• 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


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    Friday, October 26, 2007

    The Seventh Sign (1988)

    Back in 1991, Demi Moore was at the heart of a controversy when a nude picture of her, taken whilst she was pregnant with her second child, appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine. Was it sexual objectification or a symbol of empowerment?

    What the coverage of this debate generally failed to take into consideration was that three years earlier, Moore had also been photographed nude whilst pregnant with her first child. On that occasion, however, it had been part of a reasonably successful film - Carl Schultz's The Seventh Sign.It's possible that Seventh Sign escaped the controversy because it was released in 1988 - the same year that Martin Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ reached (or often didn't reach) theatres. Whilst The Seventh Sign was released first (in April), discussion about Last Temptation began a long time before it's eventual August release.

    The two films have much in common. In addition to the nudity, both featured unconventional and unflattering characterisations of Jesus, had something of an apocalyptic outlook, and gave the role of Jesus to actors who made their names starring in popular war films. Of all the cinematic Jesus's, Jurgen Prochnow (Das Boot) is perhaps the least conventional-looking. With short, slightly curly, blond hair, no beard, a pockmarked face, and long, lean features is almost diametrically opposed to what the historical Jesus would have looked like. Furthermore, his 47 years make him the oldest screen Jesus of modern times. But this is not the Jesus of history (other than in a couple of brief flashes back to the first century), but the Jesus of Revelation. In fact it's not until a good way through the film that it's actually revealed who Prochnow's character actually is. Confronted by Moore he calls himself a messenger from God, "I came as the lamb and I return as the lion". The clues have been there from the start, of course. Prochnow has been wandering around opening the seals that unleash the various stages of the apocalypse. Only the risen Christ gets to do that.

    Yet whilst there's no reason that the Christ of the apocalypse should resemble the Jesus of history physically, it's the contrast with the biblical Jesus's character that is so strange. Prochnow is cold and emotionless (a feature heightened in the minds of English speaking audiences by his German accent). In contrast to the compassionate Jesus of Hal Hartley's similarly themed Book of Life, this Jesus never seems to wrestle with his awful task, nor does he anticipate the greater future beyond the apocalypse that its author does. He briefly bemoans the world's inability to change, but it's very much delivered with a shrug of the shoulders. The problem with The Seventh Sign is it's a conventional genre picture. Whereas Book of Life was able to subvert and surpass the conventions of the supernatural/apocalyptic thriller, this film is unable to build on its good start and falls back on an amorphous vaguely-religious mix of obscure ancient texts, pick-and-choose prophecies, immortal villains, and reincarnation. It does give a passing tip-of-the-hat to goodness and self-sacrifice, but by then the film has already well and truly sunk under the weight of its own contrived nonsensical climax.

    The handling of the seven signs is also weak. The concept of "seven signs" is taken from Revelation, but those signs are an overly literal, jumbled mixture of the events that accompany the breaking of the seven seals, the blowing of the seven trumpets, and the pouring out of the seven bowls. At the same time they are not actually literal - there are literal seals, but no bowls; a Christ figure ushers in some of the signs, but there are no angels; etc. etc. In other words it's a highly selective literal approach to the Bible's most symbolic book. The seals/trumpets/bowls section of Revelation lasts for 12 chapters, but in order to find seven distinct "events" to structure the narrative around, the screenplay just picks out a single word or phrase from here and there and labels it as a "sign". But these events are so localised that only experts can decode them, as opposed to the fact that in Revelation the signs are metonymic. Rather than being simply localised, unusual occurrences, a literal reading of this section would suggest that the signs actually are part of the end of the world. They would not be secret signs, but clear indicators. Of course, most scholars consider that the signs should be taken more symbolically, but that would be to move this film very much out of this genre. The supernatural/ apocalyptic thriller genre has two main paths - that of widesp read destruction or that of the secret conspiracy, and Seventh sign rather weakly opts for the latter.

    It's not all bad. Those into early Christian legends will appreciate the references to the myths of Seraphia and Cartaphilus/the Wandering Jew. The story of the Wandering Jew was a popular choice for early film makers, with at least 4 silent films being made with that title. As far as I'm aware this is the first occasion that it has been made post-WW2, and it's notable that the character in question is now Roman rather than Jewish. More importantly, the film has aged incredibly well for one made in the 80s. Even that decade's best films are usually blighted by terrible wardrobes, awful hair, and badly synthesized soundtracks. Here, however, only Moore's oversized glasses, give the game away. More importantly, Schultz handles the tension well, and creates a good sense of mystery around his lead villains. It's just a shame that as one of them is widely renowned as a ground-breakingly compassionate teacher we never quite know who we're meant to be routing for. Jesus rarely makes a good villain.
    There are a few useful resources on this film, notably the full screenplay which is available at Drew's script-o-rama, and a collection of photos from the Movie Screenshots Blog. I've only discovered it today, but I'm sure I'll be returning. Finally, Danel Griffin's review is certainly worth a read.

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    • At 10:23 pm, November 04, 2007, Blogger Michelle Obama's Left Nut said…

      Good review. You're dead on about the pick-and-choose approach to the text.

      It seems that while Schultz and his screenwriters obviously did their research they didn't feel the need to handle the content with much gravity. Then again, it is a Demi Moore film so I shouldn't have such high expectations.

    • At 8:42 am, November 09, 2007, Blogger Matt Page said…


      Nice blog by the way.



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