• 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, September 28, 2007

    Daniel Films

    As I mentioned on Tuesday I've been looking into films about Daniel recently. Whilst I knew they were thin on the ground, I've been surprised to find out just how few films about Daniel have been made. In fact, other than the animated versions of the story there have only been four live action films made about Daniel – and three of those date back to the silent era. Indeed, the first two both date back to 1905. Belshazzar's Feast and Daniel in the Lions' Den were both released by the French Pathé company and were just 1 reel long. There's little information available about the two films, but I imagine that they simply focussed on chapters 5 and 6 respectively. It was only 8 years later that the next film about Daniel was released. Daniel (pictured above) was a two reeler by the Vitagraph company, and directed by Fred Thomson. The cast included Charles Kent, Courtney Foote and L. Rogers Lytton. Information on all three of these films is taken from Campbell and Pitts's "The Bible on Film". The only other live action version of this story is an entry in the Greatest Heroes of the Bible series. One of the lesser episodes was called Daniel and Nebuchadnezzar. Whilst it was released on video at some point, there's been no DVD release as of yet, and It's not one that I've seen. It is interesting that it's called Daniel and Nebuchadnezzar, rather than say Daniel and Darius. Far and away the most popular story about Daniel is, of course, the one about the lions' den, so it's interesting that the title puts the emphasis elsewhere. That leaves the animated films, the vast majority of which are merely children's cartoons telling the lions' den story. Whilst it's hard to get an exhaustive list of all these children's films, it includes entries in the "Greatest Heroes and Legends of the Bible", "Greatest Adventure Stories from the Bible" and the "Beginners Bible" series (all titled Daniel in the Lions' Den) as well as the Bible Animated Classics: Daniel. Then there's the two Veggie Tales versions of the story. I'm wary of the Veggie Tales series in general. They tend to go so far to exorcise the difficult / violent passages from their stories so that it The two episodes in this series are found on two different DVDs. The first "Daniel in the Lions' Den" appears in Where is God when I'm S-Scared. The other Rack, Shack and Benny deals with the story of Daniel's friends from Daniel 3. The only animated version of this story which is aimed at adults (perhaps more so than children) is Daniel from the "Testament: Bible in Animation" series. I discussed this on Tuesday in greater depth, so anyone wanting to find out more on that film should go there. Finally, the story of Daniel is included as one of the inspirational stories from "Friends and Heroes". The story is actually the first flashback story in the whole series, as it occurs in episode 1. The story starts at the beginning of Daniel 6 with Daniel ascending the steps into Darius' court, and it ends again as Daniel ascends out of the lions den. (Actually there's another shot before the story cuts back to the 1st century AD story, but that functions very much as an epilogue). This is the only CGI telling of Daniel that I'm aware of. I can't help wondering if the story of Daniel will ever get the big screen treatment. There's a chance the Epic Stories of the Bible series that is about to release its version of the Ten Commandments will progress as far as that, but it would be nice to see a live action version of the whole story. After a strong showing in the first 20 years of motion pictures Daniel's story seems to have been ignored, or rather consigned to simply a children's story.

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    Thursday, September 27, 2007

    Podcast: Jesus (1999)

    The latest entry in my Jesus film podcast is up, and this month I'm talking about Jesus (1999). That's eleven entries now which means I've been going for a year now (as I didn't do one in December last year. By the way, does anyone know what the podcast equivalent of a blogiversary?).

    The other ten talks (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, Last Temptation of Christ and Life and Passion of Jesus Christ are all still available to download.

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    Wednesday, September 26, 2007

    Bizarre Adaption of the Day - The Aquarian Gospel

    Peter Chattaway has linked to this rather odd story from Variety. Drew Heriot and William Keenan are to make a film based on "The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus Christ". The "gospel" was written down in 1908 by Levi H. Dowling and purports to tell the story of Jesus's "missing years" between the ages of 13 and 30.

    Keenan's script also utilises Russian anthropologist Nicolas Notovich's book "The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ" (1898). Both books claim that Jesus travelled through the east during his missing years, and that he was conversant with various Eastern Religions. Both books also claim to be based on more ancient traditions, although it's highly contested as to whether these other sources existed.

    The film will follow "Jesus' journeys from Israel through India, Tibet, Persia, Greece and Egypt as he encounters people of all creeds, classes and faiths." The plan is to use actors from a wide range of countries. I can't say I'm hugely enthusiastic about this, as I suppose it's not really even a Bible film as such. Nevertheless it would still be interesting to see how Jesus is portrayed.

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    Tuesday, September 25, 2007

    Testament: The Bible in Animation: Daniel

    My church is looking at Daniel next term so I thought I'd make a couple of posts about portrayals of Daniel in film. There have actually only been a handful - and the most significant is the version that is part of the Testament: The Bible in Animation series (1996).

    The series used different animation styles for each episode, here, as with the Creation and Flood episode, they animators used oil paint on glass. This creates an unusual effect, which is certainly very unlike anything most children are used to. That said the Testament series has always set it's sights on a wider audience than just children, hence why this production stands out from the whole host of cartoon about Daniel in the Lions' Den.

    Its use here is interesting as Daniel narrative is told as a story within a story. A mother tells her son the tale of Daniel as a way of giving him hope. This contrasts with most of the series where the stories are usually experienced first hand. So the washy animation reflects the fact that the story is presented less concretely than some of the other stories. It also leads to a rather gruesome appearance to some of the less child friendly moments in the story. The non-realistic animation makes these shots more permissible, yet paradoxically more disturbing at the same time.

    Watching the "Testament" series over ten years after it was first made, it becomes apparent that many of the actors who were involved have subsequently risen to greater prominence. In this case it's Bill Nighy who now has a great deal of Hollywood experience behind him. He plays Belshazzar, who, bizarrely, begins the Daniel sequence as an intrigued friend of Daniel's.

    Episodes from the Book of Daniel included in the film are as follows:
    [extra-biblical episode - intro]
    Jerusalem Captured - (Dan 1:)
    Daniel and his Friends Train - (Dan 1:3-21)
    The King Dreams - (Dan 2:1-30)
    Nebuchadnezzar's 2nd Dream - (Dan 4:10b-27)
    The King's Dream Fulfilled - (Dan 4:28-35)
    The Writing on the Wall - (Dan 5:1-31)
    [extra-biblical episode - Start of Darius's Reign]
    Daniel and the Lions' Den - (Dan 6:1-28)
    [extra-biblical episode - conclusion]
    I found the character rather hard to relate to. I'd always thought of Daniel as humble but steadfast whereas here he often comes across as obstinate. By contrast, King Darius is shown as fairly weak, although that is largely as a result of the biblical material.

    The most notable omission in this film is the jump from chapter 2 to chapter four. The script is able to do this because of Nebuchadnezzar's two dreams. Strangely it is the first, and most popular of these - the dream of the statue with feet of clay - which is omitted. The script starts off with the events of chapter 2 with Nebuchadnezzar having a dream that he wants his Magi to tell him as well as interpret. But when Daniel correctly declares and interprets the dream it has become the one from Daniel 4 (where Nebuchadnezzar dreams of a tree). It's an innovative way of editing the story, although as a result it pushes Daniel's friends into the wings even more.

    In addition to this, there are a number of deviations from the Biblical accounts. Firstly, Daniels faces a common enemy throughout the film in the form of the Chief Magus. Secondly, when Daniel's friends refuse to eat the meat provided they make do with little more than water, rather than vegetables and water as the Bible claims.

    The other deviation are fairly minor: as Nebuchadnezzar goes mad there is no voice from heaven; Daniel is present when the hand writes on the wall, and Daniel prays that those who set him up in chapter 6 are saved. But this is acceptable artistic licence in the whole.

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    Monday, September 24, 2007

    My Other Blog Wins an Award

    According to Dave Walker, the other blog I write for, rejesus, has won the "Most Successful Evangelistic Blog" award at the Christian Blog Awards. As there are various people involved with that site (and as I live quite away away from London where the awards ceremony was held), I wasn't able to be there, but I'm hoping our representative will post something on this in the next few days.

    I must admit I'm intrigued by the fact that whereas most awards were for "Best...blog", ours was for "Most Successful Evangelistic Blog". I can't help but wonder how they measured that. Anyway congratulations to all my fellow writers at rejesus and all the other award winners.

    Friday, September 21, 2007

    VIFF07 - 100 Nails - Ermanno Olmi

    Having two good friends, (both of whom are also great writers) both living in Vancouver means that I'm probably more aware of what happens at the VIFF than any other film festival you care to mention. Peter Chattaway tends to hold his comments back until it's all over, but Ron Reed has been busy compiling information on several of the films that are showing, (and has recently started writing about some of those he's seen).

    Amongst those Ron has highlighted is One Hundred Nails directed by Ermanno Olmi. Olmi has previously directed two of the most interesting Bible films in the genre - Cammina, Cammina and Genesis: Creation and Flood. I'm always interested in the work of any director who has two films based on the Bible under their belt; looking at the subject twice over tends to mean that Biblical themes bubble under the surface of the rest of their work as well. It seems Olmi is no exception. Here's the plot for One Hundred Nails:
    One hundred ancient volumes from the library's storied collection have been laid to waste, nailed to the floor and torn into pieces. All signs lead to an odd culprit--a young, well established university professor, lecturer of philosophy, who has vanished into thin air, leaving people to believe he has committed suicide after his crime. Actually, he has taken refuge in an old ruin on the banks of the Po river, where he enters into contact with the inhabitants of a nearby town, and is greeted as a sort of reincarnation of Christ...
    Given how much I value the two films mentioned above, my 'director of two Bible films' rule, this description, and the fact Olmi's said this will be his last film, it's fair to say I'll be keeping an eye on its progress. It sounds like it will fit into that strange sub-sub genres of 'films about people mistaken for Christ' alongside Whistle Down the Wind and The Ruling Class.

    Ron ends his pre-view piece on this film with a wonderful quote from Olmi, and I can do no better than end this post with it as well.
    "Every story must have a leading character who becomes an ideal example for us: man or woman, in love's passion or caught up in hatred… So, WHOM should I talk about? WHOM have I got to know, amongst the throng of historical Greats who have made their mark on my life?…Is it too predictable to say Christ?"

    Thursday, September 20, 2007

    The Book of Judges and Pulp Fiction

    First off, let me start by saying that I realise this is a bit tenuous, but sometimes idle speculation can be a lot of fun and not entirely worthless so I though I'd post this anyway.

    I'm currently running a course called Through the Bible in Five and a Half Years, and this month we're looking at the book of Judges. It's about eleven years since I did some detailed study on the book, but one of the things I remembered thinking all that time ago was how Judges was the Pulp Fiction of the Bible.

    It's no doubt partly down to the fact that I first watched Pulp Fiction at around the same time, and partly down to the fact that there I was encountering various literary features of the book which I'd not really come across before. Anyway, as part of my preparation for Monday's session I thought I'd re-watch it, particular as I've not seen it since that initial viewing.

    The comparison with Judges is certainly interesting. There's not been a film made about the book as a whole, at least not as far as I'm aware. Furthermore, despite a number of interesting, colourful, narratives only two characters have been represented in film at all. The first is Gideon who has only featured in two obscure films - Great Leaders of the Bible: Gideon (1965/6), and Gideon: The Liberator (1958). The other is, of course Samson. About a year ago I listed at least 49 films about the legendary strongman, and the recent appearance of Corina van Eijk's Samson and Delilah nudges that tally up to 50 (making his the second most filmed biblical story after Jesus).

    The two things that first led me to connect Judges and Pulp Fiction were the violence in each story and the non-linear chronology. At first citing "violence" appears somewhat superficial - after all much of the Old Testament is horrifically violent. Yet Judges particularly seems to revel in the violence, and at times use it for humour, and the same could be said of Pulp Fiction. The most pertinent example from Judges is when Ehud's sword is swallowed up by Eglon's fat belly. The narrator seems to wallow in this detail and delight in spelling it out. It's worth pointing out that Ehud is effectively a hit man. The same could point could be made about Samson (although from the perspective of the Philistines his final act is perhaps a suicidal act of terrorism). Pulp Fiction was Quentin Tarantino's second film, and the violence was much commented on at the time. Indeed Tarantino's first film Reservoir Dogs was initially banned from video release due to it's violent imagery.

    The second point is the non-linear narrative style that both writers adopt. At the time of the film's release this was one of the film's two major talking points (the other being the snappy dialogue). The film ends with the same scene it started with, albeit from a different perspective. Furthermore rather than the film consisting of one main story split into many different scenes, this is more of a collection of stories woven into a broader narrative. In between the opening and closing stories various other stories are told which, chronologically speaking, are from both before and after it. Whilst there is no one-reason why Tarantino adopted this approach, Roger Ebert noted how "if you told the story in chronological order that would get monotonous, this way the audience stays on its toes".1 Certainly the tension that emerges in that final scene would have been greatly dissipated. Re-arranging the chronology of the individual parts of the story allows the film to draw different themes to the fore.

    In the same way, Judges consists of a collection of individual stories sewn together to form a broader narrative. Indeed it's noticeable that whereas these various stories generally only concern a tribe or two at a time, the redactor uses them to comment on what was happening in the whole of Israel at that moment in time. Now whilst a minority of scholars would still claim that the historical data presented in Judges is accurate, the vast majority, including many conservative scholars, consider the chronology to have been highly stylised in order to give the overall story greater impact. Judges contains a prologue and epilogue that are often held to be later additions to the text, and these are generally set aside when looking at the core of the book's literary structure.

    Both works have a kind of symmetry with their opening and closing stories both reflecting one another, but also being notably different. In Pulp Fiction we see the same scene, but from a different perspective. In Judges the differences are more significant that the similarities, but we effectively see Ehud paired off with Samson. As noted above, both are lone hit men whose actions are so strategic that they turn the course of the conflict decisively in Israel's favour. Whilst the similarities in Judges are weaker, this chiastic pairing is continued as we move towards the core of the book. Deborah and Jephthah are both social outcasts who Israel calls in during a desperate period to lead them to great victory. Both victories require the one of the heroes to break a part of their respective social codes. Whilst Jael's disregard for hospitality seems, to us, trivial compared with Jephthah breaking the laws against child sacrifice, the two taboos would have been far closer in the minds of those at the time. The final pairing is Gideon and Abimelech who are almost opposite in terms of their character and their faithfulness to God - and it's this contrast between faithfulness and unfaithfulness, and the impact of each, that is the book's major concern.

    By contrast, Pulp Fiction uses it's non-linear chronology to shield the film's major theme from the viewer until the end. When the sequence of events is unjumbled it becomes apparent that both Jules and Vincent both witnessed the same "miracle", but responded to it in very different ways. Jules realises that he has to leave his life as a hit man behind him. Vincent carries on as before and is shot by Butch shortly afterwards. In fact "every one of the major sequences in Pulp Fiction ends with a character being saved".2 Mia is saved from her drug overdose, Butch is saved from a life on the run. Pumpkin and Honeybunny are saved from the new style life of crime they were about to embark on, and Jules is saved from his life as a hitman.

    This leads to a further similarity then: both works are deeply moral calling their protagonists to leave behind them horrifically sinful lives and be righteous. Samuel L Jackson, who plays Jules in the movie claims that "the story is totally about redemption. Everyone in the script who's life is spared is given another chance to do something with their lives".3 In this way it actually differs from Judges. Pulp Fiction's moral cycle works it's way up. It's greatest act of salvation occurs at the end of the movie. By contrast, Judges portrays a downward spiral where the morality of the characters descends with each new segment.

    It's easy to be so disturbed by the degradation that is on display in Pulp Fiction that this theme is missed, and not dissimilarly its surprisingly how many of those reading Judges fail feel to feel the heaviness with which the author regards his countrymen's apostasy. Actually both find characters pulling their way to bloody salvation - both spiritually and in terms of their physical security, and the end to the threats under which they had previously been held.

    I'm sure I had a few more observations, but they all escape me for the time being. I'll post up any that come back to me.

    1 - Roger Ebert on "Siskel and Ebert - At the Movies: Pulp Faction"
    2 - Roger Ebert on "Siskel and Ebert - At the Movies: Pulp Faction"
    3 - Roger Ebert on "Siskel and Ebert - At the Movies: Pulp Faction"

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    Tuesday, September 18, 2007

    More Cast News for The Passion (BBC)

    See all posts on this film
    Yesterday's scoop was the news that, according to the IMDb, Joseph Mawle is to play Jesus in the up and coming BBC TV series The Passion. Unfortunately, there are only four other actors listed, and none of those are playing characters named in the Bible. I thought it would be worth finding out a bit more about them however.

    Esther Hall is listed as playing Claudia. She was Felix Gibson in the BBC crime drama series Waking the Dead and also appeared in Rome. She's also been in series 1 of Spooks and was Romey in Channel 4's Queer as Folk.

    Daniel Caltagirone will be Eban. He's perhaps best known for his role in the Lock, Stock and..." series that was a spin off from the movie Lock, Stock and two smoking Barrels, although he's also been in Roman Polanski's The Pianist and Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life.

    Mark Lewis Jones appears to have worked on several of the major British Television dramas over the last couple of decades including, Spooks, Soldier Soldier, Casualty, Dangerfield and Torchwood. He has also epic film experience after roles in Troy, Master and Commander, and Jason and the Argonauts. He'll be playing 'Marcus'.

    Finally, Johnny Harris is down as playing Asher. He's perhaps the least experienced of the four, but he had a role in last year's gritty British film London to Brighton. He's also the only one of these four to have acted with Joseph Mawle (Jesus) before. They starred together in Clapham Junction earlier in the year.

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    Monday, September 17, 2007

    Is Joseph Mawle the BBC Passion's Jesus?

    See all posts on this film
    The BBC's Passion programme (see previous posts) is filming currently somewhere in Morocco (probably Atlas Studios in Ouarzazate), but there's not much news about it so far. However, the IMDb has recently posted the details of 5 of the cast, including the all important leading role. It seems that Jesus is going to be played by an actor called Joseph Mawle.

    When producer Nigel Stafford-Clark was interviewed about this film recently he was unable to name the actor who had been chosen, but he did say that he was someone who was relatively unknown. At the time his explanation that he was someone that you would know if you'd seen one of the things his been in but won't otherwise seemed a little strange, but having looked a bit at his previous roles this is actually a very good description. After starting off in the theatre, he's mainly done TV work, and has been getting more prominent roles lately including Captain Harville in last year's Persuasion, Tim in Clapham Junction and Dean Whittingham in Soundproof. He's won acclaim for all three of those roles, as well as for his earlier work on Sir Gadabout, the Worst Knight in the Land which won a BAFTA. He also featured in a Guinness ad.

    There are a couple of interesting pieces of trivia about Mawle. Firstly he was born in March 1974 which means he's currently 33 (Jesus's traditional age at the time of his crucifixion). Secondly, Mawle is partially deaf, having been completely deaf from the ages of 16 to 18. This certainly gave extra significance to his performance as a deaf man in Soundproof but it will also give an interesting angle here playing a renown miracle worker who the gospels record healing those with hearing difficulties. As this film is concentrating on the events leading up to Jesus's death, I don't think it's likely that scenes such as Mark 7:31-37 will be shown. However, I do believe that this is the first time that Jesus has been played by someone with hearing difficulties.

    Finally, I think Mawle has a great face for this role - something that is generally of greater significance than most commentators are prepared to admit. There's a good ruggedness about him, and whilst he's still good looking, it's in a Sean Bean sort of a way. There's no shortage of character in his face, but plenty of compassion too. He's blond, but I can't make out his eye colour. Of course both of these things can be altered these days as Mel Gibson ably demonstrated. Given some of the comments Stafford Clark made about authenticity in that interview then I'd be surprised if he appears as blond haired and blue eyed in the final production. So at this stage, this looks like a great choice.
    (Thanks to "George" for the tip off).

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    Friday, September 14, 2007

    Caiaphas and Jabba the Hutt

    I've commented before on the problematic visual elements of The Passion of the Christ, and wondered how differently the film would have looked (and been perceived) if the actors who played Caiaphas and Pilate had swapped roles, either with each other, or with the soldiers who scourged Christ. But I was writing an article for The Reader Magazine recently when an association popped into my head that I'd not made before. Wait for it... Gibson's Caiaphas holds an unnerving number of similarities with Return of The Jedi's Jabba the Hut.

    Now before you dismiss this as the most ridiculous slur yet on Gibson's movie (and there have been many) let me just outline the facts. Both Caiaphas and Jabba are in positions of power. There shown initially in their respective lairs surrounded by sycophants who play along with their leader's general mood. Both are overweight and unattractive. Both are shown first and foremost in the dark of their hideouts. When they later come into the light they are clearly out of place. Both interview the hero (a Christ figure) and sentence him to death.

    There are also a few similarities in composition. Consider for example these two examples:

    Luke is in the light here, whereas Jesus isn't but otherwise the composition of these figures is very similar. As is the lighting, and the general atmosphere.

    Now contrast these two pictures the reverse shot from behind the "seat of power". Since both films were very poorly lit, I've had to alter the brightness on these to make the background more visible (which of course it is when you watch these films in the cinema). But you can still make out how the architecture is somewhat similar, and again the composition of the shot with the characters on the stage in the foreground, the hero alone in the middle with an anonymous, yet hostile, crowd in the background. Of course Gibson was a little limited in his options here, but nevertheless it's an interesting point.

    Finally (and definitely less significantly) note the similarities between these two guards.

    Now I'm not saying that Gibson consciously modelled Caiaphas and his supporters on Jabba, but it does seem to have had some kind of subconscious effect (OK I admit I'm playing devil's advocate somewhat). Of course it could also be due to him simply dipping into the bigger frame of visual references that have been used in the visual arts to depict the detestable villain. The real question is though, why is that how Gibson mentally pictured it in the first place?


    Thursday, September 13, 2007

    Life of Brian - The Immaculate Edition

    I think this is the final piece of news from the backlogue I've been working my way through recently. Sony Home Entertainment has announced that they are to release an "Immaculate Edition" DVD of Monty Python's Life of Brian. The following special features are listed at IGN.com
    * Documentary: "The Story of Brian" - An all-new hour-long Revelation from Monty Python
    * Featurette: "The Readthrough" - An original illustrated 110 minute recording by The Pythons of their early screenplay in progress
    * Four illustrated vintage theatrical radio ads featuring the voices of Mrs. Cleese, Mrs. Idle, Mrs. Gilliam and Michael Palin's dentist
    * Five Deleted Scenes:
    * Audio Commentary with Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle & Terry Jones
    * Audio Commentary with John Cleese & Michael Palin
    Peter Chattaway notes that whilst there's some new material, some of it looks to have been copied over from the Criterion Collection edition. It doesn't look like it contains the "Secret Life of Brian" documentary that aired on Channel 4 last Christmas (discussion here), nor does it appear to have the one extra that everyone would really like to see - the "Friday Night, Saturday Morning" debate between Cleese, Palin, Malcolm Muggeridge and the then Bishop of Southwark. A couple of short clips, and the full parody of this debate are available on YouTube, and a detailed overview is available at Wikipedia. I would dearly like to see this in full one day, and so it seems rather strange not to include either this debate or the documentary given that the Criterion set is already pretty expansive. If you're going to try and expand that set you should really include everything you possibly can.

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    Tuesday, September 11, 2007

    2nd Review for "Mel Gibson's Passion" Book (Garber)

    Back in May, I linked to Mark Goodacre's review of a new book about The Passion of the Christ - "Mel Gibson's Passion: The Film, the Controversy, and Its Implications" edited by Zev Garber. Mark has now posted a link to another review of the same volume by Timothy D. Finlay. Both reviews now sit alongside one another on the Review of Biblical Literature website.

    Together, these reviews are testament to the diverse range of approached there are to critiquing a book, particularly a 'dual-substance' work such as this. Mark's review treats the book as a single volume and deals with the various authors' collective faults. Finlay, on the other hand, takes the time to write a brief précis of each individual contribution. Finlay is more positive than Mark, although that is perhaps because summarising all 18 essays only leaves a little space for critical reflection.

    Mark has offered some comments on the differences between his review and Finlays:
    The review of Mel Gibson's Passion sits alongside my much more negative review of the same book. I received an email from the editor of the collection not long after my review was published suggesting that I did not give the reader a sense of the essayists' articles. My response is that I attempted to characterize the collection as a whole, drawing attention to the common themes and general thrust of the book, at the same time as pointing to the book's difficulties. Finlay's review therefore compliments mine to the extent that he provides a brief summary of each of the essays individually.
    The two reviews work well together, although I, personally, find Mark's more interesting to read. And I can't say that Finlay's review makes me any keener to look at Garber's book for myself.

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    Monday, September 10, 2007

    Golgotha - Additional Comments

    I recently re-watched parts of Julian Duvivier's Golgotha and was really struck again by what an impressive film this is visually (see my earlier review of this film). So I thought I'd discuss a couple of the shots in particular, as some of them are more than worthy of note. The picture quality on these isn't brilliant, mainly as I only have a DVD archived copy of this film from VHS, but hopefully they are sufficient to give you the idea. Click on images to enlarge them (as ever).

    This first shot is the crucifixion from the disciples point of view. The crosses are only just distinguishable on the horizon, as the camera focuses its attention on the disciples who stick together even though they have deserted their master. There's also significance to their location high up and just outside the city's boundary. They may have deserted Jesus (temporarily), but they have left Jerusalem and that which is related to it.

    One of the most striking scenes in the film is the trial scene in front of a huge crowd. Whilst this scene is arguably problematic from an anti-Semitism point of view, the film's latter association of the Romans with the pre-WWII Nazis (see my review for details) is a significant mitigating factor. There are two particular highlights. The first is this shot of Jesus foregrounded with Pilate washing his hands. The water temporarily obscures our view of Jesus, and there are various association that could be made with this imagery - it implicates us in the action, as well as evoking ideas of cleansing and approach to Jesus through the waters of baptism.

    The second shot is the one that ends the scene. Having filmed the action in close up on the stage, the camera reverse swoops back across the crowd - implicating them visually in the scene that has just unfolded. Given that this film was made in 1935, the technical prowess required for such a shot is breathtaking.

    The film also makes very interesting use of point of view shots. Aside from this film, Jesus films tended to avoid taking a shot from Jesus's point of view until the 1970s. Here, however, the road to the cross scene is littered with significant examples of Jesus looking at members of the crowd, the path ahead of him etc. This shot is taken just after he has fallen, and is particularly interesting because of it's low angle, and the dominance of the soldier over Jesus that it suggests.

    Another interesting point of view shot occurs on the Emmaus Road at the end of the film. Jesus's approach to the two walking along the road has been shown with varying degrees of success in Jesus films, mainly revolving around the question of where exactly did Jesus come from. Here the issue is circumvented by showing the shadows of the two people on the road, and the gradual approach of a third shadow - that of Jesus.

    The final point of view shot I'd like to discuss is this one taken of the temple as the curtain is torn in two. Here it's not Jesus's point of view that the camera adopts, but that of his father. It's a high angle God-shot, which then cuts to the despair felt by the priests that are present. At least one of them interprets it as a sign of God's judgement, but again this scene gives a somewhat sympathetic portrayal of the Jewish faith.

    In addition to this film being the first to included shots from Jesus's point of view, it also appears to be the first to show the nails being hammered through Jesus's wrists rather than his hands. Today this is the more popular approach, particularly since it has been supported by archaeological evidence, but then it's a startling case of going against the text (e.g. John 20:24-27). That said, I think that the case for the nails through the wrists rather than the hands is based on more than that particular archaeological discovery since that was the discovery of an ankle bone rather than a wrist. If memory serves it is more linked to the hands inability to support the body's weight sufficiently.

    Finally, I couldn't help but note the similarity between this shot of Judas hanging himself and that from DeMille's 1927 film The King of Kings. This could of course be due to both directors paying tribute to an earlier painted work (DeMille was particularly keen on this), but I've not been able to find one that this shot mirrors as closely as it mirrors DeMille, so I suspect this is something of a nod to DeMille's film.

    If so, it's an interesting choice. These two films are seen very differently by critics today. DeMille is frequently mocked for his excessive, gaudy style, whereas the handful of people who have been lucky enough to see this film usually praise it quite highly. It seems, though, that Duvivier, at least, didn't consider himself to be above DeMille, at least not at this stage in their respective careers. It could, of course, be argued that it was only after The King of Kings that DeMille really moved in that direction.

    As an addendum, someone recently contacted me asking how the Last Supper scene was composed. As can hopefully be scene from this screen grab, it's clear that the scene is not meant to reference Da Vinci's famous painting, which is the usual touchstone on this particular moment in the story. I've chosen this shot in particular as it shows Judas outside of the group - shot as if he his hesitating to be certain this is really the decision he wishes to make. It also suggests his exclusion from the party, and hints that this existed prior to his decision to betray his master.

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    Friday, September 07, 2007

    Son of Man to Play at BFM Film Festival

    South African Jesus film Jezile (Son of Man) will be playing in London as part of the BFM International Film Festival (run by Black Film Maker magazine
    ). It'll be only the third and fourth time the film has had a public screening in the UK after it played twice at last year's London Film Festival.

    The showings are this Sunday (9th September 2007) at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts (8:45pm start) and then 5 days later (14th September) at the Stratford Circus (also in London) at 7pm. Both screenings will be accompanied by the short film The Preacher and a Q&A session with Christina Spier (which I suspect is meant to be Christina Beatty from producers Spier films).

    First Reviews for Margate Exodus

    I definitely playing catch up to Peter Chattaway at the moment. He's made two posts this week about The Margate Exodus which premièred at the 64th Venice International Film Festival. Peter links to a couple of reviews, (one from The Guardian and the other from Variety) and he's also dug out an article on the film in The Times which discusses the film from the point of view of the extras.

    The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw is less than impressed:
    I was intrigued, but perplexed by another British film, Penny Woolcock's Exodus; it's a dystopian fantasy that parallels the Biblical story of the same name. Some time in the future, a firebrand fascist leader called Pharaoh (Bernard Hill) leads Margate as a secessionist city-state, and herds all the undesirables into a fenced-off zone on the site of the old Dreamland funfair. Part shanty-town, part concentration camp, it's a Sowetànamo of boiling resentment. Pharaoh's son Moses (Daniel Percival) winds up living there, and finds himself destined to lead the people into the promised land. The casting of up-and-comer Claire-Hope Ashitey underlines a resemblance to Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men, though, frankly, without any very convincing or exciting story.
    If I remember rightly, this picture was being filmed last summer, and therefore a good deal of time before the release of Children of Men (my review), so that criticism is a little harsh. That said it's possible that Margate Exodus was inspired by P.D. James's original novel whose Christian themes might more naturally inspire a re-telling of the exodus. Bradshaw definitely deserves some credit, however, for the invention of the word 'Sowetànamo'.

    Alissa Simon's review for Variety is a little more in depth (although it's written in that irritating shorthand that Variety insists on using for the sake of saving 10 letters per article), but this bit was particularly interesting:
    Pic stresses the human costs of fighting fire with fire, and the hypocrisy of saying "God told me to." Powerful ending strikes absolutely the right note.

    Shot on location in Margate, an English coastal town, the pic used locals in all aspects of the production. The fine ensemble cast combines professional thesps and first-timers.

    Kudos to DOP Jakob Ihre, whose moving camera and kinetic compositions make pic an exciting, intimate epic; to production designer Christina Moore for her dystopic vision; and costume designer Suzanne Cave, for her colorful, eclectic creations. Composer Malcolm Lindsay's lush score beautifully supports the action.
    Finally I also found some discussion on this film (and The Times write up from above) by a Margate based blogger claims that the film "marks a turning point for the town by showing that great events can happen here and that Margate can attract the talent, resources and the funding for creative industry".

    There's no news on when this is going to be released over here yet. It was originally going to be shown on Channel 4 during the summer, but summer has been and there's still no news. I spoke briefly to someone at producers Art Angel yesterday, and they confirmed that no broadcast or release date has been set as of yet.

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    Thursday, September 06, 2007

    Van Eijk's Samson and Delilah to play at VIFF

    According to Ron Reed the Vancouver International Film Festival will feature Corina van Eijk's Samson and Delilah - a film based on Camille Saint-Saëns's opera. There's nothing about the film on the VIFF site yet, and most of the sites from my Google search are Dutch (as van Eijk is). Babel Fish helps, but there's still not really much to go on.

    However, Ron did manage to find the following blurb on the film:
    Director Corina van Eijk's reworking of the celebrated Saint-Saens' opera is a splendid example of cinema offering the many things that the stage cannot. Ingenious ideas about at every turn, from the sparks of the contemporary setting to the acting of Klara Uleman as the temptress who tricks the strong man into a haircut.
    There's also this from Symphony Space which relates to van Eijk's stage version:
    Hailed by Opera News as "witty, elegant and bold," Nine Circles explores the interplay of words and music blending chamber music and theatre. This unique production, in association with De Muselaer Netherlands, introduces the brash and brilliant Dutch director Corina van Eijk to American audiences in a one-hour reconception of Saint-Saens’ opera for Dutch soprano Klara Uleman singing Delilah and Nine Circles Co-Artistic Director Gil Morgenstern on violin, "singing" Samson.
    Finally, a couple of bits from Babel fished reviews. Firstly, Parool, suggests that the story is set in the Middle East featuring "a white desert, shutted down cars, pivot wire, army uniforms, guns and a stylised version". Secondly the IMDb links to a review by Rob Veerman:
    The opera Samson and Delilah of...Camille Saint Saëns has been based on theOld Testament tale of the fight of the Israelites against the Philistines. The Philistines are the oppressors, but the people of Israel fight back and have an important trump card in the person of Samson. He has God given strength which makes him invincible, until he falls for the charms of verleidelijke (seductive?) but false Delilah. "in war he is relentless, but he is a slave in my poor," she sings triumphantly. If she succeeds in diddling him of his strength, it seems Samson will be irrevocably lost.

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    Tuesday, September 04, 2007

    Website for Animated Ten Commandments Film

    It's been over 3 months since I posted anything on the forthcoming animated Bible film The Ten Commandments (2007) featuring the voices of Sir Ben Kingsley, Christian Slater, Alfred Molina and Elliott Gould. It's actually due out next month, and there's now two related websites - one belonging to its production company Promenade Pictures, and the other belonging to the series as a whole, "Epic Stories of the Bible".

    As you might expect the information on the Promenade site is fairly brief, preferring to point people to its subsidiary websites. It does appear that Promenade are currently "producing" no less than 17 films at the moment. Quite how far down the line these films are is hard to tell. This is the only one listed as an upcoming release, and the other five titles from the Epic Bible Series are also listed (Noah's Ark: The New Beninning (sic), David & Goliath, Samson & Delilah, The Battle Of Jericho, Genesis) even though the next one to be released is Noah's Ark which is still in pre-production (due for release in 2008).

    Peter T. Chattaway (whose recent blog posts on this film served as a timely reminder) suggests that actually "none of these stories is particularly 'epic.'" I'm always nervous about the definition of the word "epic" (tending to go with Chuck Heston's maxim that "defining an epic is only slightly less complicated than making one"), but certainly the word has been so misused that it's difficult to know exactly how it should be applied today. Certainly the most epic sounding of the remaining five films is The Battle Of Jericho, which I noted just last week had hardly ever been filmed.

    From my initial glance at the official website it seems to be fairly detailed. There's a bunch of downloads (printable posters, wallpapers, web banners, IM icons and music), free resources for schools, church groups and so forth, a competition, a press room, an email list a news stream as well as details of how to register for free movie screenings. I've not had time to register for the press section yet, so I'll perhaps report on that later in the month (along with any more updates that I come across in the run up to this film's release).

    There was also an article on this film in Variety recently.

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    Biblical Studies Carnival XXI

    Biblical Studies Carnival XXI has been posted at Duane Smith's Abnormal Interests Blog. There's been a couple of months recently when carnival hosts have (rightly) bemoaned a lack of nominations, so it's good to see that Duane had enough material that he had to leave some of it out.

    Next month's Biblical Studies Carnival will be held at Tim Bulkeley's Sansblogue. For more information on nominating posts for future carnivals, see the Biblical Studies Carnival Homepage.


    Monday, September 03, 2007

    Book Review: "The Bible on the Big Screen - A Guide from Silent Films to Today's Movies"

    Whilst there have been numerous books written in recent years about film portrayals of Jesus, books examining Bible movies in general have been somewhat thinner on the ground. Aside from Richard H. Campbell and Michael R. Pitts' seminal "The Bible on Film: A Checklist 1897-1980", and Bruce Babington and Peter W. Evans' impressive "Biblical Epics: Sacred Narrative in the Hollywood Cinema", books about films about the Hebrew Bible have either just looked at one particular film, or have been only a small part of a larger work detailing Hollywood's record of world history.

    As a result, J. Stephen Lang's "The Bible on the Big Screen - A Guide from Silent Films to Today's Movies" is most welcome. Lang has already written an impressive number of books ranging from his "Complete Book of Bible Trivia" (which has sold 600,000 copies) to his "Complete Idiot's Guide to The Confederacy". He's clearly an author who relishes the challenge of a good research project.

    Lang shapes his material around 8 eras in cinematic history: up to 1912, the remaining silent period from 1912-1929, The "lean years" of the 30s and 40s, the "golden 50s, the "silver age" of the 60s, the 1970s, the controversy of the 80s and 90s, and the films of the new millennium. Chapters start with a general overview before focussing on the major Bible films from each period. This enables Lang to discuss 35 films to a fairly good level of detail, whilst also making passing comments on numerous others.

    No selection is perfect - what is omitted always leaves someone scratching their head - but Lang's is pretty robust. He omits films released straight to DVD, TV movies (with the exception of Jesus of Nazareth) and films that have been specifically for church groups, as well as films that offer a less-direct interpretation of the biblical text (such as Jesus of Montreal). As a result he has space to include a handful of interesting choices such as Michael Grampus' The Passover Plot and Roberto Rossellini's Il Messia.

    There's perhaps also been a shortage of books written in this area for and/or by evangelicals. Whilst there's no direct evidence of Lang's theological affiliation, he certainly appears to be an evangelical protestant. He loves Jesus of Nazareth and The Ten Commandments (1956), and hates Jesus Christ Superstar and Life of Brian. He's particular concerned with where the films deviate from the biblical text, makes passing comments about "liberals"1, and keenly defends the Gospels from charges of anti-Semitism.2 As a result his work also seems to fill this other void in the Bible films books market.

    It's perhaps the combination of Lang's love of research and his evangelicalism which results in his reviews of these films focussing largely on their plots. Lang's detailed discussion of each individual plot often makes up the majority of the film's analysis. Whilst this approach leaves little doubt as to what happens in each story, which those who have not seen the film in question may find useful, it makes for dull, laborious reading for everyone else. That said, from time to time his writing style flourishes a bit as he discovers he has more to say than simply reciting the details of every scene. This is particularly evident with some of the more recent films which he has clearly enjoyed. Lang also seems unhappy with films that use a lot of artistic licence, although, to his credit, he is able to see the strengths of Last Temptation of Christ as well as its flaws.

    There are also a couple of lesser problems. Lang has clearly got access to a great body of research, but he only occasionally references it. This means that although there are several interesting asides, the reader is unable to follow them up further. There's also some unnecessary repetition, occasionally occurring just a few pages of the original statement.3 Finally, various minor errors are present, for example Lang misses the oft discussed misquote of Lev 25:10 in The Ten Commandments (1956)4, and gives the number of Philistine foreskins that David was required to fetch (1 Sam 18:25) is given as 400 rather than 1005, (to name but two).

    None of this changes the fact that this book is a must-have for anyone who is interested in the cinematic interpretation of the Hebrew Bible. Whilst its writing style is somewhat stodgy, it offers the only detailed, in-print, discussion of several important Biblical movies.

    1 - e.g. p.51 and p.54.
    2 - pp.22-25 in particular, but anti-Semitism is discussed throughout.
    3 - e.g. discussion about Michael Curtiz on pages 48 and 55, or D.W. Griffith's omission of "Go, and sin no more" (John 8:11) on p.51 and p.54.
    4 - p.130
    5 - p.237