• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


    Friday, August 31, 2007

    Greenbelt 2007

    We got back from Greenbelt on Tuesday morning and I've been meaning to write down a few thoughts on it ever since, but life has been pretty hectic, and I've had a stomach bug for the last 24 hours which has left me feeling none too good. This was my 15th Greenbelt (although I've not attend the complete festival for one or two of those), Mel's sixth and Nina's second, and going with a 15 month toddler is certainly a different experience from going as a couple (or even as part if a youth group). For a start, I'm far less into the music than I used to be, so I tend to baby sit Nina and take the opportunity to do a spot of reading. I did catch Vera Cruz as my friend was mixing the sound for them.

    I did go to plenty of the talks however – more than I expected to actually, although there were a few where the venue was full up by the time I got there. I'm not entirely sure why Greenbelt gives extra profile to certain speakers and then allocates them a smaller venue – though I know that certain bands in the past have requested the smaller venues for that more intimate feel.

    There were a good number of biblical scholars at this years festival, although some of those were the ones I missed, so in the end I only really caught Morna Hooker. She was talking about the nativity narratives in Matthew and Luke, and whilst most of it was stuff I was familiar with there were a few extra things that I came away with. Hooker started off reading Matthew's opening as a way of demonstrating that Mathew is more of a scholar than a teacher. She also pointed out how "disrespectful" the four women mentioned in the genealogies are. Rather than finding Sarah, Rebekah etc we find a prostitute, a woman who posed as a prostitute in order to have a child by their Father-in-law, a Moabite, and an adulteress. Hooker says this links to Mary's "suspicious" pregnancy. She also pointed out two things I'd never thought of. Firstly that the star makes a mistake in leading the wise men to Herod, and secondly that Luke is paralleling the birth of Jesus with the birth of John.

    I also enjoyed listening to Christian Aid's Nigel Varndell who had chosen the provocative title "Jesus was a Liar". Of course it was obvious that that was hardly what he meant – and sure enough he was mainly looking at 2 occasions in Mark when Jesus appears to deliberately misquote the Old Testament (Mark 10:19, 12:30-31). The thirs example he gave was from Mark 8:38 ("For whoever is ashamed of me..of him will the Son of man also be ashamed") which comes straight after Jesus has told Peter (who denies Jesus laterin the book) that he will use him to build his church. He used this last passage to say we need to hold Jesus's words and actions in tension.

    Other talks I enjoyed were Dave Tomlinson, the always good John Smith and Mark Yaconelli who ably demonstrated that he's a chip off the old block (his father Mike Yaconelli was a huge favourite of mine before his untimely death a few years back). And, of course, Greenbelt wouldn't be complete without hearing Gareth Higgins's annual "Film Review of the Year". I was surprised that he was quite so enamoured by The Fountain and that he didn't give much time to the incredible This is England but otherwise there's a lot of agreement between us and he highlighted a few films that I really need to catch.

    Sadly, the film programme was less exciting this year. The majority of the programme was given over to four films from the Church Times's 50 top religious filmsThe Mission, Babette's Feast, Into Great Silence (my review) and Intolerance. Fortunately they also showed a few other films including the coffee industry documentary Black Gold which I was disappointed to miss earlier in the year. It didn't disappoint, and you can read my review over at rejesus.


    Thursday, August 30, 2007

    Podcast: Life and Passion of Jesus Christ (1905)

    My latest Jesus film podcast on Life and Passion of Jesus Christ. It's the tenth talk that I've done. The other nine (Jesus of Nazareth, Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo, The Greatest Story Ever Told, Jesus of Montreal, Jesus Christ Superstar, The Miracle Maker, Il Messia, King of Kings and Last Temptation of Christ are all available to download.

    It's been a while since I wrote about this film so it was good to revisit it again.

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    Tuesday, August 28, 2007

    Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt Stuck in the Wilderness

    It seems like the film adaptation of the Anne Rice novel Christ the Lord:Out of Egypt has run into a dead end. Mark Moring at Christianity Today has announced that the project has been scrapped.
    Rice...told CT Movies that "we decided not to move forward" with the film or with Good News Holdings. She would not elaborate on the reasons.

    GNH president and CEO Christopher Chisholm told CT Moves that "several things came up about Christ the Lord," including "creative differences" involving the "budget, director and talent." Chisholm said, "We had an amicable parting of ways, and we decided to release all our rights to Christ the Lord."
    This is bad news for Good News Holdings as well as for anyone who wanted to see Johnny Depp play Jesus, although, given that the second book (also before the start off Jesus's ministry) will not be released until next year, that was a fairly distant project anyway.

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    Friends and Heroes Coming to BBC2

    Earlier in the year I was tracking the progress of the strangely addictive Friends and Heroes series. It seems like I'm not the only one who enjoyed the series (see my review) as the BBC has upgraded this to appear on BBC2 through the autumn. It's also got a regular weekly slot. There is a little more on this on the official website, but here are the dates and times. I guess this is also good news for those of us who are looking forward to series 2 and 3.

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    Saturday, August 25, 2007

    Content Theft Update

    Many thanks to all of those who've offered support for me since my post on Monday. Blogger have been on the case with it and the offending site no longer appears to be in operation.

    One of the pieces of advice I've come across in order to avoid this happening again is to reduce the RSS feeds that the site produces. I'm not really sure how many people actually read my posts vis these feeds, but hopefully it won't inconvenience you too greatly. I've changed it to the short setting so you should get the title and the opening sentence or two. If this is something of an inconvenience, please do let me know and I'll see what else I can do instead.

    Thursday, August 23, 2007

    Greatest Heroes of the Bible: Joshua at Jericho

    I've been running a course with a few of my friends called Through the Bible in Five and a Half Years where we spend an evening looking at a different book of the Bible each month. This Monday we were looking at Joshua. One of the things I like to do is use clips from Bible films (assuming they tie in with what we're discussing), but Joshua is surprisingly under-represented in this respect. I'm currently reading Stephen Lang's "Bible on the Big Screen" and one of his theories is that the stories that were made into movies in the early days, and were successful have tended to be remade because of it, whilst others that didn't get covered in that early period have never quite made their mark, and have thus tended to be ignored. I also wonder with Joshua whether the subject matter has been considered too unpalatable for a wider audiences, particularly since the Holocaust.

    In any case the only film version of the Joshua story I have is from the "Greatest Heroes of the Bible" TV series which aired on NBC in late 1978 and early 1979. I've only seen a few of this series, but they are generally very low budget. This episode pulls out a few special effects when Jericho's walls finally fall, but it's mainly in the form of drawn on lightning and a few pyrotechnics.

    Despite the all round poor production values of this series it did provide me with a clip. One of the things I wanted to look at was how the biblical account is often altered in order to make some of these stories more palatable. They essentially load the dice in favour of the Israelites/God in order to make the death of God's "enemies" less troubling.

    This film is perhaps the best example of this tendency I have ever seen. I used the opening piece of narration to show this tendency. It talks of Jericho being
    impregnable, says it was controlled by ruthless Hittites controlled area, that the people had grown fat, become debased and filthy and that they committed human sacrifices. This is followed by a scene inside the city where we see children stealing and various of ethically dubious acts occuring. Whilst some of this is true, it's noticeably absent in the Jericho narrative itself.

    As it happens I could have used various sections of this film for exactly the same purpose. Jericho's King - King Agadiz (Sidney Lassick) - is extremely hard to like. He is instantly annoying, childish, overweight, whining and super, super camp. Sidney Lassick is best known for his earlier role in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and those who saw him in that film will find it influences their perception of this role also.

    Agadiz relies a great deal on his commander, Assurabi (Cameron Mitchell) who by contrast is proud, stubborn and arrogant. Whilst Agadiz flaps around wondering what to do Assurabi hatches a plot to lure the Israelites to the city (unaware that that is Israel's plan anyway by stealing their children (from a convenient canvas day nursery) and sacrificing them to their Gods. This episode is unacceptably fictional, being true to neither the letter nor the spirit of the book in question. When we're shown one of the children being sacrificed it is the cutest most passive child one could imagine. Later one of Jericho's ordinary citizen's is shown celebrating his sacrificing one of the Israelite children.

    When the Israelites finally come to attack the city Assurabi and his comrades mock them and entice them further, whilst the priests and the king sacrifice a goat to their God that they have named Jehovah. In short, the film does everything it possibly can to demonise the residents of Jericho and paint them in a negative light. The portrayal of the Israelites and the Canaanites in the Bible is hardly balanced, but it is much more shades of grey. Joshua's people have just emerged from 40 years in the desert typified by moaning and their lack of faithfulness - we're told little of the Canaanites other than that they worship the wrong Gods and that they possess the land assigned for Israel. The changes made to the film polarise the respective camps into shades black and white. It's abundantly clear who the goodies are and who the baddies are, and almost impossible to feel sympathy for the residents of Jericho who's major crime is living in the wrong place.

    In order to really do this, and to clarify why Rahab is saved the film spends an awfully large proportion of the film on fictional episodes, and doesn't really get to the meat of the story until towards the end of the film. The scenes work something like this:
    [extra-biblical episode - Introduction]
    Sending of the spies - (Josh 2:1)
    [extra-biblical episode - King and commander plot]
    [extra-biblical episode - Jericho attacks Israel]
    [extra-biblical episode - Child sacrifice]
    King hears of the spies - (Josh 2:2)
    [extra-biblical episode - Rahab summons the spies]
    Rahab's deal with the spies - (Josh 2:8-14)
    Rahab covers for the spies - (Josh 2:3-6)
    The spies escape - (Josh 2:15-21)
    Spies report back - (Josh 2:23-24)
    Joshua prays - (Josh 6:2)
    Jericho locks its gates - (Josh 6:1)
    Israelites march around Jericho - (Josh 6:6-14)
    [extra-biblical episode - Joshua and his generals confer]
    Fall of Jericho - (Josh 6:15-25)
    One of the things that occurred to me whilst watching this is that the biblical Rahab's designation as a prostitute almost certainly meant she was a cult prostitute, so her inclusion not only in the people of Israel, but in the ancestors of both David and, therefore, Jesus is quite incredible. Unfortunately, the film isn't able to convey the radical turn around required here. When Rahab first appears it is immediately obvious who she is - she is the only red haired person in all of Jericho. By showing compassion right at the start of the film her character arc is somewhat truncated and her role in the film is much more temple dancer than temple prostitute.

    As the film reaches it's conclusion it gets even more ridiculous. Assurabi's taunts degenerate to the point where he can only shout at Joshua "Let me hack you into bits…BIIIIIIITS!" Joshua isn't phased he's already seen God speak in a manner somewhat reminiscent of plume of polluted smoke billowing from the clouds. Besides he has to risk exhausting his troops by having them inexplicably jog on the spot for 10 minutes before they make their final charge. This is made all the stranger by the fact that the walls begin to fall when Joshua throws his sword into the ground. Like something out of a bad King Arthur movie (and goodness knows there have been plenty of them) the moment it lands point-in into the ground it's struck by lightning which sends a tremor along the ground which eventually fells the walls. Once inside it turns out that soldiers of Jericho don't actually have any ability with the sword. This is just as well for the Israelites - they are more than content to stick their swords under their enemies arms and hope the camera isn't watching too closely.

    All in all then, this is a terrible, terrible film, and whilst it's a particularly pertinent example of the dice-loading tendency inherent in many Bible films, it has little value in and of itself.

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    Wednesday, August 22, 2007

    La Voie Lactée (The Milky Way - 1969)

    One of the things that's interesting about Bible films is the way that controversy often rages around one film, but leaves other, equally controversial, films largely untouched. Compare, for example, the differing responses to Last Temptation of Christ and Jesus of Montreal. Scorsese's film provoked uproar - in France some cinemas were even fire-bombed - yet Arcand's film, released barely a year later, somehow passed below the radar, even though it's view of Jesus is far less orthodox than Last Temptation.

    In a similar way, Buñuel's 1969 film La Voie Lactée (The Milky Way) largely avoided controversy despite the director's catalogue of films criticising Catholicism. The director himself was deeply ambivalent about Christianity. Nine years before he made this film he had delivered his famous quip "I am still, thank God, an atheist", but 8 years later (in 1977) he denied his atheism claiming to be "weary" of his "old aphorism".1. So this film appeared almost exactly half way between those two quotes - and it really shows.

    Whilst the subject matter of the entire film is Catholicism, much of it is to do with how that faith has been worked in the 2000 years since Jesus, and, in particular, how different heresies the church has faced have been handled. But this film is different from Buñuel's other films in that it actually contains scenes from, or from around the Gospels.

    In many respects the film has much in common with the later Monty Python's Life of Brian. Not only are both films the product of well read, if irreverent artists, but they use humour as their primary tool, and incorporate short sections of the gospels into a more extensive filmic collage. Furthermore, fans of the Python films in general will feel instantly at home in Buñuel's surrealism, replete with its jumbled time lines and improbably articulate discussions, and the film's use of a quest to bond together various episodes in the loosest possible manner.

    The film follows the bizarre journey of two particularly impious pilgrims as they journey to Santiago. As their journey unfolds they inhabit the same space as numerous characters from through the ages who are, in some way, related to Catholicism. Some are modern day figures discussing Catholic doctrines. Others are more historical figures related to Catholicism in some way. At times these connections are somewhat obscure such as the appearance of the Marquis de Sade. Sometimes the pilgrims interact with the characters they encounter, at other times they simply happen to be in the same place at the same time.

    Their first two encounters are both based on the bible. As they walk along a road they meet a man who they ask for alms. Learning that the younger of the two travellers has no money, the stranger refuses to give him anything, yet when the older man admits he already has some money, he receives a wad of notes. This strange encounter ends with the man commanding them to "go and find a harlot, and have children by her. Name the first, 'You Are Not My People', and the second, 'No More Mercy'". To the uninitiated this dialogue may seem fairly meaningless, but it is recontextualisation of two passages from the Bible - Jesus's conclusion to the Parable of the Talents (Matt 25:29 & Luke 19:26) and God's instructions to Hosea (Hosea 1).

    As they part ways, the pilgrims observe a smaller figure alongside the stranger (that they had not previously noticed), and a dove flies alongside - completing the Trinity. Somewhat confused, they conclude the stranger favoured the older man because of his beard. This leads to an amusing flashback to the 1st century where Mary persuades Jesus not to shave off his beard.

    Also present in this scene is a young boy who the pilgrims are just about meet. The pilgrims are concerned by the state the boy is in - he has marks in his hands and in his side - but they move on before they realise who he really is.

    There follows a series of brief vignettes as the pilgrims encounter an eloquent priest who turns out to be mad, a group of early gnostic Christians and find only an ambiguous answer to their test of God's existence. The next scene revolves around a number of waiters who are discussing theology, philiosophy and various heretical beliefs. Their discussion is intercut with a scene of the Marquis de Sade and another featuring Jesus. Jesus runs to greet his disciples - they are late for the Wedding at Cana where Jesus tells the Parable of the Shrewd Steward. Tantalisingly the scene ends as soon as Jesus gives the command to fill the water jugs and serve the wine. We are not shown whether or not the miracle actually occurs. I find the start of this segment particularly memorable. There's something fresh and exciting about the way Jesus enters the scene running - even if it is because he is late.

    Back on the road the strange encounters continue: a school speech day with a variety of dogma drenched "poetry" that is so unusual it leads one of the characters to imagine the pope in front of a firing squad; a scene from the Spanish Inquisition; an inhabitant of purgatory; a duel between a Jansenist and a Jesuit; and some reformers who have a vision of the Virgin Mary.

    When they finally arrive in Santiago they are greeted by a whore who takes them into the woods for a "frolic in the grass" and then repeats the command from the strange man at the start of the film. She is the one who is to bear the children named 'You Are Not My People' and 'No More Mercy'.

    This leads to the film's final scene which is again of Jesus and the disciples, who appear in the same woods as the pilgrims, the whore and two blind men. Initially Jesus appears to heal the blind men, but as they stroll off towards Jesus's showdown in Jerusalem the camera focuses on a ditch. Whilst Jesus and his apostles negotiate it with ease, his two newest followers still seem to be relying on their sticks to help them to cross the gap. That said, although that's the most obvious reading it's not quite as clear cut as many would have you believe. For a start we see only the character's feet - their actual identity is assumed rather than a certainty. Furthermore, one of the two blind men recites the line about seeing "men as trees walking" which combined with Jesus's use of saliva to heal the men, indicates that it is Mark 8:25-28 which is being portrayed. Crucially, the men in the text are not properly healed until Jesus lays his hands on them a second time, and as the film ends abruptly at this point, the possibility remains that the completion of this miracle lies beyond the end of the film.

    So whilst there's a scepticism about Christianity and its founder in the film this is not an out and out attack on the man from Nazareth. Indeed Buñuel could easily have included even more difficult passages from the scriptures such as the incident with the Syrophoenician Woman in Mark 7:25-30. It's unclear whether the film's ambiguity in this respect is a reflection of Buñuel's own uncertainty or his concern over how a more negative portrayal would be received by either the censor or the general populace. Indeed the film is far more damning regarding it's more specifically Catholic concerns than about Jesus himself.

    Whilst this is, then, not a particularly uplifting film, it does provide fresh insights into several biblical texts by placing them in new contexts. And whilst it's certainly sceptical about Christianity, the fact that it's been written by people who know their Catholicism inside out, and are not afraid to make a film that is inaccessible to those do not, means the film at least deserves some respect even if ultimately we disagree with its, somewhat tenuous, conclusions.


    Those interested in this film might also like to read the write-ups by Doug Cummings, and Alan Dale. You can also read the script and view a huge number of images at american-buddha.com

    1 - Cited in Wikipedia article on Luis Buñuel.

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    Monday, August 20, 2007

    Someone is Stealing my Content

    Not sure if this is the best way to handle this, but I've just been told that someone is stealing my content. And not in a too-lazy-to-research-my-work-properly kind of way but in a I'll start a new blog impersonating your blog title and cut and paste your articles into it (whilst using Ads and links to bring in some revenue).

    One of the reasons I'm posting this here is to see how the thief handles it. I suspect it might just be a robot of some form. If this post is copied almost wholesale then I'll know it is. If it does appear or appears in a modified form then I'll know there might be someone involved in the process. (If there is and you are reading this, then please desist).

    In case you've just stumbled across this and aren't sure what's going on, then let me fill you in. Bible Films Blog was set up by me in Jan 2006 (although I backdated a couple of posts). The original and genuine site lives at http://biblefilms.blogspot.com/. The fake site (which I won't make more Google friendly by linking to) has inserted a hyphen into this title. The original and genuine site has a shades of brown colour scheme (see picture), and has a lengthy sidebar of useful linked, topped by my profile picture (sometimes in Internet Explorer this slips down the page but it's always there). If this isn't what you're seeing then you're viewing the rip off site and the original is here.

    Has anyone else had this happen to them? It seems to be common enough that Blogger have an option for raising it on their service violation pages. It looks like this user is doing it to a number of other bloggers as well.

    Friday, August 17, 2007

    La Ricotta (Soft Cheese - 1962 from RoGoPaG)

    This article contains spoilers

    La Ricotta is the second of four short films that were released together under the title of RoGoPaG - an abbreviation of each of the four film's directors, Roberto Rossellini (Illibatezza - my review), Jean-Luc Goddard, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Ugo Gregoretti. It was deemed so offensive that Pasolini was actually prosecuted for it.

    Unsurprisingly, then, La Ricotta starts with a disclaimer. It's unclear whether this was added before to court case – to try and avoid prosecution – or as a result of it. Either way, the fuss is hard to understand today, and its clear to most that the film is satirising a sanctimonious form of Christianity, rather than the faith itself – let alone its founder.

    The story takes place on the set of a Jesus film. Despite the inspirational nature of the story that is being filmed, no-one seems to be particularly excited to be there. The director (played by Orson Welles) looks on dispassionately, even reading a book in-between takes. The crowd of actors make their own entertainment – dancing, joking and even getting one of the cast to perform a striptease to taunt those pinned to the cross.


    Not all of the cast are able to behave so frivolously. Stracci, the extra who is playing the good thief, is desperately poor – so much so that when he is handed his lunch for the day he runs off to give it to his starving family. In some way the scene functions as the Last Supper as Stracci, the film's hero, enjoys the fellowship of those he loves for the last time before his death on a cross.

    Indeed much of what happens during Stracci's final few hours parallels Christ's passion. Some of these elements are supplied by his role in the film (being taken away to be crucified), and some occur because of his real life situation (being mocked and deserted and then left to die). However, this is not a straightforward Christ figure – some of Stracci's actions (his lying and stealing in order to procure more food) would be seen by many as somewhat un-Christ like.

    Given Pasolini's famous Marxism, and the film's subversive tone, I can't help wondering if he is looking to explore some ethical issues here. Is it acceptable for the poor and starving to steal, or impersonate others in order to feed themselves? It's a question posed later, and somewhat inadvertently, by Stracci himself. As he hangs on the cross waiting for his big moment he rehearses what seems to be his only line "Lord remember me when you come into your kingdom". If Stracci is meant to deliver the goof thief's other words from the cross he is notably not practising them.


    Stracci's death is somewhat confusing. Have given away his first meal to his family he then dons a wig and a dress in order to get another lunch which he temporarily stashes away whilst he returns the items that make up his disguise. In the meantime, the leading actresses's dog escapes, discovers Stracci's hidden treasure and eats it for himself.

    It's far from clear why he died. If Stracci has died because he has overeaten then Welles' final line "poor Stracci he had to die before we knew he really lived" seems overblown. Is it just an extension of the pious pompusness which he has so far exhibited – a grandstanding gesture even as one of his casts lies dead? Or does it indicate that Stracci has died of starvation and that the scenes in which he buys the cheese and stuffs his face with it is actually Stracci's daydreams as is tied to the cross? There are certainly plenty of unreal elements in these sequences – the fast forwarded action, the sudden appearance of the entire crew in he cave, the abundance of food he is suddenly surrounded by – to suggest this as a viable reading.


    The film's major theme is the contrast between the story of Jesus and those who represent him. The cast's treatment of this poor man is shown as the ultimate indicator of their impiety. Does he suggest that the real representatives and re-enactors of Christ's story (i.e. the church) also fail in this respect? It certainly seems more likely that he is primarily castigating kitsch, yet technically irreverent, religion rather than the makers of religious films. The tacky colours of the crucifixion scenes – the only colour scenes in the four films that comprise RoGoPaG - are far more akin to those from pious Christianity than anything Hollywood has produced.

    Thankfully, Pasolini also seems to be aware that he is no better. Whenever a film features a film director it is likely to be self-referential. But in case anyone misses the link the part is played by one of the most well known film directors of all time, and Pasolini further strengthens the association by having him read Pasolini's own book "Mamma Roma".


    It would not be long until Pasolini returned to these themes. Having pointed out the weaknesses in the human (and celluloid) conveyors of Jesus's message Pasolini filmed his version of The Gospel According to St. Matthew two years later. The portrayal Jesus as a crusader for social justice picks up from where La Ricotta leaves off.

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    Wednesday, August 15, 2007

    McKnight on the Quest for the Historical Jesus

    I've not got much time to post today, but I did want to draw attention to Scott McKnight's series on the quest for the Historical Jesus. There are three entries so far Reimarus to Schweitzer, Bultmann to the Jesus Seminar, and the Jesus Seminar.

    Over at New Testament Gateway (where I first read about McKnight's series) Mark Goodacre raises one objection:
    There is one comment I'd like to question:
    If the days of Reimarus to Schweitzer were the old quest, the period of Bultmann is the "no" quest.
    ...Allison points out, many books about the historical Jesus were produced during that period, e.g. most famously by Joachim Jeremias.


    Monday, August 13, 2007

    Magdalena: Released from Shame

    Thanks to Thomas Langkau for tipping me off about this one. Nardine Productions are soon to release a new Jesus film - Magdalena: Released from Shame. It's currently in production (with a 2008 release according to the IMDB), but here's what the Nardine Productions website has to say about it:
    An original film that traces Jesus’ interactions with biblical women as seen through the eyes of one of His followers, Mary of Magdala. In a beautifully emotive way, this 90-minute docudrama captures these historical accounts.

    Magdalena: Released From Shame will be available in many of the world’s major languages in 35mm, DVD and VHS formats.
    There's a fairly impressive official website which contains four clips from the film plus a theatrical trailer (although it's unclear as to whether this will actually make it into theatres, or just go straight to DVD). There's also a cast list, gallery, and the following synopsis:
    A woman caught in the shameful act of adultery; a social outcast shunned in society for 12 years because of a despicable illness; a widow mourning the loss of her only son. An ugly thread of shame, sorrow and hopelessness painfully weaves its was through these women's lives.

    After spending three years following Jesus, Mary Magdalene has seen it all - lives changed, miracles performed, the sorrow of death and yet the triumph of life. Mary has watched in amazement as Jesus taught a whole new way of looking at life and at people. Jesus radically transformed her own life when he healed her from demon possession, so much so that she became his follower.

    Fast forward to A.D.40. Although Jesus no longer remains on earth, Mary Magdalene still lives a changed life. Despite his miraculous works and his surprising compassion, not everyone bought into the teaching of this man, Jesus. Skeptical about this supposed Savior, Mary's friend questions her, "The God who created all of this? I doubt He even sees me, much less knows me."

    In response, Mary Magdalene passionately retells the details of Jesus' life - from birth to death, and eventually to resurrection - and how his life continues on in the lives of those who follow him...
    It becomes obvious from looking at the various parts on the website that this is no ordinary Jesus film. My curiosity was first aroused when I noticed that Brian Deacon's name was mentioned amongst the cast. Deacon played Jesus in the 1979 Jesus film, but is in his late 50s now. I assumed it was simply an interesting cameo - after all the clips I had seen thus far were clearly very modern.

    Then I watched the trailer and realised that what this film is actually doing is incorporating clips from the 1979 film (and, possibly, the wider "Gospel of Luke" project that was recorded at the same time) into a modern film. The Jesus in the newer sections of the film is usually seen from behind or in long shot. This is confirmed by the last of the 4 clips I watched where the action cuts from a newly recorded shot spliced with a clip from the 1979. I would guess the voice of the modern Jesus is also Deacon, and it may be him under that wig (although I suspect it is someone else).

    I can already see potential parallels with this and modern gospel scholarship - some sayings going back to the original Jesus, others incorporated into the text in order to tell the good news - but I'll wait until I see it before I go down that route.

    There are a couple of other points that I'd like to make at this juncture. Firstly, there's obviously a strong focus on the woman that Jesus encounters. Magdalene is clearly a separate women from the woman caught in adultery. The synopsis clearly mentions the widow of Nain and the haemorrhaging woman. The clips also include the Samaritan women. Since the story is told by Mary Magdalene to another woman it's certainly possible that the occasions when Jesus acts compassionately towards women are in the forefront of her mind. It will be interesting to see how far this focus goes and which other stories are incorporated.

    Secondly, I was very pleased to see that this is the first Jesus film (at least that I've come across) that raises the point that "the very act of adultery" requires two people.

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    Friday, August 10, 2007

    Book Review: Film and Religion: An Introduction

    Books about film and religion are becoming increasingly popular these days, and it's proving harder and harder for would-be authors to find a niche in the market that's really worth exploring in print. So you'd be forgiven for not greeting the release of yet another book with the words "religion" and "film" in the title with unbridled enthusiasm. Nevertheless, the new publication by Paul V. M. Flesher and Robert Torry "Film and Religion: An Introduction" breaks new ground in a couple of areas that, at least to my knowledge, have yet to be explored.

    The first thing that marks this book out as different from the others is that this volume is designed for use in the classroom. Aimed primarily at undergrads and their instructors, the book attempts to make no secret of that fact. It even opens with a "Preface for Teachers" which includes a couple of useful resources which continue the issued raised by the book. One is the Film and Religion blog, and the other features downloadable discussion guides (although at the time of going to print these had not been uploaded).

    It's important to keep in mind this book's intended purpose whilst reading it, because otherwise it might seem disjointed. It starts off with a reasonably in depth introduction before discussing a new approach to biblical films. It then pauses that discussion to discuss films about Christmas and science fiction. There follows six chapters on Bible films, before changing direction again to look at general "religious films" for a few chapters, before the final section explores how the Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism and Islam have been portrayed in film. Of course, in a classroom setting for an introductory course on Film and Religion this makes perfect sense - it's simply an overview of a broad topic, that at times is disjointed.

    The other thing that is particularly distinctive about this book is its application of the Jewish targumic method to Bible movies. I want to look at this in some detail because I believe that it should now become one of the standard approaches to studying the epic movie genre.1

    Torry and Flesher's approach is primarily outlined in chapter 1 – which, at first glance, would appear to be about Christmas Films in general and adaptations of Dr. Seuss's "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" in particular. The reason for this seemingly unlikely combination is that the authors consider children's novels as having "significant authoritative power".2

    This is relevant for two reasons. Firstly, if a book and its film adaptation are closely linked "then the book – if well-known or authoritative – will help authorize the film".3 More importantly, the point about targums is that they "combine exactingly accurate renderings of the Hebrew Text into Aramaic with additional material. These additions can be as small as a word or two or as large as several paragraphs".4 These additions "not only bring their own meaning, but they function as context".5

    The authors proceed to list two primary, and four secondary Rules of Targum.6 "The main characteristics of the targumic interpretation are given by the primary rules, while the secondary rules cover less frequent yet relevant features".7 These are as follows:
    Primary Rules
    Rule1:When translating or presenting the original text do so exactly.
    Rule 2: When adding material, integrate it smoothly into the translation.
    Secondary Rules
    Rule 3: A large addition may be placed at the beginning or end of the story to ensure that the new context is clear.
    Rule 4: An addition may be drawn from or imitate related material elsewhere in the work.
    Rule 5: A word may be substituted for one in the original, without disturbing the surrounding translation.
    Rule 6: Occasionally some of the original may be ignored or left out. The translation smoothly adapts to this loss.8
    Having demonstrated how movies based on Seuss's "Grinch" fit these rules, Torry and Flesher pause to discuss the paranoid cultural context of the 1950s via When Worlds Collide and The Day the Earth Stood Still. (Throughout the book the authors stress how important the cultural context is to a film's meaning).

    Having taken their time in establishing these two important foundations the writers go on to build on them by examining Quo Vadis (1951), The Robe (1953) and The Ten Commandments (1956). Disappointingly the important of the targumic approach starts to fade in Chapter 5 (King of Kings, and is only present intermittently thereafter (such as chapter 8 on The Passion of the Christ).

    The remaining chapters are of less relevance to this blog, but are, nonetheless interesting. I've been an admirer of both The Apostle and Field of Dreams for quite a while, so fresh discussion on these films is most welcome. Additionally, given the importance the book places on the US culture which produced the films discusses, the final chapter "Islam and Fanaticism: Only in the Eye of the Beholder?" is certainly the right note to finish on.

    Overall there's much to commend Flesher and Torry for, even if the book will seem a little bit heterogeneous for those not reading it alongside a course. In particular, use of the targumic method could become particularly significant for those studying films based on the Bible.


    1 - Some of those who have this book may have noticed that I'm quoted by way of an endorsement. They will also, no doubt, be aware that often these quotations appear out of their original context. I have no problem with that in this case. I'm happy to endorse the book. I really enjoyed reading it and gained some useful ideas. I did think, however, that it would be worth me highlighting the fact that it is the idea of approaching Bible films as targums that I'm particular excited by.
    2 - Flesher, Paul V. M., and Torry, Robert, "Film and Religion: An Introduction", Abingdon Press (Nashville) 2007, p.12
    3 - ibid. p.18
    4 - ibid. p.12
    5 - ibid. p.20
    6 - It is unclear from the book whether these rules are based on their own observations, those of other modern scholars, or if they are from ancient Jewish sources
    7 - ibid. p.20-21
    8 - ibid. p.20


    Thursday, August 09, 2007

    A Few Thoughts on "Through a Screen Darkly"

    I seem to be in the middle of book review week at the moment, and as a bout of ill health enabled me to finish reading Jeffrey Overstreet's "Through a Screen Darkly" at the weekend I thought I'd post a few comments about it here. This is not an official review as such, because Jeffrey's a friend, and has very much shaped the way I think about film. There's simply no way that I could be balanced and objective about the book. It also makes it harder to know which ideas etc. are new and original when you read glimpses of them on his blog, and discuss them on Arts and Faith.

    Having said that there was much in this book that was new, even to me. Of course the same Overstreet approach to the arts was there, replete with advice on how to look closer, hear what the film is trying to say, and spot the fingerprints of the Almighty. At the same time it's clear that this is far from a re-hash of past glories. Jeffrey writes here about films I've heard him discuss numerous times before, but he also brings a freshness to them. Take, for example, Punch Drunk Lve one of my favourite films of all time. Over the years I've read various bits and pieces that Jeffrey has written on this film, but his comments here were fresh. Instead of the welcome air of familiarity I was expecting, I found myself having to consider new insights.

    It's not just the number of observations that Jeffrey makes that make this book an addictive read - he also has a wonderfully fluent writing style. Jeffrey's next stop is the imminent release of his first novel "Auralia's Colours", which has already garnered some impressive reviews. His double life has served him well. At times, "Through a Screen Darkly" feels like a novel as it weaves together plot synopses, commentary and auto-biography into a single well-tailored garment.

    It seems like the book has, so far, been well received - in fact just the other day I heard about it being added to the required reading list for an undergrad film programme in LA. In truth I don't imagine that it's primarily written for that kind of audience - but it's significant that it's considered to be suitable for that standard as well as a general audience.

    Like I said - far from impartial - but then I suppose given how much I've enjoyed Jeffrey's writing in the past, this would have had to have been quite disappointing for me to think otherwise. Thankfully, quite the opposite is true.


    Tuesday, August 07, 2007

    Richard H. Campbell on Lang's "The Bible on the Big Screen"

    A couple of weeks ago I noted the (then) forthcoming release of Stephen J. Lang's "The Bible on the Big Screen". I'm still waiting for my copy, but I was interested to read a review at Amazon by the one and only Richard H. Campbell. Campbell was one of the two authors who published "The Bible on Film", way back in 1981, so it's particularly interesting to read his comments. Overall he gives the film 4 stars out of a possible five. "Mr. Lang does an excellent job writing about each film. Everything in this book is well-done; great writing; a wonderful fresh read."

    He does, however find two major faults with the book. Firstly, there is apparently no mention of others books or websites on the subject, including Campbell's own. Secondly, the book claims to include a "comprehensive filmography with a chronological listing of all biblical movies ever made" whereas it only mentions a total of 90 or so films. (Campbell notes how his 1981 book "lists almost 300 entries"). Of these 90 or so it appears that Lang deals with 36* films of them in greater depth. Campbell lists them as follows:
    From The Manger to The Cross
    Ten Commandments (1923)
    King of Kings (1927)
    Green Pastures
    Samson and Delilah
    David and Bathsheba
    Ten Commandments (1956)
    Solomon and Sheba
    Story of Ruth
    Esther and the King
    King of Kings (1961)
    David and Goliath
    Sodom and Gomorrah
    Greatest Story Ever Told
    Gospel According To Matthew
    The Bible...In the Beginning
    Jesus Christ Superstar
    Gospel Road
    Passover Plot
    Jesus of Nazareth*
    Il Messia
    Life of Brian
    King David
    Last Temptation of Christ
    Prince of Egypt
    Gospel of John
    Passion of the Christ
    One Night With The King
    The list contains 4 films that I am yet to see - The Prodigal, Sodom and Gomorrah, The Passover Plot and Jonah. I'm assuming that the latter is the Veggie Tales movie. Campbell also notes how the book discusses only 9 films made since the release of his book, and how it excludes made for TV films (except for Jesus of Nazareth).

    Three observations at this point. 1 - The list only contains English Language / and Italian made films. 2 - I'm particularly pleased to see Il Messia make the list. 3 - There are 20 "Jesus films" on the list (including some of the more tangential titles such as Salome, and 15 Old Testament.

    You can read Campbell's full review here,
    (EDIT:The above was written about Campbell's longer review. It was replaced by a shorter review of the book, which now, in turn, seems to have disappeared).

    I hope to publish my own review of the book shortly.

    *Jesus of Nazareth is counted in two parts taking the total to 36 films

    Monday, August 06, 2007

    Book Review: Scandalizing Jesus? Kazantzakis's The Last Temptation of Christ Fifty Years On

    Both the written and the cinematic version of Nikos Kazantzakis's Last Temptation of Christ caused controversy on their release, and (as I noted in my recent podcast on the film), it's still difficult to discuss either project today without getting bogged down in the strident objections that have been levelled at both works.

    So news that Darren J. N. Middleton was pulling together a series of essays to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the books publication, was most welcome, particularly as it promised to offer a "balanced, critical assessment of Kazantzakis's novel and Scorsese's subsequent film". Indeed it's clear that in "Scandalizing Jesus? Kazantzakis's The Last Temptation of Christ Fifty Years On", Middleton has done exactly that. His chapter "Satan and the Curious: Texas Evangelicals Read the Last Temptation of Christ", opens the second part of the book, and it is the only one which is primarily concerned with the outrage that has been caused by this story. It doesn't really bring much that is new to the table, but its balance and measured examination is certainly a breath of cool fresh air into an often heated debate.

    Similarly, Middleton deserves credit for inviting one or two of the writers who very evidently disapprove of the works, For example, Lloyd Baugh's chapter "Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ:A Critical Re-assessment of Its Sources, Its Theological Problems, and Its impact on the Public" is effectively a re-working of his chapter on the film in his "Imaging the Divine". Thankfully, they respond in kind: their comments are measured and fair.

    As would be expected, the first section of the book is the longer, featuring 11 essays on Kazantzakis's "Literary Lord". After a strong start by Last Temptation translator Peter Bien, Jesus film critic W. Barnes Tatum, and Kazantzakis expert Lewis Owens, the first section seems to lose it's way a little. Bien examines the impact of Renan's "Vie de Jésus" on Kazantzakis and Tatum picks up the thread looking at how the novel relates to the quest for the historical Jesus. His chapter is clearly laid out, succinctly concluded, and puts its point across very well.

    In comparison the three chapters which follow Owens's are a chore to read. Lifelessly written and full of technical jargon they seem to take no account of the variety of backgrounds their readers will have. Essentially this book will find readers from across four disciplines: theology, philosophy literature and film studies. To repeatedly introduce philosophical terms, and leave them undefined for readers unfamiliar with philiosophy, say, is at best thoughtless.

    It's difficult to decide where exactly the fault lies for this. Whilst some blame obviously lies with the authors, we obviously don't know what their brief was. Were they aware of the inter-disciplinary nature of the book? Even so, perhaps some blame rests with the editor. Middleton, at least, should have been aware at how impregnable some of these chapters are to outsiders, and suggest areas where greater clarity could have been brought.

    Of course, it's possible that I'm just trying to excuse my own ignorance. And certainly, some ideas and concepts are far harder to communicate than others. Nevertheless, I can't help but wonder how often legitimate criticisms are held back for fear of looking stupid. If, in a work of numerous authors, some chapters are lucid and eloquent, whilst others are confusing and impregnable, might this at least suggest that part of the fault lies with the authors of those weaker chapters?

    Fortunately, just when I was on the verge of abandoning the literature section entirely, and just sticking to the "Screen Savior" part of the book, Roderick Beaton's chapter gave me fresh hope. "The Temptation that Never Was: Kazantzakis and Borges" notes similarities between "Last Temptation" and the work of Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges and philosopher Henri Bergson. Beaton makes the novel suggestion that Jesus's last temptation is simply Kazantzakis allowing Jesus to have "had it both ways".1 It's one of the books most interesting essays although Beaton relies on ignoring Kazantzakis's prologue, which is somewhat problematic. Interestingly the film presents the "temptation" sequence in such a way as to rule out Beaton's oppositional reading.

    The rest of the first section continues without ever reaching the highs or lows of the chapters that have preceded it. Jen Harrison's examination of "Women in Pre-Easter Patriarchy" voices the long overdue observation that the "there is only one woman in the world"2 quotation actually comes from the mouth of Satan during the temptation sequence. She argues, therefore, that it should not be taken as an example of misogyny within the minds of either Kazantzakis or his leading man.

    The second "half" of the book consists of only 6 chapters including Middleton's and Baugh's as discussed above. The last of these is by Martin Scorsese, and whilst it's a most welcome addition to this volume, at just over a side in length, it's little more than a footnote. Certainly anyone who bought the book because Scorsese's name appeared on the cover will be disappointed – they would be better off with the relevant portion of "Scorsese on Scorsese".

    The remaining three chapters are by Melody D. Knowles and Alison Whitney, Randolph Jordan and Peter T. Chattaway. Peter is a good friend of mine, so I find myself unable to offer an objective position on his chapter. Nevertheless, it seems, to me at least, that it's one of the book's best entries. He looks at "Sexuality and Christ" in four different locations: Christian theology, art and film, Kazantzakis's novel, and Scorsese's Film with some great insights into each.

    The other two chapters revert to the hit and miss pattern that is typical of the book as a whole. There's nothing wrong with Randolph Jordan's essay, but it feels slightly out of place here. It's not so much an essay about this particular film as one about the relationship between sound and film in general, which happens to use Last Temptation of Christ as a pertinent example. Jordan's observations are articulately expressed, and contain some interesting insights, but they would be best served in another volume - perhaps one examining the relationship between sound and image in cinema.

    By contrast, Knowles and Whitney's chapter really hits the mark. Drawing on their experiences of discussing the film with seminarians they bring to the table a wide range of perspectives on the film – many of which could easily spawn essays themselves. This is one of the chapters of this book I can imagine myself returning to time and time again.

    In addition to the book's two main sections it is topped and tailed by Don Cuppitt's Foreword and Austin S. Lingerfelt's Webliography as well as a further reading section. Like Scorsese's chapter, Cuppitt's introduction barely stretches over a side. The Webliography and further reading sections are far more extensive and offer a great range of writing on both the book and the film. One minor criticism here, however, is that the date of access for most of the web resources is in late 2003. Since the book was not published until November 2005, it was almost two years between the last date of access and the book's publication. Things change so swiftly in cyberspace that this seems an awfully long time. I don't imagine for a minute that this is Lingerfelt's fault – far more likely to be the fault of the publishers – but it does raise the question of how worthwhile such an exercise was if it was to be handled this way.

    It perhaps sums up the book as a whole - a great idea, with some fascinating insights, but several disappointments along the way (strangely, this is also how I feel about Scorsese's film). In particular, too many chapters are either a little tangential, poorly communicated or unnecessarily verbose. Whilst fans of either the book or the film will no doubt appreciate the numerous new ways to look at these two works, they may well wonder at the end if it was worth all the effort.


    1 - Beaton, Roderick. "The Temptation that Never Was: Kazantzakis and Borges" in "Scandalizing Jesus? Kazantzakis's The Last Temptation of Christ Fifty Years On" p.90
    2 – Kazantzakis, Nikos. "Last Temptation of Christ" (1960), p.66

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    Friday, August 03, 2007

    Testament: The Bible in Animation: Creation and the Flood

    Evan Almighty is released in the UK today so I thought it was about time I added another post to my series on Noah films.

    Creation and Flood is the first entry in the generally excellent Testament: Bible in Animation series by S4C (Wales) and Christmas Films (Russia). Like the similarly titled Bible Collection film Genesis: Creation and Flood (1994) the story of the creation of the world is told by Noah. The creation part of the story and the Noah part of the story use two different styles of animation which not only helps the viewer differentiate between the two interwoven stories, but also split the workload between S4C and Christmas Films. The creation part of the story was created by Christmas films using paint on glass whereas the story of the flood was filmed by S4C using cell animation.

    The result is an interesting mix of animation styles although the difference between them is not quite as marked as in The Miracle Maker. As a result it suggests that the two events reflect only marginally different layers of reality.

    Unfortunately, this is not one of the stronger entries in the Testament series, with the Noah section being particularly disappointing. There's very little sense of wonder, or desperation in this tale. By cramming it into a half of a thirty minute section there's very little space to develop the story - it never feels like 120 days aboard the ark - that said the similarly-lengthed Disney films are definitely more successful in this regard. Those films also established a trend in animated versions of the Noah story of skipping past the flood's death toll. Here there is at least some mention of it, but once the rains start to fall the rest of humanity is swiftly forgotten.

    The creation section of the film is far more successful. The animation is far more impressionistic, at least in places, which makes for more interesting viewing. In particular, the creation of Adam of Eve is handled with great skill. The single figure of Adam somersaults across the screen but appears to land upside down. It quickly becomes apparent that this is a reflection, only for a ripple to destroy the image. When it reforms, the image is different. The camera lifts up to see that Adam has now been joined by Eve.

    There's also an interesting treatment of The Fall. This is also very impressionistic. Although the animation is more solid the Genesis account is proceeded by an account of the fall of Satan based on Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28. When Satan does appear in the Garden of Eden, he alternates his physical form between a legged serpent and a floating mask.

    Perhaps the most significant problem is that the way in which the creation and fall story is introduced disrupts the flow of the tale of Noah. This, combined with the lacklustre presentation of that story, means that by the end of the film, any interest in that part of the narrative has dissipated. Fortunately the Testament series survived its downbeat beginning and went on to achieve greater things.

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    Thursday, August 02, 2007

    Biblical Studies Carnival XX

    Biblical Studies Carnival XX has been posted by Claude Mariottini over at his at his blog. I'm particularly grateful for Claude's work as I'd totally missed the story about the Nebo-Sarsekim (Nabu-sharrussu-ukin) Tablet. I'm also grateful for the link to Suzanne McCarthy's posts on Prov 31. In the time since I mentioned this chapter last month I've started writing a brief article on this, so it's good to have some more food for thought.

    September's Biblical Studies Carnival will be held at Duane Smith's Abnormal Interests. For more information on nominating posts for future carnivals, see the Biblical Studies Carnival Homepage.


    Wednesday, August 01, 2007

    Podcast: Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

    Didn't have time yesterday to post the details of my latest Jesus film podcast on Last Temptation of Christ. It's the ninth talk available on this podcast. The other eight (Jesus of Nazareth, Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo, The Greatest Story Ever Told, Jesus of Montreal, Jesus Christ Superstar, The Miracle Maker, Il Messia and King of Kings) are still available to download.

    I've written several pieces on this film already, but having recently listened to the audio commentary on the Criterion Collection version of this DVD (as well as having viewed the other extras) I've been able to bring some new material.

    Fans of this film might also like to know that a transcript taken of the film is available at Drew's Script-o-rama.

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