions pursue a lonely course of action through the towns of Asia Minor. Even the council of Jerusalem occurs outside the actual city itself.

    The second way in which this film implies a more protracted timescale is by stressing how isolated Paul and the other disciples are from each other, and how unaware they are of the impact they are having. When Paul meets a besotted Prisicilla and Aquilla he is stunned to discover that he, and his Lord, are already well known in Rome. As he nears the great city in the closing scenes, he is again taken aback to find he is known and admired by a sizeable Christian community.

    The great strength of these scenes is how emotionally powerful they are given their apparent restraint and understated acting. Somehow the numerous subtleties of the performances and the way they are filmed add up to something quite moving. Another example of this is disciples' reunion at the council of Jerusalem. Before launching into the debate about gentile adherence to the law, Rossellini pauses to show Peter waiting for the other delegates. But rather than being absorbed with the business the council needs to attend to, it seems he's mainly looking forward to seeing his friends and brothers again.

    The film's ultra-long takes are, in themselves, another way in which the film suggests the passage of time. Perhaps the majority of scenes in Atti are filmed in a single, extended, shot. There are of course exceptions, notably the food riot in Jerusalem where the montage is perhaps a formal way of underlining that this particular episode is fictional, but these only serve to remind us of the longer takes elsewhere.

    Filming a scene in a single shot gives the cuts between these scenes extra significance. Within a shot the action occurs in real time. Once that continuity is broken the time that has passed whilst the camera has been turned off is unknown and potentially, therefore, represents an extended period.

    Commentators have suggested a number of reasons why Rossellini relied so heavily on the long shot, (accompanied by the Pancinor zoom and the plan séquence). For some writers it was simply economy – long shots reduced the post production editing process to simply joining the scenes in the correct order, whilst also reducing the time and money spent altering lighting and make up for each scene. Other commentators, however, whilst perhaps accepting those particular advantages also see it as a way of giving the film more realistic aesthetic, and allowing the films to be more neutral.

    By this stage in his life Rossellini was firmly into his historical period, producing films that he thought would "aim human beings in becoming more rational".2 To this end he had reverted to making films for television where "the [critical] spirit of the individual is more accentuated".3 Rossellini's desire for historicity is apparent throughout the series. Almost the entire first episode consists of an enslaved scribe giving a Roman noble a tour of Jerusalem along with a social and historical commentary. Elsewhere the rise and fall of the various Caesars is introduced into the relevant part of the script.

    There is also a great deal of the everyday in Atti. The apostles spend a great deal of time engaged in manual labour. Peter is shown dyeing, Paul weaving, Stephen serving food and so on. Often the disciples spread they gospel as they work, a theme that would reappear in Il Messia.

    That said Rossellini's concern is not so much with a detailed recreation of the period as of the particular work in which he is adapting. This also apparent with his other historical works which are also adaptations of historical artefacts. So whilst the costumes and locations are fairly realistic, these areas are not attended to as rigorously as they are in many historical films today. The aim is to recreate (the feel of) the work rather than the events the work discusses.

    This is one of the reasons why so many of the miraculous stories are not shown directly. This is simply a feature of Luke's work which Rossellini is seeking to recreate. Yet Rossellini relies on characters recounting supernatural occurrences more than Luke. Whilst this might appear to be an inconsistency, it only reflects the manner in which the story has been heard ever since.

    There are two further reasons why Rossellini portrays the miracles in this manner. Firstly, describing the miracles is far more ambiguous than showing them. This allows the viewer to approach them from their own perspective, without forcing a particular opinion. Secondly, it recontextualises them. Set in a fresh context they once again become startling, like they were for their original audiences, liberated from the confines of familiarity.

    This recontextualisation is also seen in some of the speeches made by the apostles. "In these films, characters boldly foreground their words, paradoxically, by delivering them in a flattened, often completely uninflected way... [focussing attention] on the ideas and historical forces at work".4

    Another way in which the film may be seen to be at variance with the book is in its great respect for the Judaism of the period. The lengthy prologue places the narrative firmly in a broader context explaining, for example, that Christianity was only one of a number of Jewish sects. It is also keen to stress the Judaism of the early apostles. Prior to his conversion Saul is shown sitting in the Sanhedrin, and even after his trip to Damascus he retains his side curls.

    There are also points where the film questions Paul's modus operandi of using the network of synagogues to promulgate his message. Is he taking advantage of the hospitality which he is shown? Do the Hebrews (as the film generally calls them) in that town have good reason not to abandon their faith for his?

    Such questioning should not be seen as an outright criticism of Paul. Indeed his dedication and his genuineness come across very clearly. Perhaps the biggest slur against him is the irritating American drawl used to dub the film into English.

    Fortunately, the visuals are so brilliantly memorable that they persist in the memory long after the poor dubbing has faded into obscurity. As with the book, the precise words used by the apostles may no longer be recoverable, but the impact of what they achieved endures.

    1 - The version of the film I saw was the ten episode "catechical" version. There is also a 5 episode version of this film (where each section is just short of an hour) where this shot should occur at the beginning of episode 4.
    2 – Brunette, Peter. "Roberto Rossellini", University of California Press (1996) p. 253
    3 – Interview, Filmcritica, no 190 (Aug 1968), 351 – cited in Brunette
    4 – Brunette, Peter. "Roberto Rossellini", University of California Press (1996) p. 262

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    Tuesday, July 03, 2007

    Biblical Studies Carnival XIX

    Over at Biblische Ausbildung, Stephen L. Cook has posted the nineteenth Biblical Studies Carnival.

    There were two things I particularly appreciated about Dr. Cook's carnival. One - as far as I'm aware, he is the first carnival host to chose a graphic for his carnival post (forgive me if I'm wrong). It probably doesn't make a difference to most Biblical Studies bloggers, but to those of us who try and illustrate every post with at least one picture, it's nice to have an image to accompany it. I've previously been using an image of my own choosing, but I rather like Dr. Cook's.

    Secondly, I very much enjoyed Alli Diller's look at "The Wife of Noble Character" from Proverbs 31. It's not an article I would ever have come across ordinarily, so I'm grateful to Dr. Cook for helping me discover it. Looking at that passage in the way that Diller does has been bouncing around in the back of my mind ever since I read it at the funeral of my grandmother in May last year. What really strikes me is that this woman is a model for today - for both women and men.

    Anyway, next month's Biblical Studies Carnival XX will be hosted by Claude Mariottini in the first week of August 2007. There are more details about the Biblical Studies Carnivals at the official homepage.


    Monday, July 02, 2007

    DeMille's Collaborations Redux

    I've mentioned the great Cecil B. DeMille in two posts recently, and I've done a bit of searching on them so I thought I'd refer back.

    The first was regarding Michael Curtiz. Peter Chattaway noted some similarities between Curtiz's Noah's Ark (1928) and DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1923). When I was preparing to write my review of Noah's Ark I came across some more information which suggested that the influence could have worked in both directions.

    Yesterday I was flicking through the the substantial liner notes for the Criterion Collection's release of DeMille's 1927 The King of Kings when I noticed some information regarding Noah's Ark. It seems DeMille was due to work on a similar project about Noah in 1926 called The Deluge, but the plug was pulled when DeMille got wind of Curtiz's project. This shows the two were at least partially aware of each other's work, and that execs then preferred to stop making a film if it was too similar to another (rather than go head to head as often happens today).

    Interestingly neither DeMille's autobiography, nor Charles Higham's biography mention Curtiz at all (at least, not in their indicies).

    Which leads me nicely onto the second post about DeMille to which I want to return. Last week I commented on a piece in the The Villages Daily Sun newspaper which claimed that DeMille made films with Edgar J. Banks (dubbed the original Indiana Jones). As with Curtiz there's no mention of Banks in the autobiography and Higham's book.

    I also (finally!) got hold of Henry S. Noerdlinger's book "Moses and Egypt: The Documentation to the Motion Picture the Ten Commandments" about the 1956 DeMille film. Again, despite the depth of information produced in this book, there's no mention of Banks. Admittedly, DeMille's later version of this film was not released until 10 years after Bank's death, but if DeMille and Banks really were working on films together it's strange that nothing Banks achieved merited a mention in Noerdlinger's book.

    That's not, at all, to say the story is a hoax, simply that if it is true it was one very well kept secret.

    I'll end on a trivia piece. DeMille made bible films with Banks, who was the inspiration for the Indiana Jones films made by Steven Spielberg, who also directed Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which included a clip from the 1956 Ten Commandments - a bible film directed by DeMille. I hope those people who love making these kind of links appreciate that one. I wonder if DeMille ever pondered making a film about Banks?

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