• 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


    Thursday, July 31, 2008

    Podcast: Jesus (1979)

    There's a bit of a danger that my podcasts might be becoming bimonthly rather than monthly at the moment. In fact this month's nearly didn't happen either as my son is due to be born tomorrow! However, hopefully I'll be able to get back on track now.

    Anyway, July's entry is up. This month it's Jesus (1979) aka The Jesus Film. I've also got a new (to me) laptop this month and am still perfecting the settings. It seems that it's better quality but a little too quiet, but I'd be interested to hear from listeners whether that is, indeed, the case.

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    Wednesday, July 30, 2008

    The Passion Coming to DVD

    Region: 2 (PAL)

    Number of discs: 2

    Classification: 15

    Studio: Acorn Media

    Release Date: Oct 2008

    Run Time: 180 minutes

    Mark Goodacre has the news that The Passion is coming to DVD in October. However, it's a bit unclear what the actual release date will be. Amazon lists it as 20th October whilst the BBC Shop has the date given a fortnight earlier on the 6th. Given the confusion over this back in April, and that the Bible Society have been promising their own version in late summer, it's anyone's guess. My hunch is that the BBC may be reserving the right to have exclusive sales for the first two weeks, but who knows.

    There's no news on what, if any, extra features will be included, but given the wealth of material that was released in the run up to this programme's broadcast, it would be strange if some of it didn't make it's way onto disc. Mind you, I said the same about The Nativity Story and almost 2 years on we're still waiting.

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    Tuesday, July 29, 2008

    Mark Pirro on The God Complex

    Following on from Friday's post on The God Complex I've been in contact with the film's director Mark Pirro. The conversation has been fairly interesting and he kindly agreed to let me post some of it up here.

    Page: How far through production are you and how do your films tend to get released?
    Pirro: We have been shooting this for almost a year. We plan on a 2009 release. This is my 8th feature film and they usually go directly to cable or DVD in the U.S. and sometimes go theatrical overseas. Every film has a different release pattern. Sometimes I license them to a distributor, other times I self-distribute. We live in an internet age and distribution is not as big a deal these days. Our last film played midnights in a theatre in Hollywood before going on to DVD sales.

    Page: Are you aware of The Real Old Testament? I guess they have a similar approach to you, although they managed to get Ted from Scrubs
    Pirro: I hadn't heard of The Real Old Testament, although I am aware of Harold Ramis' upcoming film, Year One. I guess this will be the era of religious parodies.

    Page: I’ve mentioned Year One a few times, but I’m not sure it will really deliver. I suspect it’s probably too mainstream to take too many risks, and, for me, that tends to be where things get interesting.
    Pirro: My concern about "Year One," is that it is produced by Judd Apatow, who has made 40 Year Old Virgin, Superbad, Knocked Up, etc. He's not afraid to push the envelope when it comes to aggressive humor. Neither are we. Although I know he won't take his comedy as far out as we are, but I think his film will be more cutting edge than most of mainstream America is used to. And since we're both using the bible as our original source material, I know some of our obvious jokes, character flaws, and impossible situations will cross paths (I was a little nervous about Evan Almighty for the same reasons). Unfortunately, that's the film business.Page:I’ve not watched many (if any) of Apatow’s movies, but from what I’ve heard whilst they tend to push things in certain areas, their values are also marked by a certain conservatism, e.g. Christianity Today noted that Knocked Up was "crass" but also considered it "pro-life".
    Pirro: Like everything else in Christianity, it's completely subject to interpretation. There is an 'anti-life' bias in the film as well. It just depends on who's watching it what what they bring to the table. Same thing with 40 Year Old Virgin. I believe Apatow, like myself, is the kind of filmmaker that likes to entertain, without necessarily giving messages. If people take away a certain message, that's fine, but I don't believe that's the initial intent of the filmmaker.

    Page: My (hugely uninformed) hunch is that Year One will have its gross out factor, but won’t actually do much to challenge the morality in the original stories.
    Pirro: If Apatow, like Harold Ramis - the director - think the way I believe they do, this will be a no holes barred outright satire. I know that our film's segments will cross paths. There are obvious crossovers with Adam and Eve, Abraham and Isaac, Noah and the ark and there's only so much 'original' humor one can pull from the mythology without being redundant. My fear is exactly 'how much' of the humor will be similar? For that, we'll just have to wait and see. At least I don't think they'll be touching the Jesus story, so we may have that over them.
    Page: Your picture of dead animals and people after the flood (above) challenges and subverts the idea that these stories are about a God of love.
    Pirro: Well, basically we take the more or less better known stories in the Bible and relay them with a more logical and satirical approach. We analyze the stories with what I call the 'square circle' syndrome. A square circle is an impossibility as defined by what constitutes a square and what constitutes a circle. One can't be the other. The god of our movie falls into that category (as one might argue is also true with the Biblical God). A being that knows everything can not be angered, surprised, vengeful, maniacal, jealous or imperfect. Those are all human traits. The God of the Bible is all that and so is the god of our movie. So in our film, our god - who is angry, vengeful, maniacal, jealous and imperfect - always tries to get things right to impress his girlfriend, but through the course of events and not very well thought out plans, things always go awry. He is always arguing with his girlfriend about how he knows all, and she argues back that if he knows all, he would have known that the first go around (before Noah) would have been a failure. He would have known that Adam and Eve would disobey him. He would have known that Abraham would be willing to sacrifice his son. His reply to her is, "Hey, don't question me." I'm god, I know all. She then socks him in the mouth and says, "Why didn't you duck?" Another point in the film she (being the voice of reason) asks why he lets people he loves suffer? He replies, "I'm God, it's what I do."
    I think that gives a fairly good idea of how this film will pan out. I imagine that many would find this offensive were they to somehow stumble across it, but I'd also hope that it will challenge others to re-think their approach to the Old Testament Stories. I don't subscribe to the view that the brutality of these stories discounts the possibility of a loving God. However, I do think that until you've been realised just how horrific they are in places you've never really read them and thus are unlikely to have truly considered precisely how God reveals himself through them. It would be nice if interpreting the Bible was as simple as "God said it. I believe it. That settles it", but if we truly believe in a God of love then, in Pirro's words, such a simple approach just gives us a 'square circle'.

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    Monday, July 28, 2008

    I'm Xerxes. No, I'm Xerxes

    As regular readers will know, I've been looking a bit at the book of Esther recently as background to the course I run, Through the Bible in Five and a Half Years. The session actually ran last Monday, but one of the things we discussed was different portrayals of King Xerxes. So I was interested to stumble across deebeedee's post of various film images of the Persian Emperor, contrasted with his image in the Bas-relief.

    One of the points I made was that it's notable how filmmakers completely re-work Xerxes' image depending on how his role fits with their plot. So perhaps the most controversial depiction of him is in 300 where on top of the movie's hyperbolic visualisations he also plays the leading villain. Note how strongly this contrasts with his ultra-sweet portrayal in One Night With the King where not only is Xerxes a sensitive lover, but he is also played by a former member of a boy band (Luke Goss) - see images at deebeedee.

    The two images in this post are also of Xerxes. The one below is from the Bible Collection's Esther (1999) where the character is, again, a sensitive man, but also frequently behaves like a petulant child. Here's there's an undercurrent that Esther is there not only to save the Jews, but also to save their king from himself. The image at the top of this post is Richard Egan's turn as Xerxes in Esther and the King (1960). Here he is also portrayed sympathetically, although it's interesting that this film has him as heroic and charismatic rather than a sensitive 'new man'. Both of these later films also follow the Bible's lead of calling him Ahasuerus, which does, of course, raise the possibility, that they are not actually depictions of Xerxes, but of another king entirely.

    Of course varying portrayals of Xerxes based on ideology is nothing new. I've heard it said that the feast which Queen Vashti refused to attend in Esther 1 was a celebration of the Persian's victory in the Greco-Persian wars (which, in fact, they lost). It's also worth pointing out that none of the portrayals of Xerxes thus far have used an actor who was close to being ethnically Persian. In fact, Brazilian actor Rodrigo Santoro, who played him in 300, is the only non-Caucasian to have taken the role so far.


    Friday, July 25, 2008

    The God Complex

    I just came across the website for The God Complex - an irreverent comedy that "takes the silliest stories from the Bible and makes them...well...just a little sillier". Although it's still in production there are a number of stills and several clips available to view. If you're bothered by bad language then these probably aren't the clips for you.

    It looks like the film mainly focusses on Genesis, though it also promises footage from today "where Jesus walks among us disguised as a mild mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper", and whilst it prides itself on being low budget there's at least one nifty special effect. All in all it looks like it will have a lot in common with The Real Old Testament.

    I'm going to contact the filmmakers to see if I can get more information, and I'll report back if so.

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    Wednesday, July 23, 2008

    Quo Vadis Coming to DVD

    Peter Chattaway has the news that 1951's Quo Vadis is finally getting a DVD release. The film, which is the most famous of at least 8 different adaptations of Henry Siekiewicz's novel, is due for release to DVD in November, with a Blu-Ray edition due in time for Easter 2009.

    In addition to being the most expensive film ever made at the time of its release, Quo Vadis is famous for Peter Ustinov's startling performance as Nero, and for giving film débuts to two of cinema's most iconic stars - Elizabeth Taylor and Sophia Loren.

    A press release from Warner Home Video promises a new documentary on the making of the film and a commentary by filmmaker/writer F.X. Feeney. I'll post more details as I get them.

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    Tuesday, July 22, 2008

    Sydney's Stations of the Cross

    For some reason I seem to be writing about the Pope a lot recently, firstly the conference on his book in Nottingham here and then the celebration of Paul's 2000th birthday). His recent trip to Australia has also been in the news quite a bit, and whilst there he presided over a celebration of the Stations of the Cross for World Youth Day, Sydney.

    The official website for 'WYD SYD 08' has posted 20 minutes of highlights of the event which presents some creative and some bizarre sequences. The shots of Jesus across the crowd taken over Pilate's shoulder have an iconic power about them, but they are intercut with some odd footage of Jesus being hung upside down after his whipping. Even fellow Australian Catholic Mel Gibson didn't think of that one!

    Overall it seems fairly well done. Logistically these events always present huge challenges, and the organisers seem to have done a good job of heightening the power of the images by incorporating Sydney's major sites into the background of various scenes. The sight of Jesus dragging his cross in front of the Sydney Opera house, or him being crucified against the backdrop of Sydney Harbour Bridge (above) is quite striking.The accompanying music is an unusual blend of traditional church music, modern orchestration, and more contemporary music which, again, incorporates traditional elements such as the didgeridoo. In places the music is soothing, but often it's edgy, disturbing and uncomfortable listening - all in all quite powerful. There's the odd off moment, but overall it's bold and greatly enhances the production.

    One thing that's interesting about the highlights is its sensitivity to the anti-Semitism issue. It's hard to tell whether this was a feature of the event, or just how the online footage has been edited, but the appearance in front of the Jewish authorities is almost non-existent. Furthermore, because Jesus's road to the cross has been transformed into a trip along the harbour on a barge, there's no Jewish crowd to approve and support what is going on.

    Thanks to Brendan O'Regan at FaithArts for the tip off. Brendan also informs me that Jesus is played by Australian actor Alfio Stuto and finds echoes of Olivia Hussey's turn in Jesus of Nazareth in the portrayal of Mary.

    Monday, July 21, 2008

    'Judith' Calls for Aberystwyth to Lift Life of Brian Ban

    BBC Wales has a great story on former Life of Brian star and current Mayor of Aberystwyth, Sue Jones-Davies. It appears that even though Jones-Davies has served on the town's council and has become its mayor the region's ban on the film is still in place almost 30 years after its initial release. The BBC quote her as saying "Given what's on TV now I think it's amazing a ban in Aberystwyth still exists...I think it should be lifted". Whilst the Beeb's article makes it sounds like she's running a campaign on it, reading between the lines it seems far more likely that someone simply asked her a question about it to which she responded. Nevertheless there are some interesting recollections about making the film in the article.

    Jones-Davies, of course, played Brian girlfriend, Judith, in the film. I re-watched the film recently and was amazed that I'd never before realised how pivotal Judith's character is in the movie's narrative. We first meet her right after the Sermon on the Mount, and the first shot is a close up on Judith which is accompanied by music suggesting some kind of romantic awakening. It's only after a cut to a wider shot that we see the rest of the group and Francis offers his "blessed is just about everyone with a vested interest in the status quo" remark. Brian turns around to stare at the group, but it's clear that his gaze is on her specifically rather than the group as a whole.

    When Brian sees Judith again, with the PFJ, it's a zoom shot over Brian's shoulder. Brian goes over to join, and again his gaze is on her, and the point is underlined by two close ups on her to complement the wider group shot of the five of them.So it appears Brian is motivated mainly by impressing Judith as opposed to some passionate nationalism. There is of course Brian's anti-Roman speeches, but it's likely that most Jews of Brian's day would have similar feelings, without joining 'radical' groups such as the PFJ. However, contrast Brian's passive acceptance of Jesus's sermon with the reactionary criticisms from the PFJ, and, of course, the fact that he is employed in the Roman amphitheatre. It's significant that Brian first expresses his dislike of the Romans only after his contact with Judith.

    And these hints continue as the film progresses. For example, after Judith and Brian are reunited after his "you're all individuals" speech. Judith runs towards him exclaiming "Brian, you were fantastic". She is referring to his speech, but he mistakenly thinks her praise refers to their sexual liaison the night before. It's a joke of course, but evidence that, as Mrs Cohen astutely observes early in the film, sex is the main thing on Brian's mind.

    So, structurally at least, the film is about boy meets girl. And their relationship, and in many ways the film's narrative arc, ends as she joyously runs off having congratulated him on his crucifixion. She's glowing with pride at his martyrdom; he just wants her back. As she disappears into the distance her image is replaced by that of his mother - the final interchange before Idle's famous closing song - and the 'boy meets girl and leaves mother' story has come, depressingly, full circle.

    There's obviously a lot more going on than that, and it's difficult to take isolated lines (like the one above) too seriously, but once you notice it, it's clear that it's Brian's feelings for Judith that really drives the story.

    Incidentally, I stumbled across this great selection of Monty Python photos in writing this piece, which include a good number of the film's promotional pictures. There are also some better quality photos at DVD Beaver and the Criterion Contraption's review of the Criterion Collection DVD.


    Friday, July 18, 2008

    Also Available in Suomi...

    I don't imagine that this will be of interest to most of the readers of this blog, but the piece I wrote on Jesus films for rejesus on Jesus in the Movies has been translated into Finnish. It's the work of the Helsinki Lutheran Parish Union's young adults’ team and is part of their ongoing exploration of faith and film. Hello to anyone who has found this site through that one.

    Thursday, July 17, 2008

    The Anti-Mary in The Passion

    I received a number of interesting comments on my podcast on The Passion of the Christ, but there was one in particular that I've been meaning to mention here, as it's not something I've heard talked about elsewhere. Scott Knick made this point:
    More interesting to me is the very high Mariology of the film, particularly in light of its passionate acceptance by American conservative Protestants. This movie is almost as much about Mary as it is about Jesus. The provocative image of the female Satan carrying the deformed, leering baby quite clearly positions Satan not as the Antichrist but the anti-Mary. That’s elevating the figure of Mary pretty darned high in the Christian cosmology, something I’ve never seen in a Jesus movie, and yet you never hear a peep about it in most commentary on the film.
    It's interesting that whilst both that particular scene, and the film's generally high Mariology (her sensing Jesus through the floor for example) have both been talked about at length that the two have rarely been put together.

    There are a few further points I'd like to make here. Firstly, whilst the Satan character is meant to be androgynous, the role is performed by a woman, perhaps also emphasising this point. Secondly, it's interesting that Mary Magdalene is portrayed as a follower of Mary as much, if not more, than she is a disciple of Jesus. Yes, there's the scene where she crawls towards him to touch his feet, but the film gives no indication of any relationship between the two, whereas the two Marys are clearly very close. In a way Mary Magdalene corresponds to the only one of Jesus's followers to remain faithful throughout the film - John. Whilst this is, I suppose, largely based on John's gospel, the link between the two Marys is certainly heightened. Jesus has a disciple, Mary has a disciple. I doubt that's what Gibson intended, but there's perhaps something in it.

    Having said all that, it's unclear from scripture who or what the anti-Christ actually is, so equating he/she/it with Satan is certainly not a given. There's a modern tendency to picture Satan as the opposite of God, whereas he is nothing of the sort. So making Satan the anti-Mary rather than the anti-Christ could theoretically be about emphasising the lowliness of Satan's status rather than heightening Mary's. Nevertheless, this is certainly one aspect of the film I'll be watching very closely next time I watch it. I remember a number of shots from Mary's point of view and I'd be interested to see how these compare to those from Jesus's vantage point.

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    Tuesday, July 15, 2008

    Wittenburg Door's "10 Worst Movies About Jesus"

    Danny Gallagher of The Wittenburg Door has posted an article on the Ten Worst Films About Jesus. Full marks for an eclectic selection; it ranges from classic epics to modern-day horror flicks. And there's no doubting that it's a bold list. Whilst the inclusion of Pasolini's Gospel According to St. Matthew is highly questionable, Gallagher is fully aware of its prestigious reputation, and even those of us that admire have probably had a hard time convincing others of its value.

    The full list (which excludes The Passion of the Christ because "that would be too easy") is:
    The Robe
    Jesus Christ, Vampire Hunter
    Jesus, the Mini Series
    Zombie Jesus!
    In Search of Historic Jesus
    The Lawton Story (aka The Prince of Peace)
    Gospel According to St. Matthew
    The Miracle Maker
    The Davinci Code
    I found Gallagher's comments on these films to be generally amusing, even when I disagreed with them, and there are some useful links to excerpts on YouTube.

    I've actually only seen five of the ten having not watched Jesus Christ, Vampire Hunter, Zombie Jesus!, In Search of Historic Jesus, The Lawton Story (aka The Prince of Peace) and Ultrachrist! but only The Lawton Story holds any appeal. In Search of Historic Jesus seems to be just one Jesus documentary amongst many, and the others are only really about Jesus in name only. Rather worryingly, my own top ten includes 3 of the 5 films on this list that I have seen!

    Monday, July 14, 2008

    Script Reviews for Kings (NBC)

    David W. Dunlap/New York Times

    There are a few bits and pieces to report on the forthcoming NBC drama Kings. Firstly NBC's latest schedule has the show lined up for the 10pm Sunday slot in Winter 2009. It also has it lined up for possible "encores" next summer. What's unclear is how long Kings' initial broadcast will be. Reuters are claiming that the whilst this was originally just a two-hour pilot, "NBC decided to proceed with a full series order after executives saw (some) footage".

    There are also two script reviews by industry insiders Brian Ford Sullivan and James Hibberd. Sullivan is left "confused" by the programme's alternative universe, although he does admire its ambition. Hibberd is more positive, although rightly cautious until he's seen what the director does with the script.

    Lastly, David Dunlap reports on the filming of a scene incorporating the Columbus Monument.

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    Friday, July 11, 2008

    Esther, Ezra and Nehemiah

    As I've mentioned here in the past I currently lead a course called Through the Bible in Five and a Half Years where we look at a different book of the Bible every month. In July we'll be looking at Esther and given how this story is a popular one with filmmakers (see all posts on Esther films), and how our baby is due any minute, I thought I might use some extended clips from one or two of them.

    One of the Esther films I have always liked is the Bible Collection's version. It was one of the first in the series I watched, and it was perhaps the first time that I realised that the early part of the story wasn't some fairy tale love story, but that of state-sanctioned rape. It's possible that Esther enjoyed the glamour of it all, but the Bible certainly doesn't mention that. (Having said that even this film hints at a love story. Note the shot above - the first time the camera gazes upon Esther - and how the intimate close up and soft focus suggest romance). Naturally, then, this is one of the clips I'm thinking about showing, so last night I began to re-watch it.

    The first thing I noticed was that both Ezra (below) and a young Nehemiah appear in this film. This was a little frustrating as I had hunted for relevant film clips during the last two months, if only to find a suitable image for the Through the Bible... blog. But having studied those books in some depth now it was interesting to see how the film treated the characters.Of the two, it's Ezra who gets the most screen time. Ezra's a friend (or disciple?) of Mordecai and we meet him even before we meet Esther. As a thief is dragged away by the Persian guards, Mordecai voices his dismay at the likely severity of the thief's punishment; he will have his hand cut off. When Ezra replies that such is the Persian way Mordecai begins to reply. "It's not the harshness Ezra, it's the absence of clemency. We Jews should remember when we write our own laws..." but he is then cut off by the arrival of Haman.

    There's a fair bit packed into Mordecai's statement. Firstly, it clarifies that this Ezra is the same man who will go on to lead the Jewish people, and establish them as a people who (actually) follow the law. Lest their be any doubt, a little later he advises Mordecai not to let Esther "marry a foreigner". But there's more to it than that. Whilst the books of Ezra and Nehemiah present their leading man taking the people back to the law of Moses, there are also a few differences. Scholars disagree as to how much input Ezra had in the process, and whilst Deuteronomy seems to have been a written text by the time of Josiah, some claim that not much else was actually in written form by this point. Mordecai's statement seems to suggest that the laws weren't written by that point, and that Ezra was amongst those responsible for writing them down.

    But there's more to it as well. Whilst Mordecai is shown as older and wiser, it doesn't appear that Ezra takes a great deal of notice of him. Indeed it's generally a very unflattering portrayal of Ezra; he comes across as arrogant and judgemental. There's very little compassion and this tends to be underlined by the actor's harsh an unattractive face. So the film doesn't seem to think a great deal of Ezra and is keen to show that not everyone was behind his abrasive approach to reform.Nehemiah's appearance (above) is briefer and he appears much younger than Ezra. There's some debate as to which of these two men acted first, but the film seems to back the theory that Ezra came first and needed Nehemiah's work to complete the job. This again suggest a fairly low opinion of Ezra. Those who value his input more highly tend to suggest that he was completing Nehemiah's work and not vice versa.

    Nehemiah is also portrayed more positively. Whilst still not classically good looking he has a soft, endearing face, and his demeanour suggests he is humble, receptive and teachable. He is, of course, being tutored in the art of wine tasting, but there's enough in this brief vignette to hint at how this Nehemiah's future might pan out.

    There were a few other points that I noticed. Firstly, in the film Ezra links Haman to the Amalekites of King Saul's time. This is something I'd missed before, and probably only picked up because it's significance is enhanced in the 2006 Esther film One Night With the King. Both films draw on a Jewish tradition that considered the Amalekite King Agag (whom Saul spares and Samuel kills in 1 Sam 15) to be the ancestor of Haman who is described in Esther 3:1 as "Haman son of Hammedatha, the Agagite".The film actually pays quite a lot out of attention to the various names. For example, as with the Bible, Esther is originally called Hadassah, but as she is taken to the palace Mordecai tells her to change her name to Esther - a Persian name. Later on the chief Eunuch, Hegai, somewhat awkwardly, expounds the meaning of the name. It's a variation on the name Ishtar - the Babylonian goddess of love. It's kinda funny that originally this name was chosen to sound un-Jewish, and yet these days Esther it's considered a classic Jewish name.

    The film also calls Esther's husband Ahasuerus. This is in line with the original texts, but most translations these days use Xerxes instead. Whilst it's likely that Ahasuerus and Xerxes are one and the same, I'm glad the film sticks with what's in the text rather than try and interpret it in order to make the story seem definitively historical.

    All this and I'm only about 40% of the way through the film! I do seem to recall that the opening part of the film is the strongest, but we'll have to see. The film is already quite different to how I remember.

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    Thursday, July 10, 2008

    Jeffrey Wells on King of Kings

    Jeffrey Wells has a brief piece on Nicholas Ray's King of Kings (1961) which is showing tonight at the American Cinematheque's Egyptian Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. King of Kings has always been my guilty pleasure amongst my top ten Jesus Films. It's easy to make disparaging remarks about it, but even in spite of it's flaws I still love it. Wells gives five reasons why the film is well worth seeing and I have to agree with them all.
    (a) Miklos Rosza's score, particularly the overture;
    (b) Ron Randell's performance as Lucius, the thoughtful, morally conflicted Centurion;
    (b) Jeffrey Hunter's lead performance during the last third;
    (d) the shots that show perfect focus in both the foreground and background (which was pretty amazing during a time in which films would commonly rack focus to catch the foreground or background, but never both); and
    (e) the eloquent narration by Ray Bradbury.
    Point "e" is a little confusing, as Ray Bradbury (who will introduce the film tonight) actually wrote, rather than performed, the narration. That role was, of course, fulfilled by Jeffrey's namesake Orson Welles.

    I have a number of posts on this film already, including a scene guide and a review and I also wrote and performed a podcast on King of Kings about this time last year.

    Wells also has a follow up piece comparing the film with Ray's best known work Rebel Without a Cause, where he talks about one of my favourite aspects of the film - its use of colour. There's also this great comment towards the end.
    "In defining the major Jesus films of the '60s-70s period, it's fair to say that Stevens' The Greatest Story Ever Told is the Protestant version, Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth is the Catholic version, Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew is the Marxist version and King of Kings is the Zionist version."
    Thanks to Peter Chattaway for the tip offs.


    Wednesday, July 09, 2008

    St.Paul's 2000th Birthday

    I only realised this yesterday, but, apparently the Pope has declared that the next 12 months are to be a year long celebration of the 2000th anniversary of the birth of St. Paul. Although it's fairly unclear when exactly Paul was born, those who think we have sufficient data to make such a call tend to go for sometime between 5 and 10 BCE. I'm slightly sceptical that we have enough evidence to really be sure even of that kind of range. I suspect that the Pope simply thinks it's an event that should be celebrated, and so just chose an appropriate year.

    The image above is an extended stamp type thing from Malta (which was actually what drew my attention to it - it's obvisouly a bigger deal over there than it is here) and there's a little more on this here

    Friday, July 04, 2008

    Modern Parables

    © 2008 Compass Cinema.

    Jesus' parables have long presented filmmakers and storytellers with a dilemma. Not only are they good stories in and of themselves, but they have shaped our culture and influenced western society's manner of thinking. Yet at the same time, they are so influential and well known that it's incredibly hard to re-tell these stories and keep them fresh. Many of the parables rely on their punchlines for their sense of drama. That's lost when the story is so well known. It's like watching Sixth Sense again. Second time around you can admire it's craft, but it's never the same.

    For feature film directors, the parables are also too short. Whilst occasionally you get someone like Richard Thorpe who makes a film like The Prodigal, few writers find much merit in padding out Jesus's ultra-short stories into a 90 minute movie. The Prodigal manifestly failed to inspire other filmmakers to do likewise, and with good reason. If modern-day filmmakers have even attempted to re-tell these stories they've kept it short, and usually animated. In other words most filmmakers either think better of it and do something else, or they press on and make a turkey. Or a cartoon.

    So, as you can probably tell, my initial hopes for Modern Parables, a series of short, live-action, films based on six of Jesus's stories, were not particularly high. Thankfully, this series has bucked this disappointing trend. It's obvious from the packaging that the producers of this series have a great love for what they're doing and a determination to deliver the best product that they can. It's, no doubt, why the film is shot is lush high definition, why the cinematography is so involving, and why it manages to imbue many of the films with such emotion, and a sense of significance that befits the material.

    © 2008 Compass Cinema.

    It's to the producers credit that they are flexible enough to try different approaches depending on the material, rather than simply trying to apply a one size fits all template. So the first film is a comic look at the Parable of the Hidden Treasure (Matt 13:44). Rather than treasure, a man finds oil in his field. He sells everything he has at auction and a yard sale. The source material is a bold, colourful metaphor and the decision to re-tell it with comedy pays dividends.

    Next up is Samaritan. Perhaps the most atmospheric of the lot, in parts it's almost entirely silent but is complemented by a moving strings sound track. Whilst it would have been near impossible to completely hide the twist, it's bold enough to put an evangelical Christian doctor in the role of the bad guy and a Arabic newspaper reading taxi-driver in the role of hero.

    Similarly bold is its attempt to make sense of the Parable of the Shrewd Manager. It's one of those stories that has left many a theologian scratching his head over the years, trying their best to wade through a mire of unsatisfactory explanations. This version's strength is that it avoids over-interpreting the story. It's such a difficult parable to unravel 2000 years after it was originally uttered that the film simply opts to limit its interpretation to translating the story into a modern context. It also refuses to make its leading anti-hero more wholesome. The lack of a sympathetic character means that it's a less likeable film as a whole, but it's an honest presentation of what we find in the text. The result is that, for me at least, the parable really came alive for the first time. It's so good to see a Christian film that respects its audience's intelligence enough to leave them to figure it out for themselves rather than trying to force on them any one particular understanding.

    © 2008 Compass Cinema.

    No collection of of short films would be complete without one shot in black and white and The Widow and the Judge duly obliges. Again the images are poignant and beautiful, and Joanne Morgan gives a quiet dignity to the film's leading lady. The Judge isn't rounded out quite as well as Morgan's widow, and it's hard to understand why he acts as he does. But perhaps that was one of the original points of the story.

    With The Sower the producers tried something a little more daring, no doubt because the Parable of the Sower is not really a parable at all but an extended metaphor. Instead of dramatising the story, it's a documentary based on an interview with a modern day grain farmer. Unfortunately this adventurous move doesn't really come off. Whilst it's one of the best-looking films in the series, the interviewee doesn't really hold the audience's attention. The concept behind this particular short means it is utterly reliant on a charismatic and engaging lead, and when he doesn't quite deliver, the film withers for lack of deep enough soil.

    © 2008 Compass Cinema.

    The final entry is interestingly titled Prodigal Sons. Once again the filmmakers attempt a novel approach, this time telling the story from the point of view of the elder son. Again the producers find a suitably apt parallel from modern life, and it's easy to sympathise with the elder son's plight. However, the film loses something when he addresses the camera directly. Still there are arresting images aplenty and the mellow country soundtrack is a wonderful accompaniment.

    Each film is accompanied by a talk of around the same length and, like the shorts themselves, each takes its own approach. They'll work well for groups that enjoy an expert-listener model of learning whilst those who prefer straight out discussion make want to head straight for the material provided with the set.

    But it's the individual films that are, rightly, this series' biggest attraction. The website for Modern Parables states that they want "to re-create the emotional immediacy that Jesus’ 1st-century audience felt when hearing the parables". And more often than not, they succeed.


    Thursday, July 03, 2008

    Biblical Studies Carnival XXXI

    Photo by Tim Parkinson, used under a Creative Commons Licence

    Hot on the heels of yesterday's 30th Biblical Studies Carnival, is James R. Getz Jr.'s entry for June. As always there are a number of interesting posts, and I was particularly interested by the mention of biblioblogger search plugin for the new Firefox. Not had the chance to test it out yet, but it looks like it might be very useful.

    The next Biblical Studies Carnival will be at Ancient Hebrew Poetry. For more information on these carnivals, including where to submit pieces visit the Biblical Studies Carnival Homepage.


    Mary German DVD Release

    Abel Ferrara's Mary is released on DVD in Germany tomorrow, and I'm struck by just how different the German cover (on the left) is to the French version (right). I own the French version, and the colour tones and lighting of that cover appear to emphasise the film's biblical component, whereas the German version seems to stress the modern day angle. Given that very little of the film is set in the past (or rather a film of the past) this is perhaps gives a better sense of what the film is about. On the other hand, aside from loyal Ferrara fans, the film's religious angle is probably its biggest draw (or perhaps third behind Binoche). I also wonder, though whether this is to do with the predominance of Catholicism in France and of Protestantism in Germany.

    For what it's worth it looks like the DVD has both English and German soundtracks, but only German subtitles. My previous posts on this film include my review and some scene analysis with extensive quotes form the film.

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    Wednesday, July 02, 2008

    Biblical Studies Carnival XXX

    Photo by Tim Parkinson, used under a Creative Commons Licence

    It's very late in coming, but, credit to him, Tyler Williams has finally posted the 30th Biblical Studies Carnival. As someone who has, himself, been struggling of late to keep up with his on-line commitments I can more than sympathise and I'm very pleased he stuck to the task.

    The next Biblical Studies Carnival should be along any moment and will be hosted by James R. Getz Jr.'s Ketuvim blog. You can read more details about these carnivals, at Tyler's Biblical Studies Carnival Homepage.