• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as current film releases with spiritual significance, and a few bits and pieces on the Bible.

    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.


    • At 6:44 pm, July 08, 2008, Blogger Compass said…

      Matt, thanks for your time, thought, and kind words. We appreciate your review and wish you the best.

      Blessings, Ian [at Modern Parables]


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